A squillion years ago I was responsible for a teen Vacation Bible School program. The program director wanted more clergy involvement and I, as the only female clergy on staff, was delegated that awesome role. I had been out of any kind of youth work for many years and was feeling terribly inadequate. Youth ministry is a guaranteed lesson in either humility or humiliation.
Naturally, the theme of that year’s VBS was faith, a nice vague subject not at all interesting to most kids. I tapped into my social services network and lined up a different hands-on project for each day of VBS, but still needed to come up with an introductory activity to frame the subject of faith. Thankfully, there are two staples for most teens: candy and music.
We started out by talking about what makes faith, or believing in God, so difficult. Like the teens, most of us are empiricists. We look for empirical data, evidence that’s quantifiable and measureable when determining what we believe. We want facts and we want to back up those facts with solid data.
That’s what Thomas told his friends. Thomas, for some reason, wasn’t with the rest of his friends when Jesus appeared to them where they were holed up. When Thomas arrived, they told him Jesus came to them. Of course, he thought they’d certainly had too much wine to drink. He would believe them when he saw Jesus for himself. He wanted proof it was Jesus and he would know it was Jesus if he could see and touch the very wounds he saw inflicted on Jesus with his own eyes. He wanted to verify the evidence before making a determination.
Poor Thomas. He has come to be known as “Doubting Thomas”, but he didn’t really doubt. He wanted the empirical data. Those of us who believe know how difficult it is to talk about faith and belief with those who don’t believe. We don’t exactly have concrete, verifiable facts. Add to that our modern culture of separating fact from faith. We’ve given up on the idea that faith is based on “factual”, “real”, or “true” things. Instead faith or religion is based on personal preference. We have separated fact from faith because our culture has limited facts to those things which can be discovered empirically or scientifically. We’re skeptical of those things, like Jesus’ death and resurrection, because they resist proof or can’t be verified through experimentation.
That brings me back to our VBS teens. I had a large jar of jelly beans and everyone guessed how many jelly beans were in the jar. We recorded each guess in one list, and their favorite song in the second list. We then counted out all the jelly beans in the jar, measuring each guess against the actual number of jelly beans in the jar to determine who was right.
I then turned to the list of songs and asked who was closest to being right on that list. As you can imagine a huge debate ensued about how there wasn’t any “right” song because it depended on what kind of music that each person liked or their personal preference. The question that I put to them was, When deciding what to believe about God, is it more like guessing how many jelly beans were in the jar or choosing your favorite song?
The truth is we’re limited by what we can prove about Jesus applying the rules of scientific investigation. The best we can do with complete accuracy is to say Jesus was an historical figure who had followers he taught, who was executed by the Roman government in Jerusalem, that some followers found his tomb empty and other reported seeing him afterwards. These are historical, empirical facts.
The other caveat to this is that even the bible acknowledges that having the facts doesn’t necessarily lead to faith. There is a very interesting short verse at the very end of Matthew’s account:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).
These are the very same people who left their jobs to follow him! They spent three years witnessing his teaching, miracles, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and several weeks with the risen Jesus in various different places. Yet, some doubted!
Contrary to both science and traditionals wisdom, seeing is not always believing. Something besides an informed, reasonable decision is going on here. Some who saw the risen Christ still doubted, while others who have never seen him, believe fervently. The problem is not lack of information. Maybe our hesitancy is more about what we do know than what we don’t know. Mark Twain said, “Some people worry about the parts of the Bible they don’t understand. Me, I worry about the parts I DO understand!”
We know that to commit to a life of faith and following Christ will open us up to things we might not personally want to do. A life of love and service doesn’t sound very appealing most of the time. Being concerned about those we’d rather not see – the aged, the disabled, the suburban poor, the immigrant, human trafficking, and a whole host of people who are falling through the cracks – is hard, especially when we feel like we’re barely hanging on to a thread ourselves.
But then sometimes we just need to have our faith eyes opened. Those VBS teens? After our candy and music introduction to faith, we spent the rest of each VBS day in an activity completely foreign to their sheltered experience. We made brown bag lunches and passed them out to the homeless at St. James Park in San Jose. We spent the day doing child care at the family shelter in San Jose where they discovered one of their classmate’s families lived! We were assigned to a community service work team (yes, roadside trash collection) of juvenile offenders who were our team leaders. We interviewed seniors at an assisted living residence, and the teens accepted their spontaneous invitation to join them for lunch.
Seeing is not always believing, but then faith isn’t merely about believing.
Photo credit: gillyberlin