Friday, 17 April 2015

In Good Company: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty

Sunday, I had the privilege of presiding at the eucharist at Church of the Epiphany in Verdun.  Preaching, too. Good ol' Thomas, the Twin and Doubter.  I had started my ponderings  with a quote I'd seen  by Anne Lamott: "The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty." Oh, yes! Having been certain about faith for a fair bit of my life, lived out of desperate fear, I have a right to speak about this.  I began to search further - only to discover that Richard Holloway also said this: "The opposite of faith isn't doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty." 

Images from Google. Photos below are mine.

I don't know which of them came up with it first. Does it matter? In finding Richard Holloway's version, I happened upon a review of a book he'd written: Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.  See below for a link to an article/interview about his book.

Meantime, I'm in a process of processing. Again. Or still?

Back to Church of the Epiphany. I told them my friend Anne (one of them, as I have quite a few friends named Anne) had shown me a 5-minute video clip of Expo 67 that brought back many memories. Expo was such a powerful experience. I asked how many of the congregation had been to Expo 67. People of a certain age put up their hands. I then asked how many weren't even born in 1967. Laughter and different hands! A few who had been there shared memories and each one of course remembered different aspects. People and more people from all around the world. Particular pavilions. Food and more food. Walking and sore feet.... 

I made a connection with the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were each telling the stories of the resurrection from their own perspectives, for different audiences. John was writing mostly for people who hadn't been there to see, touch, walk with Jesus. Like those born after Expo 67 who have to rely on the story-telling of us oldies.  :-) And somehow the immediacy and power of our experience is lost in the telling.

I'm not going to write the entire sermon. But we had some fun with Thomas. New thoughts for me. I'm ashamed to say it never occurred to me that his twin might have been female. Where was Thomas? Hiding in fear? Having supper with his mother-in-law or his great aunt Josephine? Jesus could have gone and found Thomas by himself wherever he was. Instead, he came back when Thomas was present with the other disciples. Jesus gave the early community and us a model for dealing with doubt. He didn't shame Thomas. He didn't exclude him. He accepted him as he was, and treated him with respect. To Thomas and to us: "Go ahead. Touch me. I'm real."

Then there's this doubt problem. I asked if anyone had doubts sometimes and a few hands (out of about 50) went up. OK - so they didn't teach us this in seminary, but I said, "Hmmm... seems to me a lot of people here aren't telling the truth." 

"Have you ever wondered what kind of God allows a four year old to have cancer? Have you wondered about a 51 year old Black man running, unarmed, away from a white police officer and being shot dead? Eight bullets. Or a young Black man killed by a policeman (who was found innocent!), in Ferguson, Missouri? Or 150 young Christians massacred at a university in Kenya? Or ... the 'collateral damage' done in Iraq and Afghanistan by the missiles of Western countries like ours? I have."  Heads nodding all over the place.

"Have you ever stood saying the Nicene Creed, wondering at certain parts if you really believed this, and looked out of the corner of your eye at others and thought, 'Well, they all seem to believe it. What's wrong with me?' I have."  More nods .. a little self-consciously, maybe.

Doubt is normal. "The opposite of faith isn't doubt. It is certainty." Certainty is impossible. Certainty grows, I believe, out of fear. Mine did anyhow. Illusions of certainty.

We have questions. We should have questions. Doubt is healthy and normal. Asking questions and sharing doubts in community is the way to go. 

OK - so - Then there is Richard Holloway's book. I went to visit my favourite (and only) niece and godchild Lisa and my favourite oldest great-nephew Josh in Ottawa on Sunday after church til Tuesday. Monday, Lisa and Josh went to work; I went to research at the archives downtown and then ambled along Wellington Street in the spring-y weather. On the way past the Supreme Court, I thought nasty thoughts about the people who recently voted to allow the gun registry data from Quebec to be destroyed. I thought similar thoughts about our Prime Minister (who set the destruction of the gun registry data in motion) as I journeyed past our magnificent stone Parliament Buildings. Stephen Harper, in case you don't know his name, when it comes time to vote this fall. And then - on an off chance - I went to Chapters to see if they had Richard Holloway's book.

THEY DID! I can't write about it yet. I may not write about it on my blog. It is turning me upside down and inside out, and at the same time I feel that I am not alone. That I am understood, even if Richard doesn't know it.

An aside. Did you know that priests began to be called Father not all that long ago? So, again I say, "Stop it!" Anyhow he was, and is, Richard. Didn't even do the purple shirt thing as a bishop. He was our parish priest at the Church of the Advent in Boston in the early 80's. An excellent, powerful preacher. But the only line I remember from his sermons was one Sunday morning he said, "Scots are always homesick." Turns out he was. I was and am. Maybe we all are - homesick for something beyond our understanding... not just places. There are so many levels of home.

Anyhow, Richard grew up in poverty in Glasgow and was trained towards priesthood at Kelham, a religious community in England from age 14.  He begins the book crying in the cemetery at Kelham. Although the community no longer exists, the cemetery where his brothers are buried does. So, if I'm weird, I'm not weird alone. Last October, I found the cemetery in Boston where my Sisters were buried until the 1980's. I took photos of some of the grave markers. Found Sister Rhoda's. And Sister Eugenie's. And those of Sisters who had died long, long before I entered the community. I cleaned moss and dirt from quite a few, all the while remembering. Cemeteries tell stories. They actually hold parts of our stories...

Sisters of St. Margaret - Cedar Grove Cemetery, Boston

Sister Rhoda's grave marker

You'll have to read the book if you want the depth and breadth of it. But there are threads in his story that touch me deeply.

Disappointment is a thread. Feeling he disappointed God by leaving community. He wasn't professed; he was a novice, and yet, he feels (as I understand him) he failed somehow to live up to God's call to give his all. Disappointing others. Disappointing himself... The first quote of the book and one he refers back to often: "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world."  2 Timothy 4.10

That's not to say anything except that it is part of who Richard is. And it's a thread I've tried to make sense of in my own life. We are products of our pasts, of our choices, of other people's choices, of our personalities inherited and otherwise. We are who we are. 

Disapointment doesn't govern his life, or mine. It's simply a thread with a history. We're on a journey to where we are called to know who we are - foibles, faith, failures, all of it... 

Doubt is a thread. Questioning. How to be part of Church and yet ... a big question, when we're feeling most honest - is about life after death. There is no certainty. I 'liked' it better when I could be certain - except to be certain was, for me, a lie. Because I'm not certain. Faith is faith. Hope, yes. But there is no way to know this side of the grave. Life and death. The big puzzles. 

Richard became Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. He resigned in 2000. He stirred things up. Read the book if you want to understand better. Follow the link below for a summary bit -

Meantime, I am thankful. Once again I was led to just the book I needed to read. 

A friend asked why I always seem to be wrestling with stuff. Pushed my buttons for a bit - as I ask myself the same thing. I have to wrestle.  I have to try to make sense of things or find or create meaning. In my better moments, I think wrestling is healthy. Tiring sometimes. Freeing. 

I think Richard agrees, if I need someone to agree with me. ;-) It does make me feel better. So, I guess I do.

We're in it together, folks. This messy thing called Life.

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