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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

The Face of Calm

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Mark 4:39-41

When we think about the faces of God shown by Jesus, we must consider the face of calm. Many times in the Gospels, Jesus tells his followers not to be afraid. This is consistent with the numerous Old Testament writings where those having an encounter with God or angels were told not to be afraid. When something well out of the ordinary occurs, one natural reaction is fear. If I were to come across a bush that was burning and not being consumed, I would be curious. If and when that bush began speaking to me, I would probably be afraid. In the passage from Mark, above, Jesus is crossing the sea with his disciples. Jesus falls asleep and a great windstorm hits, threatening to swamp their boat. The disciples are terrified and wake Jesus up, accusing him of not caring that they are about to drown. Jesus tells the wind and the sea to be still, and they obey. He then turns to his disciples and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Tying fear and a lack of faith together is profound and an often-overlooked connection. Did Jesus think it was not appropriate for the disciples to be afraid when the waves were crashing over the sides of their boat? Was he criticizing them for their lack of faith in his ability to keep them safe? Did he think they should not be afraid to die for his ministry? These questions are not answered in the Gospel story, but there are other ways to understand the story aside from a literal reading.

If we look at the chaos from the windstorm as a metaphor for the chaos sometimes caused by the circumstances in our lives, the story takes on a very personal meaning. When I work myself into a frenzied state over something that may or may not happen in the future, when I become frustrated with traffic, or when I feel shame over something I did or said in the past, I can almost hear Jesus whispering over my shoulder, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The most obvious answer, whenever I succumb to these manifestations of fear, is that my faith is very small. I have lived far long enough to experience problems being solved – stormy seas being calmed – in ways I could never have imagined and that clearly were initiated by a power beyond anything I am capable of exerting.

There are several elements to this story. The first is that Jesus displayed power over the wind and sea. That, in itself, would cause both fear and wonder. Indeed, the disciples respond, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Perhaps they were still uncertain about the divine nature of Jesus, or even unaware of what a divine being might be capable of doing. I think one lesson of the story is that we cannot know or predict how God may intervene in our lives on our behalf.

A second element in the story is Jesus criticizing their fear of the situation, their lack of faith. One can make a good argument that we have nothing to fear, ever! If we truly believe God is lovingly present in our lives and that God can transform whatever is evil in our lives into something beautiful, what could we possibly be afraid of? Our fear, like that of the disciples in the boat, simply shows our lack of faith in God’s care.

Finally, and most instructive to me, is the need to become quiet enough to hear the voice saying, “Do not be afraid.” It is counterintuitive that we must silence the chaos in our own minds before we can hear and know the still small voice of God that has all situations well in hand. And yet, that is exactly what the calm face of God in Jesus encourages us to do.

Note: this is the 26th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God. 

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The Face of Compassion

 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” John 5:6

To paraphrase Fr. Richard Rohr from a number of his writings, “God is found where the suffering is.”  Nowhere is that more evident than in the accounts of the life of Jesus found throughout the New Testament. This should surprise no one, since Jesus was a manifestation of God in human form. Although it is not clear whether Jesus sought out suffering people, he clearly did not shy away from them, either. Particularly with those who were shunned by society – those with leprosy and other visible infirmities, for example – Jesus not only acknowledged their existence and worth, he healed them.

In the story from the Gospel of John quoted above, Jesus found a lame man lying beside a pool, begging for someone to help him into the pool at the stirring of the water. There was a belief that whoever was first into the pool when the water stirred would be healed. Because of the man’s disability, he was never able to get himself into the pool in time. Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well. The man complained that he had no one to help him into the water, thinking that was his only hope. Jesus told the man to get up and walk, and the man got up and walked!

The religious elite chose not to rejoice about a lame man who was made well. Rather, they complained that Jesus had violated the Law by healing on the Sabbath. Jesus responded in verse 17: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” In my opinion, too many religious people and institutions continue to focus on rules, laws, and their own perpetuation while ignoring the pain and suffering in their presence. God’s compassionate gaze, manifest in Jesus, would not pass suffering by, regardless of the social norms, laws, or day of the week.

