I love projects. I think it has to do with starting out in a Montessori preschool, but projects make me happy. They have a beginning and an end because of the finite nature of projects, and they tend to be linear, even if the process wavers from that from time to time. The problem with projects is that they are “controlled,” usually by either an outside source or desired outcomes.
This was made abundantly clear when I worked for a market research company in high school. Yes, I was one of those annoying people at the mall that would pull you away from your shopping to ask a question or two, which always turned into a 15- to 20-minute conversation. It was interesting to watch this process, because rarely did the marketing companies want an unbiased answer. From doing enough of the surveys, it was easy to see what they were trying to prove, and if there was an answer that was given that did not match the desired response, we were taught to “clarify.” This forced the “right” answer.
When researchers look at congregations that are in decline, they can point to the measurable start of the decline, and sometimes triggers decades prior to that start. Often the decline starts with a series of decisions by the church to maintain the growth they had or achieve the growth they desired. This means that instead of paying attention to the world around them and the needs people have, the focus became internal.
This is not unique in any way to the church. As individuals, we do the same thing all of the time. In Silicon Valley, we know this all too well! Many jobs have changed, and skills that were once prized are considered archaic and not hirable. Similarly, churches and other institutions that were once vital are lost, mostly because they will not take the time to be renewed and rebuilt.
This week we encounter the prophecy of the potter’s house in Jeremiah¾another one of my favorite passages! Having thrown a few pots in my youth, I love the imagery of taking the scraps of clay and making something new and beautiful from them.
There are a couple very interesting things about throwing a pot. First, you cannot force clay to do what you want. You have to finesse it, slowly convincing the clay to curve and take the desired shape. The same is true with faith and the church. If you force faith or success, you’re going to be disappointed, even if you get what you wanted.
Second, re-creation is always possible, and often, what is renewed is more beautiful than what came before. This is true when I am creating something, especially things like this!
More often than not when I sit down with someone to have a conversation about faith, the first thing they start to talk about is themselves. This makes sense, being that faith is such a personal topic. But the truth is that most of the times that people come and actually talk to me about faith are the exact times when they are struggling the most and have either lost their faith or have found themselves questioning it to an extreme where it is no longer relevant in their lives.
It is very easy to lose one’s faith, especially with many of the teachings that are out there concerning it. Think of how rigid faith is in this world. Haven’t you heard this line, “If you don’t [believe or do] ___________, you’re never going to know God!” For me, it was a great day when I realized that people experience God in vastly different ways.
I, for one, have never been a big “focused” prayer. For many, this is the only way to connect with God, but I would much rather take a walk and have a conversation with God praying within the awe and wonder of nature. My way is not the best, nor is it even good for many people, but it works for me, connecting me with God in profound ways that focused prayer or meditation never do. But that is me, and I came to that through practicing spirituality and listening to the faith experience of others.
There was a time early in seminary where I was really struggling with my faith. It took me some time to realize that it was not my faith that I was struggling with, but what people were telling me were “good spiritual practices.” As you can imagine, there is a strange piety in seminaries. While many of the students flocked to centered prayer and Lectio Divina practices, I got frustrated. Even after getting proficient in the practice, it never became more than going through the motions.
Frustrated, I went to my mentor at the time, and had a real long conversation. In the midst of that conversation, my mentor laughed and said, “I can’t stand that stuff either.” I was no longer alone, but more importantly, I found that my spiritual expressions were just as valid, though maybe more nontraditional.
No matter what spiritual practices that you engage with, if you are not able to connect with God and others, it is not much of a spiritual practice. Moreover, if you get stuck in spiritual practices that do not bring you to a relationship with God, then you run the risk of losing faith because of the frustration that comes from not connecting with God.
At the root of so many of the conversations about faith, it is not the faith, but the practices that really cause the issues. We are told from a very early age that our faith is just that: ours! But we forget that. Faith is not a commodity and is never static. This is why it changes so much, and why one needs to view it as a relationship. If your spiritual practices help to build on that relationship, then that is awesome. But if they don’t, then we need to figure out how to make that happen, and where the disconnect is between your spiritual practice and your faith.
