Sunday, June 25, 2017

Loren Swartzendruber: "Believe or Trust?"

Texts: Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Romans 6:1b-11

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In retrospect it may have been driven by a kind of mid-life intellectual crisis. The sort of mid-life crisis for which a convertible sports car is not necessarily an effective answer. (Which is not say to I don’t dream about one.)

It was about 20 years ago. Chapel service at Hesston College. The title of the message was, “This I Believe.” The thesis was, the older I get, the more deeply I believe in some things, but the more I question some other beliefs that I’ve held tightly for many years. The experiences of our lives have a tendency to complicate things. 

Easy answers, formulaic cliches, yes or no responses, seem inadequate in the face of complex realities.

As a professing follower of Jesus I said that I have become more deeply committed to non-violence and peacemaking. Perhaps it’s easier to contemplate laying down one’s life in older adulthood than as a 20 year old whose life presumably still stretches far into the future.

The idea that following Jesus is best lived in the context of a community of faith holds more weight than it might have earlier. Walking through the joys and challenges of parenting makes one keenly aware of the need for others to mentor our children and grandchildren in the faith. This I believe more deeply than ever.

Our long-held affirmation of commitment to the Kingdom of God that supersedes allegiance to any earthly political entity means far more to me now than it did when I was baptized at the age of 16.

On the other hand, life happens. Untimely deaths underscore that God doesn’t always provide physical healing in ways we might have expected. We rightly pray for protection for our loved ones but bad things still occur.

On the Saturday of Easter weekend I attended the memorial service for MJ Sharp in Kansas. How does one make sense of the senseless? Last Sunday I cried as a read reflections from his father John—written on the first Father’s Day since MJ’s brutal murder. 

Members of our congregation have gone through similar agonizing experiences. Some things I believe more deeply—other things I hold much more lightly.

The response to that chapel address at Hesston College—spoken from the very spot where MJ’s service was held—was unexpected. It was surprising in two ways. First, that the students were actually listening rather carefully. Apparently they were curious to know what a college administrator actually believes! Or, if he believes anything!

The second reaction was even more unexpected. The schedule was such that everyone went directly to the cafeteria for lunch from the chapel service. Within a few hours an email came from a few students with a list of questions. Over the following few days a number of opportunities came to have some in-depth theological conversations.

At the heart of the students’ discomfort was the fundamental assumption that maturing in faith is synonymous with depth of conviction about one’s beliefs. From their perspective certainty is positively correlated with faith development. 

In their minds, as mostly first and second year college students, a 40-something adult who has been a declared follower of Jesus for more than 2 decades should, by definition, have “figured it out.” For a “mature” adult to confess there are more questions about some aspects of faith, rather than fewer, was unsettling.

Fortunately, at least for some of the students, there was an interest in continuing the conversation and, a few days later, a group came to our house for several hours of discussion about these and other questions. 

Fast forward to a little more than a year ago. About three years after Greg Boyd’s book, “Benefit of the Doubt” was published my then 93 year old father was failing physically. The full title of Boyd’s book is “Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idolatry of Certainty.” My Dad was wrestling with questions of certainty, surely not uncommon when having huge amounts of time to anticipate death.

Boyd challenges the idea that a person's faith is as strong as it is certain. He invites us to embrace a faith that doesn't strive for certainty, but rather for commitment in the midst of uncertainty. 

Boyd dares to suggest that the mind-set in which our top priority is to be certain is misguided, self-indulgent, idolatrous, and even dangerous. But as he puts it, “I completely understand why a multitude of believers try to cling to it. It feels good!

Another theologian Peter Enns, now on faculty at Eastern University, takes a slightly different tack in his book, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. 

Enns points to the Biblical story for many examples of patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith who finally had to rely on trust in God rather than beliefs.

He reminds us of Job’s well known saga, and he exegetes the familiar text in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.”

The heart, as Enns notes, is the center of one’s will. It is a decision to place trust in God even in the face of human limitations on knowledge and understanding.

