Merry Christmas from the Inn

It’s been a while, and this isn’t really a deep post, but it’s more than a Facebook comment for friends.  I hope everyone is having an amazing, perfect Christmas, but the reality is, most folks aren’t.  Lots of people are hurting, missing someone, worried about finances, their future, their children, or a hundred other fears.  They might be battling depression, or just overwhelmed by the difficulties of life, and more than a little irritated that no matter how they try, they can’t seem to get a break.  This time of year it’s especially hard, because, you know, you’re supposed to be HAPPY!

As I’ve been contemplating the Christmas story this year, I have been drawn to thinking about it from Joseph’s perspective.  He was a good man.  He always did the right thing, to a fault.  He worked hard, and tried to honor his girlfriend even though the world said he should publicly humiliate her for cheating on him.  Then, God sent a messenger with a crazy message-he was supposed to keep her, and raise the boy as his own, even though he was God’s son.

Sometimes when we’re doing exactly what God wants us to do, we expect everything to be easy and go our way.  I’m guessing Joseph did too.  But he got ostracism, gossip, shunning by the people of his community.  Every day.  And, just when it couldn’t get any worse, he gets ordered to travel to be counted (and taxed) by the oppressive government.  With a 9 month pregnant wife.

I can hear him shouting in desperation, “Seriously God?”  (Joseph sounds a lot like me in my imagination, and I’ve been saying that a lot lately).

I can’t imagine traveling with a 9 month pregnant lady, on foot, for days.  It can’t be good. I suspect the conversation was more than a little strained.  Hours of long walking in silence, rehearsing conversations, counting frustration on frustration…  And then they get to Bethlehem, and there isn’t even a decent place to stay to have the baby.

There’s no record of any other divine communication to Joseph after that initial visit from the angel.  He’s had 9 months to second-guess himself, to doubt what God was doing, to consider how lousy his situation is, when all along he was doing the right thing.  There was one thing that was undeniably real.  There was a baby.

Our nativity scenes and Charlie Brown Christmas Specials really skew our understanding of that event.  The multitude of heavenly host didn’t show up at the birth; from what we can read, there was no angelic presence at all at the manger.  The shepherds got to hear the angels worshipping; all Joseph got that day was a visit from a bunch of smelly low-lifes who claimed to have seen angels.  That was Joseph’s only confirmation that the promises were coming true.

Joseph’s “Christmas Story” wasn’t a “happy holiday.”  But God was working.  And even when we can’t see it, he can reassure us that we are on track, even by the least-likely of messengers, if we will listen.

“Merry Christmas” doesn’t always mean “Happy Christmas.”  “Merry” would be better translated as “joyful” because joy isn’t dependent on feelings or emotions, or even circumstances.  Joy is the reality of being in God’s will, doing what he made you to do.  Joy is always available, even when you have no reason to be happy.

I truly hope your Christmas is happy, but I pray it is joyful.

 

Advertisements

I’m not asking you to believe–just consider “What if?”

Fewer and fewer people are doing anything outside of their normal Friday routine today.  As the US becomes less bound to the Christian tradition, less of its people recognize that this week is the most important week on the Christian calendar, and that today is known as “Good Friday.”

As a kid, that name boggled my mind.  Now that I’m older and wiser, it still boggles my mind.  Shouldn’t it be “Good Sunday” and “Really Bad Friday?”  Now, before you start going all theological on me, I’m going to ask that you take off your spiritual glasses for a moment, and look at this story like most of the world would.  Jesus, the focal point of the Christian faith, is nailed to a cross (don’t gloss over that, just because you’ve heard it a million times–let it sink in for a minute) and he dies.

How can that be “good?”  As a kid, well-meaning family members and Sunday School teachers explained to me how it was necessary to satisfy God, to make up for all the bad things I had done, for Jesus to die.

“Why?” young Greg asks.

“Because that’s the way the penalty is paid.”

