Archive for February 28th, 2009

A First Sunday of Lent Reflection

“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)

I like to wonder sometimes exactly what life was like ‘inside the narratives.’ Man, I have been reading these stories in the Bible since I learned how to read. Trouble with me is that I have never spent a day outside the church. There’s never been a doubt. That’s not to say I didn’t wander at times-for large swaths of time. It is to say, however, that ‘church’ has always been my life. I knew, or at least had inklings, that I would be a preacher from a very early age of my life (like around the age of 6 or 7 when I ‘preached’ to my school bus driver one day after another student got all excited about finding a dollar bill on the floor.) So I like to wonder and wander. I stay near the center, but like one of our bloggers here says, I try to stay close enough to the edge to matter.

I mean it must have been crazy living in those days and experiencing what they experienced. Who can understand it? All of the sudden a man walks up to John the Baptist and asks to be baptized. The next day John points at him and says, “Behold the Lamb of God!” which is something closer to, “Hey, you people, you people, wake the hell up and look at the One God has provided! Shake yourselves out of your stupor and Look at this One among you! If you can believe it, if you can accept it: The Lamb of God!” I’m sure not a few laughed a serious belly laugh that day. If the eleven could stand on the mountain with Jesus after his death, burial, and resurrection and doubt what they saw then imagine how it must have been for those that day when John simply said, “Behold!”

“They worshiped…some doubted.” Doubted. Indeed. They worshiped; some doubted. Yet none were excluded, all were commissioned. And Jesus, perhaps not ironically, didn’t condemn them for doubting.

Commenting on the book The Resurrection of the Body LaVonne Neff writes, “This, I think, is the book’s chief charm: it re-creates some of the bewilderment people surely felt in Jerusalem during the weeks following Jesus’ crucifixion.” Bewilderment? That’s an understatement. She titled her book review “Giving Up Certainty for Lent.” When I first saw it I thought, “Ha!” Then I wondered, “Do I have the courage to give up certainty…forever…until at last my eyes behold him?”

But you know what? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Struggling mightily to overcome something inside that has stirred up all sorts of strange feelings and ideas. And I cannot (overcome it). It’s that perpetual ‘what if?’ I don’t like it because, and this is the truth: I don’t have the courage to doubt. I like certainty, knowing. I like the world devoid of doubt. I don’t like uncertainty. I don’t like thinking: Oh my God, what if I am wrong? What if my wrong is too much? What if I am not right enough? Of course, this is where grace comes in and rescues us. It doesn’t matter how hard I try to outrun grace. I can’t. I. Can’t.

You know how much courage it must have taken for those disciples standing right next to the resurrected Jesus to worship and doubt? Sadly, we have made it the job of theologians and preachers and apologists to work hard, ever so hard, to go about erasing all those doubts instead of creating a space where that worship and those doubts are held in tension. We feel like we need to fill the void that exists between worship and doubt. Jesus said, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” What he didn’t say is, “Blessed are those who have the courage to eliminate all doubts in order to believe” (John 13:29). But Jesus also said, “Stop doubting and believe” (John 13:27). Yet, Matthew 28:17 evidently occurs after this exhortation. I’m not interested in the nature of or the reason for their doubt. All I know is that Matthew had the courage to tell us that even those theological behemoths had the courage to doubt–standing right next to Jesus no doubt.

William Willimon wryly notes, “God is proved only by God’s speaking, not through natural theology arguments of God’s existence. Since the unbeliever lacks the one requisite for true knowledge, that is, faith, there is no wonder why apologetics, which tries to get around the need for faith, doesn’t work. Where God fails to convince the unbeliever, there is little that we can do to convince” (Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 178). That’s not all. It gets worse, far worse:

“The only means we have of making sense of the gospel is Christ. Apologetics tends to speak and reason as if the cross and resurrection of Christ were incidental to comprehension of what we have to say, as if Christian claims can be comprehensible even if one rejects the Christian world. In other words, if we ever devised an effective apologetics that enabled us to present the Christian faith without recourse to a God who speaks for himself, then all we would have done is, through our apologetics, convinced people that there is no God who speaks. To put it in another way, apologetics is a sort of backhanded way of saying that what we believe about God is not really true. We have no weapon to defend Christ; he can only defend himself. We have no weapon to defend Christ; he can only defend himself. We have no ‘knock down’ arguments for Christ; he himself is the only argument” (Conversations, 178)

What? Not one? Upon what shall I base my, uh, belief then? Faith? Pshaw! Thus the door is open to doubt. And doubt opens the door to faith. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” and “the righteous one will live by faith.”

I have a confession to make: I wish I had that kind of faith. That is, I wish I had the courage to doubt. I wish I had the intestinal fortitude to doubt, say, the literal reading of certain books of the Bible. Part of the ongoing experiment that God undertook when he called me was to lead me to the sort of faith that gives me the courage to doubt. In this I have discovered why I went from being an avid reader and cheerleader for certain blogs to fierce opponent: that which is based upon absolute certainty is not based on faith; that which has all the answers has not asked enough questions, let alone the right questions; that which knows and sees beyond doubt cannot be that which lives by faith or perhaps has passed on from this world already. Only that which is found in confusion, perplexity and doubt can truly be said to be that which is by faith. It’s like believing in bodily resurrection and still having the courage to be cremated. It’s like believing in bodily resurrection, being cremated, and still having the courage to have your ashes scattered in the wind.

I guess even that kind of faith has courage to face death doesn’t it?

You know where certainty comes from though, right? It comes from fear: Bold, unashamed, unmitigated fear. It comes from the sort of fear that actually prevents us from growing. It is the sort of fear that stagnates us, leaves us on the plateau of certainty. Fear is, I’m convinced, the catalyst for works righteousness and the complete abandonment of faith as life and grace as salvation. Fear believes it is saved because of certainty. Faith believes it is saved in spite of doubts.

Doubts don’t arise from fear, but faith. I’m not talking about the sort of doubt that leads to apostasy or blasphemy. I’m talking about the sort of doubt that can only lead to faith. I’m talking about the sort of faith that doesn’t resort to mere apologetics but is willing to live in the place between worship and doubt, between seeing and not seeing, between wisdom and foolishness, between weakness and strength.

I have a confession to make. God is leading me there and the journey is not easy and not without resistance from me. I like certainty. I like answers. I like knowing. I told someone in a thread the other day, “I’m not confused at all.” Well, that was a lie I told to cover up all sorts of fears, not to cover up all sorts of doubts. I wish now I hadn’t said that. Doubt is not sin. Doubt doesn’t necessarily lead to death, but perhaps it does lead to a deeper faith in the One who overcomes death.

God is leading me to a place where I don’t have to be right. He is leading me to a place where I can be wrong. He is leading me to the place where He is, to Jesus. Being courageous enough to doubt, to live in uncertainty, to not know all the answers, is the courage to live in His grace and find it sufficient. Doubt, then, is the catalyst for salvation by grace, and grace alone.

You could say I lost my faith in science and progress
You could say I lost my belief in the holy church
You could say I lost my sense of direction
You could say all of this and worse but

If I ever lose my faith in you
There’d be nothing left for me to do.

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