A priest and a Baptist preacher were standing by the road, pounding a sign into the ground that read, “The end is near! Turn yourself around now before it’s too late!”
As a car sped past them, the driver yelled, “Leave us alone, you religious freaks!” From beyond the next curve they heard the screeching of tires and big splash. The priest turned to the preacher and asked, “Do you think the sign should just say “Bridge Out”?
Whom do you believe? Where do you trust to get the truth? Maybe sometimes we need to stop and listen, even if the messengers seem dodgy!
Today I want to talk about belief and doubt – healthy doubt that is part and parcel of healthy religious life. Too often religion has asked us to believe lots of implausible things, as if that is a test of our devotion to God. And worse, the messengers of religion have often sullied themselves by selfish or even abusive behavior. It’s no wonder people don’t want to listen, or believe what we have to say!
We always hear the well-known story of Thomas on this Sunday after Easter. The other disciples had seen Jesus after his resurrection. Thomas wanted evidence, too, before he would believe. Because of this, he’s been known as “doubting Thomas” ever since. But actually he became “believing Thomas,” when he saw Jesus and said, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas’ faith is not intellectual; it is a deeper kind of knowing.
For many years now, I have loved the hymn we just sang to the tune of “Danny Boy.” This text is honest about doubt, and about how hard it is to understand the ways of God: “I cannot tell why he whom angels worship should cast his love on all our human kin….”
But it goes on to declare what we can know with our hearts, with our life experience of struggle and pain, of endurance and resurrection: “But this I know, he heals the broken-hearted, and stays their pain, and calms their lurking fears….”
After decades as a Christian priest and weekly preacher, I’ve often struggled with the emphasis on believing the right things about God. After all, God will always be mysterious, and we can’t comprehend all that much. But we do have our experiences of God: we can stand in awe of God and God’s glorious creation – just look around us as spring breaks open! We also can be angry, sad, even bitter, when we suffer the horrors life can give – painful disease, horrible losses of people and things we love, inexplicable disasters and tragedies. We understandable shake our fists at God who, while not willing these things, clearly allows them to happen.
We also know the experience of restoration and renewal, in so many forms: we get bone tired, and when we rest we are wonderfully refreshed; we are devastated by a loss, but over time we begin to enjoy life again; we get the flu or break our arm, and wondrously our bodies restore themselves. What are these experiences if not little resurrections? The resurrection of Jesus, despite all the forces of death at work, is the icon of this ongoing renewing work of God in all of us.
Some of you know my own story, my own experience of loss and devastation when I was a teenager – an experience that challenged my childlike faith in God, and compelled me to make a more mature decision about God and Life. My eldest brother David grew up with serious mental illness, which settled into a pattern of mania and depression. He was hospitalized many times in the sixties and early seventies, before modern medications were available. Finally, in his misery, he escaped from a mental hospital and ended his own life at age 24. I was fourteen then.
Over the next years, I struggled with this terrible reality. Was David’s life just a tragic waste? Or could God redeem even this, and bring forth something good for David despite his desperate illness? I chose to believe in the path of redemption, restoration, resurrection, new life. That has been the sermon I have to preach through the years. God brings new life, even out of death, and this experience is for all of us.
I cannot tell: why such horrible things happen to us, why depression can cripple us, or catastrophe strikes
But this I know: that God heals the broken-hearted, eases our pain over time, and helps us build new lives that include joy again.
So. My Christian faith is not about believing a list of doctrines and dogmas, whether it’s the virgin birth, the omnipotence of God, the nature of the Trinity, or the bodily resurrection of Jesus. If that is doubt, it is healthy, honest doubt. My faith is based in my experience of life, and my experience of God. I have come to know that God loves me and walks with me, that God wants joy for me, and that God forgives when we mess up.
Now – I should say that I do value the Christian tradition; I love our scriptures and study them eagerly; I read the debates in theology and often gain from what the scholars and spiritual writers can tell us. But my faith is much deeper than all of that. It is visceral, existential. It is the rock on which I stand, when all else is crumbling.