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What Luck

Is there such a thing as luck? Or why didn’t the Puritans throw dice?

 

“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

We went out to dinner last night in part, my family and I, to celebrate the fact that we have electricity and air conditioning again and that our property and ourselves came through hurricane Irma pretty much unscathed. The waiter was happy too. He and his mother had decided not to evacuate, and they had come through just fine. “We got lucky,” he said with a smile. “We have light.” And that set me thinking about what lucky means.

Whatever it means some people clearly weren’t. As I write to you, Miami is still waterlogged. Naples is in ruins. Millions are still in the dark and a quarter of the houses in the Florida Keys were destroyed. Describing the devastation of Hurricane Irma there, New York Times reporter Frances Robles writes: “The landscape is a seemingly random mix of lost and saved—homes and businesses unscathed in the wake of a storm that appeared to pick and choose its targets, taking a roof here and a yacht there, leaving roads littered with random debris.”

We are so used to randomness that we take it for granted–it forms a part of the background of our lives. Chance seems to govern the circumstances in which we find ourselves, whether we prosper or founder, whether we are hale or sickly seems governed by fortune. But does luck exist? Is there such a thing as chance? Our Puritan fathers and mothers didn’t think so. Fervent and consistent Calvinists, they saw every single movement in the universe as the work of a designing and judging God. Every leaf that fell was foreordained to fall where it did.

That’s why they so strongly disapproved of games of chance. Because every shuffle of the cards, every throw of the dice was preordained by God. And games of chance were a way of playing frivolously and blasphemously with his predestining will. So on March 22, 1631 the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony banned gambling from New England: “It is. . .ordered that all persons whatsoever that have cards, dice or [gambling] tables in their houses, shall make away with them before the next court under pain of punishment.” And that punishment, though unnamed, would not be trifling, you can be sure, because this was a serious matter. It was not just the desire to keep anyone anywhere from having fun that motivated such legislation, but a sober and consistent understanding of divine providence. The Puritans did not believe in luck. Every event within their world had a meaning, and their sovereign God did not want to play silly games of dice and cards with mortals.

Our neighbor across the street feels the same way, though with less profound reasoning. She had big live oak fall in her front yard during the storm, but it missed the house. She says that was the will of God, not luck. She is very emphatic about this. There is no such thing as luck. But many trees fell on many houses here in Florida. Was all that the will of God? There is an apparent randomness in human suffering that is impossible to deny. We live in a universe where virtue does not necessarily triumph, and where goodness is not always rewarded. In fact, all of us, the righteous and unrighteous alike, are subject to time and chance, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says. There are times when it seems that effort and forethought and good faith mean nothing in the face of blind luck.

So is there room in the universe for chance. For a believer in an omnipotent and sovereign God it seems not. But is there another way of looking at the world and God’s relationship to it in which randomness does have a place. Those very first verses of the Bible describe how things stood before creation:  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2).

Before creation everything was a formless, random chaos. Then with the calling forth of light God began to bring order to the dark, watery mess, and each symbolic day new wonders are brought forth by his almighty Word. And each day he pronounces his work good—good but not perfect. And there is a way to think of creation is not a finished reality, but as an ordering process that is still going on, a process in which you and I, beloved, have a small but real part. There remains, however, a pre-creation chaos outside of God’s immediate control and ours.

Chance is part and parcel of that pre-creation randomness of the universe, the chaos with which God still struggles at the edges of the world and in the hearts and minds of human beings. Suffering is part of it too. And the symbol of that chaos is the crucified Christ, who made himself subject to time and chance. He was no more sheltered from the demonic forces in nature and the madness in humanity than we are. And he died a violent, unjust, and apparently meaningless death on the cross.

