Tag Archive | faith and doubt

But Why, God?

The Baptism of Jesus, by He Qi

(contemporary artist who blends Christian images with Chinese folk art)

(used with permission: www.heqiart.com)*

18The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 20When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” 21Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Luke 7:18-23

***

          “But why?” was little Andy’s perennial question to any member of our family.  Andy was a long-ago young neighbor whose mind was persistently bursting with questions.  And he wanted answers.  Why was his world the way it was?  Why did people do what they did?  We’d all try to come up with reasonable answers, but often Andy’s response to our answers would simply be another “but why?” 

          John had a similar question for Jesus, the one for whom he had prepared the way.  The one whom he had baptized.  The one on whom he had seen the Spirit descend.  The one whom he had identified to his followers as the Son of God and the Lamb of God.  In those early days, John had been so sure of Jesus’ identity.  So certain that here at last was the One.  Since then, it was true, he had heard some good things, many good things, in fact, about the ministry of Jesus.  He’d heard about the healings, the exorcisms, the powerful teachings.  But he had also heard some disturbing things.  That Jesus ate with sinners.  That Jesus’ disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath.  That often they didn’t observe the prescribed ritual laws of washing their hands before they ate.

          Jesus simply wasn’t acting the way John the Baptist had understood God’s Chosen One would act.  “But why, Jesus?  Why are you doing these things that are so contradictory to our Jewish laws?  Why aren’t you insisting that your disciples be as ritually clean as good Jewish people are supposed to be?  Why are you mingling with sinners and allowing yourself and your reputation to be tainted by them?  I was so sure you were the One we all awaited.  But now I’m not so sure.  Did I prepare the way for the wrong person?  Were my preaching, my baptizing, and my faith in you all miserable mistakes?”  John was in prison when he asked these questions of Jesus, and he was no doubt experiencing a dryness in his soul, a shriveling of his faith, a desert emptiness of his spirit.

          John was well accustomed to desert life.  He had lived and preached in the desert and knew its harsh terrain.  But this “inner” desert was different.  Much more uncomfortable than any actual physical desert could ever be.  John didn’t like the barrenness of not being sure.  Didn’t like this lack of clearly defined answers.  Didn’t like that Jesus wasn’t behaving in just the ways John thought he should be  behaving.  This desert called for a stretching of his faith far beyond his comfort zone.  But why, Jesus, but why?

          So it so often is with us, is it not?  We have a positive faith experience, and God’s love and presence seem so very real in our lives.  And then difficulties strike.  Questions arise.  God’s absence hovers all around, and we lose our footing in the shifting sands of uncertainty.  God is not acting, not “performing,” in the ways we had expected.  Questions haunt us and chase us through the deserts of our doubts.  And so, with Andy and with John, we cry out, “But why?  But why, God, are you not behaving in the way we had hoped, in the way we had expected?  Why does my friend have to live with cancer?  Another with Parkinsons?  Yet another with double depression, while I, meanwhile, can do so little to help, as I’m coping with this CFS/ME day after day after day?”

          Jesus does not give John the answer that John was hoping for.  John would no doubt have been more than satisfied if Jesus had simply said, clearly and emphatically, “Yes, John, I am the One for whom the world has waited.  I am the Messiah for whom you prepared the way.”  But that’s not what Jesus says.  Instead he asks John to simply notice what’s been going on around Jesus.  To look and listen to the stories of all that Jesus has been accomplishing.  To look and listen and then to determine for himself just who Jesus was.

          God so often responds to our “but why’s” in the same way.  Like John, we would prefer decisive answers to all our questions.  Explanations that are clear and definitive, answers that leave no room for questions or doubts.  Instead, “Look and listen,” God says.  “Look and listen to all the stories of my activity in the Scriptures.  Look and listen to all the stories of saints down through the centuries who have sung of my reality in their lives, in spite of their deserts of hardship and persecution.  Look and listen to the many different ways I have been active in your own life and in the lives of those around you.  Look and listen and let these stories nurture and enrich your faith.  Look and listen and let these stories renew your confidence that I am indeed with you and for you.”

          Poet Mary Oliver tells us that “there are so many stories more beautiful than answers.”  Her words so clearly echo the words of Jesus to the disciples of John, the words of God to us.  Much as we might want definitive answers, perhaps we can learn instead to find courage and see the beauty in the stories that are given to us.  A beauty that expands our horizons.  A beauty that deepens our awareness.  A beauty that helps us live with all the questions we carry with us throughout our lives.

