Monday, May 22, 2017

May 21, 2017 Life Lessons On Faith: Caring for One Another

You might recognize the name of John Merrick, who died in London in 1890 at the age of only 26.  He suffered from a disease called neurofibromatosis, which is a disease that caused him to be greatly disfigured, and gave him the unfortunate name of the elephant man.  The story of his life was made into a movie in 1980, with John Hurt playing the part of Merrick.

Frederick Treves was senior surgeon and lecturer at the prestigious London Hospital.  When Treves found Merrick, he was being used as a circus attraction.  Because of the scorn and laughter of the circus patrons Merrick had withdrawn into himself to the point that when he was not on display, he wore a sack over his head to hide his appearance.

Imagine a world where people are not separated and shunned in such a way.  Imagine a world where love, rather than hate rules.  Imagine a world where the carefully constructed barriers that separate people were no longer in force.  Imagine a world where doors are flung open in welcome and receiving as quickly and as readily as they were closed and locked.

Imagining such a world is based on Caring For One Another.  We have, for several weeks now, been studying the theme of Life Lessons On Faith.  We continue that theme this morning with Caring For One Another.  This morning we commission fifteen people to the Stephen Ministry of this church, a new ministry that, after two and a half years of work and preparation, we are now at the point of launching.  The Stephen Ministry is based upon one practice – caring.  It is a ministry that trains and equips lay people to provide quality care for others.  When you grieve, a Stephen Minister can provide care and encouragement.  When you experience a time of difficulty, a Stephen Minister can provide comfort and support.

Our Scripture text for this morning comes from Mark’s gospel, chapter 1, verses 40-45 –

40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”
42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning:
44 “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

1.  The Need for Care.
The need for care is so great everywhere we turn.  The need for care is not just among the poorest of the poor.  The need for care is not just among those who are without food and the most basic human necessities.  The need for care is not just found in shantytowns or impoverished communities.  The need for care is found in the most prosperous of neighborhoods and among the most successful and educated, because the need for care is everywhere.

I have said before, and will say again, that the lives of people whom we often envy are not always what they seem.  The life that we wish we could have?  It might be a life that is full of struggle, tragedy, and difficulty.  The person that seems to have it all together, that seems the epitome of being happy and well adjusted?  That person might be in such need of care that they are hanging on by a thread.

This leper is a kind of archetype for all people.  In him is represented the whole of humanity – ill in some form.  Ill with worry and anxiety, ill with loneliness, ill with despair, ill with the many troubles of life that come our way.  And he comes to Jesus, begging for help, for healing, for care.  Verse 1 makes it plain that the leper was very desperate, as Mark says he begged him on his knees.

The leper was unlike others because of his disease, but he was just like others as he was in the need for care.  He was different in the way he went looking for care, because he came to Jesus, begging for help.  Most of us are far less obvious about our need for care.  Most of us would prefer to hide our need for care than to show our need and desperation so openly.  We often buy into the mythology that we need to be strong, that we need to project an air of invulnerability, and that we are a person who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps.  But inside, in our heart, in our soul, we are begging for care.  Perhaps we are hoping someone will notice that we are struggling.  Perhaps we send out signs and clues to the fact that we are in need, hoping someone will notice, but every person, at some point in life, needs to receive care.  There is nothing wrong with admitting that we need help.  There is nothing wrong with admitting that we have time of weakness and struggle.

But, as many people are not open about their need for care, they still need care nonetheless, which mean we have to tune our hearts and minds into the signals they send to us.  Although many people will not be direct about their need for care, they say and do certain things in the hope that people will pick up on the message that they need care, so we must learn to listen with our hearts and minds as well as with our ears.

