Taboo 4: Doubt - thrive UMC Official Blog

Taboo 4: Doubt

Luke 4:1-12

Most of you know that before I began to serve with thrive, I worked for six years serving in Youth ministry with another church. And the thing I grew to love the most about working in ministry with teenagers is that they didn’t really get all of the nuances of social etiquette yet. And by this, I mean that most teenagers hadn’t yet unlearned how to be brutally honest. Of course I’ll admit this uniquely pubescent virtue was not something I immediately appreciated –because it usually consisted of being told, midsentence, how skull-implodingly-boring my lessons happened to be, or that Harry Potter, or middle school drama, or the band Nirvana, or whether or not it was necessary to travel through Canada in order to get to outter-space where all topics infinitely more relevant to their states-of-well-being than anything the Bible could ever offer. However, after dealing with so many allegedly ‘sophisticated’ adults, that arsenal of brutal honesty is something I often find myself getting nostalgic about. Now, we don’t tend to think about this too much, but among adults, we have all sorts of layers and subtleties and normative cues that regulate the way we interact with other human beings. In conversations, lots of this stuff can get super-complicated, and runs really, really deep, which often makes it pretty difficult to tell what’s really going on in a lot of social situations. Sometimes it seems like the truth gets lost, or bogged down, somewhere in the mix.

Any of you who have recently been to a ‘networking’ event, have ever been in sales, or have undergone the elaborate sexual interview-process known as dating are at least a little familiar with how important and unintelligible these customs and cues can often be.

For instance, when it comes to sales, no one ever comes right out and says: ‘I want your money, and I’m prepared to offer you something of lesser value, to me, in return for it.’ Obviously that’s always what happens when goods or services are exchanged from money –otherwise there’d be no benefit –no profit- to selling. But because that is the naked truth of the process, it’s also precisely the one thing that cannot be said. Instead, sales people first have to identify their prey –I mean their target market –wait, that still sounds a little too much like hunting… first they have to identify their ‘focus consumer’ and learn their habits (–how awesome would that be if we, as sellers, could convince the buyer that they are the ones being predatory? Wait, wait, how does the term “bargain hunter” sound?’).

Anyway, after the mark has been established, the sales people have to get your attention, and they have to gain your trust by shifting the emphasis of the interaction to your best interest. Often they will do this by trying to convince you that you would be the one gaining the advantage by the deal; and then finally, they have to diffuse any doubts you may have about the transaction, usually in the form of guarantees or return policies. And all that happens before any exchange is made, not to mention any of the really weird internal assessments and self-justifications that happen on the part of buyers and sellers throughout the course of the pitch. And it also doesn’t even scratch the surface about all of the elaborate strategies that are happening to camouflage the fact that any pitch is being made in the first place. Because once people realize someone is trying to sell them something, their guard immediately goes up, right?

Now, by the way, I don’t say this to pick on sales people by any means. In fact, it was recently pointed out to me that I too am a salesman, working every day to get people like you to exchange their personal time, energies and resources to invest in the promise of this particular Jesus-community. And for some of you, that names something about what makes church so uncomfortable. But, in effect, sermons, political speeches, and even movies are all sales-pitches in one way or another because they’re trying to persuade, or sell, a particular value, ideology, or experience to you.

And likewise, even teachers need to be salespeople as well, because they first have to convince their students that the information or skills they have to offer are worth the sacrifice of the student’s time and attention. In short, before any learning can happen, good teachers first have to ‘sell’ their students on the benefits and advantages of the educational process. Just this past week, Kristen and I watched a documentary on successful educational systems, and that particular show made it seem like having a fun, encouraging environment was more important for the academic success of the students than the information or the curriculum they were teaching –and you know what, that totally makes sense when you actually stop to think about it. Because learning isn’t going to happen unless the students are first ready, and willing, to invest themselves in the process. And I think there’s something there for us too.

Actually, you can probably apply these sales principles to pretty much anything where people are involved –dating, for instance, has many of the same dynamics at play. Two people encounter one another and agree that there might be a mutual advantage to be gained from their interaction, and so they agree meet up to pitch their terms. And of course, this isn’t just about attraction, but there’s also a power-dynamic going on, related to how the two individuals will serve, and be served by, one another.

