Best Practices in Doubting Doubt

April 03, 2016

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

 The Sunday after Easter always features what I like to call sophomore year or the second week of camp. As a camp counselor for years, I always enjoyed the effervescence of the first week. Every body so excited. Clothes still clean. Only the really bright kids had enemies, the rest were in the making. As a college chaplain, I always loved freshmen. The same reasons: so upbeat, so engaged, so bright and bushy tailed. Then came sophomore year and mono
nucleosis, anti-depressants, the occasional drop out, the frequent fusses. Easter is like that too. It takes us up to that mountain from which we inevitably have to walk down. Hikers will tell you the same truth: going in is a lot easier than getting out, going up a steep hill a cinch compared to going down it.

That’s why the Christian lectionary, a sequence of scriptures selected over a three-year period, always puts Thomas the doubter up for the Sunday after God’s great disguises in the risen Jesus. He has a terrible resume. Like Judas, he is one of the bad boys of scripture, known for the trouble he made rather than the gifts he gave.

It’s worth paying attention to the text. Thomas puts on the great bulletproof vest of doubt early in the conversation. He may have been a disciple but he was a second week camper, a sophomore at spirituality, a hiker with a bad knee, stuck on top of the mountain, trying to figure out how he’s going to make the descent without falling.

I love Thomas. I like his off sidedness, his brilliant form of doubt. He gives “Show me” new meaning. Nobody ever says Shoe me with a giggle. We say “Show me” with an arrow.

The problem with the proof is that you can’t see it till you can see it and then for some of us who stay scared we never see it. We wound ourselves because we can’t see the wounds. We self-wound because we can’t imagine not being wounded if we go out in the campground or the campus. So we stay shivering in our bullet proof vests. There we assume that the story of Jesus’ victory in life over death, love over hate, smallness over largeness, peace over war, salt over bland, new over old can’t possibly be true. And what that really means is that we are going to spend our life protecting ourselves from wounds rather than getting close to them.

The central message of the Christian gospels is that we have the command and the permission to enter our wounds with hope, even the wound of our death. It is what that woman said at bedside to her husband after she was in what proved to be a fatal car accident. Her last words: It’s going to be ok. Her husband said what do you mean? She said, “Either way it’s going to be ok.” That’s the gristle in the Easter gospel. It’s going to be ok. Either way. Wounded or not wounded, living or dead, busted, broke or buoyant, it’s going to be ok. There is a larger frame in which this troubled universe lives and that frame is called ok. So ok already!
With one caveat. You don’t get to ok without going through the wounds. You can’t go around them. People get through sophomore year and home from camp by attending to their trouble, not by avoiding it. Our authority is in our proximity to our wounds.

Friday at the Community Ministry meeting we were a near caricature of ourselves. There were at the end 20 of us in the room, having an erudite discussion about intersectionality, the temptations of manipulation in both art and community organizing. Then in came Sekou to tell a story. You all remember Sekou, one of the earlier Community Ministers who stood in front of a tank in Ferguson, Missouri. By the way he just got a reprieve in his second of three trials. We had more joy after the singing than we could remember or even imagine as possible before it. Before it we were gnawing on the bone of best practices and getting things right. Then we went to the other side, through the pepper gas and tear gas. There Grace had prepared a banquet for us while we were feasting on the amplifier that Michelle brought down from the meeting room. So we could hear the new release by the Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost. Ah, that amplifier. Amplifying wounds to bring us to the other side of suffering, where grace had laid a banquet of tears and hope for us.

I had a much more trivial thing happen this week too. The knobs on our stove had deteriorate because the oven door wouldn’t shut properly so whenever a chicken was properly roasted at 450 degrees, the knobs melted some more till they finally wouldn’t function any more. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. We ordered new knobs. They didn’t fit. They needed to be returned. The same week some misbegotten winter socks, ordered on impulse on an airplane, also needed to be returned. Wrong size. That’s why I put the socks in the knobs bag and the knobs in the sock bag and dutifully returned each to the wrong place. A lovely woman from Minnesota at the sock place called up, dong a version of Minnesota nice that world put Garrison Keillor to shame, asking why we had sent her the knobs to a stove. The answer became immediately clear and there was nothing to do but tell her the truth.

In this turnabout, which is fair play, I realized a little spiritual lesson. We often send our hopes to the wrong places. We send them to camps or colleges that are clear, brightly lit, where all the hiking boots fit perfectly and never give blisters. Instead, as Sekou was arguing, the authority of our wounds (or carelessness, as in the misplaced packages) is always waiting to alert us to go home another way. Go home by way of the higher self-interest, which is not just to demand to see somebody else’s wounds but also to touch them.
Yes: the golden rule and its touching tantalization is the higher self-interest. Let me say how.

Molly and I attended an amazing conference on non-profits and real estate this week. W learned a lot of practical stuff about how to manage this extraordinary building which has nearly 1800 guests on average per week. But there were some deeper lessons as well. You might not know that New York City has a major green roof project. Why? Because we have an open sewer system and green roofs keep water from overwhelming the system. The city will help you get a green roof and even pay for it IF you can prove that you can keep 1 3/8 inches of rain, during heavy falls, out of the sewer system. Self-protection trumps altruism here. You can do good by living well. You can do the most about woundedness by preventing it in the first place, especially if you do so collectively.

The most popular panel at the conference attended by around 200 lawyers and 100 not for profit executives was on the question of access. People started the usual moralizing. Ain t it awful, ain’t it just awful that so few of our buildings are accessible. Bad us. You see how internalizing shame is proving to yourself that you know wounds but doing so in such a way that you will never get release. You won’t get out. And you probably won’t even build a good elevator, so good will you be trying to be and so disconnected from the actual suffering of actual people who can’t get in and don’t even try to any more.

The three panelists took a very different approach than the Doubting Thomasine or moralizing approach. They had no tsks at all. Instead they said they made great jokes about how two of the three of them recently had injuries that meant they needed accessibility. The third said he would leave the panel right then because he had no issues, didn’t really need access and loved climbing stairs. He had no authority of woundednss.

But it was the content, not the jokes, of their presentation that enlightened me. You spend the money you don’t have on access because you yourself will one day need access. You spend the money on access because the population is aging and pretty soon lots and lots of people will need access. You also spend the money in New York City on access because the population is getting younger and you want people with strollers in your building. Ah. Access is not a charitable enterprise. It is a cost of doing business. Yes, we need a new lift at Judson and we need it sooner not later. Touching wounds is not just moral. It is essential. It is life well lived. It is life touching you as well as others, at the same time, better known as the higher self-interest.

So: Easter was a great lift. We now have to incorporate its spirit in our lives. What is its spirit? That there is life after death, healing after woundedness. But first we must touch the wounds and let their proof prove us. In the wounds is a higher self-interest, one that mysteriously makes things better for all. Even ok for all would be a start. Easter is walking the mountain, both ways, up and down.


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