Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for May, 2014

Love in the Matrix

John 14:15-21

That was a scene from the last movie of the Matrix trilogy, Matrix Revolutions. Neo, a human being played by Keanu Reeves, meets a family. This “family” is made up of all computer programs in the virtual reality called the matrix. The father, Rama-Kandra, tells Neo that he loves his his daughter, Sati, and his wife. Neo, a human, does not understand how a program could experience such an emotion like love. In case you missed it, the dialogue goes like this:

Neo: I just have never…
Rama-Kandra: …heard a program speak of love?
Neo: It’s a… human emotion.
Rama-Kandra: No, it is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?
Neo: Anything.
Rama-Kandra: Then perhaps the reason you’re here is not so different from the reason I’m here.

Neo is trapped in a train station between two worlds. Rama-Kandra, his wife, and their daughter, Sati, have made a deal to get out of this “in between” world. Sati, you see, is  a program without a purpose and will be deleted from the machine mainframe unless her parents can hide her. That is their goal of taking the train.

But Neo is puzzled, and rightly so.
Why would Rama-Kandra and his wife, two computer programs, care about just another computer program called Sati?

The answer is love, but Neo [like all of us] thinks love is a human emotion.

But as Rama-Kandra explains it, love is just a word. What matters is the meaning you attach to the word. Programs like him can experience a profound connection to each other, one that they use the word ‘love’ to describe.

Love is just a word.
What matters is the connection it implies.

In John’s Gospel, the last one written about Jesus, there is an extreme focus on love and connection not found elsewhere in the New Testament.

Why is that?

John’s community was scared, anxious, and uncertain.

So the words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth are words of comfort.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

What we see here as “advocate” and “spirit: is the Greek word parakletos, which literally means “one called alongside.” It is a word that is closely related to a familiar writing from the Hebrew Scriptures [the OT]—Psalm 23. Parakletos is much like the Hebrew word hacham [your rod and your staff, they comfort–hacham—me].

So we ought to see the various levels and meanings of this word and recognize that it is more than a word…

Because this spirit-advocate-comforter-truth will, as the Greek says, remain with them. The word remain is menei in Greek, the same word used to describe Jesus being in the Father, and the Father in him, and the Father in those who love.

When Jesus says that the disciples “know” the spirit, this [in John’s Gospel] means that they are in relationship. Abiding, being one, and knowing are all the same thing in John.

 This is about connection.

And this connection is called love.

And love is the opposite of fear.

And love is not limited to a place or to certain times.

Those who are connected to God’s love are connected to each other.

And they live out that connection in the world.

This gives them meaning.

It’s tempting to think that in our respective matrix [our world, our day-to-day routine], that love is a distant, hypothetical, fairy tale, an all-too-unrealistic idea. Love is reserved for romantic poems and sappy songs, wedding days, and sacred, religious books.

But we ought to stop trying to define love—at least the word—and we ought to find meaning in our connections to each other.

I’ve been thinking about this as the United Church of Christ recently sued the state of North Carolina and as the state where I live—Pennsylvania—just saw a judge, John E. Jones, III, declare unconstitutional PA’s Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA], which once prohibited same-sex marriage. This new legal order directs the state of Pennsylvania to allow same-sex couples to marry and to recognize valid out-of –state marriages.

I admit that it still shocks me that we even had to come this far.

Why so many people [and many of them in the church] feel that they have the authority to define what love is and looks like, and therefore, who can express that love in a marriage—is beyond me. After all, love and marriage are just two words we say to describe a strong, meaningful connection.

When the congregation I serve decided two years ago to become an Open and Affirming church, this move was both applauded and highly criticized. Many left the church leading up to the decision and shortly thereafter. Even the mere presence of a rainbow sign continues to anger and confuse people.

I am not surprised, because the debates and arguments are usually off-base. I still get lots of emails [and even phone calls] from people who do not know me or anyone in the congregation [or gay or lesbian people], but they just cannot understand how we can affirm same-sex unions or the LGBT community. They want proof of Jesus endorsing same-sex unions; they quote Bible passages left and right; they grasp at all kinds of theological straws to try to prove that somehow people like me are wrong about same-sex love being the same love.

And people wonder why most people my age or younger have little to no interest in Christianity or church?

We have become obsessed with defining words like love and marriage and church and have therefore lost our connection to Jesus and our connection to each other.

