Doubt, in Good Measure

Today there’s no escaping Thomas. Our Gospel story centers on a particular character, Thomas Didymus, Thomas the twin, but you know him by another name: Doubting Thomas.

How do we handle doubt? This morning, I want to try and make a distinction between “doubt” as a thought process, and doubt as a posture. Doubt as a thought process, I believe, is crucial for faith. Doubt as a posture can become toxic.

Doubt as a thought process, I’ll say again, is crucial for faith. Without doubt, can you really have faith? I don’t think so. If you know something, beyond a doubt, you have certainty. The Episcopal Church is a sacramental church, which is to say, we celebrate mysteries. What happens to bread and wine on that altar? Somehow Jesus is present. “How?”, you might ask, and I’ll likely respond: “It’s a mystery.” What will happen later this morning when we baptize Mira Carol Powell? She’ll be marked as Christ’s own forever? “How?,” you might ask, and I’ll respond, “it’s a mystery.” Sacramental Christians believe in ancient signs, in tradition, in marking the time and the stages of life. And we do it with mystery.

Sometimes in our Pilgrimage classes, like the one that will start here next week, I get a little pushback. These classes are designed for folks who are new to the Episcopal tradition, or to Christianity. They’re also designed for anyone who is asking questions, exploring doubts, wondering how this faith and church stuff might work for them. I get pushback in part, I think, because much of the church has been in the business of certainty. The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican tradition where we find our roots, has had to hold too many diverse positions together to be certain about much. We’ve argued about the Bible, Bishops, the Eucharist, women, LGBT people, race, colonialism. We try and hold diverse people and perspectives together. So we look to mystery. We say our prayers together, even when we have questions, especially when we have questions. I believe this is one of our strengths as a tradition today.

The Episcopalian Madeleine L’Engle, famous for her children’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” wrote in ways that challenged her readers. She wanted them to ask questions about God, family, even the nature of the universe. Her most famous book was rejected by countless publishers before it found a home. The publishers initially told her the questions were too big, the themes were to heavy on science, for a young audience. The book went on to win the Newbery Medal.

On one of her book tours, a child asked L’Engle about her faith. She said, “Do you really believe without any doubts at all. L’Engle replied, “I believe with LOTs of doubts and I base my life on that belief.”

L’Engle brings me to the distinction I want to make about doubt. There’s a difference between acknowledging doubt, thinking through questions, looking for evidence, and adopting doubt as a spiritual posture.

Yesterday a crowd of thousands gathered in downtown St. Louis, one of many such crowds in cities around the world, to march in the name of science. One of the signs held high in the march in St. Louis was on the Post Dispatch’s homepage last night. It had a picture of a Bible and a caption that said, “This is not a Science Textbook.” I thoroughly agree.

Have you ever been disbelieved? Especially if you were telling a story that was important to you? We typically think of children in this kind of situation. A young person tells a story, and the adults all nod their heads and then someone turns and says, “but that’s not possible.” The child is frustrated and disheartened “but you HAVE to believe me,” she says. No one is swayed. Have you known that kind of disbelief? Have you been so disbelieved?

Many in our society have used the Bible as a tool for dis-belief. Scientists who have spent careers refining data, pushing the edges of discovery, almost unanimously agree about human-caused climate change. And they have been disbelieved. The Christian tradition has been used to sew doubt in the validity of science. Many Christians have taken a posture of doubt toward science. They call themselves climate “change skeptics.” Our country is making some dangerous gambles on policy enabled by this doubtful stance. Yesterday the scientists took to the streets.

Scientists would tell you, doubt in the right measure is important. You have to question your hypotheses, you have to look for the evidence, but when you’ve heard the science and you doubt anyway, that’s doubt to a different degree. These folks tend to call themselves “climate change skeptics.” But that kind of doubt, that posture of doubt, is not just skepticism it’s cynicism. That kind of doubt can be toxic to your soul.

Now many climate change skeptics, would say they are distrustful that government can do anything about the science. That is the sort of cynicism I worry can be toxic. When science and government have worked together, we’ve gone to the moon. We funded cures for diseases like polio. Government, in a democracy, is the people acting together. Cynicism would have us say: “why bother? you can’t fix it anyway.” Cynicism leads to inaction, depression, an inability to make change.

