Seeing and Believing
A number of years ago, one of our cats in Mexico went blind. Since Ofelia was an outdoor cat, we faced a decision. If we left her in Mexico, she surely would be killed by the streets dogs or in an accidental fall. If we brought Ofelia back to DC, she would have to deal with the three cats we already had here—two of whom have harsh, right-wing attitudes towards immigrants. In the end, Ofelia came back to DC.
Watching this cat, literally, feel and sniff her way around our house has been a revelation. She has learned the heights of all the tables and other surfaces by jumping toward them, falling and then jumping again until she lands on a flat surface. She then puts the height of that table or counter in her memory bank and never misses again. Ofelia knows the hallways and stairs well enough that she can run from one spot in the house to another. She knows when the other cats are near, sometimes welcoming them, sometimes giving them a loud hiss, depending on her mood. Ofelia has taught me that the gift of sight may not be as important as I have always assumed. She sees nothing and yet she figures out everything. She bumps into things and learns from the bump.
At the end of his famous encounter with Thomas, Jesus told the disciples, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” It is an amazing critique of the power of seeing. Jesus tells us that we do not have to see to believe. We have many other capabilities, gifts and competencies that will lead us to God.
Whenever we read this morning’s Gospel passage, I like to remind people that Jesus had no problem with Thomas’ doubts. Doubt is at the heart of the faith journey. Doubts and the questions they generate are the fuel of spiritual growth. A life without doubt is, in my opinion, a life of denial. Without doubts, we deny, in a spiritually unhealthy manner, the challenges that injustice and disease present to faith in a loving God.
For example, when a loved one is struck by a terrible disease, it is totally appropriate to question God, “Why are you allowing this to happen?” There happen to be very good answers to that question. The best one being that God doesn’t cause disease; God stands with us as we cope with disease. But there is nothing wrong with the question itself, even asked with an angry voice. Jesus angrily questioned God, “Why have you forsaken me? ME!” and so should we. It is only by expressing and pursuing our doubts, by questioning God, life and one another, that we, like Thomas, come to ever deeper meanings of faith, hope and love.
So, let us take note: Jesus didn’t scold Thomas for his doubts. He didn’t try to talk Thomas out of his doubts, using the power of verbal persuasion as we might be inclined to do. He didn’t hire a lobbyist to convince Thomas or run a massive ad campaign. He didn’t even tell Thomas to look at him, to see and believe. Instead, he said, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” He invited Thomas to pursue his doubts, using all of his senses.
One of the things I am enjoying about retirement and my consulting work with congregations around the nation is that I no longer reside in the Presbyterian bubble. Since I was a child, I have lived in a Presbyterian world. Yes, I have always interacted with people of many faiths and denominations. But my primary reality was life inside the Presbyterian bubble. Now I work and worship with Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Reform Jews and others. It has been a eye-opener on many levels.
In relation to this morning’s Gospel lesson, my consulting work has been a revelation of how overly-reliant Presbyterians have become on what we see. We proudly call ourselves people of the Word. However, there is a downside to our reliance on words. Analyzing, describing, putting into words what we see, we have made ourselves dependent on sight. There aren’t many Presbyterian articles focused on what we touch, taste, hear or smell.
Now this isn’t solely a Presbyterian disease. Americans, in general, rely more heavily on words and sight than do many other cultures around the world. In Mexico, when trying to prove my point, I will commonly say to a Mexican, “But look at that!” They respond dismissively, “So what. It isn’t what it seems.” Many times, they turn out to be correct. A Presidential candidate who looked and sounded honest turns out to be a crook. A poor person who looks like a thief ends up being an angel. A piece of meat that looks delicious turns out to cause food poisoning.
What we see can lead us to very wrong conclusions. We see a family living in a big house, driving fancy cars, taking wonderful vacations and conclude that they are happier than we are. So decide that we want to be like them. The US looks at its military power and concludes, “We can control a couple of backwater places like Iraq and Afghanistan.” We look at a child in a homeless shelter and think, “That child has no chance of success.” Some of Jesus’ neighbors looked at him and said, “Who is this man to claim any kind of religious authority?” Many racists looked at Dr. King’s rag-tag collection of African American protesters and thought, “How could they be a threat to our lifestyle?” Many people today look around their immediate surroundings and say, “I don’t see any signs of global environmental destruction.”
In the late 1970s, our Presbytery looked at this congregation and saw a church that needed to be closed. The seventy or so members here had a different sense of reality. They felt the strong bonds they had with one another and the neighborhood in which they had ministered since 1855. They felt God calling them to keep the ministry alive for another generation. Not trusting what they saw—declining membership, a building in poor repair and a bank account almost zeroed out—they trusted their other senses, feelings, and experiences. Indeed, they trusted God. Thank God they did. As Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
So seeing is important but not as important as we think. Seeing is one sense, not the definitive sense, by which we learn about God, life and ourselves.
I’d also like to think for a moment about the state of mind of the disciples in that locked room when Jesus responded to Thomas’ questions. In an instant, they moved from what Ignatius of Loyola called desolation to what he termed consolation. For Ignatius, the 16th century founder of the Jesuit Order and a giant in the development of spiritual practices, desolation is a spiritual state in which we cannot feel or see God’s presence in our lives. God’s absence creates a feeling of desolation.
