Friday, December 20, 2013


In Luke 18, Jesus told a story about two men praying in the Temple.  One prayed aloud for everyone to hear, thanking God that he was so blessed as to not be like other sinners gathered around him, especially that tax collector hiding in the corner.  Meanwhile, that very same tax collector quietly weeped and confessed, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner."  Jesus praised the prayer and the attitude of the repentant tax collector over the prayer of the righteous show-off.

Most of the time, we think about this parable as a lesson about humility in faith.  Today, though, the parable strikes me as a warning, a warning against superstars.

Centuries from now, when the history of Christianity is updated to tell the story of this millennium, I sincerely doubt the interview of a reality TV star in GQ will even make the footnotes.  Nor, I imagine, will the starting status of Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin in New York sports, the 2012 sales figures for Chick Fil A, or the number of seasons "Touched By an Angel" was on television.  However, these issues have again and again mobilized (American) Christians over the years to rise up in anger and protest.  There was a time when the theological discussions that dominated culture as well as the church were questions about whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son or just the Father.  Now, Christians rise to keep Phil Robertson on "Duck Dynasty."

I would hate to see the creed that movement spawns.

I understand it.  Faith is so often equated with weakness, failure, and ignorance that, as Christians, we are ready to trumpet any and every success story where men and women of faith are still able to find worldly success.  I even understand the desire to come along side a brother or sister who is being persecuted and stand with them, defend them from what we believe to be unjust persecution.  I get that.

However, I believe that too often, in cases like this, the focus of so much of Christian passion and motivation becomes protecting status rather than encouraging faithfulness.  In 2012, in the midst of the Chick Fil A controversy, what call went out to Christians?  Go eat at Chick Fil A.  Show all those people that Chick Fil A can still be successful and be faithful.  But the emphasis was on their success. 

Today, I have already seen the online petitions to boycott A&E until they allow Phil to return to "Duck Dynasty".  I am just waiting for the call for all Christians to grow beards and wear camo as a show of their support.  And when he returns, as I am sure he will, it will be trumpeted as a success of Christians uniting to make a difference.  And what will be the difference we will have made?  Phil Robertson will be back on TV.

We are so concerned about protecting our superstars, that we even mobilize for fights that nobody else showed up for.  I remember years ago walking into the Fellowship Hall of the church where I was serving to see, pinned up on the bulletin board, a petition to save the television show "Touched by an Angel" from a atheist-initiated resolution before the FCC calling for the show's immediate cancellation.  The petition already had a dozen or more signatures on it.  Within 30 minutes, I had confirmed not only was there no such resolution, but that the supposed author of said resolution had died long before the show even came on the air. 

Many Christians, were they in the Temple of Jesus' parable, would have been right there behind the self-righteous, flamboyant Pharisee saying, "Yes, indeed, this guy really does have it all.  We need to make sure that he keeps it."  This guy was the superstar, and many of us would be ready to make sure he stayed a superstar, thinking that our ability to keep him successful was a win for us all. 

I know there are plenty of people who say that this is not about protecting superstars but about defending freedom of speech.  This is about refusing to be silenced as Christians.  This is about living out our faith without compromise.  So here is my question:  what will victory look like?  Interesting enough, Jesus said that the heavenly hosts break into celebration not when the quarterback kneels in the end zone after scoring the touchdown but when one who had turned away from the love of God returns to His arms.  Jesus said we are not blessed by being the #1 television show.  As a matter of fact, what he said was, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:10-12). 

I wonder if everyone who is up in arms about the "persecution" of Phil Robertson ever considered being thankful for the blessing.  (Sorry for the quotation marks, but somehow I have a hard time equating this kerfuffle to the plight of Christians who, in some places in the world today, would be put to death if their faith was known).