***

*HeQI@2014 All rights Reserved

**Snake,” by Mary Oliver, House of Light,1990

 

An Old Christmas Shepherd Remembers

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(Mathias Huesma)

          I’m an old man now.  Probably don’t have many more days to live on this good earth.  But a good earth it’s been, and a good life.  Simple.  Hard.  But good.  I wish I could tell you that I’ve resolved all the questions I’ve carried with me through my life, but that I cannot do.  I still have questions.  Many.  About life, about God, about the baby I was so privileged to be among the first to see. 

          Does that surprise you?  You know my story well.  How blessed I was, you no doubt think, to be the first, the very first(!) to visit the holy couple and the holy child lying in the manger.  And yes, blessed I was, to be sure.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my questions down through the years.

          I was so young on that magical, mystical night.  Just a young man learning shepherd life from my father and uncle and a few others from our small village.  I didn’t expect much from my life.  We had always been poor, and life had always been harsh.  I just assumed it would be that way for me as well.  Scraping by.  Always looked down on by those better positioned in life.  Some even said that if one of us shepherds should fall into a pit, no one should feel obligated to rescue us because we were simply worthless. 

          But I didn’t let all that bother me—at least not most of the time.  I wasn’t unhappy.  I wasn’t particularly happy either.  I would live and die a shepherd, and that was that.  I did wonder about God sometimes out there under the stars.  Did God care about me?  Did God look at us shepherds as those around us looked at us?  Who knew?  I listened to my mother and my father tell the old, old stories about God and God’s people who had lived long before us.  About Abraham and Moses.  About King David who had started life as a shepherd and ended up the greatest of all kings.  About prophets who told of a wondrous day yet to come when a Son of David would be born, a Messiah who would bring peace and joy for all people on earth, even for shepherds.  “Oh yeah!  Tell me another one,” I used to mutter to myself, but of course I never said that aloud, as my parents would have been mortified and shocked.

          Anyway, I remember that on that special night on the hillside my uncle began to play a gentle melody on his reed pipe, and I was finding it hard to stay awake.  But suddenly our dark sky erupted.  Our night world became as bright as a sunny noonday.  No, considerably brighter.  And a strange and brilliant heavenly creature was singing to us about a baby born in nearby Bethlehem, a baby who was our Messiah, a Savior for us and for all people.  “Go and see for yourself,” the angelic being told us.  “You’ll find this Savior-baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem.”  Messiah in a manger?  Where we shepherds put our babies?  Was he serious?  

          But no chance to ask any questions, for just then a whole host of angels burst on the scene in a glorious hymn of praise:  “Glory to God in the highest Heaven!  Peace, goodwill among people.”*  We felt so honored!  A heavenly choir just for us.  And the heavenly being had addressed us shepherds as though we had some dignity.  Had invited us shepherds to be witnesses to this amazing event!   Needless to say, we quickly appointed one of us to stay with the sheep, and the rest of us went as fast as we could to Bethlehem to find this precious child. 

          A truly strange and wondrous night it was.  I re-lived it over and over again as that baby grew into manhood.  I began to hear exciting things.  Tales of blind people receiving their sight.  Of the deaf suddenly hearing again.  Yes! I thought.  This really is our Messiah, our King.  The One who will level the mountains of injustice and lift up those of us who are lowly and poor.  I made sure I was part of that jubilant crowd that welcomed him as he rode on that donkey into Jerusalem.  This was it!  Our time!  Our King!  Memories of that Bethlehem night resonated in every “Alleluia!” that I shouted with the others along the way. 

          But almost the next thing I knew, I found myself staring at our King hanging on a cross like a common criminal.  How could this be?!  What had gone so wrong?  Had that wondrous night, that angel visitation been just some cruel joke?  There on that cross hung all our dreams and all our hopes.  Dashed.  Gone.  I bowed in utter bewilderment and sorrow. 

          In the weeks and months after that God-forsaken day, it’s true, I did hear strange tales of an empty tomb and hints that the one crucified had been seen alive by a number of people.  But I never myself saw him again, so I didn’t really know just what to think.

          But in these later years, I have been pondering over and over again the passage from our sacred writings which has always perplexed and bothered me.  The passage about Messiah being “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.”   About Messiah being “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.”   And I have begun to wonder.  Is it just possible that something profound was happening on that cross?  Had our God, in all the horror of that day, somehow been at work to bring about the promise the angels had sung to us shepherds?  

