Tom had an exceptionally keen mind. He was a curious child, and by adulthood, he had a voracious appetite for knowledge. Many toddlers go through the developmental stage in which they ask questions non-stop; Tom took it a step farther. His mother loved to tell her friends that little Tom started asking questions as soon as he could speak, and then he never stopped.
One afternoon Tom was visiting a friend when he met a man who changed his life. He heard the man speak about justice and peace in a way he'd never heard anyone speak before. It was like the man put to words answers to the deepest questions Tom had been carrying around his whole life. So Tom followed the teacher.
For three years, Tom trekked across the country with a group of strangers who became his closest friends. They didn't agree on everything; sometimes they argued. But they loved each other like family. They ate together, fished together, and walked hundreds of miles together. For years, they followed the man who reframed for each of them what it meant to be free and forgiven.
A dream? A trick?
But then everything abruptly changed for Tom and his friends. The leader of their loyal crew of misfits was arrested. Shortly after that, he was executed publicly. Tom and his friends were confused, devastated, and scared. Tom was left with more questions than he'd ever had before. He wondered if it had all been a dream or a lie or a trick.
In his grief, Tom refused to leave his house for days. His friends kept getting together for dinner every night, but he couldn't bring himself to join them. He couldn't even get out of bed. He felt lost and alone.
But his friends didn't give up on him or abandon him. Instead, they kept showing up at his house. They kept inviting him to come over. They stuck with him no matter how big his questions and doubts and uncertainties became.
This is the biblical story of a disciple named Thomas (with a healthy measure of hypothetical, fictionalized details). The Gospel of John highlights a portion of what happened to Thomas after Jesus was resurrected from the dead. You can read John, chapter 20 for the full scoop. It's a story about Jesus, Thomas, and the importance of community.
For reasons we don't fully know, Tom went through a patch where the things that once made sense to him didn't make sense anymore. The rest of the disciples saw Jesus soon after he was raised from the dead; they were filled with awe and hope. Thomas wasn't there for Jesus' first post-resurrection appearance. He remained grieving and skeptical when his friends told him about it.
In spite of his uncertainty, Tom's friends kept inviting him to spend time with them. They didn't require him to be in a pleasant mood. They didn't require him to proclaim any creeds. They just made sure he knew that whatever he was feeling, he could keep showing up — and they would keep welcoming him.
The disciple's approach is a noteworthy model for all of us — for our church groups and friend groups and every other community group to which we belong. We don't all have to agree. We don't all have to think the same. The power of community does not reside in its ability to create people who look and think the same. The power of community resides in our collective ability to support one another unconditionally.
When Tom's questions got overwhelming, he was at risk of becoming isolated. His friends helped prevent that from happening.
We are all at risk of becoming isolated sometimes. After significant loses or periods of turmoil, we tend to separate ourselves from others. This can lead to prolonged sadness and disconnection from reality. One of the roles of community — whether in the form of a congregation or a city or a coffee club — is to prevent people from becoming isolated. We serve as life-preservers for one another.
Thomas the disciple eventually found a new normal. His belief system was woven back together; the Gospel of John describes that it took about eight extra days. In our own lives, it usually takes longer than that. Sometimes it takes months or years or decades to find a new normal, and even then, sometimes our sense of the world around us is never woven back together in the same way. We have questions just like Tom, and those questions shape us throughout our lives.
The disciples provided a foundation of support for Tom as he journeyed through the questions. May we provide that same foundation of support for one another.