Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Doubt on Steroids

Then Jesus 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.” John 20:27

I’ve known some serious doubters in my time and quite often I’ve been one of them.

I’ve also known some frivolous doubters who simply wish to distinguish themselves from silly simpletons of faith. They think Christians view God as a white bearded misogynist who sits on a cloud behind pearly gates, glaring at Muslims and grumbling ominously about same sex marriages. 

Those who don’t believe this god exists are welcome to their atheism, and they would include most church attenders.

Some doubters, however, are merely intellectual posers. They find it cool to be an agnostic or atheist. It makes them look smarter than their church going friends and it declares their emancipation from pious, controlling parents.

And there are doubters who doubt out of laziness, either because they don’t wish to trouble themselves with deep questions about the meaning of life, or because it gives them an excuse to stay in bed on Sunday mornings.

But I’m not thinking about bush league doubters. I’m thinking about persons whose doubt is on steroids, mounting daily, cramping the synapses of their frontal cortex, torturing them with illusions of insight while shrinking their cerebral testicles.

For doubters such as this, Thomas is the patron saint. 

His was not the kind of doubt that enabled him to sleep late or feel superior to his believing friends.

His was a throbbing doubt, and the toothy grins of his fellow disciples tortured him. 

What did Thomas want to believe more than anything else? 

That Jesus was alive. 

What did he know could never happen? 

That a dead man could return to life. 

While his friends snickered, he continued to mourn.

Many of us share the pain of knowing a loved one is gone and can never return. The pain may fade slightly over the years, but it never goes away.

As is often the case in social media, I have a Facebook friend I’ve never met. She is a Baptist minister and prison chaplain who contacted me at the National Council of Churches to ask the council’s help in securing clemency for a death row inmate. Interventions from the Council and from the Pope did no good and the prisoner was executed, but I remained in touch with the chaplain in Facebook.

Shortly after the execution of the prisoner, the chaplain learned her young daughter had a particularly dangerous form of cancer. The mother decided to share her pain with her Facebook friends. For months, I was among those who prayed and laughed and wept as this child’s prognosis rose and fell. At first it seemed the chemotherapy was working. Then the cancer returned, and the doctors said one of her legs must be amputated. This was a tough decision for the mother of a child who wanted to be a dancer, but there was still hope the operation would save her life. Nevertheless, a year ago, this beautiful little girl died.

Not long ago, my friend placed this message on Facebook:
Not sure why I want my FB world to know, but I just need to share. I hurt. Being a bereaved mother sucks. I miss her smile, her crystal blue eyes and knowing how she would be thinking about the world. Not worth listing all the things I miss ... because it is every single thing. I know it isn’t realistic, but it doesn't stop my heart from screaming, “Please come home ... please ... I need you back.”
While his glib friends were smiling, Thomas the Doubter was feeling a pain akin to this. “Please come back home, Jesus, please, I need you back,” But as any sensible human being must, he would have added, “I know it isn’t realistic.” He doubted. And so would we.

Doubt is not a trifling thing. Doubt is pain. Doubt is facing the fact that we can never have what we want most, what we need most. Doubt is the ultimate darkness. It’s ironic that we have been raised to think of Thomas as a man of little faith, when in fact his doubts were logical. “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,” he said, “I will not believe.” It was a cry of agony, not arrogance.

In 2008, the National Council of Churches was observing the 100th anniversary of the founding of its predecessor organization, the Federal Council of Churches in the USA.

As webpage editor, I was assigned to develop a monthly series of “ecumenical moments” that highlighted special events in the history of the Council. 

I looked for leaders and events that called attention to the special ministries of the Council. There was Arthur Flemming, a Republican member of President Eisenhower’s cabinet who was an eloquent advocate for Civil Rights; Harold Stassen and J. Irwin Miller, often touted as men who should have been president of the United States; Cynthia Wedel, a pioneering advocate for women’s rights and a member of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women; Eugene Carson Blake, who linked arms with Martin Luther King, Jr., on the 1963 “I have a dream” march with Washington.

All were persons of great faith and all were activists for peace, equal rights, and justice.