Our Scriptures are replete with this most human dilemma. Created in God’s image, it is no surprise that you and I are gifted with the capacity and desire to know—to seek truth, to understand, to explain, to be curious. So far as we know, this insatiable desire “to know” is one attribute that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

From the early days of childhood, through the example of Old Testament Job and his friends, to the New Testament story of the man at the Pool of Siloam, the persistent question is, “Why?” Why is the sky blue? But, why? Why did Job suffer? Who sinned, this man or his parents? Why is he lame?

For generations this drive to know has generally yielded positive outcomes. It is, for the most part, an exciting time to be human. On any given day one can read about new discoveries in our universe—amazed by the vastness of the cosmos, stunned by the growing awareness of what a tiny speck this earth is as compared to the galaxies. (Someone told me this week that the Astrophysics Observatory at Harvard University employs 900 people. My immediate thought was, no wonder they’re finding new galaxies every few months!)

Or go in the other direction on the same day—to delve deeper into the most tiny aspects of cellular and molecular structures. Most of us carry in our pockets a device that utilizes more computer power than was incorporated in the Apollo 11 spacecraft that carried Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.

When we moved to eastern PA a decade later I had a conversation with a member of our congregation about that moon landing and she insisted that it was simply a program on TV. When Neil Armstrong spoke at a prayer breakfast here in H’burg a few years ago I told him that story and he just chuckled.

We all benefit in many ways from this human drive to know. Incidentally, this is where the deep distrust of science in segments of our culture makes little sense. There is evidence all around us of scientific agnosticism and yet most everyone seeks medical attention when needed!

It is perfectly logical, then, to seek knowledge and certainty in one’s spiritual journey. Therein lies a most vexing conundrum—at the very core of being human is the deep desire to “know,” to be certain, but we are simultaneously stymied by the limitations of our humanness. Ultimately, if one is intellectually honest, we are confronted by the boundaries of human capacity to fully know without a shadow of doubt.

Boyd puts it this way. As people of faith, you and I should always be willing to accept our human limitations and to say, “This I believe about such and so, but I may be wrong.” To assert that there is no possibility that one be wrong is to have crossed the line from humanness to deity (my paraphrase).

Boyd further offers what seems to me is an important caveat to the search for truth. If I am in a search for truth, which is a very human endeavor, and I say I have found the truth, I am by definition no longer in a search for truth because I’ve found it! Call off the search. What a wonderful achievement—the greater my certainty the greater my faith maturity—and all be well. Except it never quite works out that way in real life, unless one chooses to live in a bubble that does not allow for any questions that might challenge that certainty.

That was the debate that was apparently going on in my Dad’s mind as his body slowly deteriorated and he wanted to die. He professed faith in Jesus. He knew what he believed about many things. His life was a testimony to his faith. As a young man he served his country through Civilian Public Service.

After returning from CPS he became a partner in a farm implement business and as a businessman he expressed values that were rooted in his understanding of discipleship. In the end, however, like all of us will some day face, he had to confront the reality that his certainties were different from some of his friends and neighbors. And that begged the question, who is right? A question that none of us can fully answer within the confines of our humanness.

In both the OT texts for today, from Jeremiah and from the Psalms, we see the prophet and the Psalmist wresting with those who would wish them harm and ill will. They have responded to such threats within the norms of human tendencies—why me? Where are you? Have I not proven my faithfulness?

It’s not a stretch for any of us to appreciate the questions that Jeremiah, and Job, and the Psalmist would be asking in the face of their real life experiences as individuals. If you and I haven’t asked those questions one could logically assume one of several possibilities, 1) we haven’t lived very long, or 2) we aren’t yet willing to be intellectually honest about our circumstances.

Let me also suggest that the invitation to trust God is also meaningful in a context much larger than any of us as individuals. We live in an era where the foundations of our culture and society seem shaky. We find ourselves stepping carefully over what seems to be uneven ground. 

The picture on the front of our bulletin this morning illustrates our current reality. It is a photo taken by Junior MYFer Miriam Rhodes, a photo of her brother Adam’s feet. It won a prize in a national competition and was displayed in the residence of former Vice President Biden. Notice how carefully Adam appears to be navigating his way across a sort of chasm. 

