Saturday, March 29, 2008

We walk by faith and not by sight

For several Sundays following Easter we will hear stories of what Jesus did following the Crucifixion. Most of these stories come from the Gospel of John. This one is about Thomas and his incredulity in the story that Mary told that she had seen Jesus in the garden. Then the disciples told him that they had seen him while they were gathered for prayer. Thomas, the practical one, says he won’t believe unless he can put his hand into the wounds of Christ.

Of course, it is precisely this that Jesus has Thomas do. He enters the locked room where the disciples are meeting fearful that the synagogue leaders are going to find them and make trouble for them. And Jesus comes among them. He wishes them Shalom—the normal greeting and hope of those who believe in God. Then he invites Thomas to place his hands on the wounds of his Passion. Thomas then makes the most profound confession in the Gospels—“My Lord and my God!”

Believing in God is a risky business. It isn’t just a matter of suspending reason to agree to something that happened in the past. It isn’t just a wish that something has happened that will make one’s life more secure. It is placing one’s trust in something that one has not seen and claming it as true. It is not a simple task.

From the time we have our first science class in school, from the time when we find out that Santa or the Easter Bunny is a manifestation of mom and dad’s benefice, from the time that we find that theory is not fact, believing is difficult. In many cases we have our faith leeched out of us by those who would have us learn how to depend upon facts rather than hearsay. I was one of those who sort of believed in God when I went off to college until I studied biology and history. I read about the “facts” of evolution. I studied the various philosophies of great thinkers. It is hard to believe in God the face of all of that. I put away my childhood faith in God in those days thinking that I had arrived as an educated person. I believed in the FACTS—demonstrable proof of events.

Many of us follow this path. We take our Sunday school faith to college with us and then don’t know what to do with it when professors we admire demean our childhood faith. We don’t realize that unless we confront that immature faith, it will not serve us as we move into adulthood. Sometimes we throw everything out with the bath water. We fail to understand that what we believe is not as important as building a relationship with that God.

Sunday, I was not ready for prime time, but I needed to get out of the house. I was no longer contagious and needed to be with people after a week of being in bed. Friends invited us for Easter Dinner with other family and friends. One was a retired college professor whom I had met before. The conversation got to faith as often it does when we gather. The professor, I will call him Art, asked a question about Sin. He had listened to the great B minor Mass and had heard the phrase “who takes away the sins of the world.” He just couldn’t believe that he said. I asked him what sin was and he answered it was ‘disobedience.’ This was a man who was in his 70’s still thinking of sin as ‘disobedience’ rather than something that kept him from knowing the Divine. I suggested that perhaps his definition of sin kept him from knowing who God was. He had to cling to that definition of God because that was what his parents had taught him and to do so would in some way reflect badly on them.

All too often we do not allow our faith to mature in God because we cannot let go of childish forms that we carry. For us to have faiths that support our adult lives we must be willing to trust in the relationship we develop with God. This is what happened to Thomas in today’s reading. Thomas has gotten a bad rep because he doubted—but that little doubt—that suspending of his belief in what others told him to find true faith in the loving scarred hands of Jesus. It provided him the wherewithal to embrace a mature faith in a God who would come to him in the locked rooms of his heart.

I know for me, when I finally allowed myself to set aside my childhood faith, it gave me the room I needed to encounter the God that changed my life. I am able to incorporate evloution in to my faith. I can accept the facts of history, philosophy, the social sciences and still embrace a God who could deal with that. Ultimately all that science, knowledge, education, etc failed to provide the sense of wholeness I sought. It was then when I had no other thing to cling to, I was able to speak Thomas’ words—“My Lord and my God.”

Faith is a journey with someone you love. It is a trust that the God who has laid down his life for you is there and walking your life with you. We can believe all the theological truths we want to, but it is not until we are willing to put our hands into his wounds that we understand what it means to say “My Lord and my God.” It is our willingness to stand and look and SEE the Lord of our life, really see him in our lives, not somewhere up in heaven far off, which gives us the ability to have faith. It allows faith to settle calmly about our shoulders. It allows us to be about the lives God has given us to live in truth and integrity.

Doubt is a necessary ingredient in faith. It is to put aside what others have told us so that we can experience the holy ourselves. And once we have experienced the holy—that indescribable sense of God’s presence in out lives—nothing can remove that. Perhaps it is that encounter in the closed rooms of our lives that we are finally able to ‘believe without seeing’ which John tells us that is more blessed.

I long for Art to be able to embrace a faith that will incorporate his considerable learning. I long for him to put away his childish definitions of belief so that he can embrace a God who is calling to him through his education, his considerable study and academic career. I pray that he might allow himself to know the love that God holds out to him in the considerable companionship of those who do have faith. But he must be willing to embrace himself and the God who loves him with the kind of abandon that is positively frightening. It is trusting. It is what has so often been called the ‘leap of faith’ that poses such a difficult block. Ultimately we have to surrender what we do know in order to know what we don’t. All scientists, all academics, all teachers, all believers have to do that; anyone who wishes to learn anything must believe without seeing.

But in matters of faith it requires that all the time. We engage life trusting in God's presence.
We walk by faith, an not by sight:
No gracious words we hear
of him who spoke as none e'er spoke,
but we believe him near.

2. We may not touch his hands and side,
nor follow where he trod;
yet in his promise we rejoice,
and cry, "My Lord and God!"

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