But on the basis on Christ’s resurrection we believe that God will ultimately triumph over the forces of chaos and his work—and ours– will be gloriously completed. There will be an eighth day of creation when the whole flawed composition will be perfected. But in the meantime the resurrection of Jesus is the pledge that order and harmony will triumph in the End. Until then there is work for us to do in overcoming the irrationality in ourselves and in showing concrete compassion for those who—for no apparent reason—did not “luck out.” Luck gives us an opportunity to proclaim that God is still at work, still struggling to bring order and concord to the formless elements and the discordant forces that shape and distort our lives. Luck enables us to say that we are struggling together with him, that we are on his side, as he is utterly and entirely on ours. “Peace be with you,” the risen Lord said to his disciples and so he still says to us, “Peace be with you,” knowing that peace is not only his gift but our task.

 

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Ruthless People

 

Pastor Bill Roen

August 25, 2017

 

What has made Americans so cruel?  There is no point in denying that something has. The torch-wielding white nationalists and neo-Nazis of Charlottesville are only the deckle edge of American ruthlessness. Their cruelty is made glaringly public on the news. But behind them is a third of the nation—I’ll leave it up to you to decide which third–who whose ruthlessness is more discreet. This is the third who would like to take food stamps away from hungry families, dismantle unemployment insurance programs, ax benefits for the disabled, and take coverage away from tens of millions, visiting countless households with the nightmare of losing their health insurance.

Now we have to ask ourselves—in a country that once prided itself on its compassion what justifies such cruelty?  Harshness toward the poor has always liked to dress up in Biblical costume. In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians  St. Paul writes—

“Even when we were with you, we gave you a command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:10).

Passages like this are often used to justify  hostility toward the poor and to add credibility to the widely-held myth that safety net programs reward lazy people who don’t want to work. According to this way of thinking, of those who want to do away with these programs, persons who accept the government help are blood-sucking parasites, unworthy to be thought of as human, let alone as fellow citizens or fellow children of a fatherly God.

Of course St. Paul is right—in a limited sense. There is no excuse for laziness. Those who can work should. Work is—or should be, at least—a blessing, not a curse. It is God’s way of giving meaning and order to our otherwise random existence. It is the way he continues his work of creation through us. But what about those who cannot work–children, the disabled, the mentally challenged? What about the unemployed—not from sloth but from inability to find work? What about the underemployed, those working two jobs who still linger below the poverty line?

Why punish them? The opinion of the “ruthless third” is that the government should be out of the rescue business altogether. People should be left on their own, to sink or swim.  To soften the harshness of such sentiments, those who feel this way often justify themselves by saying that care of the poor and disabled should be left to individual charity. Not necessarily their own individual charity but somebody’s. This point of view could hardly be less realistic. What I know about individual charity—and it is quite a lot—I would be very loath to depend upon it for my daily bread.

In America a handful of people are far richer than they have ever been, but it is a mistake to think that if the government got out of the welfare business they would step up to the plate. Mostly the very rich are consumed with the enduring problem of how to get richer. In our society they are well-rewarded with tax-credits for whatever charity they offer, but their random giving is driven more my fashion and display than by compassion. At a Rotary meeting I once heard a man remark, “I don’t know how the people who work for me live on what I pay them.” That sums up things pretty well. With notable exceptions, the rich are not so much hostile to the poor as indifferent.

Some of the ruthless third would argue that churches and charitable non-profits should take up the task of caring for the poor. Christians often point to the example of the early church, which provided care for its needy members. This too could not be more unrealistic. The churches and similar non-profits do what they can, and what they do is admirable, but they are consumed with the problem of their own financial existence, and they could never begin to the shoulder the staggeringly complex problem of caring for the needy in our society. Try going around seeking help with your rent or your electric bill and see how far you get. Churches and agencies would be tapped out before they even began to feed to hungry multitude.

The truth is that the “ruthless third” are not looking for ways to help struggling Americans. They are seeking ways to avoid doing so. Their motto is–Not with my dollar you don’t.

