In one of my first chapels as a seminary student, we discussed how people are dissatisfied with the Church because they no longer find life within it. For some people, Church has become synonymous with dead traditions, lifeless worship, and a series of mundane services.
As a former Pentecostal, I can never say that I ever thought my faith community was “dead.” In fact, I thought we were so alive, everyone else was “dead” in comparison. I thought the same of my first college community, which, though it boasted a non-denominational label, acted more Pentecostal than my home church, complete with healings, tongues, and charismatic, worship-song fueled services that lasted almost two hours.
I never thought of my communities as lacking life. On the contrary, they were chock full of energy, charisma, excitement, passion, dreams, and drive. The most traditional things we did were communion and baptism, and aside from The Sinner’s Prayer, we didn’t have weekly prayers. While we mostly sang contemporary music, any hymns included on Sunday services were sang with a lot more excitement (and a lot more repeated verses for extra effect) and passion than those ‘other churches.’
Everything was exciting. Everything was on fire. Everything was alive.
So why did I leave?
I left because of Thomas.
Let me explain…
I was taking a Senior Seminar class during Fall Semester of my Senior year at Bridgewater, and our topic of the semester was Clashes of Culture. We read books by atheist authors who argued that Christianity was preventing America from advancing culturally, technologically, and intellectually compared to the rest of the world, which was more secular. We debated reading the Bible literally as opposed to metaphorically or in a historical-critical way.
To me, it seemed as if this class was tailor made to completely rip from under my feet the rug that had been my faith, turning everything which I held dear and cherished as the bedrock of my life into worthless, illegitimate, out-dated rags fit for no one.
I had so many questions that I was afraid to ask, not because I thought they would be brushed aside, but because I feared cookie-cutter answers and Band-Aids over wounds that needed further medical treatment, maybe even some surgery. I feared asking questions because I feared being treated like a project. I feared asking questions because I didn’t want people to pray that I would have more faith to overcome my doubt so I could conform once again to their proper mold.
Suddenly, the mold that had given me life and purpose left me feeling claustrophobic and fake. I knew if I stayed within this mold, if my questions remained in the dark of my fear and never saw the light of my confession, I would die on the inside.
I knew if I couldn’t ask why there were more sermon series on sexual purity than simplifying our lives, why we donated gobs of money to pay for unnecessary church renovations instead of feeding the hungry, or why God would send countless people to hell because they didn’t believe the “right” things, my faith would have shriveled up within me. The church that had brought me so much life and made other communities pale in comparison would kill my soul if I couldn’t get my greatest fears and questions out.
This was around the time two things happen: I became a big fan of Jesus’ disciple Thomas, and I started going to RISE.
In churches I’ve been to that have mentioned Thomas in any number of their services, Thomas is not portrayed as a role model. In fact, he is portrayed as quite the opposite. When I have heard Thomas’ story spoken of by pastors, he has been portrayed as someone whose example we would be better off not following. Yes, they have told me, you will at times be like Thomas and doubt God and Jesus and all sorts of matters related to the Christian faith, but when you find yourself in those times, try to get out of them as soon as possible.
Don’t sit in doubt. Don’t wrestle with doubt. Don’t try to understand what or why you doubt. Just get out of it. If doubt is a desert of slavery, unquestioning faith is the oasis of the Promised Land. Pray it away. Have more faith. Do anything to just get over it. Doubt is inevitable to the Christian, I was told, but it was also not good to go through. As I interpreted it, it was as bad a sin as any other.
And that’s how I found RISE. I had met Amanda the previous year, soon after RISE had launched, when she came to speak at BC Chapel. As I was finally beginning to question whether or not women really could be leaders when the rest of the Church was saying “No,” I went to Amanda immediately after the service to arrange a meeting with her to further discuss the topic of women in church leadership. We had an excellent conversation, and I could tell from that one meeting that she was someone to whom I could be open about my own struggles and questions. With this meeting in mind, I went to RISE, where they were beginning a series about the Rob Bell book Sex God. I remember Amanda talking about sexuality and spirituality, how we can use both to either acknowledge the sacred humanity in one another or defile and degrade it.
But most of all I remember the band getting back on stage to play the final songs and thinking to myself, “I really need to think about this.”
