John the Baptist
What’s up with John? The last time we heard about him was at the start of Jesus’s ministry when he was saying that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and that while he, John, baptizes with water the one who is to come, namely Jesus, will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And now John is doubting – after all Jesus is not what the Israelites were expecting in a messiah. He isn’t a military hero defeating the Romans. So John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one to come, the Messiah, or if we have to wait for someone else. Why is John doubting now when he was so confident earlier that Jesus was the Messiah? What has upset his stable world, and sent him into a time of perplexity?
John isn’t the only person in the Bible who was perplexed by life. In some churches, Advent 3 is associated with Mary and the annunciation. The gospels tell us that when Mary heard what Gabriel had to say she was bewildered. Her world too, had been turned upside down. “How can this be?” she asked the angel.
Doesn’t it seem that John and Mary are starting to doubt what once had seemed solid?
Well, John and Mary are no different from the rest of us. Is there one of us here who has never moved from certainty to doubt? At least among the adults among us, I doubt that anyone has never had any doubts about his or her faith. Like Mary and John we knew our Faith, and that knowledge was the foundation of their lives, until it wasn’t. And doubt is how our faith grows
Stages of Faith
In his book Faith After Doubt, Brian McLaren describes how we grow in faith. He defines four stages of the faith journey through which we move repeatedly over the course of our lives. —Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony
Simplicity and Complexity
We start in simplicity just like a child, like Jack. Simplicity is dualistic, us and them, black and white: authority figures tell us what to believe, how to act, give us easy answers, all is known, or knowable; keeping the rules is important.. As children (in life or in faith) we learn how to navigate life as part of our own “tribe”. Ethnic, socioeconomic, religious,
In time, most move to stage 2 Complexity; we get to know people of other ethnicities or faiths, or no faith, people outside our “tribe”, and they are good people, with different rules; we start to think for ourselves, becoming increasingly independent, replacing the authority feature with a coach who helps us find our own steps and techniques to navigate life and faith. For children (like Jack), we call the movement from simplicity to complexity the teenage rebellion! In th fsith journey, ths is sometimes called deconstruction, and both can be painful for some people. Faith examples of these stages are: fundamentalists churches for simplicity and mega churches for complexity.
Many people stay in simplicity or complexity. Complexity, in particular is a very comfortable happy place to be … until it doesn’t work. Life deals you a blow, a serious illness, death of a loved one, prayer stops being meaningful, God becomes remote. John is put in prison; Mary is visited by an angel. We enter the stage of perplexity. This is what John of the Cross calls the dark night of the soul. And doubt is how our faith grows
Dark night – Perplexity
Many of us have had this experience, and some more than once. Only through great love and great suffering can we grow in faith. We do not stay in perplexity, but through the grace of God, emerge I to Harmony, with a new and stronger faith.
For me, a difficult time of perplexity came when my husband died. God was remote and I wasn’t sure about Jesus. I felt as though I was shut out of life and community behind a glass wall. It took many months before my faith made sense again. In a vision, I saw a glass egg and knew that I was to be reborn when that egg shattered. Eventually, I moved out of perplexity with a very different faith from before. How I lived was more important than what I believed. I no longer needed answers, but was happy to live with uncertainty. I saw faith as a quest, a movement a search – not a destination. And the journey was a joy.
Author Debie Thomas writes what moving from complexity to perplexity to harmony meant for her:
“I was raised with a fairly precise and comprehensive picture of who God is and how God operates in the world. If anyone had asked me to describe God when I was fifteen, twenty, or thirty years old, I would have rattled off a list of divine attributes as readily as a kindergartner recites the alphabet: “God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. God is Three and God is One. God is holy, perfect, loving, righteous, merciful, just, and sovereign.”
“What an interesting shock reality has been. Who knew that my life with God would actually be one long goodbye? That to know God is to unknow God? To shed my neat conceptions of the divine like so many old snakeskins and emerge into the world bare, vulnerable, and new, again and again?”
Yes, doubt is how our faith grows
The dark night of the soul ends, sooner or later, by the grace of God, through the power of the holy spirit. We find a new, more mature understanding of God. The world makes sense again and in glorious technicolour! Until that, too, fails us, and the cycle starts again.
The journey of faith through Simplicity and Complexity involves learning and perfecting beliefs. The journey of doubt through Perplexity involves questioning not only specific beliefs but the whole belief system approach to faith. And it is a journey we take again and again, circling back to perplexity and back to harmony, never loosing what we learned in earlier stages, but always on to include and transcend.
The journey into Harmony is a journey beyond belief into revolutionary love, loving as God would love: infinitely, graciously, extravagantly. And on this Sunday when we lit the Candle of Joy, I wish you all joy in the journey!