After all, that is what matters. Church has nothing to do with buildings or even religion.

Church is about people finding meaningful connections—connections to their Creator, and connections with people.

And anyway, if there is anyone who takes this Jesus of Nazareth seriously, all commandments wither away, cover their eyes, shrink, and fade in the face of the one commandment:

Love one another as I have loved you.

So, with that connection in mind, let’s stop trying to define love. It’s pointless.

Instead, let us be grateful for the love we have from our Creator, the love we see in the teachings and life of Jesus, and for the continued connection we have to that love because of spirit.

And then, let us close our mouths for a moment and open our arms and hearts; let us extend our hands; let us reach across gaps and barriers; let us embrace differences and pluralism; let us seek out connections with others.

Let us stop holding on to buildings, religious traditions, dogmas, and definitions.

After all, life in this matrix is not easy and we could all use more connection.

TheMatrixSo may our energies, time, and resources be used to build meaningful connections.

And in those connections, we will walk the path of love.

Asking Good Questions

John 14:1-14

Kids are great at asking questions. It’s true, and this constant inquiry helps children make sense of the world and also helps them figure out how to navigate the things happening all around them.

Studies show that when we are four or five years old, we ask the most questions. As we get older, we ask less and less questions.

I was thinking about this and it’s true—teachers, bosses, authority figures [even clergy]—do not really encourage us to ask more questions.

They want answers.

This is too bad, of course. Because as we get older, we are really just older kids. And questions can help us explore, be creative and innovative, and like the four-year-old, questions can help us to make sense of this crazy world and even navigate all the issues that come up.

To start asking questions again, we need to look around us and see the world with curious, observant eyes. We need to think like a child and actually find imagination and curiosity [even about things we think we already know]. And we’ve got to leave behind the attitude about “why” questions. “Why” questions may seem naïve or too childish. Why do we drink water out of glasses? Why do we refrigerate food? Why is the sky up and the ground down? Why am I breathing right now? Why, why, why?

But the why questions go deep and surpass conventional thinking and reach for opportunities that seem impossible and far away.

Why?

Okay, so I’ll admit that the why questions can get monotonous and the four-year-old can keep asking why as if she’s in a samsara circle, but you are the one suffering. Stop asking why!!!!!!

So perhaps good questions move from why to what if and how?

This is what Warren Berger argues in his book, A More Beautiful Question: the Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.

questionsberger

Berger writes that questioners can move forward on almost any problem or challenge by first trying to understand it [why is this a problem?]

Then, they imagine possible solutions [what if I approached the problem this way, or that way?] And finally, the questioner can try to figure out practical ways to turn the “what if” ideas into realities [how might I actually begin to make this happen?]

But it’s not about easy answers. Being thoughtful and productive in our questioning takes effort, time, lots of thought, and of course—experimenting, making mistakes, learning.[1]

I am convinced that the more we ask questions, the better we live.

Each time when we feel stuck in life, we have an opportunity to ask a question:

Why am I stuck?

It may sound superficial and be a “duh” kind of question, but ask it anyway.

And then:

What if…

This is when we imagine not being stuck. What does that look like and feel like?

And finally:

How can I make this happen?

The “this” is the imagined thing that can lift us out of our feeling stuck.

So we have to ask questions—even about things we think we know well.

And John 14 is a passage many people think they know well.

Before you say: But I don’t know this John 14 well at all! What does it say?

John 14 says this:

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.

Right. Any questions?

Sounds like a definitive answer, does it not?
Jesus is telling us [and the whole, wide world] that he is the one and that no one can find God except through him.

Here is the main argument for imperialistic Christianity in one sentence.
Here is the dominant religion throwing its weight around.

But I have a question.

If Jesus was giving an answer here, who asked a question?

Aha!

Thomas, question-asker-extraordinaire.

The John text actually reads: Jesus said to him.

To Thomas.

Thomas had heard Jesus’ pretty speech about going to the Father and preparing a house there so do not be troubled and blah, blah, blah, and I’ll prepare a nice studio apt. for you guys to hang out in and just believe it, okay?

But Thomas, like an inquisitive four-year-old, asks the where question that the other disciples were not willing to ask:

Jesus, where are you going?

At this point, are the other disciples looking around, dumbfounded, feeling embarrassed about Thomas’ stupid question?

WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!