“So the guy who didn’t do anything wrong had to die to make up for me telling lies and stealing cookies?”

“Well, yes…”

“Who made those rules?”

“God did.”

“Jesus’ dad?”

“Yes.”

“Well that’s a dumb rule… But Jesus is dead, and that’s why we call it ‘Good Friday?’ ”

“I think I hear your mother calling you…”

Dead Jesus certainly didn’t seem to make sense to 10-year-old Greg.  It didn’t make sense to Peter, James, John, or the rest of Jesus’ followers.  In fact, it was so far from logical, let alone “good” that it had to be the worst day of all of their lives.

Today, no one gives a lot of thought to the execution of Jesus on the cross.  Christians might acknowledge it when they say “Jesus died for me,” but most don’t think about it any more deeply than they do “2+2=4.”  We tend to focus more on the resurrection of Jesus than the death.  Non-Christians probably don’t give it much thought at all.  Most non-Christians, if they take the time to consider the death of Jesus, are apt to write it off as either myth, or a relatively insignificant historical event that’s been blown way out of proportion by the deception of his early followers.

That’s unfortunate.

As Christians, we tend to demonstrate more gratitude to someone who finds and returns our lost wallet (with cash and credit cards intact) than the one who died a horrific death on our behalf.  What if Christians showed their gratitude for Jesus’ death by loving others the way Jesus loved those around him during his life?

For non-Christians, its doubly unfortunate in that their disbelief in the historicity of Jesus’ death, or their dismissal of its significance, causes them to not seriously consider a crucial question:  What if Jesus really did die on a Roman cross in Jerusalem?

The historicity of Jesus’ death on the cross is one of the most accurately established facts in all of history.  Refuting his death as a made up story that was manipulated by his followers into a grand religion has as much credibility as refuting the Apollo moon landings.*  And if his death was so significant that the Roman cross went from being a symbol of oppression, torture, and disgrace to the most recognized religious symbol in the world in a few hundred years, perhaps it is worth more consideration, not just from a historical standpoint, but from a personal one as well.

IF the accounts of Jesus’ death are true, if Jesus and his first followers believed he died for a purpose, and that purpose crosses the boundaries of history and includes you and me today–isn’t it worth at least exploring?

And if you believe, as I do, that the event is not only true, but that it occurred for the reasons Jesus said it would, then shouldn’t his willing sacrifice of life for my eternal benefit, cause me to live differently, as he asked?

 


*I use the analogy of the Apollo program very deliberately.  The writings which became the New Testament are strongly established to have been written within the first 50 years after Jesus’ death.  Today we would quickly dismiss as insane anyone who claims that the Apollo landings didn’t happen (approximately 50 years ago).  There is insurmountable evidence that it happened.  In much the same way, the truth of the death (and life) of Jesus of Nazareth is insurmountable, and is only dismissed by those who choose to consider only the evidence which supports their predetermined conclusion.

Scared? It’s your choice.

No, this is not a political post, although I can see an application in our current political climate.  But I’m not going there today.  I’ve spent the past few days hanging out in a hospital with one of my closest friends who is fighting a fight that would terrify any of us.  So my mind is primarily there, but it is also with many other friends, who are