We see this same compassion throughout the ministry of Jesus, including with the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11), the man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-27), the woman suffering from hemorrhages (Matthew 9:20-22), and the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Luke 7:2-10). And here is a lesson for us: God-in-Jesus told us to show compassion, too. For example, in Matthew 25, Jesus told about the judging of the nations and said of those who will inherit the kingdom, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The crowd asked when these things occurred, and Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” While we may or may not have the ability to completely heal another, any one of us can ease another’s suffering in some way. We serve Jesus when we serve others in need.

Reading the accounts of Jesus and suffering people makes me wonder what he would do if he walked the streets of my hometown today. How would he react to the panhandlers, to the mentally ill, or to the homeless? I walk by them too often, pretending I do not see or hear. I cannot believe Jesus would do the same. How does the compassionate face of God call us to respond to the suffering in our world? That question is one I believe we all wrestle with throughout our lives. We should not be too hard on ourselves as we reconcile our hearts and our actions, however. God’s is a face of compassion and encouragement, not one of condemnation.

Live in the Lawrence, Kansas area? Join the discussion! On the 4th Sunday of each month (i.e., this Sunday, August 27, 2017) at the First United Methodist Church at 10:30 in Brady Hall, we will discuss the previous four weeks of Life Notes. Come share your thoughts and insights!

Note: this is the 22nd in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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The Good Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. Psalm 23:1-4

Some may believe the image of God as a shepherd is trite or out of date. I disagree. In fact, I believe God taking on the face and role of a shepherd is one of the most meaningful and insightful analogies about God’s relationship to us. The first line of the 23rd Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” As we better understand God and God’s workings with and through us, we realize that most of us seldom lack anything we actually need, certainly not for extended periods. We often desire more than we have, but that is another issue entirely. Obviously, there are parts of the world, including in the United States, where there are people who lack necessities like sufficient food and shelter. I believe God, the good shepherd, attempts to take care of those needs by encouraging the rest of us to share our abundance to help meet those needs. A shepherd does not feed the sheep; a shepherd assures there is food available for the sheep to eat.

My mother raised sheep as a teenager, and I remember her telling me how dumb they were. Her experience was that if they were not watched constantly, they would invent trouble to fall into. It was as if the sheep simply trusted that a shepherd was watching over them at all times, protecting them from life’s perils, regardless of what they did. (Perhaps sheep are not dumb, just faithful.) The third verse of the 23rd Psalm comes to mind, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me…” According to mom, her sheep would mindlessly wander into any dark valley available.

I tend to think of shepherds as necessary in open fields, where there is no fencing to keep the sheep contained within a certain area. Of course, it is still possible for sheep to find themselves in trouble in a confined area, but it limits the possibilities. The point is that the days of the shepherd being physically present with the sheep 24 hours a day, at least on modern farms, are probably over.

Even contained within a fenced field, and even with regular access to food and water, sheep can find themselves in danger. Coyotes and other predatory animals love nothing better than fresh lamb chops, and fences alone will not keep predators from easy access to the sheep. This is perhaps where the image of God as our shepherd becomes more meaningful. A shepherd does not create the dangers for the sheep, any more than God creates dangers for us. Danger is inherent in the world around us. A shepherd seeks to protect the sheep from the dangers that are naturally present. When danger cannot be avoided, however, a good shepherd stands with the sheep so they do not have to face the danger alone. While God may not physically intervene between us and threats, God does remain with us throughout the danger. As I hinted earlier, God also relies on us to help care for God’s sheep. In John 21, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus’ answer? “Tend my sheep.” Understanding God as our shepherd does not imply that God is or needs to be physically present with us. It does mean, however, that God inspires others to help in our time of need, just as God encourages us to help others in our times of abundance. We are, after all, the hands and feet of a very good shepherd.

Note: this is the fifteenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

 

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 23: Faith is a Good Start

 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.  Matthew 25:34-36,40

Religious circles emphasize the importance of faith. Faith is the belief in something beyond what we can see or fully understand. It provides a broader vision than our eyes can see and a more sensitive hearing than is possible from our ears alone. Faith acknowledges that for all we know and for all the information we have available to us, there is much that is and will always remain a mystery. Religious faith acknowledges a higher, benevolent power that assures all things work together for good. Christians name that power God.

