A sermon preached on November 28th, 2010 — the first Sunday in Advent — based upon Matthew 1:18 – 23.
Every Tuesday morning six men from the church – myself included — gather at the Empire Diner for breakfast. We conclude by holding hands in a circle for a prayer asking for the grace to receive the day as a gift and do something good with it. Everybody leaves a little more cash than required for the food they ordered, and the money left over goes to the discretionary fund to help people who need emergency assistance.
I haven’t been to other Church men’s breakfasts, so I don’t know for sure what they are like, but I suspect ours is pretty unique. We talk about pretty much anything that comes to mind, and more often than not, that doesn’t involve talking about God and faith. And when we do talk about these things, our conversation is probably distinguished from what you find at other Church Men’s breakfasts.
Of the six men, five of us would identify ourselves as “believers;” one would not. In a certain sense the distinction is artificial, because in every person who identifies him or herself as a “believer”, there is always, if the person is willing to be honest — at times at least — a good dose of doubt mixed in as well. Atheism itself is a kind of faith as well, and I suspect that atheists aren’t without their doubts as well – that maybe, just maybe, there IS a God after all. The convictions claimed by faith speaks are ultimately beyond proof, so doubts go hand in hand with faith.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As one my favorite Christian authors, Frederick Buechner, puts it, “doubt is the ants in the pants in faith.” Doubts keeps faith lively, rather than stagnant. Doubts keep us questing, and as such, they serve a vital purpose.
And so our friend who shows up every Tuesday giving voice to doubts is a real gift to the group, even though he often apologizes for the things he says. And we have room in our circle for him, and not merely in a condescending sort of way. He’s kind of like the kid in the “Emperor has no Clothes” story, challenging us to not simply accept things because it’s the thing to do. If we try to put forth a thought that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, he lets us know.
So, he’s a real blessing. He pushes the question: “Why? Why do you believe in this God? Why do you believe in Jesus?” These are important questions to ask ourselves, and to have conversations about. Why, when it comes down to it, do we believe in a loving God — the God revealed in Jesus?
There are a variety of levels on which we can try to answer the question.
We can make an intellectual argument. Being something of an intellectual myself, I enjoy these kinds of conversations, bantering about whether it is reasonable or unreasonable to believe in God. There are some people for whom such a response can be helpful, but for the most part this isn’t the level on which faith is found convincing.
Some people may try to persuade another of God’s reality by quoting scripture, implying that if “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” But, unless you’ve already found reason to embrace the Bible, this line of thought won’t do much for you.
For the most part, our deepest reasons for believing arise out of our personal stories, our experiences, our autobiography, so to speak. I believe in God because the belief fits the experiences of my life. A large part of these experiences have to do with certain people I’ve encountered whose convictions and the integrity of their lives have rubbed off on me. (The same can be said, I’m sure for people whose faith is atheism.)
For most of us, the experiences to which we point to account for our faith aren’t the bolt from lightning kind (though I do find encouragement and comfort from hearing others speak of such experiences – the people with other-worldly near death experiences, for instances.) Most of us can only point to more subtle experiences: Odd coincidences that seem like more than coincidences… intuitions that we followed that turned out to be confirmed over time, seeming in retrospect like the voice of God.
If the Bible is going to have a part to play in the journey towards faith, it will be because we find ourselves able to relate to the characters in the stories we read there. We will find them credible – the sense that they are relating to life in this world as we experience it, while at the same time catching hold of something that arises from beyond this world.
Some times if you hang only around a certain kind of believer, you can get the mistaken notion that because of God and Jesus life is just hunky dory — that God is perpetually opening doors, finding parking spaces, and in general making for a smooth ride through life. Because of God, everything is peachy.
But that’s not what you find in the Bible. You find Joseph, for instance, hoping for a smooth ride through life. He’s going to live out his life in a small town far away from the troubles of the big city, marry a sweet girl, raising good-looking children. He’s learned carpentry – a good, recession-proof trade.
Life, they say, is what happens when you’re making plans. Suddenly Joseph discovers that his fiancée is pregnant, and it’s not his child.
He goes to bed convinced that life sucks and in the course of the night has a dream that convinces him that, as crazy as it seems, God has a big plan, and that Joseph has a part to play in that plan. He awakes convinced that going ahead with his marriage plans with his pregnant fiancée is the right thing to do.