  • dealing with loved ones battling major health issues,
  • dealing with the too-soon unexpected death of a spouse,
  • facing dramatic career-change and relocations,
  • and many others who are rightfully overwhelmed by the unknown future of family members, close friends, and their own inner struggles.
I was reminded of the phrase “be strong and courageous” from the book of Joshua, and I share it with all of you.  Joshua was the successor to Moses.  If you’ve ever taken a job where the person you are replacing was a legendary figure in the company, you have a little idea what it was like for Joshua.  Moses was the greatest leader they had ever known, and he had led the Israelites to do extraordinary things.  The book of Joshua begins with God talking to Joshua–passing Moses’ leadership mantle to Joshua.  What makes Joshua’s assignment even more daunting is the fact that he’s not merely taking over an organization that is running in a steady state, with the job “not to screw things up.”  Joshua is charged by God to take the nation of Israel to the next level–literally to lead them to take the “Promised Land,” the mission for which Moses had been training them for the past 40 years.
It’s easy to sit here in the luxury of nearly 3500 years of hindsight and underestimate Joshua’s situation.  Because, of course, God “promised” the Israelites this land, so certainly Joshua was going to be successful, so he should have no doubts, right?  Joshua was probably more focused on the fact that Moses was the one God chose to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into the Promised Land, and he died in the desert.  If Moses couldn’t do it, how was he supposed to pull it off?  Joshua had been a faithful second-in-command, but when you become “the guy,” everything changes.  All that to say, Joshua had more than a little reason to be overwhelmed with legitimate fear.
Fear is a messy thing.  Our culture has cast it as a weakness, a thing to be ridiculed, a sign of insufficient confidence or inner strength.  Religious people point to it as a lack of faith, as if it were some sort of character flaw or shortcoming.  Many try to deal with it in a number of unhealthy ways.  People suppress fear and deny it, or at the other end of the spectrum, embrace it as part of “who they are” and allow it to suppress them.  I don’t want to delve too deeply into the psychology of fear, but instead I want to look at this one teaching on it, and see if there’s something in here to help all of us as we grapple with the emotions generated as we contemplate the unknown (or sometimes that which we do know, and are about to encounter again).
God’s charge to Joshua starts brutally bluntly:  “Moses my servant is dead.  Now, you get all these people ready to invade the land that your ancestors have been dreaming about.” (Joshua 1:2, GMW version)  He then goes on in verses 3-5 to tell Joshua about the success God has in store for them.
Then in verse 6 God changes the topic slightly.  In the next 4 verses, God deals with a critical issue:  Joshua’s fear.  Joshua was a confident, courageous leader who had proven himself strong already on multiple occasions.  He is one of the few major biblical characters who has no significant character flaws (the only real negative I can find recorded in Scripture was his failure to consult with God about the Gibeonite treaty–a mistake, to be sure, but primarily because it was so out of character for Joshua).  Joshua was no wimp, no weak man.  But three times in four verses, God encourages Joshua:
  • v6: “Be strong and courageous…”
  • v7: “Be strong and very courageous…”
  • v9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous….”
God didn’t dismiss Joshua’s fears.  Too many times someone who is dealing with fearful situations is told “don’t be afraid” or worse yet, “Why are you afraid?”  Dismissing fear is less than pointless; it’s demeaning.  God doesn’t do that to Joshua.  He offers something better!  He tells him to be strong, to have courage.  That’s easy for God to say, he’s not looking at the situation through my eyeballs!
I left out a lot of text from those four verses, where God gives the details of how Joshua can “be strong and courageous” in the midst of his fearful circumstances.  More on that in a minute.  But first, I want to explore something I hadn’t noticed in that passage before, even though I’ve read it dozens of times.  In verse 9, God starts with “Have I not commanded you?”  I’ve always read that as something akin to that parental breakdown point, when logic and patience fail simultaneously, and the parent screams, “DO IT BECAUSE I SAID SO!!!”  But that’s not what is going on here.  Just as in John 13:34, where Jesus tells his disciples, “a new command I give you:  love one another”, Jesus is not commanding an emotion.  So also God is not commanding Joshua to have an emotion.  Emotions can’t be forced.
In our culture, we don’t fully understand Jesus’s command in John 13, because we think “warm fuzzy feels” when we think “love.”  But Jesus’s command is to an action, rooted in a choice.  In the same way, God commands Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.”  He’s not saying “don’t have an emotion (fear).”  He’s saying, essentially, “Make a choice:  Choose to have strength and courage.”  Just as our culture misunderstands love, we also misunderstand courage.  What most of us think of as courage is more accurately “bravado,” which Oxford defines as “a bold manner or a show of boldness intended to impress or intimidate.” 
God’s command to Joshua is something different.  He is commanding an action.  And precluding that action is a decision.  Joshua gets to decide whether he is going to act on his fears, or on something else.  Courage is the act of choosing to persevere despite the conditions that warrant fear.  Courage is focusing on your source of strength, and acting.  Fear is nothing more than empowered doubt.  Courage is choosing to focus on and continuing to work toward the right outcome, despite the risks.
God redirects Joshua’s attention from the obstacles and enormity of the task at hand.  Joshua wasn’t acting on blind wishes.  He’d seen God’s work and knew His strength.  He knew God’s assurances that Joshua would succeed could be trusted, because he knew God.
All of us face fearful circumstances at times in our lives.  Some of us are staring at the impossible, the insurmountable–at monsters so big that the only reasonable response is to curl up in the corner and wait for it to devour us.  But we have another choice.  We can choose to be strong and courageous.  We can choose to focus on the sources of strength in our lives, and to recognize that those strengths can help us press on in the midst of our fears.  When fearful thoughts start washing over us, we can choose to think a new thought!  We can decide to keep going, and not let our fears control us.  They won’t always go away, but they don’t have to dominate.

