Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘doubt’

Are You Sure?

John 20:19-29

yesnomaybeWe are all unique and thus, the ways we see the world vary. There is one thing, however, that we can all probably agree upon. At some point, all of us have had moments when we doubted. You know what I mean—it can even be simple. You are in the grocery store and you’re staring at twenty different kinds milk and you’re just not sure which one you should purchase.

milkchoicesAlmond? Coconut? Soy? Low fat, skim, whole, organic? And which brand? So you stare and stare at the milks and the doubt creeps in. People keep walking by and giving you weird looks, but they just don’t understand. Too many milks! Because of their leering gaze you rush to finally decide on unsweetened almond milk, but as you collapse exhausted in your car you’re honestly not really sure that you made the best choice.

Okay, so that’s a superficial example, but there are obviously many, many examples that are much deeper and important. Have you ever doubted some of the bigger decisions like which school should I attend? Should I quit my job and start fresh? Should I move? Should I make myself vulnerable with this person, not knowing if they will accept my feelings or reject them? Should I date, should I get married, should I have kids? Should I get divorced? Should I come out to my parents and coworkers? Should I ever do any of these things? Doubt is part of life. It is part of our human makeup.

When we doubt, we question things. And people. It’s not about always having a conspiracy theory for everything, though, it’s critical thinking. When we ask how did something come to be or how did I get this idea we are engaging our brains in an active dialogue that leads to growth and perspective. Doubt also helps us see the bigger picture and initiates progress, because when we doubt, we question the current state of things and wonder: can it get better than this? It’s questioning the status quo.

Of course, there is such a thing as healthy and unhealthy doubt. Unhealthy doubt, according to psychologists and behavioral therapists, is driven by anxiety and moods. It’s kneejerk. It demands absolute certainty and is not supported by sense evidence. It is often self-defeating. Feelings are accepted as facts, even if actual facts contradict our feelings. Unhealthy doubt is about “what if” scenarios—most likely imagining the worst-case scenario.

Healthy doubt, on the other hand, asks questions and searches for evidence in a scientific manner, rather than being driven by anxiety or moods. When no solid evidence is found, skepticism ends and there is not an attempt to override it.  Healthy doubt is relaxed and reasonable.

skepticism-is-healthy-doubt-when-faced-with-lack-of-credible-8760996So let’s pause for a moment. Ask yourself: can I think of examples of times when I have doubted in an unhealthy way? Can I think of times when I doubted in a healthy way?

And now, a story all about doubt—both unhealthy and healthy.

The author of the Gospel of John tells us that it was evening, just after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and all the doors of Jesus’ best friends were locked. They were afraid, anxious, and locked up. They doubted, most likely, all of what they had seen and heard with their teacher Jesus. Would the Roman authorities come for them next?

Unhealthy doubt closed their doors. But Jesus offered them something else—peace. Shalom, wholeness be yours. Then he breathed on them to remind them to forgive each other and move forward. They saw his wounded hands and side. Apparently, they needed to see.

But someone was missing. Thomas. Oft-called doubting Thomas wasn’t locked up. He was out. And he didn’t see Jesus appear, didn’t hear the double shalom, didn’t see the hands and side, didn’t get breathed on and told to forgive. And so, knowing that his colleagues were scared, anxious, and doubtful, Thomas refused to believe them without evidence. Why should he? Prove it.

Then, it was a week later.
Thomas was there with the others and Jesus appears. Shalom again, but directly to Thomas, telling him to reach out and touch the wounded hands and side. And Thomas decided to not touch anything.

In my view, Thomas engaged in healthy doubt, while his friends did not. He used the scientific method to arrive at evidence. He did not accept anxious, fearful conclusions and rationalizations. He asked: How do I know that this is really my teacher Jesus? And by asking that, he opened up to a healthy doubt that led to wholeness and growth.

So let’s ask the questions again: when have you doubted in an unhealthy way? And now, when have you doubted in healthy ways?

