The Rev. Charles Kutz-Marks preaching
David Heller's delightful little book, Dear God: Children's Letters to God. There are some observations particularly appropriate to today’s Gospel Lesson:
Dear God, What do you do with families that don't have much faith? There's a family on the next block like that. I don't want to get them in trouble, so I can't say who. See you in church. Alexis (age 10)
Then there is this one from a youngster who sees all the troubles of the world and wonders: "Dear God, I have doubts about you sometimes. Sometimes I really believe. Like when I was four and I hurt my arm and you healed it up fast. But my question is - if you could do this, why don’t you stop all the bad in the world? Like war. Like diseases. Like famine. Like drugs. And there are problems in other people’s neighborhoods too. I’ll try to believe more. Ian (age 10)”
“I’ll try to believe more”. That is an answer to the questions that many of us take early on in the spiritual journey. But things change as we grow spiritually.
This second stage, faith, is challenged time and again by the entrance of the critical mind. Faith is challenged by doubt. Doubt of some aspect of the faith may simply cause a little momentary reflection, or Doubt can be so searing as to cut down faith in its tracks.
Several years ago a Gallup poll study of religious attitudes in this country indicated that this is exactly the situation for many of the unchurched. This poll revealed that a staggering number of people avoid any association with a church because they are convinced that they will not find one in which they can explore their religious doubts freely.[iii]
A significant number of those who could foresee becoming an active member of a church said they were looking for things like;
... a church with good preaching;
...or a church whose members are seriously concerned to work for a
more just and peaceful and compassionate society;
...or one that has a good church school
...or an excellent choir
…But the desire for a community in which their doubts could be explored, was the factor which was ranked dramatically higher than any of the others.
How shall we deal with this reality of doubt?
First, let me say, that I do not believe it is hypocritical to belong to a church or attend worship and at the same time be a serious questioner. I am saddened that many feel that way. After all, (so this kind of reasoning goes), is not church for believers? For those who have resolved their doubts? Even the simple act of walking through the door of a church for worship seems like a clear enough affirmation of belief. Thus, those who hold serious doubts may then conclude that they do not belong in worship. In fact, they may come to feel that their very presence is a misleading statement about the true strength and character of their beliefs.
Paradoxically, participating in a worship service itself likely does nothing to relieve the tension between what we seem to say by our presence in church and what we actually believe in our hearts and minds. The truth is that often there are things that are said during worship that we may not fully accept. Affirmations are sometimes made that seem difficult, if not impossible, for some of us to believe.
- By virtue of printed unison prayers we can find ourselves addressing the God whom we may at times doubt even exists.
- Through hymns, we may find ourselves praising the acts of God that may seem for some of us on some days, improbable, at best.
- And even when the sentiment is correct, sometimes the language used in worship is –itself- a stumbling block. Is God really a He?
We will likely find it uncomfortable when during worship we are asked to say some of the very things about which we hold the most doubt.
Not surprisingly, we may begin to wonder if we are just hypocrites. We remember that Jesus threw some nasty barbs at the hypocrites of his day. But to be a hypocrite is to be engaged in some kind of willful deception. And this is usually not the case when we bring our doubts and yet still participate in worship...yearning for faith, and hoping for a living faith in God.
Some of the questions at the heart of our faith ask:
> Is it true that there is an amazing grace, an unearned love God offers
us which lies at the very heart of all of creation?
> Is it true that no one is outside the boundaries of such grace?
> Is it true that the way I treat other people is the way I treat God?
> Is it true that Jesus is still the clearest clue to the nature of God and
the meaning of my life that I have been given?
> Is it true that justice will one day prevail?
> Is it true that even though I don't feel God's presence, that actually I am not alone, that God is with me still?
Such are the questions that we may have once been able to answer “yes”, on occasion at least, but that must be asked and answered again and again.
So Sundays we come into the Sanctuary with a strange and heady mixture of faith and doubt. At the same time we come desiring that whatever faith we may bring might be addressed and nurtured in the midst of our doubts. This truth about faith better expressed in the words of the man who came to Jesus for help one day and said to him, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief." I would have substituted “faith” for “belief”, “Lord, I have faith, help me with my doubt.” It is not only possible to have faith and have doubts, at the same time, it is normal and to be expected. Thank God for doubt! Doubt is simply that component of faith which keeps faith honest.
We don't make faith strong by a willful blindness to everything which denies it. Rather, Christian faith comes into its full power only when it wrestles with doubt and overcomes doubt.
Do you remember Dostoevsky’s passionate declaration?
"It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ.
My 'hosanna' is born of a furnace of doubt."
University Christian Church has a strong tradition of welcoming pilgrims in various admixtures of faith and doubt along a broad continuum of theological perspectives. And that is as it should be.
When that day arrives in our individual faith journeys, we each may reach Wilber’s the third stage of the pyramid of knowing:
- beyond simple belief,
- beyond faith with all its inherent doubts,
- is another level of knowing... Wilber calls it experience. Other
writers have used the term, noetic experience. What we are speaking of here is some first-hand experience of the divine that is so powerful, so earth shattering, so absolutely spirit altering, that there is no turning back. It is reaching bedrock, so the person who is blessed with this experience has a secure foundation for faithful living. No one can successfully challenge another’s noetic experience. Consider
The Apostle Paul’s Damascus road experience, after which he was an unstoppable evangelistic force of nature, or as we heard last week;
Mary Magdalene’s experience of the Risen Christ outside of the Tomb. This was one of her noetic experiences. Her life was changed forever by it.
And today, our old friend, Thomas, Doubting Thomas, whose faith shaking doubt led him to honestly say, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ Thomas was blessed, finally blessed with his own unshakeable noetic experience, as well. He saw the Risen Christ. His exclamation, “My Lord and My God” shows that doubt is now banished. I’m confident that he never again doubted the central truth of the Gospel ever again. Legend has it that Thomas became the only Apostle who ventured beyond the vast Roman Empire to share the Gospel message. Thomas is venerated in the Church of South India as their founder, arriving there in 52 C.E.
May we all be blessed with our own noetic experience. May we be found in worship, even when wrestling with doubt, in order that the Spirit might find us... waiting and ready... for that next stage of the journey.
But in the meantime, a wholesome, healthy doubt that is the ants in the pants of faith, and may be just what we need to spur each of us on in our faithful living.
To God be the Glory. Amen.