Faith and Doubt

“Go and tell John this: ‘The blind see, the lame walk, cripples are healed, the dead rise, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.’”

      “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?”  (Matthew 11:3)

Maura O’Donnell was one of the most amazing people I ave ever known.  I met her when she was only a high school student: she was a spitfire if ever there was one.  She was short and slight, and. she had a fresh, Irish complexion. She looked at you through sparkling blue eyes and she had beautiful auburn-red hair.  Maura was an athlete: during her high school career at Bishop Dennis J. O’Connell High School in Arlington Virginia she earned nine letters in four different sports: diving, basketball, baseball, and field hockey.  Athletics didn’t deter Maura from being a top-notch student, though, she graduated from DJO with honors. 

Maura was also young woman who had a great deal of faith and saw purpose in her life.  She wanted to become a nurse so she could help kids with cystic fibrosis.  Maura’s brother and sister both suffered from that disease. 

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease, you get it through heredity.  It is a disease that kills the young.  It fills the lungs of its victims with thick, sticky mucus.  Every day, three times a day, at least back in those days, if you had CF you had to be attached to a machine that helped clear the lungs by loosening the mucus.  Then you’d have to cough it up.  CF is a tough thing to have.  You spend a lot of time in the hospital, and over time it weakens your immune system and makes you very susceptible to things like pneumonia.  Maura’s youngest sister had already died of cystic fibrosis, and she had another sister, Brenda, and a brother, Sean, who were both diagnosed with CF too. 

Maura was very close to Brenda who, at that time, was in her early teens.  Maura once told me: “Brenda just prays and prays to be healed.” The whole O’Donnell family went to the National Cathedral in Washington for a healing service led by I Fr. Francis MacNutt, who had a nationally recognized healing ministry. Maura said, “My sister really believed that the Lord would heal her.”  But those prayers apparently went unanswered. When she was only 16 years old and a sophomore at Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School, Brenda O’Donnell died.

What questions must Maura have wanted to ask the healing Jesus in whom Brenda and she put so much faith? Maybe the question the Israelites put to Moses when they suffered in the wilderness: “Is the Lord with us or not?” Or the Baptist’s question of Jesus, who fell so short of John’s messianic expectations: “ARE you the one who is to come?”

When he sent his disciples to question Jesus, the Baptist was in prison.  Here is the mighty prophet, who came on scene like a storm.  People were flocking to see him, to be baptize by him in the Jordan, and to hear his message of repentance. “Be ready.” he proclaimed,  “The one who is to come is already on his way.”

John painted a picture of what the arrival of the messiah would be like: he would baptize, not with water but with fire.  The Messiah-King would come with power and judgment: his winnowing fork was in his hand to separate the wheat from the chaff.  “The axe” John preached, “was already laid to the root.” Those not producing good fruit – the fruit of repentance and righteousness, would be cut down and thrown into the fire.   Be ready for the One Who Comes!

Then John saw him; he was coming to be baptized.  John said, “No, I should be baptized by you” and Jesus replied “Let it be this way for righteousness’ sake.” 

As John baptized Jesus, the Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the the Father spoke, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  John had seen the one for whom he was waiting.  And now all that he needed to do was wait and to watch for the power of God to break into the world; to rescue the people; to bring salvation, and judgment, and fire.

Months later John is in prison. There were no crowds anymore, just small cell in the dungeon of Herod’s fortress near the Dead Sea. What’s was he doing there, the Baptist wondered?  In prison John had a lot of time to think, and to follow the ministry of his cousin Jesus from afar. John had once been so sure that Jesus was the One sent by God, the one who would bring him vindication and victory; who would baptize with fire. Now John was disappointed.

Jesus was spending his time in Galilee, in the sticks of rural Judea.  Instead of making waves in Jerusalem, Jesus spent his time preaching to a bunch of rubes and bumpkins.  That was no way to set a nation on fire or to re-establish the Kingdom of David. 

