Kids ask the most inane questions. “Daddy, what if I slept upside down?” “Mommy, what if I were a kitty cat?” “Daddy, what if I only ate candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?” Like I said, kids sometimes ask inane questions. But then again, so do adults like for instance, “What if the Moon didn’t exist?”
University of Maine science professor Dr. Neil Comins stumbled onto a teaching device when considering, or perhaps enduring, his son’s numerous “what-if” questions. He was convinced that scientists were stuck in a rut: always looking at their world from the same tired perspectives. Comins wondered if “what-if” questions could become the catalyst for scientific discovery, and he started with the question: “What if the Moon didn’t exist?” The result was Solon—not the town just north of here, but rather a spectacular world that was theoretically created by this “what-if” question.
Solon, in their theoretical questioning, is a planet exactly like Earth but without a moon. Comins and his colleagues discovered that Solon has smaller ocean tides since the moon accounts for most high and low tides. There were other discoveries too. For instance, the moon affects the speed at which Earth rotates, so with no moon Solon is a planet of 8-hour days instead of 24-hour days. That means we would all be three times as old and sleep one-third as many hours each night. The upside is that the workday would be from noon to three instead of eight to five. Additionally, Solon is a world of regular 100 mph winds and horrifically more destructive tornadoes and hurricanes. We’d have to forget about any outdoor activities, as we’d be reduced to cave-dwelling for survival. In fact, according to Comins’ moonless world, Solon would not be a planet that could support any complex life forms. All of which tells us the moon seems to be working well for life on Earth—all because of a simple question.
But science aside, this “what-if” inquisition is nothing new. In fact we put ourselves through such all the time, be it as second guessing ourselves or as an escapist day dream. What if I never went back to that horrible job? What if I hit the lottery? What if I married the wrong person? What if my spouse married the wrong person?! What if the Browns, Indians, or Cavs won a world championship?
Whether whimsical and silly, or out of painful frustration, we are always asking ourselves “what-if” questions. But there is one place where “what if” questions are not a normal part of processing and engagement, and that is the church: “What if God didn’t exist?—Hey, don’t ask that question—that’s ridiculous!”
History shows that the church has not always handled “what-if” inquisitors, or faith-teetering skeptics, or wearied doubters with gracious elegance and honest engagement—but rather with judgement and condemnation. Why is that? Because truth be told, we all have doubts—doubts about our faith, doubts about Jesus, doubts about God. Is it because doubt is the opposite of faith?
Here’s what we need to remember about doubt— God gets that we have doubts. Jesus gets that we have doubts. Doubt is not the opposite of faith—it is actually essential to our faith because even if we don’t want to admit we have doubt—God and Jesus are always at work with a response.
And just what is that response? It is a response not of judgement or condemnation. Rather it’s a response of grace and understanding, a response of peace and love. It is a response of a vision of a future filled with hope and new life. This is the response Jesus gave to Thomas—the quintessential doubter himself—and it’s the response Jesus gives to us.
I think Dr. Comins and his teaching technique of asking “what-if” questions is rather intriguing. Not only does it reframe the notion that doubt isn’t a bad thing, it can actually lead us to learning more about where we are, who we are, and the blessings we have. Therefore, if “what-if” questions can teach us and help us achieve a broader perspective and a heightened awareness then why not use the technique to grow our faith, instead of thinking it as some sort of degradation to our faith.
So let’s try one… What if Jesus had stayed in the tomb?
Of course, that one wasn’t just a “what if” for the disciples. Jesus being entombed was their soul-shattered reality. To consider this one, it would be helpful for us to stop and put ourselves into their experience—for by doing so we learn more about them, ourselves, and the blessings we have.
Jesus was indeed God in the flesh raised from the dead, but for the days after the crucifixion the Disciples had no way of knowing this. They found themselves suddenly living in a moonless Earth. These were confused, faith-misfits, who appeared to be totally wrong about the King of the new kingdom they were promised. Their rabbi was dead, and now they feared the same would happen to them. We can only imagine all the haunting “what-if” questions they thought of. To surmise their world in one word, it would have to be “doubt.” And rightly so. Everything that could go wrong, had gone terribly wrong—at least in their minds. Even though Jesus had assured them that this was the plan—still they doubted—just like we do.
So how does God respond to these doubters—to us doubters? Again, not with condemnation and judgment; but rather with one simple yet profound thing: an experience.
In the midst of their broken hearts, and all their doubt, the Disciples had an experience with the resurrected Jesus. Sure, it involved seeing Jesus, hearing him, even touching him, but it went beyond the physical sensations and became a spiritual experience. And this is how it happened…
Jesus meets with them behind closed doors, and as a result of their experience… Their world-ending fear was turned back into the joy they had hoped in…Their secluded gathering is turned into a powerful commissioning… Their despair was turned into a presence of the eternal that empowered them to go out from behind those closed doors and live again in this world.
