he other day, while going through some old documents, I found a notebook from a disaster response I was on about ten years ago. It was a special response; it was my first time assisting during a hurricane. Hurricane Gustav hit the Louisiana coast almost three years to the day after Katrina. I was sent down ahead of landfall, to assist with communications in the tiny town of Greensburg in St. Helena Parish.
At the time I was living in northern Mississippi attending graduate school, I loaded up my car and made the 5 hour trip down interstate 55. I will never forget the sight that met me just south of Jackson. Official evacuation orders had not been issued yet, but many were taking the opportunity to get out of Gustav’s way early. I suddenly found myself to be the only vehicle heading south…heading north was an endless line of cars packing both lanes and both shoulders. The thought hit me “what on earth am I doing???”
I arrived at the local emergency operations center that evening and couldn’t have felt anymore out of place. I introduced myself, and my Hoosier accent locked me in as the outsider. Just when I thought I couldn’t be in a more awkward spot, someone said “what’s that on your hat?” I had forgotten that I was wearing my
Ole Miss ball cap, and of course I was in the middle of LSU country. To say these schools have bit of a rivalry is an understatement. Someone suggested that I be posted in Tangipahoa Parish instead, where the storm was due to make landfall, and preferably lashed to a stop sign near the Bay.
Well…let’s say when I finally hit the cot that evening I wasn’t feeling all that great. I was scheduled to spend five days there. How could I work there after that introduction? Was I even qualified to be there? Once the storm hit there was no getting out! Fear overtook me, not necessarily fear for my life; although in a
hurricane that is a concern, but a selfish fear…I was already an outsider to those I would work with and I felt it would only get worse. And the sense of doubt was crippling. If they were going to be second guessing my work, I knew that I would be. I didn’t trust myself to do the job at hand. Fear and doubt nearly cut me off
from what needed to be done.
We’ve all been there, paralyzed by fear and frozen in doubt. That seems an odd topic as we begin the joyous season of Easter, but it is in fear and doubt that we find the Disciples in the days after finding the tomb empty. A week ago we heard as the women left the tomb, on orders to go tell the others that Christ has risen, they leave in terror and amazement…and told no one for they were afraid. We find the other Disciples gathered in a locked house, afraid, well all but one…we’ll get to him in a minute. As we journey across the Gospel accounts we find the news of “Christ has risen!” met with doubt and disbelief.
Let’s start with the fear. There is of course fear, meaning respect and awe, and of course that is part of what the Disciples felt. But the more present fear for them is that inward focused fear – fear for safety, fear of embarrassment, fear of exclusion. If Christ did not rise, these disciples at best would be outcasts from society for following a false prophet; and worst case they could be marked as dangerous to society for their association with Jesus. And if Christ is risen, then quite simply put, their entire world changes. But how? And would they be prepared for it? I’m sure one recalled Jesus saying “You will be hated by all because of my name”
The fear that comes with the risen Christ may be the most relatable for us. The risen Christ means our world has changed. While Jesus walked the earth we were students, sometimes good, other times not so much, but we took in His teachings and opened our hearts to the possibilities of God with us. Now, the tomb is
empty and Christ is raised, we are met with a new reality. It is in the midst of the Disciple’s fear Christ appears, just as he said. In his appearing Christ leaves the Disciples with three wonderful gifts – The Peace of Christ, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and God’s trust in us. Peace, Holy Spirit sure…but trust?
The Disciples, and those that came after them (US!), are the bearers of God’s Kingdom in this world; and despite fear and anxiety Jesus trusts us to do the job. In John we are trusted with forgiveness of sins, in Matthew with Baptism, in Luke with knowledge of Scripture. We are now part of God’s Kingdom, bringing the radical love of God, and the radical forgiveness of God to a world that desperately needs it. No matter how great our fear may be, God will work through our fear and get us focused on the greater glory. This is great news, but what about doubt? Doubt ran rampant amongst the Disciples, and in particular Thomas. Now we have to be careful with doubt. Doubt, in Thomas’ case, was doubt in its purest form, which is disbelief. Thomas’ own words “Unless I see the mark of the nails…I will not believe” not only affirmed disbelief in the risen Christ, but in his fellow Disciples who saw Christ. That week between Christ’s appearances had to be an
awkward one for them. Those who saw and believed now face one of their own who thinks they are making it all up. This is the dangerous form of doubt, doubt that reaches out to others not just directed towards God.
