The Core Week Three - "Challenging Growth"
Over the course of the last two weeks, we've explored the first two of what we call "The Five Things," the core values of our church. The Five Things are: Worship, Pray, Grow, Love and Serve.
We've been working on a very basic premise throughout this entire series: "We are made of what we value." This isn't just a metaphor, as it turns out. As we've learned, the tens of trillions of atoms that make us us are being exchanged with other things and other people at the rate of billions per second. And this exchange of energy affects us in very real ways.
Which explains why being surrounded by negativity, darkness, depravity, sadness and the like has a negative affect on our mood, our outlook and even our physical well-being.
And it also explains why surrounding ourselves with beauty, truth, hope, peace and love has the exact opposite affect. The Apostle Paul, who wrote half of the New Testament in the Bible once wrote about this very thing--"Whatever is pure and lovely... think on these things," he exhorted the early Church. Despite having no idea what quantum physics was, Paul knew that we are truly made of what we value.
So when we say that "we are made of what we value," we mean this literally.
This week in the third installment of our sermon series, "The Core," we'll be exploring the third of our church's core values: Grow.
One of the things that I've noticed as a pastor is that people have a difficult time committing to group Bible studies. We have nearly 700 members in our church and I would venture to say that less than 10% of us are actively engaged in a regularly scheduled Bible study with other living human beings. If we asked how many people regularly read their Bibles and conducted studies on their own, the number would increase--but probably not that much.
Listen, we all have really good reasons why we don't regularly engage in learning more about our faith: We're busy, tired, too old, too young...
But if we're being honest, one of the biggest reasons that keeps us from making spiritual growth a priority is one that we probably aren't even aware of...
You see, I believe that one of the biggest impediments to spiritual growth is when we think that faith and doubt cannot coexist.
I asked a lot of questions when I was a kid in Sunday school. I remember at around the age of four I was staring at a flannel-graph depiction of the Nativity and I thought to myself--"That looks too clean to be in a barn, and where is there a potty?" So I asked, "Where did Jesus go to the bathroom?"
I suppose the correct answer would have been: "In his swaddling clothes." But I digress.
As I got older, there were other things that bothered me. I remember being in elementary school and asking one of my teachers, "So if there weren't any other human beings other than Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel... And Cain killed Abel... and then it says that Cain leaves and goes and takes a wife... Where did Cain's wife come from?"
Yeah. Good question, right?
When I was in Middle school I remember asking "Okay--Jonah couldn't have been swallowed by a whale, because whales don't have the capacity to swallow a human being... So--it had to be a really big fish, and if it was a fish... How did Jonah keep from suffocating or being digested by stomach acid if he was in the fish's stomach for three days?"
Come on... you've wondered that, too.
Then I remember asking my youth director in high school, "Listen--I did some quick calculations and I am pretty sure that the ark that Noah built wasn't big enough to hold even one fifth of the millions and millions of species of animals, bugs, reptiles, birds, amphibians and such... So where did they go?"
By the time I got around to asking that question... I was pretty tired of the lame answers I was getting. And I was also tired of hearing:
"Well---you just need to believe."
I decided that if the faith that I was supposed to be embracing wasn't able to hold up under the weight of my doubts---I didn't really need to embrace that faith anymore. So I didn't. I walked away from it.
What I wished was that someone had told me what I am about to tell you today: that Faith and Doubt not only can coexist, but they also must coexist in order for Faith to persevere and spiritual growth to happen.
There is a story in the Gospel of John that I think is perfect for our discussion today. It's the story of one of Jesus' disciples and how he came to embrace faith in the midst of his doubts. It's a story about a man who has been unfairly nicknamed, "Doubting Thomas."
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Thomas. When I was a kid I remember hearing his story as a morality tale--an exposition against uncertainty when it comes to faith. But when you actually read the text--you see something else.
Thomas was the only one of the disciples who spoke up when Jesus was heading back to Jerusalem all the way back in John 11. He said to his the others, "Let us go to Jerusalem and die with him." Does that sound like someone who has a problem with faith?
I think Thomas felt left out. He wasn't included in the moment of revelation when all the other disciples experienced the Risen Savior. His doubts are well-founded. "Why wasn't I included? Is there something wrong with me? Doesn't he care about me at all?" And so he makes a rash statement. "Unless I see for myself and touch where his wounds were---I will not believe."
And then Jesus leaves him hanging and lets him twist in the wind for the rest of his life because he didn't have any faith.
Nope. Jesus shows up. He appears in the middle of a locked room and then invites Thomas to take his finger and touch the wounds on his hands. And then--and this is kind of gross--he invites him to take his hand and to plunge it into his side and dig around. That's how it literally translates.
Of course Thomas doesn't need to do any of those things despite the fact he had vowed he would need such evidence in order to believe. Jesus doesn't leave Thomas to twist in the wind. He meets the conditions for his belief with himself. He offers himself to Thomas.
Jesus gives Thomas what he needs for faith. He doesn't punish him for having doubts.
I love what he says to him in verse 27 literally translated: "Stop becoming unbelieving and get on with becoming believing." Isn't that awesome? No condemnation. No accusation. Just a whole lot admonition and a heaping helping of reconciliation.
