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Faith and Doubt

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 4:26 pm on Monday, January 15, 2018

A sermon preached on January 14th, 2018 based upon John 1:43-51.

Inside all of us, there is faith and there is doubt, and the two wrestle together, and that is not a bad thing.  Frederick Buechner said, Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

This means that inside the most adamant of atheists a little child lives repressed within that looks at awe at the mystery of the universe and intuits a loving creator to whom gratitude is due. Inside the most fundamentalist of believers there are doubts that a crammed down deep inside, leading to all kinds of sinister consequences.

You may be aware of the scientific discoveries about the basic structure with which God has designed our brains.  There are two hemispheres and it’s an oversimplification but useful nonetheless to attribute our analytic, rational thought to the left side and intuitive, emotional, creative thought to the right side.  Several decades ago, surgeons in a desperate attempt to cure a severe seizure disorder severed the connection between the two hemispheres.  The surgery was successful in stopping the deadly seizures, but in time disturbing, unintended consequences of the surgery came to light.  It was if now there were two distinct people living inside the peoples’ brains, neither fully whole.

Scientists designed experiments to study these peoples’ brain activity.  The right, intuitive hemisphere has no capacity to speak words, but with the left hand it could express itself through writing.  Questions were asked of these people with split brains and commonly they would get conflicting answers.  One person was asked, “Do you believe in God?” and the left, analytical side said, “no” but the right intuitive side wrote out the word, “yes.”

Fascinating, right?  The two sides are meant to be in communication with each other.  Wholeness involves input from the entire brain.

I learned about this experiment from a podcaster who caught my attention last summer named Mike McFargue.  “Science Mike” as he calls himself focuses on the connection between science and faith.  He has a fascinating backstory which he describes in his book, “Finding Faith on the Waves.”

Mike grew up in the south deeply involved in his Southern Baptist Church.  As a young child he felt a strong sense of Jesus’ presence, particularly when as an overweight boy he was often bullied.  He remember going off to hide and that when he did he strongly felt the loving presence of his best friend, Jesus. He grew up, met his wife in church and had two daughters. He served as an elder in his church as well as a Sunday school teacher.

Mike was blessed with a powerful left hemisphere in his brain, which meant he had a strong capacity for rational, analytic thinking and in turn a powerful attraction to science.  Quietly in his private thought he struggled with his inability to reconcile what he was learning from science with the doctrines of the church, particularly the notion of the inerrancy of the Bible.  His doubts eventually led him to conclude that there was no God.   She stopped praying, felt a sadness regarding the loss of the closeness he once felt to Jesus, and suffered from a feeling of being a fraud.

Eventually he shared this truth with his wife, and she was greatly disturbed, but he assured her his love for her was as strong as ever, and he would continue to raise their daughters in the church, keeping his atheism to himself.  His wife confided this truth to his mother, and together they committed to praying for Mike that he might find his way back to God.

On the internet he became active in the online atheist community.  It troubled Mike that the people he encountered online often misrepresented believers — the people he had known and felt authentically loved by in his church — but he greatly appreciated the freedom he to explore his thoughts without trying to make them fit into the doctrines of the church.  He worked in advertising and wrote a blog, and eventually somehow word got back to his church that he now identified himself as an atheist.  The church leadership asked him to resign his positions as elder and Sunday School teacher – essentially kicking him out of the church.  This was hard for Mike, because he had always experienced a lot of love in his church.

Time passed.  Out of the blue an invitation came to fly to Los Angeles to visit the headquarters of NASA, because NASA was interested in getting some publicity out about what they were working on. This was a science geek’s dream come true, so he booked his flight and then by a peculiar coincidence an invitation arrived from an old friend who had moved to LA to attend a weekend retreat on the theme of creativity that was scheduled for the weekend immediately following his visit to NASA.  The retreat was being led by Rob Bell, a famous pastor and author who had moved away from fundamentalist Christianity to a form of faith that was far more open to mystery and exploring all manner of questions of inquiry. In exchange for a little work testing Rob’s website, Mike could attend the workshop for free.  The subject of creativity was appealing to Mike, but his initial response to put himself back in a group of “believers” was skeptical – like Nathaniel’s response in our Gospel story to Philip’s invitation to come meet Jesus said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” When his wife and mother heard of the odd coincidence of the invitation, an opportunity for Mike to spend a weekend with a famous preacher, they saw the hand of God at work.  Reluctantly, Mike accepted the invitation.

