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On Bumper Stickers and Believing – A Reflection on Thomas (Part 1)

April 21, 2012

This past week I put this bumper sticker on my car:

I don’t put bumper stickers on it very often, but I liked the message of this one. Anyway, this has left me with bumper stickers on the brain, so this posting will have many bumper sticker references!

First, here are some real bumper stickers that I like, but decided not to put on my car:

It’s the topic of the last of these bumper stickers, doubt, that I’d like to reflect on for a few minutes. Last Sunday, our Gospel (John 20:19-31) featured Thomas, and when we think of this apostle, most of us, I think, remember him as “doubting Thomas.”

I love the story of Thomas in John 20.

I love it for two reasons:

First, I can really relate to Thomas. Believing didn’t come easily to Thomas. Maybe there are some reading this blog who find trusting easy, but many if not most of us find it a struggle. John 20 is like a story written to and about me, my situation. I feel like saying, “My name is Fergus, and I’m a recovering doubtaholic!”

I read these words written by a seminarian named Norman Shirk in 1981, a period in my life when I was having deep struggles with the darkness of doubt:

Let me meet you on the mountain, Lord,
Just once.
You wouldn’t have to burn a whole bush.
Just a few smoking branches
And I would surely be …your Moses.

Let me meet you on the water, Lord,
Just once.
It wouldn’t have to be on
a Lake.
Just on a puddle after the
And I would surely be…your Peter.

Let me meet you on the road, Lord,
Just once.
You wouldn’t have to blind me.
Just a few bright lights on the way to chapel
And I would surely be…your Paul.

Let me meet you, Lord,
Just once.
Anywhere. Anytime.
Just meeting you in the Word is so hard sometimes
Must I always be…your Thomas?

Thomas is away when Jesus comes that first Easter evening and speaks peace to the others’ hearts, breathes the Spirit and new creation on them, gives them mission. Thomas isn’t there for any of it!

If we were to pick a bumper to describe his situation, it could be something like this:

Or: “I’m stuck in neutral on the freeway of faith.” Have you ever felt like this? You look around and it seems like it’s so easy for others, when you find it such a struggle?

Well, there are two essential things Thomas did in these circumstances.

First, he was honest. He could have pretended to go along with the others. There would certainly have been peer pressure to do so. But Thomas was honest about where he was at.

His response was basically: “I’m glad for you, but it’s just not where I’m at. I just can’t enter into it.”

Tennyson wrote:
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the Creeds.

This is talking about doubt from a desire to know the truth, not laziness, a kind of apathy that says, “Who can really know; and who really cares?”

I agree with the sentiment of the following bumper sticker:

No, I’m talking about honest doubt. Doubt, to be honest, will mean seeking with all that is within us – reading, investigating, thinking. It can seem overwhelming. There are so many viewpoints, especially now with the internet. I strongly recommend that you look for two factors in those whom you consult. First: look for humility. If those you are consulting regard those who disagree with them contempt, if they make them out to be stupid or morally deficient, this is not a good sign! This is not wisdom, it is hubris! And the second factor is peer review. A website’s having an impressive appearance does not necessarily mean that it has impressive content. Proverbs 18:17 says: “The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines.” Many impressive-looking websites contain material that is woefully misguided. Remember: “scholarship” is not a dirty word! Every Bible you read, for example, is the result of scholars who devoted their lives to loving God with their minds. So look to see how the people you are consulting fare in that world. 

If you would like help doing this, I would be delighted to offer it to you. And in fact, I do definitely invite you to include talking with me, Cyril, or Norman as part of your seeking out truth. You may also find helpful the Book Nook by my office, our Parish Library, the Diocesan in-depth Education for Ministry programme, or Adult Ed. offerings at St. Paul’s (for example, our EFM Alums are presently looking at a series entitled “Serious Answers to Hard Questions”).

While seeking, you’ll want to watch out for an attitude like the reluctance we sometimes have to believe new information that a juicy rumour about some celebrity may not be true. You’ll want to watch out for your presuppostions. Speaking about our approach to the New Testament, textual scholar Daniel B. Wallace says: “You can’t interpret the text without certain biases, but we should challenge our biases as much as possible [rather than feed them].” [For information on the book from which this quotes comes, please click here.]

Doubting with integrity will spur us to go deeper. It is hungering for more of God.

What Thomas needs, he says, is to encounter Jesus himself. Following in the footsteps of Biblical figures like Job, he needs first-hand experience of God. Like Jacob, he needs to wrestle with God. Doubting with intergrity will settle for nothing less.

The second essential thing Thomas did was stick around! Next week, he’s still there. Can you imagine what that week must have been like?! Thomas doesn’t know that Jesus is going to appear again – as far as he knows, that might have been it – and he missed it because he was out doing something like getting bread! I think I might have decided just to slip away and leave – to say, “I just don’t belong here anymore.”

Christians often to this. They get separated off from the herd, so to speak, and allow the predators of doubt to feast on them. They go away to die.

We’re not meant to try to go through this journey of discipleship alone. We are here to care for one another. We’re all broken. I love Brennan Manning‘s words: “In Love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve.” This is true! [For information on the book from which this quotes comes, please click here.]

Well, Thomas doesn’t go away, and because he doesn’t, he’s there when Jesus appears again. If you’re having trouble finding Jesus, it’s a good idea to stay where most likely to meet him, to be where he’s been, to travel the well-worn paths of prayer, Holy Scripture, fellowship – even when our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling back at us, every passage of Holy Scripture seems hollow, and every member of the Parish’s love seems cold. It’s like eating food even when we don’t feel like it. Sometimes when you feel like eating it the least is when you need it the most – and you eat, not because it’s a joy to your taste buds, but because you know that you need it to survive.

This then is the first reason I love this story: I can relate to and learn from Thomas.

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