But as I leafed through the pages of Outlook, a magazine published by the Council from 1950 to 1953, I realized I was missing an important ministry not always associated with the National Council of Churches: evangelism.

I was surprised to discover the Council had a director of evangelism in the early fifties. He was a fiery, energetic preacher named Charles Templeton, who happened to be a good friend of Billy Graham. A long article in Outlook described Templeton’s homiletical zeal and remarkable success in winning souls for Jesus.

Yes! I thought. Perfect! What better example of the Council’s little known evangelical side? Was Templeton still alive? Was he still in the evangelism biz? I jumped on my computer and began searching for him.

I didn’t find Charles, but I found his son and gave him a call.

“I was just reading an old article about your dad’s years as evangelist for the National Council of Churches,” I said.

“Oh,” he replied, sounding interested.

“Is your dad still around?”

“He died in 2001.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You knew, right?”


“You knew he became an atheist and left the Council?”


So much for the NCC evangelism story.

Digging a little further, I discovered Templeton had written a book in 1996, Farewell to God, My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.

The book includes an account of his encounter with his old pal, Billy Graham.
In the course of our conversation I said, “But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.” 
“I don’t accept that,” Billy replied.
Charles Templeton had become a man of doubt. And he was no facile doubter. He was a doubter on steroids.

But, like Thomas, his doubts brought him pain.

Lee Strobel, the Christian journalist and author of The Case for Faith, recounts an interview he had with Templeton when he was in his 80s.

Strobel asked the aging atheist to update his thoughts about Jesus. Templeton’s response surprised him.
“He was,” Templeton began, “the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. What could one say about him except that this was a form of greatness?”
“Well, yes, he is the most important thing in my life ... I know it may sound strange, but I have to say , I adore him.  Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don’t think of him that way, but they don’t read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus.
“In my view,” he declared, “he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”
That’s when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, “I miss him!”
What happens to the doubters when they near the end of their lives?

Thomas does not reappear in the canonical bible after his encounter with Jesus, but tradition says he sailed to India in A.D. 52 to found some of the world’s oldest Christian churches. It shows what a doubter can do when his faith is renewed.

But – and one might sigh, Alas! – Jesus never appeared to Charles Templeton to invite him to feel his wounds. Templeton remained in doubt to the end of his life.

But Templeton’s words to Strobel remind us of something Frederick Buechner wrote in The Faces of Jesus:  “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

At the end of his life, Charles Templeton did not retract his doubt. But his words suggest he never lost the ants in his pants, either.

And whatever state his faith was in when he died, it is evident he never lost his fascination – or adoration – for Jesus, “the most important human being who ever existed.”

Jesus has that way of grabbing hold of one, even one who has never encountered his resurrected body or touched his wounds.

What does Thomas have in common with Charles the Doubter and all the other doubters-on-steroids who struggle to understand the secrets of the world?

I think the answer is this:

We may have periods in our lives – long periods, endless periods, when we lose touch with God or Jesus.

But God’s Holy Spirit never lets go of us.

And whether we are able to speak the words or not, whether we know it or not, there will never be a time we are out of the loving presence of our Lord and our God.
In the picture above, the man standing between Charles Templeton and Billy Graham is Torrey Johnson, founder of Youth for Christ; the three are planning an evangelistic trip to Europe.)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Dark Night of the Soul. In a Good Way.

Easter Sunday came in darkness. 

When the gloom descended the previous Friday, the whole world was engulfed in shadow. 

The shades of Saturday deepened, and when Sunday came at midnight, the darkness was absolute.

The Galilean’s disciples welcomed the darkness because it hid them from Herod’s agents. They huddled in grief and fear. Never had God seemed so far away.

The sun’s light failed at noon on Friday, and the meager crowd could barely make out the features of the three forlorn men nailed to crosses of execution. 

So, too, the men on crosses were engulfed in the darkness, feeling abandoned by their friends and spurned by God. 

Jesus felt the loneliness, too, crying into the blackness, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

There are over twelve thousand dark nights in a lifetime of 33 years. 

