Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘skeptic’

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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