What is truth? Part 2: Belonging to community

I remember when I was ten years old I wanted to run away from home. My brother and I fought with my Mom over watching a TV show. Our disagreement led to this radical solution.

My brother and I packed our little red wagon with pillows, blankets, some twinkies, and a bottle of milk. I informed my Mom, and we were on our way.

We pulled our wagon down the sidewalk in silence. When we reached the first cross street a block away from home, we stopped. Without saying a word, both of us turned around and headed back with heads hung low.

In discovering the truth, not only must you come home to yourself and articulate your own desires, motivations and unique identity, you need to land in a community. This is the important second movement in answering: “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

At some point in the process of discovering the truth, we need to acknowledge the communal nature of truth-telling. It’s one thing to say discovering the truth is a personal journey; but it’s also a path that takes you beyond pure individualism. In other words, you can’t celebrate the truth of anything by yourself. In community we are greater than the sum of our individual parts. The truth can only be ascertained and arrived-at in the midst of others.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus relates the truth with “belonging” (18:37) — belonging to a community. Whether that community is a family, a church, a nation, God, our belonging is often tested. When things don’t go our way. When we don’t get want we want in that community. When others disappoint us. When there is disagreement. When we suffer. There are a host of circumstances that may lead us to question our belonging.

And when that happens, what do we do? Do we leave? Do we, as I tried to do with my red wagon and twin brother in tow, run away? Do we isolate ourselves behind fortress walls of fear and intransigence? What do we do when our belonging is severely tested?

Jesus hints that the kingdom of which he speaks transcends the self. When Jesus says that he was born for the purpose of testifying to the reign of God (John 18:37), Jesus is pointing to that which is larger than any individual, including himself.

We don’t exist unto ourselves. The sun doesn’t orbit around our individual planet; rather, we orbit around the sun! Our lives are meant for more than mere self-indulgence, self-acquisition, self-amelioration, self-justification.

When we discover the truth together, we’re not denying our individual, unique perspectives. We are not hiding our true colours from one another. We are simply affirming that if we are to find the truth, we will only do so together.

Belonging is not so much about individual decisions as it is about collective participation in community. That is why we make major decisions as the church, or as a nation, or even in families together. We share our differing thoughts and opinions with the awareness of our belonging to one another and to God, whether or not that unity is challenged or visibly shaken.

The movement towards community in discerning the truth calls for humility and attentiveness to those around us.

Where do you belong? Give God thanks for your belonging.

Amazing grace funeral

Amazing Grace. We say this, sing this, today – and express it on many different levels – Amazing Grace.

But how can God’s grace be amazing, when doing what we do today reminds us again of the hurt and pain of losing Grace a couple of months ago? How can God’s grace be amazing when it sometimes feels like it means nothing, that God is distant, disconnected and uninterested in our plight here on earth – especially when we suffer?

Amazing Grace. And yet, when we remember Grace, in a sense she was amazing because she brought to you and to all those people she met in her life, the blessing of her commitment, her creativity, her dedication, her humour, etc., etc. Yes, Amazing Grace! Thanks be to God!

The funeral of Lincoln Alexander was set for October 26. He was the first black Canadian Member of Parliament and former lieutenant-governor of Ontario.

Last weekend I watched the morning news on TV announcing details of his funeral. And then the news switched to the faces of some of his family, friends and politicians who shared some generous words about their loved one.

She gave the profound image of his hands. After all he was a big, tall man. How this person was related to Lincoln Alexander I did not catch. But what she was going to miss most, she said, were those hands of his holding her, and providing comfort and support to her in times of need.

And then, in the midst of her speech, the news clip ended abruptly, moving onto the next news item, something to do with the presidential debates south of the border. In the style of throwing out fast-paced, short sound-bite news segments, the TV news report gave me the impression that she had in fact more to say. It left me wondering, and wanting for, how she finished her comments.

Your beloved Grace is no longer with you. The death of a loved one can sometimes feel like an abrupt ending. No matter how old or how young we are at the end, it may feel like there was still more to say, still more to do – things that we will never now know, experience or witness on earth. And that hurts.

I’ll never know for sure what Lincoln Alexander’s loved one said to end that media scrum which never got to air. And I’ll never know in precise detail, this side of heaven, what exactly lies for me and for you and for Grace beyond the gate of death.

