Tuesday, September 3, 2019

What's Wrong With Faith?

Last post I shared a story from Will North's book, Water, Stone and Heart. The story was a sermon about Peter walking on water. 

I told you I had a problem with the Vicar's sermon and I asked you to tell me what my problem was.  Kind of like Nebuchadnezzar asking Daniel to interpret his dream, I guess.  Not really fair.  But Jean Pedersen picked up on my question and gave me the response I was looking for.  I suspect others of you would have come up with the same thought, but Jean stated it in a nutshell.

She wrote: "It's not faith in faith. It's faith in Jesus."

In all fairness, I thought the sermon was a pretty good one, as far as it goes.  It communicates truth in an entertaining and effective way. But at the end, in the vicar's application of the truth, her message strays a bit, and that straying has the potential to lead us off a cliff into thin air (or into cold water, depending on which of her great analogies you follow.)

For sure, faith is important.  Lack of faith can keep us from being saved. But it's not our faith that saves us.  Faith is only the conduit that connects us with the source of salvation.  When it comes to our eternal well being, it's the source of our faith that saves us.  Until we get to the place of realizing we need that Source, we are lost.

There's another story about drowning that illustrates this concept.  It's the story of two men sitting on a grassy bank by a river, watching their friend struggle in the current, trying to stay afloat. One of the men is a strong swimmer, totally capable of rescuing the drowning man. The other looks at him, astonished and even angry to see his capable friend watching the drowning man flail in the water. 

They both watch as the man goes down once, twice, and finally three times.  Only then does the strong rescuer jump in, swim to the friend in the water, and haul him back to safety on shore.

As the three of them rest on the riverbank, the dry one asks, "Why on earth did you just sit there so long and watch him struggle to stay alive?  Why did you wait until the very end, when his hope was gone, before you saved him?"

The rescuer looks at his friend and explains, "As long as he felt he had any strength to save himself I was not able to rescue him.  If I'd gone out sooner, his struggling would have drowned us both.  I had to wait until his strength--his last vestige of hope in himself--was gone before he would let me do it for him."

Faith in ourselves--in our own ability to be good enough to merit heaven--can keep us afloat until we no longer have the strength to dogpaddle.  But in the end, we will drown if our faith is in anything except the Master of the waves who alone can walk on water--the One Who waits to take our hand when we have finally given up all hope in ourselves.

That's the message of the Gospel. Later on, in the book of Acts, that crazy, impetuous "rock," Peter, explains this important truth:

With that, Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, let loose: "Rulers and leaders of the people, if we have been brought to trial today for helping a sick man, put under investigation regardint this healing, I'll be completely frank with you--we have nothing to hide. By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the One you killed on a cross, the One God raised from the dead, by means of his name this man stands before you healthy and whole. Jesus is 'the stone you masons threw out, which is now the cornerstone.' Salvation comes no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one."

Acts 4:8-12, from The Message

Sunday, August 25, 2019

About Water, Stones and Hearts

I've escaped happily into a few novels this summer.  This one, which may be my last for the
season, is a gentle read, and is pretty much a perfect escape, in spite of the one fatal error I encountered on page 476 of the Readers Digest Condensed version.  The last sentence of the Vicar's sermon was the killer.

Here's a rather long but satisfying excerpt from Water, Stone and Heart, by Will North:

At the top of the Valency valley, Andrew climbed over a stile in a stone wall, walked through the cemetery of St. Juliot's Church, with its lichen-encrusted headstones leaning this way and that, and ducked under its fifteenth-century porch.  He'd been looking forward to this moment.  He wanted to see what [Thomas] Hardy had done during the restoration of the church in the late 1800's.  But when he pushed open the church's heavy oak door, he found a small clutch of parishioners, Lee and Anne included.  A female priest stood at a raised pulpit.

He mumbled an apology and took a seat in a pew at the rear.

Heads turned to regard the stranger who had joined them.  Lee grinned at him and waved.  The priest looked across the tiny congregation and smiled.  "Welcome," she said.  "I was just about to tell one of my favorite stories."

The priest's informality won him over immediately.  Andrew smiled back and nodded.  She began.

"I'm sure you've all heard variations of this joke: A mountain climber loses his footing and begins to fall from a cliff--perhaps a cliff like those along the coast path here in Boscastle.  He grabs the branch of a shrub growing from the cliff face--perhaps it's gorse or heather--and it arrests his fall.  But the branch is slender and brittle, and he knows it will not hold him long.

"'Help!' he cries.  'Is anyone up there? Help!'