So we return to our original question—What has made Americans so cruel? The simple answer is fear. Those who have a deepest hostility toward the poor are not the rich, but those who themselves are not far from being poor—the white lower middle class. For those who consider themselves “the real Americans” this is a time of great anxiety. Their standard of living has for a long time been eroding. The old certainties are melting away. The structures that ensured that the white middle class could define what it means to be an American are crumbling, and the new definitions of American seem strange and threatening.

And fear is what motivates anger, the anger of the elder son in the prodigal son story. And anger generates cruelty. The ruthless third fear that next step downward on the economic ladder. They don’t hate poor people individually,  they just want them to stay poor. There is a security in being able to look down and see someone below you. And there is a cruel logic at work—if someone else suffers, my family and I won’t. Or if we suffer, someone else should suffer more.  It has to do with punishing the poor for being that way, punishing minorities for being different, punishing immigrants for working hard to succeed in a new land, punishing the helpless for being helpless.

And there is no reason under this administration and this climate of anxiety and uncertainty, that the ruthlessness toward the poor should not get worse. So it is necessary for those of us who are trying to be disciples of the risen Lord to decide what should we do?  Well, first of all we should not give way to our own cynicism. There are many problems with any structure that tries to deliver help to the poor. There will always be those who try to exploit the system. There will always be duplication and waste and intrusiveness.

But in this time and place you and I must make up our minds what the government is, or should be. We have to decide kind of America we want.

It is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which we live that the government is a representative of a fatherly God, and that under God the citizens of the state are responsible for each other.  Our welfare system has its foundation in the idea that government should act as a surrogate father offering security, discipline and order to all, citizen and alien alike.

Opposed to the fatherly idea of government is the pagan conception of a state which has no responsibility except to itself. It exists to secure the welfare of one particular group of citizens and to its chief beneficiaries, the powerful and the wealthy. Under the varnish of pious banalities of the God helps those who help themselves variety, the ruthless third are the strongest advocates of the pagan state in America today. They worship its symbols—the flag, the anthem, the military–but mostly they are united by a deep-seated hatred of its opposite–government that taxes them to give fatherly protection not just to one class, one ethnicity, one color, or one language but to all its citizens.

We need to recognize that if government is not the representative of a merciful God, who cares for his people materially and spiritually, it will be a cruel despot, buyable by the wealthy and biddable by the powerful. And this pagan understanding of the state is what dominates the thinking of the ruthless third, an attitude that is immoral and profoundly Anti-Christ.

And as followers of the Crucified we should not be dismayed the self-righteous, flag-waving and tiki torch brandishing advocates of an essentially pagan government. Nor should we be seduced by a godless worship of the state parading under the guise of patriotism. Because ruthlessness is not patriotic, and it is certainly not Christian. The only true patriotism is allegiance to a government that is merciful and nurturing.

No government is perfect, just as no act of kindness is perfect. Every system is flawed by selfishness and greed. But recognizing that, we still need to call cruelty by its right name. And in every way to we need to reward with our votes, our voices, and our prayers government that gives fatherly care to the righteous and the unrighteous alike, recognizing that each of us is some of both. That is the state worthy of our loyalty, and no other.

And we should keep in mind those words St. Paul writes to the Galatians in a more gracious mood: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (5:22-23).

Nor should there be.

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Bad Attitudes

She was a patient, kindly woman with a cold, critical mother-in-law. Their relationship was a bit of a cliché, actually. Every year she shopped carefully for her mother-in-law’s Christmas present, and every year her mother-in-law gave it back, saying she hoped she had saved the receipt. But she was a patient, kindly woman, as I said, and she borne up fairly well under a lifetime of little slights and snubs.

No, it wasn’t easy.  But more than anything she wanted to be a good Christian. And for her to be a Christian was to have the right attitude. And she felt this was her Christian duty, because she loved her husband to love his mother. So when her mother-in-law became ill, she quit her job at the bank to stay home to take care of the old woman, who died without once expressing her thanks. And now this patient, kindly woman feels guilty because she sometimes had a bad attitude.

