Doubt

faith-and-doubt

Matthew 28:16-20 New International Version (NIV)

The Great Commission

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Last week it was Trinty Sunday and all around the world, preachers are trying to explain the trinity, the idea that there are three distinct things, the father (God), the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit, and despite their separateness, they are somehow one.

I’ve tried explaining it myself a few times on Trinity Sunday, but the truth is, that this is one of the mysteries of the faith, part of the Otherness of God, something so unlike what we can experience or imagine that we may never fully “get it”

It becomes an act of faith, bolstered by a few verses like today’s scripture where Jesus tells us to make people disciples in the name of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.

Our scripture is a familiar one. These are last words of Christ on this earth. He has been crucified and resurrected. He has spent forty days since his resurrection coming and going out of the Disciples lives, eating with them, teaching and now he is about to ascend into heaven until the day that he comes again.

Up to this point, most of his contact after the resurrection has been in and around Jerusalem, but now, for this last moment together, they are in Galilee on an un-named mountain.

This happens often in the Book of Matthew. Jesus goes to unnamed mountains to pray or connect with God and to have time away from the crowds to be with his inner circle of friends and disciples. And on this day, he goes to the mountain as he prepares to go to heaven.

And he gives them what has become known as The Great Commission:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Today’s scripture comes from the Lectionary, a three year cycle of scripture readings that take us through the important scriptures of the entire bible. Every week, people of every denomination read the same scriptures. Preachers worldwide are today preach from the lectionary scripture, just as I did Sunday. And generally, when they encounter this scripture they are focus either on The Great Commission or the idea of the trinity

 These two things are the clear focal points of the scripture – The final command to spread God’s story and bring people into the family of Christ’s love, and the idea of the three, father, son and holy spirit are distinct and separate.

Both speak to important doctrines of the church.  Both are central commands an drivers of the church and its mission. Both are preached and taught and beaten into us until we are numb. All of which makes it hard for us preacher types who have to do a sermon on something you’ve heard before? How to make it new? How to cut through the familiarness to make an impact?

Fortunately I was spared that task, because, as I was reading and studying,  suddenly something jumped out at me that had gotten lost in past readings and studying of this verse. And that something was in verses 16-17:  “16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

So the 11 remaining disciples go up on this mountain. The disciples, without Judas, and without Mathias, who was chosen to replace Judas. Just the 11 origional disciples. His dearest friends.

And they worshiped him, but some DOUBTED.

Does that surprise you as much as it surprised me? Think about all these men had been through with Jesus, his Baptism, his ministry, the healings, the miracles, The casting out of demons, the raising of Lazarus, and his own resurrection. They had seen him walk through walls after his resurrection, and walk on water before it.

They have seen all this, time and time again, for more than three years, and yet, they doubted? How in the world could this be?

Well, the bible doesn’t tell us how it can be. And it doesn’t say what they doubted. Was it Jesus? His messiah hood? Their own sanity in what they were seeing? Or was it their future? How were they going to do this, keep the great commission. What was the next act? How were they going to complete this Herculean task?  They were after all, simple people. Limited in influence. Limited in education. Not the obvious choices to change the world.

We don’t know what they doubted. Only that they did.

 And we know this: They were never chastised for their doubt. Never put down. Never told they were “bad” believers because of it.

 Think about that a minute.  This is a holy moment. And yet, they were, after all they had seen, doubting. But not chastised for that doubt. It is simply recognized.

A lot of times we think we have to be always positive, always up, always declairing how perfect God is and how we feel about him.

Go to a Christian convention, or even to many churches, or a bible study – any place where a lot of Christian’s are gathered together. Go to such a place and all you hear is how great everything is. How everyone’s faith is great. How everyone’s life is great. How perfect everyone’s Christian life is.

When we go to Bible Study or Sunday School, we are asked a question and we have what I call “The Sunday School answer” right at hand. We know the answer should be.  It’s easy to think that everyone around us in a holy setting has a crazy deep faith, with no doubt whatsoever.

But I am here to tell you, almost everyone with a real faith, has times of doubt. It comes in times of  sickness or death or loss. It comes in the face of evil, in the face of things that don’t make sense. We doubt. It is a human thing and all of us do it.

Think about this – If Christ could live with his disciples having doubt after all they had seen and all they had experienced, then maybe it’s time we admit that faith is hard, that doubt is natural.

And if it is an honest doubt, a searching doubt, it’s not all bad. It is simply human nature. When we don’t know, we begin to doubt.  And, maybe, just maybe, we should follow Christ’s approach and not condemn doubt or doubters. Make it OK to doubt and to express that doubt, and make church a safe place to say “I have a hard time with….”

Now, I have to tell you, If I were Jesus at that moment, I likely would  have thrown up my arms in frustration. I would have been angry. I would have screamed at them, “What in the holy heck do I have to do to make you confident?!!!!!”