And although we tend not to think of dating in these terms, they run something like this: Male Y appears to have good health and genetics: he is prepared to offer reliable emotional support and consistent companionship, which he articulates through vague, completely unoriginal plans for a picket-fenced, suburban future. His current mean for quantifiable material income rates at a 2.7 on a scale of 1-10, with prospects of jumping to a 4.4 in in the next decade; and he comes additionally equipped with poorly timed jokes and awkward silences. After dinner, he demonstrates his emotional acuity by choosing ‘A Fault In Our Stars’ for the evening’s entertainment. In return for the said offer, he hopes for impressed peers and lots and lots of… hugs.

Meanwhile Female X, also in good medical condition, showcases an ability to talk for long periods of time, seemingly without breathing, to fully compensate for Male Y’s perceived reluctance to construct coherent sentences. The hues of her face and neck signal an aptitude for painting and artistry, which may or may not be skills transferable to the restoration of automobiles or interior decorating. Female X counters Male Y’s offer for a shared suburban lifestyle with a full dramatic campaign for the faster-paced, more brightly-lit downtown atmosphere. Y’s anticipations for public visibility and “hugs” were preemptively met, by X, with an apparel-arsenal armed with the following: purity ring, purity necklace, purity ankle-bracelet, all of which are strategically contrasted by the final accent of yoga pants.

Go ahead and just try to decipher that one Male Y!

And of course, we could go on for a long time, pointing out all the silly ways in which the economy of human power and desire is almost constantly at work upon us; but what I wanted to slow down to talk about this morning is the issue of doubt within our cultural value system. I want us to have the chance to take the time to look at what’s really going on and become actively involved in the process of interpreting the events that are unfolding around us. Because, let’s face it, the people who say they have our best interest in mind are too often the people who have their best interest in mind, right? And, at the same time, we have to be aware that people, ourselves included, won’t alter the course of their life unless they first believe there’s a tangible benefit to be gained from the change.

Last week, if you missed it, we opened a whole can of worms regarding what I think is the biggest, most taboo issue facing the Church, and Christianity as a whole, right now, which is the issue of irresponsibility. Or, if you’d prefer, you could also call this the issue of immaturity. So this week we’re going to start to pour that can of worms out all over the floor so we can take a look at them. Because it’s easy enough to take a look at the Church today and recognize the fact that there’s some growing up that needs to be done; but it’s a much more difficult thing to actively work to reset our habits so that we can take that next step toward building a better community to live in together. Especially if we hadn’t, until this point, realized that that was our job in the first place.

So, step one: we have to ask the question why haven’t we grown up yet? Why haven’t we matured as Christians? Did the church-system fail us? Was it just too hard of a process in the first place? Were we just not good students? Did the devil trick us? And although I really hope you’ll wrestle with those questions on your own a bit, my own struggle with them has led me to conclude that there have been people within the church who have had a vested interest in you staying immature. And I’m going to go ahead and call them out: the first group of people who have a vested interest in you staying immature are pastors –those sneaky devils. Because as long as pastors or priests have something you need, but don’t yet have, they can hold some degree of control over you. So as long as you’re not reading your Bible outside of Sunday morning, or completely up-to-speed on your theology and necessary spiritual rites and practices, or don’t know what your own values are, the pastor kind of has you in her pocket –at least so long as the thought of not giving, or going to a different church never enters your head. Or, probably more of you are familiar with the old evangelistic short-cut, where some preachers would say crazy things like, ‘how does being roasted over a spit and having every nerve in your body alight with ever-increasing agony throughout all of eternity sound to you? Not good right? That’s what I thought –I think you’d better come with me, my child, so we can get some holy water to put that everlasting fire out (–and we’re the only shop in town that has it).’ But probably the most insidious thing pastors do to control people is to prohibit or cover up, their people’s doubt.

And typically these prohibitions against doubt don’t come in the form of authoritarian mandates, or anything like excommunication from church, but they usually come out as passive-aggressive stabs at the status of your faith or role in the church. ‘What, you want to know if Islam is true? But I had thought you’d already been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ and were saved; are you trying to tell me you’re backsliding and losing your faith now? Repent! Repent before it’s too late! (whew, dodged that bullet!)’

