Sermon: The Gift of Doubt

“The Gift of Doubt”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 8, 2018

Psalm 10:1
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.’

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.’ 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.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’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.’

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 that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

From Jesus walking through walls to the disciples being sent out into the world to the gift of a supernatural presence that will help bring the kingdom of heaven to earth, there is a lot going on in this morning’s Gospel passage. I imagine it was the kind of hair-raising experience that would make the disciples say to skeptical friends, “You had to be there!”

Except Thomas wasn’t.

Poor Thomas gets the notorious title of “Doubting Thomas” simply because he hadn’t made it into the room by the time the other disciples locked the doors. In all fairness, who knows how Peter, or John, or Bartholomew would have reacted if they had been the ones to miss this otherworldly visitation?

Thank goodness, though, for Thomas getting a bad rap. Although the label isn’t exactly accurate – I guess “Empirical Evidence-Desiring Thomas” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in the same way – I’m glad he gets singled out as the Doubter. His title names the gap many of us live in – the gap between experience and belief.

After all, no matter how much we may desire it, most of us don’t receive definitive divine assurance – a vision, a voice, a sign to let us know, for sure, that this is all real, that we’re on the right path.

As Oprah quipped after listening to an interviewee share a story of feeling God speak to him as a child, “Why don’t I get a voice?

Or maybe we’ve had a mystical experience of God; but with the passing of years and the piling up of difficult events, it has grown dim and obscured; we again feel lost and unsure.

This week I read a book by Barbara Falconer Newhall called Wrestling with God. As a child, Barbara had loved Jesus and felt God to be very real; she had, in fact, experienced a mystical encounter with God, who appeared to her in a dream when she was 12. But studying the great philosophers in college and realizing that the intellectuals she wanted to emulate had no use for religion pushed her to set God aside.

A few years later, while pregnant with her daughter, Barbara couldn’t feel the baby moving inside her. As she drove to her doctor’s office to get an ultrasound, she decided that begging God to save her unborn child was beyond her – she wanted nothing to do with a God who would be cruel enough “to take away babies and spare them on a whim.” When the ultrasound tech’s movements prompted Barbara’s perfectly healthy baby to kick in irritation, Barbara “couldn’t bring [her]self to thank God for my daughter’s life any more than I had been able to ask for it earlier. How could I thank God for something God had so nearly taken away from me, and so gratuitously? God – and the universe I was born into – was not to be trusted.”

Yet the bad taste in her mouth about God, “deep down [Barbara] felt something was missing from [her] life, something big. So I’d show up in church from time to time,” she writes, “hoping that God, too, would show up in some tangible, concrete way, bringing reassurance that yes, a loving, intentional force was at work in the universe, and that yes, I mattered. Every now and then…I’d get a fleeting glimpse of something that might have been the God I was looking for. But most of the time God was a no-show. Which is why I wrote this book – to see if I could get God to show up.”

As Barbara would discover, although it can feel frustrating to live in uncertainty, doubt – that gap between experience and belief – is a really essential space for people of faith. It’s where things get interesting.

So often we talk about that gap – about doubt – as negative, assuming that the more doubt we have, the less faith we have.

After all, when you know something for certain – when you’ve seen it for yourself – there’s no room for growth, no room for the holy wrestling that has stretched and empowered so many of our faith ancestors.

From this morning’s Psalm, to Sarah who laughed at God’s promise that she would bear a child in her 90s, to Mary who had a rather skeptical comeback when the angel Gabriel told her she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit – “how can this be?” – to Peter who failed to believe he could walk on water even though Jesus was right there, holding out his hand, doubt is a path traveled by many – if not most – of our saints.

Whether it’s “Does God exist?” or “Where is God in this tragedy?” or “Why can’t I feel God’s presence?” or “Do you really care, God?” or “I don’t think you got that one right,” the wondering and wrestling that happens in the gap is where the theory of our faith meets reality, where we are opened up to new possibilities, deeper questions – and even, just possibly, greater peace.

You see, doubt isn’t a lack of faith or even its opposite – no, the opposite of faith is indifference, refusing to seek out the spiritual in and all around us. Doubt is just the other side of the coin of faith. It’s the “what ifs” that bring us back to contemplating the divine, not ignoring it. It’s a pendulum that pushes and interacts with and propels our faith forward and keeps it interesting. As Frederick Buechner so wisely and whimsically said, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.

Friends, doubt is actually a gift one that we have to learn to welcome instead of shunning or shaming. It makes our faith complex, multi-faceted, mobile, alive, resilient – able to shimmer and bend and flex instead of crumbling in the face of challenges or adversity.

This doesn’t mean that entertaining doubt is easy; as a prayer says, “It takes courage and trust to befriend doubt. You need to be prepared to journey.” And the journey isn’t always smooth! Sometimes you end up in places you never imagined you’d go, a bit bewildered by your surroundings. Some of us have followed doubt straight out of our childhood faith and into a wilderness of spiritual uncertainty, only to find ourselves back in a spiritual community when we least expected it. Some of us have been lifelong believers and are only now starting to discover questions and doubts that make the ground under our feet feel pretty rocky. Some of us feel seasoned and confident in our faith; but lately life has been throwing a lot more at us than we bargained for and God feels so distant as to almost be unreal.