Jesus had been awake for many of them, contemplating his mission from God. Even through the darkest nights, when he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, he could feel God’s presence.

But dark had come early that Friday, and Jesus knew this was his last nighttime on earth. God felt far away.

In the darkness, he must have reflected on how close God felt during all the days of his life, even when he was struggling with how to carry out his special calling.

Posing in his secret identity as Jesus Bar Joseph, Jesus knew his very existence was an unprecedented moment, not only for humanity, but also for the Creator.

As a man, the Son of God had sampled most of the joys and woes of human existence: hunger and thirst, pain and pleasure, loneliness and friendship. 

Until the Son of God took on human flesh, these were but vicarious experiences for the Creator of the Universe: merely theoretical suppositions that this is how the created experience life. 

But Jesus rose and fell with all the heaving waves of human existence, without a safety vest, vulnerable and unprotected. 

He laughed. He cried. He reveled in friendship and reeled at rejection. 

Sometimes he fasted, sometimes he ate too much. Sometimes his critics called him a glutton. Sometimes they called him a drunk. Often they called him crazy.

Perhaps the only human experience Jesus did not know was motherhood, the ecstasy and pain that comes with bringing life into the world. His own mother felt the ecstasy, but now, at the foot of the cross, she remembers an old man’s prediction three decades earlier: the day will come when a sword will pierce your heart.

Throughout his lifetime, Jesus experienced what it was like to live the same way we all do.  

Life was being warmed by the sun and burned by the sun. 

Life was being refreshed by the rain, and chilled by the rain. 

Life was feeling comforted and fulfilled by human touches, and frustrated by human touches that brought unbidden pleasures. 

Life was being happy one moment, sad the next. 

And Jesus had a unique set of pressures we cannot imagine. 

He knew at an early age who he was, and what God expected him to do. He was God’s son.

He was being sent into the world not merely to sample its sensations, tastes and smells. He was sent into the world to redeem the world. 

He was God’s son, sent to be a living example of God’s unconditional love, and sent to show people how to love unconditionally. 

Now, in the darkness so complete he could not see his mother’s face, he knew that he had arrived at the final stage of his ministry, a climax he dreaded but knew he could not evade.

Here he was, in the blackness, dying in agony on a crude slab of wood, the final stage in God’s plan to save the world.

What did Jesus think when he first knew he was God’s messiah?

That question is left to our imagination. 

As a child did his uniqueness puzzle him? 

As a hormonal adolescent, did it exhilarate him to know he was genuinely God’s gift to women, and men? 

As a young man yearning for a normal life with a wife, family, and friends, did he try to escape it? Nikos Kazantzakis imagines God forced to pursue a reluctant Jesus relentlessly, digging talons into his scalp until he surrendered to his call.

But surrender he did, and faithfully he walked the dusty paths of Galilee to proclaim the arrival of God’s loving realm.

And now, it was over.

Jesus had been hanging on the cross for hours. He, like the two thieves beside him, was dying slowly of asphyxiation. He could no longer fill his lungs with air.

That is why his last words must be shouted. It requires an act of enormous will to summon the very last of his strength, the very last of his air, to force the words out of his mouth:

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

His last words express an intimate familiarity with God that has undergirded him all the years of his ministry: Abba! Papa! I am coming to you.

His last words are a shout of triumph that he has fulfilled his appointed task to be God’s instrument for the forgiveness of sinful humanity. His last words are a prayer of gratitude that his onerous tasks are over. 

His last words may even be a signal that he has forgiven God for putting him through this.

And now, in the darkness, he breathes his last. 

In the darkness, God prepares the setting for what is to happen next.

In the darkness.

Admittedly, we are a little creeped out by the darkness. But theologian Barbara Brown Taylor invites us to embrace the darkness, because – as the ancient mystics understood – darkness holds the divine mystery.

Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Darkness, is TIME magazine’s cover story this week.