Many of us find ourselves in such a place metaphorically. It’s not exactly like we are walking on even, solid terrain. We take a step at a time, sometimes testing, sometimes tentatively, with slight hesitation. We’re not totally sure we can trust that which is beneath us. What seemed not long ago to be fully trustworthy is now subject to question and reinterpretation. Institutions that were viewed positively are frequently cast in a negative light. 

The erosion of trust is deep. It is almost certainly the case that we are experiencing an extreme swing of the pendulum. We should remind ourselves, however, that perceptions of trustworthiness are dramatically shaped by one’s socio-economic, gender, and race position in society. I dare say that a current political slogan like “Make America Great Again,” carries very different meaning for some than for others—and for some it is absolutely meaningless, even frightening.

Our current situation, our “sitz im leben” so to speak, begs the question, “In whom do we trust?” It is a question relevant to each of us as individuals and to us as a collective body. It is perhaps one of the most foundational questions any of us will ever ask. And the answer is both simple and profound. After all, it is imprinted on our pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, “In God we Trust.” 

I enjoy irony and that has to rank as a great irony—on the one hand we could suggest that every day we have the opportunity to be reminded that our trust lies in God, every time we reach into our pocket to pay for something. Of course, at my age unless I have my bifocals on and specifically look for the phrase I won’t actually see it!

For citizens of a nation that spends more on military budgets than the next 13 countries combined—to brazenly print on our currency that we trust in God—is perhaps the definition of irony. Or chutzpah!

Let me suggest that, just like Job, and Jeremiah, and Jesus, “In God we trust,” should be printed on our lives—but with several amendments for clarification.

To claim that we trust in God is not an excuse to dodge responsibility. That could be what we really mean. Things are bad, everything is horrible, no one can be trusted, but I trust in God and all will be well.

Several years ago I was participating in a board meeting of the Evangelical Environmental Network, an educational and lobbying organization that addressing the very real and damaging impact of climate change.

We were eating dinner together the night before our board meeting when a server asked who we were and why we were meeting. Our president, Mitch Hescox (who has spoken here at Park View) briefly explained our mission. Her immediate response was something like, “First off I’m not sure I believe that climate change is happening. Secondly, even if it is happening, I trust God to take care of it.” 

I wanted to ask whether she will look both ways before crossing the street on her way home from work—after all, why can’t I trust God to stop the traffic for my protection?

Another caveat. To trust in God is not the same as saying that no matter what happens it is God’s will. One of my first cousins, just two years older than me, died early Thursday morning after a short battle with cancer. I have little doubt that he trusted God. We had a 20 minute conversation two weeks ago, and I heard him express both a desire for healing and a certain level of readiness to accept what might come. He and all of us prayed for physical healing. 

I may be in the minority but I’m not ready to say that God wills death or disease or hunger or disability or abuse or anything that does not represent God’s shalom. So long as we are restricted by our humanness, we are subject to negative realities.

A third clarification. To suggest that trusting God should supersede our reliance on beliefs is not to say that beliefs are meaningless. Just because some people in our society don’t understand science doesn’t negate the reality of gravity—or dare I say it, the scientifically settled reality of climate change.

Beliefs are absolutely important. But they are clearly framed in the context of an individual’s place in society, and they are, at their essence, bounded by our finite limits as human beings. As the Apostle Paul put it so succinctly, “We see through a glass darkly.” In our day he might describe it as standing in front of a cracked mirror.

Georg Neumark was a 17th century German who lived during the time of the Thirty Years' War, when social and economic conditions were deplorable. He had personal trials as well. On his way to university studies he was robbed of nearly all his possessions. During the next two years he spent much of his time looking for employment. He finally secured a tutoring position. When he had saved enough money, he returned to the University where he studied for five years. And then again he lost all his belongings, this time in a fire. 

In the midst of these challenges he wrote the hymn I invite us to sing, “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee.”

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