2.  The Call to Care.
In one of my college classes I was very much in need of some extra credit (which was the case in many of my classes, unfortunately).  I asked my professor if I could do work for extra credit and he told me that if I memorized ten verses of Scripture he would give me a point for each verse.  Ten points was enough to make a difference in whether or not I passed the class, so I was glad to get to work memorizing (I suspect that he not only wanted to help me earn extra credit, but also thought the Scripture would so me some good).  I don’t remember if he or I picked the passage, but it was Galatians 6:1-10 –

1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.
Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else,
for each one should carry their own load.
Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Although it was a long time ago that I memorized those verses, they have stayed with me, especially verse 2Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ (the New American Standard Translation, which is the version I memorized).

Caring is one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith, and throughout the two millennia of our faith it is the call to care that has been the clarion call to follow the way of Jesus and care for others.

Listen to how Mark begins verse 2 – Jesus was indignant.  Isn’t that an interesting editorial comment that Mark makes?  Mark could have commented that Jesus was full of compassion for the leper.  Mark could have commented that Jesus loved the leper and wanted to ease his burden.  But he says that Jesus was indignant.

Why was Jesus indignant?  Was he upset with the leper?  Certainly not!  I suspect that Jesus was indignant because of the way that the leper was treated.  It was difficult enough that he was suffering from what was then a dreaded, incurable, deadly disease, but his situation was made worse by the way he was cut off from the rest of humanity.  Lepers were forced to stay away from other people and whenever they came near others they were forced to loudly announce their presence so that other people could keep themselves at a safe distance.  The separation from the rest of humanity would certainly have been a double blow to one in such dire need.  But even worse was the fact that his being ostracized and outcast was religiously mandated.  The need to remain ritually pure gave religious credence to cutting the man off from his friends, his family, and all others, and that was what made Jesus indignant.  Instead of following a religious mandate to eradicate barriers between people there were walls of separation that were constructed and a man who was in dire need of care would not receive it.  Instead, he would live the remainder of his life with contact only with others like him, and would die cut off and alone.

Touching a leper in that context, then, was one of the most scandalous and unimaginable acts that Jesus could commit.  Touching a leper violated every social, medical, and religious norm of the time, as it made one unclean and also susceptible to contracting the disease.  None of this, it is very important to note, concerned Jesus.  That Jesus actually touched someone who suffered from leprosy was an unbelievably powerful example of what he desires others to do, especially those who bear his name.

When Jesus healed the leper he ran into the fear and opposition that so many in his day exhibited towards people who suffered from the disease.  Understandably, in a time when there was no cure, fear of contracting leprosy was very strong.  But it wasn’t just fear, it was also a case of social and religious taboos, which should cause us to ask, What kind of social and religious taboos exist today that makes it difficult for some individuals or some groups of people to receive care?  What can we do to help dismantle those taboos and the fear that comes from them?

In the early part of the 80s I made my first visit with an AIDS patient.  Some of us are old enough to remember the fear that was so pervasive at that time, not only of the disease of AIDS, but also of the patients and even their families.  Some people were not even comfortable speaking the name of the disease.  I traveled to the hospital, entered the ICU unit, and some of the staff helped me to prepare for my visit.  The patient was in an isolation unit in ICU, and the staff seemed very uneasy about any contact.  I was required to be in a heat-to-toe covering before I could enter the room.  I felt as though I was about to talk a spacewalk rather than enter a hospital room.  The staff said very little as I was prepared, and no one mentioned the word “AIDS.”  I have to admit, it was all a bit disconcerting, because of the context of fear, almost all of which we now know to be unfounded.  It is a reminder, however, of the power of fear. 

Caring, in the Christian commitment, does not recognize boundaries and it does not adhere to the tribalism so prevalent in our society that says I will care only for those who look like me, who think like me, who believe like me, who live where I live, and we are deemed worthy by me.  Jesus rejected those boundaries and the pull to tribalism, and so should we.

