Reflections to start the week
Monday, December 23, 2013
The opposite of faith
Two days ago, our church observed the Feast of St. Thomas, of doubting fame. In the thick of jingling bells and decking halls (fa la la la la), the liturgical calendar takes us to the days after Holy Week, to a locked room with disciples gathered in fear they’d be executed, perplexed by the rumor of resurrection. There we meet Thomas, who refuses to believe what other disciples have reported. “Unless I see it for myself, I will not believe.” says Thomas, earning him the title of doubting Thomas, a bit of a scriptural smackdown. Some scholars suggest that the writer of this gospel wanted to put Thomas in his place, and denigrate a gospel attributed to him. (Imagine. Rivalry and petty spirit in the church. I’m shocked.)
Maybe it’s just wishful reading on my part, but I see the story another way. Thomas’ doubt led him to one of the greatest affirmations in the gospels. The doubt, the questions, his rigorous desire for truth, the open wound of losing his purpose led him to faith by which he saw Jesus resurrected (which really means “standing again”) and exclaims: My Lord and my God.
While the story can be read to frame doubt and faith as opposites, it seems to me that Thomas’ dubious questions brought him to faith. Sure, he gets roughed up in the process, but with the help of his questions, he moves and grows and changes. He comes to see something he didn’t see before. Faith emerged from doubt, illustrating what Frederick Buechner said: Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.
If Thomas were around today, church-shopping, I bet he’d end up in an Episcopal pew. Many, including me, have been drawn to this denomination because of its hospitality to questions, seeing that welcome sign not as a precursor to some litmus test but as invitation to inquiry and exploration. So think with me about faith and wonder with me about its opposite. Annie Lamott asked her pastor about just that, about what is the opposite of faith. “I remembered something Father Tom told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
Last July, Pope Francis (I have to quote him again this week. He is, after all, man of the year.) wrote about faith and its opposite. He said that what really opposes faith is in the end idolatry. “We either seek God or we seek, knowingly or unknowingly to replace God with false gods.” Idolatry, the pope explains, “is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another.” But faith “consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call.” He said that faith is born of an encounter with God’s primordial love, wherein the meaning and goodness of our life become evident.
Which may well be the link between the Feast of St. Thomas and the Feast of the Nativity. Because as we wonder as we wander through this season, face it. It takes faith. I don’t just mean faith to believe in angels in the sky or virgin birth or stars that serve as GPS. I mean faith that the God of all creation would become a human being. I mean faith that we are loved as we are. I mean faith that the central fact about our lives is that we are on the receiving end of grace. Unconditional acceptance. If I really believed it, how different would my life be? So I come to Christmas like Annie Lamott. (No dreadlocks, though.) I come with a faith that notices the mess, the emptiness, the discomfort and letting it be there until some light returns, the light which our church sees in that candle at the center of the Advent wreath.
Bring your doubts with you to Christmas this year. You won’t be alone. Let them open the door to a deeper faith, faith by which the holy child of Bethlehem may in some miraculous way be born in you and me this day.
|The Collect for the Feast of St. Thomas (Observed on December 21)
Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with the other disciples 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.”
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.