Tuesday, January 22, 2013

January 20, 2013 - The Harder I Go, The Behinder I Get: Catching Up On Our Faith

John 11:7-16; 20:24-29

Because life moves at such an incredibly fast pace these days it is easy to feel as if we fall further and further behind in some of the most important aspects of our lives.  The pace of life makes it difficult to find time to nourish our faith and to nourish our relationships.  The cost of living makes us wonder if we can ever catch up financially.  We would like to save and invest for the future, but today’s bills knock so loudly on our door that it’s hard to think beyond today.  And the incredible stress on our time feeds into the stress of every part of life.

So this morning we begin a new series of messages titled The Harder I Go, the Behinder I Get.  Over the course of the series we will consider how we “catch up” in four areas of our lives – faith, relationships, time, and finances. 

I will add a disclaimer at the beginning – a big disclaimer – I am not an expert in any of these categories and I often feel far behind in each of them.  The suggestions I will make are ones I struggle to incorporate into my own life.

Today our message deals with the first of our four topics –Catching Up On Our Faith.

Last week National Public Radio ran a series of reports called Losing Our Religion.  It was another in a seemingly unending series of news stories about the changing – and some would say, diminishing – role of faith in today’s society.  I listened to some of it, with some interest, but I have to confess I am a bit worn out with the stories about the demise of faith.

But those reports do remind us that as we live in an era when it appears that many people are not only struggling to catch up with, or strengthen their faith, some are struggling to continue to have faith.

So I want to begin by saying something I believe is very important – there is nothing wrong with either doubt or struggle when it comes to our faith. Do you ever feel that way?  Do you ever struggle with doubt?  It’s okay if you do.  Sometimes our faith is not as strong as we wish it were, and that’s okay.

Doubt, and its subsequent struggle with faith, is nothing new.  One of Jesus’ own disciples struggled with doubt. 

John’s gospel relates the famous story of doubting Thomas, where Thomas declares that unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe (John 20:25).  Certainly, Thomas struggled with doubt, but we often overlook another story about Thomas.  In John’s gospel, chapter 11, Jesus was planning to return to Judea, because Lazarus had died.  The disciples were alarmed at his plan, because they were afraid Jesus would be killed.  But Thomas was the only disciple willing to go with Jesus, even if it meant losing his life.  In fact, Thomas even declares “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).  There certainly was no doubt at that moment in the heart and mind of Thomas. 

But Thomas does serve as an example of our own struggle with faith – there are days when we feel as though nothing can cause our faith to waver and there are other days when we can’t escape this nagging sense of doubt.  There are days when I feel like the father who brings his son to Jesus in order to find healing.  The father exclaims, I do believe, help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24).

There are many examples of the great Biblical characters struggling with their faith.  Peter also doubted the first news of the resurrection (John 24:11), but we don’t call him doubting Peter. Peter, also, when invited by Jesus to get out of the boat and go to him on the water, finds that his faith fails him (Matthew 14:22-33).  Jesus asks Peter, You of little faith…why did you doubt? It isn’t the only time Jesus expresses the difficulty we have in expressing faith.  In Matthew 6:30 Jesus, as he talks about the worries of life, addresses his audience with the words O you of little faith.

The fact that we sometimes have doubts or struggles with faith does not in any way mean there is anything wrong with our faith; it simply means we are human.  At some point, everyone has some measure of doubt and struggle with faith, but that does not mean their faith is lacking in any way.  In fact, I would say that the occasional doubt and struggle is a sign of healthy faith.  Any faith that is afraid of doubt and struggle is one that has too much insecurity to be healthy.

What we want to avoid is unhealthy faith.  Unhealthy faith is a faith that leaves no room for doubt or for questioning. 

Unhealthy faith also leaves no room for understanding that life brings struggle.

Many people struggle with faith when they encounter difficulties in life.  In fact, some people point to a tragedy or difficulty in life as the reason why they abandon faith.  They believe that God failed them in that moment so they decide a God who fails them in a time of need is not worthy to believe in.