It is easy to buy our chicken nuggets, turn off our televisions, and say, "That'll show them."  But what exactly what will we have shown them?  I am not sure, but I feel pretty confident what we will not show them is the mercy of God that tax collector in the back of the Temple was pleading for. Tax collectors in Jesus' day were pretty successful guys.  Along with the income they earned from the government, they usually charged a little extra to keep for themselves.  The tax collector had it all, but he knew it was mercy, it was God, that he needed most in his life.  It's there, in the back of the Temple, that the victory is found.

I am not against success.  I do think it is great that there are people of wealth and power who live a Christ-like witness day in and day out.  They, just as every believer who does unto the least of these, can look forward to that day when they will hear, "Well done, my good and faithful servant, now enter into the joy of your master."  These people who are blessed with great spheres of influence are in as much need of support, encouragement, and love as any other member of the body of Christ.  However, I think we should remember that their place in the body of Christ is more important than their salary and their popularity.

Some will read this and think I am calling Christians to go back into their little corners and sit quietly.  As a matter of fact, I would love to see the exact opposite.  We need to speak in a time such as this.  We need to speak about a biblical view of sexuality.  We need to speak about how Christians should live in a non-Christian culture.  We need to speak about sin, grace, forgiveness, and holiness.  We need to speak about the authority of Scripture and the witness of God's work in history.  We need to speak about salvation and evangelism.  We need to speak about humility.  There is a lot we need be talking about right now, and there is a whole lot more listening we ought to be doing too (I believe the book of James has some good advice there).  Probably should throw some confession and repentance in there as well.  And prayer.  Lots of prayer. 

Maybe we start with this great prayer I heard in the back of the Temple.

"Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Be Afraid

This morning I went over to the YMCA to get some exercise before I came into the office. I chose to start my routine on the eliptical machine. I love this machine because of the intense workout I get; however, it’s placement meant I was stuck looking at a wall of television sets. Most mornings I don’t mind – I catch up on my Sportscenter while I work out. However, this morning, the TVs were all tuned to the various morning news shows. On one TV, a Republican presidential candidate was telling the interviewer that, if President Obama was reelected, disaster and mayhem was soon to follow. At the same time, on another TV, a Democratic Senator was saying that if the Republicans won the White House, disaster and mayhem would follow.

Gotta love an election year. As for me, I closed my eyes, turned on my iPod, and listened to Steven Curtis Chapman.

The next few months, the voting public will be inundated with doom and gloom messages of what will happen if “the other side” wins. I sometimes feel like we are told less about what and who we are voting for and more about what our vote could prevent from happening. In a day and age when so many are living with daily uncertainty about their jobs, their children’s education, and unrest all over the world, the politics of fear seems to be the tool of choice for motivating voters to get to the polls.

As I listened to Steven Curtis Chapman on my iPod singing about God’s love and grace, it got me to thinking: does God have anything to say to a world that is constantly told, “Be afraid, be very afraid”?

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? – Psalm 27:1

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” – Luke 2:10-11

Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you … - 1 Peter 3:14-15

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. – 1 John 4:18-19

Obviously we will all be making choices when we reach the poll booth this year. However, there are even more important choices that we must make each and every day. Will we choose fear, or will choose salvation, joy, hope, and love? God has given us another option to fear, and Christ is the fulfillment of that option.

We have an opportunity as the body of Christ to change the conversation, to change the attitude of society. We can let Christ be our light and salvation, we can bring good news of great joy to all people, we can give an account of our hope in Christ, we can love as Christ loved us. These are the most important choices we will make this year and any year.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Our Response

So it has been a little while ... OK, a long while, since I blogged. It is amazing how time gets away. Still, I found myself with some thoughts that needed expression, so here I am. I would love to do this more, but just never seem to find the time.

Enough whining.

The last 2 days have been somewhat troubling or disturbing, and I feel that to admit that would cause some to question my patriotism or even my moral compass. Certainly, Osama bin Laden planned and committed evil atrocities that are so reprehensible that it would seem impossible that a human being could consider such thoughts. And I do believe that justice has been served, and I am grateful to the men and women who have spent years seeking to bring him to justice.