Jesus’ ministry was also not bringing fire to the Romans, or putting Herod, the Roman vassal king, in his place.  All Jesus was doing was healing a bunch of people, not everyone either, just some: a blind man here, a cripple there.  Nice if you’re the blind man or the cripple but this isn’t exactly what John had in mind for the mission of the Messiah. 

John was disillusioned and confused. Could he have been mistaken about Jesus?  So he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus: “are you the one who is to come or should we look for somebody else?  Could I have been wrong?  Is there someone better out there?’”

Let’s just pause here for a second and look at what John is doing here. 

The Baptist, is being honest.  He doesn’t get Jesus.  He doesn’t understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.  But instead of rejecting him, or getting angry, or grumbling to his disciples, he goes right to Jesus and asks a question that is both honest and courageous. 

Jesus answers John cryptically, He says, “Go and tell John this: ‘The blind see, the lame walk, cripples are healed, the dead rise, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.’”

Look at that list for a second.

Just rhetorically, couldn’t Jesus have done better?  Wouldn’t you have put the most impressive thing last?  “The blind see, the lame walk, cripples are healed, the dead rise.”  That’s pretty good so far, it’s an ascending order.  But then Jesus dose something odd, he concludes with “and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Really?  Is that so important? 

To the ears of many people it’s not.  But what Jesus is doing here is revealing to John, and to us, what is in the heart of God.  And the heart of God is expressing this reality: everyone matters.  Everyone! The sickest person in Imperial Point Hospital matters; the poorest person in Broward County matters; the most broken, troubled human being you can imagine matters.  God loves the poor; He has a heart for the broken. You matter to him when you’re old, when you’re sick, when you’re alone. 

No one is ever abandoned by God. 

That’s the most important thing that Jesus has come to reveal.  Jesus says to these emissaries from the Baptist, “Go back and tell them what you hear and what you see.” 

What are they hearing?  They’re hearing the sermon on the Mount.  They’re hearing that the poor in spirit, the meek, peacemakers, the persecuted are blessed by God.  Blessed.  They hear Jesus say, “Forgive one another as you yourselves have been forgiven.  Hold nothing back!”   They hear: “Give freely of yourselves, asking for nothing in return, because that’s the way you are loved by your Father in heaven who lets his rain fall on the good and the bad alike.”

What do they see? A crippled woman standing straight and walking; the servant of the centurion made well from afar; blind man given sight; little girl, taken by the hand and raised from death back to life. 

God loves everyone; no one is inconsequential

When John hears all this he will recall the prophecy of Isaiah 35, that the coming of Yahweh himself to redeem and to save, will be characterized by just such activity.

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are fearful-hearted,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Behold, your God will come with vengeance,

With the recompense of God;

He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped

Then the lame shall leap like a deer,

And the tongue of the dumb sing.

For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness,

And streams in the desert. (Isaiah 35:3-6)

“Are you the one who is to come?  Are you the messiah?” John asks. Jesus answer him clearly: “Yes, I AM the messiah, the promised coming of the great I Am himself, of which Isaiah spoke.”  Then Jesus says: “Blessed are those who find no scandal in me.  Blessed are those who take no offense.” 

For all of us who live in a world where God has been pushed to the margins; where belief has become rare and ridiculed; where there’s so many who are offended by Jesus: offended when they hear a prayer in school, offended when they see a nativity scene on the lawn, offended when you say, “God bless you” at work or to the kid who’s giving you coffee at Starbucks.  The name of Jesus has power in it, but it is so easy to take offense when we don’t see the power at work.

And so to us, too, when our faith weakens, Jesus gives sound advice: look and listen. 

Listen for the word that God still speaks into his creation.  Words of life, words of love, words of forgiveness.  Words of caring and compassion. 