The dream doesn’t suddenly make everything smooth — far from it. In short order Joseph and his bride end up homeless, and then soon after that, they’re on the run from a violent dictator intent on doing their baby some serious harm, like countless refugees in the world today.
And so you see, Joseph is dealing with the real world – not some kind of la-la land. It’s an often hard, painful world. Chances are, despite his underlying faith, there were doubts that persisted. Was the dream he had way back when just the result of some movie I saw, and nothing more? Who knows for sure?
Earlier I quoted Frederick Buechner, who penned the line about “doubts are the ants in the pants of faith”. His writings have been a help to me on my spiritual journey. He’s in his eighties now. Part of Buechner’s early childhood was spent not far from here in Essex Falls. His family was privileged, and yet there was a tragic underside to that privilege: Buechner’s father committed suicide when he was just a boy of twelve. The family never attended church, and Buechner was raised without any religious faith.
Buechner found comfort in the world of books, becoming an English major in college and publishing his first novel shortly thereafter. In his early twenties, he underwent a conversion of a sort. A lover of words, a certain turn of phrase that he heard a great New York City preacher speak in a sermon moved him to tears. (Later I heard Buechner say that we would do well to pay attention to the moments that move us to tears – God is speaking us in such moments.)
With the encouragement of the preacher, Buechner went on to enroll in seminary to explore what he had experienced in those tears, being ordained following his graduation as a Presbyterian minister. He spent ten years or so as a chaplain at a prep school, before moving to Vermont to devote himself full time to his writing.
He’s published several novels, as well as collections of sermons, but the books of his I’ve appreciated most were the memoirs he wrote reflecting on his life story, which from the outside, wasn’t particularly dramatic or exciting. I was struck by his capacity to write honestly about his own struggles and to glean deeper meanings to his story.
There were some odd coincidences that spoke to him along the way. He describes how – finding flying highly anxiety provoking – he stopped in an empty airport bar for fortification. At the seat at the bar where he happened to sit he found an old tie clasp engraved with his three initials. It was as if God had given him a sign that he had been anticipated.
He tells another story of a time when his daughter’s life was in danger as a result of anorexia. The very real possibility existed that she might starve herself to death as a result of this mental illness that afflicts certain teenage girls. He stood at a railroad crossing waiting for a train to pass, overwhelmed with his fears about his daughter, when he happened to look at the license plate of the car in front of him. “TRUST.” It was precisely the word he most needed to encounter at that moment. It didn’t matter when he found out later that the owner of the car was in banking – God, it seemed, had arranged for him to read the word “TRUST” at precisely that moment.
These are some words Buechner wrote that speak to me deeply. Maybe they will for you as well. Faith he writes,
“doesn’t know for certain about anything. Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward – less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting. Faith is journeying through space and time.”
“If someone were to come up and ask me to talk about my faith, it’s exactly that journey through space and time I’d have to talk about. The ups and downs of the years, the dreams, the odd moment, the intuitions. I’d have to talk about the occasional sense I have that life isn’t just a series of events causing other events as haphazardly as a break shot in a pool causes billiard balls to go off in many different directions, but that life has a plot the way a novel has a plot – that events are somehow leading somewhere. Whatever your faith may be, or my faith may be, it seems to me inseparable from the story of what has happened to us.”
Buechner’s words describe how it feels for me: “that life has a plot the way a novel has a plot – that events are somehow leading somewhere.”
Who is writing the story of our lives? We are encouraged to take responsibility for the writing of our life stories. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we were asked when we were young. But along the way, with so many unexpected twists and turns, perhaps we have the sense that there is another author at work at a deeper level in the writing of our stories.
In the familiar Christmas story, God is writing a story of redemption, enlisting characters for his story. You get the impression that the characters have some freedom to turn him down. Mary is pregnant with child of the holy spirit. Will she embrace the destiny the angel Gabriel announces? “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Joseph is ready to walk away from the script. Who can blame him? This isn’t his child. God sends the angel in the dream to tell him not to walk away from the story. He’s needed as the child’s earthly father and protector. Even so, Joseph could have said, “Hell no, I’m out of here.” What then? God’s redemption story would still have gotten written, but it would have required some detours in the plot.
If it is true that there is a plot to life, that our lives are, in spite of the twists and turns, heading somewhere – to that mystery that is the Kingdom of heaven – than there is always hope.
The question for each of us is – will we embrace the part that we have been given to play in God’s great redemption story? No one can answer this for us.