For followers of YHWH, Joshua’s God, our source of strength is the same assurances that Joshua had:  God is worthy of being trusted, because he has always proven himself to be true.  While verse 9 was not specifically addressed to us, God’s nature is such that we can be assured that we have the same promise:

“Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” 

Be an answer to prayer

I’m a “Pentecostal.”  That means I believe that the miraculous, supernatural power that Jesus promised his first disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead, and otherwise do his work here on earth is still available for his followers today.  Pentecostals believe that if we are truly following Jesus and devoted to being like him, we will be filled with the Holy Spirit, empowering us to do things that we can’t do on our own.

Unfortunately, we sometimes rely so much on the element of the supernatural that we sit around waiting for the miracle, and in so doing miss the opportunity to BE the answer to prayer ourselves.  We’ve become enthralled with manifestations of power, and end up missing an opportunity to manifest love.

Jesus’ first followers did amazing things through the power of the Holy Spirit, including healing many people of various diseases and infirmities, as well as raising people from the dead on multiple occasions.  However, they also saw prayers answered as they lived life together in Christian community.  God’s plan has always been that the world would come to know HIM through his followers loving one another–see “Greatest Commandment(s).”

Recently we had a friend who had a material need, and asked for Christian friends to pray with her for fulfillment of that need.  In similar situations, most Christians pray, and then sit around hoping for a mysterious envelope to arrive in the mail or the material good to fall from the sky (Amazon drone malfunction?).  But this time, we didn’t do that.  Instead, the friends realized that THEY could be an answer to prayer–and they took it upon themselves to team together to meet the need.  THEY became the answer to prayer.  Not to get all self-righteous, because it’s not that they were special.  Instead, they realized that God uses his church, his people, to meet the needs of others.

Just today I got to witness another miracle-but not one where God wrinkled the fabric of the natural world.  Instead, I watched God’s incredible timing bring a man with a talent together to help a lady with a desperate need.  He even said it was “no big deal at all.”  But he solved her unsolvable problem.  That’s a pretty big deal in my book!  It was a miracle because God orchestrated the timing, and because he was generous with what he had.

How many prayers go unfulfilled because, rather than using a supernatural event, God appointed one or more of his people to meet the need, yet they didn’t respond?  I don’t recall where I first heard the principle, but credit it to a former missionary I know:

If someone you know has a need, and you have the means to fulfill it, God most likely put that means in your hand to meet that need!

But we want to hold on to what we have, because we might need it, and instead expect the cosmic air force to fulfill the needs of others with emergency resupply drops.  We essentially pray and say “I’m believing that God will magically meet your need; but don’t ask me to act in faith that he’ll meet MY need if I meet yours out of my provision.”