Room in the Tomb, Room for Doubt

John 20:19-29

empty-easter-basket-green-grass-white-13295986The tomb is still empty. Really, it is.
The peeps have been eaten [or at least mostly eaten], the baskets emptied of their sugary substances and plastic grass, and the Easter egg hunts are a distant memory. It’s the week after, and the tomb is still empty.

candyComaIn Luke’s Gospel story, a group of women discovered an empty tomb and no body, and two guys in shiny, white clothes [apparently part of some Elvis impersonator caravan]. And they were happy, because they were told that Jesus was no longer dead in the tomb. So they rushed to their friends the disciples, and told them, and were met with sarcasm and rebuttal. They were called foolish. Only one of the men, Peter, decided to make his way to the tomb, and of course, when he did, it was empty.
Now we shift to John’s story, so put on your seatbelts. We’re not in Luke-Kansas anymore!

John sets the stage for us and says that it’s evening, and all the doors of the disciples’ house are locked. They were afraid, not of the Jews in general [because that would include most of them], but afraid of the religious and political authorities who they felt were out there looking for any followers of this Jesus of Nazareth who had died. Add to that the fact that the body of Jesus had gone missing, and well, the disciples didn’t want anything to do with that. They were keeping their heads down.

But, in the all-of-a-sudden, freaky-John style, Jesus appears out of nowhere. He says: Shalom, peace be with you, and then shows them his hands and his side. The disciples are happy about this whole seeing Jesus again thing. This was pretty cool. After all, to this point, they had done nothing but deny, run away, and betray. And then they locked themselves inside their house after the women disciples told them that the body was missing. And now. Jesus was here! Great.

Like a broken record, Jesus says Shalom again. And: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
Then Jesus breathes on them [though I don’t imagine some weird, awkward breathing like when you eat garlicy food and want your friend to smell your breath].

bad-breath4

I imagine a more symbolic sort of breath like in Genesis’ creation story. A breath that gives life or purpose. Perhaps a breath to help them remember? The women already did remember the things that Jesus said and did. But these disciples, because they were afraid, had forgotten.  Well, here comes the answer to our question about the whole breathing thing, because John’s author tells us that Jesus then said:

Receive the Holy Spirit. And forgive.
In that breath is God’s Spirit and that Spirit is one of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Anyone at this point wondering if this whole forgiveness part was needed by these particular disciples? I mean, really, their track record wasn’t all that great. I wonder if that statement about forgiving others was also about forgiving themselves. Either way, we’re not given much time to think about it, because the most interesting disciple outside of Mary Magdalene [in my opinion], takes center stage.

Thomas!

thomastrain

And not the train!
Thomas, the doubter! Yes! Welcome back! How we missed you…

First, he’s called Thomas the twin, and here’s what I will say about that. He has no named twin so, you and I could very likely be his twin. That’s literary device at its best. We are meant to be with Thomas here.
He didn’t see Jesus appear, He didn’t hear the double shalom, he didn’t see the hands and side. He didn’t get breathed on or told to forgive. He was out.
Was Thomas less afraid than the others?
Or was he just unlucky?
We don’t know. But we do know that Thomas was not buying this whole “we’ve seen the Lord” thing. Yeah right. These fearful, cowering men had seen Jesus? Prove it.

The story flips forward about a week later.

Well, this time Thomas is there with the others and Jesus appears again. Peace be with you again, but then Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side—not just to see them. But Thomas doesn’t touch anything. After only seeing, he makes a proclamation: My Lord and my God! It’s a statement of allegiance, because this same phrase was said to Caesar by his loyal Roman subjects at that time.

And then Jesus says: Have you [trusted] because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to [faith].

I changed belief in both cases to trusted and faith due to a confusing translation from Koine Greek to English. I’ve mentioned this before, but often in our English Bibles, the word belief appears, and in my opinion, it is a lazy/Western biased translation that does not take into account the many possible meanings and nuances of the original word.

Belief is absolute certainty in something that you know to be true and is not at all tied to spirituality or religious practice—at least it wasn’t until much, much later in history. Trust and faith, however, are two words that appear often in the New Testament and carry with them much larger meanings than just believing that something is true.