My discomfort comes from the celebration.

People lining the streets and celebrating the way people do when their favorite sports team wins a championship. Some of the facebook posts that pop up in my news feed. Even watching "Dancing with the Stars" last night and hearing one liners about the events of this past Sunday. Something about it just seems ... off.

Perhaps it is because we have just emerged from Easter, the celebration of resurrection, the announcement of new life. "Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O death, is thy sting?" I always remember one of my seminary professors who said, quite bluntly, "Death is never our friend. Death is the enemy." Isn't our Christian hope that death has been overcome? It seems unnerving to me then to celebrate a death, to celebrate a killing when I have so recently mourned on Good Friday the suffering of the cross and celebrated death's defeat on Easter.

Jesus said, "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." No, I didn't love Osama bin Laden. I hated him. I hated the death and destruction he caused. But does my justifiable hate somehow excuse me from the command of Christ, to love my enemy and pray for my persecutor? Can I do such while throwing a party that says, "I'm glad you are dead"?

A friend posted a passage on Facebook, Ezekiel 18:23. I went and looked it up and read the whole passage. Very interesting.

"Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die. Yet you say, 'The way of the Lord is unfair.' Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they have committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, 'The way of the Lord is unfair.' O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?"

When I read this, I thought back 10 years to scenes of people celebrating in the streets in certain parts of the world after 9/11. We were disgusted. We asked, "How could you celebrate such a thing?" I wonder if we ought not ask that same question now of ourselves as a country. Death is the enemy. That is why someone like Osama bin Laden, who willingly and intentionally brought death, was the enemy. I fear the slope to that level is slippery if we celebrate death the way we have in recent days. Justice has been served; we are grateful that (hopefully) the destructive work of one man has been brought to an end. We should make sure that we do not turn from righteousness and become guilty of the same wickedness to which we fell victim.

I don't question the events of Sunday. I question our response. But maybe that is too far beyond my scope. As I look back at Ezekiel, maybe the response I should be questioning is mine.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Living with Jebusites

"I don't like church. Church people are a bunch of hypocrites."

"Church would be great if it weren't for all the people."

I could probably list a dozen or so more variations of the same sentiment. All of them are pretty harsh sounding. What is even more harsh is that these words are spoken at times by Christians, including even pastors.

A buddy of mine posted a link to an Alban Institute article up on Facebook that cites a USA Today story stating that a decreasing number of young adults born in the 1980's or 1990's view the church as a place to make a difference or develop leadership skills. I haven't read all the way through the article yet, but that statement seems to very much strike a chord with the sentiments I quoted at the beginning.

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself in a "woe is me" kind of place, able to list all the things that are wrong with church and the ministry, considering that there had to be something better. Then my wife asked the question: "What else would you do?"

Today I was reading in the book of Joshua. It is in a rather boring part of Joshua, where the text is detailing the boundaries of each of the 12 tribes portions of the Promised Land. I found myself skimming over a whole lot of names that just don't really carry a lot of meaning for me. Then I found myself at Joshua 15:63, "But the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day."

Those words struck me. Here the children of Israel find themselves in the land flowing with milk and honey, the Promised Land that God had given to them to be theirs. The book of Joshua tells of numerous victories Israel enjoyed on the battlefield, sometimes facing difficult odds. Life would seem like it couldn't get any better. And then, "But the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah to this day." Even life in the Promised Land was not perfect.

It seems to me that we spend a lot of time lot bemoaning the parts of our life, our jobs, our families, our homes, our chores, and our churches that we would rather live without. We pour a lot of effort, with good and right intentions, on improving things and making things better. However, sometimes, we find ourselves disappointed after all of our struggles and battles that there are still some nuisances that we want out that we haven't been able to uproot. I wonder, in our striving for perfection, do we allow the frustrations of what we have to put up with to keep us from learning how to live with what we would rather live without? As I thought about it, I thought it was pretty impressive that the Israelites, who had gained so many victories by the sword, had to figure out how to live with a people rather than run them out.