Be somebody’s miracle.  It’s really not that hard.

Reflections on “How to Raise a Pagan Kid in a Christian Home”

I just read “How to Raise a Pagan Kid in a Christian Home”, and thought I’d share it, as well as add some thoughts of my own.  The article brings up some good points, and some that I’m guilty of in my own parenting.

I spent too much of my life telling my kids that my job was to ensure they “grew up to be productive members of our society.”  I was wrong, and my only defense is ignorance.  For most of my kids’ formative years, that was my understanding of life.  As the author linked above states, “The only problem with this goal is that it runs in stark contrast to what the Bible teaches.”  I didn’t realize that until about nine years ago.  See, God’s goal is not to teach morality or ethics, so that we can be strong, upright citizens.  I didn’t know that; in fact, I spent most of my life thinking that was the goal, and our reward for attaining the goal was a ticket to heaven.

The author quotes Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer, who said:

“We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true.”

That first sentence describes me, and everything I taught my kids (except I was pretty light on the third part–mine would probably read more accurately if you substituted “Sunday school stories and Veggie Tales” for “gospel”).  But I’m afraid that the author of the blog goes too light on what he proposes as the antidote.  He says:

“or do you teach your kids that they will never be good without Christ’s offer of grace? There is a huge difference. One leads to moralism; the other leads to brokenness. One leads to self-righteousness; the other leads to a life that realizes that Christ is everything and that nothing else matters.”

While I don’t disagree with his point, I think that his description of “Christ’s offer of grace” still points to a message of “personal salvation,” one that tells you that if you accept Christ as your personal savior, your sins are forgiven, and you get to go to heaven.

Jesus didn’t die so we could get a ticket to heaven.  Jesus didn’t preach personal salvation.  He preached the Kingdom of Heaven.  That’s not a ticket for your afterlife, that’s a new life, starting right now.

I believe that so much of the hopelessness we see in our world, particularly in kids raised in the church, is that we are told, “pray a prayer, get ‘saved,’ then after you die, God will make everything better.”  That’s not what the BIBLE says!  If you read the whole book, it’s not just a collection of morality tales, but a comprehensive story, a metanarrative of how the Creator God has planned since the beginning to make things right in his Creation, and how each one of us, under his Lordship, can participate in that story.

I made a mess of things when I tried to do it on my own, and when I tried to use God, the church, and Veggie Tales to make my kids “productive members of society.”  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got amazing, God-loving children, who have grown up to become productive members of society, and of whom I’m very proud.  However, I way too late in life discovered that “the Protestant work ethic and the American dream” weren’t enough.

What makes my life exhilarating, and fully worth living is the fact that God wants me to be a part of his Kingdom, that he made a way for me to not only be a member, but to be an active participant in the Greatest Story, the one where he brings his fallen Creation back to relationship with him.  That purpose was what I was looking for all my life, and only recently discovered.  My hope is that my kids have that same purpose, and that other parents out there can raise their kids with The Story, rather than just the “ethics and reward” lessons I taught.

“Squirrel!”

So it seems in my random musings that I have at least two threads of thought started, both of which I promised to continue to develop in coming posts.  That said, I’m not thinking linear at all lately in any aspect of my life, so why should this place be any different.  My wife has picked up the analogy of traffic lights to describe her current state of being…  In that vein, my life, my thoughts, my world seems to be analogous to a traffic circle–I’m in it, I’m going around, but there’s no signs to mark the streets that branch off the circle, and I’m not sure what my destination is anyway.  (If I still haven’t convinced you, just look at the total disconnect from the previous posts, to the title of this post, to the totally unrelated analogy above).

