The Struggle to Believe

The following meditation is from Doug Hood\’s book
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ.
“I have faith; help my lack of faith!”
Mark 9:24 (Common English Bible)
Many who sincerely want to believe in God find believing to be difficult. Faith rarely comes easily. The only way it does come is when we accept where we are on our faith journey and go on from there. Longing to be someplace else along the journey accomplishes nothing, apart from frustration.
At the beginning of a new year, we cannot say I wish I was fifteen pounds less before beginning a New Year’s resolution of a healthier lifestyle. Eating better, exercising more and getting more rest must begin where you are. That is what the unidentified man in this story from Mark’s Gospel teaches us; we must begin where we are, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” He begins from where he is. Within him is a mixture of belief and unbelief. He owns that when he speaks to Jesus.
Each day we may know a little more of God. We can never know all of God. But instead of being occupied with what we don’t know we can say, “help me with my unbelief.” The man in our story approaches Jesus with both belief and unbelief. Rather than dwelling upon what he doesn’t know – or being troubled by what he doesn’t understand – he seeks Jesus’ help. There is present enough faith to seek more of Jesus. This is a more helpful approach to faith than those who claim they will not believe until they understand fully.
The Christian faith is not established upon right beliefs, right doctrine, or on how much someone believes. The Christian faith is personal, centered upon the person of Jesus. Here, this man in Mark’s story instructs us that often we approach faith incorrectly. Rather than trying to understand all the mystery that is God, this man seeks out the person of Jesus; he seeks a relationship. To concentrate on what you don’t understand will destroy whatever faith you have. Accepting God’s love in the person of Jesus and making your love for him tangible in each day of life results in a faith that will grow from more to more.



Defeated Lives

“Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”
Matthew 10:29, 31 (Common English Bible)
            The Band’s Visit, currently on Broadway, has won several major awards including Best Musical at the 72nd Tony Awards. Music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, the musical is based on the 2007 Israel film of the same title. More a play than a musical, The Band’s Visit is a ninety-minute narrative of a single night in the small, isolated Israel desert town, Bet Hatikva. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra – an eight-member ensemble – has accepted an invitation to perform in the cultural center of Petah Tikvah. Difficulty with accents results in bus tickets to the wrong Israeli town. The next bus out of town – and to the band’s intended destination – is not until the next morning. A charismatic woman named Dina, the owner of the local café, offers the band a meal and a place to stay for the night.
            The musical opens silently with words projected on a bare wall: “Sometime ago, some musicians from Egypt came to our town. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” Those few words powerfully informs the audience that they are now invited into the lives of people who feel defeated; people who long for any sense that they are noticed and that their lives matter. With the arrival of the band from Egypt, a deep journey into brokenness begins – the brokenness of the residents of Bet Hatikva and the brokenness of the members of the band. Dina speaks to the prevailing mood of insignificance that has settled deep into the consciousness of their small town when she addresses the band: “They (Petah Tikvah) have art and culture and music. Here we have my café and apartments.” The citizens of Bet Hatikva long for significance, for the presence of meaning to their meager, small lives.
            Here, in this teaching from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus demonstrates a firm grasp of the fear of living lives that are seemingly unimportant. Though the larger conversation that surrounds this teaching addresses the conflict and persecution the disciples can expect as they do the work of Christ, it does present the view that nothing in the world went unnoticed by Jesus – even something as small as a sparrow falling from the sky. And, “You are worth more than many sparrows.”  Few of us set out to be common. Most of us strive to excellence in our chosen endeavor, to outstrip our competitors and receive recognition that we have added uncommon value to the world. Ambition is, of course, an admirable quality. But, as Christians, we should never lose sight that, as children of God, we are all without distinction in God’s eyes.
            Perhaps the most powerful dynamic of the musical, The Band’s Visit is how circumstances bring people together who hold a low appraisal of themselves. Thrust together for a night, they listen deeply to one another’s brokenness, and care unreservedly for each other. Within that embracing environment of love, healing bubbles forth for each person. People who led defeated lives discover that the simple act of listening, caring, and loving profoundly changes a life of another. That is the Christian source of inspiration – that each person, regardless of social rank or stature or achievement, can be used mightily to make a difference in someone’s life. It is this that provides a more balanced self-appraisal. The musical ends with Dina stepping to center stage, facing the audience intently, and saying, “Sometime ago, some musicians from Egypt came to our town. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” Don’t believe that for one moment.