Am I saying that we should not seek to change what is wrong in our institutions and in our lives, that we should simply quit whining and put up with it? No. But what I am saying is that the presence of what we would rather live without need not keep us from living in the promise of God. Just because life or family or church or ministry or work is not as perfect as it could be does not mean there is not sweet milk and honey still to enjoy and share. There are some things that we would rather live without that we sometimes need to figure out how to live with.

It's pretty easy to get jaded about church and about ministry, and there are a lot of good reasons to get jaded by either or both, reasons that need to be addressed and changed. Still, there is milk and honey to enjoy, even if we have to enjoy them while living with Jebusites.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Getting Out of Micah's House

Judges 17 tells the story of Micah, a man who steals 1100 pieces of silver from his mother and then returns the silver in fear of the curse that she put on the person who stole the silver. That may sound like the whole story, but that is actually just the beginning. Judges skips past telling us all the juicy details: why did he steal the money, what were the details of the curse, etc. Instead, Judges focuses on the mother's instructions after the son returns the silver: he is to take the silver and create an idol out of it.

Now, for most ancient Israelites (and for us preachers who are preaching through the 10 Commandments right now), this sent off all kinds of alarm bells. The second commandment specifically states that God forbids the creation of idols or "graven images". However, this story is just getting started.

Micah builds the silver idol and places it in his home. The scene then shifts to a nameless Levite in Bethlehem who grows bored of Bethlehem and sets out to find some new place to live. This Levite finds himself at the home of Micah. Micah invites this Levite to become his personal priest. Now remember, the Levites were the tribe charged with leadership in the worship of God. The book of Leviticus is filled with all the regulations the priests had to be sure to follow to insure proper worship of God by Israel. One would suppose a good Levite would refuse Micah's offer, especially upon discovering the silver idol in Micah's house. However, the Levite accepts Micah's offer and settles in to Micah's house. Judges 17 closes with Micah saying, "Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest."

In preaching this past Sunday, I stated that at the core of the second commandment is a restriction of our desire to control how God will be God in our lives. Micah's story and his closing words are case study #1 in why the second commandment is so important. I read a story on yesterday that talked about the growing number of people in the United States who identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious". As I read this story I realized how much we want to make faith about us. We want faith's purpose, like Micah, to be personally prospering, and that desire impacts how we practice our faith. The problem becomes that such a desire ends up limiting God. God ends up being as big as our house rather than the eternal, universal God of creation.

I'll be the first to admit that I understand why people reject religion for spirituality. The organized structure of Christian faith has done much to overshadow the good news of salvation with the burden of guilt, power, greed, and hatred. There have been plenty of times when I have wanted to flee the Church and embrace personal spirituality, just me and God. However, what we often don't see is that often our pursuit of a relationship that is just me and God really ends up being just me. We tend to soften the prophetic aspect of faith that calls us outside of ourselves and reminds us of God's holiness and the brokeness of the world, all because we believe that our faith should be that which keeps us comfortable. We create our own images of God and, at times, even hire our own personal priests who will tell us only what we want to hear. If anything, the 10 Commandments remind us that faith is a covenant between God and His people, and that covenant is intended to be beneficial for both parties. God's people are set free and allowed to enjoy that freedom so that God's name might be honored by all people. That sounds very different from a faith that one person in the story on CNN described as "Burger King faith - you can have it your way."

Being the body of Christ, practicing faith as part of a larger community, is a struggle for sure. It is a struggle because we are imperfect people. However, it is also a struggle because it forces us to hear other voices that differ from ours. It forces us to consider that our way of looking at things is not the only way and may not be the right way. It forces us to consider that our faith is ultimately in God who is bigger than our individual worlds and individual lives. I guess you could say that what makes it so hard to be the community of Christ is what reminds us of how great our God is.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Do We Feel Better?