Man, Thomas, wake up! Of course, Jesus is going…
Well, right. Where WAS Jesus going?

Uh, good question, Thomas.

These stories in the Gospels were written after Jesus died, so the author of course knew what was going to happen. Betrayal, arrest, death, burial, resurrection appearance.

But Thomas didn’t know, of course.
So the question was valid and it was wonderful.

Where are you going?

Give me a map, Jesus, because I want to go, too.
Or punch in the directions on my GPS.
Or Whatsapp me when you get there and take a pic of the place so I can find it.

Where are you going?

But Thomas’ next question is even better.

How can we know the way?

He is rewarded with a deep and impactful answer.

Just like when he said I am the good shepherd, Jesus answered Thomas by saying: I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Thomas, to answer your question, the where is not concrete.

It’s a way and not a destination.
It’s a truth and not an easy, comfortable solution.
It’s a life and not a fear-filled existence.

And you won’t find your way, truth, and life by looking at a map.
Just follow me there.

There’s a real connection here to the Hebrew Scriptures—specifically the book of Deuteronomy 1:33, which says: “the Lord goes before you on the way to choose a place.” Thomas and the disciples knew all about the story of Moses and the Israelites journeying to the Promised Land. This following Jesus thing was about the journey itself, and not really about the destination.

But meanwhile, another disciple, Phillip, opens his mouth, but does not ask a question. He says: Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.

Not really interested in following the way, seeking the truth, and living the life, are you, Phillip?
You see, Phillip could have learned from Thomas, as all of us should.

Ask a question, no matter how stupid or naïve or childish it sounds.

Ask a question!

So look—life is tough. It really is. There are situations that seem hopeless. There are problems that seem insurmountable. There are moments when we just want to give up.

So ask why questions. Ask like a child.

Then move to the what if.

Then, move to the how.

And expect deep, insightful, and challenging answers. Don’t expect cookie-cutter solutions and easy fixes. Expect creativity and innovation. Expect change. And expect a journey, a way, a path that leads to truths and a path that leads to life.

Friends, don’t stop asking questions.

 

 

[1] Berger, Warren, A More Beautiful Question, Bloomsbury, NY, 2014.

How to Love in a Scary Place

John 10:1-10     and     Psalm 23

A SIDE NOTE:
Not really sure why, but recently Rihanna’s song We Found Love has been in my head. I really don’t have any idea if her song has anything to do with what it makes me think about it. But I will just say that the phrase “We found love in a hopeless place” rings true for me. So listen, if you want, and then read the rest…

—————————————————————

You know what it feels like.

Your heart races out of control, beating so fast you cannot believe it.
The palms of your hands start to sweat.
You’re short of breath and you’re having trouble taking air in.
Your stomach turns in circles.
Your shoulders tense up and other muscles spasm uncontrollably.

You are afraid.

Fear is an emotion that directly affects our bodies and not just our minds. We, like animals, have a reaction built in to our systems called a fight or flight response. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

The fight or flight response is pretty helpful to animals and humans alike when real danger is present. Imagine a saber-toothed tiger or an angry, fire breathing dragon coming right at you.

sabretoothedtigerAn extra shot of adrenaline and quick thinking would be useful, right?

But honestly, most of us are not facing tigers and dragons. And unlike animals, who do face a lot of predators and other dangers quite often—our fight or flight response may not be helping us.

A little bit of fear might be helpful to keep us alert and motivated. But a lot of fear overcomes our common sense. Our judgment gets clouded and we get lost in that fear.

Neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz explains that

“in a time of crisis, you’re not thinking the way you normally do. You may find yourself acting before you even realize what you’re doing. When the brain is under severe threat, it immediately changes the way it processes information, and starts to prioritize rapid responses.”[1]

Sounds good if the tiger is bearing down on you, but most of us are not running from this kind of danger. So this fight or flight thing can lead to poor decisions. You can hear a loud noise and think that you’re in danger—even when that loud noise is a balloon popping. You can see a person who is approaching you on the street as a threat to you—even when he’s going to help you by letting you know that you dropped your wallet on the ground.

And even when your fight or flight response starts to calm down, the effects continue. Our coping mechanisms for fear are not the best. We often cope by wanting to sleep, taking drugs, binging on a variety of things, etc. And ironically, our fear can become chronic and more common, even in normal situations.

And we might as well call it anxiety now.

