Easter is an exuberant season. We spend seven entire Sundays celebrating God’s victory over sin and death. There is meant to be a bright, festival feeling to everything we do in these weeks. So much in this season seems clear and confident. Christ is risen, we have a Good Shepherd, God has broken into history. It sounds as if the way forward is clear as can be.
And yet, the faith most of us live with day in, day out is often riddled with questions and confusion. The faith we proclaim here on Sunday often sounds so certain, but the way we believe it and live it can often seem fragile. Listen to a letter received by Philip Yancey, author of a book called Reaching for the Invisible God.
I know there is a God: … I just don’t know what to believe of Him. What do I expect from this God? Does He intervene upon request (often/seldom)? … I accept that I’m an immature believer: that my expectations of God are obviously not realistic. I guess I’ve been disappointed enough times that I simply pray for less and less in order not to be disappointed over and over.
Yancey has received dozens of letters such as this one, and I was struck by how much it echoes comments I hear all the time. People come to church with some faith, or some pieces of faith, or some hope of finding faith, but they are often confused. How does this faith actually work? What can I expect from God? As another letter-writer puts it, “How can I say I have faith in God when I constantly wonder if He is really there?”
We talk so much in church about trusting God, about following Christ, that sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves how mysterious and elusive this life of faith often is.
Even for the so-called experts, faith can be frustrating. Listen to this prayer written by one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner:
I should like to speak with you about my prayer, O Lord… So often I consider my prayer as just a job I have to do, a duty to be performed … You are so distant and mysterious. When I pray, it’s as if my words disappear down some deep, dark well, from which no echo ever comes back to reassure me that they have struck the ground of Your heart.
In the gospel lessons these last weeks of Easter, Jesus is actually addressing the disciples’ anxiety and confusion. He’s with them the night before his death, and his words are full of reassurance. “In my Father’s house are many rooms,” he said in the gospel last week. “I go to prepare a place for you.” And in today’s gospel: “I will not leave you orphaned… In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.” Orphaned—that’s what they are going to feel like, as if their parents have left them. As if they are all alone with this fragile faith.
Faith for the disciples was not a consistent, clear experience of God or Jesus. They kept misunderstanding, getting things wrong, wanting to hold on tight when things were clear, panicking when things got scary. And after Easter the Risen Lord was even more confusing. He’s there and then he’s gone. Some see him, some don’t. Even those who do see him often don’t recognize him.
In fact the whole Bible is filled with the tension between faith and doubt. By one calculation only a third of the hundred and fifty Psalms are about joyful trust in God. More than half are about darkness and struggle and wondering where God is. One begins, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Another with, “Out of the depths have I cried to you.” And another cries out, “Return, O Lord; how long will you tarry?” The Book of Job is one long struggle to understand God’s seeming absence and unfairness.
“Truly you are a God who hides himself,” the prophet Isaiah says. Somehow that seems to be an essential part of God’s way with us. John Wesley, who founded Methodism, and Martin Luther, the great Reformer, both wrote of the times when their faith seemed to collapse.
The poet Emily Dickinson described her struggle this way: “We both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.”
The Risen Lord we Christians follow is an elusive Lord. God refuses to be managed, to show up on command. The Holy One has an immense stake in our growth, our learning to live and to love, and that calls for God’s standing back and creating space for us to live and choose. God works slowly, quietly, usually in unnoticeable ways. And when God speaks it is usually in hints and whispers that we can easily miss.
“God gives us just enough to seek him,” novelist Ron Hansen writes, “and never enough fully to find him. To do more would inhibit our freedom, and our freedom is very dear to God.”
In fact we need our doubts and questions. That’s what makes our faith grow. It’s also what keeps our faith from becoming fundamentalist and destructive. One of the great dangers in our world is when religious faith does not permit doubt and questioning. The result can be authoritarianism, fanaticism, and even violence. We are seeing in the news every day the destructiveness of those who believe they are in possession of all truth. They lose the awareness that God’s ways are not our ways. That God is first and last a mystery of love beyond our comprehension. That the God we meet in Jesus Christ can’t be contained, or manipulated, or used as a club in a fight. When the mystery fades, so does real faith. At times God comes to us with great clarity and passion, but God also calls us to walk by faith, to trust in a mystery we can’t fully comprehend.