Read this Bible and find life in its pages because the Lord still speaks to his people through it.  The Lord still says to us today that if we are meek and kind, we are blessed; if we make peace instead of war, we’re blessed; if we love instead of hate, we’re blessed.  If we understand instead of criticize, we’re blessed.  Blessed are the peacemakers.” 

And then look.  Look and seek that the miracles of healing and transformation going on all around us in Jesus’ name. 

Oh, the the blind people whose sight is restored may be few and far between, as they were in Jesus’ day, they’re out there though.  Other hearings are more prevalent and so less remarkable:  God is changing lives constantly.  God is changing hearts constantly.  God’s giving new opportunities, new chances, second chances constantly. He does it through his people.  He does it because we care about each other, because we make space in our lives for each other, because we don’t turn the poor away. 

The poor still need to hear good news.  

We’re all the poor, if the truth be told.  We’re all someday going to be sick, and old, and maybe forgotten. We all need forgiveness.  We all can be on the margins of our community’s life. 

The Lord calls us to create the space for each other where we can hear and proclaim the good news of God’s abundant love; where people come and be embraced and welcomed just the way they are. 

Recently a guy came to our church, he was in his early 30s, he had a scraggly beard and longish hair and was shabbily dressed.  He seemed nice enough. He was very articulate,  but he also smelled to the high heavens.  He visited on a Sunday around nine A.M. and asked  what time we held services (there was one at ten.

I thought to myself, “Oh, my goodness.  I hope he’s not coming to church – the folks who sit around hi will gag (he was that pungent). I invited him to the 10:00 o’clock service anyhow and he said he’d be there. 

At ten o’clock he was sitting in the congregation, still smelling to high heavens.  On reflection, though, his presence was a blessing; Lord’s way of reminding us that everyone needs to be welcomed in his house.  Everyone!  It’s our grace to speak good news to the poor.

When I turned around about halfway through the service he was gone.  Could the Lord have visited his people that day disguised as a poor smelly man?  And if he did, thank God, we passed the test.

Lord doesn’t always look like we want him to look and doesn’t  always act like we want him to act. Blessed are we when we take no offense in Him.

After Maura’s sister Brenda died Maura said to me: “You know, Brenda really believed God would heal her, and I think he did, better than she ever hoped he would. He took her home to be with Him.” 

Blessed are those who take no offense. 

Maura didn’t get what she prayed for, at least not the way she wanted to get it, but she saw Brenda’s death as the ultimate healing. She trusted the Lord through the darkest moments of her life.   

Maura’s passion for finding a cure for cystic fibrosis was such — she was still a high school kid remember — she went to her principal, Jim McMurtrie, and aske: “Can we do a dance to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation?” 

He said, “Sure.  Go ahead.  Knock yourself out.”

She did: not only did she organize the event, she danced for more than 20 hours. At this one event her high school raised $91,000 for cystic fibrosis research.  Denis J. O’Connell High School has continued   doing that dance for CF research every year from the late 1970s to this day.  Over the years they have raised over $5 million because of the initiative of one young woman who had a passion to find cure for kids with cystic fibrosis.


Maura graduated with honors.  She was the state diving champ in Virginia that year too.  She went on to nursing school at Marymount College in Arlington Virginia, her home town. 

At the end of her second year as a nursing student Maura died because she also had had cystic fibrosis.  She never let it hold her back; she never let it stop her from living; she never gave up or lost her faith.  If anything, her sickness made her embrace it more.

The challenge of John the Baptist and of Maura O’Donnell is to ask honest questions.  When our prayers aren’t answered the way we want them to be answered, when our world doesn’t work the way we think it should work, it is certainly fair to ask God “Why?”

But an honest question is not doubt.  It’s simply a way that God uses to grow and expand our hearts.

And what the Baptist invites us to do, and Maura as well, is to grow our hearts.  Faithfully believing that the Jesus is our Savior and our Lord – we need to wait for no other. In him the poor still have Good News!

Made in God’s Image

We are the very image of God – we are beloved of God; we are children of the Light!

