Faith and Doubt

A parishioner once took me aside and asked, “I just don’t believe in all of this stuff.  I look around at all the people here and wonder, ‘does everyone else believe this?’ and I’m amazed. Am I the only person who thinks like this?”

Of course, he isn’t.  Plenty of people in the pews have their own doubts and questions.  They cross their fingers at the appropriate time of the Nicene creed; some sing because they can’t bear to say it.  We compartmentalize, dividing our heads from our hearts.   An Episcopalian who hasn’t questioned the church, God and organized religion wasn’t raised in the tradition very well.

The parishioner had good reasons to be skeptical. He’d had a hard life and, like lots of faithful people, struggled with the basic question of suffering and God’s goodness.

The apostle Thomas had doubts.  He hadn’t been there the day before when he’d seen what the others had seen. He may have thought most of his friends were a bit dim and too credulous.  Why should he take them at their word? They’ve said they’ve seen a body!  That’s ridiculous.

I imagine that Thomas as a due diligence officer, a regulator, or an auditor. He knew that there are people who take short cuts, eager to make a quick buck, the swindlers who take advantage of our gullibility and propensity to see what we want. He’s the guy who wants to know how a magician did the trick, and demands that it be done twice so he can figure it out.

So then Jesus reappears to the disciples.  He breaks bread and offers peace.  He shows the wounds.  But Thomas still isn’t operating on faith at this time:  no – the body was right there.   Asking for faith is easy when you’ve got evidence.

But perhaps, seeing the body was the secondary part of the faith.  The real leap of faith was to accept the offer of forgiveness.  Forgiveness for betraying Christ; forgiveness to the persecutors for their persecution; the forgiveness that breaks a cycle of  violence.   The momentary reconciliation that offers the possibility of more life.

This forgiveness means we assume the best in others; we offer them breathings space, charity and discretion; breathing space offers freedom; and freedom unlocks our own potential.   It may be a mistaken, foolish, and risky act, to have faith in another person.
Of course, we need not ask this of our political leaders, of our inspectors, of those who have to make snap judgments in a broken world.  They need to be right more than wrong.  They can’t afford these moments of grace.  They have to calculate the costs.

But perhaps faith is another way of saying, we’re allowed to be wrong in who and what we trust.  Though we may be battered, bruised and hurt by the vicissitudes of chance, the power says that with this faith we still stand up again, although that same love may put our familiar lives at risk.

Palm Sunday

This Sunday we celebrate two important stories: the parade of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the passion. The passion isn’t about Jesus’ carnal desires, which are the object of literary speculation, but about his Suffering. The root of the word “passion” is “to suffer.”

Like the dangers of falling in love.

According to scripture Jesus marched in on a donkey. People were shouting and cheering. They thought it would be an end to empire; that miracles would suddenly become commonplace; that the world would be turned upside down. Little did they know how they would be disappointed.

Whether parading for the Yankees, balloons shaped like people, the Irish, or balloons shaped like the Yankees or the Irish, parades lift the spirit. We get to be a little proud. We wear fancy clothes (Or perhaps, as in Brazilian Mardigras, we wear fewer clothes), and we strut and preen or watch those who like to strut and preen. We witness the pride of all those people who like to show off.

It’s one way of celebrating togetherness.

Jesus’ parade, however, is a little different than most parades. First of all, Jesus isn’t exactly royalty. The mount isn’t a clydesdale, its an ass. We’ve all seen parades where people are on trucks; imagine parading on a small thirty year old Raleigh three speed (although I’m sure you can put a few flowers on the basket).

In short, Jesus’ parade seems more like a parade of fools than an imperial parade. Although it doesn’t seem that the crowd quite gets the shift, the notion of triumph is radically trained. It is not merely about status, but a ironic twist upon status. Jesus is busy giving a wave to all his fans thinking, There is more to life than just being on top…. or its the beginning of the end, which is just another beginning.

The second half of the service this Sunday will be the passion: its the central story of the faith. It is not, however, just an intellectual exercise; nor is it meant to be a series of mere facts. The story is about you: being in character in this drama that includes Jesus.

This is one of the reasons we assign people parts in the liturgy. People take the role of Judas, of Peter, of the servants. Although we hope that those who take the role of Judas don’t get too into the character, the hope is that we can understand how at any time we can take such a role. It is the root of making choices: to see how we play in our own personal dramas. And yes, I get to play the part of the HIgh Priest.

I really don’t like it when priests play Jesus.

We change the roles up a bit: but this is a drama where you have a part. You witness the life of Jesus Christ. You shout it out to crucify him, because that is, sadly what you’d probably do. That is the warning for each of us.

The idea that this week is central to humanity’s story is to presume we do not interpret our lives as if they are propositional statements, as if the art that is our lives is reduced to mathematical propositions about the universe.

This week is a time to look at how we live what we believe. incomprehensibly, When people use the word “faith” it seems that we are insistent about knowing exactly the content of one’s “belief system.”

But there are some days, darkly cynical days, that if someone asked me about my “belief system” I want to offer a big guffaw: “Ha! beliefs? I wish I could say that I knew one thing for all time forever.”

What we can say is this: “let me tell you a story.”

You would be one of the characters.

One perspective on faith

Paul says in Romans: “The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve.”

In this passage he is making faith subjective. Faith is located in the individual. He’s almost saying, “if it feels good, do it!” He tempers this a little later in the letter, but he is also insinuating: don’t judge other people’s faith. Your conviction is your own. It’s a blessing in its own right. But it also means we can’t go around dismantling the hope of others, or judging them on their lack of confidence.

Have you ever been suspicious of the way people use the word “faith?” I have. Sometimes it seems like a short-cut for thinking, or a synonym for foolishness. “Faith-based” can also be a codeword for institutions like churches that want to have some say in the political sphere.

I believe, however, that “faith” is not merely about believing in things that simply won’t happen or in the supernatural. “Faith” is a description of what we trust. It provides a lens with which to see the world. It may be sometimes grainy, but it helps us understand what we see. In this thin sense, human beings are imbued with a faith as deep as the alphabet we use to speak.

It may also be the location where we find our strength: such as the love we have for our kids; the support we get from our loved ones; our commitment for a changed world order; in the belief that our parish can become a place to experience creativity in our communities.

“Faith” also describes those rituals, practices and thoughts that are so ingrained we don’t even reflect upon them. We aren’t even aware they are there. That we wake up, have breakfast, go to work, take care of the dog, and come home requires a habit of action that assumes the presence of millions of other actors and actions that may change at any moment. So to some extent, to say “I have faith” is to be redundant. Perhaps the best way to say we have “faith” is to say nothing at all, but merely to live confidently in the world, believing, however foolishly, that what we do matters.

Even more so, faith allows us to say that we can reflect upon our rituals, and have some choice about who we are and what we can be. It might be a faith that allows our awareness, our sensitivity, or our creativity to be harnessed to enchant the world and reveal the loveliness of the world that has been made and we continue to make. Blessed be!