God Is Holding Your Life … through Doubt

God Is Holding Your Life … through Doubt
Ariane Sherine and Richard Dawkins at the Atheist Bus Campaign. Photo by Zoe Margolis. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

300px-JFK_limousineFifty-two years ago today, November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed while riding in his motorcade in Dallas. The Cold War was at its most tense; it was one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Many people feared the assassination was part of a larger attack on the United States by the Soviet Union. During the first hour or so after the president was shot, the facts of what actually happened were not clear. There was uncertainty about the fate of Vice President Johnson, who was riding just two cars behind Kennedy. The assassination created the most overwhelming sense of dread among the American people since the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. People out for a typical day of shopping gathered around television sets and radios and wept openly with complete strangers. In some places, traffic came to a halt as people stopped their cars to listen to the radio. As it was Friday, schools dismissed students early. Eventually the grief of people turned to anger, as it often does. Some people turned their anger toward Texas and Texans. Two days later on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns hosted the Dallas Cowboys; people in the stadium held up signs decrying the city of Dallas as having “killed the president.”

For those of you who remember that day you surely remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news. Do you remember your specific emotional reactions and how they changed over the course of the unfolding media coverage? Do you remember specific conversations you had with family and friends? Do you remember anything specific at all about Saturday, November 23, or the days that followed? Did your behavior or worldview change as a result of that day?

At first you were probably struck by utter disbelief. What? The president has been shot? For my generation the attacks of September 11, 2001, evoked the same sense of shock, disbelief, and dread. I remember the first inkling that something out of the ordinary happened that day. I was walking off the water taxi at Michigan Avenue, following a guy in a suit talking gibberish on his cell phone about “planes flying into buildings.” What is that guy talking about? I thought. I would find out 15 minutes later after walking to the office.

Did my behavior or my worldview change as a result of that day?

Ariane Sherine and Richard Dawkins at the Atheist Bus Campaign. Photo by Zoe Margolis. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Ariane Sherine and Richard Dawkins at the Atheist Bus Campaign. Photo by Zoe Margolis. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For the families and friends of the tens of thousands of other people that died on November 22, 1963, and on September 11, 2001, all around the world, they have other memories of their loved ones and the day they died. More than 150,000 people die every day, about two people every second. If you think about the reality behind those statistics, you may find yourself questioning what life is all about, much like the writer of Ecclesiastes, and you may likewise come to simple conclusions:

I said that this also is vanity. So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

The shocking news of President Kennedy’s assassination overshadowed the news of the deaths of two other prominent people that day. Two of the most prominent thinkers and writers of the 20th century also died on November 22, 1963: C.S. Lewis, scholar of medieval literature at both Oxford and Cambridge and well-known for his many books on religious themes and works of fiction, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, and Aldous Huxley, most well-known for his dystopian novel, Brave New World. Both men were deeply religious … though in different ways … and contemplated the meaning of life and the role of doubt in making sense of life.

Throughout his life, C.S. Lewis struggled with doubt in various manifestations, perhaps most notably when his wife Joy was struck with a recurrence of terminal cancer in 1959. Three years earlier, 57-year-old Lewis married Joy Davidman in a civil marriage to maintain her legal residency as a foreigner in England. On April 29th of 1959, Lewis wrote a letter to his friend, the priest Father Peter Bide, who officiated their religious marriage in 1957 against the rules of the Church, since Joy had previously been married to someone else in America. Lewis wrote to his friend about his grief:

I don’t see how any degree of faith can exclude the dismay, since Christ’s faith did not save Him from dismay in Gethsemane. We’re not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be. … The monotony of anxiety–the circular movement of the mind–is horrible. As far as possible I think it is best to treat one’s own anxiety as being also an illness.

Joy died one year later in July 1960. You can see this part of Lewis’s life depicted in the 1993 movie Shadowlands, in which Lewis is portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins.

“The monotony of anxiety–the circular movement of the mind–is horrible.”

In Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932, the World Controller Mustapha Mond recognizes the means of social control over which he presides as stark but necessary. Stability in the World State is maintained through an artless focus on happiness, perpetuated through sports, virtual reality entertainment systems, and drugs. In a key dialog toward the end of the novel, he says:

Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, … or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.

The events of November 22, 1963, September 11, 2001, the senseless shooting of a 12-year old kid in Cleveland last year on November 22, the unfortunately regular massacres that take place in this country and elsewhere, and the intimate illness or sudden death of a loved one, all of these events puncture our common illusion of stability and that we are in control, whether individually or collectively as a mass of humanity.

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.

Huxley’s World Controller was right: doubt is a “fatal overthrower.” Lewis was right: even though death may be the best, though painful, outcome in the midst of illness, the anxiety of waiting for death is “horrible” and an “illness” in itself. This is the nature of doubt, that doubt is the monotonous underminer of the status quo of social stability and blessed assurance. We often throw around the word “doubt” too casually. “I doubt that is true,” we may say, referring to some banal fact, as if we’re sitting on a barstool next to Cliff Clavin in the TV show Cheers. “It’s a little known fact,” Cliff would say, and then he would state triumphantly some weird factoid to prove his point, totally irrelevant to the common lives of his barroom friends.