Most scientists talk about fear and anxiety interchangeably, even though they generally define the two terms like this:

Fear is a negative emotional state triggered by the presence of a stimulus (like a tiger) that has the potential to cause harm.

Anxiety is a negative emotional state in which the threat is not present but anticipated.[2]

So, simply put:
The fight or flight response of fear can keep us alive.

Anxiety can keep us from living.

And this is where we separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom—and not in a good way. All animals can detect and respond to danger—just like us.

But when it comes to anxiety, we are the champions.

We can actually anticipate danger and project danger onto situations that haven’t even happened yet. We’ve developed the ability to fear things that do not even exist today!

Pretty much all of us can attest to the fact that we’ve felt anxiety of some sort in our lives. Some of us have suffered from anxiety disorders that drastically affect everyday life. Having known many people who have suffered from anxiety, it is not something you “get over” and telling people to “calm down” won’t help either.

So I think that it’s good to talk about fear and anxiety in an authentic way so that no matter where we are in life, we can discover ways to really live.

Psalm 23 and John’s “Good Shepherd” story are two examples of scripture establishing something:

Fear is real, but love can overcome fear.

I don’t know whether you buy that or not, but let’s give it a try.

First, though, we have to realize that both the Psalm and the Gospel talk about sheep.

sheep
Let’s be honest–sheep aren’t always the greatest of metaphors for us as humans—or so we think. But sheep are not the zombies or robots that blindly follow anyone off a cliff or who just say baaaaah and then roll over on their back with their legs in the air.

Although that last thing sounds like fun.

The idea of the sheep metaphor is that sheep discern good voices from bad voices. In other words, they recognize when the caring, compassionate love-leading voice speaks to them and knows them by name. They filter out the dangerous voices that may try to harm them or lead them by using fear or manipulation.

Thinking like a sheep is being aware of those who love and care for you, and those who don’t.

In John’s community in Palestine, everybody knew about shepherds and sheep. Taking care of or tending sheep was just as it sounds. Shepherds took great care of their sheep. They indeed  called them by name. The sheep responded to the shepherd’s voice. At night, the shepherd led the sheep into a safe place.

So Jesus of Nazareth, in John’s Gospel portrayal, draws upon Hebrew stories and a cultural context of sheep to get his point across.

You see, John’s community knew all about fear.
Many were persecuted for their culture and religion in the new reality that was Roman rule. The 1st century was scary. So Jesus referred back to the book of Numbers to encourage his followers:

He would go out before them, come in before them, lead them, and bring them in.[3]

This would have been encouraging, because the disciples were worried about the “bad” shepherds or the “thieves and robbers” who would lead them to dangerous, scary places. In their context, even the leaders of the temple were scattering the sheep, robbing them of their money and dignity, and refusing to feed them.

But there’s a twist.

Not only will Jesus lead his followers into the sheepfold at night, but he will also lead them…OUT.

The sheepfold, where the sheep sleep at night [a place of safety], is not where they stay. They emerge from the sheepfold and into the scary world, but with new life.

They were led out by resurrection.

Jesus, in John’s Gospel, is the way of comfort and sustenance, abundance and strength, even in the face of death.

And the good shepherd way is the way of love and not fear.

Jesus’ followers, after his death, were learning how to love even when they were scared. They were learning how to be compassionate, even when times were tough. They were discovering how to call others by name, treat them with great care, heal and show them mercy— even when things were terrifying in the world.

Maybe that’s why the image of the good shepherd was trending more on Twitter than the image of the cross. People responded much better to the image of the compassionate, leading, loving shepherd. This was carved on walls and catacombs.

good-shepherd

The good shepherd was bigger than the cross.
The way of love was stronger than the way of fear.

I wish the image of the good shepherd were more prominent than the cross.

That’s right–I said it.

Frankly, religion has become so much about fear these days.

And why?
So certain voices can manipulate, oppress, harm, and scare.

Friends, the fear and anxiety can hinder us. We can become convinced that the world’s empty offer of quick relief from scary things is worth our time and energy. So we sell out to fear and anxiety that can lead to prejudice, isolation, and even violence.

But we shouldn’t listen to those voices, because they actually don’t care about our humanity.
Anytime we make decisions based on fear and anxiety it does not work out well.