But I do know this: It’s not over. The meaning and value of our lives do not evaporate into nothingness even though our bodies die. Even though the ‘channel is switched’ so to speak.

Because the story, the Word, continues, even though I am not there! Even though I can’t see it all the time, I am held in the loving arms of my Creator forever. That story never ends.

Beyond death, I will continue to be embraced by the hands that fashioned me even before I was born (Psalm 139:13-18). Even more so – that my God will take me home and return me into the arms of Jesus (John 14:1-6). I will be joined forever in the household of heaven with all the saints, and shine in the pure joy and brilliance of all that is of God. This is Grace’s story now.

In the meantime, we on earth are not separated from those who have died. There are characteristics, personality-traits, memories of Grace all of which you now hold dearly in your heart. And which in some tangible, mysterious way, manifest themselves in our lives. I encourage you to look for those “Grace” moments. You may have already experienced some of these moments of recognition — being aware of a holy connection with the mystery of Grace’s spiritual presence.

The grace of God is truly amazing. It’s a wonderful play on words, isn’t it? We are talking about the grace of God and we are talking about Grace who was amazing. Amazing Grace.

Thank you God, for Grace. Thank you God for your grace. Hold us all in your Amazing Grace. Amen.

Bridging the gap

Mark 10:35-45

Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink…” (Mark 10:39)

When we first stepped on the bridge spanning the wide, flowing river, our ten year old son stopped short. It was windy. He said he was afraid the strong winds could blow him off. He refused to walk over.

A few weeks later when we were giving a walking tour of our new home-town to visiting friends, the path took us over the bridge. Engrossed in showing all the sites to his friends, our son made it three-quarters of the way across before he realized what he was doing. I could see by his wide-eyed expression that he had, for the most part, forgotten his fear. He was focused on his friends rather than himself.

I often miss the extraordinary promise implied in Jesus’ words to his self-absorbed disciples. They had been walking to Jerusalem listening to Jesus speak about his suffering and death. Understandably, those who followed Jesus were afraid (Mark 10:10). Were James’ questions about finding a seat in heaven next to Jesus simply an attempt to find security amidst the ominous implications of Jesus’ words?

Fear of the world often drives us, above all, to find security. We are afraid of terrorism, so we start preemptive wars. We are afraid of failing, so we act to secure our reputation rather than take bold and necessary steps forward. We are afraid of what we don’t understand in others who are different from us, so we cocoon behind fortress walls with like-minded people rather than build bridges of cooperation and compassion.

When Jesus says, “the cup that I drink you will drink…” he is making his disciples a promise – a promise that one day they, too, will no longer be driven by fear; that one day they will act boldly, motivated not so much by self-preservation but by the Gospel.

This, too, is a promise made to me and to you. It’s not an easy way. But when our focus resolves itself on others, we no longer act according to our fears but according to the way of Christ Jesus.

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Created and Chosen – youth sermon

In “Captain America” – the movie – the main character played by actor Chris Evans is deemed unfit to serve in the military during the 2nd Word War. Steve Rogers is too short, to light, and sickly; his medical record shows he got the brunt of all the bad genes from his ailing parents.

Steve Rogers’ outward, physical appearance doesn’t measure up. He is judged basically by what people can see on the surface of who he is.

Eventually, he does get chosen after five failed attempts. How?

What the doctor who approves him for service sees in him is something special. Not based on outward appearance, but on his attitude, his beliefs, what he holds true within, interiorly.

How is his attitude made manifest? Through a couple of tests. First, a fake grenade is thrown amidst the group of prospective soldiers. And all of them, even the most physically strong and capable soldier, dive for safety behind walls, tires and underneath trucks. All of them have self-preservation as their primary instinct.

Except Steve Rogers. Instinctively when the grenade is thrown he throws himself upon it, literally, so that the blast would not hurt anyone else. Selfless. Other-centred.

The second test is an answer to a question posed by the doctor who approved his application: “Do you want to kill Nazis?” While most of Steve Rogers’ peers expressed the killing instinct in war, he says, “No, I do not want to kill anyone.” His desire to join is based on a much deeper and higher sense of service and mission.

