Who Is Not Here?

TMC Digging A Deeper Well

In some traditions, the story of Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Christ, following upon his earlier missed opportunity, is suggested for the Sunday after Easter.

You’ll notice careful construction in the previous sentence to avoid the word “doubt.”  In the clear proclamation of John’s Gospel, the story of John 20 is much less about anyone’s doubt than it is about the gracious, faithful initiative of God, and about the question:  Who is not here?

Thomas’ failure to make it to Easter services does not serve to show what faith is made of,  or what it lacks. Thomas is used by John to show, again, the length God will go to offer love and grace.

God will even send a child into the world.  God will even allow Jesus to be crucified at the hands of the world.  God will even raise this Jesus from the dead and even then God does not stop!  God goes even beyond the empty tomb!  God is ceaseless in taking initiative to reach out to every “Thomas,” including us.

As we mark one full year since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., many people are asking: What have we learned? What do we know now that we did not know a year ago?

One thing we know: There is a hunger for change in this society – and a significant portion of that hunger is spiritual. When the gears ground to a halt, change is what people started talking about. It’s not coincidental that we had such significant public protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and other Black people this past year, or such a significant new conversation about racial inequity and injustice. When people are able to stop just turning the flywheel of life, they are more able to attend to deep, ongoing challenges in our society and to look for, and hope for, and act for change. That is one of the takeaways from this last year. We didn’t just freeze in place and say, When can we resume? Many industries, sectors, institutions, and individuals immediately began to ask, How can we emerge from this different and better? For us, that’s hopeful.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye captures this sense of hope in her recent poem for Poetry Magazine, when she writes:

Hope is the thing …

Hope was always the thing!

What else did we give each other

from such distances?

Where can people in search of hope find hope?

Many people, including a large share of folks who don’t ever think about church, have had their “flywheel” stopped in this last year.  They – we – have had a long time to think about connection, care, community, and the deep needs of our souls, needs that bingeing the latest “drama” from Netflix or Hulu does not fill.  (Speaking of which, you can do your soul a favor by skipping both Bridgerton and The Split… trust us …)

The needs that have come to the surface are deeper needs, more urgent needs, and they are needs that, at our best, the Church of Jesus Christ is well-suited to address.  But will we?

For all the talk about returning, are we asking the crucial question:  Who is not here?  Do we feel, yet, the urgency that things won’t be complete without those who know nothing of church or faith, but who have a yearning for something that Christians gathered for worship and service might help them find?

The most challenging thing a congregation can do is to plan for, make space for, give resources and attention to a constituency not yet present.   

Do you talk with those who are not in your church circle?  Do you know what they need, what they are searching for?  What they are finding?  What they are not finding?  To be sure:  to answer the challenge of “who is not here?” will send your church board and your congregation on an adventure as you dare offer God’s hope to the world.

Christian Wiman describes some of the adventure in his 2020 poem, also for Poetry Magazine, All My Friends are Finding New Beliefs (you can listen to Wiman read the poem here).

All my friends are finding new beliefs.

This one converts to Catholicism and this one to trees.

In a highly literary and hitherto religiously-indifferent Jew

God whomps on like a genetic generator.

Paleo, Keto, Zone, South Beach, Bourbon.

Exercise regimens so extreme she merges with machine.

One man marries a woman twenty years younger

and twice in one brunch uses the word verdant;

another’s brick-fisted belligerence gentles

into dementia, and one, after a decade of finical feints and teases

like a sandpiper at the edge of the sea,

decides to die.

Priesthoods and beasthoods, sombers and glees,

high-styled renunciations and avocations of dirt,

sobrieties, satieties, pilgrimages to the very bowels of  being …

All my friends are finding new beliefs

and I am finding it harder and harder to keep track

of the new gods and the new loves,

and the old gods and the old loves,

and the days have daggers, and the mirrors motives,

and the planet’s turning faster and faster in the blackness,

and my nights, and my doubts, and my friends,

my beautiful, credible friends.

What if, again, Thomas had not been there in that room eight days later?  What if he had still been absent when Jesus returned for the second time?  How many times do you think Jesus would have returned for Thomas before Jesus would have given up?  Three times?  Four?  Twenty-four?  How about seventy?  How about seventy times seven?

Only one question in response to this week’s thoughts:

Who is not present for your faith community – and how far are you willing to go – and what are you willing to take on or give up – to offer them the hope of the Risen Christ?

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