Friends, I’m going to tell you a little secret. That I sometimes start off sentences where I call you ‘friends’ hoping you’ll be more likely to accept what I’m about to say. But also, the other secret I want to share with you is that there’s power in doubting. And you’ve probably, at one point or another, been a little misdirected about the true nature of the threat associated with doubting. The story you’ve probably been told is that you shouldn’t doubt because doubting is a sign of weak belief. And it absolutely is. But what they probably stopped short of telling you is that doubting exposes a weak faith in precisely the same way that asking questions is a sure sign of ignorance. In both cases, the doubt and the question highlight either an unfinished faith or an insufficient knowledge. But yet, in the exact same moment, they also illustrate a maturity of awareness that comes from the wise passion to grow and mature. By doubting, and by asking questions, the one making the inquiry is actively taking the next step, either toward becoming a little more intelligent, or the next step in following in the footsteps of Jesus as he leads us into new territory. Therefore, while the one who asks questions is ignorant, the one who refrains from asking is stupid, because they’ve made a choice to remain in their ignorance. And the one who doubts exposes their incomplete faith; but the one who refuses to doubt is likely in possession of a dead faith.

But at the same time, it is true: there is also great danger in doubting, which is why we don’t typically trust the task to children. However the danger lies not so much in arriving at wrong conclusions, as many would lead us to believe, but rather it lies in misplacing the source for your trust along the way.

For instance, maybe a couple of you have heard about a United Methodist pastor in Iowa who recently got into a bit of trouble for performing a same-sex marriage. In case you didn’t know, the United Methodist Church has a rule against doing that. So now even the rule, and the rule-makers have been called into question. And there’s clearly a lot of doubt circulating around the whole issue; but the danger there isn’t simply whether or not same-sex marriage is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; but the greater issue is this: in the midst of unknowing, who do you trust? Who, when it comes to this holy act, is worth listening to? One side claims they’re trusting the Bible and the church authorities, and the other side says they’re trusting the Bible and their neighbors, for whom they have compassion. But once you look a little deeper, you find that the Bible is speaking to them each in different ways. The one side seems to feel called to stay right where we are, and the other seems to wonder if God isn’t doing something new again. One side is afraid if we do. The other afraid if we don’t. And in the midst of the mess of it all, we have to admit that it’s hard to know for sure. And it’s harder to trust. It’s hard to trust our neighbors, because so many of them have a such a long track-record of not knowing even what’s good for themselves. It’s hard too, if we’re honest, to trust the Bible, because it can seem so ancient and different, and far away from our world now. It’s even hard to trust God sometimes, because God’s voice usually seems so quiet and hard to pick out from all of the other blaring noises in our heads and in the world. And most of all, it’s hard to trust ourselves, because we know, in the pit of our hearts, how wrong, and selfish, and blind, and careless we’re capable of being. The taste of it still sits on our tongues –flavors of hopelessness, and the bitters of self-righteousness. But if we don’t know who to trust, we can’t move forward.

Even now, probably one or two of you are wondering when I’m going to come out and say which way is right, to set which side of the picket thrive will be on. And when the time comes, I won’t hold back the produce of my own labors in the issue. But I’m not going to tell you now –not from up here. Because I don’t want you to be confused about what I hope we’re doing here. Because my hope for you is that you will doubt. I want you to do some struggling on your own. I want you to search, and interview, and feel the suck of the mud at your toes as you wade deeper into the pools of unknowning. I want you to be hungry for the truth, and hardened by your time with God in the wilderness. Because you have to be responsible for your own belief.

And for my part, I refuse to be cheap the justification for your stance, or your sorry excuse to part from this place, never to return. Because to answer would mean I had succumbed to the power of fear and coercion. It would be one more affirmation that the thing which holds us together is no more than petty agreement and hastily-formed values. And to let things stand in that manner would be to endorse idolatry, because what brings us here, and holds us together, and rebuilds us after we’ve torn each other apart and squandered our energies, is none other than the Triune God –the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ruth, David, Mary, Christ, Paul and now us. The God who works among and through all of us. The one who has given each and every one of us here an important role to fill, and an essential love to share.

