Reflections to start the week
Monday, December 22, 2014
Doubting Thomas, a gift at Christmas
Before we arrive at Bethlehem on Thursday, today the church pauses to observe the feast of St. Thomas, disciple of doubting fame. Thomas steps forward and gives voice to what we all probably think at some point: “Hold your horses. I’ve some questions about this faith business.” I’ve long thought that Thomas should be the patron saint of Episcopalians. When Frederick Buechner described doubt as the “ants in the pants of faith”, perhaps he had Anglicans in mind. We like to live the questions, which can lead to doubt and cause us to dwell in skepticism. I often hear folks brag on the Episcopal Church as a place where one does not have to check one’s brain at the door. (That often has a hubristic tone, as if Christians who live out their faith in other ways aren’t quite as smart as Episcopalians. Perhaps a topic for another Monday.) But we love to love Thomas. He gives us a chance to talk about doubt and questions. Reflect with me this Monday morning about the doubts he had. They might have been questions asked in modernity: Can people really rise from the dead? Do laws of physics matter? Are we surrendering intellectual integrity? Are we giving in to nostalgia or wishful thinking, projection or transference?
Thomas may be the saint of choice for skeptics and doubters, Bill Maher fans. I might also call him the patron saint of the “dones”. You may have heard about the “nones”, the growing number of folks in our culture who claim no religious affiliation. The “dones” are a different group. As I read Thomas’ story (printed in the column on the left), I think he may be one of them. The “dones’ came to my attention in a post by a guy named Thom Schultz, who has written a book called “Why People Don’t Go To Church Anymore.” He describes the “dones’ as the de-churched, folks who had at one point been the most dedicated, active members of their congregations. But they’re tired. Tired of being lectured to. Tired of the Sunday routine: Plop, Pray and Pay. Schulz calls pastors to pay attention to this group, to help them start anew, to ask questions like why they are part of the church, what keeps them in church, whether they have thought of stepping away, how they would describe their relationship with God, how it has changed over the years, what would need to change to help them grow. Pastors need to call these folks (and themselves) back to their first love.
As I read the story of Thomas, it seems to me he was done, perhaps for different reasons than those noted by Mr. Schultz. His doubts were not primarily a matter of the head, but of the heart. His heart had been broken. He had been all in with Jesus, even promising to follow him to his death. He was, like folks mentioned above, among the most dedicated, active of the disciples. He had been disappointed. He had been wounded. He wasn’t going to get hurt again. He had cause to wonder if he’d made a big mistake in his own journey. He was tired of the challenge of discipleship. As I think about the “dones” I have met in my time in the church, I’m mindful of those who have given their hearts to the ministry and mission of the church and have been hurt or disappointed or spent in the process. Maybe you know folks like that. Maybe you are one of them. It’s happened to me. One of my fears is that I’ve caused it to happen to others. Lord have mercy on us all.
And thanks be to God, mercy is what we find this week. The good news of our faith, the good news of the Thomas story, an Easter story told on the cusp of Christmas, is that Jesus just keeps showing up. Herod and “No vacancy” signs and tombs and locked doors and fears and disappointment can’t keep him away. His name, Immanuel, means God with us, and that presence can be transformative, even to a person like Thomas or you or me who may at times feel “done”. This feast we celebrate at the end of the week is about God meeting us where we are. There is a way forward. There is more.
So pray this prayer this week, and give thanks to Thomas for making the Christmas encounter a richer experience:
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord, Immanuel.
– Jay Sidebotham
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.”
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.