I thought I would reprint the text of the sermon here. Feel free to comment as you feel led.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to consider this question: “Is faith a placebo?” This morning, I would like to share my answer to that question.

Within the question we find two terms that perhaps require further clarification: faith and placebo. What do these two terms mean?

For a definition of faith, we turn to Hebrews 11:1, where we are told, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

For a definition of placebo, we turn to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, where we are told that a placebo is “a medication prescribed more for the mental relief of the patient than for its actual effect on his disorder; something tending to soothe.”

So, based on these definitions, it seems to me that this issue which I was asked to take up is really two separate but related questions: Is the assurance of what we hope for and the belief in what we cannot see soothing? Is this really the purpose of faith: to make us feel better?

In answering the first question, personal experience and the testimony of other believers would seem to indicate that the answer is “yes”. Within this very space this morning are the testimonies of those who have shared with me how their faith was a comfort to them in the face of extremely trying times. Believing that God forgives soothes the guilt of the repentant heart. Believing that God is everlasting soothes the grief of the one who has lost a loved one in death. Even in our worship, whether we are singing that it is well with our soul when sorrows like sea billows roll or that we are trading our sorrows for the joy of the Lord, we affirm that our faith comforts us.

Our use of Scripture even reflects the comfort that our faith provides. Consider what are probably the two most well-known passages of Scripture: The 23rd Psalm - “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me besid the still waters. He restoreth my soul” and John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Why do these passages resonate so strongly with us that many can recite these words from memory even if they are not familiar with any other Scripture? Is it because these 2 passages resonate so powerfully with a message of comfort – in the 23rd Psalm, a promise for today that God will restore our souls, and in John 3:16, a promise for tomorrow that in Christ we have the assurance of everlasting life? Are there any two promises that do more to put our mind at ease than these 2?

Jesus himself teaches us that it is His desire that faith would result in our being soothed. In Matthew 11, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus here makes the bold pronouncement that coming to Him in faith can lead to our souls finding that restoration that Psalm 23 speaks of. Almost every funeral I officiate, I start by reading these words because I think we should be reminded that our Lord and our God does desire to give us rest.

So then, as I consider the first question - Is the assurance of what we hope for and the belief in what we cannot see soothing? – I feel that the answer to this question, both Biblically and experientially, is “Yes”. So then, what of the 2nd question: is this the purpose of faith – to make us feel better? When I look back at the original question and the definitions that I put forth at the beginning, I am struck that a placebo, from a medical perspective, is not intended to deal with the health problem itself. It is instead designed to make the person mentally and emotionally feel better while not actually dealing with the actual health problem that is causing the mental and emotional strain in the first place. Is this what faith is? Is faith that which allows us to maintain sanity in a broken world, without ever addressing the brokeness itself?

In my experience, it is at this question that many find themselves polarized. At one pole, we find Karl Marx. Marx is the famous author of The Communist Manifesto, yet perhaps his most wellknown quote is not found in his most well-known work. In an essay entitled Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx wrote: Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.” Marx argued that religion was a crutch that encouraged the poor to be satisfied with surviving in poverty. Marx called on the people to toss aside religion and a fake sense of security in order to work to change their circumstances and know true happiness. While Marx’s thoughts on religion have come to be wrapped up in the economic and politcal realities of communism, in truth Marx states what many think and say who have nothing to do with communism. At this pole, faith is spiritual Valuum, numbing our senses to the causes of suffering so that we can bear to face each day. Faith is a mode of survival, of grinning and bearing it. While it would be easy to assume that this pole is surrounded by enemies of religion, let us realize that there are a good number of Christians who live at this pole as well. Faith is the escape from their problems, it is the buzz of the mountaintop experience, and they desire nothing else than to keep the spiritual high going.