I was recently asked to speak at a prayer service in support of the survivors of clerical sexual abuse that took place in Bowie, Maryland.  I was driving from my home in New York, and was about halfway there, about 153 miles from my destination, when one of he little screws in my eyeglass frames came undone and the right lens of my eyeglasses popped out. As you might imagine, this made driving significantly more challenging! 

All was not lost.  It was around 9:30 on a Saturday morning and I knew that optometrist offices must be open all over New Jersey, how hard could it be to find one? I pulled off the Turnpike at an exit where there seemed to be a lot of stores – I figured I’d only have to drive a few miles before I found a place to get those glasses fixed, then I’d be on my way!

Finding that optometrist wasn’t as easy as I thought. But I spotted a Walgreen’s drugstore, and pulled into it to see if they carried those little eyeglass fix-it kits.  They did, I bought it and immediately dumped out the contents of the case and began to try to repair the damage.

Of course when your glasses are broken it’s difficult to use those kits, with their tiny screws and the little screwdriver made for smaller hands than mine.  After 15 minutes of trying to get the lens and the frame back together, even with the kind help of  a good Samaritan clerk, I gave up. Then the clerk said “who don’t you try the optometrist’s office right across the street” Hmmm. If my glasses weren’t broken maybe I would have seen that office first, but still, my deliverance was at hand! 

Or so I thought

I carefully put my loose lenses back into the frame and  squeezed tight to keep it temporarily in place while I drove across the street – I had been using that same tactic during my last 10 or so miles on the Turnpike. But that strategy was a mistake!  When I turned to pull my car of its parking space, the lens again fell out the frame, and this time it dropped between the seats of my car and landed in a place where  I couldn’t reach it. Flying blind again, I drove to the optometrist’s parking lot, got out of my car , and went to work finding the lenses under my seat.  It was nowhere to be found! I looked and looked and looked – no lens.  To this day I have no idea where darned thing went.  I finally resigned myself to driving the rest of the way to Maryland with no glasses. 

My predicament  created numerous problems.  First, it’s tough to drive when the world looks like an impressionist painting .  Second I had an outline of my talk and all sorts of quotes bookmarked that I wanted to read from the Bible, but reading was now out of the question. I was flying blind in more ways than one. What a mess!

I rely on my glasses to see clearly, and I  need them to drive safely. But now I just didn’t have any other option, I had to drive without them and make the best of the situation, relying on the vision I still had, though it was flawed.  I had to rely on myself: I knew that I could still see well enough to navigate; I knew that I had to be someplace in a few hours, and I’d better be on my way or I’d be late;  and at the end of the journey I would find and be with people who I loved. 

Then I got to thinking about the meaning of my predicament: as we journey through life, we all like to have clarity – we like to know where we’re going and what the road ahead of us is like. The Church, for many of us, has been a lens that helped us see the road of life more clearly.  Sexual abuse by the clergy, and the institutional response of the Corporate church to that abuse, have been a lens-shattering experience. But when we lose focus we have fall back on the basics: we have to rely on our own selves, however flawed we may be, to find our way. 

The first question, then, is “who are we?”

All Scripture should be read in the context of Genesis 1:26 – 27. Their, in the space of two short versus, the sacred author reminds us three times that we are made in the image and likeness of God.  “Then God said, let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness. … So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God He created; male and female He created them.”

We are made in God’s image. Deeper, and more profoundly important than any of our sin, failure or brokenness is this reality – we are of the stuff God.

The theme is picked up in the beautiful prologue of St. John’s Gospel.  John speaks of the Word as being, from the very beginning, the creative energy of God. The Word is life and that life is our light. It is a light that dispels darkness. It is the light of the very life of God. And John writes in verse nine that the light is “the true light enlightens every person coming into the world.”

We are the light.

That light can be covered over, it can be  dimmed,   it can be disregarded, but it cannot be extinguished.