I believe developing a faith in something larger than ourselves and in purposes larger than our circle of attention is important for our individual and collective development, regardless of whether that faith is a religious faith, and regardless of whether we express that faith in a church. Developing faith is a practical way to live. Jesus, in Matthew 17, says that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. The implication is that a small amount of faith can increase whatever power is available in order to overcome tremendous challenges.

Faith is a multiplier. We can accomplish more with faith in something beyond ourselves than we can accomplish alone. I want to emphasize the word accomplish. One purpose for the gift of faith is to accomplish something. Not that faith, alone, is not worthwhile. The apostle Paul says we are “justified” by faith, or made right with God. That we establish a faith connection with a higher, benevolent power is one thing. We might even worship that power on Sunday mornings, but are we using the power of that faith to improve the lives around us? God’s power unites with ours, through faith, in order to co-create – God with us – a better world. I believe faith should inspire us to work for justice, to feed the hungry, to welcome strangers, to house the homeless. Jesus modeled a life-giving faith and dedicated himself to meeting the needs of a broken world. He valued his time with his Father, going away from the crowds frequently to pray, but he used that connection to renew his ability to serve. The faith of Jesus is an active, achieving faith, and that type of faith leaves a mark.

The writer of James proclaims that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). The Bible is full of stories of ordinary people who responded in faith and accomplished extraordinary things. Why would we believe anything less is in store for us? Our faith is a wonderful thing, but our faith calls us to greater things. True faith inspires and empowers us to make good things happen in our world.

Faith, by itself, is only the beginning. How did I miss that?

uncovering-god-book-and-cd-covers

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 17: The Power Behind Powerlessness

 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Our pain is exacerbated by feeling powerless over it. Physical or emotional hurt is one thing, but when there is nothing we can do to ease that pain – that we are powerless over it – our level of misery increases significantly. When we work in a hostile environment, or when we live in abusive surroundings, we may not see many good alternatives. Further, we may believe the status quo is preferable to the unknown. While this holding to what is known may seem a logical choice, unpleasant as it is, that is exactly the attitude that prevents us from stepping out of the old and into a new existence. Positive change requires us to give up whatever illusion of power we may believe we have over our current situation.

The condition of powerlessness is an illusion, however, or at best is only a partial truth. The fact that we cannot exercise control over a situation does not mean there is no power at work for our good. Scripture and experience assures us that all things work together for good. Powerless situations may actually prove to us that the power we thought we had was imaginary. In reality, we are not nearly as powerful over the flow of our days as we believe. Certainly, we have influence over the impact our environment has on us, but time marches relentlessly on in ways we can do little to change. I remember a Superman movie where something disastrous happened and Superman made the earth reverse its orbit long enough to turn back time so he could change the outcome. We have no such power; we can only change our outlook. Experiencing powerlessness, however, forces us to rethink our view and understanding of the world. It is only when something we have held to be true and good is shown to be false that we open our mind to other, higher possibilities. It is only when life has become unbearably unpleasant that we willingly let go of the old and open ourselves to something new. We are creatures of comfort and familiarity, and we go to great lengths to preserve both, even at our own peril.

Powerlessness is an illusion, though, because the power of God’s Spirit flowing through us is always at work. Indeed, without that Spirit, life is not possible. It is our spiritual oxygen. We will not knowingly experience the power of the Spirit, however, until we let go of the illusion that we are in control. As long as we feel in control, we are not open to perceive a higher source of control. It is only in our powerlessness that we experience God’s power.

There is power in powerlessness. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 1: Faith Heals

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak., for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. Matthew 9:20-22

The relationship between healing and faith is difficult to understand, impossible to predict, and a connection Jesus mentions many times throughout his ministry. He often healed someone, only to give credit to that person’s faith. I used to believe Jesus was being modest. After all, he was a humble man. He credits faith with healing so many times, however, that I find myself rethinking his modesty. Dare we believe that faith truly does heal?

