Sometimes, faith can best be described as Ms. Emily Dickenson described hope – as “a thing with feathers”.
Other times, faith can be better described as the best-known hymn of Edward Mote – “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.” (Which he originally titled, “The Immutable Basis for a Sinner’s Hope.” ). Not exactly catchy but very Baptist, which was Pastor Mote’s faith.
The words and the tune exude absolute, unshakable confidence. The refrain is “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
Truth be told, it takes a while for some of us to get there – to that level of confidence and strength.
Some of us do fairly well, balancing ourselves on that sinking sand. Sometimes, we can maintain that balance fairly well and other times we sink like a stone. And then, one day, some of us just simply stop resisting and gradually surrender. And, when we do, ironically, we find enormous strength in that surrender.
One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, writes of the time in her life when she had reached a certain level of success in her career, having published a few novels that were selling well.
However, she was drinking. Alcohol. A lot. It got so bad that every morning, she would have to call her friends to find out what had happened the night before, because she couldn't remember.
One day, when she was really hung over, she heard some old spirituals coming out of a little Presbyterian church in Marin City, California, so she went inside to listen to the music. She went back the next week, and the next, but she never stayed for the sermon.
she began to feel the presence of Jesus around her. "It would be like a
little stray cat.", she said. "You know, I would kind of nudge him with my feet and say,
'No,' because you can't let him in, because once you let him in and give him
milk, then you have a little cat, and I didn't want it. I lived on this tiny little
houseboat at the time, and finally one day I just felt like: 'Oh, whatever. You
can come in.'”
That may ring true for your own experience of coming to faith – or, it may sound like one of your friends or relatives. We all have our own way of seeking and finding Jesus.
More of us than care to admit come to our faith much like the Apostle Thomas. We have to do it our own way. We insist on signs and showings and irrefutable evidence. We have to see and feel and know for ourselves – not trust someone else’s word for it. We have to get our hands wrist-deep into the pain – the pain of our own or someone else’s wounds – before we are convinced that what seems too good to be true really is both good and true.
Thomas was called the Twin. He is probably best known as Doubting Thomas. When I was a kid growing up in Roman Catholic School, Thomas was a villain of sorts. The nuns would read us the story of Thomas and when we got to the part where Thomas says, “"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," we were encouraged to boo!
Boo, Thomas! Boo on you for not having any faith! Boo on you, we all called out as the nun said, “Now don’t YOU be a Doubting Thomas.” She reminded us that Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Which was all fun and games until life dropped our first crisis in our laps and we discovered that, while we may have believed that there is a Christ in me and a Christ in you, we also harbor deep in our souls the very self-same Doubting Thomas that the nuns of our youth warned us about.
There are so many – so very many people in my ordained life – who, even though I did nothing to deserve their trust about their doubts, entrusted me with the privilege of their questions and doubts, anyway.
I’m thinking of this young woman who came into my office where I was Chaplain at University of Lowell in Lowell, MA. She was a student in the chemical engineering course. Smart. Confident. Raised “strict” Roman Catholic, she told me, but now she declared herself an atheist. She knew who she was and who she wasn’t and who and what she could trust.
Or, so she thought.
Numbers were reliable. Chemicals were predictable. The lab was her church – her sanctuary – where there was no judgment for the nature of a chemical mass or mixture and there was no failure – only an experiment from which to learn a lesson and to repeat, without criticism or harsh judgement.
I confess I don’t remember her name so I’ll call her Lisa. I will never forget her face and her words to me that morning in my office.
She had gone home over Thanksgiving and – just like that – her entire world collapsed. Her parents informed her that they were divorcing. In fact, they had been waiting years for her to go off to college so that they could divorce. She demanded to know, “So, all those supposedly happy times we had were just performance?” Her parents looked down at their shoes in quiet humiliation.
Oh, and there is one more thing, they said. You should know that you were adopted. They had just a few pieces of information about her birth mother – just what was written on her birth certificate – and this blanket which the adoption agency told her she was wrapped in when she was dropped off at the convent.
Her adopted parents gave her an envelope with her birth certificate, her adoption baby picture and her blanket. Lisa placed the envelope on my desk and said, “Look, I don’t believe in God, but I know you do so I don’t know who else to ask so I’m asking you: Would you help me find my birth mother? I mean, if you believe in God, anything is possible, right?”