There is something haywire with that story, and I’m sure you can spot it. This woman had a choice. It wasn’t a perfect choice, but it was hers to make. She didn’t have to care for her mother-in-law, but she did, and she did it kindly and patiently. I don’t think people ever do all that they can do, but she got as close as ordinary people can to doing it all. And now she feels bad because in her heart she was sometimes angry, sometimes resentful, because sometimes in the middle of night she bitterly longed to have her life back, and finally because when the old lady finally died she was not that broken up.

But that doesn’t change the fact that she did a good thing. Her husband told her time and again how much he appreciated all she had done for his mother. People called her a saint. But their words sounded hollow because she knows better. She suffers from that particular kind of messed up scrupulosity peculiar to those who want more than anything to be a good Christians, and if you are also that kind of person, you already know it.

My mother used to say—it is a sad thing when you cannot see the good in the good. But it isn’t just sad, it’s tragic and unnecessary. People who are trying to follow Jesus suffer much more for their attitudes than for their actions. And we all need to be reminded that no one ever does anything difficult with a perfect attitude, unmixed with selfishness or impatience or resentment.

We have some freedom when it comes to what we do. We are are free to make the better choice and free to stick with it. Our attitudes, however, are something else altogether. Over those we have no control. Attitudes are like birds that fly over our heads; we can’t stop them. If they make a nest in our hair, then we have a different problem. But for most of us attitudes are birds of passage.  They come and they go.

Some are good; others are bad. If we were to wait for them to align themselves with our actions, a perfect attitude with a good decision, we might well wait forever to do anything. But to do the right thing right now is what is crucial, beloved. And if you can do it with a relatively positive, loving attitude, well that’s gravy. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. But attitudes alone mean nothing—they change with the weather. Tomorrow they will be different, better perhaps, perhaps worse. But the act is the thing that matters.

The life of discipleship in Christ is a series of tasks we are called upon to perform. When the Lord gives us something to do, we need to do it.  If we waited until we had a better attitude we might well never get around to the job at hand. And when we do the thing we are called to do, our attitude toward it will sometimes improve—and sometimes not. As far as that woman with the cantankerous mother-in-law is concerned, she did what she could. Caring for someone else whom we don’t always feel much inclined to care for is a high achievement. It takes grace to do it. But grace does not always take the form of a loving attitude. Just as often it takes the form of detachment and a sense duty.

Of course when the Kingdom of God finally comes, things will be different. Then every good action will be accompanied by a righteous, loving attitude, but not in this world. In this world we are always victims of our moods, which change constantly like shadows on the moon.

But the action and the feeling we have when we do it are not the same thing, and it is important to keep them separate. In the first place, we need to do the thing you know to be right. Give generously of ourselves. Show compassion for other people even when they don’t particularly merit it. And then have compassion upon ourselves for Jesus’ sake and not expect perfection. When we do that we put ourselves in the place of God, who made us what we are—dependent upon his grace.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Lord’s Prayer…Hallowed Be Thy Name

Right now we are watching Hurricane Matthew crawling through the Bahamas toward the coast of Florida and wondering what will happen next. And this is indeed a world of frightening uncertainties, beloved. Literally anything can happen here. Any day you can take a tumble in the garden, go to the doctor with a sprained ankle, and begin a terrifying medical journey that may lead you anywhere at all. Ask me if you don’t believe it. I know. No wonder you and I wake up in the night troubled by those endless, worrisome possibilities and asking the darkness–What next?

What next? Uncertainty is a terrifying thing. And that is the reason God has given us the name by which we can get hold of him anytime, day or night–Father. He is always there the way you thought your father always would be—ready to answer when you are afraid, doubtful, overwhelmed by those endless possibilities.

In this world the people who love us most can’t always be counted upon to answer. They get old and hard of hearing. Their minds wander. They get Alzheimer’s. They die. They always have their limits. But God the Father does not. His attention span is as limitless as the universe he created. And he is always with us—always ready to hear when we call out to him, always ready to calm our fears and to take us into his arms.

