In Moms Group we have been engaging in a form of bible study known as African Bible Study. Using this method, we listen to a given text from scripture three times, read aloud by three different voices. After the first reading, anyone who wishes to share offers what word stood out in the hearing. After the second reading, we share a phrase or theme that emerged or resonated. And after the third reading, we talk about how we hear God speaking to us today.
What a joy to discover that every time we read a passage (individually and as a group) we hear something different. To me that is part of the innate beauty of scripture. We hear things differently depending upon what might be happening in our lives at a given moment. Our recent experience shapes our perspective and our hearing of a particular aspect of the story.
On the second Sunday of Easter, we read the story of “Doubting Thomas” from John’s Gospel (John 20:19-31). In a recent bible study I was struck by an alternative translation of Jesus’ words to Thomas: instead of “do not doubt but believe,” “do not be un-believing but believing.” Unbelief and doubt are very different. To me, this latter translation makes a great deal of sense.
A believing person can have doubts and questions. Doubt is part of the process of exploration. When we wonder about things, we very naturally have doubts. A curious person can be inquisitive and believing (rather than unbelieving) and still have doubts.
Be believing. Jesus invites Thomas, and all of us, to a way of believing, to behold the world expecting to be challenged and to learn something about God in light of the challenges or doubts we face.
In light of this interpretation of Jesus’ message, to be a believing person (rather than an unbelieving person) means to be engaged in discernment and exploration and spiritual inquisitiveness. A believing person asks, “What have I to learn from this?” rather than making conditional demands like: “Unless I see, I will not believe.”
So how we choose to frame our observations of the world around us, how we word the questions we ask, our choice of language, and every choice we make affects our encounters with the rest of the world. In macro and microscopic ways we choose regularly between love and fear, acceptance and regret, drift and desire, optimism and pessimism.
This was the gist of an article I read recently titled The Science of Happiness: Why complaining is literally killing you. The author speaks of the conscious decision he made to engage in a practice of “loving everything that came [his] way.”
Steven Parton articulates his awareness of the power of the brain to shape its responses to what comes its way through habituation. “Synapses that fire together wire together,” he writes. The more often the synapses follow the same wiring path, the closer they grow together. “Through repetition of thought…the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel.”
Our choice of thoughts trains our brains; the more often our brain follows the same pathway, the more rapidly and easily we are inclined toward these particular avenues of thought.
How remarkable to consider that we condition or habituate our thoughts just like any other habit or discipline we might engage. The muscles we exercise the most become strongest. This idea resonates with a core tenet of our Anglican tradition, lex orandi, lex credendi, or the law of praying is the law of believing. Loosely translated, this means our praying shapes our believing.
Just as we create habits through repeated actions and thoughts, so too our repeated prayers get into our system and influence the way we understand the world. The language we choose in any encounter becomes part of the bedrock of our experience.
It is no mistake that people who have said the Lord’s Prayer over and over again in life can say the Lord’s Prayer even when half asleep or even when in some level of vegetative state. The brain is an amazing, powerful organ. So, I would argue, is the soul.
Our heart and soul and mind are integrally connected. This is why, in teaching about the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37), Jesus is explicit about loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind. Loving God with all of our being (from Deuteronomy 6:5 – heart and soul and might), our spiritual engagement of scripture and God’s word for us, is not simply an intellectual exercise. It is a whole-being endeavor, and this truth makes the principles touched upon in the article I read all the more potent.
Not only are our prayers powerful, so is our choice of words in everyday life. A colleague in my first job after seminary set me straight in this. When I said one day, “I’ve got to go home and get to work on my sermon,” he responded, “Cathy, you GET to go work on a sermon!” How powerful our simple choice of words. I am at my best when I remind myself of this truth regularly.
When I find myself inclined to describe or consider my privileges as burdens, I have serious work to do. Our days are replete with opportunities to choose: we can see the glass half empty or half full. We can view the world around us through a lens of scarcity or abundance. The latter is the approach of the believer. Jesus summons the Thomas in all of us to be believing. Every breath we take is a privilege and a gift from God; it is for us to choose to see it as such.
We come to church to discipline our entire beings to be believing, to practice encountering God and God’s abundance all around us. We need the discipline of regular prayer and worship in ways we cannot quantify, but can know innately and experientially. If you are familiar with the power of music or lyrics or words to evoke past experiences, you have a sense of where I’m going.
Or conversely, if you have ever found yourself in a rut and thinking about things in the worst possible way, and then snapped out of that mental framework, you may know what I mean. We can get really good at seeing the worst in circumstances and people; we can be professional complainers if we want to be. Or we can be professional thanks-givers, powerful celebrants of the presence of God in the world.
Be believing. Know that there is some divine revelation to be encountered in every experience and rejoice to uncover and recognize that presence, even in the direst of circumstances.
This is not a “Pollyanna” view. To be believing is not to pretend life bears no pain or tragedy. Rather it is to recognize that in the face of every difficult or pleasant circumstance, we choose our response. To choose fear or love. To allow lament to be our conclusion, or to seek further enlightenment and ask, “What have I to learn from this, about God or from God or for God?”
The more we practice consciously seeking God’s presence, the easier it becomes to see revelations of divine love all around us. God is here with us; let us take the time to notice his presence and be in the habit of noticing. We do this best together, in our community of faith. We are strengthened in our regular gatherings, our corporate worship, to go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of God’s Spirit.
Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Cathy Quinn