Ending Well

“Demas has fallen in love with the present world and has deserted me
and has gone to Thessalonica.”
2 Timothy 4:10 (Common English Bible)
            Harry Emerson Fosdick provides uncommon insight upon this singular verse of scripture written by the Apostle Paul: “One of the most familiar tragedies in human life (is) a fine beginning and a poor ending.”[i]Demas, a colleague with Paul in ministry, lacked the power to see it through. First, Paul writes in his letter to Philemon, that Demas and Luke are coworkers in the cause of Christ Jesus. Paul wrote that letter from a Roman prison. Therefore, Demas, along with Luke, was standing by Paul in his imprisonment – a devoted and promising disciple. Second, Paul mentions Demas in his letter to the Colossians in a rather unusual fashion: “Luke, the dearly loved physician, and Demas say hello.” (Verse 4:14). It doesn’t escape the careful reader of this letter that affection is attributed to Luke but not Demas. Luke is “dearly loved.” Demas has become merely “Demas.” Now, in Paul’s second letter to Timothy we understand what is going on: Demas has abandoned Paul and the Christian ministry. Demas began well enough. But he didn’t follow through.
            Fosdick reminds us that when Luke wrote his account of the ministry of Jesus Christ, Luke alone among the four gospels shares the teaching about considering the cost before beginning anything: “If one of you wanted to build a tower, wouldn’t you first sit down and calculate the cost, to determine whether you have enough money to complete it?” (Verse 14:28). The one who laid the foundation of the tower was unable to finish it. Luke now warns that people will notice that the builder didn’t finish what was started and will receive the ridicule of others. Fosdick imagines that Luke is here pleading with his friend, Demas; pleading with Demas not to leave unfinished the work of ministry he had started so well. Essentially, Luke is saying to his friend, “Don’t let it be said by Paul that you abandoned him in the work of Jesus Christ.”
            Has this become our story? Perhaps we have not abandoned faith in Jesus Christ. But how strongly do we feel about a daily investment in building a relationship with Jesus? Recently a member of this congregation spoke to me following worship and remarked that my suggestion that members spend five minutes each day with a daily devotional was a “big ask.” I do hope he was kidding, and perhaps he was. Yet, I wonder how many people actually believe that – that five minutes a day is a “big ask?” It is no secret that all of us find the time for what really matters. The question for each Christian to answer at the beginning of a new year is, “Does my relationship with Jesus really matter?”
            However beautiful the beginning of our Christian journey may have been, none of it really matters much without a good end. This is not to suggest that we must demand outwardly successful – and measurable – goals or achievements. Building a deeply meaningful relationship with Jesus is not a contest. It is about minding the heart, of seeking positive spiritual change or transformation that is accomplished by God as we intentionally nurture our faith. That is done as we spend time with God reading the Bible, delving into good devotional material, and prayer. At the conclusion of this New Year it is my hope that it will not be uttered by the angels of us, “Demas, my Demas. Demas has abandoned me.”

[i] Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The Power to See It Through.” The Power to See It Through: Sermons on Christianity Today (New York and London: Harper & brothers, 1935), 1.


Disillusioned at Christmas

“They asked, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? 
We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.’”
Matthew 2:2 (Common English Bible)
            Speed bumps are intentional obstructions along routes traveled by motorized vehicles to slow drivers down. They indicate the need for caution, that something unusual is present and requires particular attention for safe navigation forward. Ignore the speed bump and the driver will experience a jolt and, perhaps, minor damage to their vehicle. Matthew’s Gospel has placed a speed bump into the Christmas narrative. If ignored – or not noticed – the reader will miss a greater truth that Matthew wishes to convey. Rather than hurrying to the end of the story, Matthew wants the reader to make a rich discovery as the story unfolds: The magi made much of their journey to Bethlehem without the light of the star.
            Notice the speed bump: the magi enter the City of Jerusalem and make inquiry as to where the “newborn king of the Jews” is born. They began their journey to find the baby when they saw a star in the east but now the light of that star is unseen. Now they must ask directions. Consulting with the chief priests and legal experts, King Herod learns that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then sends the magi on their way in that direction. Only when they come to Bethlehem do they see the light of the star again. This is why the magi “were filled with joy”, Matthew tells us. They were on the right road and the promise of that star was about to be realized. Finding the child with Mary, his mother, the magi fell to their knees, honored him, and presented their gifts.
            Matthew is writing to a particular people who are on the cusp of disillusionment and abandoning their faith. The decision to follow Christ has resulted in estrangement from those family members who don’t believe in Jesus. More, followers of Jesus are no longer welcomed in Jewish worship. Divided from their loved ones and unwelcomed in the faith community, it is easy to question if they are on the right road. The easy path would be to admit a mistake in following Jesus, abandon the Christian movement, and return to the embrace of family and cherished worship. The light that began their faith in Jesus has dimmed considerably and now they are traveling in the dark.
            So it may be with our faith. Oftentimes we do not experience the power, the light, the vitality of the faith we once experienced. Difficulties overwhelm, the road becomes dark, and we are disillusioned.  The path that was once clear is now an unknown way. Matthew wants us to remain confident in the promise. Circumstances may require that we stop, reassess our route, and seek guidance as the magi did in Jerusalem. But then, start out once again. There is much in the world – and in our lives – that we cannot change. It’s not our task to repair the brokenness all around us. What we can and must do, says Matthew, is speak of the promise of “the newborn king” that comes in the midst of that brokenness, kneel before him in worship, present our gifts, and trust that it will be enough.