The Good Life

Faith

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Hebrews 11:1-3, 13-16; 12:1-2
Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
January 11 2015

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Tags: Baptism, Church, Education, Faith, Hebrews, Humility, Meaning, Prayer, Virtue

On Wednesday morning before I began writing my sermon this week, I was browsing Facebook and some friend of mine posted an article with interesting and surprising insights on prayer.  Surprising because it was a column from The Village Voice, not generally known as a source of religious inspiration.  Further surprising is that this was an advice column written by the hard rocker Andrew W. K.  Again, not the normal source for spiritual advice.

Andrew W. K. was responding to a letter from a reader seeking advice.  Here is the original letter from the reader:

Hey, Andrew.

Thanks for doing what you do and helping people. I’m going to make this short and to the point. My older brother was diagnosed with cancer last week. My whole family is freaking out and trying to deal with the news. Everyone is trying to find different ways to help, but something my grandmother said has really got me angry. She said we should all just “pray for my brother,” like prayer would actually save his life. Just thinking about it now makes my fists clench with frustration. We need to actively help my brother and do actual things to save him, not kneeling on the ground and mumbling superstitious nonsense. I got into a fight with my grandmother and the rest of my family about this and now I feel worse than ever. I need to get them to see that praying and religious mumbo jumbo doesn’t help. How do I explain this to them?

Thanks for reading this,
Not Gonna Pray

What the hard rock advice columnist wrote in response was simply one of the best explanations of prayer that I’ve ever read.  He wrote, “I think the idea of ‘praying’ is a lot less complicated, a lot more powerful, and a little different than you may realize.”  He then went on to explain:  More

On Wednesday morning before I began writing my sermon this week, I was browsing Facebook and some friend of mine posted an article with interesting and surprising insights on prayer.  Surprising because it was a column from The Village Voice, not generally known as a source of religious inspiration.  Further surprising is that this was an advice column written by the hard rocker Andrew W. K.  Again, not the normal source for spiritual advice.

Andrew W. K. was responding to a letter from a reader seeking advice.  Here is the original letter from the reader:

Hey, Andrew.

Thanks for doing what you do and helping people. I’m going to make this short and to the point. My older brother was diagnosed with cancer last week. My whole family is freaking out and trying to deal with the news. Everyone is trying to find different ways to help, but something my grandmother said has really got me angry. She said we should all just “pray for my brother,” like prayer would actually save his life. Just thinking about it now makes my fists clench with frustration. We need to actively help my brother and do actual things to save him, not kneeling on the ground and mumbling superstitious nonsense. I got into a fight with my grandmother and the rest of my family about this and now I feel worse than ever. I need to get them to see that praying and religious mumbo jumbo doesn’t help. How do I explain this to them?

Thanks for reading this,
Not Gonna Pray

What the hard rock advice columnist wrote in response was simply one of the best explanations of prayer that I’ve ever read.  He wrote, “I think the idea of ‘praying’ is a lot less complicated, a lot more powerful, and a little different than you may realize.”  He then went on to explain: 

Prayer is a type of thought. It’s a lot like meditation — a type of very concentrated mental focus with passionate emotion directed towards a concept or situation, or the lack thereof. But there’s a special X-factor ingredient that makes “prayer” different than meditation or other types of thought. That X-factor is humility. This is the most seemingly contradictory aspect of prayer and what many people dislike about the feeling of praying. “Getting down on your knees” is not about lowering your power or being a weakling, it’s about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence — it’s about being humble in the presence of the vastness of life, space, and sensation, and acknowledging our extremely limited understanding of what it all really means.

Andrew W. K. went on to explain that prayer is a form of “selfless awareness” in which we accept the limits of our own knowledge and power.  He wrote, “It takes a deeper type of strength to admit to ourselves that we don’t have it all figured out than to run around keeping all our plates spinning. It seems strange to think that turning yourself over to your own bewilderment would actually bring clarity, but it does. Solving this riddle is the beginning of any true spiritual journey.”

