Updated: Nov 18, 2020
There's more than one way to read this guy.
I write this from the comfort of a spacious hotel suite in Orlando; a weekend getaway I won at a buddie's Halloween party. The stay had to be used promptly, the boys had plans, and I needed time away without laundry looming or errands to run. I choose to believe God orchestrated this latest gift in a series right on time. I could use a prayerful pause about now. My divorce was finalized Monday during an eight-minute Zoom hearing. I just finished my second week of teaching as typhoon Eta barreled through and in general, life is in full session. Also apt, I just had my monthly meeting with my spiritual director who suggested I spend the weekend hanging out with Thomas, aka Doubting Thomas. She told me to expect a surprise. I've been surprised. So sweetly surprised.
There's not a whole lot written about Thomas, but I've learned a whole lot during my special visit with my brother, the dissed disciple. You'll recall that Thomas didn't believe the resurrected Jesus had really delivered on His promise to rise again. In my mind's eye, I've visualized Thomas as a faithless skeptic demanding evidence in a face-off with Jesus. That's not really how it went down. As I spent the weekend lingering over the very few verses where Thomas shows up, focused on the most comprehensive account in the Gospel of John, my thinking about Thomas is now altogether different. Tom has now become for me an underrated hero, a beloved friend, an achingly endearing kindred spirit, which is a fine comfort.
Some of us (like me), are harder cases than others. Not only do I have a mentor, I have said spiritual director. I need a lot of help to function this side of heaven, to do life. I know my director prescribed this homework because of my vestigial need for a roadmap. By that I mean that though I've learned to trust God with most anything, and to do so with joy- and peace-filled freedom, I still want to know what's coming. Mind you, this need doesn't throw me into a panic anymore. Nor does it cause me to spring into action to anticipate, orchestrate, repudiate, evaluate, or otherwise control, but the tap-my-toe discomfort is still there. Little Isabella hasn't quite let go to let God.
I now understand this about myself and have compassion for little Isabella. I understand that this is born of unsafe, beloved caregivers and my childish compulsion to keep all the spinning dishes from crashing to the ground. Something I was powerless to do. Growing up in chaos and many years of preparing for imminent disaster is some hard conditioning to overcome. I recently heard it can take a lifetime to overcome childhood trauma. At 53, I'd say I'm doing pretty good. It's hard to trust that I can let go and let life happen, confident that a loving, competent Higher Power has everything in hand. But everything is truly possible with God. As my mentor says, "awareness has its own weight." I can feel the antsy feeling and regard it with loving detachment. I can pray and pray and pray. I can pause to respond rather than react. I can see the support, wisdom, and experience of others, including people like my buddy Tom.
Brave, Bold Thomas
Thomas is quoted four times in the Gospel of John. The first time is when Jesus's friend Lazarus lay dying in Bethany and Jesus wanted to travel to his side. The apostles were afraid, since by then Jesus was being persecuted by the Jews in nearby Jerusalem and visiting Lazarus meant facing deadly danger. In the din of the apostles trying hard to talk Jesus out of leaving for Bethany, it was Thomas who piped up and said basically, "Let's all go with Jesus and if we die, so be it." They did return to Bethany and Jesus raised Lazarus.
The next time we hear from Tom is at the Last Supper. When Jesus explains to the apostles every which way that he'll be leaving to "prepare a place for you" and will return, Peter repeatedly asks for clarification. The ever-dense disciples simply don't get Jesus's explanation. Still, Thomas isn't deterred by looking foolish or faithless. He asks:
“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:6)
Prompting Jesus to reply with the cornerstone verse:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Brave, Bold, Vulnerable...and Faithful
We last hear from Thomas in his most memorable and maybe misunderstood moment. Jesus was dead and buried. All the apostles, except Thomas, were holed up behind locked doors, "for fear of the Jews," when Jesus appeared to them, opening with "Peace be with you." After the other apostles reported seeing the resurrected Christ, a wary Thomas wanted cold, hard proof. Actually, warm, soft proof:
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)
Some speculate that Thomas was absent from the gathering of his fellow apostles because he was discouraged, devastated, disillusioned at Jesus's crushing death. Maybe so. Who could blame him? The text doesn't offer an explanation. Nor does it condemn him. We just read he wasn't there to see the risen Christ and wanted proof of his own. Is that pessimism, unbelief, smarts or humanity? I think it was sensible for him to want to see (or touch) for himself. To not want to bank on what his friends had seen in the depths of grief.
What I didn't realize until my close reading of the text is that Jesus only showed up again eight days later. Eight days after Thomas voiced his call for proof. Plenty of time for Thomas to wonder and wander about what he'd heard. Plenty of time to either hope or to sink deeper into despair. In John's account, when Jesus reappears, there's no dialogue with Thomas. After greeting the apostles with "Peace be with you," he immediately invites Thomas to examine the evidence by touching his wounds. In John's account, Thomas doesn't actually do it, he just exclaims,
My Lord and my God!
A cry of joyful, wonder-filled, relieved recognition. At this, Jesus proclaims:
Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
This morning, in the tiny hours, as I contemplated the questions I have of my Heavenly Father, I believed once again. Like Thomas, I cried with sobs of grateful recognition that Jesus is real to me even though I can't touch him with my hands. That He's with me. And that all is well. He's with me in this moment that I know I'm living and in the uncertainty of tomorrow.
How gracious of God to leave us the comforting testimony of everyday spiritual heroes like Thomas and the other all-too-human apostles. Flawed humans that struggled to understand, to believe, even with flesh and blood Jesus over for supper.
This side of heaven, we are all likely to face many moments like Tom. Times when we are waiting for Jesus to show up, to show us the way, or to prove He is really there and really cares.
Then, when we’ve all but given up hope, He appears in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely times, to penetrate our doubts.
I am blessed.
You are blessed.
We are blessed to believe without seeing. Again and again.
Peace be with you.
And love. Lots of love.