Scientists, as a whole, and I know, it’s dangerous to talk about groups of folks as a whole, but the scientists I know tend not to be cynics. Folks who spend their lives testing theories, looking for answers, they tend toward hope. They want to try and conserve our planet, or, if there’s too much damage done to save a particular system, to find ways to help us adapt and live with the change. Scientists also tend to drive folks nuts when they get down to the bare bones of what we can know. Push a scientist or a theologian too hard and they both start talking about “mystery” and they’ll have the same wistful look in their eyes.

Which finally brings me around to Thomas. You did know I would make it back to scripture. Didn’t you? In the Gospels, today’s story is Thomas’ big part. He’s been mostly offscreen, a name in a list of Jesus’ followers. No other action centers on Thomas, but he does have a couple of lines before today’s story.

Late in the Gospel, Thomas, sensing the danger ahead as they approach Jerusalem, says to his fellow disciples. “Let us go, that we might die with him.” Thomas has a sense of what is to come. A few chapters later, Jesus has said told them Thomas is right, he will die, and he’ll go to his Father and prepare a place for them. Thomas says in response, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus says to Thomas that famous line, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Thomas had given his life to this Jesus. We don’t hear the story of Thomas’ call in the Gospels, but whether he was a fisherman like Peter, James and John, or a tax collector like Matthew, we can presume Thomas gave up his way of living to follow Jesus. And his few words in the Gospels give us the sense that he’d given his heart as well. Thomas was all in. So it would make sense that Thomas was disappointed, grieving, depressed. I can understand why he might have avoided that upper room at first. He’s not ready to jump at this sign of hope. He’s been burned. So Jesus meets him. “See the scars. Know that it’s me.” Only then Thomas will say, “My Lord and my God.”

When I hear Jesus’ words, “don’t doubt, believe.” I hear Jesus imploring Thomas: “Don’t become a cynic.” Don’t let life and loss drag you to a place that is hopeless. Faith is not so much ascribing the right constellation of ideas. Faith is a posture toward life. Jesus doesn’t want Thomas to check his brain at the door. Jesus doesn’t say: “believe despite the evidence.” Jesus says, “here I am.” Jesus wants Thomas to choose life, to choose hope, to choose resurrection.

As Christians, we say we are “Easter People.” When we baptize someone we say, “you are Risen with Christ.” New life is always possible. Your life can be new today. You can lean toward that “indescribable and glorious joy” Paul talks about. The nineteenth century Episcopal preacher Phillips Brooks said, “The great Easter truth is not that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the resurrection.” How can your life be new today? How can faith help you lean, through the doubt, to new life?

“I believe with all sorts of doubts, and I base my life on that belief.” Doubt, in the right measure, is crucial for survival. If you can’t hold doubt, you can’t handle mystery, and what is life if not mystery. So doubt, in good measure. But be careful, because too much doubt can bruise your soul. When you adopt doubt as a permanent posture toward life, you can push away important data. You can push away good news. You can push away faith. Be careful.

Can you believe with all sorts of doubts? Can you, like Thomas, base your life on that belief?

Go the Extra Mile

What relationships have given shape to your identity? Stated more succinctly: Who has shaped you?

Many of us can point to a teacher who introduced us to our favorite subject or author. Many of us can recall a friend who recommended a style of music, or our favorite band. Sometimes to our chagrin, we’ll find ourselves sharing an opinion and then say, “O gosh, I sound just like my mother. She would have said that.” We are shaped, all of us, by our community, consciously and unconsciously.

In my previous gig, my old job, I worked for The Episcopal Church’s office for “Lifelong Formation.” I was the young adult and college-student specific minister, but I loved the name of the office “Lifelong formation.” No matter our age, or sense of maturity, we are, all of us, in formation. We have been formed. We continue to be formed.

So, how are you shaping up?

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus sets the bar pretty high. “Be perfect,” like God is perfect. A priest friend in Connecticut recently wrote that while perhaps Beyonce wakes up “feeling ‘flawless,’ most [of us] rise from bed a few minutes late, somewhat dehydrated, and in great need of a tissue. Certainly no one removes a sleep apnea mask to declare, “I woke up like this.” Perfection can seem unachievable.