3.  The Cost of Care.
For almost two and a half years we have worked to bring the Stephen Ministry to fruition in our church.  The effort began in February of 2015, when a small group of us traveled to Central Christian Church in Lexington to attend a presentation about Stephen Ministry.  It was a presentation that impressed us for several reasons, one being the strong sense of ecumenism that existed.  I have never in my life attended a meeting where so many different denominations were represented.  At the beginning, the presenter asked for a show of hands when she asked which denominations were represented.  It was a collection of Catholic, Baptist, Methodist Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Nazarene, and others.  Some of the groups would never be in the same room with some of the other groups (which is a sad commentary) but they came together for the common purpose of caring in the name of Christ.  After attending the presentation we were convinced the Stephen Ministry would be a welcome addition to the life of our congregation.

     Upon arriving at that decision we began the many steps that would bring us to the point of actually implementing the ministry.  Beginning with the church leadership, we presented our belief that the Stephen Ministry would be helpful to our congregation and then, upon securing their support, began the process of enlisting someone who would attend one of the week-long training sessions.  That person, Laine Kephart, spent an intense week in St. Louis being trained by the Stephen Ministry staff.  After attending that training, Laine began training volunteers from our congregation.  Last fall we began that training with about 24 people.  Because of schedule conflicts and other matters, the group eventually settled at about 18 people, 15 of whom were commissioned today as Stephen Ministers.  To be honest, I had hoped we would have 5 or 6 people take the training and perhaps 2 to 4 people would be commissioned as Stephen Ministers.  That so many took the training and to have 15 commissioned as Stephen Ministers far exceeded my hopes and expectations.

     Becoming a Stephen Minister requires a substantial commitment of time, and this is because we want people to have adequate training so they can provide the best care possible.  Beginning last fall, we met every Thursday evening from 6:00 p.m. until 8:30 p.m.  Aside from a break for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we continued on until late March, for a total of 50 hours of training.  In this day and age, when people have so many demands upon their time, it is amazing that so many spent so much time in weekly training sessions.

The work of caring is often unseen.  While one of our most important ministries, the work of the Stephen Ministers will be largely unseen.  We won’t know who is receiving care and who meets with whom, but as we move into the implementation of the ministry, you can be assured that they will be doing the important work for which they have been trained.  It is not always easy to care for others.  All of us have some measure of messiness in our lives.  All of us have our faults and shortcomings and struggles.  Sometimes, in spite of our need for care, we don’t respond well to offers of care, perhaps because we are afraid of others learning of our vulnerabilities or because we might be challenges to change.  Through it all, however, the Stephen Ministers will be offering their care.
There is more to the story of John Merrick that I need now to share.  Thankfully, his story had a much better ending than it had a beginning.

At the age of 22, Dr. Treves took Merrick into the hospital as a permanent resident, giving him a room of his own as a home, which provided him with one of two momentous events in his life.  Entering his room at the hospital, he said in amazement, this is my home.  This is my home.  The second event was when a young lady entered his room, said hello, and shook his hand, causing him to sob uncontrollably.  Aside from his mother, she was the first woman to ever smile at him, and to ever touch his hand.

From then on, his shyness was gone.  He loved for his door to be open and people flocked to visit him.  He had found a place of acceptance, where his appearance did not matter and his condition was inconsequential to others.  Merrick was able to allow his intelligence, sensitivity, and imagination to flourish.  He was very familiar with his Bible and his prayer book.  Over and over he told Dr. Treves, I am happy every hour of the day.

Caring makes all the difference in the world.  Care made all the difference in the world for the man with leprosy.  Care made all the difference in the world for John Merrick.  And you care can make all the difference in the world for someone.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

May 14, 2017 Life Lessons On Faith: Remembering

Last Sunday we began a series of messages titled Life Lessons On Faith.  The messages are based on some of the things I have learned over the years about both life and faith, from my own experience and from the experience of others.

Our topic today is Remembering.  I believe that in the stressful, crazy context in which we live, we all long for the good old days (which probably weren’t as good as we remember), but we find some measure of comfort in looking back to a time when life seemed simpler and less complicated.