There have been times when my uncertainty, my doubts – is this all for real? is this God thing true? – have felt like a big, dark abyss I was trying to cross on a tightrope. The air vibrating beneath my feet made me dizzyingly unsteady, and I’d try to breathe through it and not look down, lest I get sucked into its blackness.

But I’ve learned that the best thing to do with doubt isn’t to close our eyes to it or shove it under the rug; that’s when it becomes overwhelming. No, the best thing to do with doubt is to welcome it, and perhaps even ask doubt what it has to teach us.

Welcoming doubt can teach us not to be paralyzed by uncertainty, but to take the next step even if we are completely unsure of the ground beneath our feet.

It can lead us from a one-dimensional faith, where we expect God to show up exactly as we demand, into a rich, multifaceted faith where we are able to see God present in the disappointment of our expectations as well as in their fulfillment.

Welcoming doubt can help us understand God differently – perhaps not as all-powerful but as all-loving; perhaps not as a distant deity intervening in creation on a whim, but as close as our heartbeats, present in and through all the universe.

And welcoming doubt can help us to recognize way stations along the way – moments where we are able to pause, for a time, our questing and questioning, and simply rest in the ambiguity of it all, grateful for where we are and for whatever it is we can say, in that moment, to be true and trustworthy.

I think we sometimes push doubt aside because we imagine that as people of faith we aren’t supposed to live in that kind of ambiguity; that we’re supposed to have the answers. But that’s a trap that prevents us from bringing our whole selves to God, a trap that eventually prevents us from approaching God at all. I’ll tell you my trick for circumventing that trap: I just tell it all to God.

I’ll admit that saying “Well, God, I’m not really sure I believe in you today” feels a little silly, and the logic is a bit circular; but it brings everything out into the open, cutting out any shame I might feel about not being sure. Talking to God about it transforms doubt from something we may have been taught to see as disloyal or insulting God into something that connects us right back to the divine. It leaves the communication channels open, so to speak.

Barbara Falconer Newhall kept those channels wide open as she interviewed dozens of people from a wide variety of spiritual traditions about their lives and their faith. She started by interviewing an atheist in 1997 and finished 15 years later with a grandmother-like Hindu guru, and all along the way, she brought her questions – does God exists? is God good? Can God be trusted? does God even play according to human conceptions of good and evil? – with her as she attended her Episcopal church, asking God for insight.

Did God show up? “Yes, but not in the way I expected. …I was struck by no thunderbolts during the writing of this book. Yet slowly, over time, my conversations with the people who [told me] their stories…convinced me that…we live in a miraculous world – that something is going on. We can wrestle with that something, but we can’t fully know what it is.” But we can “surrender[] to the unknown, to the mystery of who [we are] and what God is. …It is a miracle that I am sitting here…writing these words to you. It’s a miracle that you are awake and alive and conscious enough to read them. That’s the only truth I’ve wrestled from God so far. It’s all I know for sure. And it’s huge.”

If Barbara hadn’t been willing to entertain her doubts – if she had decided that God had to look the same as when she was a child, or the same as when she thought she had lost her baby – she never would have come to embrace this miraculous, awe-filled perspective – which, despite all the doubts baked right into it, she calls faith.

You know, we often hear Jesus’ words as condemning Thomas – “You couldn’t even believe unless you saw it for yourself!” But if we listen a little more closely, we notice that Jesus doesn’t curse Thomas. He doesn’t even bless the other disciples for their willingness to believe after having seen, which, after all, any old person might have done. No, Jesus simply blesses those who have not seen – and yet trust – which is every Christian or would-be Christian after the disciples, for the last 2,000 years.

Turns out, Jesus is blessing the gap – Jesus is blessing us.

If we can learn to smile at the doubts – to hold our faith in God and our wondering about God’s existence in our hands at the same time; to hold our questions and anger and ambiguity together with our joy and peace and assurance – and to call it all “faith,” to call it “trust,” because after all, it’s all oriented toward God, whether God exists as we understand it or not – that’s where we, like Barbara, will find the blessing.

I’ve discovered that no matter the question marks punctuating my spiritual landscape, my faith and my wrestling with God lead me toward good things. Even if I can’t be sure of all the way stations along the way, places where I can put my doubts down and rest for awhile, I know they’ll be there.

I’ve come to believe that the blessing is in the gap – that faith boils down to asking the spiritual questions and doing my best to put them at the center of my life – not necessarily answering them.

I’ll end with a prayer.

How strangely comforting, Lord,
That so many of your servants
Have doubted you.

If I cannot always see the sense
Of your Word;
If I do not always feel confident
About my faith;
If I wonder where your love is
In the face of pain and death;
I am not the first.

A great company of saints and martyrs
Has felt this way before me.

Teach me, like them,
Not so much to fear doubt
As to see it
As a sign of the mystery of life
And a door to discovery. Amen.