Jesus can work with this too. In this grave doubt that Thomas had, there was a need. The need may have been to bring Thomas back to the flock, to heal the wounds created by Thomas’ doubt, or both; whatever it may have been Jesus met Thomas so that doubt may turn to belief. Usually we are not faced with the kind of doubt Thomas had, doubt and disbelief in the near presence of truth. Typically our doubt emerges in a couple ways – questioning and desperation. God has blessed us with inquisitive minds and we should ask questions and seek truth, about God, about Christ, about the work of the Spirit. It is through questions, seeking answers, chasing wisdom that we can find our faith deepened and our hearts even more open.
It is in our desperate times that we usually encounter doubt. CS Lewis, well known for documenting his moments of doubt (a healthy practice when combined with documenting moments of closeness to God) described these times well – “But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”
We’ve been there, and like Lewis we may not doubt God’s existence, but likely question his good intentions. Our struggles with God when God seems silent is part of our faith, faith has room for this kind of doubt. It is in our struggles with God that we can grow in faith and the eyes of hearts may be opened in new
ways. Whether we find ourselves questioning God or struggling with God in the midst of chaos and despair, the doubt we face is natural and, much like Thomas, God will meet us there too. In those times we struggle in fear and doubt, we can recall Christ’s answer to fear is to give us the gift of Peace, the Holy Spirit, and God’s trust. In times of doubt, no matter how small or large it may seem, there will always be a path back to belief.
My second day in Greensburg was far different from my first. I woke that morning with the encounter from the night before still fresh in my memory. The fear and doubt from the night before were combined with the fog that comes over you when you wake up after a restless night’s sleep. There was one thing different
though on day two, Gustav had arrived. There was a job to do. I was met first by the local emergency management director who told me what he needed in terms of communications and then asked me “what do you need to me to do so you can do your job?” What I needed was an extra hand to put up an antenna.
Before I knew it I was working alongside another responder I had never met putting an antenna up on a 35 foot tower in 90 MPH winds. After that 20 of us hunkered down in the emergency operations center as Gustav made his way north. The doors were taken off their hinges by the storm and windows were blown out, leaving a couple inches of standing water on the floor. We endured the storm for about 18 hours before the winds died down. When the storm passed I noticed something, so too had my fear and doubt. As I reflected on this after returning home I realized three things caused the fear and doubt to transform. First, I found myself using fear to find peace. In the middle of the storm there isn’t much you can do, but hang on. Laugher filled conversations, tuning into a TV station that wasn’t showing the weather, and a game of cards provided much needed distractions; the peace was there but you had to look for it, they were micro-moments of peace. Second, realizing our group was now a community with a shared experience, yes even the outsider. We were all focused on the mission at hand, it was equally important to each one of us, team spirit if you will. And third, trust. The emergency manager didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat, but he clearly trusted me when the storm hit, and I trusted him and all those I worked with.
When fear and doubt threaten to separate our hearts from God, we are reminded today that God has given us gifts to make sure we have a way back. No matter what, the Peace of Christ is with us always, there are times we have to look a little harder for it but it is there. The gift of the Holy Spirit binds us to one another as the Body of Christ in the world. You will face fear, you will face doubt, but you will never face them alone. God trusts us even when we don’t trust God. The tomb is empty and because of that we know we’re called to a loving and living God.
Today we are reminded – do not fear but be joyful, do not doubt, but believe. May our fear and doubt be blessed, so that we may find Christ’s Peace, the Comfort of the Holy Spirit, and the loving call God gives to each of us.
Preached by Mike Corey