Friday, January 31, 2014

Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe: “If you truly have faith, you won’t doubt" - February 2, 2014

Texts: Psalm 22:1-5, Luke 24:1-11

We have been examining some of those beliefs and assumptions people have about Christianity that aren’t necessarily true – “Stuff Christians Really Don’t Have to Believe.”  Today we’re looking at the idea that if you are a person of faith, you won’t doubt.    

There was a powerful movie made several years ago called “Cinderella Man.”  It’s the story of Jim Braddock, a boxer during the depression years.  After injuring his hand, his boxing career came to an end.  Unable to find regular work, the family struggled greatly.  Although he was a devout Christian, those bleak years strained his faith in God.  In one poignant scene of the movie, the Braddock family has no money, the kids are sick, the electricity has been cut off in their apartment, and they have little food.

Late in the evening, Jim came home from another unsuccessful day of seeking work.  The kids are in bed, coughing with a bad cold; the apartment was freezing.  The only light in the apartment comes from a small candle.  Jim sat down at the table with his wife to eat a meager bit of dinner.  He and his wife joined hands and bowed their heads to say a blessing over the meal, as was their custom.    She began, “Lord, we are grateful…” but Jim did not join her.  She looked up at him, her eyes asking, “Why are you not praying?”  For a moment he looked at her in silence, and then said, “I’m all prayed out.”

Maybe you have felt that way – as though you are all prayed out.  Maybe you have wondered if God exists, or if God is as good and loving as you have been taught.

Well, you are in good company.  Abraham and Sarah doubted the promise that they would be parents of a great nation; when she heard the news that in her old age she would have a child, Sarah cracked up – it was absurd.  Jacob runs for his life from his brother Esau only to be tricked by his father-in-law Laban.  Returning home years later, he is afraid for his life.  He is all prayed out.  Frustrated with leading the people through the wilderness, Moses is all prayed out.  Hiding in a cave, fearful, David is prayed out.  Crying out in anger and anguish, the prophet Jeremiah is all prayed out.  Over and over, the Psalmist feels that God has abandoned him.  After praying for healing but not receiving it, Paul is prayed out.

And then there is Jesus in the garden, praying that this cup might pass, and finally on the cross, crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Some of you may have grown up with the idea that we should never doubt.  We should never doubt our faith, we should never doubt God, we should never question.  But doubt is not the opposite of faith.  Apathy is the opposite of faith.  Questions and doubts are simply a part of who we are, a part of our makeup, a part of humanity, and the way I see it, if it is good enough for these heroes of the Bible, it’s good enough for me.  When we have questions and doubts and when we may feel far from God, we are actually in good company.

St. Augustine spoke of the value of doubt.

Nobody surely doubts that he lives and remembers and understands and wills and thinks and knows and judges. At least, even if he doubts, he lives.  If he doubts, he remembers why he’s doubting.  If he doubts, he has a will to be certain.  If he doubts, he thinks.  If he doubts, he knows he does not know.  If he doubts, he judges he ought not to give a hasty ascent.  I love this being and this knowing.  Where these truths are concerned, I need not quail before the academicians when they say, “What if you should be mistaken?” Well, if I’m mistaken, I exist.

Doubt, says St. Augustine, is if nothing else a sign that we are alive.

In his later years, the great author Robert Louis Stevenson was a person of deep faith. But in his college days, he called himself a “youthful atheist,” shedding his rigid Christian upbringing, calling it “the deadliest gag and wet blanket that can be laid on a man.”  But as he grew older, Stevenson said he began to have “doubts about my doubts.”

Our questioning can lead us to a faith that is genuine and authentic. 

A pastor told about a family that was looking forward to the baptism of their child.  We don’t baptize infants here, but this would be like a child dedication service for us.  The mother and father met with the pastor, they had a nice conversation, and a date was set for the baptism.

But after this meeting, the father sent a lengthy email to the pastor.  He said that he wasn’t sure he could go through with it, he wasn’t sure he could stand with the child as the child was baptized because he was an atheist, and he didn’t know if he could in good conscience say that he would raise this child in the faith.

Well, the pastor and father met and talked some more, and it was clear that this man wasn’t really an atheist, he was at best more of an agnostic.  He had a lot of questions and uncertainties about God.  Now, this was someone who came to church.  The pastor asked the man, “Are you planning to bring the child to church?”  “Oh, sure,” said the man, “I’m just not sure I believe all this stuff.” 

“Well, what is it that you don’t believe? “the pastor asked.  And it turned out that what was really bothering this guy was a set of beliefs from the very conservative, fundamentalist church he grew up in that he wasn’t sure he could believe. 

From his upbringing, this father had it ingrained in him that faith was yes/no, either/or, black or white, with no room for doubts or questions or even different ways of looking at things.  He had been handed the faith and told take it or leave it, this is the way it is, with no opportunity to work things out for himself, and without allowing for the possibility that faith is more than just agreement with a set of propositions.