In short, they didn’t just see Jesus; they had a religious/spiritual experience because of Jesus—an experience that assured them that all they had heard and seen and been a part of was still true, it was all still possible. But only 10 of them had that experience.
One of the 12 took his own life before he could have that experience. Another of the 12, Thomas, was still locked in the tomb of doubts—there because he was not privy to the same experience the others had had. And he would not believe those who had and were now telling him about it. Instead Thomas felt skepticism and doubt— all because “The Doubter” as we like to chastise him with, didn’t have the same religious experiences that the ten did. But Thomas will soon show us that God’s response to our doubt is never “one and done”, “snooze you lose.” Rather God is always working to respond to our doubt.
We are so much like Thomas it’s not even funny. Thomas is tactile and needed tangible proof, and he’s merely expressing sentiments that countless pilgrims after him will echo.
Our prayers seem to bounce off of the ceiling. We don’t know how to relate to an invisible God. Life is hard and ugly, which makes God hardly seem loving. We are beset with disbelief as we watch hypocritical political and church leaders ensconced in scandal and double standards. We are in pain all the time; the supernatural is unnatural; the preacher is boring; the Bible is a confusing, constraining, contradicting rule book; we don’t know how to reconcile dinosaurs with Genesis; there are terrible things like tornados and hurricanes and tsunamis and children who get cancer; we’re judged for being Christians while others are judged for not being Christians.
All these doubts, all these questions, all these frustrations and vitriol course through our veins and we don’t know what to do about because we don’t want to be seen as doubters. We want to be seen as those who have faith! Those who have it all figured out, and who believe that everything is for a reason. But that’s not always possible.
What can happen though is we can seek to have an experience with God, an experience that will in some way become God’s response to our doubt, an experience that can reset our lives in such a way that we can keep going, keep moving forward, keep living—in spite of all the doubts we have. And we create avenues and inroads for just such experiences when we ask our questions and make known our doubts—to others, and especially to God.
People today—non-church people, nominally churched people, hardcore Christians—all of us stand in the legacy of Thomas whether we want to admit it or now. We stand in the legacy of this one who in the words of fellow doubter, and author, Philip Yancey, who asks, “How do you sustain a relationship with God, a being so different from any other, imperceptible by the five senses? Just how do you do this?”
I believe the how is found when we are open to experiencing God in ways we never imagined or would ever allow ourselves to have when we stop hiding our doubts, and instead embrace our doubts.
For I believe—as Thomas shows us—that when we have doubts we ask questions, and when we ask questions we seek answers, and when we seek answers we may not find them, but what will happen is we will nonetheless have a faithful experience and discover God’s response to our doubts—and God’s response is never condemnation and judgement, but always grace and understanding, peace and love, a vision of a future filled with hope.
So may we—like mold breaking scientists and inane children—embrace our wonder, our curiosity our doubts, and start asking questions—whether they are silly and whimsical or harsh and full of frustrations. May we seek to embrace, dignify, and journey with those inside and outside of the church who have doubts of the risen Christ.
For when we do, we will have a faithful experience and discover God’s response to our doubts, by being becoming the blessed that Jesus spoke of: “Those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” God’s response to our doubts will always lead us to deeper beliefs and stronger faith. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer: April 3, 2016
Gracious God, you come into our midst in the most mundane of circumstances. How much more do you reveal your presence and call on our lives when we put aside our desires and make ourselves available to your direction?
How much more do you offer the assurances we need to put our trust in your ways when we are willing to stop permitting the hesitant voices of suspicion to influence us?
Lord God, we have seen your miracles, we have experienced your work in our lives, and yet we still question you and hesitate to believe you are always good.
So we pray holy one, let us not so quickly forget the celebration we had last week and the truth of the resurrection. Give us faith to believe you. Give us trust to know that you made the miracle of resurrection happen. Give us the audacity to see the impossible and know that you made it all happen.
But for such to be so, fully, in our hearts and minds and spirits we know we must first confess our doubting ways and seek your forgiveness. So… When our faith stands at the grave, grieving for a stone that’s rolled away, and what it means we will now have to do and be, forgive us. When our faith is short of understanding, though the truth is there to see, and we will truly have to die to our old ways, forgive us. When our faith, beset by doubt, sees no further than an empty tomb, and we simply want to just stay still weeping, forgive us.
Forgive us, then bring to mind the cry of Mary when she said, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ and grant us faith to believe! Forgive us, then bring to mind the doubt of Thomas that was turned to trust and belief when he had a resurrection experience with Jesus. For we know that with your forgiveness, and a Jesus experience, we will become again, your faithful, trusting, followers.
We ask that you would listen now to the prayers from deep within our hearts and souls, as we share them in this time of holy silence.
All this we pray in the name of Jesus the Christ, our risen and resurrected Savior, who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”