Anytime we judge someone because we’re afraid we allow prejudice to creep in.
Anytime we close doors out of fear we miss opportunities to open them.

So let us walk the way of love instead. Don’t give your time, attention, or energy to fear. Instead, give your time, attention, and energy to loving action.

And don’t dwell on scarcity. Instead, learn to think and talk and act as someone who is grateful. And generous.

Following the lead of the good shepherd is not ignoring fear—it is facing fear, but with love. This is resurrection.

Think about compassion, practice empathy, live gratefully.

Be love.

Help others find love in a hopeless place.

 

[1] Szalavitz, Time.

[2] “Searching the Brain for the Roots of Fear”, the NY Times, JOSEPH LEDOUX, January 22, 2012.

[3] Num 27: 16-18.

Walking Forward

Luke 24:13-35

Watch this Israeli filmmaker walking forward, yet backwards….

This creative illusion is an example of two things:

How what we see can play tricks on us [depending on our conditioning]

Walking forward, even when it’s actually walking backward…is moving.

Look, if any of us are healthy enough to walk—we should walk, and as much as possible. If we know someone who physically cannot walk, we ought to walk with that person, pushing his/her chair or whatever they need to get around. Walking helps us to notice things around us.

Walking is not just a physical act, though—it’s a metaphor for life.
Life is a journey and we walk on that journey.

At times, we journey through harsh storms and incredibly low moments.
Other times on the journey, we walk in joy and gratitude.
Sometimes the journey is confusing and we’re not sure where to walk.
And at times, life can get so heavy and so overwhelming that we decide to stop walking all together.

But there is a story, I think, that can give us some rich perspective about our journey in life.

It’s Luke’s walking to Emmaus story.

This particular account only appears in Luke’s gospel and features two mysterious characters who meet another mysterious character on the road to a town called Emmaus. So where was Emmaus? Most scholars believe it was about 7 ½ miles Northwest of Jerusalem.[1] Two followers of Jesus of Nazareth were on their way there from Jerusalem where they had just celebrated the Passover. Maybe Emmaus was their home?

But who in the heck were these people anyway?

Good question.

Many believe that they were among “the rest” that Luke 24:9 mentions and so they were not part of the eleven remaining disciples. In fact, the only clue we’re given as to their identity is the name of one of them—Cleopas.

Yet, it’s not much of a clue, because Cleopas is not mentioned in the other gospels at all.

So who is the other person? Do we assume that he was a man? If we believe that Cleopas was walking to his home in Emmaus with his companion, was it their home? Maybe they were family. It’s up for grabs, folks, who the other person [male or female] was.

It gets even more interesting if you consider that this New Testament story seems similar to an Old Testament story in Genesis.
Abraham and Sarah, in their walking story, discover three angels in Genesis 18, i.e. the presence of G-d. They, like the two mysterious disciples of Jesus, do not recognize who it is they are with.

Or perhaps it’s better to say that both Abraham and Sarah, and the two disciples had their eyes closed.
And so they couldn’t see what they were walking past or with whom they were walking.

Deep depression can do that to us, right? Confusion, or just being in a hurry, or desperation.

Anxiety, anyone?

ohnoJesus was dead and so was their dream of something changing.
So they couldn’t see any present or future that had hope or promise.
I think they probably dragged their feet.
I think they were not walking forward.

Even when this mysterious stranger is telling them the whole story about what happened before, during, and after the events of the cross at Golgotha—they still didn’t seem to wake up.

You see, like most of us, when we’re really, really down on ourselves and the world, they didn’t hear hope in anyone’s story, really. They could not see it, either. Cleopas’ disappointment and nostalgia is obvious when he tells the “stranger” his side of the story…with a lot of impatience, it seems.

It’s not until they hear this word:

Fools!

That they wake up.

At least, in English, it’s fools.
Perhaps a better translation would be weak.[2]

The two of them wake up a bit when they realize that they are weak.

Not weak because they were sad or frustrated or angry. This is not weakness. They were weak because they had sold their hope and left behind their joy in exchange for nostalgia and misguided expectations.

And yet, then they make it to Emmaus, they invite the stranger into their home and offer great hospitality.

This is when I think the change happened.

Cleopas and his companion could have laughed in the face of the stranger, paid no attention to him, left him alone, and then gone home to try to forget the whole thing.