On the first night of the retreat, Mike found himself impressed by Rob Bell and the openness expressed by him and others to a range of ideas, but when Rob began to say things he couldn’t agree with, he felt compelled to raise his hand and come clean.  He revealed to Rob Bell and this group of eighty who identified themselves as Christians that he was living a secret life a Southern Baptist who had concluded through his study of science that there was no God.  “Well, that horse’s out of the barn,” Rob laughed.  Rob didn’t try to argue him out of his present convictions, simply inviting him to keep an open mind to mystery that might not fit inside any of the thought categories he dealt with.  Rob affirmed the vulnerability and honesty it took for Mike to speak his truth, and the whole room broke out in applause for Mike and his sharing.   To be loved this way was amazing to Mike.    Someone in the group shared Brene Brown’s idea that the opposite of faith is not doubt.  Faith and doubt need each other.  The opposite of faith is certainty, for certainty is intolerant of of mystery and the risks that faith allows us to embrace.

For the rest of the retreat Mike felt fully at ease and enjoyed himself thoroughly.  On the last evening of the retreat, as the group gathered for a closing session Mike realized that Rob intended to conclude with Holy Communion and Mike’s initial reaction was a feeling of distress.  He wasn’t sure he was ready for this.

Rob proceeded to talk about how the night Jesus first shared the bread the cup he went around the room and washed his disciples’ feet.  He talked about how the bread and the cup were ordinary — made up of common molecules, when we bless the bread and cup, they become holy. In a similar way, he said we too, although made up of ordinary molecules can be blessed and set apart for a holy purpose – to be poured out like Jesus for others.

When people began to come forward, Mike wasn’t going to, thinking it would be fraudulent for him to do so, but all of a sudden he heard a voice say, “I was there when you were a boy hiding from the bullies, and I am here with you now.”  He went forward, and with tears in the eyes of both of them, he received the bread and the cup from Rob.  Something broke open within him, and he felt that old familiar sense of the closeness of Jesus.

The retreat concluded, but the evening wasn’t done for Mike.  He went out into the darkness of the beach.  The unseen waves of the enormous Pacific Ocean seemed like a good metaphor for God is there ever was one.  He proceeded to pour out his heart to God, saying how he had missed this closeness, but he couldn’t let go of the things he had learned in science, or the questions he had about how God could allow all the suffering of this world.  He had the impression that the ocean was a good fifty yards in front of him, but when Mike spoke the name of Jesus, and suddenly a wave washed over his feet, and he remembered what Rob had said about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

And so Mike has proceeded on, intuitively grasping the reality of God and Jesus, seeking to serve them in this world by serving others, while at the same time asking hard questions and continuing on the quest of science.

In the Gospel of John we hear stories describing the process by which people come to faith.  In the first chapter, John the Baptist describes a vision he received in which he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus, and bears witness to his students that Jesus is the one for whom they have been waiting.  Two of John’s students see Jesus pass by and begin to follow him, and he asks, “What are you looking for?” They don’t seem to know for sure, but ask, “Where are you staying?”  He says, “Come and see,” and the go and spend the day in his presence.  There is no description of what, in anything they talked about, but after a day spent simply being in his presence, the two are convinced that Jesus is indeed the one that God has sent to save the world.  In this morning’s passage, Philip witnesses to Nathaniel that they have found the anointed of God, one Jesus of Nazareth.  Skeptically Nathaniel answers, “Can anything good come of Nazareth?”  Phillip simply says, like Jesus before him, “Come and see.” Nathaniel accepts the invitation, and when he meets Jesus he is blown away by the fact that Jesus seems to know all there is to know about him, and suddenly Nathaniel is all in with believing Jesus is the one.

There’s a couple of things stand out to me from these stories.  First, most commonly other people are involved in the process of coming to faith.  Somebody extends an invitation to “Come and see.”  Secondly, there is no debating or arguing that takes place regarding the truth of the beliefs being considered.  The invitation is simply to come and experience Jesus for yourself.  See what you think.  Third, once the invitation is accepted and people begin to have experiences that confirm the truth of Christ.  Nathaniel experiences Jesus’ seemingly supernatural knowledge of him.  Science Mike had an experience of the reality of Jesus that was beyond the realm of the rational.  And fourth, the journey of faith isn’t over at the point of coming to belief.  Nathaniel and the others have come to believe that Jesus is the one sent by God, but what this means will get rocked with a thousand questions later on when they realize that the savior sent by God must die upon a cross.

I’ve been thinking lately about what is called “evangelism.” Evangelism is sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and drawing people into the life Jesus’ body, the Church.  It seems to me that a major obstacle to evangelism is the tendency people have to divide the human race into two categories:  Believers and nonbelievers.