In a multitude of ways God is different from you and me. He never wasn’t and always will be. He is holy. We are not. We give our children names. He gave himself a Name. In the Book of Genesis we are told the story of the burning bush and how the Lord shared his own self-given name with Moses—“I am who I am.” And that became his sacred, mysterious, unpronounceable Name in Israel. To fervent Jews their God was “the Lord,” “the Almighty,” “God most high,” and as many other names they used to avoid profaning that holy Name by speaking it aloud. They walled the Name around with silence in order to protect it from being soiled by common use. They exalted the Name of so high that frightened, lonely people could never reach it.

But when God came down into our world in the person of Jesus, he shared with us another name for himself—“Abba.” In Aramaic it is the most intimate form of the word for a male parent—daddy. “Our Father” is a cold translation indeed of that bosom name that Jesus actually used. Jesus taught us to think of God as a father to us, as a warm, embracing presence scented with the smell of Aqua Velva. And when we face one of life’s terrible uncertainties, the Spirit of Jesus invites us to pray to God the way we called out when we got awake in the night—Daddy! I had a bad dream! I’m afraid!

That’s what he wants of us. God made us precisely so we could do that. Before we were, God already possessed everything–a whole universe of wonder and ineffable beauty. But that was not enough. He wanted children—the most basic human wish. And he made us so that we would call out to him as a child calls out to a loving father and take us into an embrace scented with the smell of the stars.

Oh, there is a dark hurricane blowing through the world tonight–a storm of endless possibilities, some of them very terrifying indeed. We hear it roaring away outside our bedroom window and we are afraid. But God is with us, beloved, closer than we are to ourselves, and all we need do is call out to him—Daddy! Daddy are you there? And he is. And we need not worry that we call out that name too often–the more we use the holier it becomes.

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The Lord’s Prayer….Who Art in Heaven

My wife has gotten used it, I suppose, after all these years—she’s had to–but I am always moving things in the house around—pictures, furniture, little objects—always searching for the right place for them. Consequently nothing in our house stays put. It must be annoying for her, but she doesn’t complain about it—just as she doesn’t complain about the many other annoying things I do. But I can’t help it. There is something in me that is always looking for the right place for things—because there just has to be one. In this world things all have a place, but not heaven.

Heaven is placeless. We have to really stretch our minds to imagine that, because everything else in our experience has a locality, a spot where it is and where it stays unless someone comes along and moves it to a different place.

But God is not in any one place–though we may sense his immediate presence in certain Holy Places. He is present in all places and in all times. He is present at your birth, at every moment of your life, and at your death. Heaven is right here. Right now. Everywhere. Because heaven is not a place, not even a spiritual plane or anything woozy like that. Heaven is the proximity of God to us—his there-ness. He is more completely where you are than where you are.

So when we think of heaven we should imagine a door with no lock and no hinges in a wall that isn’t a wall but the thinnest imaginable veil. And the door in that wall stands always open. You can step into heaven as easily as you step through your bedroom door, more easily in fact. Just say “our Father” and you are there. Because what we do when we pray is step through that door in the wall that is no wall into the place that is no place.

And this is not a just a game of words. Heaven is the profoundest reality of our lives. It is our profoundest comfort when we are struggling to be able to step in heaven. In the place where I am right now, the nearness of heaven is what keeps me going. I know I can step through the door at any time.

And perfect sign of the here-ness of heaven is that story in scripture which says that at the moment that Jesus died, the curtain of the temple that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was torn in two, cut as with a knife. Heaven broke into our mortal world. God came near enough to suffer and die with Jesus. And now there is no barrier between us and him. There is no place holier than any other. Because of the death of Jesus Christ heaven is with us, equally and completely present at all times. And the door is always open.

People often talk about heaven as their “home,” and in the profoundest sense it is just exactly that. It is where we really belong while we live out our lives in all the other places. All the while we go from one place to another heaven enfolds us. And when we walk through that door for that last time in the light of God’s presence we will recognize heaven as the place where we always truly belonged.