We all like to remember, don’t we?  Remembering, in the form of nostalgia, has become big business, especially in the field of entertainment.  “Oldies” stations fill the radio airwaves, pulling at our heartstrings with pleasant memories of our childhood and adolescence.  I was thinking about this topic one day this past week, while driving to Louisville, and I realized that the radio presets in my car reflect a lot of remembering – the 60s channel, the 70s channel, the 80s channel, Classic Vinyl, Classic Rewind; most of the channels I listen to play music from my younger years.  In reality, I don’t think I need to hear Freebird for the 10,000 time, but those songs remind me of a time in my life when things seemed relatively easy and carefree. 

But did you know that nostalgia was once considered a mental disorder?  According to The Atlantic magazine, treatments for the “disorder” of nostalgia once ranged from the use of leeches to burying people alive.  In the case of at least one nation’s military force, some soldiers became so overwhelmed with nostalgia upon hearing a popular song from their country that it became punishable by death for anyone to play the song!

I am staring down my 60th birthday this year.  I have long admired the attitude of my mom about aging, who has always maintained that age is just a number.  I think she really means that, as I have never seen any indication that reaching a particular age troubled her.  Each time I reach a milestone age – 40, 50, and now looking at 60 – I can’t help but marvel at how quickly the time has passed.  Where has the time gone, I often wonder, and how can it be that I am now staring down 60 years of age?  In a few weeks, Tanya and I will celebrate our 33 anniversary!  33 years!  Do I look old enough to be married 33 years? We must have been kids!

What is it about the past that has such a powerful grip on us?     Thinking back on my life, it often occurs to me just how powerful it is to remember.  We look back on our youth, on special events, and other happenings in our lives – both positive and negative – and, as we do, we realize what a powerful force the past can be upon the present.

Our text for today comes from a time when the apostle Paul was writing with a sense of looking back.  When Paul wrote his two letters to Timothy, to whom he served as an example and mentor, Paul was most likely near the end of his life, which makes it possible to hear a sense of nostalgia in some of his words.  Listen as I read our text, from II Timothy 1:3-12 –

I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.
Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.
I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.
He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,
10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.
12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.

I want to think about Remembering in relation to several lessons this morning, the first being –

1.  Remember your blessings.
That is not a profound lesson, but it is one that is easily forgotten in the midst of life’s struggles.  Life can be tough.  Life is stressful.  Life can be very trying.  In the midst of our struggles, in the midst of the tough times, in the midst of the stress, and in the midst of what tries our patience and our faith, it is easy to forget the blessings we have in life.  In saying this, I do not mean to minimize the immense difficulties that some people face.  There are many people who face enormous challenges and difficulties, and I do not mean to imply that all they need to do is count a few blessings and everything will be all right.  No, that is not at all what I mean.  For many, if not most of us, we have enough blessings in life that it is important for us to keep life in perspective.  We have food to eat.  We have adequate clothing and shelter.  We have money to pay our bills (most of the time).  When are needs are met, let us give thanks for what we have.  When our families are healthy, let us give thanks for the blessing of good health. 

One of the blessings of life is certainly the time we have with those whom we love.  Paul often spoke of people important to him, as he does in verse four, as he speaks of how much he longs to see Timothy.  In Acts 20:36-38 we read of the time when Paul departs from Ephesus – 36 When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.  There was a lot of grief as Paul departed from his friends.  In Philippians 1:3 he writes I thank my God every time I remember you.  Obviously, Paul was very grateful for the blessing of time with his friends.

Honestly, when I was younger, I didn’t like when people would remind me to appreciate the time when our children were young, because those years would pass quickly.  My thought was generally yeah, yeah, yeah.  Give me a break.  I’m trying to keep up with everything and trying to pay the bills.  I don’t need to be reminded of what I already know.  But I didn’t know.  I didn’t know how quickly that time would past.  And when time is gone, it’s gone forever.  One of the advantages of aging is the perspective we are given when we have more years behind us than ahead of us.  When we’re younger, we can become overwhelmed with life, and it becomes easy to forget that we are limited in the amount of time we have with those whom we love.