He then advised the reader to go pray for his brother, to

Think about him more than you’ve ever thought about anyone before. Think about him more deeply and with more detail than you’ve ever thought about anything. Think about how incredible it is that you have a brother — that he exists at all. Focus on him until you feel like your soul is going to burst. Tell him in your heart and soul that you love him. Feel that love pouring out of you from all sides. Then get up and go be with him and your family. And you can tell your grandmother that you prayed for your brother.

 

Faith is “the dynamic, patterned process by which we find life meaningful”—this according to psychologist James Fowler who wrote the book on faith development.  Faith is how we find meaning and purpose in life, despite circumstances which might otherwise lead us to cynicism.  Fowler wrote that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but nihilism—the view that the world has no meaning, that everything is random and, likely, absurd.

Faith is a virtue.  This season we are looking into the virtues as part of a series I’m calling “The Good Life.”  Last week we discussed hope, and justice is up next week.  But what type of virtue is faith?  How can we cultivate habits of faithfulness?  How does faith lead to goodness and joy?

James Fowler goes on to explain that faith is “a verb; it is an active mode of being and committing, a way of moving into and giving shape to our experiences of life.”  He says that you can determine what a person has faith in by seeing how they answer questions such as “What commands and receives your best time, your best energy?” or “What are the most sacred hopes, the most compelling goals and purposes in your life?”

Jesus taught that faith is “an act of trust and of self-abandonment by which people no longer rely on their own strength . . . but commit themselves to the power and guiding word of” God (this according to a really good Wikipedia article). The Letter to the Hebrews connects faith with perseverance.  In the midst of all the things that happen in our lives, the faithful person is the one who perseveres in finding meaning beyond ourselves.  The person who remains in that humble state, admitting the limits to their own knowledge, power, and control.  In other words, not the person with all the answers, but the one willing to embrace the mysteries.

But, we should confess, that talk of faith can make us nervous.  And precisely because faith is so often tied to certainty, to having all the answers, to surrendering oneself to someone else’s authority.

The popular religious writer Brian McLaren calls this “bad faith.”  In his book entitled Finding Faith he lists what the characteristics of bad faith are:

  • It is based solely on unquestioned authority.
  • It is based on pressure or coercion.
  • It is often the result of the psychological need for belonging.
  • Bad faith appeals to self-interest and base motives.
  • It is arrogant and unteachable.
  • It is dishonest and apathetic.

McLaren thinks that when people say they are “rejecting faith” that it is, in fact, these kinds of bad faith which they are rejecting.  He wote:

They have decided that the operating system they inherited or installed is “no good.”  It doesn’t work for them.  Maybe it can’t account for the data presented by real life.  Maybe it doesn’t make its adherents into better people.  Maybe it is too complicated to be useful.

McLaren doesn’t think that the greatest enemy of religion is atheism; its greatest enemy is “bad faith.”  He writes, “Show me a person who has rejected faith, and nine times in ten I’ll show you a person or group nearby who turned them sour with their example of bad faith.”

So, if these are the vices we needed to avoid, what are the habits that cultivate good, authentic faith?  Fortunately, McLaren has a list of characteristics for good faith which can point us in the right direction:

  • Good faith is humble, teachable, and inquisitive.
  • It is grateful and honest.
  • It is communal.
  • Good faith is active and tough.
  • It is also relational.

Some themes begin to emerge when you compare the great writers on faith—it is active, it is humble, it is communal.  Sounds like a virtue, doesn’t it?  Sounds like something that might lead to the good life.

What about this emphasis on faith as relational and communal?  Faith does not arise from our own power, it is formed within us, and the formation occurs in community.

All of the virtues are communal.  You cannot become a virtuous person, living the good and joyful life, on your own.  We all need other people to help us learn and practice these virtues.  We need other people to be virtuous toward.