I have tried to apply faith with instances of serious illness in people I know, but with ambiguous results. I remember praying hard for my mother’s recovery from a stroke. She had been a healthy, determined woman, and I could easily visualize her fighting her way back to health. But she never did. Rather, she slipped into a steady decline and passed away 10 weeks later. The times when an unlikely healing has occurred, and there have been a few, I find myself wondering if it was a God-healing or a talented physician. Clearly, God works through the hands and hearts of God’s people. If I were keeping score, however, of the number of times I believe my faith brought the outcome I prayed for, faith would be losing by a landslide. Is this due to my weak faith, or my lack of understanding about healing?

Not all healings are equal, nor all they all physical. When we pray for healing, we are generally praying for restoration to a prior state of being. We pray for what we, in our limited understanding, believe to be the best outcome. Do we possess the perspective to know what is best in any situation? There are numerous examples of physical healings in the Bible, but we can assume all those people died of something, eventually. There are also instances where God does not heal the physical ailment of a faithful person – Paul comes to mind. Paul used his infirmity as a reminder of his total reliance on grace. Even Jesus, the night before his crucifixion, prays for God to “take this cup from me.” Ultimately, he yields by saying, “Not my will, but yours be done.” I have often wondered why God did not rescue Jesus from the cross. But wait – Jesus was rescued, just not in the way we humans would have requested.

If faith truly does heal, there is a lot of pressure on us to be well. Wellness comes under our control, instead of our being victimized by illnesses we can do nothing about. Faith is our connection to God – it is the thread by which the human meets the divine. Faith assures us there is more to life than what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell – there is more beyond our human knowledge and efforts. Would God grant us a desire contrary to our ultimate good? There were many times, as a parent that I refused to grant a desire of my children, knowing they were better off without having their wish granted.

What is out there, and how and when it may or may not bless us remains a mystery. Dare we believe that faith heals? Dare we believe it does not?

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Life Notes

The Greatest is Love

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

To abide means to continue, to remain, to stay. It elicits images of stability and permanence. Therefore, when Paul says “faith, hope, and love abide,” he separates these qualities apart as uniquely enduring. While we know that much of what we work for on earth – homes, cars, clothing, food – will not endure, these are the priorities that consume many of our waking hours. We seldom lay awake at night worrying about a lack of faith, hope, or love. Instead, we worry about a lack of money, or a meeting with an unpleasant co-worker, or an appointment with the doctor about an abnormal test result. Faith, hope, and love are not commodities we can purchase, steal, or trade, but they are characteristics we can develop. Some come more naturally to certain people than others, but all of us are capable of cultivating a more-than-sufficient degree of all three.

Because Paul says the greatest of these is love, I think it is fair to assume that faith and hope are components of love. If we are to love others in the ways described in 1 Corinthians 13, we must have faith in the innate goodness of others, or their worthiness of our attention. Such goodness is not always obvious, but when we recognize that everyone is a child of God, we accept that everyone is loved and valued by God. We connect in love with their image-of-God essence, attempting to look beyond their all-to-human exterior. A loving relationship also inspires hope. There is an optimism in loving relationships that springs from the knowledge that all things are possible and, in the end, all things work together for good. We always hope for the best for those we love.

As we look in-depth at 1 Corinthians 13, we begin to picture the expansive and inclusive nature of love. It permeates every created thing and connects us all. Love is the thread of our interdependence, connecting us together as one – whether or not we ever recognize or affirm our unity. Love expresses intensely in committed relationships, but goes well beyond romance. Love is the essence from which we spring and the destination to which we journey. Love is God, and God is love. Without love we cannot recognize God’s presence in our lives, nor can we love ourselves or others as we should. We feel separate and out-of-step with life’s rhythms. Ultimately, the most pervasive sin of our time is that of separation – failure to recognize our unity with God and others. Separation, like all sin, is its own punishment. It makes us miserable, it makes us feel unworthy, and it makes us feel alone. Love is the antidote to sin and separation. Where faith and hope abide, love grows – and so will we!

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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