"And a deep voice answers, 'I am the Lord, your God. I can save you if you believe in me. Do you believe?'

"'Oh yes, Lord, I do--with all my heart, especially right now!'

"'Good,' says the Lord. 'Let go of the branch.'

"The climber hesitates. 'Is there anyone else up there?' he asks."

There was a faint titter of laughter in the congregation.

"The Bible tells a similar story," the priest continued. "In this case, Jesus has just performed the miracle of feeding the multitudes. . . ."
. . . .When the crowd disperses, Jesus tells his disciples to get into their boat and set across the sea.  He stays behind to pray and reflect and tells them he will join them soon.

"That night, a storm rakes the sea, and the disciples' boat is tossed for hours.  Finally, as Matthew tells us, on the fourth watch, early in the morning, they see Jesus walking toward them on the surface of the water.  They cry out in fear, 'It is a ghost!' But Jesus says, 'Take heart. It is I. Be not afraid.' Then Peter jumps up and says, 'Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you over the water.'

"And here's where I think Jesus shows us his sense of humor--in a way not all that different from the joke we began with. What does he do? He says simply, 'Come.' And so Peter clambers out of the boat. He lets go with one hand. He lets go with the other. And he walks across the water toward his Lord.

"So here is Peter, striding across the surface of the sea, when he sort of wakes up and looks around. He sees that the sea is rough and the sky is stormy. And suddenly he is afraid. He has, to put it simply, a crisis of faith. He fears that the branch of salvation, like the branch our climber was clutching, is slender and brittle.

"What happens next? Well, it's useful to remember that the name 'Peter' means rock, which is exactly what he begins sinking like. 'Lord, save me!' Peter cries.

"And Jesus reaches out, pulls him up, and returns him to the safety of the boat. 'O ye of little faith, why did you doubt?' Jesus asks.  And the rest of the disciples, in awe, declare, 'Truly, you are the son of God.'"

The priest paused and rested her eyes on the villagers before her.

"We are only human," she said. "Our day-to-day lives test our faith repeatedly--in ourselves, in those we love, and in God. And sometimes we sink. What does Matthew's account of this episode tell us? That faith can buoy us up. That faith can calm the storm. That faith can produce miracles--big ones, little ones, it hardly matters. Faith can enable each and every one of us to walk upon the water of our lives. Faith can be our salvation."

Did you notice the one fatal error?  Comment below and let me know what you saw here.  I'm curious. 

I'm also wondering if any of you have read this far.  It's a long blog post, and I often wonder if anyone reads even the short musings I post.  Are you there??  If you have read this far, whether or not you have a comment on the content, will you let me know you've read it?

Next post I'll talk about what I think is fatally wrong with this sermon. But I'd like to have your thoughts first.

Water, Stone and Heart, by Will North.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Besetting Sins: the Root Cause of Depression and Anxiety

"The most powerful incentive for change in our lives is discomfort."

I plan to post suggestions for getting rid of besetting sins, but first I want to talk some more about the most important, and the most difficult beginning step in that direction.  

I want to talk about putting Christ at the center of our lives.

Depression and anxiety are rampant in our society. The signs of this discomfort are all around us. We spend billions of dollars on sedatives--both legal and illegal--in an attempt to ease our pain.  We charge headlong into distracting activities--from pornography, to internet gambling, to obsession with physical fitness and recreation--all in an attempt to escape our unhappiness.

This is not a new development.  Depression and anxiety have been around for a long time.

In 600 BCE, the prophet Jeremiah suffered this ailment on behalf of his people, the Israelites. They had turned away from Yahweh, their Creator, to worship the idols of the nations around them and they were miserable.

Jeremiah blames God for this unhappiness, but he also recognizes that his sins (and theirs) are the root cause.  In Lamentations 1:14, he says,

My [our] sins have been bound into a yoke;
            by [God's] hands they were woven together.
They have come upon my [our] neck
             and the Lord has sapped my [our] strength.
He has handed me [us] over to those I [we] cannot withstand.

Like the writer of the song, Amazing Grace, Jeremiah sees God's grace in allowing the pain.  "Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved," says John Newton.

Both Jeremiah and John Newton recognized that only pain, coming as a consequence of our waywardness, will lead us back to a place of peace and joy in fellowship with God.

The truth is, anxiety and depression are symptoms of a heart problem. They come into our lives when we have allowed the wrong things to become the center of our focus and our worship.

St. Augustine says, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

So here is both the cause and the cure for depression and anxiety:

Jesus says, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul."

