In Canada we go to the polls tomorrow in another federal election. Will you vote?
I heard this past week the story of a former pastor of a Lutheran church in Belleville who immigrated from a former Eastern bloc nation during the Cold War era. In a sermon he gave prior to an election campaign now decades ago, he shared with the congregation how voting was done back in his home country during the Communist reign: “There was only one name on the ballot,” he said, “and it didn’t make any sense at all. But we had to go, and put a check mark beside that person’s name. God forbid, you did anything besides that.”
The pastor went on to describe his joy and pride to live in a country where he could now vote for one person among several. He had a choice. He, along with all other citizens, had been given the power to choose the government! This was amazing for him. And he looked forward to election day in Canada.
Someone listening to his sermon then called out, “But Pastor, who should we vote for?” The pastor didn’t miss a beat; he smiled and said, “We’re not that kind of church!” In other words, not to tell you what to do, but to encourage your belief and participation in the process.
If only all Canadians shared his enthusiasm and belief in our electoral system! If only all Canadians believed in the value of and appreciated the democratic freedom we have in the vote. That is what organizations such as Fair Vote, Apathy is Boring, and Student Vote are trying to resurrect, especially among younger generations of Canadians.
Is the fact that voter turnout was the lowest in Canadian history last time around due to a growing doubt, cynicism and despair among the electorate?
Is this malaise true also for us who struggle with our religion, faith, and the institution of the church? Does church attendance and belief in the risen Jesus suffer from a similar prevailing doubt, cynicism and despair? Perhaps there are more among us who can relate and sympathize with the disciple, Thomas. Because sometimes, when we experience the dark night of the soul, when we go through rough times and fall to despair — it’s really hard to believe! So, in those times, what should we do?
There is a profound tale from the Desert Fathers of Christian antiquity that explains why just doing it; that is, practising your faith makes sense even in spite of questions without answers:
A young monk approached an older, more adept one and asked, “Father, I am having trouble remembering the instructions that I have been given about living the spiritual life. I ask questions and I listen to the answers and I do what is asked of me, but then, I almost just as quickly forget what I’ve been told! What is the point to trying to learn if I am so simple-minded? Why should I practice when I do not know for certain what is true? Maybe I should just return to my worldly life.”
The old monk points to two empty bottles on a nearby table. “Take those two bottles. Fill one completely with the oil that we use for our lampstands. As for the other, leave it empty, as it was.”
The young man obediently did as he was told.
Then the old monk said, “Now, take the bottle full of oil and pour it back where it was.” The younger man again did as he was told.
“Do it again,” the elder instructed. “Fill that same bottle that you filled before, once again with oil.” And again he told him to empty the bottle once it was filled. This went on for more than an hour, over and over. Meanwhile the empty bottle sat empty.
With patience, the young man kept doing as he was told. It just so happened that this novice’s job in the community was to clean bottles used for holding lamp oil. He knew all about bottles and oil.
After a while, as they sat together looking on the two bottles now empty, the old monk said, “Please tell me, my son, what you see.”
“I see one bottle that has not held any oil and it is only dusty and dry,” the novice answered.
“But the bottle that I have filled, unfilled, and refilled many times is clean, shining and coated with the sweetness of oil.”
“Precisely!” the old man replied. “In the same way, you benefit from doing these spiritual things even if they challenge you and cause you to question. Whether you realize it immediately or not, over time they will change you. Filling yourself with these oils will leave you fragranced.”
The doubting Thomas did just that. Even though he questioned and doubted, fell to despair and disassociated himself from his community of faith for a time, he just needed to show up again, and yes, initially, just go through the motions. Thank God he did! Jesus appeared a second time to the gathered disciples when Thomas happened to be there. And then Jesus gave Thomas what he needed.
What did Thomas need? Thomas needed to get out of his head. It was his ideas about Jesus that created his cyncism and doubt. The rationalizations and arguments for and against made the resurrection a matter of intellectual debate for him. The result should not surprise us: The result of getting lost in all the mental gymnastics was that Thomas left his community of faith, disappointed, discouraged and frustrated after the burial of Jesus.
Jesus gave Thomas what he needed: He needed to experience the living Lord, personally. His encounter with Jesus brought Thomas down from his head into his heart. Not only did Jesus speak to Thomas — thus appealing to his head — he asked Thomas to touch his wounded side and hands. Thomas was then able to ground his experience of Jesus in his own skin, his body. That loving touch trigged an emotional, affective response from Thomas. Only then was he able to confess his true belief from the mind and heart: “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus knew what Thomas needed, and gave it to him. It likely wasn’t something Thomas was aware he needed. Yes, he wanted proof, but likely more to satisfy some intellectual debate. Was he expecting to be moved emotionally into to a deeper, personal and renewed relationship with Jesus?
And to each of us, the living Lord responds faithfully to what we need. The assigned texts for this time in the church year imply that God knows our varied needs. Psalm 16 begins with unequivocal confession and praise: “You are my Lord”; what follows is like a faith diary, a journal cataloguing his faith and trust in the ups and downs of life. Conversely, the Gospel writer ends this resurrection account (John 20:19-31) by Thomas’ climactic confession: “My Lord and my God!” God knows what we need and when we need it: Do some of us start with a strong faith, and then move through both the joys and sadness of life, ‘working out’ our salvation through it all (like the Psalmist)? Or, do we start from a place of doubt and disbelief, and then work and wait toward believing (like Thomas)?
Whatever the case, we may be assured that though Christ is risen from the dead and is alive today, faith and doubt still go hand in hand for us. Whether we’ve been Christians all our lives, or we discovered the love and embrace of Christ for us only late in life — to pretend that doubt has no place in the believer’s life is folly. For we know that what we resist persists, and then controls us. But when we can appreciate the role of doubt in our lives, confess it and hold it, authentic faith can spring up by the grace of God. The gift of faith will give us the strength to make a small, simple step in the right direction.
I wonder what it would be like if the decisions we made in our lives sprung more from what we felt we needed to do, instead of what we wanted to do all the time. What if we did the right thing rather than always take the easy, self-serving way? What if we were at least able to distinguish our needs from our wants? And then acted on this discernment?
Perhaps, for one thing, our prayer lives would find vitality again. Because we know that despite our unbelief and misguided compulsions, our intercessions are nevertheless heard and acted upon by a loving and living God who will give us what we need.
Thanks be to God!
For reflection this week, pray over the words of scripture — specifically Psalm 16 and John 20:19-31