In the Bible we read that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14); whether we realize it or not, God creating each of us makes each of us very special. And it’s not about how big or strong or handsome or pretty or beautiful we are or look on the outside. It’s all about what Jesus sees on the inside of us that counts.

We are special, even when you think about how each of our bodies work. Here are some facts I looked up about our bodies, facts you may not have known, and which prove how incredible we are merely on a cellular level:

  • Our lungs contain over 300 million tiny blood vessels; if they were laid out end to end, they would stretch from here to Florida!
  • The nerve impulses to and from our brains travel as fast as 275 kms/h – almost as fast as a NASCAR race car!
  • The brain is more active at night than during the day
  • Sneezes exceed 160 kms/h – way faster than driving on the 417 or 401!
  • Babies are, kilogram for kilogram, stronger than an ox!
  • Your nose can remember 50,000 different scents
  • The tooth is the only – and I repeat only – part of the body that can’t repair itself
  • Every day our bodies produce 300 billion NEW cells
  • Your body has enough iron in it to make a nail 10 cms long
  • A single human blood cell takes only 60 seconds to make a complete circuit of the body
  • In 30 minutes, the average body gives off enough combined heat to bring almost 2 litres of water to boil

We are special – each and every one of us! And God has chosen us, not on account of our appearance or physical attributes. But for a special mission to share God’s love with others in the different ways God made us to do this. God chooses you to belong in God’s family because God made you, and God loves you!

How is God Faithful? – in Covenant

We are a Covenant people! — So announced the theme of the biennial Eastern Synod Assembly last week in Waterloo. What does it mean to be in a Covenant relationship with God? Certainly this word is not in common usage today. Perhaps ‘promise’ comes close.

Yet Covenant conveys more. First and foremost, to be in a Covenant relationship with God is to trust that God worries about the results. God brings it home. God’s action is the punctuation mark at the end of all our sentences. God finishes.

And we do not. That’s important.

Nevertheless, to assert God’s side of the bargain, what is presumed is our action as well. There’s no point in having punctuation marks at the end of sentences that aren’t written. And so to be in a Covenant relationship with God is to take the risk of faith, not knowing what the consequences may be. Without this element of faith we bring judgement upon ourselves in living and believing in “cheap grace.”

Indeed what we often need to start with — and that is why we being most acts of worship with confession — is seeking forgiveness for blocking God and locking ourselves in false ways of being church. How do we block God and lock ourselves in patterns of unfaithfulness? A worthy question worth exploring: How do we block God and lock ourselves in ways that keep us stuck?

Have you considered that being Christian is not just about going to church on Sunday? Have you considered that being Christian has just as much to do with what we do in our free time? — being Christian has just as much to do with Monday to Saturday as it does with Sunday? — being Christian has just as much to do with what we spend our money on? — being Christian has just as much to do with how we vote? — being Christian has just as much to do with how we relate with our spouse, our children, our extended family, our neighbours, our community? — being Christian has just as much to do with our behaviour as it does with the words we speak? “Preach the Gospel; use words, if necessary,” instructed Saint Francis.

Many of us, myself included, grew up in the church with the idea that faith was a private affair; and, therefore there were three topics good, pious Christians would never discuss openly, especially in the church. You know those three topics, right? — sex, religion, politics.

In looking recently over our annual Canada Revenue Agency charitable report that all churches are bound by law to complete and submit annually, I was surprised to find a question among a hundred other questions: The question was: “Did the charity carry on any political activities during the fiscal period?” The little note above the question clarified that churches indeed can be involved in politics, as long as that political activity is non-partisan and limited in extent.

I was also struck by the meaning of the Old Testament story optioned for this Sunday, from the book and prophet, Samuel. In this story, the Holy Ark of the Covenant — there’s that word again! — is brought triumphantly into Jerusalem. We read about that procession of King David dancing as the Ark is brought into Jerusalem and placed at the center of that great city. It is an image of uninhibited, unabashed glory, of joy and celebration (2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19).

Now, just for a moment, reflect with me on the meaning of this: The Ark of the Covenant in ancient Israel was at the time the most powerful and central image of Israel’s faith. And Jerusalem was (like Ottawa is for Canadians) the center of political power in the nation — the capital city.