People outside the church assume that to be a part of a church you have to be clearly in the category of “believer,” which leads them to assume they don’t belong here.

But all of us here know that we have both faith and doubt, and that at any given time one side is ascendant and the other descendent.   There is room in the circle for those who at the present moment are more aware of the doubts than their faith.

I listened to this interview with Mary Karr an English professor, poet and author of the best-selling memoir, “Liars Club that describes growing up in a highly dysfunctional family in Texas where telling lies was a way of life.  Her mother was an alcoholic and suffered a nervous breakdown when Mary was a child, ending up in psych ward. Mary said she kept assuming she too would eventually end up there too.  And sure enough, when she was forty, abusing alcohol with a young child to take care of an a marriage breaking down, she ended up in a psych ward.  There was a sense of relief to this.  “I had confirmation it is hard being me,” she said. “They are keeping sharp instruments from me because I am a danger to myself.”  There was no mistaking the fact that the way she was living her life wasn’t working so she was open to new possibilities.  She began attending AA groups.  A friend there talked about praying every day, and Mary asked her, “What do you pray for?”  The woman answered, “I pray that I will have a day full of joy and sobriety.”  Mary was astonished:  “You can pray for that?”  So she started praying and meditating every day and it made a difference in her life.

Nonetheless, she stayed clear of church, that is until one day her eight year old son surprised her when out of the blue he declared, “I want to go to church.”  And rather coolly, Mary responded with, “Why?” And her son said, “To see if God is there.”  Mary said there was probably nothing her son could have said that would have gotten her up from her newspaper and bagel on a Sunday morning to go to church.

Do they began attending church, which apparently her son took to pretty well going off to Sunday School as she sat in the back row of the church, remaining skeptical, a cup of latte and a stack of papers to grade.

But slowly over time church began to work on her.  What really struck her was the ordinary people who gathered together in that place to share their prayer concerns.  People finding themselves in the scary places of life embracing the vulnerability to reach out for help praying aloud for concerns like their sister who was undergoing cancer surgery and in the process finding courage both from God and from the other ordinary people gathered there.

So eventually she converted, affirming the faith of the church and becoming a member.  Many of her friends and colleagues from academia thought she had lost her mind. “How can you believe all that stuff?” they asked. She explained to them that she still had plenty of doubts, but that for her believing a bunch of doctrines wasn’t what being a Christian was all about.  It was a set of practices – a way of life.    It was about going to church each week with this particular group of ordinary people trying to live out the faith.  It was about engaging in a life of prayer.  It was about trying to day by day take seriously central teachings of Jesus, about forgiveness and love of enemy, of trying to help those less fortunate.  By doing these things she could say with certainty that she was better for it.  The chaotic, dysfunctional noise in her brain that had put her in a psych ward had quieted.

Growing up in a highly dysfunctional family, there was a profoundly judgmental voice in her head.  This voice judged others but the one who suffered far and away the most from this voice was herself, because the voice routinely condemned her most of all.   As the years passed, this voice became quieter.  She became kinder to herself and kinder to others.

Do now she says to skeptical friends so determined to cling to their atheism, “Why don’t you give prayer a try?  What do you have to lose?  Even though you say you don’t believe in God, why don’t you just try a little experiment and pretend for a time that there is a God who loves you and all people, and spend some time at the beginning of each day trying to be in the presence of this God?”  She said she expected that if they would give it a try, they would probably find that their lives improved.

Somewhere along the way Christianity became about giving ascent to a set of doctrines.  But this wasn’t what it was about for the earliest Christians.  It was about following the way of Jesus.

Tomorrow we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  You might be interested to know that when he was in college, King found a lot of the traditional doctrines of the church hard to swallow.  But he concluded that there was essential spiritual truth in the Bible, so he enrolled in seminary, and later in divinity graduate school.  King realized that what mattered was following the way of Christ, and there is no better example of what that means from recent history than the life he lived.

So returning to the subject of evangelism, here is what I think you all can say with some confidence:  Your lives are better because you made a decision to be a part of the life of this church.  Life is never struggle free, but this is what I think each one of you can say with to people you know who don’t go to Church:  “I am a more loving, joyful, grateful and humble person because I make a habit of going to church.  Would you care to join me in giving it a try?”

Believe it or not, Lent starts a month from today.  It is time to start thinking now, how might you like to use this season of renewal to walk more closely with Jesus? In this ongoing dialogue between faith and doubt, how might you go deeper?

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