Jesus said to him (a father who had asked Jesus to heal his son in the grips of a life-threatening illness), “If you are able!-All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out “I believe; help my unbelief!”
If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.
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. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.
You can’t know – you can only believe. Or not.
One of the ways I pass the time: doing cartoons about church life. It’s fun, and kind of a no-brainer. Material surfaces in abundance. It’s just a matter of keeping one’s eyes open, as I don’t have to make anything up. One of my favorite themes portrays conversations that happen between clergy and parishioners at the door at the conclusion of services. I often gather these encounters under the title: What they say and what they mean. One might call it the “Bless your heart” syndrome.
For instance, people have said things like: “Your sermons have gotten so much better,” which I take to mean: “You used to be really bad.” People have said: “That was an interesting take on the passage,” which I take to mean: “Which half-baked seminary did you attend?” After one sermon on a difficult passage, a parishioner leaned in and said to me: “Nice try,” which I took to mean: “You probably should have let someone else try.”
Recently, I preached a memorial service. The homily focused in particular on the Prayer Book directives for the service for the Burial of the Dead. It is intended as an Easter liturgy, one that finds all its meaning in the hope of the resurrection. (Look at those beautiful instructions in the Prayer Book on page 507 if you have a few minutes.) Based on the readings chosen for that service, readings marked by hope, my homily focused on Easter.
At the door after the service, a parishioner complimented me on the homily and said: “I liked it. It sounded like you really believe it.” The way he made the comment made me think he was a bit surprised. And that triggered a few thoughts, projections of what this parishioner meant by what he had said.
My paranoid self wondered/worried whether he meant that sometimes when I preach, I don’t really sound authentic or convincing. Do listeners wonder if I mean the things I say? Am I just toeing the line, just going through the motions, saying what I know I’m supposed to say, saying what I know will please the crowd?
I wondered if this parishioner had ever had the experience I have occasionally had, sitting in church services with clergy that seemed bored by the liturgy and unclear about what they’d like to proclaim. In those moments, I’ve wondered if there was anything those clergy found amazing about grace.
I wondered if this parishioner realized that there are times for me that the whole Christian story seems just so strange and hard to believe. Don’t get me wrong. There are times when I can joyfully jump into belief with both feet, totally immersed in wonder, love and praise.
And then there are times when I have to pray: “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Emily Dickinson said that she believed and disbelieved a hundred times an hour. She said that it made her faith nimble. Thanks, Emily, for that helpful take on my own spiritual vacillation.
As we begin Advent, we commit ourselves to a remarkable story, leading to Bethlehem. If it weren’t so familiar, we might find it beyond fantastic. If we’re honestly grappling with the story, we might well join Mary who responded to the angel’s birth announcement by saying: “How can this be?” And as we follow the story to Easter morning, there will be more and more moments that fill us with wonder, and maybe doubt and disbelief.
I’m grateful that in the memorial service this parishioner got the idea that I believed in hope. Where would we be without it? The focus of that service represents the core of the Christian faith. And while I confess doubts about the mystery of life here and beyond, and while I admit that I have no idea what it really means that in death life is changed, not ended, I do in fact believe that there is truth there, truth worth banking on.
I hope that provides a hopeful note as we begin the season of Advent, a season of hope.
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