As we continue to look at faith, two of the most fundamental elements of faith are understanding and trust. Yes, that is also the core of good relationships, and in that, there is a link. When we have a relationship with God, we have a strong faith. When we seek understanding and trust in God, we have faith. For most of us, faith is not static. There are times when we have a strong faith, and other times when it is weak.
As clergy, there are many times when we are lost in our faith. I often like to say it is the times when our faith is more of an intellectual thing than a heart thing. Early on in my ministry, this was very true. After the first year of my ministry, and all of the difficulties that came with working with a congregation that had suffered from having two consecutive pastors die while serving the church, I knew I had faith, but it was something that was more like going through the motions of faith, not the passionate faith I had earlier in my life.
It was a great frustration because I longed for that faith, but it seemed that no matter what problem arose, I was also always having to prove that I actually knew what I was doing. It made me question not only myself, but also my call. I mean, why would God call me to that position if it was beyond my skill? It was draining! By the end of my first year, I began to understand why so many people leave the ministry within the first year.
I was lucky, though. I had one of the best staffs in the world for a starting pastor. All were both seasoned in the church and gracious. Watching my struggles, my organist Alice asked me when was the last time I read Jeremiah. All young pastors are familiar with Jeremiah. It is something we looked to remind us that God calls all sorts of people, even the young!
At the time of the “call” story of Jeremiah, he is young¾probably in his teens, though we do not exactly know his age. Though young, he is very aware. He knows that the world would only see him as a boy, and as a boy, how was he going to command both respect and the words to lead the people? This is understandable! His hesitancy had nothing to do with his faith, but it had to do with his station and the understanding he had about how others were going to perceive him.
However, when Alice suggested I re-read it, I realized that not only had God called and blessed Jeremiah, but He turned back to Jeremiah, saying, “I know you have doubts about your abilities, but trust me, I know what I am doing, and you will do what you need to do!”
I thought it was interesting to be prompted that way by someone with twice as much church experience than I had years on this earth, but she trusted my call, and knew I just needed to do likewise. More importantly, I needed to trust that God was using me, and that God was doing something bigger than what I could see. God was, but that is another letter!
For all of us, we come to times when we question our faith or our life’s calling. For some, they are drastic, and for others, merely bumps in the road. The truth is that while the story of Jeremiah is about the doubts of a youth, almost all of the prophets ask that question, “Why me?” and God comes back to say in some form, “Trust me.” When you get to the point where you are questioning the call in your life or your faith, ask yourself the question: Do you trust that God has put you where you need to be? Do you trust that God will give you the tools you need? Do you trust God?
One of the most beautiful definitions of faith came in last week’s lectionary, Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I love both the simplicity and wisdom of this definition.
Faith, not being something tactile, is based on both future thinking and an understanding that things exist which are not tangible. Easy! From that definition we can come up with a myriad of things we have faith in, from the lottery to government, our children’s futures to security in our old age. All of these examples, under this definition of faith, are faith acts. The problem is that while you may be able to claim “faith” in those and meet the definition, there is more to faith than just the things hoped for and conviction for things not seen.
The context of this definition is really interesting. Hebrews 11 is dealing with a fundamental question for people of faith: what does it mean to believe in God? For many people in the modern world, this is a real struggle. There is so much in this world that would cause us to not believe. From war and sickness, untimely death, persecution, terror---you name it, many people come back and say, “If God is a loving God, how can [fill in the blank] happen?”
The problem is that faith as we have come to know it in our society has become about us, how we feel, and who we see ourselves to be. I was in seminary when I first recognized this reality. It was the first time that I went to a “Taizé” service. The repetitive music was good, with nice words and a peaceful sentiment. But for me, something was missing. The service was about how we were connecting with God, not in a physical sense of what we were doing, but in the esoteric sense of what we were thinking and where our minds were. Even though we were in a corporate place, the focus was individual, at least for that service. In that moment, there was a real disconnect in my mind, because for me, faith is action.