And, very importantly, we must remember that we are called to be a blessing to those who are struggling. How many of you have been through the Bethel Bible Study series?  If you have, you know their motto – Blessed to be a blessing.  When we have enough provision that we can give to others, let us give thanks for the ability to help others.

2.  Remember lessons learned, even from difficulty.
I use a lot of personal examples in my messages, and sometimes I wonder if I get too personal.  As I was running through memories of difficult times in my life I was wondering which might be appropriate to share.  A few of them I really considered but thought, no, just suffice it to say that like everyone else, I have had some very difficult times in life.  And even though I don’t want to go into any details, I will say that up until recently I had a difficult time with reconciling with a challenge in my past.  For a good while, when I thought about that time, I would wish that I could go back and make a different decision that would have spared me from that challenge.  But I finally realized that would not be the right thing to do, even if it were possible for me to do so.  As much as that time in my life was difficult and as much as I have wished it could have been avoided, I have to admit to a few truths – for one, I am very grateful for the people who were in my life at that time.  They helped me in ways that were enormously important to me and I will be forever grateful for their kindness, love, and support.  When I wished that I could have avoided that time of my life, it would mean those people would not be a part of my life, and that would be a great loss to me.  Secondly, that lessons I learned – even though I wish I did not have to endure what I experienced – have been very important to me and helpful to me.

I am very grateful for the good things that have happened in my life, and I try to be faithful in thanking God for the blessings I have received.  Sometimes, although it is not been easy to do so, I also thank God for the difficulties – and even that great difficulty –  that I have experienced.  I do this because much of what I have learned, unfortunately, has been accomplished the hard way.  Some of my most important lessons have come about precisely because of difficulties that I have experienced, and without those experiences, I wonder if I could have learned some of the lessons I needed to learn and have learned.  Not that I wanted to go through those difficulties, but it is an interesting fact of life that we learn some of our greatest lessons from some of our greatest challenges.

     One of the lessons I have learned, looking back, is how I can see the hand of God so much more clearly than I could at the time I was looking for it.  We all have those moments in life when we hope and pray with great intensity, asking God to reveal himself, and his will, to us.  While neither may seem clear at the time, the passing of the years does make it more obvious as we look back.  Though I couldn’t always see it plainly at the time, I can look back and see how God has been with me throughout my life, which provides me with the hope and the promise that he will continue to be with me, whatever I might face in life.

I grew up in coal country.  We had a coal furnace when I was young, and there is nothing quite like the coal dust and soot that gets everywhere and all over everything.  It is rather amazing to me that out of that dusty, grimy carbon can come something as beautiful as a diamond.  It takes, of course, a great deal of pressure for that diamond to be formed, but nature itself teaches us that beauty can come out of pressure, and stress, and difficulty.  Now, I’m not intending to be insensitive to the sufferings of anyone, but we all understand that out of difficulty can come some measure of blessing.  But just as a diamond is not only beautiful, but also hard and tough, we want to be strong, but not hard of heart.  We want to be strengthened by out testing, but not bitter.

3.  Remember your faith.
It’s interesting that Paul writes in verse 5 that I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.  It sounds a bit as though Paul is reminding Timothy to live up to the faith of his family. 

We are all, as people of faith, products of the faith of others.  Someone taught us faith.  Someone taught us to pray.  Someone took us to Sunday School and church.  Someone served as an example of what it means to have faith.  Paul was gently reminding Timothy to live up to the examples of faith that were present in his life.