And what does David do? He brings the two together: religion AND politics. And, perhaps more significantly, he does it not begrudgingly nor fearfully, but joyously!

At the Synod Assembly last week in Waterloo, we passed several motions that you could deem “political” in nature. Let me briefly review a few of these: a motion in support of non-violent solutions in pursuing justice in the world and in situations of conflict; a motion to call upon the government to re-instate full health care coverage to refugee claimants; motions to address affordable housing, poverty, racism and environmental action. These motions can be viewed on the Synod website; hard copies are also available from your delegates.

Faith is not exclusively ‘private’. It is ‘public’. It’s not just about me and Jesus; but about me and the world that God so loved. It’s more than just me. And as soon as we translate our faith into the public realm, it gets political. We have the biblical witness to this marriage between faith and politics:

When the seven perscuted churches in west Asia on the Aegian Sea coast (in present day Turkey) of the Book of Revelation are pressed to swear allegiance to Emperor Nero they are brought before the courts; and the encouragement of scripture is heard: Do not worry about what to say when called upon to testify to your faith in Christ as Lord. “For what you are to say will be given to you; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19).

The beheading of John the Baptist, from our Gospel text for today (Mark 6:14-29), provides a gruesome image of what sometimes may happen when religion and politics meet in the same room.

And perhaps the most poignant image from the New Testament — the Cross — was a political symbol and practical means of Roman capital punishment. It’s like the electric chair or lethal injection would be for us today. For several centuries after Christ early Christians shied away from using the cross as a central symbol; you can’t find images of crosses anywhere in the archeological record of those first centuries. In fact, the fish was the first central symbol of Christianity. Did the early church find the cross too brutal — too political — an image? I wonder.

I know I need to confess my own fear of bringing my faith to bear on the public world around us. I know I need to confess my own fear of blocking what God wants to do and locking myself because of my fear of rejection, my fear of failure, my fear of sticking out my neck.

One of the speakers at last week’s Synod (I’ll want to talk more about Michael Harvey in the near future) said that fear is the socially acceptable sin of the church today. It is a sin of omission. This is the sin we need to confess. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the biblical injunction: “Do not be afraid/Do not fear/Fear not!” appears some 365 times throughout the bible. We need to hear that; I need to hear that, each day of the year.

Because on the other side of fear is the vision, the abundant life. On the other side of fear is new life. The thing we fear is actually God’s call on our lives. We need to accept and confess our fear. We need to go there.

And when we do, God finishes. God is faithful. God remains true and steadfast to the Covenant relationship. Because God loves us and wants us to love God and those around us. God wants to be in relationship with us, even though we so often miss the mark.

Listen to Paul’s words we often recite: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? [notice the political words here]. No, in all these things we are conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Jesus goes there. Jesus has crossed the boundary between private and public, religion and politics. Jesus enters all aspects of our life together. There is no place Jesus does not go. Even to those places we fear most. Jesus goes there — into our hurt, pain, suffering, persecution, illness. It is not our job to be successful; it is our job only to be faithful, and do it. We are called only to follow, to follow in the way. And then “Jesus will bring to completion the good work begun in you” (Philippians 1:6).

Thanks be to God! Amen.

How is God faithful? – In the Margins

An elderly woman lived on a small farm in Manitoba, Canada – just yards away from the North Dakota border. Their land had been the subject of a minor dispute between the United States and Canada for years. The widowed woman lived on the farm with her son and three grandchildren.

One day, her son came into her room holding a letter. “I just got some news, Mom,” he said. “The government has come to an agreement with the people in North Dakota. They’ve decided that our land is really part of the United States. We have the right to approve or disapprove of the agreement. What do you think?”

“What do I think?” his mother said. “Sign it! Call them right now and tell them we accept! I don’t think I can stand another Canadian winter!”

Celebrating Canada Day is about celebrating who we are. And who we are is to a large extent defined by our borders. Indeed, boundaries are important. We need to be clear about the margins, the borders, of our country to understand the shape, size and very nature of our identity.

The margins are both bad and good places for us.

Often we think of the margins as places we don’t want to go to. Those are unknown, scary places full of tension. Margins are not desirable locales. They are places where danger lurks.