I think part of the problem we have with this Gospel is a problem of translation. You see “perfect” in English misses part of the sense of the word in Greek, which is “telos.” If you’ve studied Aristotle, you’ve heard that word telos. It means perfection, yes, but it is more directional. To engage in seeking teleological perfection is to journey with purpose, to move toward a point at the horizon which is perfection. And according to Aristotle, in life, we don’t reach telos. Telos is the goal toward which we strive. Perfect, in this sense, is not the enemy of the good. Perfect is the direction toward which the good is shaped.

Thousands of years of doctrinal development away, it can be important to remember how MOST people experienced Jesus. Jesus was a preacher, a very talented preacher. His words, his phrases shaped people. His words, edited together by the Gospel writers, still shape people. And these weeks of Epiphany, we are spending time with the greatest sermon we have, the Sermon on the Mount. How do we preachers relate to our greatest Preacher?

In the great mosques each Friday, the Imam climbs the minbar, the pulpit to deliver a sermon. Traditionally Islamic pulpits, unlike our pulpit, have stair-steps that face out toward the people. The Friday preacher climbs several stairs and turns around to look out over the gathered crowd. In the mosque, the preacher traditionally stops one step short of the top. This reminds him, and the congregation, that every mosque’s primary preacher is not the person currently talking, but the prophet himself. The current preacher gives a sermon as a substitute. Formation belongs to the master.

With a similar sense of humility, I want to offer a couple of thoughts on Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel. Jesus turns his hearers’ expectations upside down. “You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resit an evildoer.” “You have heard it said…love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These words may seem foolish in today’s climate, but this is the perfection toward which Christians have sought to be shaped. Still, reading Jesus’ words today can create a sense of tension

I want to look into this tension for just a moment. Formation is happening all the times and it can happen when we are tense. If you’ve ever climbed up a mountain to the edge of tree-line and seen the little bristly pine trees up high, you’ve seen tense formation in action. Pine trees that high up have raw bark on one side of their trunk and just a couple of branches pointing in one direction on the other. They look like little scraggly flag poles. Those sad trees have been blown into their shape by the wind. I bring them up because the winds seem mighty strong these days. Will you be shaped by incivility? Will you respond to hatred with hatred? Will you respond to mockery with mockery? Will you respond to cynicism with cynicism?

A few months ago I shared with you something I learned about Jesus’ words: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” That line can seem pretty pathetic, weak, but I once heard an African theologian explain how she read strength in Jesus’ words. She said that to turn the other cheek you had to turn your whole face. “Turning the other cheek” means looking your assailant in the eye. It means facing hatred with humanity.

Jesus strikes a similar vein of wisdom with another oft-quoted line from this sermon: “go the extra mile.” You may have heard that one before. You might have seen the words on one of those black-bordered motivational posters that seem to hang in ever Human Resources Office maybe with a picture of running shoes. Well, these words belong to Jesus, and they are as surprisingly radical as anything he preached.

“Go the extra mile” referred to a specific policy in the Roman Empire. Rome learned this tactic from the Persia, an earlier empire with great territorial ambition. “If anyone forces you to go one mile” references the power that a Roman Soldier had over anyone who lived in territory conquered by Rome. The soldiers marched across the empire on Rome’s highways, and they carried heavy equipment. When a soldier got tired or didn’t like the look on someone’s face, by law, he could impress a bystander to carry his pack for up to one mile, but no more. All along the road there were mile markers to facilitate this service to the Empire.

In this context, Jesus’ words, “go also the second mile” would have shocked his hearers. This policy was hated, understandably, by the occupied people. Being forced to march away from your work, to spend precious time and energy for no pay, was humiliating. Why would Jesus want to make it worse? As a tactic for calling the system of oppression into question, Jesus’ idea has legs. Can you imagine the Roman soldier, looking at the tired farmer who he has just marched a mile away from his field, as the man sets off another mile down the road. “You don’t have to continue,” he might blurt. The oppressor is forced to see beyond his prejudices. The soldier is faced with another human being, someone who is paying him a kindness, and he has to ask questions about the legal and social framework empowering some at the expense of others.