I do not hold to what I would call the false narrative of the decline of faith and religion; I think those predictions are vastly overstated.  That is not to say that faith and religion are changing, because everything is changing.  In October we will recognize the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which was a time of enormous change in the world and, in particular, the world of faith.  Many felt it was a time when faith itself was unraveling, but, in fact, it was a rearranging and reformulating of faith, much like our present day.  As far as the false narrative of the decline of faith, the Pew Research organization just released their findings from a massive study done in many of the countries once under the control of the Soviet Union, which was officially atheistic.  The study found that 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, in 18 countries that fell under the umbrella of the Soviet Union, that the comeback of religion in a region once dominated by atheist regimes is striking.  Would you like to hazard a guess at what is now the percentage of people in those countries who believe in God?  Would you guess 25%?  40%?  50%?  How about 86%?  In 18 of the countries once dominated by the officially atheistic policy of the Soviet Union, 86% of people in those countries believe in God.  Isn’t that amazing? 

Sometimes, in our crazy, challenging world, it might seem as if our faith is crumbling, but don’t believe it.  Hold to your faith.  Keep the faith that has been handed down to you.  There is an interesting passage at the end of Paul’s letter that serves as a bookend to the text I read at the beginning of this message.  It is a passage I have read many times over the years at memorial services – II Timothy 4:6-8 – the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

I want to be able to echo those words one day.  When I am about to draw my final breath, I hope that I can proclaim those words that, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Remember these things.  Never forget these lessons.  Remember.  Always remember.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

May 7, 2017 - Life Lessons On Faith: Choosing Faith

This morning we begin a series of messages titled Life Lessons On Faith.  The messages will cover some of the things I have learned over the years about both life and faith, from my own experience and from the experience of others.  The genesis of this series came when I attended Wayne Bell’s memorial service several weeks ago.  I was sitting in the middle of the front row of the balcony at Central Christian Church in Lexington, listening to the speakers, the music, and the readings.  It was a beautiful service, and a fitting tribute to Wayne’s life and ministry.  It is amazing to me that even after his retirement in 1984, Wayne remained active in ministry – 33 years after his retirement!  Listening to all the elements of the service brought to mind that there are many lessons we can learn from our own experience and the experience of others, and we should share those lessons with one another, and the phrase Life Lessons On Faith popped into my head.

     Choosing Faith is the title of our first lesson in the series, and the Scripture text comes from the famous chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, which begins with the immortal line now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see, or, as in the more familiar King James Version, now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

I will speak about faith in relation to three categories this morning – educational, experiential, and emotional.  We experience faith in many ways, but these three are foundational elements, I believe, of our faith.  Under the topic of educational I will speak more to the intellect, specifically to the often-derided idea of holding to something that is old and ancient.  Under the topic of experiential, I will speak to what shaped and molded my faith by way of experience.  Under the topic of emotion, I will speak to what I believe is very important to all of us, and that is feeling our faith.  As much as we are thoughtful, logical people, we also want to feel something.  We’ve all sat through dry, boring worship services and walked out the door wishing we had felt something in the service.

I encourage you to read the entirety of Hebrews 11 today or sometime this week.  For this morning, we will read a portion of the chapter, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-10, 13-16 –

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
This is what the ancients were commended for.
By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.
By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.
10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.
15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.
16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.

1. Educational.
Verse 2 says this is what the ancients were commended for.
Think about that word ancient for a moment.  The writer of the book of Hebrews, whom we would now classify as an ancient, wrote of characters such as Abraham as an ancient.  It is a reminder that our faith reaches back more than generations, more than centuries; our faith is one that goes back millennia.  It is a faith that has roots in the ancients.  Today, skeptics often use the words ancient and old in a derogatory manner when they are applied to faith, as though anything that is ancient or old is unworthy of either honor or emulating.

The truth that faith is not so much old as it is eternal, and there is a very big difference in what is eternal and what is simply old.  The world old, as it is often used, implies outdated, outmoded, and a bygone of an earlier era that no longer has any practical application.  But that is not an accurate description of faith.  We often refer to faith as the wisdom of the ages, and it is exactly that – the wisdom of the ages.  Some “old” things are ever new because they reflect the accumulated wisdom of the ages.  Moses, for example, leaving the security of Pharaoh’s home and affiliating with the Hebrew slaves is no different from anyone today who struggles with their sense of identity and purpose in life.  When the psalmist wrote in the 23rd psalm, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death it spoke for everyone who has ever felt the sting of loss and sensed the shadow of death that is then cast over life.  When Abraham left his homeland to follow God’s leading to the Promised Land, he did so without a clear idea of where his journey would lead or what might happen along the way.  Abraham’s experience is familiar to us all, as we have sought to faithfully follow God’s leading, even when we don’t really know where we are being led.  There is also the wisdom of the ancient Greeks – their gifts of philosophy, science, math, and their literature that remains so influential to us millennia later.  Clearly, old is not irrelevant.

