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01 May 2011

What is the Opposite of Faith?

Two Buddhist monks are returning to their monastery; they come to a ford. The current is very powerful. It is a hilly place. A young, beautiful girl is waiting there, waiting for somebody to help her to cross. She is afraid to enter alone.

Because he is older, the older monk walks ahead of the younger one.  So it is that the young woman approaches him first, saying "Bhante" (the Buddhist equivalent of "Reverend"). "Bhante," she says, "would you help me; just hold my hand? I am afraid, the current is so strong and perhaps it may be deep." 

The older man closes his eyes, because that is what the rules tell him to do:  if you see a woman, particularly if she is beautiful, shut your eyes. Don't look, don't touch, stay away from her! So he closes his eyes and enters the ford without answering the woman.

Then the second, younger monk comes. The young woman is afraid, but there is nothing else to call upon: the sun is setting, soon it will be night. She cannot go back, the town is far away. She has to go ahead, only if she keeps going she will reach her home before dark. But how to pass this ford? So, because she doesn't know what else to do, she asks the young monk, "Bhante, will you please hold my hand? The ford seems to be deep and the current strong, and I am afraid." 

The monk says, "It is deep, I know, because we pass through it every day. It is good that you have not entered alone, otherwise the river might drag you away. And just holding hands won't do; you just sit on my shoulders and I will carry you to the other side." The young woman jumps on his shoulders; he carries her to the other side.

When they are just in the middle of the ford, the older monk remembers that a younger fellow is coming behind. He says to himself:  he is too young and too new, he may be caught in the devil's net -- for all he knows, the woman IS the devil's net. Perhaps it is the devil himself standing there in the form of a young, beautiful woman, out to tempt the monks. He opens his eyes, and he cannot believe his eyes: the young monk is carrying the beautiful woman on his shoulders. Now he is tremendously angry, shaking with anger. The young monk leaves the woman on the other shore and follows the older monk toward the monastery.

Then they reach the monastery door -- it must have been two or three miles from the ford. On the steps the older monk stops and says to the young one, "You, fellow, you have committed a sin and I am going to report you, for you not only touched a woman; you talked to her, and you carried her on your shoulders. You should be expelled from the community; you are not worthy of being a monk." And the young man simply laughs and says, "Bhante, it seems although I have dropped the girl three miles back, you are still carrying her on your shoulders. Three miles have passed, and you are still bothered by it?"

The older monk is very upset. The young woman was beautiful; he has missed a chance to even see her. He is angry. He is jealous. The younger one carried the woman to the other shore and let her down, and that's that, it's over and done with. The older one, on the other hand, is stuck. He is stuck because instead of living in the moment, all he knows are the stock answers. During their silent walk home, the old man has been angry and jealous and obsessed with finding fault. So when he finally blurts it out, “You've done wrong; you're a disgrace; you're not worthy”, the young man is utterly surprised. “I dropped that woman off three miles ago,” he says, “but you are still carrying her on your shoulders.”

Because the old monk is not living in the present moment, he is burdened by things which are not there. Because he is so stuck in the “dos and don'ts”, he is crushed by things that don't exist. The young monk is the one we need to emulate. When he picked up that woman, he was aware of the moment; he recognized her need. Rather than worrying how to keep the rules, he did what was right. Rather than listening to his head and his mind, he let himself be guided by his heart. He took a leap of faith; in Buddhist terms his action is called brahmacharya, literally, “the way God behaves” -- similar to the Christian idea of becoming Christ to our neighbor.

Generations of Christians have vilified poor Thomas as "the doubting one", but Scripture does not support our judgment of him. Thomas' demands to see for himself that it is indeed the resurrected Jesus -- those demands came out of his fervency in following the Master to the letter. Rather than a doubter to be cast aside, Thomas was a bulwark of faith in Jesus. By being an outsider who didn't follow the crowd, by searching and struggling for himself, he became an insider; by daring to be different, he became a man of great faith, and later, he became the Apostle to India. When the rest of the disciples were still stuck in their fears, Thomas took the leap of faith.

The old monk in the story above is like the other disciples, stuck and fearful, closed off and hostile toward anyone or anything that might signal change. The young monk is like Thomas, open to what happens here and now, open to encounter, and open to transformation. He behaves “the way God behaves”.

The opposite of faith is not doubt; rather, is is fear. Doubt is part of any healthy faith, but fear is not.

As Peter W. Marty put it so well in the latest edition of "The Lutheran", fear will stiffen the hinges on the door of your heart.  For faith to happen, for life to happen, the door to your heart must be open. Walk through your fears, knowing that God is there every step of the way. Behave the way God behaves; become Christ to your neighbor. Fear not. As you search and struggle and ask questions, your faith will grow.  

Leave the fearful ones behind, and get on with the journey!  Walk the walk of faith -- not somebody's walk, but your own! Don't watch someone take a leap of faith -- take your own leap!  Swim against the stream. Stand out. Be alive. You'll be amazed beyond measure!

John 20: 19-31

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