But he doesn’t.

I can’t tell you exactly how to banish doubt.  We all have our own needs to help us move past it. But these verses give us one suggestion.  Let’s go to Verse 17 again:  “17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

They worshiped him. Even in their doubt, they worshiped. They continued to worship. They lived with a lens of belief, and in that lens, in that approach, their doubt became a searching, not a rejection. They were looking for reasons to believe instead of reasons to disbelieve.

Too often, when we doubt our faith, we leave.  We walk away. We begin to act as if whatever we doubt is false. We look for reasons for it to be false. And for other things to be true, instead of considering that maybe, just maybe, it is our knowledge and understanding that is lacking, not our God.

But when we doubt and stay; if we doubt, but stick with it. If we stay, and seek for reasons TO believe, worship and study, admitting that maybe we are lacking in understanding, we are likely to find the answers.

Why? Because they are there.

Think of it as an Easter egg hunt.

We are told that the field to our left is full of Easter eggs. So we take our basket and go looking. But when we go to the field on the left, the grass is high and we don’t immediately see Easter eggs, so you begin to doubt there are any.

That doubt leaves you have two choices. You can continue to search in the field to the left, where you will eventually find the eggs (because they are there). Or you can go to the other field, the one to the right, and search and guess what – you will never find any Easter eggs. Because they are not there. They are all right where you were told they are.

God is not afraid of our doubt.  And we in the church should not be either. He knows the answers are here (in the bible). And if we stay in the faith, stay searching, we will find them.

He knows that the things we learn through our searching through doubt are lessons that are strong and enduring. They stick with us.

Are you doubting something about your faith right now? Join the club. You can’t be in any better company of doubters than the disciples. Keep searching. Don’t run away from the answers. Read your bible. Find mentors and teachers. Ask. Be open about your doubts. Give God a chance.

That is the way to push past doubt to understanding and even stronger belief.

Be well, my friends. Travel wisely.

Tom

 

The Ten Percent Pastor

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It is Tuesday. I am at a place called Nick’s diner, which seems to be the happening place for breakfast in Athol, Mass. The food is good. Simple diner fare, but good. The coffee is strong. There is a steady flow of people in and out, and the waitresses seem to know everyone. There’s no internet here, which makes it a good place to write.

I said a blessing over my omelet. That is something I often do when I eat alone. Less so with others. It’s not that I don’t believe in blessings, I do. In fact, even when I am with others I tend to close my eyes for a moment and send up my thanks at meals. Mostly, no one notices.

For some, this might make me a lousy pastor. I should, they would tell me (and some have, mostly other pastors), insist on blessings at every meal. It’s like advertising or marketing. Put it out there and they will come. And I can see the value in that. Many a time I have said a blessing in a restaurant and afterwards someone there will pull me aside and tell me how nice it is that people still say blessings in public. My assumption is that they are already people of faith, and they like (whether they do it or not), that some of us still have the trappings of faith in public.

I come from a place where faith is intensely personal. Despite the churches and the role of churches in our society for the past couple thousand years, despite the megachurches and the little country churches and televangelism, in the end, faith is a one on one relationship with God. People come to faith when their hearts are ready. I don’t believe in bible thumping, telling people whether or not they are going to hell, casting judgments, all that stuff that churches are too often are full of.

I get where they are coming from, those that see it differently. I understand the bible verses that they use that, in their minds, give them the right. There’s not a lot of those verses, but they are there – enough for some people to hang their hats on them. I get it. I just don’t agree.

My reading of the bible is that Jesus came and redirected our thinking. He helped us sift through all the contradictory seeming stuff in the New Testament and focus us on the right things. The important things. The things that are healthy for us as people and healthy for us as a society. He made it crazy simple.

Love people. Love God.

Paul came behind him and helped us know what love actually is. (1st Corinthians 13), and what a spirit filled life looks like (Galatians 5)

People need that kind of love. More and more as I go through life, I have come to see what happens when we don’t have it. The numbers of broken people, harmed by false love, by abuse, by neglect, by harsh judgment all in the name of love, instead of real, biblical, New Testament love is staggering. Absolutely staggering. The amount of depression, anxiety, mental illness, anxiety all caused by love that does not fit this description is almost overwhelming. I see it as a pastor. I see it as a person. The woman I love, a social worker, sees it every day. Every day.

I also see the opposite. When people are consistently treated with kindness, encouragement and acceptance, healing happens. Growth happens. Transformation, the good kind, happens.

It is, as Jesus said, simple.

It is not, however easy.

Our human nature makes it hard. We want what we want. We protect ourselves and often use tearing others down as a way to do that. (never mind that this method doesn’t work in the long run.). We forget that there is plenty of love to go around. We live with blinders on, missing what our neighbors, even those closest to us, are going through.