In Christian circles we toss around the word “doubt” as just another term for “disbelief.” We may not believe all sorts of claims about supernatural interventions, alien visitations, JFK assassination conspiracy theories, and so on. I’m not talking about “doubt” in this sense, to “disbelieve” some claim or fact.

I’m talking about doubt as a sense or, God forbid, as a lasting condition of spiritual and emotional dread.

Do you remember about eight years ago when the media became fixated on the reports that Mother Teresa struggled with doubt? Her letters revealed intense doubt about the lack of God’s presence. The media took a hold of these reports and treated them sensationally and superficially, as they often do. Here are some headlines:

  • “Letters Reveal Mother Teresa’s Doubt About Faith”
  • “Mother Teresa Did Not Feel Christ’s Presence for Last Half of Her Life, Letters Reveal”
  • “Did Mother Teresa Believe in God?”
  • “Mother Teresa: Was She an Atheist?”

For the media, you either have faith and believe in God, or you have doubt and disbelieve in God. Listen to Mother Teresa in her own words:

CC BY-SA 2.0 DE
CC BY-SA 2.0 DE
  • “If I ever become a Saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven, to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
  • “I have come to love the darkness, for I believe now that it is a part of a very, very small part of Jesus’s darkness and pain on earth.”
  • “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”
  • “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”
  • “A life not lived for others is not a life.”
  • “The Simple Path: Silence is Prayer, Prayer is Faith, Faith is Love, Love is Service, The Fruit of Service is Peace.”

I ask you, knowing Mother Teresa’s life-long service to the most outcast and ignored people in India and the world over and hearing those quotes, do you think she had faith?

Of course Mother Teresa had faith! Her faith was humbled, not hobbled, by her doubt.

If I hope to accomplish one thing in my message this morning it is to wipe from your mind this understanding of pitting faith and doubt against each other. Look at yourself in the mirror some time. Look at yourself and contemplate all of the ways you prepare your outer appearance for the world to see: your facial care, your dental hygiene, your hairstyle, your clothes, your jewelry, and so on.

Is that who you are? Just your outer appearance?

Go to a Blue Man Group show and you’ll see them stick an endoscope down the throat of an audience member to show on the screen the human’s innards. Of course this part of the show is a sight gag, the “esophagus cam” video is pre-recorded, but the point is well-taken. We are so much more than our outer appearance, and we all look remarkably the same on the inside. That is what the relationship between faith and doubt is like. Our faith takes various forms in our outer practice, whether we’re Methodists or Muslims, but on the inside, in our doubt, we experience the same spiritual disturbance of the status quo, which can often be messy and frightening. Jesus said:

Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

Recently, 14 teenagers and eight adults from this church visited the Buddhist temple in Willowbrook as part of the confirmation journey. When we arrived the monk started with inward-focused practices, with chanting and meditation, and then he shared his message. You see, their approach to faith is inside out. They start with and focus on inner spiritual and physical conditioning, whereas we typically focus on outward worship, study, and service. One thing he said that stuck with me is that we humans are all the same, and as an example of this he talked about hunger. When you are hungry, you experience the gurgling gut of hunger, the physical sensations of hunger, the drive to eat something to satisfy your hunger; we all experience these same physical and mental sensations when we are hungry. Likewise, we share doubt as the inner-gurgling and intestinal fortitude of a life that feeds our outward-focused faith in “God” and socially–in Christian lingo–“the Kingdom of God.”

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, do you remember that President Bush asked us to essentially get on with our lives and to “go shopping?” You may remember that because that’s how the media twisted what he actually said. He never said, “Go shopping.” Instead, he rallied the country to transform our doubtful situation into sustenance for faith in the American way of life:

Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.

Doesn’t that sound like President Bush just read Ecclesiastes? Bush did mention “shopping” twice after the attacks. On November 8th, he said:

This great nation will never be intimidated. People are going about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing, worshiping at churches and synagogues and mosques, going to movies and to baseball games.

And, most notably, President Bush addressed the fear many American Muslims felt and the reprisals some of them experienced in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. On September 17th, he said:

I’ve been told that some fear to leave; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America. Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America. They represent the worst of humankind. And they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.

How are you feeding and what are you feeding to the hungry, doubtful inside of your faith-life? Do you feed yourself the sweet candy of ignorance and spicy foods of fear? They taste so good. But do you feed your doubtful self too many spiritual sweets and spices and develop spiritual ulcers?

Do you feed yourself the sweet candy of ignorance and spicy foods of fear?

Or do you listen to your gurgling gut of spiritual doubt and feed yourself a more solid diet of something like following Mother Teresa’s Simple Path? “Silence is Prayer, Prayer is Faith, Faith is Love, Love is Service, The Fruit of Service is Peace.” She also said, “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.”

Amen.

[Scriptures read during worship were Psalms 77:1-3, 9-13; Ecclesiastes 8:10-17; Colossians 2:1-10.]

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