Interestingly, when Brother Roger started the Taizé community, it was not about individualism. It was during the Second World War, and he and his sister were given the call to create a place of refuge. He used his resources to create a welcoming community where people could live and thrive without concern. For that reason, Brother Roger established a practice that prayer should be done alone, out of respect for those in the community that did not share the same beliefs. In his orders for the community, the communal life and mission of hospitality was primary to the individual wants.
The interesting thing that I recognized about the Taizé services is that what makes the Taizé community so powerful and makes the worship unifying is often lost in the United States, since when the services are performed here, you are typically in a room of like-minded people from a similar background. When I attended Taizé services in Europe, the power of the chanting was that it was not an individual experience, and the questions were never about how I individually felt. Instead, they were about being next to someone participating in the song when they looked very different, spoke very differently, and probably believed very differently then I did, but at the moment, we were one. This oneness allowed me to shed all of the baggage of being me, and be fully present with the people next to me. We looked and listened to each other as we went through the motions of the service. This was the opposite of the first time I experienced Taizé in seminary, when the emphasis was to retreat into ourselves.
I believe that faith is found in community. Later in Hebrews 11, the writer states:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In reality, it is the witnesses that drive the faith. It is the witness that gives assurance of hope and the conviction, because when we connect with others and live out our faith, we find truth and life.
There is one true fact about any presidential election: the president is not going to be our savior. That job is already taken! Secondarily, we must remember that there is no difference between the person we elect and us. Yes, they have achieved status, but they are no better or worse than any of us; they are human. I know it seems like a silly statement to make, but as we begin to think of faith, we have to start with an understanding of where we place our hope, and more importantly, our faith.
Over the next month, we will be exploring faith. During Wednesday Revive, we will be seeking a deeper understanding of faith: what it is, and what our relationship is with faith. On Sundays at the traditional worship, we will be exploring how we act on our faith by serving God. Like the roots of a tree, faith is the foundation of Christianity. However, like roots, if faith is not cared for and nurtured, it may degrade. Even though we may feel that our faith is strong, if we do not tend to it, learning and growing in our faith, we risk not only losing our faith, but seeing the foundation of our being erode away.
When our faith erodes, we tend to seek other places to find God. Many people in America try to find God in our government¾hence the savior talk (the Jesus or Moses persona that politicians often assume). This is bad, but often times when faith erodes, we do more than just place our faith in things of this world like our governments to fill the void. We place our faith inward, into ourselves.
This was something that the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous recognized. Though the organization has since modified their stance, opening up to a more pluralistic, and at times, secular view, at its inception they saw alcoholism as being deeply connected to the sin of ego: placing our faith in ourselves and our own selfish action over God. While many have critiqued this position over the years, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith did not come up with it out of the blue. When we look to biblical texts, or other texts of historic significance, we see that the fall of societies and the erosion of faith often start when people are looking inward rather than outward, thinking of what is best for them, not what is best for God.
The worst part about this is that the type of thinking that goes along with this selfish salvation often makes us see faith as something we can control. Faith is not controllable. It is something that one day is strong, and another weak. It is always being challenged, and is rarely comfortable. Since faith is unstable, we often gravitate towards tangible things, because that is easier, and we can get that instant gratification. So we can understand why people want “political saviors” or to find ways to take control of their lives. But ultimately, that leads to disappointment or even self-destruction.
As we work with the topic of faith over the next month, we will see how it is both an easy thing and a hard one. On one hand, faith is easy: “In Christianity, belief, trust, and obedience to God as revealed in Jesus Christ” (McKim 2014). But on the other, it is difficult, because it is so countercultural to live that way when both our nature and our society favor self-preservation and control. So as we explore our faith, we will question everything we can to discern our faith and struggle together with what it means for us to give up control and have the trust that opens our hearts to all that God provides, letting God and the spirit do what needs to be done.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen