I want to share a quick update from my book publisher. NewSouth Books made a FaceBook post this week on Barbara Johns—about whom I wrote in several of my Forward Day By Day meditations in January—and my forthcoming book. So many of you expressed an interest in the book that I don’t feel too shamefully self-plugging sharing this news with you. You can read about it at http://www.newsouthbooks.com and then simply click the FaceBook icon.
God’s love and grace to you all,
“Seeing is believing.”
Those three words have traveled together for years. And, who knows, perhaps the expression was born through the ultimatum of Doubting Thomas.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” Doubting Thomas tells the disciples after their tale of Jesus’ appearance in the house where they met.
Thomas definitely doubted.
But what of those shut and locked doors behind which the disciples cowered, fearing for their very lives? Before Jesus appeared to them the first time, weren’t all of the disciples doubters? If they really believed what Mary Magdalene told them about seeing Jesus resurrected in the garden they surely would have been out preaching the good news. We know that’s true because once the disciples did come to believe in the resurrection that is exactly what they did, risking their own lives to preach that message. But until then they hid behind the closed and locked doors of doubt.
And what does Jesus do?
Jesus walks right through those doors anyway. Twice. First, when he came to the disciples at the time when Thomas was gone. And then again when Thomas was there. Jesus came to the disciples and to Thomas, just as he comes to us, even if the door is locked.
But I wonder why Thomas wasn’t there the first time. Perhaps he was out, risking his life doing the Lord’s work, less afraid than the others, not staying cowering in that room even though he faced the same dangers.
And it isn’t too big a stretch to believe that Jesus knew Thomas wasn’t there before his first appearance to the disciples. Jesus could have waited, certainly, until Thomas returned from whatever it was he was doing.
The fact that Jesus came anyway raises an interesting possibility.
Perhaps Jesus’ second appearance wasn’t simply for Thomas alone, but was a reiteration of the risen truth, a re-appearance also for the other disciples who, despite their first resurrection encounter with Jesus, remained behind those closed doors.
But Thomas and the other doubting disciples weren’t the sole beneficiaries of that second appearance through those closed doors.
Perhaps that second appearance was also very much, in fact, for us.
Thomas was called the Twin. Might we not be, from time to time, the twin of Doubting Thomas? Despite our faith, there may be times when we also yearn for some tangible sign. Some literal encounter with the risen Christ that will free us of all doubt (but also deprive us of faith).
But, human nature being what it is, even if that were to happen many of us would find it hard to believe our eyes. We might doubt our own senses. If not immediately, then some day. How could that really have happened, we’d ask ourselves? And, soon enough, we might be doubters again, just like the disciples, for whom one appearance of the risen Lord wasn’t enough.
Our doors shut.
And our doors locked.
Yes, the more I contemplate this Gospel lesson the more I believe that the second appearance of Jesus was just as much for us as it was for Thomas. It gave Jesus a chance to make this point:
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he tells Thomas, but also every other disciple in that room.
And “those” whom Jesus counts as especially “blessed” are you and me. Each one of us has come to believe, even though we have not seen the Lord.
Thanks to Doubting Thomas and his doubting colleagues, then, we receive a blessing directly from Jesus, right there in the Gospel of John.
A blessing that no door can stop, even if we shut and lock it ourselves.
“Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.’”
—The Gospel of John
We are lost.
Wolves are everywhere.
Before us and behind us.
To the left and the right of us.
Above and below.
There is no place where there are not wolves.
And they are ravenous.
They howl like a terrible storm.
Our power lines are down.
Limbs are broken.
The sky looks and sounds as if it is being torn to shreds.
Our green pastures are scorched.
The still waters have tidal waves.
And the wolves want more.
They want all of us.
Every bit of us.
We thought we were brave enough, smart enough, faithful enough.
What fools we were to wander off on our own.
The wolves are taunting us now.
‘Where,’ they ask, ‘is your good shepherd now? Ha! Nailed to a cross. Crucified. Dead and buried.’
We open our mouths to reply and that is when we hear your voice.
“I am their shepherd,” you say to the wolves. “Now and forever.”
And we are found. We are saved.
Goodness and mercy surround us.
You are before us and behind us.
To the left and to the right of us.
Above and below.
There is no place where you are not with us.
We feel weightless as you revive our souls, anointing our heads with oil. The howling is silenced and the sky is made whole.
The wolves vanish like shadows at noon.
With you by our side that is all they ever could be.
And nothing more.
We pass through them with you, Jesus, into the undying light of love.
“Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see.’”
—The Gospel of John
By Ken Woodley
Jesus wasn’t afraid of his wounds.
They plainly showed.
He did not try to hide them.
He points them out to his disbelieving disciples as proof that he has risen from the dead and that he is no ghost.
The disciples evidently believed that they were being haunted rather than visited by their risen Savior. That is why Jesus invites them to touch him, to touch his wounds, so that their haunted fears may vanish.
