2017 Lenten Reflection – Bill

Shared on March 8th, 2017

John 20:24-29 – New International Version (NIV)

Jesus Appears to Thomas

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Bill’s Reflection – Some random thoughts on The nature of my faith, the difficulty of facts and history, and the journey together.

That scripture passage always unnerves me a bit.  I can relate to “doubting Thomas” as I imagine Jesus is looking at me and saying those words. . .  In my life I have experienced many moments of doubt in the story of Jesus and the realm of God.  Some caused by personal events, like the death of my father when I was young.  Some public, like the events of 9/11 we all experienced.  Things like these shook my faith, fragile as it was.  But I recovered.  In large part because other people, came into my life that repaired it.

The point is that tonight I cannot describe my faith journey as anything like a steady un-wavering linear line. (I doubt that most people do.)  My faith comes from a weaving of events and responses. It is more like a tapestry, or quilt, perhaps, than a steady line.  So l want to share a few of those panels from the quilt that is my faith journey.

Bill’s Faith Quilt – Panel #1 – The Problem of Facts

I am a fan of history.  Not just the reading but the imagining of it; it’s fun for me; it’s time travel.  I walk the streets of Providence and Boston and pause at those plaques mounted on the corner of monolithic buildings describing a house or a church that once stood on that spot. On Sundays I might sit under this dome above us and wonder what it was like to sit here on the Sunday after John Glenn returned to earth from Space, or learning the D-Day invasion was underway, or the loss of the Titanic… So I think a lot about the past, the longer ago the more intriguing.

Tyrolean man

Let me take you back to 1991. A receding Glacier in the Tyrolean Alps revealed the mummified remains of a man who walked the earth 5000 years ago.   Tyrolean Man “Otzi”: lived about 3300 BC – he belonged to the Copper Age.  [The Copper Age is the period that was the bridge between the Bronze Age and – the Stone Age.]  Trapped in ice for 5K years one September day two German hikers come across Otzi.  A completely intact body, clothing, tools, bow, arrows, quiver.  Otzi was a boon to scientists looking for insight into the world we have difficulty imagining.   From this physical evidence we know how old he was, how he lived, what he ate, and how he died.

I was transfixed by the fact that somewhere in a lab in Italy, scientists held in their hands the shoes of a man that walk out of the Copper Age and into the Information Age.

But this exciting discovery actually dug a “divot of doubt” in my faith.  [As an analytical person I find myself looking for the evidence of what we hold to be true.   I can’t help but to extend that approach to the scriptures and for Jesus.]

  • I know that faith requires belief without proof. But a little proof, would help a lot with my faith…

The point is that my problem was this:

  • Otzi was not remarkable, other than winding up freeze dried in a Glacier. But we have his shoes.

Jesus was remarkable.  So – Where are his shoes?

Where’s the evidence of Jesus, the son of God?

  • Relics – no.
  • Shroud of Turin – maybe.
  • Titus Flavius Josephus, a 1st C Roman historian, speaks of him, as a man, but again that is 100 years AD.

So much for direct evidence.   If you are a doubting Thomas – where else do you look?    I turned first to the indirect evidence most readily available.

  1. Bible scriptures.  The New Testament stories and scriptures.  Tell us more about Jesus and his teachings in life than any other book on any other man.  That is a legacy.
  2. Houses of worship built and sustained throughout the ages. That is a legacy.
  • This space and every church is a testament to those that went before us with deep faith. (Like the hammer with the wooden handle shaped to the owners hand (mentioned Rebecca’s sermon)).

So, grand Houses of Worship and the Bible itself.  Not direct evidence.  But powerful, and helpful to shore up my faith in the story of Jesus and God.  Still I struggled a bit.  And seeking more evidence pulled me forward.

Bill’s Faith Quilt – Panel 2 – The power of community.

When I was little I went to Church on Sundays for the same reason as everyone else, our parents forced us.  When I had choice, I continued my journey (after a brief hiatus) to reconcile my “free will” with my need for some deeper connection. We weren’t forced to come here: But my wife and I were drawn here.   Just as each of you are, for your own reason, from your own beginnings, we have each come here together.