I’ve been to services that are convicting and have brought up many good points that affected my outlook on life, for better or worse. But I had never heard a message that was so relevant to who I was and how I lived that I needed time to process the implications of the message in my life. It was at this moment that I knew I had found a faith community in which I could grow and learn to be me for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
So back to Thomas, the doubter with the bad rep. I think most people give Thomas a hard time because he’s human like us, and also because they believe he doubted out of apathy, because he couldn’t be bothered with what Jesus’ resurrection would do to his life. But now, I disagree with this assessment. I had a counselor named Randy during this rough period of my life, and we were discussing my doubt when Thomas came up.
And for the first time in my life, someone explained to me how wonderful an example Thomas can be to us.
To Randy, Thomas didn’t doubt because he cared too little about Jesus and the Gospel; he doubted because he cared so much. He doubted because he took Jesus’ life, message, and death seriously, and if people were going around saying that Jesus was back, Thomas wanted to make sure Jesus’ message remained intact and didn’t become another myth or tall tale. Thomas cared SO much, not so little, about the implications of Jesus’ return that he knew better than to take them lightly, and he expresses the importance of his faith in Jesus in doubting.
When I looked at Thomas’ story through this light, I realized that my story was similar. I didn’t start being real with my doubts because my faith wasn’t important; I took my doubts and questions seriously because my faith is the bedrock of my life. Like Thomas, I care too much about my questions and what they mean for my faith to simply discredit them and push them under the rug or let them fester and become infected. In tending to my doubts, I allow God and my community to wash away the things that have become artificial and lifeless to let life-giving Truth rush through my veins. In sitting with my questions, I sit with God, my community, and the cloud of witnesses who have gone before me, from Job to Pope Francis, and have sat with God in the pain and fear of doubt until God shines his light on them.
In acknowledging my doubts, I find life. I refuse to let my faith die. It becomes more alive and less stagnant, a living, breathing organism instead of a frigid set of rules and beliefs.
I also identify with Thomas because of his need to touch and see Christ’s physical body. I wonder if so many young people are leaving the church because they no longer see the body of Christ in action. People ask if God is dead. They know Christians by words and beliefs, but not actions and deeds. People hear a lot about Jesus, but they don’t see him moving or doing much. This is not to discredit words (I myself am a huge fan of them). This is simply to remind us that the Church is a body, Christ’s body, and if we’re not being a whole body but just a head or a mouth, people won’t understand what we mean when we say that Christ is risen and alive and in us.
RISE became the body of Christ to me in my doubt. I saw Jesus’ body in the tears of a girl at mentoring sharing the story of her cousin’s deportation. I saw Jesus’ body in Amanda sitting across from me at Mr. J’s bagels as she said, “Me, too” when I told her of my struggles and doubts. I saw Jesus’ body when a young woman in our congregation began to cry while administering communion. I saw Jesus’ body in the thirteen year old boy who was part of a youth group mission week at RISE as he became best friends with a lady named Hope at a retirement community. I see Jesus’ body each Friday night in the midst of the holy chaos that is Sister2Sister, in the connections and bonds the mentors make with our girls, and in how our girls teach us so much about life, love, and the Kingdom of God.
I think this is what I love so much about Communion. It is in Communion that we are reminded of Jesus breaking his body and shedding his blood to meet us in our own brokenness and hurt. Communion is God meeting us exactly where we are, and it is where God begins to heal us. When I saw my friend crying as she gave Communion, I realized how appropriately emotional she was being. Communion was always practiced so solemnly, so quietly, something very uncharacteristic of my otherwise loud and flashy religious upbringing. Before we took communion, we were reminded to check our hearts and see that we were right before God so we could take communion in good conscience and not make God mad. I understand the importance of not viewing communion as another one of those traditions that can become lifeless and meaningless if we simply go through the motions of it. I also understand that there are times when taking communion should be solemn.
But it is also emotional, joyful, hopeful, and inspiring, and I no longer believe that I have to have myself all put together to partake of it. This is further proof that in Jesus and the body of Christ, God meets us where we are. And we as the body of Christ are to meet people where they are, like Jesus met Thomas in his caring doubt and gave him physical evidence of what Thomas loved the most.
Jesus meets us in our doubt. As the Church, we must also meet the world in all of its doubt and brokenness. There are too many lives at stake if we allow the questions to go unanswered. In a way, it really is a matter of life or death. As the Church, what will we choose to do?