Having said that, history does have a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, certainly in terms of what remains applicable.  Some of the ancient attitudes and beliefs no longer apply, and this is true even of some Scripture.  We don’t, for instance, follow every command in the book of Leviticus.  In chapter 19 of Leviticus, for example, there are commands that were important at the time but are no longer binding to us.  We don’t follow the command to not plant your field with two kinds of seed or that which tells us to not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19).  Likewise we don’t follow verses 27 and 28 of the same chapter, which says to not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard…or put tattoo marks on yourselves.  There were good and practical theological and social reason why those commands were followed, but we live in a much different context, where those reasons no longer apply.  Some things obviously, are bound to a particular time, but there is so much that remains eternal, and anyone who wants to write off the whole of Scripture and faith as being old and outdated simply has no clue what they are talking about.

This is why it is important that we have a rational side to faith.  We need to think about and study the Scriptures.  The Bible is a book that takes some work, and without that work, there can be much in the way of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and application that can be made.  There are very good reasons, contextually, why Paul would write something such as I Timothy 2:11-12, which says, a woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.  Paul was not misogynistic or sexist; there were particular reasons why we wrote those words, reasons which are no longer applicable, but those who do not take the time to learn about the context misuse Paul’s words and in doing so, mistreat women by limiting their role in church leadership.

I was blessed to receive a good education.  My parents made it possible for me to go to college, and I was able to work myself through two seminary degrees, which was a struggle, as I had a very difficult schedule of class, study, and working to support myself.  But I was able to accomplish it, and even though it was very difficult in many ways, I am so thankful I was able to go to seminary and to make it through.  The rigorous study was often difficult and challenging, but I am very grateful for what I learned.

When I graduated from high school, I spent much of the summer working at our local church camp.  One of the leaders there, whom I very much respected, did not approve of my choice of colleges.  He was afraid that I would lose my faith at my college of choice, but I did not lose my faith at all.  It was rearranged, reconstituted, and reformulated, but not at all lost.  Faith involves a discipline of the mind, not just the heart, and I have spent a lot of years trying to continue with my spiritual education because there are so many questions and so many things I am still trying to understand, and I love the study and the thinking side of faith.

2. Experiential.
I have often benefitted from the faith of others.  I have often repeated the phrase that faith is more often caught than taught, and I have caught the faith of others, most notably my parents.  I don’t know if I would have found my way to faith and to church without the faith of my parents, and I am profoundly grateful for the gift of their faith in my life.  I have often wondered where I would be in life without the influence of their faith, and I can only say I am very, very grateful for that gift in my life.  Parents, wherever your child might be in relation to faith at this point, never forget how important your impact is on them.  I know that some of you worry about your children – and your grandchildren – in terms of faith, but just keep on loving them and showing the importance of faith in your own life.

There did, however, come a time when I had to make a much more conscious decision that faith was going to continue to be not only a part of my life, but a very important part.  In my first few days of college I had a conversation with my minister.  He was a trustee of the school and was on campus for a meeting, and as I was walking back to my dorm one evening he stopped me to offer some words of wisdom.  He told me that I had depended upon the faith of others more than I had realized.  My parents made sure I attended church and they, and others, reminded me of remaining faithful in developing my spiritual life.  To be honest, I was a bit offended when he first gave me that advice, but I listened to him, because I loved Reverend Norris, and he was such an important role model to me.  And I quickly found that he was right.  I did have to develop my own faith.  As much as others, such as my parents, helped me to come to faith, it was necessary for me to make the very definite decision to continue in faith.  At that point in my life, no one was going to make sure I got up on Sunday morning and went to church, no one was going to remind me to pray, or to read the Bible; those were disciplines that were up to me from that point on.