I visited this past week the Carlington neighborhood whose chaplaincy we support by our donations and, more significantly, our volunteer leaders. Here, in Ottawa, this area was established for “low income housing” where poor people live. People who call that neighborhood “home” live on the margins of society, so we say.

Jesus, of course, goes to those scary places – our Gospel text today (Mark 5:21-43) opens with a statement recognizing borders: “Jesus crossed in a boat to the other side.” For a rabbi to go to the margins, this is something extraordinary. Jesus is not afraid to go to those from whom we normally want to keep distant.

Jesus goes directly into the home of those whom he heals – Jairus’ daughter in this case. Jesus doesn’t heal from a distance; he goes right into the room and even touches the sick, the outcast and the marginalized. The Gospels are full of such examples. This is his practice – going to the margins. This defines his identity.

Jesus would make a good Canadian. It’s interesting we are living in a time of our history when Canadians are just starting to explore and establish our national presence in a largely unknown “margin” of our country – the Arctic in the Far North. We might find Jesus there. Or would we?

Because Christianity is not just about going to and debating geographic boundaries. Christianity is more than that. It is essentially about going to the social margins.

Notice the literary structure of the Gospel story. Interesting that scribes, translators and early redactors of the text maintained the “interrupted” nature of this text from scripture. They didn’t separate the two distinct healing stories into neat, successive stories. The healing of the woman with hemorrhaging interrupts the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter. There is something important about preserving this interrupted structure of scripture.

Can going to the margins be good for us? Because, in truth, it describes our reality. Immigrants especially should understand this. Canada is full of immigrants. The nation state of Canada as we know it developed out of our immigrant identity. How can we describe our immigrant experience?

For one thing, immigrants are people betwixt and between two places; it is an interrupted reality, so to speak. As a first generation Canadian I have felt the residual effects of this reality, experienced more directly of course by my parents.

New immigrants often feel ‘marginalized’ in the dominant culture. They neither feel they belong fully to where they’ve come from; nor do they feel they belong fully to where they’ve landed. These are the margins as well; it is who we are, crossing both boundaries of national identities, and creating something new and unique.

Listen to the words of Mary Joy Philip who was one of the keynote speakers at the Luther Hostel last month inWaterloo. She said,

“What is home now? India? The United States? Most of my life has been spent in India; I was educated, married, had children, a career there. And now I have been in the U.S. for fifteen years. So, where is home now? Where do I belong? Having been away from India this long, do I belong there? And even though I have been in the U.S.for fifteen years, I definitely don’t have that feeling of belonging. I am an outsider and always will be. So, I don’t feel that I belong in India or in the U.S.; and yet, I belong in both … I belong in that in-between space, betwixt and between … you are neither there nor here but in both … [which] puts me in a unique position of being in beyond both, of being what you might call a hybrid.”

I would add that Canada is full of ‘hybrids’.

Yet what is truly remarkable about Jesus is that he doesn’t just go to the margins; he crosses the borders of social acceptability. He crosses the borders that we might deem fearful. He crosses the borders of any kind of stigma that separates people. He crosses the borders of theological correctness, doctrinal purity. He crosses the borders of ethnic segregation.

To be sure, the margins are places of tension, a tension between endings and beginnings. But it is precisely this tension that sustains life. Those margins, the borders, prove so necessary to our common life and growth together as a nation and people of God’s reign.

Let’s remember that, in a sense, Jesus was a hybrid: Fully human and fully divine. Both/And. Jesus, the God-man, lived at the margins, in theGalilee, where from, in the eyes of the others no good could come, but from whither and from whom the “good news” came. How can the margins NOT be the threshold to something new, something transformed, something good, in Christ Jesus.

Mary Joy Philip went on to assert that as an immigrant, she could draw out the uniqueness of both places she was and is now, and create a new space to be … which allowed her to have a distinct identity.”

Crossing over may not always be ideal nor perfect. But it is important to do, and good, too. As we venture into this new space we need only to hear Jesus’ words over and over again: “Do not fear, only believe.”

A small yet significant example from our Canadian history illustrates well this dynamic: Chiefswood is the name of the house of Canadian literary giant, Pauline Johnson. This stately house is situated on the Six Nations Reserve nearBrantford,Ontario. The house, literally, was built as a ‘cross-over’ for two distinct peoples sharing the land.