 

 

 

 

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The Lord’s Prayer….”Our Father”

 

I say it with shame and great sorrow, some fathers aren’t worth the powder to blow. Scallywags! Nothing but! By their wanton neglect and their cruelties great and small they have succeeded in poisoning the name of “father” for countless souls, who as a consequence have lifelong problems finding their way to the One Jesus tenderly called “our Father.”

But for every bad egg there are a so many others who, according to the grace they are given, manage to present an image of God the Father here on earth. I am always being amazed at the fatherliness of fathers. I see those little incarnations of God the Father being transacted everywhere, scenes of men dealing tenderly with children. We all see so many examples of fatherly gentleness for us to begin to catalogue them.

But to take one example from close to home—the other day I got a call from my son Paul, who was on the road somewhere between Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. I asked what he was doing to pass the time, and he replied that he was practicing the harmonica–all alone in the car. Of course, all alone is exactly where the harmonica should be practiced. But since he has never in the past shown any interest or aptitude for musical performance I Just had to ask—Why? And specifically–Why the harmonica of all instruments?

His answer reflected that marvelous, miraculous fatherliness we so often see played out in the lives of ordinary men. Paul’s nine-month-old son Clayton is delighted by harmonica music. Imagine that! So his father—who like all Roens is totally without any single ounce of musical talent—has determined that he should learn that most demanding of instruments strictly to delight his child.

I am still shaking my head with wonder as I write this. I can only hope was that Paul was keeping both his eyes on the road and at least one hand on the wheel while he is practicing “Turkey in the Straw.” And I also hope that Clayton never tires of harmonica music. But even if he does, whenever he hears it will always sing “daddy” to him.

So from this little example I return to my ordinal point—There are so many fathers who manage in so many small and inestimably precious ways to represent the image of God the Father here on earth. And God the Father was even willing to undertake of new skill for us—being human. That is the meaning of the incarnation we confess—God became like us in Jesus Christ and learned to live out our fleshly existence with all its highs notes and lows not just to delight us but in order to save us from despair and death. He didn’t just learn to play the harmonica—difficult enough–he learned to play the cross for us. And he more than performed for us–in Jesus Christ his only Son, who was himself the very form and likeness of fatherly love, God actually died.

Who can grasp that mystery!

It is the most astonishing demonstration of fatherliness of all. God died for our humanity without exception to make us his daughters and sons. That is the basis upon which we call upon him in the prayer we call “The Lord’s” as father, because he sacrificed of both himself and his own only begotten Son for us.

What a thought to ponder!

So God our Father sums up all the faithfulness and gentleness and sacrificial love of every single earthly father and then adds to it an eternal commitment to us his children. He says–I will love you even when you forget me. When you turn your back on me I will love you. I will love you when your body turn to dust. You will still be my own. And I will always hear your voice calling out to me—and upon that eternal commitment to hear and answer that we are able to pray—Our Father…..

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Thomas, Our Twin….John 20:19-31

Actual Proofs     John 20:19-31

“Then Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ But Jesus replied, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”

Faith in Jesus as Lord and God only comes through experience. There’s second-hand knowledge of the risen Christ to be gathered elsewhere. We can hear the Bible accounts of how his pathetic, cowering disciples were transformed into daring, confessing apostles when they saw their risen Lord. We can read the lives of the various saints who in the past met the Living One in ways as many and different as they were from each other. We can hear the testimony of people alive today who have come to faith in Jesus as Lord and God through some epiphany and found life piled on life in him. We can gather all that, beloved, but for each one of us there is literally no substitute for a personal encounter with Jesus. And without that encounter, our awareness of who Jesus really is will never reach our hearts, let alone our fingers and our toes. We will never come to recognize him as the only really real thing in a world of shadows and illusions.

