Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Belief + doubt = sanity

John 20: 19-31
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 8, 2018 (Bright Sunday)


         Earlier this week Andrea and I went to Washington DC to visit the Botanic Gardens, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Hirshhorn Museum. By the time we got to the Hirshhorn, I had walked over 11,000 steps and we still had to make it back to Union Station. So while Andrea ventured upstairs, I took my hurting little puppies down the escalator to the gift shop.

         To my delight there was an art installation that covered every surface of the lower level lobby: floors, walls, even the sides of the escalators. The artist, Barbara Kruger, surrounds the viewer with language, with provocative questions and statements writ large in red and black and white, (reminiscent of what’s black and white and red all over?) that poke at our assumptions and our desire for certainty. Through this piece of artwork, Kruger said she was “interested in introducing doubt”, especially in these days of sound bites, fake news, and propaganda. One panel on the floor read:

         Right outside the gift shop I read:
PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH. and YOU WANT IT. YOU BUY IT. YOU FORGET IT. IT’S A SMALL WORLD BUT NOT IF YOU HAVE TO CLEAN IT. THE WORLD SHRINKS FOR THOSE WHO OWN IT. and MONEY MAKES MONEY. speak to economic justice issues. WHOSE BELIEFS? WHOSE BODY? WHOSE POWER? are questions we’ve been asking since humankind developed the language to ask them, and we’ve been struggling with and often dying because of the answers ever since.

         The title of this work is “Belief + Doubt”, and the statement
BELIEF + DOUBT = SANITY is the first statement you see when you come down the escalator. But not all the statements and questions are so serious. There’s a bit of whimsy if you look for it. You have to look up to read DON’T LOOK DOWN ON ANYONE. In a wry bit of humor the statements BELIEVE ANYTHING. and FORGET EVERYTHING. are interspersed with happy face emoticons. My favorite one is the question over the entrance to the women’s restroom: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU LAUGHED? Laughter is one of the many treasures of being human that helps keep our beliefs and our doubts in balance. Laughter keeps us sane. Like doubt, laughter prevents us from taking anything, even ourselves, too seriously.

         I’d like to think that when Thomas put his hand in Jesus’ side and touched his wounds, that there was a deep laughter born of relief, as when we face our worst fears and our wildest hopes. Thomas was the only one of the disciples who was not behind locked doors, not afraid to be out and about. When it comes to Thomas we talk a lot about doubt and faith but not so much about doubt and fear. There are times we put more faith in our fears, and we have a word for that: despair.

         This story is about so much more than one person who missed out on seeing Jesus alive again for the first time. It’s about Jesus not judging Thomas just because he wants to have the same experience as the rest of the disciples. It’s about the power of forgiveness and sharing peace and the giving of the Holy Spirit and being in community, all of which allow these traumatized disciples to continue living the gospel despite their fears. It’s a story that reminds us that having faith in something we can’t see is uniquely human.

         Belief and doubt and laughter are the holy trinity of Easter joy. We need to check in with ourselves when we think jokes and laughter and downright silliness have no place in worship. Laughter and foolishness have their own reverence—reverence for things we often take for granted or don’t think much about like our bellies and blood pressure and oxygen intake, immune cells and endorphins and increased blood flow, hips and knees and ankles. Laughter helps release stress and relaxes the body: the one we live in and this Body, the one we worship and serve with. Laughter has the power to resurrect us from the dumps of despair and transform anger and fear into something else.

         William Sloane Coffin once said that “the primary religious task is to think straight (which is funny, because many people would say religious people don’t think straight); we can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If our heart is a stone, we can’t have decent thoughts about personal relations or international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.”

         Laughter has that limbering effect on our hearts as well. Laughter is one of things that make it possible for us to love, especially when it is difficult. It’s too easy these days to give ourselves over to fear and anger and despair. So every day, laugh some. Get your news from Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, or Stephen Colbert. Turn off the news once in a while and listen to some George Carlin or Robin Williams or Dave Chappelle or Paula Poundstone. Have a dance party while you’re waiting in line, any line, in the kitchen while you’re getting dinner ready. 


         Think of your laughter as prayer, as hope, as possibility. Easter is as real and as deep as we live it. As we laugh it. Amen.

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