And here’s a surprise: it’s often in the dark places, the places that seem farthest from God, the cancer, the death, the break-up, the terrible mistake—it’s often there that we experience God holding us. Sometimes we can’t even realize it at the time. But looking back later we see that there and then we were on holy ground.
God does not save us from the dark. But God goes with us into the dark, even if at the time we are not clearly aware of it.
Our Easter faith says that this elusive Lord is always with us, but we have to acquire new ways of seeing.
I was struck some years ago by a book called The Snow Leopard in which Peter Matthiessen described a remarkable trek across the Himalayas which he and his biologist friend took, ostensibly to study the rare blue sheep that live there. But from the start there was also the elusive possibility that they might see the rarest and most beautiful of the great cats, the snow leopard. The snow leopard becomes for him his symbol for finding the mystery at the heart of life, for glimpsing the presence of God.
Only a handful of people have ever seen the snow leopard in the wild. It hides so well that you can stare at it from within a few yards and not see it. And, strangely, the ones who have seen it are those who have not directly gone looking for it, but have instead gone out to study the sheep, since the leopard feeds on the sheep and lurks around them.
And then, once in awhile, the mysterious one comes, and they are all of a sudden aware that they are seeing it. No amount of hard work can bring them this glimpse of the mystery. It only comes as they attend to the mundane tasks that brought them there, and then once in awhile they might catch a glimpse.
For those of us who seek Christ it often happens that way. We can’t make him appear. No amount of hard work will do it. All we can really do is be faithful to our daily tasks as disciples, and as we do that keep praying, keep open, keep watching, for traces of our elusive Lord.
I was sitting with a couple at the dragged-out end of months of marital counseling. And finally there was nothing left to say. All the wrongs, all the hurt, all the mistakes on both sides were out, lying on the floor all around them. And she, and he, and I sat silent. For a long time. They knew then that the only way ahead was to start again to face what had happened, to forgive, to begin the healing process again. Would they say yes or no? You could sense Christ’s presence in the room.
I was in a hospital room another time, as a woman was dying. It had all happened so fast it took our breath away. Her family was still stunned. There had been plenty of anger at God and everyone else too. But there at the end there was a peace, a presence, a sense that some holy presence was holding her and weeping with her.
We glimpse the wonders of God’s world, as we sang in the hymn a few moments ago, in stars and thunder, mountain and stream, in Christ on the cross. We see Christ in the face of a child, or a homeless person on the street.
Those moments are not rare. There, in the midst of the events of our days, is this elusive Lord. Don’t you sometimes sense Christ here in the thick of Sunday worship? Aren’t there times when a glimpse of peace descends on you, even if only for a moment?
In fact, Jesus promises his disciples that no matter how orphaned they may feel, he will always be with them. “I am coming to you,” he says. “…because I live, you also will live … I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” You see, so often it is hard to sense Christ “out there,” as one more object in the world, because Christ is actually in here, in you and me. We are in Christ as Christ is in us.
Well, given how mysterious this God is, how confusing it can be to trust when things are hard, I want to offer, with Philip Yancey’s help, some guideposts for tracking this elusive Lord.
First, don’t try to do it alone. Because all of us doubt and struggle with God’s absence some of the time, we need each other’s support and help on the journey, especially when the going gets tough. I need your faith to carry me sometimes, and sometimes you need mine.
Second, allow the good in your life to penetrate as deeply as the bad. No matter how hard any day or time is, God is giving us so much to be grateful for in every day. Hold on to that when God seems far away. Relish it. Say thank you for it.
Third, find something that allows you to feel God’s pleasure. You remember the sprinter Eric Liddell in the film Chariots of Fire, who told his sister, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” What makes you feel God’s pleasure? Hold on to that.
Fourth, create time daily to be still, to be open to the Christ Spirit, and to listen for where Christ is speaking to you.
And finally, keep looking for Jesus where he said we’d find him. In the scriptures, in the bread and wine, with his friends, among the poor and struggling who need you.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says. He comes to be with us, but it will always be in ways that are surprising, unpredictable, unmanageable. Just what you would expect from this mysterious, elusive Lord. Amen.
[Many thanks to Philip Yancey for his book Reaching for the Invisible God, from which several illustrations were taken.]