No, Jesus was not afraid of his wounds.
And he allowed others to touch them.
By touching his wounds, Jesus knew, his disciples would be healed of the raw anxiety that was so destructive to the life Jesus hoped they would live after his crucifixion and resurrection.
Jesus offers us a great lesson.
Like Jesus, we should not be afraid of our wounds, either.
A wound is more than a cut, bruise or scratch, and all of us are wounded in some way. Nobody goes through life wound-free.
Some are wounded more deeply than others but there are no trivial wounds. Wounds are terribly real. For that reason it can be easy to be afraid of them, perhaps even ashamed. We want to hide them from others. Hide them from ourselves. Pretend they don’t exist.
But running from our wounds is not the path toward healing.
Instead, trying to escape leads to us feeling hunted and haunted by our wounds, just as the disciples were hunted and haunted by the wounding loss of Jesus in their lives when he was crucified. That escapist mentality makes the wound worse, not better.
No, we don’t have to parade our wounds around or make a big song and dance about them. There is no “Wound Olympics.” It’s not a competition.
But we do need to acknowledge them, believe that we can live with them and, crucially, be open to the way God can bring healing through the loving touch of others in our lives.
Because, so often, that is the way God reaches out to us. The way the risen Christ is able to anoint our heads with oil and restore our soul:
By bringing someone into our life who is not afraid of our wounds and who seeks, through loving compassion, to bring us healing.
But, the healing of wounds is a double-edge plowshare. Sometimes the effect of our own wounding empowers us to be effective healers of others. Sometimes the shape of our lives fits perfectly into the wound of someone else.
Therefore, just as we must not be afraid of our own wounds, we also must not fear the wounds of others. We must not be afraid to touch their wounds with God’s loving purpose that can, if we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us, have our fingerprints all over that touch of divine grace.
And, sometimes, when we reach out with that divine healing grace toward others, we find God reaching out to us through them. Our reach meets theirs and in that moment God’s love for us is made most profoundly manifest.
That is a truth worth embracing with all of our might.
There are very few true wildernesses left in the world. Certainly not within easy reach of me here in Appomattox County, Virginia. If Moses had to lead the Israelites to The Promised Land today, he’d have Siri, MapQuest and GPS technologies available to him. They’d cross the Jordan River with little delay.
So, relating to the prophet Isaiah’s wilderness passages might be harder for us than it was for someone in Jesus’ day.
“…I will make a way in the wilderness…” God promises in Isaiah. But we hardly ever need God’s help through physical places of wilderness in the world.
Looking down from this hillside at James River State Park, I see a wild profusion of trees, bushes, meadows, marshland and the bluff rising steeply above the opposite bank. There, too, is the river, itself, glimpsed in flowing snatches between the white-trunked trees. There is a feel of wilderness and the surrounding howl of coyotes last night emphasized that impression. But, then I turn around and see the cabins, the cars, and the paved roadway in the morning’s light.
And in my hand is a map of every trail through this slice of natural wonder 30 minutes down the road from my home. The trails are also well marked and blazed. If I forget the map, as I probably will, no grave problem will arise.
Still, I believe God’s promise. We all can believe it. God will make a way in the wilderness for us. And I know I need it.
The wildernesses most of us face in our lifetimes are those occasions that make us feel lost and alone. Whether it’s the loss of a job, an illness, the death of a loved one, a decision about where to go to college…or a difficult memory, life is full of wilderness moments that turn our mapped and modern world into a tangled maze.
Such occasions create wilderness feelings inside us and that is where we often get lost. Thankfully, God is there to help us through such times. “…I will make a way in the wilderness,” God promises me, and promises you.
As important as those eight words are, the words that come before them hold the key to following God out of the wilderness in which we are lost and wandering, especially if there is something deep in our lives that we find troubling, something perhaps even years ago that still creates coyote-howling wilderness moments in our otherwise orderly and civilized lives.
“Do not remember the former things,” God urges us, through the prophet’s writing, “or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Those are words that provide us with an internal and eternal map through our wilderness moments. They are words that blaze a trail to what is, in truth, a “promised land” that God offers us all, one that abounds with love and grace.
Don’t dwell on hurts and pains and sorrows, God is telling us.
Have faith in that new thing that God is about to do. Like the leaves budding on the trees and the daffodils dotting the landscape, what God promises will spring up—is springing up now, somehow, if we turn our minds from whatever wilderness has us in its grasp and discover, instead, the God-sent feeling that is springing up in our hearts and in our souls—springing up in that deepest part of ourselves.
God is marking the trail through our trials and tribulations. Let us each journey with faith in that guiding love and grace which leads us out of the wilderness by actually transforming the wilderness, itself, giving us rivers in the desert and turning the howl of coyotes into the sound of cooing doves of peace.