“Go the extra mile” read this way reminds me of another preacher, who stood just a step below Jesus. I’ve seen Dr. King’s words, his commentary on Jesus’ message on many signs and t-shirts lately, maybe you’ve heard these words too:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

These days, I think we are having to become more conscious about the question: “who is shaping you?”

Who do you “friend” on Facebook? Who do you “follow” on Twitter? Who do you read? Who do you listen to? Who do you watch on television? In a political climate that seems to reward bragging lies and hate speech, in a social media world that rewards salacious rumors and outrageous headlines with more clicks and “likes,” it is easy to become blown about by the winds.

Question the value of that formation. If you find yourself anxious because of what you are reading in the paper, or on some blog site. if you find yourself angry in response to a news story on the radio, hit pause. Go and find some good news. Facebook won’t point you there. Twitter won’t raise these items up to the top of the feed. You’ll have to go and look.

Read some poetry. Pick up a collection of Dr. King’s sermons. Take the time to reconnect with a friend or spiritual advisor over the phone or better yet over a meal. Take a walk down in Tower Grove Park and keep an eye out for the owls. Look for good news. Open up the Bible. Go and find THE good news, the Gospel. Spend time with Jesus, the master preacher. If you’re on your smartphone clicking through articles and getting angry before you even get out of bed in the morning, well you’re already starting the day so many steps behind Beyonce. Get intentional about your formation.

A number of us gathered on Wednesday night as we continued our conversation about “Faith and Activism.” We read an article by Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest. His writing focus on the connection between political activism and contemplative prayer. Richard says, unless we are deeply formed, all our activism is likely to burn us out.

That’s one reason that most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power has never been exorcised in them. We need less reformation and more transformation.

“Go the extra mile.” These words from Jesus ask us to question our operating assumptions. If you really want to “resist” systems of oppression, Jesus says, surprise the oppressors with persistence, with kindness, with service, with love. Be formed, deeply formed, by life-giving love.

This isn’t easy work. We won’t get there alone. Perfection isn’t a goal that any of us can reach on our own. To stretch in that direction we will need to be intentional about our formation. We will need solid communities who know how to support and challenge one another, communities like Holy Communion tries to be. We will need friendships. We will need worship. We will need to return again and again to Word and to Table. We will need the words of Jesus. To reach for perfection, we will need to ask: who is shaping me?

The Darkness Did Not Overcome It.

I have a confession to make to you, as I begin this sermon. Over the last week or so as I thought about this text, I had mis-remembered a crucial line. Here is what I was planning on preaching about: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness COULD not overcome it.” Could not.

Then, as I sat down to set down my notes, I re-read the text, and I saw the crucial difference: did. “The darkness DID not overcome” the light.

Well, that’s a different sermon, I thought to myself. The darkness did not overcome the light.

Often, as I was preparing to do in my earlier draft of this sermon, we like to split things into either/or, darkness/light, right/wrong. We set up little contests, or big fights. We live in a digital world, and sometimes I wonder if all of the on or off, this or that, has us playing a zero sum game. We polarize easily today.

The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr says that we are dualistic in our basic inherited theology in the West. That’s what he calls this either/or us vs. them tension we seem to constantly live with: dualism. We set ourself up in opposition, in tension. He argues this causes some of the basic inequities we’ve constructed. When we view the world, especially the people of the world, as us vs. them, we set up a dualism. Women or men. Black or white. Gay or Straight. Republican or Democrat. We have created a lot of “or”s to categorize people. And our categories are failing us.

Which is why this image of the light shining in the darkness caught my attention. The darkness did not overcome it.

What is this light that shines?

The light is John’s version of the Christmas story. Rather than the shepherds and angels of Luke, the beautiful Hallmark/Disney  Christmas, John gives us a theological hymn. Aren’t Hymns some of the best of theology? Aren’t they also sometimes the worst? In this case, the Logos hymn, it’s some of the best. But what does the Logos do?

The Logos Generates. You may have missed this word in the passage as it was printed in your bulletin, because it is not there. Our New Revised Standard Bible translates the Greek word “ginomai” the root for our word “to generate” as “came into being.” I think we are better served by the fullness of the verb “generates.” In the Beginning, John tells us, the Logos was with God and through the Logos all things were generated.

