One True Thing
The children settled themselves on the chancel steps and waited for Miss Donna, our parish intern.
She surveyed the clustered group and asked them a question, “What’s the one true thing you know for sure about God?”
The question hung in the air for a minute, and I feared the children wouldn’t answer at all.
But I was wrong. The answers rang forth, in voices big and small.
“I know God is the boss of the whole world.”
“God forgives me.”
“I know Jesus loves me.”
“Reach out your hands,” Donna said, and the children complied—stretching their skinny arms out.
“Grab it,” she said, and the children made fists, catching their one true thing in their palms.
“Okay, now put it into your heart,” she said, and their fists thumped their chests. (back to top)
“Someday,” she said, looking into their eyes, “it might be tomorrow, or it might be in college, you’re going to doubt that God is real. Somebody will say something and it will make you wonder. Or something won’t add up, and you’re going to doubt God. And when that happens, I want you to remember the one thing you know for sure. I want you to feel it, and remember it, and remember this moment. It won’t fix it, but sometimes it helps to have one true thing you know for sure.”
The kids nodded solemnly at her.
The service went on like usual, but that children’s lesson stayed in my head. I never would have considered something so serious for a children’s message, but the kids really seemed to latch onto it. It could be because it was Donna, our pied piper of an intern. But it might have been the topic. Anne Edison-Albright wrote convincingly in the December issue of Gather about taking children’s faith seriously. It seems to me that taking faith seriously means taking children’s doubt seriously, too.
As we drove home from church, I decided to ask my daughter what she thought.
“So, what Miss Donna said today, what do you think about that?”
“About doubting someday—you know when you’re really big.”
“You don’t have to be big to not believe.”
“Oh . . . so you sometimes feel like that?”
“Sometimes.” (back to top)
I waited a bit, and she continued. “Well, like sometimes things seem real, and then they really aren’t. Like princesses and fairies aren’t real and, well . . .”
“You wonder if God is like the princess stories?”
“Yes.” Her voice sounds so small.
“Do you still wonder that?”
“Because of the one thing you know for sure?”
“Well, what do you do when you don’t feel sure about God?” I said, linking her arm as we entered our building, and hoping for spiritual answers from an 8-year-old.
“I sit closer to you.”
“You do? Why?”
“Because you always believe. And that makes me feel safe.” (back to top)
Ebbs and flows
While I’m flattered that my daughter thinks that’s so, it’s not true. I don’t always believe, not perfectly at least. What was it Leonard Cohen sang? “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” There are days when my faith is a colander, host to more cracks than solid walls.
But there are days when it isn’t. I think faith, like most things that matter, ebbs and flows. And I don’t know a soul whose faith doesn’t fluctuate at least a little.
Falling into doubt, like falling into love, is not a uniform experience. Some of us fall abruptly, from a high perch, into the tree’s gravelly roots. Something happens, some big event, perhaps, and the floor beneath us shifts. The world is not as we thought it would be, and so our faith goes out the window in a single fluid motion. Others drift slowly farther and farther from belief until they are not sure when they crossed the state line, only that they have. There is no dramatic event, just a hundred small tears in the fabric.
Doubt sometimes crawls into your bed alongside depression, snuggling into spaces that are left empty and wanting. It can ride on the back of isolation, making itself small to fit in the circle left open. Doubt can barrel through the door angry at the world and the untrustworthy God who created it. It sidles into hospital rooms and dorm rooms, flies about the shoulders of the young and the old, hogs the sofa at the funeral home, eats the last piece of sympathy pie in the refrigerator. Doubt is never invited, rarely appreciated, poorly behaved. Yet, it comes to visit in even the nicest of neighborhoods, and never catches the hint about when it’s time to leave. (back to top)
I think, though, that doubt is not something to be fixed, but something to be lived into, waded through, faced. Perhaps Donna was onto something. Perhaps the secret to one foot in front of the other is not what we don’t believe, but what we do. Perhaps the tender path ahead is lined with a series of one true things . . . mine and yours and the lady who makes the good cookies for coffee hour and the Sunday school teacher and the man who gets the sound system to work. Maybe all of those one true things add up to one absolutely true thing? I can picture the children on the steps so perfectly—a whole row of hands clasping their own true things, maybe they can create a walkway, an aisle, a road home with their little hands and big ideas?