But they didn’t.
They walked forward with the stranger and not only that–they opened up their home and shared a meal with him.
The stranger shocked them, though, when he sat at the head of the table and took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.

Flashback!

Jesus of Nazareth…he’s back!
Or was he?

Just after their eyes were opened, Jesus was gone again.

Here’s what I like about this story—it is not your typical resurrection appearance, at least how we are conditioned to view resurrection. Often we become so separated from resurrection stories because we feel that they have to be supernatural like something out of comic book or a sci-fi movie.

jesuspeepsSorry–I just cannot resist the “risen Jesus” with peeps pic to illustrate the point.

We feel that we have to have some incredible religious or spiritual experience to “see” Jesus or G-d, and so when we don’t, we stop believing in resurrection.

And then it’s really tempting to journey through life like a robot and never see meaning or hope; to ignore or miss beauty all around us; to keep walking forward when your feet hurt and your head is full of fear and anxiety and you just don’t see anyone walking with you at all.

But here’s the thing—we don’t know who these two disciples were, and I think that’s on purpose.

They could be anyone, of any gender, of any sexual orientation, of any cultural background, of any social level or walk of life.

Jesus or G-d or the Spirit or however you refer to the Divine Presence—this Divine does not appear to people in the same way.
Regardless of what we try to formulate in our doctrines and theologies, the thing is—everyone has a different experience with faith.

The merciful, hopeful thing in this story, at least for me, is that G-d seems to be whatever and wherever people need G-d to be.

Sure, we can try to define G-d and how G-d appears, but come on…

A person suffering from deep depression finds Jesus in a friend who has coffee with him and listens to his story.

Another sees G-d in a child who smiles and laughs with someone who is very sad, and then that sad person breaks down and starts laughing, too.

Somebody else sees Jesus when the rent is due and there’s no money and then someone just decides to help with no strings attached.

The Spirit is seen and heard when a fifteen-year-old stands up against bullies who constantly abuse her gay classmate.

The Creator is present in the decisions of people to choose justice over money, love over convenience, and community over isolation.

You see, walking forward and believing in resurrection does not mean that everything is great and Jesus wipes away all your suffering and problems.

Walking forward is recognizing that suffering is real.

Resurrection is life after death, so…new life rises from the ashes.

When we suffer, that’s not the end of the journey.
When we don’t know where our destination is, we shouldn’t go back.
We should walk forward, and if someone needs help walking, we should walk with her.

Either way, we won’t walk alone.
We’re meant to see that the Divine Presence appears in many ways to many people.

How will your eyes open to that this week?
With whom will you walk?
To whom will you show hospitality?

Journey on.

 

[1] Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Bible Commentary.

[2] Barnes New Testament Notes.

Embracing Doubt and Breathing Life

John 20:19-31

philomena fieldThe movie Philomena is based on the 2009 investigative book by British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] correspondent Martin Sixsmith, entitled, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench, is an older woman searching for her long-lost son. When Philomena was a young woman living in an Irish-Catholic community, she gave birth to the baby boy, only to have the child taken from her at an early age. The nuns sold the boy to a U.S. couple for adoption.

Philomena was forced, according to church doctrine, to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any sort of inquiry into her son’s whereabouts. But Philomena never stopped thinking about her son, and so thus, when she meets Martin Sixsmith [played by Steve Coogan], and he wishes to publish and investigative report of her story, the two of them embark on a quest to find her son.

Here is a clip from the movie:

The film and story of Philomena includes a rigorous examination of faith and belief. Philomena and Martin were both raised Roman Catholic, but Martin is an atheist and Philomena holds on to her beliefs about the church and her faith in God. Martin is perplexed by this, considering all the great evils that were done to Philomena and countless others by the church, in the name of God. How could someone who knew of all the evils of the church continue to be so steadfast?

It is worth watching—at the very least, to stimulate thought and conversation about two words:

Faith and Belief

Most people often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is:

Why do people believe in God?

Most people assume that belief comes before action and therefore explains choices. So, in other words, you believe something first; that belief causes you to do something.

But in fact, most people, when thinking about belief, are off-base.

Let me explain.

Belief is a principle, a proposition, an idea that you accept as true. It could be an opinion, a religious doctrine—whatever.

Case in point: close your eyes, everyone.
Imagine the color green.

Now red.

Now yellow.

Now…magenta.

How about saffron?