Sometime we get the idea that Christian faith is about answers – that Christianity is a set of answers to life’s biggest questions.  Christianity certainly offers us answers, but it is a lot more than that.  And sometimes the answers are not as simple as abc, 123.

What about Jesus?  Look at his life and his teachings.  Look at the way he operated.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but this week I learned that Jesus asked eight times as many questions as he answered.  Eight times.  Jesus was actually a lot more about questions than he was answers.

Yet the church is stereotyped in our culture as an institution that believes it has all the answers.  We can come across as so dang sure of ourselves.

Tennyson said, “There lies more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”  Now, my mother was a Tennyson.  I’m not sure if I am related to Alfred Lord Tennyson, but I do feel a kinship with his thoughts here.

A couple of days ago I read a column by David Brooks of the New York Times.  I don’t necessarily read everything he writes, but the last two David Brooks columns I have read I thought were great columns and pretty well agreed with him.  In the past I have sometimes read a David Brooks column that I liked, but two in a row was some kind of record.

Anyway, Brooks talked about the way that many in the modern world view religious faith as judgmental, hypocritical, and out of touch.  He quoted Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who noted that the faith expressed by many is often dull and insipid – a kind of religiosity in which “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored for the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather that with the voice of compassion.”

Heschel described another way of faith.  He frequently talked about what he called Radical Amazement.  He said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.  Everything is phenomenal… to be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Brooks said that while there are many who seem to have that dull, rigid faith, there is “a silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.”  There are those who may not have it all figured out, may not have it all together, but can nevertheless experience joy and amazement.  Brooks gives the example of Audrey Assad, a Catholic songwriter.

She had an idyllic sort of childhood in a church with a very black-or-white understanding of faith.  But in her 20’s, life’s tragedies and complexities began to mount, and she experienced a gradual erosion of certainty. 

She began reading through the Barnes and Noble Great Books shelf, reading books she had missed by not going to college.  She began reading theology, including the early church fathers.  Her religious journey led her to various churches quite different from the church of her childhood, and she eventually became a Catholic, but certainly not without questions.  “I was ready to be an atheist,” she said.  “I was going to be a Catholic or an atheist.” 

Brooks wrote,
She came to feel the legacy of millions of people who had struggled with the same feelings for thousands of years – feelings of doubt, feelings of uncertainty.  “I still have routine brushes with agnosticism,” she said.  “I still brush against the feeling that I don’t believe any of this, but the church always brings me back… I don’t think Jesus wants to brush away the paradoxes and mysteries.”

Here is someone for whom doubt is part of a vibrant, living faith.  Her music, which does not ignore the complexities and pain of life, connects with a lot of people – because life is complex.

Our scripture today is that great Easter text, the story of Jesus’ resurrection in the gospel of Luke.  The resurrection is the center of Christian faith, and yet when the disciples first heard, they didn’t believe.  All four gospels say essentially the same thing: the people closest to Jesus had a hard time believing that he was alive.

Luke said that the news of Jesus’ resurrection seemed to the disciples “an idle tale.”  But it’s actually better than that.  The Greek word used here means “absolute nonsense” or “crazy talk.”  In fact, it’s the root of our word “delirious.”

Eventually, they came to believe.  A big part of that, I think, is that they spent time together.  Again, all four of the gospels mention the disciples being together a lot.  Sometimes hiding together when they are afraid, sometimes meeting in someone’s home, sometimes out fishing, sometimes eating together.  But they are together.  The community was very important.

The Church at its best gives a place to belong, a place to stand, a place to know we are home – even with all of our questions and uncertainty and doubt.  Sometimes, it might even be that when we have a hard time believing, others can believe for us and carry us along.  Like Audrey Assad said, “I still brush against the feeling that I don’t believe any of this, but the church always brings me back…”

There are those who are absolutely sure of everything and see doubt as weakness, who see doubt as sin.  But the Bible does not see it that way. 

Imagine a world with no doubts.  That means no questions.  That means no re-examining of things.  It means that we are stuck forever in the faith of our childhood.  If we don’t ask questions, if we don’t examine what we believe, if we are not allowed to have honest doubt, then we will never change, never learn, never grow.

I’m not sure what is behind this idea that Christians shouldn’t ever doubt.  Maybe it comes out of a spiritual one-upmanship, “my faith is stronger than your faith” attitude.  Maybe it is a way of reinforcing the power of authorities and institutions, who can say “Believe as you are told.”  I’m not sure where that comes from.

But I know this: Jesus, who asked questions much more than he gave answers, affirmed and welcomed everyone in all of their humanity, with all of their questions, and helped them to grow.  The Church is to be a place where questions are welcome.  It is a place where we care for and encourage one another as we journey together with Christ.  Our doubts and our questions are simply part of the journey.  Amen. 

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