LEARNING TO DOUBT YOUR DOUBTS
John 20: 19-31
A memo was sent to David O. Selznick, the head of the old RKO studios, after a man screen tested for films. The memo said: “Man can’t act, is slightly bald, dances some.” Selznick had earlier been concerned about this particular man’s “enormous ears and bad chin line.” What doubts he had that this man could ever be a star! Of course you have probably figured out that he was talking about Fred Astaire, the master dancer, who also sang and acted in some of the world’s most beloved musicals! What a good thing it was that Selznick didn’t follow his doubts! On the other hand another actor listened to his doubts and turned down the Rhett Butler roll that ultimately made Clark Gable so famous. The man who turned down the roll? Gary Cooper! Cooper was quoted as saying: “I’m just glad that it’ll be Clark Gable and not Gary Cooper who’ll be falling flat on his face!” He listened to his doubts! In the rookie year of a famous baseball player, a Boston sportswriter named Bill Cunningham said this about the new player: “I don’t believe this kid will ever hit half a singer midget’s weight in a bathing suit.” Yes that’s the exact quote; no one is sure what it meant, but it wasn’t nice! Cunningham should have doubted his sarcastic doubts, for he was describing the great slugger, Ted Williams. One last example: Back in 1903 the President of the Michigan Savings Bank advised Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company. His reason: quote “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty.” Sometimes people should think twice before speaking! The attorney ignored the banker’s advice; he invested $5000 that he later sold for $12.5 million!
Today we know what the gnawing power of doubt is like: “Do I have enough faith in a company today to buy its stock or not? Do I love this man, or do I love this woman enough to take the step of getting engaged? Do I think I know the answer to this SAT question well enough to guess, or should I leave it blank?” Should I put away my own doubts and try out for “Britain’s Got Talent!” or let the doubts and jeers and the public keep me away? Surely there are times when doubt has its place as we quote “listen to our gut instead of our heart.” Even in Christianity, I think good healthy doubt means a person cares enough about an answer to wonder if it is true or not: “How do we know where Jesus was born, or that he rose from the dead, or that he made a blind man see, or that he appeared to his disciples, and even to Thomas?” All good questions; and we could say- like a number of people who rationally, aimlessly or hopelessly say they are atheists or agnostics- “There is no God;” or say, “There is something, but I’m not sure what to believe.” To those people, and to questioning Christians, it was the famous 20th century preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick who first addressed “The Importance of Doubting Your Doubts.” Today we are visiting that old story of Thomas that has repeatedly saddled him with the name “Doubting Thomas.” Sometimes nicknames are unfortunate. I wonder if Dale Earnhardt Jr. will ever live long enough to not be called “Little E.” or “Junior.” Judging by Doubting Thomas, it doesn’t look good. The Doubting Thomas incident overshadows “another occasion which showed Thomas’s intense loyalty and bravery. When Jesus decided to make the dangerous journey from beyond the Jordan to go to help his friend, Lazarus, the disciples besides Thomas tried to dissuade Him, for they were sure that His enemies would capture Him and kill Him. But Thomas said to them, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him!’ (John 11: 16.) Thomas showed his courage, his faith, and his support for Jesus. Thomas perhaps was among the most loyal of disciples, who still, understandably, couldn’t believe that the man he saw die on a cross could have lived beyond such torture. Could you have seen Jesus’ agonizing death and then believed he was alive and well without seeing him? Perhaps the thing about the Thomas story is that most of us would say and act exactly as he did! When I moved to Missouri in 1966, one of the first things I learned was the state motto: It’s the “show-me” state. My parents said that means, “If you want me to believe you, you’ll have to show me!” Of course, illusionists and magicians have taught me that I really can’t even trust my eyes. Through the trick of 3-D glasses, I can put my hand out, and believe an object is floating inches in front of my face when it isn’t. When I watch Star Wars, with surround sound, I can be made to believe that the Empire’s gigantic “Death Star” is passing right over my head. So why is seeing, or hearing, believing? Instead of relying on senses, perhaps Jesus was most pleased by those who relied on, first, people whom they trusted. Certainly Jesus had said on more than one occasion that the son of Man would be delivered into the hands of evil men, that he would be killed, and on the third day rise again. Jesus had said it; did they not have ears to hear? Do we? Second, Jesus was most pleased by those who relied on their faith instead of their doubts. Very little has been accomplished in life by mean children or thoughtless adults telling children that they are no good, or stupid, or clumsy. There are countless numbers of examples of people who have gained fulfillment, happiness, success, or all three by moving forward in faith and listening to the encouraging voice of a grandparent, teacher, or friend who believes in them. And there are others who have tapped into the quiet voice of God that says, “You are my child; I am so pleased with you, and I am with you whatever you try!
Doubts can part of living, but they are not meant to stay; they are meant to bring up a question, an issue, or something that needs exploration or resolution. Doubting our doubts is a springboard for faith. What would it hurt if we just believed? Even if all the things we believe about Jesus life weren’t true, his teachings have changed and transformed generations. Add on top of that the news that Mary Magdalene told Peter, and that, together, they told the others, and we have a belief in him, as captured in the Apostles’ Creed: “On the third day, Jesus Christ rose from the dead; he ascended in Heaven (after appearing to Thomas of course!) and sits at the place of honor to the right of his Heavenly Father.”
So, what are your doubts? It is all right to name them; Cara deals with doubts in her Apostles’ Creed class; I deal with doubts in my Wednesday morning Bible Class, and my Wednesday evening Disciple class. And George Painter deals with doubts in his Tuesday “All Things Religious Considered” class. We are called into ministry to help people grow in faith, believe in God, and follow Jesus as Lord. Everyone here can be an example of faith when some may call you a fool; or an example of withering doubt- as others wonder how you live with such gnawing hopelessness. One person put it this way: “Doubters invert the metaphor and insist that they need faith as big as a mountain to move a mere mustard seed.” What does it take for you? More than a dozen times in the Gospels
, Jesus instructs others to only believe, tells crowds that healing has taken place because of faith, and is most sorrowful when people who should believe in him, don’t. As Jesus looks into your heart, what will he find, and what will he feel? Perhaps we can, in this Easter season, take the step of faith and be among the blessed followers who believe, even if we do not see.
Jeffrey Sumner April 19, 2009