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 –
1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
2 This is what the ancients were commended for.
3 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.
8 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.
9 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.
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.
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.
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!