Suspended Between Doubt And Belief

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Here’s a sermon I gave at New Song Episcopal Church on April 8, 2018:


Ever since I was ordained as a deacon a dozen years ago, Bob’s been telling me that I must not be a very good deacon, because I still don’t have a single merit badge on my sash. You know those merit badges that the Boy and Girl Scouts put on their sashes, the ones that prove they’ve completed various requirements.

It makes me think about what New Song merit badges would be like. Think of the possibilities. We could give Jane a merit badge showing a clipboard, and Anne one with an email message embroidered on it. Anyone who’s served on the vestry gets a purple heart. And the cleaning crew gets a badge with a little toilet brush on it.

It’s nice to get that official stamp of approval, whether it’s a merit badge, an ordination, or an academic degree. It’s a sign that we’ve worked hard and that our efforts have been recognized.

But while there’s nothing wrong with that kind of credential, it can also fool us into making the external validation more important than the internal reality. In the Gospel reading for today, for example, the disciple Thomas is looking for that sort of exterior sign. When told that Jesus has risen from the dead, he says, “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.”

From the standpoint of the world, Thomas is exactly right. This is, after all, the sort of hard-nosed, scientific approach that we’ve been taught from childhood. Show me the data and I’ll be convinced, but not before. It’s no wonder that the term Doubting Thomas has entered the larger culture, for he expresses a universal human trait. We demand certainty and proof. We want to see the merit badges others have earned and display our own, because that’s the main way we can know what we’re all worth.

The risen Christ, of course, shows Thomas the proof he is looking for. He tells Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

And then he adds, in a message that is meant for all Christians as well as for Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

“Doubting Thomas” by Caravaggio

If you’re like me, it’s at this point that rationality kicks in. Well, yes, we know that we’re supposed to have faith, we say to ourselves, but you can get into a lot of trouble believing everything anyone tells you. Think of the fake news on Facebook, for example. Skepticism is needed, even in matters of faith.

And so we’re left suspended between doubt and belief, waiting, like Thomas, to see the evidence of resurrection with our own eyes.

All of this makes me think of something that Kathleen Norris writes in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. The book has a lovely chapter on belief that begins by reminding us that in its Greek root, the verb “to believe” simply means “to give one’s heart to.” Our understanding of belief, Norris writes, too often focuses on intellectual certainty. If we’re going to believe something we need to have weighed it carefully and examined it in all its particulars before we can wholeheartedly affirm it.

When Norris came back to Christianity after many years away, she felt that her inability to believe in this way was a huge obstacle. When she talked about her frustrations with the monks at a Benedictine Abbey she had begun visiting, she was surprised that they seemed so unconcerned about her intellectual frustrations with Christianity. One old monk cheerfully told her that her doubt was merely the seed of faith, a sign that her faith was alive and ready to grow. If Norris just kept coming back to worship, he said, things would eventually fall into place.

So not knowing what she believed, Norris began to show up in church week after week. Sometimes she was so depressed by the experience that it took her days to recover. But gradually, the liturgy began to change her. She writes, “If I had to find one word to describe how belief came to take hold in me, it would be ‘repetition.’”

We often think of repetition as the stuff of boredom, but Norris—a poet—uses an example from literature to explain the power of repetition in liturgy. She compares liturgy to the ballad form in poetry, in which the refrain is the same from stanza to stanza. The refrain conveys something different each time because of what is said in the lines in between. For Norris, in the refrain of the church services, in the familiar retelling of hymns, scripture stories, and psalms, the web of her faith was woven again.

Remember again the Greek root of “believe”: to give one’s heart to.   If we give our hearts to service, to the love of our neighbor, and to the worship of God, it’s all right if we can’t give an intellectual justification for every part of Christian theology. The most important part of our belief is that we continue to worship, allowing the loom of the liturgy to re-weave our tapestry of faith.

This struggle between doubt and belief is, I suspect, part of the journey of everyone who takes their religious commitment seriously. I know it’s part of mine. Despite the merit badge of ordination, I continue to struggle with what this complex and perplexing religion means. Like Thomas, I would like to have my doubts settled with some spectacular, miraculous display.

But that is not how faith works, as I was reminded not long ago when I read an intriguing story about Mother Teresa. We all know of her extraordinary life spent in service to the poorest of the poor. But what many do not know is that Mother Teresa’s inner life was not as serene as it seemed.

Part of her story is well-known. At the age of 36, Mother Teresa received a profound religious epiphany, an overwhelming sense of the presence of God that lasted for several weeks and that convinced her she must leave her life as a teacher to work among the poor of Calcutta. It was a time of intense happiness for her, an experience that would alter her life forever.

But there is another part to this story that’s only been revealed after Mother Teresa’s death. The great secret of her life was that after this time she experienced a spiritual darkness that lasted for many years, perhaps to the very end of her life.

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She described this to her spiritual directors as an “interior darkness,” a feeling of distance from God. God seemed absent, heaven empty, and her sufferings meaningless. She wrote, “In my soul I feel …. that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” Having once felt so intensely the presence of God, his absence was all the more frightening, confusing, and painful to her.

The most remarkable thing about this story, of course, is that despite her doubts, Mother Teresa devoted her life to the service of the poor and destitute. She never spoke publicly of her inner struggles. Her belief lay not in what she was intellectually certain of, but rather in what she gave her heart to.

While there’s something comforting in the fact that even a person such as Mother Teresa struggled with doubts, it also presents us with a challenge. It’s easy for us to dismiss the sacrifices of holy people by saying that they draw such comfort and strength from their faith that it is not difficult for them to serve God. Instead, for many, such sacrifices come despite their doubts and fears. As Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

By the end of her life, Mother Teresa had come to accept this painful darkness as a gift: a way of identifying with the poor in their suffering and with Christ’s feelings of abandonment on the cross. She wrote, “I have come to love the darkness, for I believe it is a part, a very, very small part, of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”

So how do we reconcile this knowledge of her inner struggle with the profound joy that by all accounts seemed to radiate from her? Such joy, I think, speaks to the deep paradox that lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Joy is possible even as we doubt, even as we struggle, even if it seems we walk in darkness. Joy does not depend upon intellectual certainty.

And so today we rejoice in the Risen Christ with skeptical Thomas, our brother in doubt, with Mother Teresa, whose inner darkness did not keep her from a life of service, and with everyone trying to find a way to believe in an age of disbelief. Together we walk with hesitant steps towards the bright light of the resurrection, hardly daring to believe what we see is true.







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