My post today is nothing more than grabbing a quote from a book I’m reading:  Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  I’m only vaguely familiar with Bonhoeffer’s work, and have been wanting to read this biography for a couple of years now.  For those of you who, like me, don’t know much about him, here’s the short version:  Born around the turn of the 20th century to an elite German family; afforded the most privileged upbringing and education, this genius chose to pursue theology, wound up as an amazing scholar who also turned out to be a great pastor (an uncommon pairing), who lost his life as a result of his participation in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler.

I’m still early in the book; the excerpt below is from a lecture he delivered in his early 20s, to a high-school aged crowd on a Tuesday night (says something of his pastoral abilities to be able to get high-schoolers to church on a weeknight).

“One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn’t do: one doesn’t take him seriously. That is, one doesn’t bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman — just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant…. Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God himself speaks and if the word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me…. Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment.”

80 years ago Bonhoeffer spoke to something that has become even more significant today.  Too often I compartmentalize Christ.  I fail to acknowledge through my priorities, my thoughts, and my actions his “absolute claim” on me.  I was somewhat shocked to see him calling out the failing of the “Enlightenment” almost a century ago.  And this isn’t some uneducated religious rube; by the time of this particular writing, he’d already earned his doctorate (at 22), studying under some of the preeminent liberal theologians of the modern era.

I am more certain than ever that my first response inside the pearly gates will be “Forgive me for underestimating you so completely.”

“You Can’t Have Faith Without Doubt”–the back-story

“You can’t have faith without doubt.”

That statement ought to get you thinking.  I know it did me.  I first heard it from our senior pastor, when our little church was embarking on an incredibly optimistic faith journey a few years back.  I grew up with the impression that doubt was a bad thing; a sign of weakness, of a failure of faith.  How could I not think that, when the church had branded one of Jesus’s closest companions as “doubting Thomas”–a branding so successful that the term is used in popular culture even by those who probably couldn’t tell you who Thomas was, or what heinous act he committed to be viewed with such disdain.  So, when this wise older scholar made the statement, I had to take some time to consider the thought.

First, Thomas got a bad rap.  If you’re not familiar with it, Thomas’s story is told in John 20:19-29.  Unfortunately for most Christians, we’ve read and heard the story so many times that we don’t really read it anymore, we skim it, and jump straight to the anticipated ending, along with all the afore-learned stereotypes.  In studying up on doubt, I took time to really savor this story, reading it as if for the first time, trying to witness it as if I’d never heard it before.

I’m going to refrain from delving too deep into the political and cultural climate of the story; suffice it to say that a full understanding of the climate makes the story much more powerful.  The over-simplified version is this:  Jesus’s closest followers were gathered together on Sunday evening.  Jesus had been crucified three days earlier.  They were afraid for their lives, and had every reason to be.  There were a few in their group who were claiming that they’d seen Jesus alive earlier that day–but people just don’t come back to life after they die.  But then again, some of this very same group had witnessed Lazarus come back to life (at Jesus’s command, no less!) after he’d been dead for four days.

A worthwhile detour with respect to the character of Thomas:  In the story of Lazarus’s resurrection, Jesus declares that he’s going back to Judea to Lazarus’s family.  He’d left Judea earlier to escape the religious leaders who were out to kill him. His disciples (names aren’t given, but the plural is used, so one would assume this was a group consensus) try to dissuade him because people will try to kill him.  When Jesus makes it clear that his purpose is in Judea, Thomas is recorded as saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Essentially, Thomas tells the group that he’s committed enough to Jesus that if Jesus is going to do something that will likely get him killed, so be it, Thomas will be right there with him.  Hardly the words one would expect from the weak-minded stereotypical Thomas many of us were taught.

Back to Easter Sunday–that evening, the disciples were hiding together in a locked room.  These are not courageous men of faith; they’re not expecting a resurrected Jesus (realistically, you only can understand his teachings about his resurrection in the Gospels once you know that he rose from the grave.  The disciples didn’t get it until after it had happened, and only fully comprehended it after years of living in the fullness of the Holy Spirit).  If anything, they’re expecting a knock on the door, or a crash at the door, from the Temple guards or the Roman centurions, taking them all to their own cross.  Suddenly, in their midst (without anyone opening the door), Jesus appears and greets them.