          It’s all a bit too deep for me, and I don’t know how to put it all together.  My shepherd’s hut is crammed with all my thoughts and all my questions, and sometimes there seems little room for faith and trust.  But I do continue to ponder and try to trust in my own simple way.  Trust that somehow God was at work on that cross.  Trust that God will someday, somehow, complete what I saw begun so long ago in that Bethlehem stable.  How, I do not know.  But every now and then, sometimes even in the darkest of nights, when trust can be so elusive, I do believe I hear a faint echo of that haunting angel song, and I find myself singing along with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest Heaven!  Peace, goodwill among people!”  

***

*alternative reading (NRSV)

Shadowy Faith

Nicodemus

Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  (John 3:1-2)

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  (John 7:50-51)

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.  Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:38-40)

***

          He was an upstanding citizen, this Nicodemus.  A member of the religious Council of the Jewish people.  Respected.  Probably envied by many for his position among the leaders of his time. 

          But he was very much his own person.  A quiet man, it would seem.  Not one to make a big brouhaha about his position or about his faith.  Yes, he was part of the religious Council, and he probably kept all the laws and rules that were on the books.  But he had his questions, too.  And he wasn’t afraid of those questions.  A bit afraid, perhaps, of letting his fellow Council members know that he had questions, but not so afraid that he didn’t take himself to Jesus for that midnight conversation which is so well known and has been celebrated in numerous sermons and works of art down through the centuries.

          He doesn’t seem to have had all his questions answered in that conversation, however.  He did not become an open follower of Jesus.  He rather remained a member of the Council that was always suspiciously watching Jesus’ every move, always plotting to find a way to get rid of this Upstart who was undermining their dignity and their authority.  “Why didn’t you arrest him?” they asked the Temple Police after Jesus had stood in the Temple one day, inviting any who were thirsty to come to him and experience living waters flowing through their lives. 

          “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  Nicodemus speaking, in response to the Council’s chiding of the Temple Police.  He wasn’t exactly proclaiming his faith in this Jesus, but he was certainly defending Jesus, even though it meant putting his own reputation at considerable risk. 

          Then came the cross.  We don’t know where Nicodemus was when Jesus was hanging on that cross, but my guess is that he was standing somewhere on the fringes of the gathered crowd, sifting through his conflicting emotions about this death.  Had the other Council members maybe been right?  Had this Jesus been merely a hoax and not really a teacher come from God as he had once believed—or at least wanted to believe?  Would God have allowed one of his prophets to die in such a cruel manner?

          Whatever his thoughts.  Whatever his questions.  Whatever his disappointment and grief, John tells us that Nicodemus teamed up with Joseph of Arimathea to help in the burial of the body of Jesus.  Made sure that this Jesus, whoever and whatever he might have been, was given a dignified burial.

          An interesting man, Nicodemus.  A man with a shadowy kind of hopeful faith in Jesus, but a faith filled with a myriad of questions.  A man with a deep longing for something more than what the Council and its religious observances and explanations offered.  A man who stood up for justice.  A man with profound human compassion.  A man who deserves our deep attention and respect.

          I have some dear friends whose middle names might well be Nicodemus.  They long for God and for a close and meaningfully deep relationship with this enigmatic Jesus of the gospels.  But they have so many questions.  So many deep questions.  So many profound questions.  So many questions, in fact, that sometimes their faith feels blown away by all the riddles that life presents.  Yet, like Nicodemus, they spend a good bit of time searching for Jesus, sometimes in the darkest nights of their lives.  Like Nicodemus too, they usually stand by and stand up for those who are being unfairly treated by others. And also like Nicodemus, they will often be found caring for the needs of others—visiting those in distress, serving at soup kitchens, loving a very difficult adult child, passing along gift cards to strangers, sitting with a dying neighbor.

          I don’t know if Nicodemus ever became an “open” believer.  I don’t know what happened to him after the night of the burial of Jesus’ corpse.  I don’t know if he ever learned about the resurrection.  I don’t need to know.  What I do know is that I wish there was more of Nicodemus in all of our lives.  More of his questing.  More of his courage and integrity in standing up for the just treatment of others.  More of his compassion. 

          In an age when so many seem so sure they have The Truth, Nicodemus and his questing spirit are so welcome.  In an age when defending The Truth seems more important than caring about justice and tending to the needs of others, Nicodemus’ words and actions point to a more humane way, a more Christ-like way, of being and believing in our oh-so-needy world.

          Jesus honored Nicodemus in that long night conversation.  John honored him in his stories of his later life.  I think we would do well to honor him as well in the way we live out our lives, in the way we live out our faith.