The house has identical entrances on opposite sides of the main floor, joined by a common foyer hall and staircase going up, in between. One entrance was designated for the Six Nations community to enter, and the other for the British side. The home served as the in-between space for both sides to co-exist. Their home provided a space where on equal footing – literally – interaction and dialogue could happen; and perhaps even transformation of BOTH sides in deep, meaningful ways. What a great image and model for Canada, moving forward!

I think we Canadians are well conditioned and poised by our history and our faith to be thankful and assert our unique identity in the world as a people whose social borders are crossed and mutually transformed into something more beautiful. That is to say: the ‘whole’ of what it means to be Canadian is larger than the sum of our individual parts.

Thank God for going to the margins of our lives!

Amen.

House of Pain

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LutherHostel2012 visited the first residential school in Canada – Mohawk Institute – from 1831-1970 situated at Woodland Cultural Centre on Six Nations Reserve in Brantford Ontario. We continue to pray for truth and reconciliation, and courageous leadership among and with First Nations. We confess our sins, and we commit to telling the story for all to know what really happened.

Have a little faith!

The first thing is not to give up, and keep moving forward, even though it’s tough. When W.H. Murray led the famous Scottish Expedition to climb Mount Everest in the 1950s, he reflected afterward with his oft quoted piece of wisdom: “In the moment a commitment is made, then Providence moves too.” In other words, when you commit to doing something aware of all that is good in you and the world – even if it’s risky, scary – God goes with you and necessary resources are provided.

We don’t do reckless things and twist God’s arm into action; rather, when we are bold it’s like dropping a pebble into the sea of God’s grace: The ripples move outward creating more space for God’s grace to envelope, enfold and hold.

Take the risk. Make the commitment to a discipline of prayer, of study, of holy reading, of loving service – in a way that pushes you a bit out of your comfort zone, your routines, your familiar ways of being and doing: push the envelope. And don’t give up. You may be surprised by what God is doing for you!

Easter 2A – Faith and Doubt

In Canada we go to the polls tomorrow in another federal election. Will you vote?

I heard this past week the story of a former pastor of a Lutheran church in Belleville who immigrated from a former Eastern bloc nation during the Cold War era. In a sermon he gave prior to an election campaign now decades ago, he shared with the congregation how voting was done back in his home country during the Communist reign: “There was only one name on the ballot,” he said, “and it didn’t make any sense at all. But we had to go, and put a check mark beside that person’s name. God forbid, you did anything besides that.”

The pastor went on to describe his joy and pride to live in a country where he could now vote for one person among several. He had a choice. He, along with all other citizens, had been given the power to choose the government! This was amazing for him.  And he looked forward to election day in Canada.

Someone listening to his sermon then called out, “But Pastor, who should we vote for?” The pastor didn’t miss a beat; he smiled and said, “We’re not that kind of church!” In other words, not to tell you what to do, but to encourage your belief and participation in the process.

If only all Canadians shared his enthusiasm and belief in our electoral system! If only all Canadians believed in the value of and appreciated the democratic freedom we have in the vote. That is what organizations such as Fair Vote, Apathy is Boring, and Student Vote are trying to resurrect, especially among younger generations of Canadians.

Is the fact that voter turnout was the lowest in Canadian history last time around due to a growing doubt, cynicism and despair among the electorate?

Is this malaise true also for us who struggle with our religion, faith, and the institution of the church? Does church attendance and belief in the risen Jesus suffer from a similar prevailing doubt, cynicism and despair? Perhaps there are more among us who can relate and sympathize with the disciple, Thomas. Because sometimes, when we experience the dark night of the soul, when we go through rough times and fall to despair — it’s really hard to believe! So, in those times, what should we do?

There is a profound tale from the Desert Fathers of Christian antiquity that explains why just doing it; that is, practising your faith makes sense even in spite of questions without answers:

A young monk approached an older, more adept one and asked, “Father, I am having trouble remembering the instructions that I have been given about living the spiritual life. I ask questions and I listen to the answers and I do what is asked of me, but then, I almost just as quickly forget what I’ve been told! What is the point to trying to learn if I am so simple-minded? Why should I practice when I do not know for certain what is true? Maybe I should just return to my worldly life.”