The great Irish teacher and mystic, Pelagius of Wales, taught that in every newborn child’s face we see the face of God. Each of us once radiated that magnificent innocents. Each of us is still in the depths of our being, light.

There is sin and there is evil. It has touched each of our lives. Some individuals are the victims of evil, and some do evil, they are its slaves. Even as great an institution as the church can forget its vocation. It can put its reputation, or its wealth, or its power, ahead of its mission. And when that happens, the lens cracks and falls from our eyes. The church is then unable to help us see clearly, and we must rely, faithfully, on the reality of our own nature, as God reveals us to be. We must rely on God’s presence within us, his image within us, his light within us, to help us find our way.

Who are we? We are the very image of God – we are beloved of God; we are children of the Light!

The next question, then, is “who is God?”

In 1944, a young man named Jurgen, was impressed into military service by his native Germany. He was only 18, and he was put to work in the antiaircraft batteries defending his home town of Hamburg, which was under heavy bombardment by the Allies. The bombing was relentless, bombs hit the battery where are Jurgen was stationed, killing the young man, only 16 years old, who stood next to him but leaving Jurgen himself unscratched.

As soon as he could, Jurgen went AWOL  and was promptly arrested by allied troops. He spent the next two years of his life as a prisoner of war.

Jurgen’s world had been destroyed. His hometown was in ashes, many of his friends were dead, and he was overcome with tremendous sadness. By chance, a  chaplain gave him a copy of the Bible. Jurgen was not a particularly religious person, nor did he come from a particularly religious family. But this was all he had to read, so he read it. In the Psalms of laments he began to take strange comfort. The psalmist seemed to resonate with his own pain. And then he read the account of the passion in St. Mark’s Gospel. At last, he thought, he had found a God who understood his suffering, a God who suffered with him. This is the God who could give Jurgen hope. The God who would change his life.

The cross of Jesus stands at the center of Christianity. It embarrassed the early Christians because it was a reminder of the painful, terrible, humiliating death of Jesus. Nonetheless, only 20 or so years after Jesus’ crucifixion, St. Paul could write: “God for bid that I should glory save in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.” What is the cross? What does it mean for us today?

I don’t believe for one instant that the cross was necessary to expiate for our sins – that it was required by a bloodthirsty god demanding that someone,  someone as innocent as Jesus, die before the sins of the guilty,  your sins and mine, could be forgiven. Quite the contrary,  the cross is a theophany: a revelation of the very nature of God.

On the cross, God, in Jesus, is one with everyone who ever suffered and everyone who ever will suffer. Jesus entered deeply into the painful reality of the human situation so that he could show us how much he loves us, how much God loves us. The cross reveals the essence of God’s being: God is love, self gift. The God revealed by Christ, the father/mother God, is the God who holds nothing back from us, and who is with us in our darkest, saddest, and most painful moments.   

Jesus last words, “O God, O God, why have you forsaken me?” show that Jesus even suffered the feeling of being God forsaken, and in doing so brings God’s presence to the God forsaken.

Jesus crucifixion, though, is inseparable from his resurrection. His resurrection is not merely a personal event, it is a communal event .  Jesus rises as the firstborn of many brothers and sisters.  He rises with God’s verdict that pain and suffering and death will not have the last word. 

So where is God in the pain of betrayal?  God is right there, suffering with us, healing us, restoring us, and making all things new. 

And our final question is “what does all this mean for us?”

In his cross, Jesus shows us the way.  Often, though, it’s hard for us to hear his call to follow him.  We would rather follow other paths that seem more certain or more clear.

The  third chapter of the Gospel of John  gives an interesting illustration.  We meet Nicodemus, and Nicodemus is an important guy.  He’s a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin: a leader of the people, a man who is well respected. He has heard of Jesus and the wonders he has worked. He believes that Jesus is from God, but he doesn’t yet understand who Jesus is or what his ministry means. Nicodemus is interested in seeing if Jesus shows the authentic way to God. 