My daughter is headed there, snuggling up to me when her faith waivers—as if my faith were contagious—and perhaps at some level it is. One of my favorite college students came to chapel every week, though he had deep and serious doubts. “I want to be with the people who are hopeful,” he said once. What a privilege it was for our small community to hold the hope-light for him, to be the one true thing, even with our own wavering flames and cracked vessels. (back to top)
The longest and most pervasive period of doubt that I have personally experienced came during my second year of theological school. I was an intern in a remarkably human congregation, and the behind the scenes look at how churches function smacked me hard in the face. It was a perfectly lovely and quite healthy church, in retrospect, but the dissonance between arguments over potluck dates and new hymnals overwhelmed my Bible lessons on the beloved community and shook me to the core. If true believers could squabble over petty things, I thought, how could anything that the Bible said about Christian community be true? And if the Christian community isn’t real, well, then, how about the gospel?
My mind was roiling, but I was an intern, and had no option of hiding from the practices of faith. Week after week, I brought my faith and doubts to that imperfect little church. I led the prayers, taught the confirmation class, visited the homebound, even preached the sermons. And I worked my way back out of the corner I had backed myself into by showing up, every week, and breaking bread with the imperfect squabblers, and hearing their insights in Bible study.
Over time, their steady faith and hope in that church’s future lit the road home for me. Over time, it was precisely the kind of Christian community they were that convinced me the church had a future that was firmly rooted in its gospel past. Mrs. Murphy and Elder Jones became my true things—my handholds that hoisted me back. Nobody could have argued me back. I had to walk through it. (back to top)
Broken beautiful people
A few weeks after the doubt lesson at my regular church, I was the substitute pastor at a Lutheran congregation a half-hour’s drive from my home. It was one of those churches that I really love to visit. I was a supply leader there a few times a year and admired the way the congregation looks out for one another and for their small community. They had just held confirmation the Sunday before my visit, and I saw the banner still up in the sanctuary, identifying the four young people who had just been confirmed in the faith. I recognized one of the names, Justin, from my last visit—he had read the lessons, and we’d had a great talk afterward. As I made my rounds through the building preparing for the service, I saw him—deep in conversation with a girl about his age. I offered my congratulations and left, unable to avoid hearing their loud conversation.
The girl was peppering him with questions about his beliefs—about the virgin birth, the authorship of the Bible, the resurrection, the miracles—and he was explaining to her which of these he accepted and which he rejected. She was clearly a visitor, and, I suspect, more than a friend to him. “I don’t believe that,” I heard him say, and “Well, some people think so, but I doubt it.” I felt for the boy, doing Christian apologetics with a crush. He blushed and stammered. She chewed her gum, obviously unsure of this whole church visiting thing. I wondered whose idea the visit had been.
“Well then, what do you actually believe?” she asked. “Enough,” was his one word response. At communion, the congregation made its way up the center aisle to receive the bread and the wine. Of all the things I do as a pastor, this is the thing that gets me every time—standing before a crooked line of broken and beautiful people and offering them the bread of life. There is something so expectant and hopeful about the faces filing toward me, something fragile and brave in the hands that grasp the small circles. (back to top)
People never know what to say. I’ve noticed that. I tell them that “this is the body of Christ broken for you,” and they don’t know what to do. Some say “Amen.” Some say, “yes,” and some say, “thank you.” Many just nod, and move on. I like to think that each of those responses is a perfect theological response.
Justin made his way up the aisle toward me. His grandfather went before him, and his mother behind. He sauntered in that aggressively casual way that only adolescent boys can do, and stopped at the end of the aisle. He watched his grandfather take the wafer and cup and begin his trip back to their family pew.
“This is the body of Christ, broken for you, Justin,” I said, placing the wafer in his hand.
“I know that,” he responded.
Behind him, the girl sat in the pew, watching silently. He wasn’t sure about the virgin birth and had his doubts about the Bible’s authorship. But he believed in enough. And standing in a line with family on two sides and church family all around, he believed in that body of Christ, broken for him. He knows that.
And that’s one true thing for sure. It’s absolutely, positively enough.
The Rev. Susan K. Olson is assistant dean of students at Yale Divinity School. Ordained to the Presbyterian Church, USA, she lives in New Haven, Conn., with her daughter and is a frequent supply preacher for Presbyterian, Lutheran, and UCC congregations. (back to top)
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