We all have them -- moments when we can’t seem to find our faith, or our faith seems inadequate for our immediate need. Everyone has them. Even the saints of old had them. Peter had many such moments -- the Scriptures even share them with us: like when he was sinking instead of walking on water. Jesus was RIGHT THERE with him, and still he doubted. St John of the Cross , a 16th century mystic talked about our
moments when we lack faith in his poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” That was his description of a phase in his life when he couldn’t seem to see any light at all. John Wesley , one of the initiators of the Methodist movement found himself lacking in faith and he was told by Peter Boehler, a Moravian missionary to “Preach faith until you have it.” So we aren’t alone. We are in good company if we feel our faith is sometimes lacking.
Faith is based on a what should be a two-way relationship that has become more one-way in our time. In past times, people seemed to know God more deeply and profoundly than we do today. God still knows us , but our faith seems a bit more shallow because we don’t know God nearly as well. It falters a bit -- and sometimes more than a bit.
Listen to the words of Psalm 139 as it describes God’s thorough knowledge and understanding of us...
You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.
And listen also our response to this initiative from God -- we may try to flee.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
We’re unsuccessful at hiding or escape. God is simply unavoidable. And yet time and again our faith falters. Faith just isn’t as simple as it used to be. Times have changed. The days when the church was the center of a community’s existence are just
gone except in some small rural areas. We gather here on Sundays as a kind of counter-cultural affirmation of allegiance to God despite the amused indulgence of our neighbors and friends thinking we are out of touch with reality. There are more distractions today, and more challenges to our faith than ever before. It is hard to make time with God intentional when there are so many others things demanding our time. Prayer time, reading scripture, gathering for worship -- there are always things and people that seem to try to take over time we try to sequester to nurture our relationship with God. No wonder our faith falters -- it just isn’t as simple as it used to be to live as a person of faith in our 21st century world.
The irony is that we need faith in God rather desperately now -- perhaps more desperately than those previous, simpler centuries. Look at the rise of dystopian literature. Look at the proliferation of self-help books focused on thinking positively . Look at the statistics on depression -- it is endemic. We are in rather desperate need of
hope. And where do we find hope? Not in avoiding unpleasant truths. Not in La-La Land thinking. Only in solid faith grounded in our experience of a living God.
No one would have accused African-American slaves of groundless optimism. Their lives were a far cry from La-La Land. Yet they sang of faith in God who frees, even in the midst of bondage. They sang songs of hope in a different world than the one in which they lived. “I got a home up inna da kingdom, ain’t a dat good news…” “I got a home in glory land that outshines the sun..” “I got shoes, you got shoes, all God’s children got shoes… when I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God’s heaven. Heaven…” They sang their faith in a God to bring justice in a realm where there truly was justice for all, and whose freedom-giving power they had ALREADY experienced on earth.
NEED. Many of us have profound experiences of God’s love and strength coming to us at moments when the troubles of the world were overwhelming. When our prayers tossed up to the “God of Last Resort” do not go unanswered. When we’ve got nothing and the presence of God holds us close and we JUST KNOW that not only is God real -- but God really does know us, love us, and hold us close.
-- times when we have lost someone without whom we don‘t know if we really even want to breathe. And God is there. When grief seems to press us down like a boulder that presses us hard into the ground and there is no way to move. When getting out of bed seems like an impossible task --- and God is there holding us while we sob in the dark -- and gently leading us up out of the bed, and God is there with us, as close as our breath -- in the days and weeks until the boulder begins to be lifted and breathing doesn’t take so much stubborn intention. Sir Thomas Moore, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal…”
-- times when the future seems very uncertain and we wonder if life is worth living. The tenacity of hope (title of a book by John C. Richards) in the midst of hopelessness is a testimony to the presence of God -- if the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass can believe six impossible things before breakfast, we certainly should try. Impossible things are happening all around us. And God is there in the middle of them.
-- when we are approaching death, we can do so with confidence when we have faith in God’s love for us. My paternal grandmother was known to observe that she had her ticket to heaven, but her boarding pass was mislaid. She graduated from this life at age 96 with confidence similar to that of John Wesley, the same man who was told to preach faith until he had it, shared as his last words, “The best of it all is, God is with us.”
THAT is the kind of faith that we need right now -- need rather desperately. Faith that gives us strength and confidence in the present and for the future.
Where do we find this faith that gives us wings? How can we develop it? John Wesley would tell us to put ourselves in God’s way to develop it in us -- to, in his words, “attend upon the means of grace.”
Means of grace. What he called the means of grace are the ways that God nurtures faith in us. Being present in worship, reading the Bible, praying, receiving communion, spending time in spiritual conversation, doing acts of mercy, singing songs of faith, and fasting -- a self-denial that reminds us of our dependence on God and our blessings. The more we do these things, the more our faith tends to grow.
Christian music stations have begun issuing a “30 Day Challenge” at the beginning of each new year. The challenge is to listen only to Christian music for a month and then consider how that makes a difference. Each year there are testimonies of people who have felt their faith greatly strengthened by specifically listening, intentionally listening to music of faith. What we listen to: music, books on CD, television -- it all pours messages in our ears and it matters. Listen -- attend --to things that will tend to nurture your faith.
Christian Conversation appears to be a lost art. We are much more accustomed to complaining and gossiping. Talking about our faith has become uncomfortable. But doing so, including asking other people of faith to pray for us, will increase our faith. It reminds us that we are not alone -- and that Faith Matters deserve our attention. While, “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” may always be easier than, “How is it with your soul?” we do find that we feel more deeply connected when we share our vulnerability with each other. And there is no deeper honor than being asked to pray for someone.
We KNOW we should read the Bible more. We WANT to WANT TO
read it. But how do we get started? It’s true that much seems out of
touch with our lives -- this is at least 2000 years old. Much older than
Shakespeare or Chaucer, so no wonder we have trouble with some
of it. Newer translations help, of course. But here’s why the Bible
helps us: it is the story of people of faith who struggled with similar
life issues to the ones we face: uncertainty, grief, conflict….etc. And
while their responses may be a bit different -- marrying one’s brother
in law while grieving the loss of a spouse, or stoning a mouthy
teenager are no longer our solutions -- there are passages that speak
our experience when we have no words. AND -- sometimes their
experience puts our own in perspective. After all, an elderly Abraham and Sarah moving with herds across the desert to place they’ve never been has stifled complaints about the stress of moving all of my life. No, moving is not a picnic -- but it isn’t moving over 80 on foot across the desert to a place you’ve never been . Mic drop.
We develop wings of faith… by attending on the THINGS of faith. By putting ourselves in the way of God’s working in us, actively cooperating with God in our faith development. By giving God time and our attention to work in us.
YES, our faith falters sometimes. We forget to attend to God in the middle of the LIFE STUFF. And faith is what we need for strength and hope in the middle of that LIFE STUFF. God will do the work -- but we have to allow for time and attention for God to be at work in us, nurturing our faith. God is there. God does not abandon. And this is important. St Paul says that it is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing.
8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes 12 through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (Phil 3: 8-9)
Let us grow the faith that will give us the wings to fly. AMEN.