The old monk points to two empty bottles on a nearby table. “Take those two bottles. Fill one completely with the oil that we use for our lampstands. As for the other, leave it empty, as it was.”

The young man obediently did as he was told.

Then the old monk said, “Now, take the bottle full of oil and pour it back where it was.” The younger man again did as he was told.

“Do it again,” the elder instructed. “Fill that same bottle that you filled before, once again with oil.” And again he told him to empty the bottle once it was filled. This went on for more than an hour, over and over. Meanwhile the empty bottle sat empty.

With patience, the young man kept doing as he was told. It just so happened that this novice’s job in the community was to clean bottles used for holding lamp oil. He knew all about bottles and oil.

After a while, as they sat together looking on the two bottles now empty, the old monk said, “Please tell me, my son, what you see.”

“I see one bottle that has not held any oil and it is only dusty and dry,” the novice answered.

“But the bottle that I have filled, unfilled, and refilled many times is clean, shining and coated with the sweetness of oil.”

“Precisely!” the old man replied. “In the same way, you benefit from doing these spiritual things even if they challenge you and cause you to question. Whether you realize it immediately or not, over time they will change you. Filling yourself with these oils will leave you fragranced.”

The doubting Thomas did just that. Even though he questioned and doubted, fell to despair and disassociated himself from his community of faith for a time, he just needed to show up again, and yes, initially, just go through the motions. Thank God he did! Jesus appeared a second time to the gathered disciples when Thomas happened to be there. And then Jesus gave Thomas what he needed.

What did Thomas need? Thomas needed to get out of his head. It was his ideas about Jesus that created his cyncism and doubt. The rationalizations and arguments for and against made the resurrection a matter of intellectual debate for him. The result should not surprise us:  The result of getting lost in all the mental gymnastics was that Thomas left his community of faith, disappointed, discouraged and frustrated after the burial of Jesus.

Jesus gave Thomas what he needed: He needed to experience the living Lord, personally. His encounter with Jesus brought Thomas down from his head into his heart. Not only did Jesus speak to Thomas — thus appealing to his head — he asked Thomas to touch his wounded side and hands. Thomas was then able to ground his experience of Jesus in his own skin, his body. That loving touch trigged an emotional, affective response from Thomas. Only then was he able to confess his true belief from the mind and heart: “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus knew what Thomas needed, and gave it to him. It likely wasn’t something Thomas was aware he needed. Yes, he wanted proof, but likely more to satisfy some intellectual debate. Was he expecting to be moved emotionally into to a deeper, personal and renewed relationship with Jesus?

And to each of us, the living Lord responds faithfully to what we need. The assigned texts for this time in the church year imply that God knows our varied needs. Psalm 16 begins with unequivocal confession and praise: “You are my Lord”; what follows is like a faith diary, a journal cataloguing his faith and trust in the ups and downs of life. Conversely, the Gospel writer ends this resurrection account (John 20:19-31) by Thomas’ climactic confession: “My Lord and my God!”  God knows what we need and when we need it: Do some of us start with a strong faith, and then move through both the joys and sadness of life, ‘working out’ our salvation through it all (like the Psalmist)? Or, do we start from a place of doubt and disbelief, and then work and wait toward believing (like Thomas)?

Whatever the case, we may be assured that though Christ is risen from the dead and is alive today, faith and doubt still go hand in hand for us. Whether we’ve been Christians all our lives, or we discovered the love and embrace of Christ for us only late in life — to pretend that doubt has no place in the believer’s life is folly. For we know that what we resist persists, and then controls us. But when we can appreciate the role of doubt in our lives, confess it and hold it, authentic faith can spring up by the grace of God. The gift of faith will give us the strength to make a small, simple step in the right direction.

I wonder what it would be like if the decisions we made in our lives sprung more from what we felt we needed to do, instead of what we wanted to do all the time. What if we did the right thing rather than always take the easy, self-serving way? What if we were at least able to distinguish our needs from our wants? And then acted on this discernment?

Perhaps, for one thing, our prayer lives would find vitality again. Because we know that despite our unbelief and misguided compulsions, our intercessions are nevertheless heard and acted upon by a loving and living God who will give us what we need.

Thanks be to God!

For reflection this week, pray over the words of scripture — specifically Psalm 16 and John 20:19-31