Brothers and sisters, I had mentioned before that there were people in the Church who had a vested interest in keeping you immature, and I’ve already identified some among that number as being the clergy. But the others I want to lift up to you briefly, who have a lot more power than any pastor or preacher, is your family. And you. You have to know that, with every doubt and question that really matters which arises, there is fear in your household that the path might lead you away, or even apart. That much is at stake. With the prospect of every new revelation and a continually growing sense of awareness, there’s an imminent threat that your masks, which you’ve worked so hard to create and maintain for yourself, will be discovered. And then people might find out that you’ve been a fraud all this time. They might actually see that you’ve only been pretending to be interested in anyone but yourself, and that even your spouse, or parents, or children, have been little more to you than mechanical tools you craftily wield for your own self-satisfaction.

And for the first time, they might see the sales pitch in the well-timed gifts you bring home, or the chore-reminder in the kiss on the back of the neck. Then you might have to reevaluate your friendships too, as potential conspiracies of escape from the realities of this world. You might have to rename your marriage a contract of mutual-manipulation. Then at last, everyone in your home would be forced to acknowledge the ghost who’s quietly been haunting your houses all this time: and you’d have to speak his name aloud or call it quits: and that name is Despair. You’d be confronted, again, with the reality that every passing minute is another grain of sand falling irretrievably to the bottom of the hour-glass. Every heartbeat is a countdown to your last. And only in facing the immanence of your own death will you come to know that, on your own, and by yourself, you are nothing.

But yet, as you come to the edge of yourself, it’s only in tottering on the precipice of your own limitations that you will discover who God is, and who God had intended you to be, all along. And only when you get to that point will you rediscover what it is to truly live. Brothers and sisters, try and see for yourselves too, but I haven’t heard God calling us into complacent Sundays,

or comfortable homes. I don’t believe the best God has for us lies in reliable careers, affordable conveniences, or snugly form-fitting relationships. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t yet met God on the internet, or the bottoms of bottles I’ve dried, or in political parties, or right answers, or even religious ideologies. But my most profound experiences of God have happened when I’ve gone outside of myself, been pushed well beyond my own limits, or found myself suddenly stumbling around in the dark of the unknown. They were not fun. They weren’t very satisfying in the moment. And I haven’t been able to make any sense out of a lot of them –but from those anxious days and dark, lonely nights, I’ve found some peace with who I am, and I’ve learned some about what real love is like, and I’ve had others tell me they’ve watched me grow in courage. And courage is precisely the thing we need if we’re to face the new and unknown tomorrow. We have to know who we can trust, and how far, so we have the strength within us to know our own limits and to live wisely –to live responsibly. And so I pray that God might take you there too, and teach you how to trust Him, so that we might all learn to see one another not as tools to exploit, or excuses to hide from our life right here and right now. But I hope you find the courage to go forth as living blessings embodying a spirit of gratitude and celebration, so that we might all find heaven on this earth, and grow, and thrive.

And yet, we’re not pioneers into the unknown, as there’s one who has gone before us. Let us hear about how the Holy Spirit moved Jesus, to prepare him for the life and riches God had in store for him, and through his example, for us too. This comes from Luke 4:1-12.

[Read Luke 4:1-12]

Jesus knew which voice to listen to. Not the voice of his hunger, which must have been calling for his very life after 40 days of fasting. He did not heed the voice beckoning him to rule the kingdoms of the earth with a golden scepter or steel blade. Nor did he mind the temptation that insisted on a sign from heaven –for God to reveal himself out of the clouds, so Jesus could go on, confident in the assurance that, through all mistakes and misadventures, God was on his side and would clean up the mess to compensate for his irresponsibility. No, it was just Jesus in the wilderness, hungry and vulnerable and feeling very alone. But he took the wisdom of the Scriptures, of those who had served God as servants in history before he did; and he lived with their teachings. He had the lessons of the rabbis at whose feet he had sat as a boy. He’d already been encouraged and called to action by John the Baptist. So by the time he found himself in that cold, lonely place, he was already resourced. And when the moment came where everything else was stripped away, and the superficial layers of human coexistence where peeled back, he knew what mattered. And he knew who he was. And he was finding where he had to go. Brothers and sisters, may this also come true for us. Amen.