We both laughed at her sincere attempt at what was the Humor of The Desperate.
That question set us both off on quite an adventure that, over the next six months, I served as her touchstone and guide and cheerleader as she searched documents in churches and convents as well as town registers and graveyard records.
To make a very long story very short, we did eventually find her birth mother who had died of an apparent overdose of heroin when she was still an infant. Her body had been interred in a pauper’s grave in a small, mill town in Western MA. Lisa wept and wept and sobbed for the pain her mother must have experienced. She wondered what had made her life so painful that she tried to stop it with heroin?
that her mother was dead only opened up more questions. Lisa was consumed by
the larger questions of her mother’s life. Who were her parents? Did she have siblings? Who was her father? What was the story about their relationship that led to her placing her child for adoption?
Before she could go on, however, she asked me if I would come with her and “do a proper burial for my mother. I can’t give her much, but I can give her that.”
off we went, one Saturday morning in early May. The secretary in the cemetery
office directed us to the “general plot” where she and other “paupers” were
Actually, the secretary didn’t say ‘buried”; she said, “laid to their final rest, poor souls,” as she blessed herself. Lisa rolled her eyes.
We found the plot by its number. No names were listed. Lisa sat on the ground and started to talk to her mother about her life with her adoptive parents and what she planned to do with her life presently and into the future.
her for placing her with “good, kind, decent people” who “raised me right but
they still messed up, you know? They weren’t perfect but then, neither were you
and, in fact, neither am I."
"I wish you could see me. Now," she said. "I wish I could see you. Now. But, this will have to be good enough. For now. Because the chaplain tells me I’ll see you on the other side. Whatever that means.”
took out my BCP and holy water and blessed the grave and said the prayers. As I was saying them I thought again of the marvel of our Prayer Book - no matter whether or not you are a saint or a sinner, a prince or a pauper - you still get the same beautiful words prayed over your earthly remains.
I also thought to myself that this was the church at its best: Saying prayers for a woman I had never met and would never know, but commending her to God, so her daughter could begin to find the peace and quiet confidence she needed in order to continue to do the work she needed to do to find the peace and confidence in her life that her mother had never known in hers.
As a final blessing at the grave, I heard myself say the words that Jesus said in that Upper Room to the 10 Apostles, “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
smiled. When we got back into the car she turned to me and said, “Okay,
chaplain. I don’t know what I believe about God, but I know you believe in this
Jesus, so why don’t we start by you telling me about him?”
I chuckled as I heard Anne Lamott say in a distant part of my head, “Oh, whatever, you can come in”
Sometimes, faith, like hope, is a thing with feathers. Other times, it is a solid rock. Sometimes, faith comes through surrendering the resistance. Other times, faith is a gift that comes wrapped up in doubt and pain, and some of us have to put our hands right into the gaping wounds of life before we believe.
Still other times, faith comes to
us in unexpected places, like a mass grave where those buried there may not
have their names identified on a tombstone, but their names are, nonetheless, written in
the palm of God’s hand.
For it is thus promised in scripture, and so we believe. And so, we have faith.
I’ll end by paraphrasing St.
John: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his first disciples and
those who have followed them down through the ages, which are not written down.
But this story is being preached so that you may come to believe that Jesus is
the Holy One sent by God, and that through believing you may have life in his
name – in this life and the life to come.
The thing is this: Faith is a journey. Doubt is not a villain. Doubt is part of a faithful journey. Like Thomas who doubted and Peter who denied Jesus not once by three times, and Paul who had to get knocked off his high horse, we all come to faith in our own way, in our own time. And, Jesus blesses it all.
Here's the thing: It’s Jesus who said to the apostles then and says to us now, “Oh, whatever, you can come in.”
Jesus never turns anyone away - no, not one, not even a stray cat who's come only to mooch a saucer of milk.
As for me, well, I think I’ve gone through all those phases - sometimes three or four in the same day - and a few more I haven’t mentioned.
Today I can say that, thanks to Grace, I’m an unashamed, self-avowed, unrepentant Jesus Freak. And although I am a confirmed Episcopalian, I can sing this song and hold my own with any Baptist: On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.
And, you know what? Even when life throws me a curve out of left field and that once solid ground starts sinking, Jesus always stands at the other end, offering me a hand and saying, "Oh, whatever, you can come in."