Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon for July 20, 2014

Laws for Living: #4 Peace with Uncertainty
You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm. I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living. Surely no one lays a hand on a broken man when he cries for help in his distress. Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor? Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness. The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me. Job 30:21-27
It’s one of the oldest stories in existence. His children are dead. His wealth, obliterated. His wife walked out on him. Now he is sick, covered with skin blisters and rashes. His friends don’t really know how to console him. God doesn’t answer his prayers. He suffers. He complains. Confusion and doubt consume him. It just doesn’t make sense. He is a good man, a righteous man. His name is Job, and he did not do anything to deserve such suffering.

Centuries upon centuries later, we still ask the same questions. If God is good and all-powerful, why is there evil? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why doesn’t God stop wars and genocides? Why does God allow my loved ones to suffer? If God is near, why doesn’t God answer my prayers? In the play J.B. by Archibald McLeish, Job comes to this conclusion: “If god is god, he is not good. If god is good, he is not god.”

We learned from childhood that when we do wrong we get punished. Disobey, and you get in trouble. Do something good, you’ll get a reward. Is that what’s happening here? Is God punishing humanity for sin? I doubt it. Sometimes, well-meaning people will offer fast and loose Scripture quotes to give you an explanation. They tell us: If we obey God, and live moral and wholesome lives, we will be healthy and wealthy. If we suffer, God must want to teach us something. Suffering is the only way God can get our attention. It all sounds so true. But then we begin to wonder, “If this is true, why is it we feel worse instead of better?”

As we get older, we often realize that there is no real correlation between the amount of wrong we commit and the amount of pain we experience. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. We do the right thing and still get knocked down. We do the best we are capable of doing, and just as we are reaching out to receive our reward we are hit upside the head and sent spinning. This is the suffering that bewilders and outrages us. This is the kind of suffering that bewilders and outrages Job. Job does everything right, but everything goes so wrong. Job outright rejects the kind of well-meaning advice that provides glib explanations for every painful condition. Job suffers. And Job doubts God.

Is that OK? Is it alright to have doubts? After all, some studies show that rejecting one’s previously held beliefs can lead to shame and guilt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans in our New Testament clearly states, “... those who doubts are condemned.” Feelings of guilt and shame can erode a person's sense of self-worth As the famous Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrote, “No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely ashamed of it.” Thank you Dr. Barth! Now I not only have doubts. I ashamed, too.

Barth and Paul do not get the last word. There are wise people who tell us it’s OK to doubt. Consider an ancient Zen saying: “Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening.”

Some people come from religious traditions where there is a system of dogma, canon law, or a corpus of right beliefs to guide the believer in the spiritual journey. Some traditions rely on creeds and catechisms to be the most faithful interpreters of Scripture. In the UCC, we take a different approach. And sometimes our approach gives people heartburn. Our covenantal tradition means there is no centralized authority or hierarchy to impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the historic faith. The UCC therefore accepts the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies of faith, but not tests of the faith. Non-creedal does not mean anything goes. It means that we are a Protestant Christian church which does not require members to recite the Apostle’s Creed, or any other statement of faith in order to be members of the church.

It also means that we arrive at greater truths through a process of questioning, sharing, journeying, and yes, even doubting together. In some ways, you could say that the UCC preserves the individual’s freedom of doubt. For those who want to know the rules and follow them to the letter, you can see how this can be frustrating.

Remember Renee Descartes, the “I think therefore I am” guy? We use that phrase to sum up his rationalistic philosophy. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I exist. There is actually an expanded version of his philosophy that does not get repeated much: Dubito ergo cogito. Cogito ergo sum. "Since I doubt, I think; since I think I exist." Descartes believed that doubt was essential for learning the truth. More specifically, Descartes believed that a person can grasp the truth only by doubting and calling into question everything one knows. He said, “I am a thinking (conscious) thing, that is, a being who doubts, affirms, denies, knows a few objects, and is ignorant of many.”

Doubt has now become a modern phenomenon. We now live in an age where we have the luxury of being able to question matters of faith. In some ways, we are all skeptics, believer and unbeliever alike. The general view of our day is that there is no longer one true faith evident in all times and all places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience. God is no longer thought to be the center of the cosmos. In our day, the individual and the material world have become the centers of meaning-making. I would say that if we allow ourselves to think about it for a while, most modern Westerners feel adrift and cast into a cold, anonymous, dark and infinitely large universe that is ultimately unknowable and un-mappable.

That puts us in a place where we have choices to make. Some religious traditions claim that the modern way of thinking requires people of faith to bring back and live out medieval moral codes. They will call it getting back to the spirit of the New Testament Church, but what they really want is an enchanted, spiritual worldview charged with presences like the Spirit, or angels and devils -- unnatural presences who come upon and enter into an open, vulnerable individual. In the medieval mindset, to be human meant to be open to an outside force, whether good or evil, open to blessing or curse, open to possession or grace. Some religious traditions seek to preserve that way of being. Others religious traditions say the universe is not really like that. The world doesn’t work that way. There is no longer a distinction between sacred and profane, or between sanctified and secular. Like it or not, we have to deal with our doubts as those who live our lives individually, yet in community, before the face of God. In the words of the novelist Flannery O’Connor,
“There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would ultimately be possible or not.”
C.S. Lewis, a great Christian writer and theologian, believed that doubts were good part of our spiritual development because they make us examine our faith. He wrote,
“If ours is an examined faith we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, then we were believing that which was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger . . .”
This from a man who started his faith journey as an atheist. When Lewis gave himself permission to explore of his doubts, after years of searching and struggling, he became one of the most powerful and insightful writers about Christianity.

Some say that doubt is part of our psychological development. A psychologist named James Fowler has studied faith development in Christians. Fowler thinks that when people hit their 30s and 40s, they enter a time of anxiety and struggle as they face difficult questions about who they are and what they believe. Perhaps for the first time, a person takes responsibility for her beliefs and feelings. Where once a person accepted what religious authorities said without any questions, she now re-examines what she’s been told. Nothing feels certain anymore. Disillusionment reigns. This stage is not a comfortable place to be in. Most people, after entering this stage, sense that the world is far more complex than they previously thought.

I can speak from experience and say that when I am in those times of doubt, when I am journeying in those dark nights of the soul, when it seems that God has moved or that the box I was trying to trap God in was exploding, these are the times I grow the most.

Doubt is an important quality to have if you are a spiritual seeker. Perhaps we need to alter Descartes’ formula a little bit. He said, “I doubt, therefore I think; I think therefore I am.”  Maybe it should go more like this: “We are, therefore we think; we think, therefore we doubt.” To be human is to think. To think is to doubt, otherwise we’re just parroting what we've been told, and that's not thought at all.

Doubt can motivate us to study and learn. Doubt can help us question counterfeit beliefs that have crept into our faith. Doubt can humble our arrogance. Doubt can give us patience and compassion with other doubters. Doubt can remind us of how much truth matters. Authentic faith must be as open to questions as it is receptive of answers.

If this is not a place where tears are understood, where can we go to cry?
If this is not a place where our questions can be asked, where can we go to seek?
If this is not a place where our heart cries can be heard, where shall we go to find comfort?

May this church be such a place for all of us—a place where our questions, and even our doubts, are always welcome.

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