I cannot get inside your head and actually see how you imagined those colors, but I can tell you this:

All of us imagined the colors a bit differently.

Your green may have been darker or light than mine. Your yellow may have been closer to red or orange. Your magenta and your saffron? It depends on whether or not you ever “saw” those colors in a book, in a painting, or used that particular crayon.

This is belief. You were taught and conditioned. This is what you believe.

Belief is what we think we know to be true.

Okay, now faith. This is trust or confidence in something or someone without necessarily having concrete evidence.

The Greek language of the New Testament of the Bible seems to use these words faith and belief interchangeably. But in this case, prepositions matter.

We can believe a million things about something or someone.

But how much do we have faith in something? How much do we trust?

That is why I argue that we have to be very careful about belief, because people can believe anything! And sometimes, like in the case of Philomena, extreme, stubborn belief in something can lead to awful behavior.

But faith, on the other hand, isn’t about being stubborn.
Why? Because faith is mixed with doubt.

Let me say that again.

Faith is mixed with doubt.

Theologian Frederick Buechner once said:

Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.[1]

I love that! Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.

So with ants in our pants, let’s explore Thomas’ story.

doubting-thomas-cartoon

Jesus died recently. The disciples are locked up behind closed doors, hiding from the authorities. But keep in mind that the male disciples were more scared than the female disciples who were brave enough to visit Jesus’ tomb. Who were they scared of? Well, the Judean authorities and the Temple aristocracy, and perhaps the Romans, too. They were so scared, in fact, that they did not believe Mary Magdalene’s story about meeting the Jesus with a green thumb [i.e. a gardener].

Lucky for them, Jesus appears. Jesus greets them with Peace be with you, which as I’ve mentioned before, really means shalom, which means wholeness as a gift of God. Then Jesus shows his hands and side. They rejoice because they see him. Then he breathes on them. After the breath that resembles the Creator breathing life into humanity, Jesus talks about forgiveness.

I like this translation of verse 23 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

 If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good.

If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?

Seems to be Jesus telling the disciples to stop being afraid. Seems like faith, in this sense, is about unlocking the doors and going outside.

But then again, John’s Gospel story is yet to introduce Thomas.

Yes, Thomas, was outside the locked doors, like the women were, and so he did not see this Jesus appearance. And Thomas was not one to believe something just because everyone else did. He was a skeptic. He knew that Jesus died. Why would he believe something that these scared guys told him? They were most likely delusional.

Then John’s story skips ahead; it’s a week later.

Jesus magically walks through a wall again and repeats the wholeness blessing. But then Jesus talks to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side. But he doesn’t’ do it. Instead, the skeptic Thomas says: My Lord and my God!

Jesus closes with:

Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

And don’t miss the last part of John’s story, reminding us to whom this Gospel is addressing.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

a: or continue to believe

e: or Christ

The story is for all the skeptics—the ones who don’t see and don’t believe.

This is a story of faith, because after the resurrection appearances, these women and men were supposed to live resurrected lives themselves. They had faith in the presence of G-d, faith in the power of love to conquer even hate and death.

And even so, these people were so full of doubt.

I really, really like the Thomas story.

But I really, really dislike how many people misquote it and push belief on other people—telling them that this bad thing happens or this will happen to them if they don’t believe a certain thing.

Or, you know, if you are struggling or suffering….

Just have more faith!

But Faith isn’t something to possess.

Belief—sure, you can possess that. It’s what your mind has been conditioned and taught, so yes—your beliefs are in your head and are yours.

But faith is spiritual—beyond doctrines, words on a page, well outside the locked, closed doors of the church!

Faith is trust in and feeling of and action performed.

I myself find great inspiration in the 5th Gospel, ironically called The Gospel of Thomas. It was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The author and exact date of the Gospel of Thomas is still being researched, but it most certainly is an early Christian writing. It contains only sayings of Jesus. Let me close with two of them, related to faith and belief.

His disciples said, “When will you appear to us, and when will we see you?” Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample then, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.”

Jesus said, “If two make peace with each other in this one house, they will say to the mountain, ‘Move Away,’ and it will move away.”[2]

Friends, don’t get caught up in belief.

Embrace the doubts you have. Embrace the living that is breathed into all.

May your faith and spiritual practice move you to peaceful, loving, and compassionate action in the world.

 

[1] Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking

[2] Gospel of Thomas, Sayings 37 and 48.

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