Lessons from Doubting Thomas
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Sometimes I’ll wake up about 2 am, and realize that the furnace is running. I lie there in the dark and listen to the furnace purr, and take comfort in the blessing of having shelter that is safe and comfortably warm: I realize that there are too many people, not just in the world, but in Yuma county, who don’t have this luxury.
At 5:30 the alarm rings. For some reason, I’m still tired, so I turn it off and roll over for another fifteen minutes. Of course, the fifteen minutes turns into an hour and suddenly at 6:30 I’m startled awake and I realize that I’m angry. Now, there can be any number of reasons for my anger, but behind them, all I realize is the fact that we are all living in the time of the Coronavirus, COVID 19, and since the beginning of the year we have been generally aware of its progress around the globe and now the state of Colorado has been locked down, “shelter in place,” for four weeks. Perhaps the governor will ease the lock-down in the next week or the week after: but nothing will ever be the same again.
I think of my brother-in-law. In the fall of 2003, he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. The night before his first surgery, he said to my sister, “It will never be the same again, will it.” And it never was. You know how the story went, not because you know my sister and brother-in-law, but because you’ve seen the same thing in your own family or circle of friends. The surgery seemed successful, but then the cancer metastasized and reappeared elsewhere, leading to more surgery and other procedures. He had been a pastor, and served his congregations remarkably well: he was lifted up in prayer by countless people around the globe. He died in 2005, about a week after his 65th birthday. At his funeral, his bishop said, “If any of us could have given a day of our lives so that he would not have had to suffer, we would gladly have done so.” But none of us could suffer in his place, of course. Meanwhile, in those two years there were family events and church events and weddings and funerals and somehow “life went on”: but it was never the same.
And as the sun rises in the east at 6:30 every morning, I often want to scream at it, “How dare you come up as though nothing had changed? Don’t you understand that nothing is ever going to be the same again?” But the rising sun remains blithely impassive. Meanwhile, I brood over what’s changed: oh, I’ve got enough to eat; I’ve got my safe, warm shelter; but even if the “shelter-in-place lockdown” is lifted, when will I be able to enjoy a coffee or a meal with friends at Paper Moon? For how long will I have to wear a face-mask when I go to Shop-All? How long will it be before I can return to my favorite camping spot in the Mountains, which is currently closed? My nephew plans to be married in August: will I get to the wedding? Will my nephew get to his wedding? And then there’s worship: I know Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with you.” But how long will it be before we can gather as assemblies of more than ten to worship God without being masked and gloved?
But these are petty, selfish concerns. How about those who are suffering from the virus, for instance, at Eben Ezer in Brush? Or in nursing homes locally or in Sterling or on the Front Range? How about the medical personnel or first responders – or those who work in Shop-All, wearing their masks, day after day? And move even farther away from self-pity to consider the global-ness of this pandemic: it’s not just me who is being inconvenienced; we’re all being terrorized on a global scale, from Arizona to Zimbabwe … Goodness gracious, I have to tell myself: keep things in perspective!
I utterly refuse to believe that God, who created all that is, is the cause of this death-dealing pandemic. God is a God of life, not death. But I do think that the God of life might be using this viral pandemic as a teaching moment. Here are some things I find myself learning.
First: every day that I wake up, I wake up commanded to give thanks to the Lord of Life just for being alive. When the sun comes up, the Psalmist reminds us that “this is the day that the Lord has made: rejoice and be glad in it.”
Secondly: this day is all that we are guaranteed. Nothing is gained by fretting about tomorrow. “Now is the hour,” Jesus tells us in John’s gospel. How is one most alive in “the Now”?
Third: prayer is powerful in a strange sort of way. Countless people around the globe, and not just of Christian faith, were praying that my brother-in-law’s cancer would go into remission. It did not. Were their prayers unheeded by God? But to see prayer as only a solicitation for God to give me what I ask for is too limited a view of what prayer is, and what prayer does.
I’m finding that my prayer list is getting longer. And then I come to that moment when I pray, “Into your hands O God, we commend all for whom we pray, saying ‘Our Father …’” And suddenly, all whom I have thought of in my prayer – friends, family, people I care about but who have hurt me, people with whom I have some profound disagreements – I may be alone in my “prayer chamber,” but suddenly they are all there in the room with me, all of us in prayer, asking not just that “God’s will be done,” but that we all have what we need for this day, that we might all be spared whatever kind of trial we might at any time be tempted by … that God will be with us throughout this day …
Fourth: we still don’t know the end of the story. For Thomas, the story of Jesus ended at the crucifixion. “Might as well just go back to fishing – or to banking, or to carpentry.” Back to the old life. Then Jesus entered a room that had been locked down for fear of those who had successfully accomplished his death (or so everyone thought) and gave his friends a word of peace. For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there and refused to believe what his friends told him. The following week they gathered again, and this time Thomas was with them. And after his own encounter, not with hear-say, but with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, he was able to say, “My Lord and my God.” It makes one wonder: in what space, under lock-down for fear, might we, against all expectation, encounter the risen Lord, come to us through doors locked by death, but made permeable through God’s resurrection of him?
Finally: Thomas has gotten a lot of bad press throughout the course of history. “Don’t be a doubting Thomas,” we used to sing in Sunday School. But there’s a lot of reason to doubt, to be fearful, to be not at peace: especially in these times that are for many of us more distressing, more earth-shaking, than any that most of us thought we would ever endure. But doubt is the other side of faith: as such, doubt is a witness to the reality of one’s faith. A book on Christian spirituality that I’m presently reading calls “doubt” the headwind that a bicycle rider rides into: it may slow your going, but as long as you feel it, you know you’re going somewhere. I’d add to that, that maybe the rider’s legs and lungs are even getting stronger.
I don’t know. I don’t find these lessons easy to learn. I’m not a patient person. I cry a lot: almost every day, at some point, I cry. But I do wonder, more and more: in this “between time” in which we live, when we find ourselves forced to let go of so much, and for whom “nothing will be the same again,” what new thing does God, who is always the God of great surprises, have in store for us?
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side; bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; leave to your God to order and provide; in ev'ry change he faithful will remain. Be still, my soul: your best, your heav'nly Friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: your God will undertake to guide the future as he has the past. Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake; all now mysterious shall be bright at last. Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.