So he goes to Jesus by night. This would seen  to be because this important community leader is  worried about what would happen to his reputation if it became known that he sought out Jesus.  But more importantly, in John’s Gospel, physical darkness is a symbol of an inner darkness; so John is  saying that Nicodemus comes to Jesus spiritually in the dark. 

Jesus tells Nicodemus that the solution to his quest for God is simple, he must be born again   To Nicodemus this makes no sense whatsoever. He doesn’t get it.  He asks the Lord how anyone be born again? 

And Jesus answers him with an enigmatic statement about to wind –  the wind is free to wind blows where it will, you don’t know where it’s coming from and you don’t know where it’s going.  Jesus is saying “Nicodemus what I want for you is absolute freedom, I want you to be as free as the wind.”

Nicodemus is still in the dark.

Finally Jesus says  “ just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert so must the son of man be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The serpent lifted up in the desert is a symbol and prefigurement of Jesus himself, lifted up on the Cross. 

Jesus is saying that the path to eternal life, and the path to true freedom, lies in our own willingness to undertake a lifestyle of self gift.  The cross is not only Jesus way, it’s our way too.  We are invited into a lifestyle of agapic love,  that love alone is life-giving.

Not long ago a young woman told me a terribly sad story – a story of hurt and betrayal. It was her life story, or at least part of it. 

When she was five, she came home from the park and found her father  packing to leave home.  She never saw him again.  Fast-forward 17 years.  This  same young woman is in a very serious relationship. Then she developed a physical problem. Her body begins to produce uterine cysts, big fibrous uterine cysts. Her physician told her that she may never be able to have children.  She went home to her boyfriend, explained the situation to him, and he left her. He just left her. She was heartbroken. 

Around the time she met somebody else. Their relationship started simply as a friendship, but in a few years it  began  to turn into more than that. The couple started dating – and in time they were getting very seriously involved.  Then the old problem with the  uterine cysts returned. One of her physician told her she would need yet another operation.  She was already scarred from the first operation, when we were talking she called herself “damaged goods.”  She wasn’t damaged, she was perfect.. But she didn’t know that.  She went to her new friend to tell him about the problem and she was sure he would leave her just like her last boyfriend did. Just like her father had left her.

But he didn’t  – he stayed with her and stood by her.  He was there with her in the hospital for the operation, and every day after her operation. When she told him that there was a strong possibility that she couldn’t have children, his response was,  “how you get the children isn’t all that important, what’s important is the love that you pour into their lies for 30-50 years after they’re there. We can always adopt.”

Simply by loving this woman and by being faithful to her the man who is now her husband went a long way towards healing the hurt of  a lifetime.

What was that young man doing?  He was walking in the light. He was being the light.  And he was honoring, in this wonderful young woman whom he loved, the image of God. 

It is our choice.  We can choose to live in darkness. We can revert to the patterns of evil that fill our lives with darkness.  We can choose bitterness over forgiveness; we can choose greed over generosity;    We can choose selfishness over self gift. 

The Lord invites us on a different way.  The way of freedom, the way of new life,  the way of new birth.  It is the way of the Cross!

It is in the love, the understanding, the kindness, and the honesty, of both the those who suffer and those who love them, that we find the presence of God, and with it healing and resurrection hope.

“In the end,” St. Paul says, “three things abide:  faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of them is love.”

We Are In This Together: Fellowship and Christianity

Fellowship is working together in the healing, restoring, enlightening and life-giving work of God.

jesus-washing-apostles-feet-39588-printMake every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3)

There are solitary religions, but Christianity is not one of them. Jesus didn’t go it alone: from the outset of his ministry the Lord involved others. He called disciples to journey with him, and to be co-laborers in the work the Father gave him to do. We can learn from the community Jesus formed with his first disciples as we consider what community means for disciples today – for us.  Continue reading “We Are In This Together: Fellowship and Christianity”