Verse 20 has to be one of the most ignored verses in Scripture.  “After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”  I’m reading a little into the text based solely on the sequencing of the phrasing, but I’m guessing that if they were convinced he was the Lord as soon as he appeared, there would have been little need for him to show his scars.  I read this passage to indicate that he showed him his hands and side, then the disciples were overjoyed, because they then saw the Lord.   Even if my interpretation is inaccurate, the wording clearly indicates that Jesus showed his scars.

In verse 24, Thomas shows up (there has been much speculation throughout history has to why Thomas wasn’t there–most of it seems to be influenced by the underserved slam on his character.  Scripture indicates that the disciples came together that evening, meaning they hadn’t been together all day long.  Bottom line is we can’t read what isn’t there, and it’s inaccurate to judge Thomas negatively based on assumptions).  Jesus has departed prior to Thomas’s arrival, and Thomas walks into what must have been an incomprehensible scene:  His closest companions–all of them–are excitedly talking over one another insisting that Jesus, who had been crucified on Friday, had just been in their midst, very much alive, on Sunday night.  Here’s where Thomas’s story heads downhill in the minds of most:  His response to this excited gaggle’s claim “We have seen the Lord!”:  “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

Oh, “Doubting Thomas.”  Your friends have told you that the impossible has just happened.  Why don’t you believe them at their word?  Why do you insist on seeing the evidence…  that they saw?  Wait… read that again.  Jesus showed up, and displayed his scars, and the disciples recognized him and were overjoyed.  Thomas walks into this scene of overjoyed-ness (I can only imagine the pandemonium).  Could it be that the author of the Gospel left out some of the dialogue between the group’s claim, and Thomas’s response?  Could someone in the group (whom I imagine were all talking at once, sharing their radically excited, overjoyed news with their recently arrived friend) have said, “He showed us his hands and his side!” prior to Thomas’s recorded response?  While that is sheer speculation on my part, the record is very clear:  Thomas simply asked for the same evidence that the clamoring disciples had already seen for themselves.  And for that, we’ve impugned his character forever.

Thomas wasn’t some sort of faithless, spineless loser.  He was bold, and he was honest.  Sure, the witnesses were his friends, but their claim was incomprehensible and unprecedented (there are differences between Jesus’s resurrection and Lazarus’s–namely, Jesus commanded Lazarus’s resurrection–he couldn’t very well command his own, since he was the one that was dead!).  Nonetheless, that wasn’t enough for Thomas to “believe.”  As I discussed in my post “Contemplating Doubt,” the word translated as “believe” has a lot more depth to it than just agreement that a fact is true.  It means committing and acting on the basis of that truth, to the point that if in fact it’s not true, you are going to suffer significant consequences.  We’ve already seen that Thomas isn’t afraid to stake his very life on something that he truly believes.  Here, he just says, in essence, “I’m not convinced enough to be fully committed.”

Folks, that’s not a sin.  That’s wisdom.  A friend recently called it “intellectual integrity.”  That means that Thomas wasn’t putting on some sort of bogus religious mask to hide what he truly thought and felt, trying to appear all “churchy.”  Thomas didn’t say he refused to believe.  He didn’t say he believed the story was not true.  He just said what was truly on his mind–he wasn’t there yet.

We’ve all been in situations of doubt, and will be there again.  Doubt is real, it’s important, and it’s often mishandled by people who mean to help.  Instead of condemning doubt, either in the church, or in society at large, we need to be open about it.  This is contrary to what many of us have experienced in church, and it’s contrary to what is rewarded in our American culture.  But if “you can’t have faith without doubt,” and faith is a good thing, then isn’t doubt a good thing, a necessary thing?