This verb, generates discloses something about the life of God. God is constantly generative. Bring to your mind another descendant word, generator. According to John, the ongoing action, the ongoing work of God in our world is generating, giving power, giving life to all life. All life, note that God does not simply bring human beings into being. God, the Logos, continues to bring all things into being. Unlike our power generators which belch out carbon and limit the life of the planet, God generates ongoing life.

This verb, I posit, may be the best guiding light in determining whether a policy, or a position, or an action is Godly, is Christian. Pope Francis, I think, gets this intuitively. He has mostly left behind the life-sapping fights that have characterized the Roman Church. He has frustrated reporters that want hard-line statements on women, gay people, or non-Catholics. Instead he is busy embracing deformed men, washing Muslim girls’ feet, and playing with children. He’s generating life.

Of course using “generating life” as a guide can get tricky. There are moments when no decision will generate life, but I think this is a pretty good measuring stick. If an action or policy generates life for more people, for more creatures, for the planet, that action could be called “Christian” or “Godly” because it participate in Christ’s action as Logos.

God generates, life and light. But that does not necessarily mean that God is not also in the darkness. From the seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughn:

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

We often associate darkness with loss, with sadness, with difficulty. We talk about the “dark night of the soul” using the words of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross. But do we know what the dark night means?

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor considers John of the Cross’ dark night. She says readers of Dark Night of the Soul are bound to be disappointed if they want John to tell them how to survive hard circumstances and cling to God. “One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped…since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”

I wonder whether this image from John’s Gospel of the light shining in the darkness is less about opposition and more about contrast. A candle shining in the darkness is more poignant that the same flame on a bright sunny day. Light and darkness need one another to make meaning. Christ’s light came to shine, but not to overwhelm.

Last week, on Christmas Eve we lit candles during the services and sang “Silent Night.” Those weren’t the only candles lit at Holy Communion on December 24. There’s a not-well-kept secret in Episcopal Churches like Holy Communion. Almost every service we have is at least a little interfaith. Some of the members of our choir are Jewish. Jews come here just to sing hymns, especially at Christmas. The Anglican choral tradition has admirers in other faiths. They may choose not to receive the bread and wine, but they are more than happy to belt out Christmas carols and descants.

Last week, on Christmas Eve, as the choir and clergy gathered for dinner between the services, two of our choir members lit the first candles on a menorah and sang the blessings of Hanukkah. This year Christmas Eve was the first night of the Jewish celebration of light. That day earlier a rabbi friend, Jack Moline, was quoted in the Washington Post. “Lighting a candle in the darkness — that is something that stands on its own.” Another rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once said that almost all Jewish holidays can be summarized simply: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Note, the goal is not conquering or eliminating the enemy. The goal is survival.

“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I was ready, as I was preparing this sermon, to talk about all the ways darkness could not overcome light. Now I’m not so sure. We face the start of a year that brings certain unsteadiness. I am less sure about saying exactly where “darkness CANNOT overcome light.” I am concerned about setting up too many definite opposites this early in the year. In the times to come, I think we need some more room for nuance, which may mean feeling like we’re stumbling around in the dark a little. We may need to let go of our assurances to move forward.

I am sure that in the year to come, we will stand together. We will light candles together, when we need to. Just as in 2016 we lit candles to pray for an end to gun violence with the Moms Demanding Action, to pray for an end to gun violence. Holding light in the dark is an action of hope.

One memory from 2016 stands out clearly for me. In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowd that came together on June 12 last year in the Grove. As the summer sun set the night after the attack on the Pulse Nightclub you could see 1000 faces lit by candles held against the dimming orange sky. I needed those faces that night. I needed those candles. I needed the assurance, after an attack on the LGBT community, that God’s light can still shine. In the year to come we will hold on to light in the darkness. We will pray.

There are times when we live in darkness. God can be found there in the darkness as well. Bringing the contrast, bringing light in uncertainty, that is part of our ongoing work, our ongoing celebration of this Christmas season. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Sometimes I’m still working out what the Gospel means, but even in uncertain times I know: God’s light still shines.