At the other pole, opposite Karl Marx and those who see faith as a drug or an escape, is Benny Hinn. Hinn is the well-known TV evangelist who performs “faith healings”. Hinn and others like him have long been dogged by questions about how many healings they have actually performed and whether or not people stay healed. Hinn, and other faith healers, are quick to argue that if someone is not healed, it is because of a lack of faith on their part. Others have built on this idea, teaching a prosperity gospel that says, “If you have enough faith, God will make you wealthy.” At this pole, you find those who argue that the amount of faith we have is directly related to the amount our circumstances can change. Whether we are sick or healthy, rich or poor is dependent on our faith, seemingly spoken of more in quantitative than qualitative terms. Faith is not just about feeling good; faith can change our circumstances for the better or for the worse. And while it would be easy to assume that mostly religious people gather around this pole, the truth is that we would find a good number of people gathered at this pole that we would not call religious at first glance. Inevitably there are those who make the argument against faith that the suffering of believers is evidence that God is not real. This argument is based on the idea that faith should keep us from needing to be soothed.

At one pole, all faith does is make us feel better because it is powerless to change our difficult circumstances. At the other pole, faith doesn’t need to provide comfort because true faith should remove all that causes us to suffer. Are we left to choose between these two, or to define our position somewhere in the vast spectrum in between?

I don’t believe so. I believe there is another way, another perspective. This morning, I want to conclude by laying out a third answer for your consideration. This third answer begins, I believe, with understanding a basic principle about God

In Habakkkuk 2, the prophet commends the righteous for living by faith and condemns the rich and the proud for seeking to live solely by what is tangible. In verses 18-19, the prophet describes the idols that this second group ends up creating. What use is an idol once its maker has shaped it— a cast image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in what has been made, though the product is only an idol that cannot speak! Alas for you who say to the wood, “Wake up!” to silent stone, “Rouse yourself!” Can it teach? See, it is gold and silver plated, and there is no breath in it at all. The problem with living without faith is that we end up chasing after fallible creations that are not alive, that cannot speak and teach. They cannot challenge or create. All the while, Habakkuk says in verse 20, “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” While the idols of man lie silent before their creators, the Creator of the Universe lives, and all are invited to stop and listen to Him who is wholly other than us yet is alone able to relate to us.

The reality that Habakkuk was reminding Israel of in the face of the Babylonian threat is the same idea that the 19th century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard would remind the Protestant church: God is different from humanity. God is personal, holy, and transcendent, whereas humans are finite, dependent , and sinful. This vast difference between humanity and God makes it nearly impossible to know and understand God in the same way we know and understand what the weather is outside. The only way to know God, Kierkegaard argued, was to leave the objective position of observer and take the risk of becoming a participant in a relationship with God. This risk is what Kierkegaard identified as faith. When we read Hebrews 11:1 and the definition of faith, what we find is comfort held in tension with risk. Yes, we hear of assurance and conviction, but Hebrews 11 also reminds us that we are talking of what we hope for and what we cannot see. Faith cannot escape the call to take a risk, and taking a risk is never comfortable. In fact, when we try to make it more comfortable, we end up building idols that we can touch and see but that can’t speak and have no life in them to do anything. When we try to remove the risk, we ultimately remove the relationship.

However, when we can embrace the uncomfortability of the risk, we open the door for the reception of assurance and conviction. The author of Hebrews goes on after verse 1 to lay out the “Faith Hall of Fame”. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses – these and so many more are praised for what they accomplished “by faith”. However, as I read through this Hall of Fame, an interesting observation arises. In verse 7, we are told that “By faith, Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household.” Verse 11 says, “By faith [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised”. In these instances we see that faith either inspired a man to make a change, in the case of Noah, or inspired a man to receive a change, in the case of Abraham. However, in verse 9, we are told, “By faith [Abraham] stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents”. The other 2 verses show Noah and Abraham’s circumstances being changed for the better. However, in verse 9, Abraham’s faith is praised because he was willing to live as a guest in his own home. It was his land, but he was forced to live in it as a stranger. In some cases faith is connected with change, while in other cases, faith is connected with living amid unchanging difficult circumstances.

