Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lent, Thomas, and Faith-filled Questions

Reflections on John 11:7-16 // John 21:24-29

One of my favorite things about being an uncle is the opportunity to witness the playful curiosity of my little niece. While she certainly has a mind of her own, a little Miss Independent, she also is never short of questions. I somewhat relish the adoration she has for me as her uncle, her very wise and, in her eyes, all-knowing uncle. So she presses me endlessly with questions as she tears through the toy box in our living room…what’s this? Why that? It’s almost as if it is a game for her, sometimes wondering if she can stump me. This cute and playful curiosity is a celebrated season of childhood development. Questions are cute. We invite exploration. Imagination is encouraged. Rationale answers and well-developed reasons would be silly to offer a two-year-old little girl.

Yet, as we grow-up, at least in our culture, the expectation is that we will have more answers than questions. And this is somewhat of a healthy expectation. We should, in a sense, know more than when we were two. On the other hand, to boycott questions is only to surrender what it means to be human, even created as a reflection of the divine image. Yet, we often label those who ask too many questions as cynics, skeptics, and doubters. We may even go so far as to call them pessimistic trouble makers who strive to upset the status quo. Especially when they ask the wrong questions.

As I prepared a youth talk a few months ago I was in need of an image for the church. So, like any astute researcher, I Googled it. While there were many that sparked my interest, the one that particularly drew my attention was a photo of a clever church sign with a not-so clever slogan: Church: Where to turn when Google can’t answer your questions. In other words, the church is a place with answers. Better said, church is where to find the answers. I appreciate the spirit behind this sign, but I could not help but baulk at the suggestion. Is church really about answers? Are God’s people really the ones who have everything figured out? Are churches to be void of questions and curiosities, even without critics and healthy doses of cynics? Even more, as I thumb my way through the pages of Scripture, I find that questions are everywhere.

Let us take a pilgrimage of inquiry through the biblical witness:

“So [Hagar] named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi,’ for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’” (Gen 16:13)

“Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Gen.17:17)

“But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh , and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” (Ex. 3:11)

The prophets are loaded with questions. In fact, pull out the prophetic questions and you have nothing but puny statements from whiny critics. Jonah is by far my favorite example of prophetic dissent, whereby the entire book ends with a question delivered, in a twist of irony, from God, which leaves the reader puzzled:

“‘And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”(4:11)

Job, despite his over-characterization as a figure of confidence and humble submission, is also saturated with poignant, even offensive questions:

‘Why did I not die at birth, come from the womb and expire?…Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in? For my sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes.’ (3:11, 20-26)

“Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days?... From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer.” (24:1,12)

We also cannot forget the Psalms:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13)
“O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” (Psalm 74)

We then can turn to the New Testament:

Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, struggles, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting along in years?”(Luke 1:18)
Mary questions: “How can this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)

Dare we be reminded of Jesus, quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46).

We could go on and on, an endless adventure through the many questions posed by God’s people in the midst of devastation and despair- waiting, even hoping, for God to be near, to be present, and to act in and for God’s people, maybe even the whole world?

Are these the marks of cynics? Are they pessimistic remarks of faithless people? It appears as though questions are not avoided by the biblical narrative and characters there within, rather underscored and highlighted as par for the course.

Then there is Thomas. We know him by one little yet powerful word that has marked him forever: doubt.

I find this amusing because Thomas never actually poses a question. In fact, all of the questions listed above, especially the one elicited by Jesus on the cross, are far more distressing than anything Thomas utters. Yet we do not refer to Moses as doubting Moses; Job as doubting Job (in fact, we celebrate his apparent “faith” [1]). The psalmists are not doubting Psalters; Mary not the doubting virgin. We certainly would refuse to refer to Jesus as the doubting Messiah or cynical Christ. But Thomas, despite his only other recorded statements in Scripture, “Let us also go [with Jesus], that we may die with him” (John 11:16), is forever marked as a doubter, one preoccupied by questions about the resurrected Christ. We fail to hear that Thomas, as legend has it, was the one to bring the gospel to India. It is said that Tomas’ longing to “die with Christ” would also eventually come to fruition, eventually martyred for his faith. Still, we know him as doubting Thomas.

But Thomas’ speculation is our speculation. Thomas’ pilgrimage, a sojourning in between the tension to die with the Messiah yet also unsure about the real possibility and hope for resurrection, is our quest and crossroad experience. And questions can be a mark of faith…

I am grateful for Thomas. When I was a teenager, an eager youth in my Lutheran church, I was asked to teach one of the adult Sunday school classes on my favorite disciple- Thomas was mine. His story was my story. I was at the front of the line, even at 15, willing to die for the Messiah and the gospel that saved me. But I was also fearful, and still to this day I have my occasional doubts… is this all really true? I need to see the holes and pierced side…there just is too much chaos in the world around me…

Lent is a season of sacred, faith-filled questions. We are invited to provoke. We are challenged to inquire about ourselves, the world around us, and our confessed hopes in the One we trust. And we question not alone, rather alongside our Redeemer. Still, we are invited, in our questions, in our doubts, to hold on hope, journey with Jesus, and Thomas, to the cross, with all our questions and speculations.

We then are invited to venture forward to the Day of Resurrection, whereby we shift, along with Thomas, from questions of impossibility to declarations of probability, “My Lord and My God!”

And such declarations invite, not the possession of answers, rather new and sending questions:

How can I practice this resurrection?
Where am I called to live into this hope?
Where is the Spirit opening my eyes to injustice?
Where is the Spirit opening my ears to the cries of the poor?
Where is the God of new life sending me to practice deliverance in West Chester and beyond?
Who are my neighbors in need that Jesus is calling me to love and to serve?
How can I be generous with my time, monies, resources, and talents?
With whom can I share the good news that in Jesus the world is being put to rights?

The people of God are characterized not by our claim to hold all the right answers to unfulfilled questions on Google. Instead, God’s people can be discovered en route, on a crossroad pilgrimage of prophetic and faith-filled questions. And these questions invite us to be God’s people in and for the world during Lent and especially as we move all the more closer to the final Day of Resurrection. And may we be blessed, despite or through our doubts, because we have come to believe.