So the demand that Thomas makes is not really as presumptuous as it might seem at first. He wanted hard cash as the price of his soul. He knew that it is not enough to simply wish something were true. It has to be. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he told the other disciples, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The unspoken yet operative word here is actually –unless I actually see the mark of the nails, and actually put my finger in the mark of the nails and actually thrust my hand into his side, I will remain an unbeliever. Actual faith is the only kind that deserves the name, and actual faith always comes from a personal experience of God’s faithfulness. So Thomas places the entire weight of responsibility for his believing or unbelieving solely upon the Lord—where it should be, because you and I are incapable of generating that kind of faith in ourselves.

Yet you and I still hesitate to demand that God reveal himself to us concretely, and too often we settle for a disembodied faith, for pale wishes and frail hopes. There are things we each need to make our faith lively and complete, but we have trouble asking for them. Challenging the Almighty seems so risky, like using a hairdryer in the bathtub. But the old saying is still true–if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It really isn’t presumptuous to ask the Lord to disclose himself to you. Indeed he waits for us to ask him to prove himself with actual experiences of his saving power. God does not resent an audacious demand—the Bible is filled with the stories of people like Thomas who tested the power of God—and with miraculous consequences.

What is different about the story of Thomas—whom the scriptures call Didymus, “the Twin”—is that he laid out such very specific requirements. Unless I see. Unless I touch. The operative word here is unless. And for a week we are told his “unless” hung in the air unanswered. He had to wait. But the next time Jesus appeared to his disciples Thomas was present, and he acceded to Thomas’s audacious demand to touch his wounds. But did Thomas actually do it, or was the offer enough? If we read this passage carefully, we notice that it does not say whether or not Thomas actually put his finger in the nail prints or thrust his hand into Jesus’ side. But if he didn’t, he could have.

So to return to our original point, beloved–All of our knowledge of God comes from direct experience, and that experience is available to each of us if we ask. And having asked, we wait for him to do it in his own time and in his own way. If there is one single thing to learn from accounts of his appearances to others it is this—they are never the same. The Lord will not appear to you and me in the way that he appeared to Thomas, as body with still gaping wounds. He will appear as he actually is, as what we need–a concrete answer to an otherwise unanswerable question, a faithful guide through the labyrinth of life, a partner in our great loneliness. How and when he manifests his presence is up to the Lord and not to us. But he will. All you have to do is ask, and then wait.

It took a week for the Lord to appear to Thomas. But when he did—Boy Howdy!—he really did. Thomas is overwhelmed. “My Lord and my God!” he cries out, almost in pain, as if his confession were being wrenched from him. But Jesus asks—“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Then he turns away from Thomas and toward us—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In other words, not having seen like Thomas did and still having come to believe, you are blessed and so am I. And that is an encouraging thought, beloved. I don’t know about you, but these days I’ll take whatever encouragement I can get, because it is so easy to become downcast. I have all I can do not to slip into sullen despair, and no one likes being around that. The forces of brutality and vulgarity are riding pretty high at the moment, and the menu of the choices of those we are offered to lead us is unappetizing to say the least. When I read the news, those lines written the Irish poet W.B. Yeats keep recurring to me–

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

            Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

            The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

            The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

            The best lack all conviction, while the worst

            And full of passionate intensity.

 

Yeats was writing in 1919, with the horrors of World War I still fresh in his mind. But his words are as crisp and current as this morning’s paper. These days the worst really are the worst, you must agree, and they are filled with nothing if not passionate intensity. And watching things fall apart, I myself have to struggle hard to keep myself from becoming sullen and despondent and short-tempered.

So it occurred to me when I heard the Story of Thomas in church the other Sunday that now is an excellent time for us to put the Lord to the test. He is the One who wants, who desires, who thirsts to reveal himself. So if faith comes only through experience, then we experience the Healer in being healed, the Savior in being saved, the Prince of Peace in that deep peace which passes all understanding. And having that experience of Jesus as Lord and God, in a dissolving world we will be able to claim the blessedness of those who have not seen him but still believe.

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