For Christians the church is the primary location of faith formation.  We do it most intentionally in our children’s Sunday school where we teach them the great stories and ideas of our tradition and in confirmation class where we try to pass on the skills we believe are necessary for life.

But the best twentieth century writer about Christian education, John H. Westerhoff, III, wrote that the Sunday school is not, in fact, the primary way we teach the faith.  Westerhoff pointed out that everything we do is part of the education ministry of the church—from the architecture of the sanctuary to how the church council makes decisions to what food is served during a potluck dinner.

Westerhoff listed six primary ways that the church educates its members, creating opportunities for faith to be formed.  The most important is participation in the ritual and worship life of the church.  Everything we do in here is passing on to our children and to each other what we value, what we are committed to, what we believe the meaning and purpose of life are.  We teach through our songs, readings, visuals, prayers, and announcements as much as through the preaching.

The second most important thing in a congregation’s faith formation is the environment—everything that someone attending the church “sees, tastes, touches, smells, and hears.”  That includes the space itself.  Because these are so important in faith formation, decoration and design become essential theological tasks of the church.  Being accessible, like having that ramp, speaks volumes about our faith.

The third most important thing in faith formation is how the community orders time—what does the calendar of events look like, what are the special days, what does the community celebrate?  These will tell you what the community thinks is important.

Closely tied to that is how a congregation encourages people to spend their time, energy, and money.  The fifth method follows from that one: it is the way people interact with one another, including how committees make decisions, how conflicts are resolved, how people are cared for, and who are the role models in any congregation.

The final way Westerhoff said a congregation forms the faith of its members is by what language it does and does not use.  Which is why we are so very intentional about our use of language.  Just this week in the church council meeting, Allison Beaman pointed out some times recently when people in leadership had (unintentionally and ignorantly) used language that would be offensive to people in the deaf community.

Westerhoff was clear that we don’t become faithful people on our own.  He wrote, “Wherever living faith exists, there is a community endeavoring to know, understand, live, and witness to that faith.”  We acquire this virtue, because others have created opportunities for us to try out and develop our faith.  They have passed along what they value and are committed to, what gives their life meaning and purpose.

 

This section of Hebrews was one of my Dad’s favorite passages in the bible.  I believe he was drawn to this image of faith as perseverance and of all the heroes of the bible cheering us through the race of life.

These are compelling metaphors—Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, running the race with perseverance, being surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.

My Dad died on a Sunday morning, while we were on Spring Break vacation at my aunt and uncle’s in Springfield, Missouri.  My Mom’s parents drove up that morning to pick us up and drive us back to Miami.  We arrived back at our house just after ten a.m.  I didn’t even notice, as we pulled in the driveway, that there were a bunch of cars already parked in front of our house.  I simply walked in the house and went to the bathroom.  When I came back out, our house was already filled with the other couples in my parents’ Sunday school class.

Those couples had arrived at church that morning for their Sunday school class and learned that Dad had died.  They all left the church together, drove to our home, and parked in front of our house, waiting on us.  They knew that Sunday afternoon we would be inundated with family and friends, so they wanted to help us get ready.  They cleaned the house, set up extra chairs, dropped off food and drinks, everything we would need to host bereavement calls.  I watched a millionaire executive wash our windows and his wife empty out our refrigerator so that there would be room for all the food we knew would soon begin arriving.

As I typed that story this week, I cried.  Not out of sadness but because that moment was my most vivid personal experience of the meaning and power of church and how we as a community of faith care for each other.

My faith was formed by parents and grandparents, teachers and pastors, and the many church members who have been that cloud of witnesses teaching me, encouraging me, and modeling for me what it means to find meaning and purpose in life.

That includes those folks who gathered in my home on the day my father died and cleaned our house as an act of compassion.

 

If we are to live the good and joyful life, then we must cultivate the awareness of our own limited knowledge and power and surrender ourselves to something that transcends us, bringing meaning and purpose to our lives.  And as a church we must be a place that provides people opportunities to develop this virtue.

May we be faithful!