I am very, very sympathetic to the sufferings and struggles of people, but faith never guarantees that life will be easy, and it is only unhealthy faith that makes such a claim.  Faith is not a transactional relationship; that is, we don’t do something for God, such as believe in him, and then get something from him in return.  In fact, the Scriptures are very, very clear that life is not going to be easy, even if you have faith.  What faith does is provide strength and hope to help us navigate life’s difficulties.  A faith that believes we will never struggle or suffer in life is an unhealthy and shallow faith, and one that is likely to fail us when we do encounter life’s difficulties.

Unhealthy faith also steers us into a false sense of what is important.  I have great sympathy for people who give up on church.  Any church that has existed for very long has experienced some kind of struggle or conflict over some small, goofy matter.  And I say goofy as a way referring to a nonessential matter when it comes to the purpose of the church.

I was in a meeting recently of ministers, and it is a group that I love.  I love and appreciate my colleagues and I enjoy minister’s meetings because of the encouragement and camaraderie that we share.  But some of the discussions we have are perfect examples of the goofiness that takes place in churches.  A discussion came up about a bit of conflict in one of the churches, and I was asked what I would do.  In my head I was thinking I couldn’t care less about such an argument, because it was over something that was absolutely inconsequential, but I tried to be pastoral and formulate some kind of nice answer, before finally saying, you know what, I think you should just say you don’t care and let it go.

There are some things that simply should not get us worked up.  They just don’t matter.  And tragically, churches can crush the faith of some people by drawing them into endless and meaningless debates about issues that in the grand scheme of things really don’t amount to anything of importance.  They just don’t.

The older I get the less I care about a lot of “church issues.”  I know that it is easier to worry about those matters than some of the big issues we face in this day and age, but there are people living under terrible oppression, there are people trying to survive crushing violence, and there are people watching their children starve to death so it’s hard for me to get excited about many of the “church issues” that congregations sometimes face.

And I get even less interested in another expression of unhealthy faith that lives in a lot of churches, and it comes under several names – guilt, legalism, and duty.  It is a lifeless faith that robs people of any real sense of joy or enthusiasm. 

Over the years I’ve sometimes had people pull me aside and say something like this – Dave, you need to get after us more.  You need to step on our toes.  You need to really lay it on us.  If anyone here wants that from me I’m sorry to say but you are going to be disappointed.  To step on anyone’s toes or dump a load of guilt on them or tell them their faith is little more than a sense of duty seems to me to be redundant.  I would guess that many of you feel rather beaten up at the end of the week so why should I beat you up some more when you come to church?  I don’t come to church to get beat up or to beat up anyone else.  I don’t come to have a load of guilt dumped on me.  I don’t want to leave church feeling as though I’ve gone fifteen rounds in a boxing ring.  I want to lift you up, I want to encourage you, and I want to remind you that God loves you and has called you to a life that is rich in purpose and meaning.  I want you to discover the sense of joy that faith can bring to life.  I don’t want to load you down with a sense of guilt or burden you with a long list of regulations.  There are enough churches already offering that kind of faith.

Healthy faith brings life, it brings hope, it brings joy, and it brings enthusiasm!

Back in the fall Tanya and I bought an elliptical machine, because we don’t like walking outside on cold mornings.  It’s a truly terrible machine.  It was actually invented by a guy named Torquemada and was first used as a torture device back in the Dark Ages.

I tried different ways of occupying my mind while exercising, trying to make it through those workout times.  I would prop a book on top of the elliptical, but that didn’t really work.  I set up a TV but that didn’t work.  But I’ll tell you what does work – music.  I put some really good music on my iPod and it works.  The other morning I went down to the garage and got on that elliptical and wondered why I was putting myself through that punishment.  I started listening to a beautiful version of Great Is Thy Faithfulness and it went into the song, Another Halleluiah.  Wow.  Music just touches the soul.  It’s as though it becomes a conduit for the spirit to flow into us and through us.  A time I dreaded became a time of worship.  When doubt and struggle threaten to get you down, keep the faith.  When you feel as though you don’t have the faith to continue, keep on believing.  Always remember that the spirit of God brings life!  Wherever the spirit is, there is life!  Even death itself cannot overcome!  The spirit brings life!

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