An excerpt from the story:

The preacher in Taylor points out that darkness was often the setting for humanity’s closest encounters with the divine. God appeared to Abraham in the night and promised him descendants more numerous than the stars. The exodus from Egypt happened at night. God met Moses in the thick darkness atop Mount Sinai to hand down the Ten Commandments. The apostle Paul’s conversion happened after he lost his sight. Jesus was born beneath a star and resurrected in the darkness of a cave. “If we turn away from darkness on principle,” she asks, “doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance we are running away from God?”

Usually, when we think of Easter day, we think of the misty morning light in the garden. We think of the two Marys, perhaps after another sleepless might, blink their eyes in incredulity at what the light reveals: the Lord has risen!

But as Barbara Brown Taylor points out, the miracle itself happened in the dark. 

Quoting Taylor, TIME reports: 

“Most of the world’s major religions have something helpful to say about finding God in the shadows. Gautama Buddha meditated in the caves of northern India. Muhammad received the Koran in a cave outside Mecca. St. Francis prayed in a tiny grotto near Assisi. Darkness is inviting everyone in to know God, Taylor believes, to heal us of our weaknesses and strengthen us for the journey.”

She could have added that it was in the darkness, in Gethsemane, that Jesus felt a special closeness to God on the night before he was arrested.

In her book, Taylor writes, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

Now, in the bright sunlight of Easter Day, we pause to ponder exactly what has happened in the darkness.

The Lord is risen.

The Lord is risen in darkness, and he invites us to engage in our own special communion with God, in the darkness.
And to begin that journey, we can reflect in daylight that it was – to coin a phrase – when all seemed darkest that Jesus gave his life to reconcile us with the God of love.

In darkness he cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

His last words express the partnership of God the Father and God the Son for expressing unconditional love.

This is the great joy of Easter that can sustain us throughout out lives.

And when our own light begins to dim, when the ultimate darkness descends on us, Jesus’ sacrifice makes it possible to follow him to abundant life, joyously repeating after him: 

Papa, Poppi, Daddy,  we throw ourselves into your loving arms, forever.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

You're Not Going to Believe This

Ezekiel 37:1-14
John 11:1-45

If you haven’t seen The Book of Mormon, the award winning Broadway musical by the creators of South Park, you’re in for a surprise.

For me, the biggest surprise is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has purchased ads in the musical’s program. “You’ve seen the play,” the ads say, “Now Read the Book.”

It’s a surprise because the show doesn’t exactly portray Mormonism is the best light. If the show had done a similar number on American Baptists, we would have sued.

The musical, by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone, exposes all the difficulties facing a Mormon missionary:

The original prophet, Joseph Smith, who claimed the angel Moroni showed him where to dig up golden plates etched with a non-existent language that told about Jesus’ visit to America in the hours between his crucifixion and resurrection;

The plates themselves, which Smith said were snatched back by Moroni and could not be shown to anyone;

The fact that Smith said he transcribed the Book of Mormon after Moroni showed how to translate it, and which yielded a product that sounded like a poor imitation of King James Era English;

And alleged revelations that white men are entitled to all the concubines they could tolerate, but black men are evil.

No sane missionary wants to explain all this away while struggling to persuade an audience that God’s revelation in the Book of Mormon will make people happier, wealthier, and wiser.

A scene in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America raises the inevitable question. Hannah Pitt, a devout Mormon wife and mother, is witnessing to her depressed daughter-in-law, Harper.

“There’s something that’s always bothered me,” Harper says, bating her mother-in-law. “Everyone thinks the angel’s name was Mormon.”

“No,” Mother Pitt replies, exasperated. “The name of the angel …”

“I know, I went to Sunday school. Moroni.”

“Right. The angel Moroni.”

“So why don’t we call ourselves Morons?”

It’s hard to watch The Book of Mormon and not think of this line.

In the musical, the missionaries – Elder Price and Elder Cunningham – are burdened not only by the book’s improbable claims, but by their own ambitions and limitations.

Elder Price imagines himself as a heroic missionary who will save the world, preferably in a comfortable assignment in Orlando, Fla.

But the plot clots when the two missionaries are coupled for service in Uganda – not the real Uganda but a grotesquery that seems right out of the hemorrhoidal delirium of Idi Amin.