This then, it seems to me, is the third way: faith is taking an uncomfortable risk that an Almighty God will prepare us to live with whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. Faith is risking to believe that God can overcome evil with good, while also risking to believe that God can endow the good with endurance to withstand the persecution of evil. Faith means we are not satisfied with a broken creation and seek to change it as God equips us to do so, while at the same time believing that there is comfort for the broken until the day when God’s kingdom comes and all is made new. The poles of Karl Marx and Benny Hinn put the impetus of faith on humanity: at one pole, humanity must toss aside faith in order to truly change the world. At the other pole, the only way God can work is if humanity acquires enough faith. In both cases, faith centers on us. Hebrews 11 calls us to take the risk to center faith on God, the mysterious and hidden Lord. Yet, in taking that risk, a whole new world is opened to us, and we are able to find the assurance and the conviction that is beyond our grasp when we settle for our own efforts.

Is faith a placebo? Certainly faith provides to us a message of comfort in anxious and troubled times. It soothes the heart and the soul when the storm clouds are gathering. However, faith is not just a happy pill. Faith dares to invite God into the trouble, into the storm with us. There was a time when Christ spoke to the storm and it ceased. There was another time when Christ walked on the water in the midst of the storm and invited Peter to walk with him. Did either one prove him more or less God? This is faith: risking to believe God is with us in the storm, whether he causes it to cease or invites us to walk with him through it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


During my first week of seminary, we were divided into small groups and we were asked to share our answers to the following question: "If you were going to be traveling cross country in a car with no radio, who are the other 3 people you want riding in the car with you?" I have been trying to remember the three people I picked, but I can only remember 2: Mark Twain and Robin Williams. I do remember the thought process behind my answer. I decided I wanted people who would tell good stories and keep my laughing.

When I think back on it, what we seminary students were really being asked was this: what conversations would you really like to be a part of? This question has come to roost in my soul again in recent weeks. It started when I was traveling with the Baptist Student Union on their Spring Break mission trip to Charleston, SC. We were traveling by van and everybody had brought their own books, iPods, and pillows to pass the time with. However, both in the journey to Charleston and the journey home, several of us ended up engaging in conversations that touched on such topics as the meaning and purpose of education, the best (and worst) books and novels we had ever read, and the theology and practice of sabbath. I think all of us who took part in the conversation found ourselves better off for having been a part of it. I know I have already pulled "A Tale of Two Cities" off my book shelf to start reading based on the comments of several folks from that conversation.

I wonder if we ever stop to consider the true power and impact of our communal conversation that digs below "small talk" and tackles real wrestlings and dialogue. While attending Elon University's convocation service, I learned that Phi Beta Kappa was started by 5 students at the College of William and Mary who met at a pub off campus to discuss the higher issues of learning. In his book C.S. Lewis: Life at the Center, Perry Bramlett tells the story of the Inklings. This was a group of authors and thinkers who met twice a week at an Oxford pub and in Lewis' college office to discuss politics, books and religion. The unofficial membership of the Inklings included C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkien as well as other notable authors and theologians. The discussions of the Inklings would often work their way into the writings of these men, thus carrying their influence beyond the pub and the university to millions of others.

Throughout the history of mankind and Christianity, revelation and inspiration have come when people have joined together to talk and listen to one another, to think through and discuss and debate the deeper issues of life and faith. In these days of Twitter and tea parties, of talk shows and time-cramped schedules, I wonder if we are ignoring the possibilities of talking to one another to focus on talking at one another.

As I write these words, my thoughts are beginning to turn to a panel discussion I have been invited to participate in this coming Sunday night. Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church has invited me and several other ministers to come and be a part of an ecumenical discussion among senior high youth in our area about the different Christian denominations. The youth will ask the questions, and we ministers will respond and dialogue with the youth about the various issues that arise. I am excited and grateful to have been invited to this conversation. Perhaps, in our dialogue, a better picture of the "body of Christ" will emerge for all of us to consider.

What conversations do you want to be a part of?