The blessing of doubt

Doubting ThomasEaster morning we sang Charles Wesley’s words, “Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!” The same day, twenty-nine children enjoying an Easter outing in Pakistan were among those killed by a suicide bomber. Maybe the psalmist’s words would have suited the day better, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” (Ps. 137:4)? How can we sing of resurrection and new life when the music of terror and death is playing so loudly around us?

Clara Peller’s question from the old Wendy’s commercial comes to mind. “Where’s the beef?” If Jesus is raised from the grave, if the signal event marking God’s triumph over death has come to pass, where’s the evidence of it? Where’s the proof of the promise? Frankly, sometimes I feel closer to Thomas than to any of the other disciples. “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” (John 20:25).

But I do believe. Last week my thoughts were about hope for the future, about planting the seeds of flowers we will never see blossom, and that hope seems to be part of my spiritual DNA. I can’t shake it; it won’t let go of me. But just as there can be no light without shadow, life is invariably a mixture of joy and grief, of hope and despair, of certainty and doubt.

The first church song I learned as a child speaks of a life of faith lived at some distance from the life of this world, and it includes this stanza and its refrain:

Far below the storm of doubt upon the world is beating,
Sons of men in battle long the enemy withstand;
Safe am I within the castle of God’s word retreating,

Nothing then can reach me, ’tis Beulah Land.

I’m living on the mountain, underneath a cloudless sky;
I’m drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry;
O yes, I’m feasting on the manna from a bountiful supply,
For I am dwelling in Beulah Land.1

There are some who say their Easter faith has them living on a mountain under a cloudless sky, but I’ve never known that kind of faith. There are clouds in my sky. While faith has occasionally led me to a high place with an expansive view, most of my life is lived in valleys where the view is limited by sharp turns in the path, and dense forest, and thick fog that often won’t let me see beyond the next step.

It’s not because I believe it literally and without reservation that I tell the Easter story. At least as often as not, I tell it because I need to be reminded what path I’m on in a world where children are offered as sacrifice in some passing ideological battle. I’m one of those who, as Jesus said, “have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29), and I sometimes have to look very hard to find blessing in it.

But blessing there is, although I find little of it among those saccharine Christians who are all smiles and dimples, who claim and appear to live on the mountain under a cloudless sky. Easter faith – the faith I think is the real kind – does not transport us to some existential Beulah Land as if on a celestial elevator. Real Easter faith, I believe, grows out of an encounter with the risen Christ precisely here, on the winding path of life in the valley, even the valley of the shadow of death, where doubt is a constant companion.

The traditional Easter greeting and response is “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!” Ancient spiritual tradition has another saying that goes along with it: tempus fugit, memento mori, “time flies, remember you must die.” There is no resurrection without death; death is the gateway to resurrection. And I think there is no real faith, no honest faith, without real and honest doubt. Doubt has within it the seeds of deeper faith.

Last week Parker Palmer published a graceful reflection on springtime. In it he wrote:

Before spring becomes beautiful, it’s plug-ugly, nothing but mud and muck. I’ve walked through early spring fields that will suck the boots off your feet, a world so wet and woeful you yearn for the return of snow and ice.

Of course, there’s a miracle inside that muddy mess: those fields are a seedbed for rebirth. I love the fact that the word humus, the decayed organic matter that feeds the roots of plants, comes from the same word-root that gives rise to humility.

As my personal winters turn slowly toward spring, I find it hard enough to keep slogging through “the mud within.” I find it even harder to credit the small harbingers of new life to come, hard to be hopeful until the outcome is secure. Spring teaches me to look more closely within myself and trust the green tendrils of possibility: the intuitive hunch that may morph into a larger insight, the glance or touch that may start to thaw a frozen relationship, the stranger’s act of kindness that makes the world seem like home again.2

Mud and muck is an all-too-present reality in the valley of this life, where disciples hide behind locked doors in fear (John 20:19) and where anyone might want to be safe “within the castle of God’s word retreating.” Thomas teaches us to look more deeply at it and hold it more closely. For precisely in our doubts may be the seeds of a faith that leads to our own encounter with the risen Christ.

 

notes — 1. Charles A. Miles, “Dwelling in Beulah Land,” 1911. ▪ 2. Parker Palmer, “Spring Is Mud and Miracle,” On Being (onbeing.org), 29 March 2016.

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