The two arrive in a Ugandan village beset with famine, poverty, and AIDS, and controlled by a deranged warlord who orders all the women to be circumcised.

It’s not a mission field white unto harvest, and the two missionaries are out of their element.

Ironically – as is often the case in the best missionary stories – it is the least clued missionary who makes the most progress.

Elder Cunningham, a short, overweight and overwrought young man, is handicapped by the fact he has never read the Book of Mormon “because it’s boring.”

What Elder Cunningham doesn’t know about the Book of Mormon, he makes up from his extensive knowledge of Star-Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings.

Applying song, dance, and a riotous monologue to his outlandish teachings, Elder Cunningham inserts storm troopers, Jedi Knights, Ewoks, Vaders, faeries, and raped frogs into the heretofore boring story of Joseph Smith.

The villagers buy it, enthusiastically. Where his straight-laced missionary partners have failed, Elder Cunningham wins converts to his eclectic but bizarrely improbable latter day gospel.

He wins so many converts, in fact, that the mission station becomes the most successful Mormon outpost in Africa.

But the bubble bursts when the district superintendent visits the village and the new converts put on a play to dramatize their skewed understanding of the Mormon story.

The superintendent is appalled and closes the mission immediately. The villagers are saddened that the one thing that has given them hope has been cancelled. 

One of the villagers, the beautiful Nabulungi, is devastated by the revelation that the stories she has been told are not true.

Happily, none of the other villagers are disturbed by the lack of veracity in the missionary stories. A woman scolds Nabulungi for her naivete. “Did you think these stories were true?” she asks. “They were MET-A-PHORS.”

At the end of the show – spoiler alert – the villagers, including the sadistic warlord, have embraced their new faith, Ewoks and all, because it has brought them into communion with God’s love.

It was the loving, albeit wildly inaccurate testimonies of the missionaries that did it.

As the curtain closes, the once woebegone villagers bask in love for God, Jesus, Joseph Smith, and each other.

I can see why the Mormons buy approving ads in the show’s programs. If I were a Mormon, I’d be proud of both my church and these wacky missionaries. They strayed so far from the truth that truth emerged pure and whole. They demonstrated the crushing power of MET-A-PHORS.

We Baptists and other creedal Christians have long scorned the Mormon’s implausible and unconvincing tales of angels, golden plates, and Jesus’ pre-resurrection visit to America. (Creedally, Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion, not Salt Lake City.)

But we creedal Christians have our own burden of implausible and unconvincing tales to tell.

Today’s scripture lessons place a couple of those tales before us now: the valley of the dry bones and the raising of a man dead four days.

Our grandparents and earlier ancestors had little problem with these incredible miracles. They avoided a careful forensic analysis. It takes too much fun out of bible stories if you don’t regard them as inerrant, literal truths. We slam the door on theological conversations when we declare, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

But as we contemplate the biological impossibility of restoring flesh to long dead bones, or revivifying a corpse in an advanced state of decomposition, we begin to understand why many people are skeptical about our well-meaning testimonies. “Can’t happen, don’t buy it, go away,” is the counter argument.

So what is the truth about the dry bones and the regenerated corpse?

People will argue about it until the end of time. As persons of faith, we can insist that God has the power to restore flesh to dried bones, and God has the power raise the dead. And skeptical agnostics can smile condescendingly and tell us that what we are saying is impossible.

But perhaps both sides are missing the point.

Whether these remarkable things happened or not, whether they are true of not, they are also MET-A-PHORS that point to a larger truth:

God loves us, and God will continue to love us today, tomorrow, and after this earthly life is over. Jesus put it plainly enough: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” (John 11:25)

What does that mean, biologically, spiritually, forensically?

Who knows? We can argue about it until we die, scorning those who don’t believe it and telling ourselves that if we stop thinking about it, that settles it.

But that would be missing the point.

It’s a MET-A-PHOR.

The truth it conveys is that the loving God has invited each of us, persons of faith and persons of doubt, into God’s eternal dominion.

And – in ways we cannot possibly understand or define now – we shall bask in God’s endless care and love forever.

There is no better tale than that.