Finding God at Arby’s

For those of you who are concerned, let me clarify the situation. Yes, Paul Walker is on a four month sabbatical; no, I am not staging a coup. Other than a few special guests in the pulpit this spring and summer, things will go on as usual.

This is a very exciting time for the church. It’s one week after Easter. The lilies are still up, the altar is in full splendor. We are living in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection. And today we see how the resurrection immediately plays out in the lives of his disciples. Jesus stands among them and everyone is shocked and then they rejoice. I like to picture it like the end of a movie. There’s a montage of all of them laughing, maybe messing up each other’s hair, or playing a prank on one of the minor disciples, like Bartholomew. Just a glorious celebration.

But, it turns out that, although history is forever changed, although death has been defeated, one of them is still just as fearful and unbelieving as before. Everything has changed, except this guy. And I think it’s a real letdown. Every year, when Doubting Thomas comes around, I feel like he totally kills the momentum we had going for us. We might try to put a nice sheen on it. These days we tend to glorify doubt. There’s been a movement to celebrate Thomas not as doubting, but as courageous, but I still see this moment as frustrating because doubt is not a great place to be. Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who kept doubting whether or not it was going to last? It’s not a good time!

And yet doubt stubbornly exists. It’s an unshakable part of life that we can’t seem to get rid of. We doubt ourselves, we doubt whether or not we’ve made the right decisions; we’re full of doubts about the future. God doesn’t really make it easier. His evasiveness seems to invite doubt.

A few years ago, the podcast Radiolab told a story about a guy named Jeff Viniard who was biking cross-country from California to New York. He had recently lost his faith – it happened suddenly; he said he was at the kitchen sink and felt something in his sternum and just didn’t believe in God anymore. He couldn’t explain it. As a result, his engagement was put on hold – and he was hoping to go on this bike trip, find God again and win back his fiancée. So, he’s scanning these hillsides out west and, in a kind of prayer, he says, “If you exist and are at all interested in people, there’s no reason you shouldn’t show yourself.” And what happens? Nothing happens! Three weeks go by and he’s getting anxious. He finds himself in Hazard, Kentucky, eating at an Arby’s. And what happens there? A ceiling tile falls on his sandwich. And the guy in the next booth comes over and gives Jeff some of his sandwich. They get talking and it just so happens that this man is a minister. Jeff starts telling him everything that’s going on and the minister listens. At the end, he offers Jeff a blessing and it seems to provide some sort of relief although Jeff says he hates to recount it because it sounds so tacky  – I mean, Arby’s? – “but,” Jeff says, “in that dark place, I feel like maybe it was remarkable.”

I see God in this story – in fact, I believe this is exactly how God works, especially the Arby’s part.  But doesn’t it make you a little jealous of Thomas? He doubted and was then invited to physically touch Jesus’ side. You doubt these days and a ceiling tile falls on your sandwich and, of course, leaves you guessing whether that was God or just bad planning. It leaves too much up to chance. We’d much rather be in the driver’s seat of our lives. It is our nature to choose control over faith almost every time.

Here’s one example: Earlier this year, just a couple of weeks after Maddy and I had a baby, an article came out in The Guardian about baby books. The reporter goes through what he calls “the diabolical genius of the baby-advice industry, which targets people at their most sleep-deprived, at the beginning of what will surely be the weightiest responsibility of their lives and suggests that maybe, between the covers of this book, lies the morsel of information that will make the difference between their baby’s flourishing or floundering.” What’s the tone of these books? One researcher said they effuse, “Overbearingly cheery confidence.” That’s what you’re spending $12 on – the illusion of control. Strangely, it is the opposite of how I would describe the reality of parenting which, so far, has been just one fearful, desperate act after another, taking one day at a time (thank you for your prayers). This is what the novelist D.H. Lawrence meant when he said, “The map appears to us more real than the land.” We’d rather have the illusion of control over what is actually there. Of course, this need to control – ourselves, our surroundings, other people – inevitably plays out in our faith. When it feels like we can’t control our faith, we can easily give up, especially if it feels like God has given up on us which is how I imagine how Thomas may have felt.

A great book came out a few months ago called Dreaming The Beatles by Rob Sheffield. And Sheffield talks about John Lennon’s relationship with religion (which was rocky at best). And he talks about how John would abandon religion the moment it seemed that it was going to abandon him. He writes:

“John was deeply attracted to conversion experiences and renunciation scenes. He’s the Beatle who loved to embrace idols and then melodramatically break up with them. Every time John broke up with a religion, he sounded stern and final. He liked to be the one to walk about on his gods, rather than waiting around for them to die on him. Nobody wants to be the last one to notice the lights have changed….” Who can’t relate to that? We hate coming across as credulous. Nothing is more humiliating than being duped. That’s when you’re identified not just as the victim, but as the fool.

Sheffield goes on: “For John, the gods were just groupies. Religions were a high he was addicted to, something he could pick up and then reject, compulsively discarding them to reassure himself how tough he was….He needed to fall in love with the next savior, decide this is the one, then kick it to the curb, congratulating himself once again for being the one to break it off.”

John sounds a little angry, and it’s important to distinguish the difference between doubt and anger, but I still see Thomas here. Maybe he wished that he had never believed in the first place. Then, he’d at least be able to keep some integrity. We so easily lose faith for fear of being the fool. We reject God for fear of being rejected. So where does that leave us, we of little faith? We depend on belief. As the saying goes, “He who believes in nothing still needs a girl to believe in him.” So where does belief come from?

From my experience, faith doesn’t come from one’s determination to find God. Faith is not human action at all. Faith is being grasped by the promise of God. Faith is hearingGod’s clear message in scripture – that we are not alone, that God is with us and that although we are against him, he is for us. Like John Lennon’s gods, Jesus was walked about on. He was rejected and discarded, and he did die on Thomas. But, as we celebrate this Easter season, he did not stay dead! And, once he was raised, he pursued Thomas, the very one who doubted.

The story of Jeff Viniard, by the way, does not end at Arby’s. A year later, Jeff ended up going back to church because he liked to sing in the choir. One day, he had a profound experience taking communion. He felt a palpable presence, a tightness, a hand – guess where? By his sternum. The very place he lost his faith. He says he still doesn’t know what to make of it. But he eventually believes in God again. He gets back together with his fiancée and at their wedding ceremony, he gets to the part of his vows where he says, “I promise before God and all who are present here…” and then starts to sob uncontrollably. Later, Jeff said that his sobbing was not the sound of resolution, but of relief.

“Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you. Do not doubt, but believe.” He doesn’t give control – he knows if we could get control we wouldn’t need him. But he does give us peace, peace that comes from knowing that while you may be uncertain about God, God is certain about you. So certain, in fact, that he died on the cross for your sake. Like Jeff, you may find yourself in a frustrating cycle of doubt. Like John, you may completely give up on God. But, rest assured, God will not give up on you.  As the great hymn “How Firm A Foundation” says, “The soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.” Amen.