Monday, August 8, 2016

Wavering Faith

One of my favorite bible verses is found in the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 29, verse 11:

“I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for welfare and not calamity, to give you a future and a hope.”

It has instilled in me a belief that a generous God has a purpose for my life.  Even in the midst of difficulties and disappointments it fosters in me a sense I can trust in the goodness of life and be hopeful about what is to come.  At the core of who I am this is the essence of what I would call “my faith.”  It is not very complicated, really.  It is grounded in an idea and determines everything about how I live my life on a day-to-day basis.

This morning we read about Abraham – the bible’s exemplar of faith.  The Lord comes to him in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid.”  God seeks to dispel three fears.  The first is a fear of God: “Do not be afraid of Me!”  The second is a fear based on present circumstances: “I am your shield.”  The third is fear of what might happen in the future: “Your reward will be great.”  It is the third fear which vexes Abraham most.  He says to God, “It doesn’t matter what you will give me because I am childless.”  God promises Abraham’s descendants will be more numerous than the stars.  Abraham believes him.  He will move forward grounding his life on this promise. 

One biblical scholar states Abraham demonstrates his faith by trusting enough in the future God has planned that he quits trying to control the present.  This may be what faith looks like, but it is not exactly a picture of who Abraham is… at least not all the time.  Thirteen years will pass before old Abe and even older Sarah will be blessed with a son.  In the mean time, at different times, they will become impatient or anxious or puzzled and will hatch different plans to “control their present”.   

Harry Emerson Fosdick, the great preacher of the early 20th Century, said this:

There are “three sorts of folk.  There are the utter disbelievers.  They will have none of religion.  It is to them superstition and credulity, and God is as much a myth as the devils of an African witch doctor.  But there are not many such.  There are the great believers, who have grown up into a luminous and convincing life with God like St. Theresa who said that in her heart she had an experience so beautiful that one drop of it, falling on hell, would turn it into Paradise.  But there are not many such.  Between these two groups are the masses of people.  They are not utter disbelievers and they are not glorious believers.  Their faith is hesitant, uncertain, unsatisfying, sporadic.  ‘Lord,’ they say, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’”

I place myself firmly in the company of the masses.  At times, my faith in God’s plan for my well-being is hesitant, uncertain, unsatisfying, and sporadic.  I know I am not alone.  I sense most of you are with me.  Abraham is with us too. 

If faith looks like trusting enough in the future God promises to quit trying to control the present, then what does the opposite look like?  What does a lack of faith look like?  It can manifest itself in the classic form of worry or anxiety.  If God promises welfare, then worrying about what is to come is an expression of doubt. 

There is a more subtle way faithlessness reveals itself.  Doubting the welfare God plans can manifest itself through efforts to create what you think your welfare should look like.  “I will determine what is best for me and I will make it happen.”  Every self-destructive behavior is rooted in this single idea.  “I do not like where I am and I have no faith in where I am headed, so I will – you fill in the blank here: over-work, over-eat, over-drink, over-shop, self-medicate, become promiscuous…” 

Doubting in God’s promise for the future also can look like negativity about today.  Do you know someone who is always critical, for whom nothing is ever good enough?  Do you know a person for whom the glass is always half empty and the half that is there always tastes awful?  Do you ever find yourself thinking these kinds of thoughts?  They are signs your faith in God’s promised future is wavering. 

However, these are not signs you are a bad person.  They point to the simple truth that you are human.  We live with the tension of what God promises and what we experience.  Faith can be a challenge and along with death and taxes there is another certainty: if you have faith there will come a time when it will be tested.  

A sailor survived a shipwreck and washed up on the shore of a small, uninhabited island.  He prayed zealously for God to rescue him, but day after day passed and no help came.  As time went by he managed to collect enough driftwood to build a shelter that afforded him some protection against the elements.  One day he returned from scavenging for supplies and discovered his hut in flames with smoke billowing high into the sky.  Everything he had worked for was lost.  His faith in God was shattered and he cried out in anger, “How could you let this happen to me?  Why don’t you answer my prayers?”  He fell asleep that night on the beach, feeling as low as at any point in his life.  He was awaken early the morning by the sound of a ship’s horn.  How did they know he was there?  They saw the smoke from the shelter’s fire and decided to investigate.

We all get discouraged when things are not going our way.  It is so easy to lose heart, to get down, and to feel sorry for ourselves.  And there are times when no one can blame us for getting angry at God for the way things are.  When you are in a place like this always remember God’s promise to Abraham was not conditional in Abraham having an unwavering faith.  God’s promises rests in God alone.  There may be a time when your hut is on fire and you have reached the end of your rope.  Having faith in God’s goodness will be the last thing on your mind.  But God’s promise to you still holds, even if you can’t hold on to it at that moment. 

Jesus’ language in today’s reading from the gospel, with all of its be ready and stay alert imagery, hints at how easy it is to lose heart and to lose faith.  His message is basic: Get back in the game of life.  Do what you must do to right yourself.  Pray.  Worship.  Do something to help someone else.  God came to Abraham in a vision when he was childless.  You may not like where you are right now.  You may not like what looks to be in store for you down the road, but Jesus promises he will come to you and he promises his promise is will happen.

“I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for welfare and not calamity, to give you a future and a hope.”