Consolation, as described by Ignatius, is a spiritual state in which we experience God as present. We could be in the midst of Auschwitz or a Sudanese refugee camp and, if we are connected to God, we will be in what Ignatius called a state of consolation. We could be in the middle of a happy family gathering but if we are feeling disconnected from God, we will have a deeply rooted sense of desolation.
For three days, following Jesus’ trial and gruesome death, the disciples had been in a state of desolation. The One they had come to identify with God was suddenly gone. Gone as well were the feelings of self-confidence that he gave them; the sense that they were capable of anything; the sensation that they were protected; the feeling that God was just and soon to be victorious. For a few terrifying days, all of those feelings were replaced with fear, despair, and confusion. What had been clear, when Jesus stood in their midst, was now cloudy, incomprehensible.
Standing with Jesus, it made sense to turn the other cheek. Having watched Jesus turn the other cheek and die on a cross, it now felt, well, stupid. Standing with Jesus, the idea that the weak shall inherit the earth sounded almost logical. Now, it felt like deluded idealism. Standing with Jesus, taking risks was not risky. Now the disciples wanted to play everything safe.
This is what happens in a state of desolation. Not feeling God with us, everything God has taught us becomes suspect, even non-sense. Going through a divorce, we scoff at the notion of true love. Watching a loved one struggle with addiction, we wonder “Where are the answers to our prayers when we need them?” Watching fanatics slaughter women and children in the Sudan, we wonder how anyone can assert that justice prevails. In a state of desolation, the bad looks worse; the good is invisible; hope is a word with no existential content.
The disciples moved from desolation to consolation because they had the privilege of seeing Jesus resurrected from the dead. They touched him, ate with him, smelled him. But Jesus knew that the rest of us would not be so lucky. We would need to believe without the assistance of sight.
So Jesus reminds us that it isn’t sight that creates faith. Living in a state of consolation does. When we are connected to God, we can accomplish just about anything, even if we are blind (as many blind people have proven). Like Ofelia, we will jump trying to reach some desired place and fall. But if we are living in a state of consolation, we will jump and jump again until we land where God wants us in life. Sure that God is with us, we will adapt, adjust and alter our behavior, using all of our senses, until we become the people God created and calls us to be.
Ultimately, we probably won’t change because of what we see because what we see can be incredibly misleading. Students of change have found that true change is rooted in feelings and experience, not formal knowledge. We change because of what we feel and experience. In relationship with God, we will feel loved, affirmed, and known in ways only God can love, affirm and know us. We all have sins for which we cannot forgive ourselves. But, in relationship with God, one day we wake up and feel forgiven, released, restored. Our past sinful behavior will always fill us with regret. But it will no longer define our self-image. If we stole something, we will no longer see ourselves as thieves. If we cheated on someone, we will no longer see ourselves as unfaithful. Instead, forgiven by God, we will embrace a new self-image, one in which we are created in the image of our loving and just God.
Friedrich Schleiermacher is one of my favorite theologians. First of all, he had to be a theologian. I mean, with a name like Friedrich Schleiermacher, could he be a bricklayer or dentist? No, he had to be a theologian.
When Schleiermacher died, several hundred thousand Berliners followed his casket to the cemetery; such was his influence on his generation. He lived in a time when religion had become mired in the objective. It was overly focused on words, rituals, and doctrines. To his neighbors, Schleiermacher said, “Forget the doctrines, the search for the objective. Religion is about feeling; a subjective but very real feeling of dependence on God. Faith can be reasonable but it is not about reason per se. Faith in God is a matter of the heart.” Schleiermacher asked people to trust what we feel, not what we see. Sounds like what Jesus said in that locked room, doesn’t it? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
When some people find out I am a Christian pastor, they often ask me, “Do you really believe in the Virgin Birth?” I have a simple response, “If I believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, why wouldn’t I believe in the Virgin Birth? Seems like a piece of cake in comparison with the resurrection.” To me, faith, whether it be Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other type of faith in God, faith is not about the rational world we see; nor is it about trying to prove doctrines like the Virgin Birth. In fact, the rational world we see can be pretty irrational, can’t it? No, faith in God is about believing in things we can’t always see, maybe will never see—every child having a right to realize her or his God-given potential, nations forsaking war, the rich sharing with the poor, Dan Snyder changing the racist name of our football team. Yes, faith in God is about feeling and trusting in God’s plan versus trusting in our own plans. It is about feeling our way to the Promised Land.
In our individual spiritual journeys, as well as in our shared journey, let us put our faith not just in what we see. As we attempt to discern what God would have us do with our limited number of days on this amazing, good Earth, let us tap all of our senses, all of our feelings. Doing so, we will experience things our eyes alone cannot see, need not see. We will experience the consolation of a strong relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.
Let us pray: Good and gracious God, you invite us into your presence, a place of peace the world cannot give us. Responding to your invitation, may we use all of our senses in ways that draw us closer to you, our own best self and our neighbors. All this we ask in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.