And then he tells us how to do that: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."  

When we feel the pain of restlessness and anxiety in our hearts, it's a sign that we need to turn to the only One worthy of our love and worship. 

We need to make sure that Christ is at the center of our lives.

This first step is essential.  No human heart will feel release from the pain of anxiety and depression until it is centered properly.  Once this matter has been settled, besetting sins will lose their power and we will experience an unbelievable peace and joy at a deep, deep level that cannot be disturbed by any circumstances in our lives.

Next post will talk about the mopping up process of getting rid of those pesky besetting sins.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Four Types of Besetting Sins and Three Reasons to Avoid Them!

What is a besetting sin?

A besetting sin is anything that dethrones the legitimate ruler of our hearts. 

Basically, a besetting sin is an idol. 

If you are a believer, you have chosen to allow Jesus Christ to sit on the throne of your life.  He is the only rightful ruler of any human heart, and any attitude or action that disturbs His presence there, at the center, is a sin.  When that sin is allowed to remain, it becomes a habit, or a besetting sin.

Besetting sins begin with an attitude.  Sometimes a heart attitude, itself, is the sin, and other times the attitude leads to actions that are sinful.  In any case, when the attitude becomes engrained in our spirits, it becomes a besetting sin.

Ø Pride is the mother of all sins.  Pride puts the self on the throne, and so is the ultimate expression of sin.  It's the sin that was, and still is, Satan's downfall, and it's the one we have the most trouble with.  Pride is probably the basis of most sinful attitudes. 

Ø Worry or fear is pride refusing to trust God, hanging on to our own ability to fix things in our lives or the lives of others we love.  My worry about finances is an example of this kind of fear. Worry is rejecting the reality that God is lovingly sovereign in our lives and in this world.  Ultimately, it's rejecting Him.

Ø Lust replaces God's lordship in our lives with physical comforts.  It's turning to inadequate substitutes for the peace and joy He wants to give us.

Ø Obstinacy is another form of pride that refuses to soften, or give in to God or to others.  One of the most dangerous manifestations of obstinacy is a stubborn refusal to forgive others for wrongdoing against us.  An unforgiving heart is a diseased heart that will lead to physical or mental disease if it's not dealt with.

So why should we be concerned with besetting sins? 

We should care about besetting sins for three reasons:

The first is our own well-being.

Ø Besetting sins, or idols, make us miserable. 

Come to me and I will give you rest--all of you who work so hard beneath a heavy yoke. Wear my yoke--for it fits perfectly--and let me teach you; for I am gentle and humble, and you shall find rest for your souls; for I give you only light burdens.  Matthew 11:28

Let' face it.  The most powerful incentive for change in our lives is discomfort.  We are self-centered people.  We are constantly seeking our own happiness and comfort.

That's not a bad thing.  It's a reflection of what God wants for us.  He loves us.  He created us for joy and peace.  That's why, when we feel uneasy or unhappy, we instantly think something's not right. 

Lack of peace and joy is a sign our lives have gotten off center--out of kilter.  And the only way to remain in the peace and joy God has intended for us is to make sure He remains on center stage in our lives.  We won't be happy with anything less.

The second reason we should be concerned about besetting sins is for the benefit of others.

Ø God's purpose for us is to bless others. 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.     Philippians 2:3-4

When we are plagued with besetting sins, our attention is on our own misery and our energies are expended on fixing our own problems.  We have no time to think about others, and how we might be used in building up their peace and joy.  

God means for us to minister to others--those who are fellow believers and those who are still outside God's family. Being used by God to lead others into His joy and peace is one of the reasons He created us, and nothing contributes more to our own well being than fulfilling that purpose.

There is no greater joy than introducing peace and joy into another person's life.

The third reason for avoiding besetting sins is probably the most important one. 

Ø Our peace and joy gives God pleasure.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.    Jeremiah 29:11

God loves us. 

Let me repeat that one more time: GOD LOVES US! 

Why is that so hard for us to believe?  God means good for us.  Only good.

The Westminster Catechism says that the "chief end" of human beings is "to glorify God (display His beauty) and enjoy Him forever."  Our joy and peace is God's ultimate goal for our lives.  When we are happy, God is happy. 

As we come to know God, and begin to experience Him in all His goodness, our hearts yearn to make Him happy--to glorify Him--to reflect His beauty.  So, though our initial reason for dealing with our besetting sins is selfish, our ultimate reason is God's delight.  When that reason becomes uppermost in our hearts, besetting sins will not have a chance to survive in our lives.