I’ve come across so many people who assume that because I am a Christian, I believe this or that or the other thing, or what that thing says on TV or what that person says, and with complete certainty. Of course, when I tell them that I don’t believe in more than half of the stuff they said do, they are confused.

Why?
Because many people, including Christians, assume that faith is belief.
As I’ve mentioned before, the word faith in John’s Gospel is a verb, not a noun.
Faith is not just an idea in your head about a certain thing [whether it’s true or false]. Faith is more like an orientation of your whole self. If someone “faiths” something, she puts her whole self into it—mind, body, and spirit. Faith includes trust.
So as we’re standing in the empty tomb, left to wonder what happened, or if we find ourselves in Thomas’ shoes, doubting the whole thing, is that so bad?

No, of course not. Doubt is goooooood……

Have you ever thought [or said]:

I’m going through a time in which I don’t think God exists.

Do you feel guilty or strange about it? Well don’t! Embrace that thought.

In Brian McLaren’s recent book, Finding Faith, he says that his doubts keep him moving and that doubt can be a doorway to spiritual and personal growth. In terms of his own personal thoughts about God, McLaren has “sifted and re-sifted, and some beliefs [he’s] had to release, while others have proven themselves as ‘keepers.’”[1]

I don’t think doubt is really the problem. I think an unwillingness to question belief is a problem, because consider: isn’t holding onto a belief out of a sense of false security a very dangerous concept? I would say, look around the world, and the answer is a big, fat, YES.

Because if we’re convinced that doubt is “bad” and not something so common, we don’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or misjudgments. Instead, our so-certain belief system becomes a rigid, intolerant and self-righteous existence.

Freedom to doubt, however, helps us to deepen, clarify, and even explain certain aspects of our spirituality and of our day to day lives.

So friends, there is room for your doubt and plenty of it. Embrace it and allow it to challenge certain belief systems and perspectives that may be doing you harm. From experience, I can tell you that if you do that honestly and at your own speed, like Thomas you will encounter healing, reconciliation, and a rejuvenated enthusiasm for more exploration.

Thanks, Thomas.

We all needed that.

[1] Brian McLaren “Doubt: The Tides of Faith”

 

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.

Seeing Butterflies

John 20:1-18

 

The monarch butterfly is an amazing creature.

lone_Monarch.jpegEvery year hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies go on a great journey of up to 3000 miles in their annual migration from Canada and the United States to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

monarchswarm Once they arrive in Mexico, the monarchs congregate in the oyamel fir trees in the Mexican states of Michoacán and Mexico.

Monarch butterfly wintering colony 30MONARCH

 Along their journey, the monarchs travel at an average speed of 12 mph (but sometimes get up to 30 mph); they travel 80 miles a day. They fly at heights of up to 2 miles. How does this once-hungry-caterpillar-turned-monarch know how to find its way to its wintering grounds? Scientists still don’t know exactly how they do it.

It’s a mystery.

It is a resurrection story.

And that’s why more people go to a Christian church of some sort on Easter Sunday–for a resurrection story?
If you did do that, turns out you’re not alone.

According to the Pew Foundation and Google Trends data, more United Statesians search for the word “church” around Easter than at any other time.

While the highest share of searches for “church” are on the week of Easter Sunday, the lowest share of searches occur on the week of Thanksgiving each November. The second lowest search for “church” occurs in the summer months.

So if you went to an “Easter” service, did you hear a resurrection story?

Let’s revisit one—from John’s Gospel.

And who will be the main character?

Jesus?

It’s Mary Magdalene.

I guess this is reason # 12,124 why the church’s historical [and present] holding back of women is inexplicable and inexcusable. It’s clear in this resurrection story that Mary’s gender doesn’t hold her back. She is the first to go to the tomb, to see that Jesus’ body was not there, and she is the one who shares the important information with the other disciples.

Mary Magdalene is worried, though. After seeing the stone rolled away and the body gone—she worries if the body had been stolen and what would be the impact of such a thing?

Grave desecration; awful.

You see, Jesus’ followers had planned to make that Jesus of Nazareth tomb into a shrine. People would visit it from near and far and pay homage to him and pray, and remember his teachings. But now…?

So Mary goes and tells the others and then they go to the tomb and say that they believe; but what do they really believe? They don’t believe all that Mary said. They only believe that the body is gone and that this is a problem because then how will they make this place a religious shrine and now…great! What are they going to do about it? They don’t believe in resurrection. They are depressed.

So the story keeps following Mary. She’s outside the tomb, still crying, and two angels appear to her. None of the disciples with her have a clue that this is happening. Mary herself doesn’t recognize them as angels. And even after the angels tell her that Jesus’ body was not stolen but that he is actually alive, she doesn’t buy it. She cries and cries some more and still wonders who stole the body.

Then John’s Gospel gives us a literary treat. Jesus himself appears to Mary as a gardener; she still does not recognize him. Why? She is not looking for him. There is no way that Jesus her teacher could be alive, so why would she look for him? She’s looking for a missing dead body, remember?

Jesus calls her by name, [in the original language of the NT], calling her Mary, not merely woman. Hearing her own name, Mary realizes what’s up. She then calls Jesus teacher, a title of great respect. Mary is awake now. She is no longer thinking about a missing dead body but instead sees her teacher Jesus in a new way.

Do not hold on to me, says her teacher.

Go to my brothers, says her teacher.

And Mary goes and tells the others.

And the resurrection story ends—that is, if you only read it/hear it on Easter Sunday.

But I’m not convinced at all that story ever ended.
Consider: why do you think the risen Jesus says: Don’t hold on to me, Mary?
Was she clinging tightly to his feet, impressed and overwhelmed by the moment?
Or was she clinging to the Jesus of Nazareth she knew before—present in a body, limited to a time and place?

It was time for Mary to let go of the Jesus she knew.

He was indeed alive, but not the same.
And this was important and challenging news for Mary to take in.
It was important, challenging, and also good news for her to share.

It remains important, challenging, and good news for us to live.

The importance is there in the story of the caterpillar—this slow creature that travels only a few feet at a time, and then gets its cocoon on and becomes a butterfly. As a monarch, this new creature can fly thousands of miles. What a change.

A few feet to thousands of miles.

Crawling and inching on the ground and on leaves to…flying in the air.

This is change.
This is metamorphosis.
This is resurrection.

That is important, but it’s also challenging.
Because we often think that we cannot change even a little, much less a lot.
Perhaps its stubbornness or habits built up over time or just being jaded and conditioned by life experience.
Whatever the case, we’re not sure that we can undergo a metamorphosis.

We’re just not convinced that we can experience resurrection.

Maybe it is because, if you’re like me, someone rising from the dead in body and mind, is stuff for movies and science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories.

But not real life.

So the good news…

I don’t think you have to fully believe that a dead Jesus of Nazareth emerged from a tomb in bodily form and was alive again.

People keep arguing about what is doctrinally true about these resurrection stories, but no one gets it right.

In the end, friends, we should not push our brains to the side every time we read the Bible just so we can accept a religious belief.

Why?

Because resurrection won’t happen in your life because you buy into a doctrinal statement.

There is plenty of room for skeptics here.

We’ll have to see butterflies, though.

We’ll have to believe in resurrection here on the ground, on this earth, though.

We’ll have to see change in ourselves and in the lives of others. We’ll need to pay attention to the resurrection and new life in nature.

So pay attention to the important, challenging, and good news.

Do you think that you can go from squirming around slowly to spreading your wings?

Do you think that it is possible to break your routine, recharge in a cocoon, and emerge fully alive?

Each of us are caterpillars at some point, and then we’re butterflies. And then we die and then we live again. And then we’re caterpillars again. And then butterflies.

Each and every day that life cycle begins and ends.

So will you see butterflies all around you?

Will you embrace new life in the natural world and in the people you meet?

Jesus said: don’t hold on to me.

So don’t hold back.

Change, resurrect, live.

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