We love to set things up in opposition to one another in our culture. We celebrate dichotomies because it's easier to choose between one thing or another. This is why there are always three talking heads on cable news shows: A moderator, and then two people who are on opposite sides of the argument. The cable news evil geniuses do this on purpose. The moderator is supposed to stand for the news agency--neutral, calm, collected. And then "we the people" are supposed to find ourselves on one side of the argument or another.
So we do the same thing with faith and doubt---we are asked by the dominant Christian culture to choose one or the other. But just like the cable news scenario, it's not as simple as all that. Here's the thing, I have the capability to express both faith and doubt, depending on my circumstances, my surroundings, my emotions and a host of other reasons. All of us are.
Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote about the loss of his faith, and also about how he discovered it again. At first for Wiesel, the Holocaust was a horrific proof that God did not exist. And then he began to understand that out of that experience came proof that not only did God exist, but that God was still at work in the world.
He wrote about seeing a huge wagon loaded down with the bodies of babies on their way to a ditch where they would be burned. "...never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God, my soul and turned my dreams to dust."
But then later Wiesel wrote about hope and how it does spring eternal in the human heart and he said, "... the reason so many babies keep being born is that God loves stories."
How can one human being endure such incredible doubt and such amazing faith? How can any of us? It's because faith is the companion of doubt.
What I've come to understand is that there is no true dichotomy, no forced choice.
It's not Faith or Doubt... it's Faith and Doubt.
Lots of Christian-y people will try to tell you differently. Which is why when I turn on the television sometimes and see TV preachers they all seem to be so certain about what they are telling you. They are so confident about their particular interpretations of the Bible. You cannot doubt them. You cannot waver. You must be certain in their way of thinking because if you are not certain (like they are) you don't have true faith.
Fundamentalism in all of its wonderful forms is based on absolute certainty.
When people espouse a Christianity that relies only on them or people who think like them to determine what is true faith...
When they are confronted with contradictions to their certainty and they simply dismiss them, or give answers like "you just need to believe..."
When they are comfortable in the little Christian-y box that they've created for themselves and others like them...
When God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit all look... just... like... them...
They are leaving no room for doubt in their faith and---speaking plainly---are not able to grow spiritually. Because challenging growth--the kind of growth that moves you forward, that deepens your relationship with God, that leaves you open to the new things that God is doing all around you... that kind of growth makes room for doubt.
Even further, it thrives on it. Let me explain.
As we've been learning over the past couple of weeks, there is an incredible amount of energy being exchanged between us and the world around us. We've said repeatedly that this energy is imprinted with the very DNA of God, and is what us Christian-types call The Holy Spirit.
And this energy is unpredictable. Scientists cannot explain what happens to electrons, for example.
The model that you see on the sermon notes depicts an atom with a nucleus and some electrons in orbit around it. The pattern of orbit for the electrons is uniform and predictable. Only in reality--it isn't. Electrons actually disappear during their orbit around the nucleus and then reappear somewhere along the orbit pattern.
Scientists believe that when the electrons disappear, they are actually traveling all possible routes before reappearing. Their reappearance is evidence that of that one of the possible routes they traveled was in our particular area of reality, which is why we can see them again.
I know. Blows your mind doesn't it?
This makes what Jesus says to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 so unbelievably awesome. He says, "The wind (of the Spirit) blows where the heck it wants to and you hear the sound of it, but you have no idea where it's going--where it came from--or where it even is in the moment." I added that last bit in to expound on the translation.
The point is---there is nothing predictable about the Holy Spirit of God. In fact faith in this God is an exercise that is marked by mystery, surprise and openness to unpredictability.
And sometimes our confrontations with mystery, surprise and unpredictability can lead us to experience doubt. It's perfectly natural, and not at all something to be afraid of, especially since the very source of our faith is so dad-blamed unpredictable.
One of my favorite pastors, authors and theologians Mike Yaconelli once wrotes, "Predictability and faith cannot coexist." I agree.
Faith and Doubt, on the other hand---can.
And this is a truth that we all share, but we don't often realize it.
When I give this sermon I am going to have some handouts in the bulletins that I want everyone to take out. These handouts will have some instructions on them: "Write down a word or two that expresses something you have doubted about God, the Bible, Jesus, Christianity or Faith."
I am going to ask some questions... "By show of hands how many of you have ever doubted whether God was real?" "By show of hands how many of you have ever doubted whether everything in the Bible happened exactly as it's written in the Bible?" "By show of hands how many of you have ever doubted whether God loves you?" "By show of hands how many of you have ever doubted if Christianity is really true?"
I suspect that there will be a lot of hands raised. Mine will be.
You are not alone.
You are not alone in your doubts.
There are lots of us out there stumbling after Jesus.
And your doubts don't prevent you from having faith. And your faith should not prevent you from experiencing doubts. This is why Jesus gave some instructions to his followers: "Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you."
Ask. Seek. Knock.
Or this... Wrestle with Scripture and with what God is teaching you in the Bible. Debate what you are learning with others, maybe even others who don't believe exactly like you do. Learn by finding Bible studies to join, books to read, partners to journey alongside. Study the Bible, theology, books by those farther on in the journey---and join a group, find a Bible study.
And don't be afraid to doubt.
Because like Thomas if you desire with all your heart to know and to understand who Jesus is to you---you will receive what you need to strengthen your faith.
Because challenging growth isn't afraid to wrestle with doubt.