And at times, the church has made it harder. Focused more on judgment than love, more on tearing down, fear mongering, and self righteousness than acceptance and building up. Of course we do. We’re human. If you can’t tell, I have a love/hate relationship with the church.

“But you’re a pastor!” people say when they hear me say this.

Yeah, well…..

Let’s get over that pastor thing. We’re not miracle workers. We’re not extra holy. We are people with all the fears, flaws, baggage and bruises everyone else has. We’re pilgrims like everyone else. We just happen to be at the front of the room because we feel called to be there, even when the whole idea is a bit terrifying. Many of us would rather be in the back of the room with everyone else. But….

Let me tell you something I found out ages and ages ago, back when I first began teaching Sunday School at Colonial Avenue Baptist Church. They must have been desperate to ask me because I had no credentials, no experience, and no history teaching Sunday School. But ask me they did and I said yes. What I discovered is that because I had a responsibility to teach each week, I began to read in the bible and read Christian books and articles. And all that study brought me closer to God, in a very personal way. The responsibility, the work, made me do what I should have been doing anyway.

Being a pastor, for me, is a bit like that. The responsibility makes me do the things I know I should do, but likely would not otherwise. I am a weak pilgrim and without the responsibility of preparing sermons, doing bible study, helping people through crisis like a sickness, death or other things, I likely would not do many of these things. And my own relationship with God would falter. And I would be weaker for it.

I call myself a 10% pastor sometimes. That’s because I only make about 10% of my income as a pastor. Basically the two churches pay me as a supply pastor. In other words, they pay me a small fee each week to come in and preach. If I am out of town, I don’t get paid. I don’t get paid for the other parts of being a pastor – visits, hospital trips, counseling – the real work. And that’s OK. I have other ways to pay the bills, fortunately, and churches in my ultra rural part of America don’t have enough money to support a full time seminary-trained pastor. It’s something I can do.

And besides, doing this work is part of my pilgrimage, part of my own growth and yearning to understand God and come along side him. Mostly, when I preach, I am preaching to myself.

The other reason I do it is because I believe in the simple message of loving God and loving people. I believe in acceptance and helping people in their journey not by tearing them down, but by simply loving them. I think that message often gets lost in today’s world and today’s church. And even if it is only in a tiny church in the middle of Nowhere, Vermont, if I can contribute to a small oasis of acceptance. then my life has purpose. And if we who see that kind of God in our bibles don’t speak out, all that will be left are those who hate in the name of God. I have real trouble with that.

And that is why I am part of “The Church”, that same church that I have a love/hate relationship with. I happen to believe all of us are flawed. We need God. We need him to hold us, comfort us and show us the way and fill us with a power to do good we lack as mere humans. And God knows this. He wants us to have his presence in our lives to help us live full, empowered lives. Church can be, when it is full of 1st Corinthians 13 love and Galatians 5 spirit, a safe haven for people to come, heal, grow and find their way to God.

Does it make a difference in the big wide world? I don’t know. Has it made a difference for anyone? That I do know. At least a few people have benefited by being in a tiny church that simply loves. I have benefited. And I’ve seen larger churches that live that kind of love, with powerful effect. Love and acceptance has changed my life and I know what it can do. It has changed the life of people near me, and I know what it can do.

So I may never be a big time pastor. I’ll likely never make my living that way. And that’s OK. I’ll do what I can do. I will continue on my pilgrimage. And in the doing, I will stay close to a God I believe loves me despite my myriad flaws and failings. (and oh what a list THAT is.). And maybe, just maybe, I can help others realize just how worthy of love they are.

Because they are. You are. We all are.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

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Matthew 22:36-40

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

1st Corinthians 13: 4-8a

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Galatians 5:22-23

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

 

On Being Wrong

downtown roanoke

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Combining my business, arts and church blogs into one. Less work for me. And maybe some cross pollination as people were exposed to other sides of me.

Silly me.

I’ve been chewed up by readers this past week or so. Or a least a lot of my readers. It seems that my business readers have little use for poetry and spirituality. They don’t want to sort through the stuff they don’t care about to get to what they do.

And my spiritual, Christian, looking for a sermon readers don’t care much for things like marketing, leadership.

Oddly, my readers of poetry and art aren’t complaining. They may hate the idea, but they are quiet about it.

My other readers? Not so much.

So please, disregard my post about combining them all into one. I was wrong. I’m pretty good at it. That’s why the picture that heads this entry is my absolutely favorite picture of all the images I’ve ever taken.

With that in mind, you might want to check out this TED talk on being wrong. It was great for me and my slightly bruised ego. If you hate being wrong, this might give you another way to look at it.

So. back to 3 blogs on three subjects. This, of course, follows my pastorate, with occasional sermons and topics of faith.

My blog with poetry, thoughts and photographs is The Quarry House Blog.

My blog on personal coaching and business issues is The Wisdom Letters.

Be well. Travel wisely. And don’t worry about being wrong.

It can be good for you.

Tom