The New York Times recently published a very interesting article about a book by a man named Vern Bengston. The book is titled Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations. Bengston, a professor at USC, began a study in 1969, which was based on how the family impacts the way in which faith is or isn’t passed on to succeeding generations. Following almost four hundred families from 1969 until 2008 he learned quite a few interesting facts about faith and how it passes from one generation to another.
Bengston has written over two hundred articles based on his research, but in his book he gets specific about one particular question – what is the most convincing reason as to why children will maintain the religious faith of their family?
Would anyone like to hazard a guess at his conclusion? It might surprise you. First, his research confirmed some common-sense assumptions. For one, it does matter that parents model faith. If, for instance, if parents talk about church but never go, children sense the contradiction. What Bengston found most important, however, was that every example is without meaning if children don’t feel close to their parents. And, interestingly, guess which parent mattered most in that bonding? The father.
Bengston writes that fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad. Throughout his research he found that a father who is an exemplar, a pillar of the church, but doesn’t provide warmth and affirmation to his kid does not have kids who follow him in his faith.
Not that I’m trying to put any pressure on the fathers here this morning, but isn’t that a fascinating piece of research? If you are a parent you’ve got to find that interesting, because we want our faith to be adopted by our children. I don’t know if Bengston is correct, but he’s certainly done a great deal of careful research. And, interestingly, Bengston, who left faith behind when he was in college, returned to faith many years later, and credits his relationship with his father as a very important factor.
I think we would all agree that faith is an incredibly important part of our lives, and one of our great hopes is that our children will continue to hold that faith as central in their lives as well.
Faith is our topic this morning, and its centrality to our lives, as we continue our series of messages Having A Heart Like Jesus – The Importance of Faith.
Faith is one of the foundational themes of Jesus, and in the passages we’ll read in a moment, the first of which I return to often, we find faith to be the central element.
Matthew 6:25-34; Hebrews 11:1 –
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?
26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.
29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.
30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’
32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
I did not listen to the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye that took place at the Creation Museum last week. I didn’t see the point, actually. I think that debate presented a false choice – that one has to accept either a purely scientific and materialistic view of the world, on one hand, or a very particular religious view – far too restrictive in my opinion – on the other hand.
I believe in science. Science has improved our lives immeasurably, and every one of us here this morning enjoys the blessings it offers to our lives. That said, it also complicates some things for humanity as it has presented us with some tremendously difficult ethical issues and often reduces everything down to randomness and chance. I believe God created the universe and everything it contains (Psalms 8:3 – when I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place), but I don’t believe the earth is 6,000 years old. And I certainly don’t need either Bill Nye or Ken Ham telling me what I should believe and neither do you.
The failure of that debate, I believe, is that both sides are asking me to do what I don’t want to do – accept their particular proofs rather than holding to faith. I do not believe, first of all, that there is a wedge between faith and science, regardless of how vehemently some people claim that there is. But I also believe that science cannot adequately speak to the existence of God because it cannot see beyond the material matter of the world.
If we are to truly live by faith, we don’t have to be convinced by either side’s evidences. In fact, we don’t have to accept the idea that we need any evidence at all. Faith is not the requirement of evidences that will convince us beyond a shadow of a doubt to believe in God, because there will never be any absolute, completely convincing evidence to confirm the existence of God. To me, the beauty of the sun shining through the ice that has covered everything around us this week is proof enough of the handiwork of God. The existence of the universe and our world and its beauty is evidence enough of God to, but not to everyone. I’m not looking for something to convince me to believe in God; I already believe in God and that’s not a belief that is going to change. I’m not looking for evidences that God exists, because I believe evidence is in the eye of the beholder, so I have all the evidence I would need, if evidence were what I was looking for. And I believe this is exactly what God intends, because he wants us to accept him on faith and as we live life each day that faith is demonstrated by our trust in him. This is why I believe both Bill Nye and Ken Ham were wrong, because they both want to convince me that what I most need is to believe certain facts. But that’s not faith.
What I am looking for is something upon which to base my life, something that will make sense of life, something that will bring comfort in times of loss, something that will bring purpose and meaning to my life, and all those things – and so much more – I find in faith.
When we remember that the essence of faith is trust it really reshapes how we look at everything about life, and it also helps to correct some of our misunderstandings about how God works. I don’t believe, for instance, that because we have faith we are guaranteed a life that is free from suffering and difficulty. But many people point to suffering and difficulty as an evidence that either God doesn’t care or that he doesn’t exist. Plenty of people have abandoned their faith because they believed God had abandoned them.
But this passage from Matthew is so powerful, in part, because it reminds us to trust God regardless of our circumstances. If, Jesus reminds us, God takes care of some of the smallest parts of his creation – the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air – won’t he ultimately take care of us? Will we trust that he will do so? Can we trust him for our provision? Can we trust him enough that we won’t drive ourselves to a neurotic fit worrying about whether we will have enough for tomorrow?
But trust is very, very difficult, isn’t it? That’s why we talk a lot about belief but not as much about faith, because we find it very hard to live our lives based upon trust. We make a claim about faith in God’s care but then work our fingers to the bone making sure that we take care of our own provision. And I’m not saying we sit back and do nothing and expect God to shower everything upon us, but what I’m saying is that we have transformed faith into little more than a system of believing the proper things rather than allowing it to take its proper place as a trust in God that undergirds everything about our lives. When it comes down to it, do we really trust God?
When I was in high school, I would camp in the summers with my older brother and a cousin of ours. We would hike way back along a creek in Ohio and camp for about a week at a time. We took a little bit of food, but mostly we lived off the fish we would catch.
One night we decided to hike a good ways along the creek to fish in the moonlight. There was a railroad track we could follow that made our hike much easier, as the woods were very dense and very hard to navigate at night. We had hiked quite a ways when we came upon a train trestle. It was a long way across that train trestle and it was a really long way down. And it was at night, with some moonlight, but not enough to make me feel confident about walking across that train trestle. My brother and cousin kept right on walking when we came to that train trestle, which was confusing to me, because it clearly seemed like a very bad idea to me. I said what are you guys doing? They turned around and looked at me as though I was the crazy one! I thought it a good idea to ask one really important question – what are we going to do if we get halfway across that train trestle and a train came along? There was absolutely nowhere to go. My cousin shrugged his shoulders and said we just drop down between the railroad ties and hang there until the train passes. All these years later, that still sounds like a really bad idea. But my cousin stood there, looked at me, and said, trust me, it’ll be okay. And off I went, because I did trust him.
Now, I’m not trying to say that God is going to lead us off into something as foolish as walking across a train trestle in the middle of the night, but to some people faith seems every bit as foolish. It seems foolish to some to trust God for our provision. It seems foolish to some to take no thought for tomorrow, as Jesus asks of us. But not to us, because we recognize the goodness and the care of God as being so powerful and so compelling that we will place our lives in his hands.
The central task of the church is to call people to have faith – to have trust – in Jesus. Not just faith as in a belief system about him, but to follow him in how we live and in living as if he really is our Lord in whom we trust our lives and our souls. Jesus is Lord was the defining statement of the earliest Christians, which was a claim of ultimate trust.
Jesus is more than a vague, generic self-help guru for the 21st century; Jesus is Lord, and that is a massive declaration to make. He is a Lord in whom we are called to trust every moment of our lives and every breath we take.
We live by faith, Paul writes in II Corinthians 5:7, not by sight. May we always trust God.