Doubting? Who Me?
Rev. Elaine Graham
Years ago, on the Sunday after Easter, often called Low Sunday or Doubting Thomas Sunday, I prepared a very special children's time. I took a balloon, filled it with water and then asked the kids if they thought that I could pierce the balloon with a BBQ skewer without breaking the balloon and spilling water all over the sanctuary. I cannot tell you how many times I practiced this at home, always over the sink.
When it came to the time in the service to invite the children forward, one little girl came forward. I showed her the balloon full of water, I showed her the skewer and then asked her if she thought I could push the stick through the balloon without breaking the balloon.
She looked at the balloon, she looked at the stick and then she looked at me and said, "Yes, I think you can do that."
There went my lesson on doubt with three little words ‘yes, you can”.
This morning I would like to look at Thomas in a "yes, you can" way. So many times, when we hear the story of Thomas he is only seen through the lens of doubt, a perceived negative quality for sure. All because Thomas, who was not present in the upper room when Jesus appears to the other disciples, wanted proof of what the others were telling him.
Now, in some circles and circumstances, Thomas would be perceived as wise for not blindly following what others were saying, but that is not how it went for Thomas.
Imagine if you were labelled, for all of time, by just one conversation. Depending on the day, the circumstances and the people with whom you were in conversation, anything could be said and possibly misinterpreted. Now if you were lucky enough to be viewed in a positive light that would be great, but if you were perceived to be distrusting, cynical, or negative it would be hard to shed that label.
All of this is to say, I think that Thomas got a bad rap, and I would like to encourage us to explore the importance of questions, especially when it comes to matters of faith.
Taking the time to really think about what we believe and why we believe it is important work. It is not work we do just once; it is ongoing. When we open our hearts and minds to wondering questions, we can open ourselves to insights and experiences that can deepen our relationship with God. When we open our hearts and minds to doubt we can discover new truths that call us to take action, actions of justice, compassion and grace.
Questioning religious leaders, politicians, and medical professionals does not automatically lead to disaster.
Carl Sagan, in his work The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark wrote: "There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question".
In our scripture reading this morning, Thomas, through his doubt, is seeking to better understand the world he finds himself in. He is now in a world without his mentor, his friend, his spiritual guide. He is grieving, and he is lost. How can we be critical of Thomas for having the courage and the integrity to doubt and ask questions of what the others were saying? After all, what he was hearing was something that could be deemed ‘too good to be true’.
Faith in the risen Christ, faith in the living Christ takes us into a mystical place. A mystical place where we experience and live truths the eye cannot see.
So, the question that I have for this morning is, how do you open yourself up to the mystical experiences that surround you?
How do you, or how do you plan to, open yourself to the Spirit that surrounds you?
What is that burning faith question that you have that you have not spoken out loud?
Now before I go any further down that road, let me clarify, that doubt is not the opposite of faith.
According to author Anne Lamott, the opposite of faith is certainty. Others say the opposite of faith is disbelief, uncertainty, or suspicion. You may have your own word and we could talk about that after worship, but for the purposes of this reflection, I am going to suggest that the opposite of faith is not doubt.
Seeking clarity and understanding of what we believe is a healthy and positive exercise to engage in. Wrestling with scripture in bible study is a great way to engage in conversations about what we believe to be true and why. Reading scripture at home, doing daily devotions, talking with others, all lead us to think about what we really believe, which in turn calls us to action.
Karl Barth wrote that: “Faith is a response; a response to our experience of something beyond us, something that perhaps even strains our ability to understand or even imagine”.
And Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun made famous by the adaptation of her life in the movie Dead Man Walking, wrote, “I pay attention to what I do so I know what I believe.”
I love that sentence. “I pay attention to what I do so I know what I believe.”
What is it that you do that shows what you believe?
One last story that speaks about faith and moments of doubt.
I think that we would all agree that Mother Teresa was a woman of great faith and action. Would it surprise you to know that she struggled and doubted her ministry? It surprised me.
I read that when she was in her 30’s she had an overwhelming spiritual experience. She knew God was present, and she felt God calling her to do something new, and scary and hard. It was described as a moment of clarity and direction.
Following that experience, she did amazing work in the name of God for fifty years. And she also had times of doubt and wrestled with her faith. She had what Christian writers for centuries have called a “dark night of the soul”.
Hard for us to believe that someone so dedicated and committed to her ministry had moments of doubt and questions. But when you stop to think about the poverty, the illness and the despair that surrounded the people she served day after day I think it would only be human to doubt. Especially in contrast to the wealth and privilege that we in the Western world live in.
Many of us experience times of doubt or disconnect from God. Our faith gets shaken, we question it, we wonder why Jesus does not ‘appear’ to us when everyone around us seems to have ‘seen’ him. We may even feel a bit ashamed of our doubt, or resentful.
And here is our good news: doubt can be the thing that propels us to faith. It can be what shakes us up. It can be what pushes us out of the doors of our comfortable places and into new experiences of ministry. Doubt can be a sign of God working in us to do something new. Doubt does not necessarily represent the absence of God.
We are in the season of Easter, a season of celebration that will last until Pentecost. In the next many weeks, we will hear stories of faith, of wonder and of calling. It is an exciting time to explore who we are in our new world of COVID-19. As we enter the Easter season together let us be watchful for the questions that stir up within us.
Let us enter into honest and faith-filled conversations. For we are an Easter people, people who live in the light of Risen Christ. May God be with us as we journey forward. Amen.