Some weeks my Faith takes a beating.  But when I gather together with you Sunday: we sing together, we pray together, we laugh together.  All joined in a common journey of faith.  Just bearing witness to this gathering on Sunday helps to repair my battered faith.  And it serves as evidence of Jesus.

Bill’s Faith Quilt – Panel 3 –  The existence of Love, and in particular – Empathy.

Love exists.  I am blessed with it and by it.   And it is a blessing.  I can imagine no place colder or darker than a place without Love.

SO – Is the existence of Love, direct evidence of God?

Yes but to be clear, I find evidence of God and Jesus in one particular kind of Love.  I’m not referring to Romantic love, Parental love, or even Love for your extended family.  Indeed I think that there’s good evidence that these types of love of child, parent or family have strong biological roots.

  • A mother’s love will cause her to do anything to see that her child survives, including sacrificing her own life… Impressive but you can see how that kind of love has a positive effect for enhancing the chances for survival of the species.  And therefore, that kind of love isn’t really the best evidence of God to me, because it’s also explained by biology.  In fact, it could have evolved, without God.

But in looking for further evidence of God and Jesus to sustain my faith I point to a varietal of Love that is not so easily tied to evolutionary development; it is tied to something higher, more noble, more moral.  Empathy: the ability to feel what others experience.

Empathy has perplexed scientists and thinkers for centuries.

The word derives from German Ein-fuh-lung for “feeling into”.  The word is relatively new (according to Wikipedia it’s less than 100 yrs old) but the concept has been around a long time.  In 1759 Adam Smith argued that what made us “Moral Beings” was our ability to imagine ourselves in the position of another and “become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensation, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”  [Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)]

Smith was clinical in his attempt to categorize it but we all know what he was talking about.  Empathy is about the urge to care for each other, even when it is not in our own self-interest.

  • Empathy makes the Nurse care for the contagious sick. The hungry share with others what little they have to eat.
  • Empathy causes the fireman to run into the burning building. And the “White Helmets” to dig furiously in the rubble to drag out survivors, in Aleppo Syria – fully aware that more barrel bombs may fall on the same site.

Unlike Parental love, Empathic Love is not easily explained by nature.   To the contrary, many of these acts of bravery (which are an extreme empathic response to another’s suffering) run directly contrary to our self-centered biology.

And yet there is no question that empathic love exists. We all have seen it in many forms.

Empathy is universal.   It is a tenet of all the major faiths, not just Christian.  To me every demonstration of empathy, large or small, is evidence of God, his love and his gifts to us. (Even in the smallest gesture as a heartfelt greeting: “How are you?”)

So when I see acts of empathy, I see direct evidence that God is present.  When I feel empathy, I feel God’s presence.  Then taking firm hold of the certainty that God exists and is present, it is a relatively small leap to believe that he sent his only begotten son to walk among us.  It’s not such a stretch.  After all, it was only 2,000 years ago.  If you think that was a long time, ask Otzi the guy trapped in ice for twice that long.

That’s why they call it “faith”.

I know that faith is not about seeking evidence.   It’s called “faith” because we need to believe without proof.  But if one were to look for proof then I submit that it is the existence of Empathy that is the best tangible evidence of the existence of God and Jesus and the legacy of his teachings.

Before dying on the cross, Jesus said “Forgive them father for they know not what they do”.   There was Empathy present that day on a Level that only God could supply to his only begotten son.

So- my faith is not linear.  And it can be shaken.  And I may always be uneasy with the scripture lesson of doubting Thomas.  But along my journey, including my journey with all of you, my Faith is regularly repaired, restored, and strengthened.   So that I can get back out on the road alongside of all of you.  We are all practicing empathy, and as we do so we are all walking, as RS tells us, “on the road to Jerusalem”.   And while travelling along that road, we pause on Sunday mornings to come together, drawn by our shared response to the challenge of practicing empathy in this fractured world.

What could be a better testament to the existence of God, the story of Jesus, and the power of faith.


Posted in 2017 Lenten Reflections, Lenten Reflections.