There have also been times when my faith has been challenged, and sometimes, very strongly challenged.  I have experienced a lot of my own questions and struggles and doubts.  As a minister, some people see me as a representative of God and when they are angry at God or hurt by the church it becomes convenient and easy for them to direct that anger and hurt at me, which is okay, although it is not an easy experience.  There are many pressures that come with being a minister, as well as a great deal of wear and tear, and the grinding schedule of ministry has caused me at times to wonder whether I should remain in my calling.  There have been times when those who do not believe and those who are opposed to faith have thrown down a gauntlet of challenge.  And when I was younger I was often ridiculed because of my faith and because I went to church.  I have never spoken publicly over the years of my experience of being bullied when I was young, but I was bullied a good deal.  That was a very difficult experience, and for a long time I was too ashamed to tell anyone about it or to escape thinking that it was somehow my fault.  Some of that bullying was exactly because of my being religious, and there were several occasions when that bullying was more than words and threats; it became physical assault.  It’s hard to imagine that bullying is still so common, and if you are – or ever – bullied, know this:  it is not your fault, you do not have to be ashamed, and you need to tell someone.

But as difficult as those experiences have been, they only reinforced and strengthened my faith.  I inherited the hard-headedness of my father’s side of my family, and I determined that nothing was ever going to push me away from my faith.  Whatever challenges I faced only made me more determined to continue and to grow in my faith. 

3. Emotional.
Disciples churches have historically been more on the side of the intellect and rationality than emotion.  And I am not one who tends to show his emotions very easily.  I guess it’s the British side of my family that has influenced me in this way.  But I need, and love, to feel emotion, and I try to speak as much to the heart as I do to the head in my messages.  I want people to come to worship and to feel something, to experience something.  Don’t you?

I have sometimes read sermons from generations ago, and sometimes centuries ago, many of which were written under the influence of the Enlightenment and speaking almost exclusively to the mind rather than the heart.  Man, I have to tell you, they are for the most part as dry as dust!  I couldn’t imagine sitting through that type of sermon week after week (hopefully, you are thinking, what we have to sit through isn’t all that great either!)  Those sermons spoke to me about as powerfully as an Algebraic equation, which is to say, Not.  At.  All.

I don’t have the really deep, mystical experiences of faith very often.  In fact, those kinds of really deep, mystical experiences, where it seems that God is so close you can reach out and touch him have not happened very often for me.  I know we all realize God is with us all the time, and I know that is true in my head, but I mean those times when you can feel it so powerfully and you know God is right there; you can feel it in your heart.  Have you had those kinds of experiences?  They are overwhelming and beautiful, and I really am thankful for and cherish those experiences on the few occasions when they have come to me.  Those moments help to keep me going in faith, they encourage me, and they are extremely moving.

Those mystical experiences are one of the reasons why I love to visit churches, when worship is taking place or when the buildings are empty.  When I was on sabbatical two years ago I visited a lot of churches, sometimes for worship and sometimes I just wandered into them.  My family, at times, thinks I’m kind of weird about this, as I have interrupted sight-seeing trips by saying, hey, let’s go check out that church.  Tanya and I were traveling this past week and we wandered into some churches – some beautiful churches – and I just loved being there.  I like to wander through the building, and I love to go in the sanctuary, sometimes just to sit there in quiet.  I know we don’t have to come into a church building to find the presence of God, but I love the feeling of being in a church and feeling God’s presence.

I don’t want to just think about God; I want to feel the presence of God.  We need something transcendent in our lives.  Music, art, and other things can bring us a measure of that transcendence, but they are not always enough; we need something more, something deeper, something eternal, and for that reason, I will always choose faith!