A church here in Starkville has a puzzling saying posted on its sign: “Faith Changes Facts.” Since I drove past the other day, I’ve been wondering what that sentence could possibly mean, and more than that, why anybody thought it necessary to say such a thing.

Does whoever selected the slogan intend for us to think that faith can nullify natural laws or alter uncomfortable realities? If I believe I won’t be hurt if I jump off a high building, does my faith do away with the effects of gravity? If my loved one has cancer that is resistant to treatment, does my conviction that there is no such thing as cancer send the disease into remission?

Or maybe the congregation is weighing in on the constant battle over “evolution vs. creation.” Just because I might not want to believe that apes and humans came from a common ancestor or that organisms change and adapt to their environments over time or that the earth is billions of years old, does that render scientific evidence for all these assertions wrong and trumped-up?

Please! Faith doesn’t change facts. That’s not what faith is for. Faith gives us strength to face facts, to accept our inoperable cancer and die with dignity; to move through the long, dark night of grief with the assurance that mourning will be turned to dancing; to look in the mirror and see that aging visage staring back at us and know that we are not defined by how we look or what we have, but by how we live. Then we trust God to guide us today and the next day and the next.

The sentence on the church signboard is nothing more than childish magical thinking, the common idea that if you believe something hard enough and repeat it long enough, it will happen. Mature biblical faith by contrast is robust and realistic; it leads us out into a world that doesn’t always work to our benefit or the way we think it should, and we go because we have confidence that in the midst of those uncomfortable realities, we meet God, working his will and showing his love.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

Advertisements

“You will know them by their fruits…. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:16a, 21).

…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

I attended a funeral recently in a nearby town. Preachers of two denominations–one fundamentalist, the other old mainline–were handling the service. I was saddened to hear the minister from the latter actually having to defend the religion Jesus taught and practiced, namely love God, love your neighbor, against the rigid doctrinal orthodoxy of his local colleagues and their parishioners, one of whom had also spoken.

But if I felt sad, I also was proud of the man. It could not have been easy being the lone voice for the true gospel in a town of truncated faith where apparently most people equated believing the right thing with being a Christian.

How did we get in this fix? How is it that so many think assent to an idea is all it takes? Jesus’ clear call was not to doctrinal purity, but to faithful discipleship that does what he did. He focused on relationships, meeting needs, reaching out to the unwelcome and left out. It was his enemies and critics that insisted on strict adherence to rules and regulations and forgot about serving people whom God loves.

I think I know at least one reason why so many favor credal orthodoxy over engaged faith. (Ironic that those who claim to have no creed but the Bible are actually the ones most tied to credal statements!) It’s a way to hold God at arm’s length rather than truly opening ourselves to him in Jesus Christ. It’s the same as reading a book but never meeting the author, liking the idea of marriage without ever popping the question to your beloved. It spares us vulnerability and demand and suffering. And it makes us feel superior to know the right answers, according to us; we can exclude all those who don’t measure up.

Nothing could be farther from the faith Jesus taught and lived! Saving faith engages us with the world God loves and for whom Jesus died. It sends us out to do what Jesus did.

Saving faith is not merely knowing something about the Bible, such as its claim that the stone was rolled away on Easter morning, and the tomb was empty. Nor is it even assent to a statement interpreting that event, such as that Jesus was raised from the dead. Saving faith is saying “Jesus was raised for me.” It’s trust in a person, not the affirmation of an idea. And such trust sends us out to bear fruit for the kingdom.

So I say to that brave colleague among his self-assured, misguided brothers: “Preach on!”

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

Recently I was considering updating my Internet browser. I had tried to do that once before, but apparently downloaded the Beta version of the software. Big mistake! My computer was totally FUBAR afterwards.

 

So I turned to Alston, my friend and go-to guy for IT, and asked about the safety of the program. He told me things should be fine, but just in case my computer experienced problems, I should create a “system restore point.” If the software didn’t “play nice,” he said, I had a way of returning my computer to the way it was before the bugs took over. 

 

I have yet to try to install the update, but in the meantime, I’ve realized that providing a “restore point” is a pretty good description of what God has done in Christ on the cross. Things are obviously terribly wrong with humanity. The “system” is full of “bugs” or really just one big Bug called “sin.” It’s responsible for everything from the greed and corruption of Wall Street to the anger of parent and teen against each other to the intolerance and hatred of “religious” people toward those who are different or of another faith.

 

Sin is not wrong acts. Those are symptoms of the root problem, what the Reformed tradition calls “radical depravity.” Sin is a broken relationship with God. Once that basic “operating system” is compromised, all sorts of terrible things happen. We’re alienated from each other and refuse to share in community and harmony with our neighbors. We fail to live out of our own best nature, which is to express the love and justice of the God who made us.

 

But in some way I don’t pretend to fully understand, the cross of Christ repaired the brokenness. What Jesus did on the cross set in motion the process that will end in the restoration of all creation to the way God intended it to be. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” said Paul (2 Corinthians 5:19).

 

Obviously, the time when the new creation comes is not yet, though we hope fervently for everything to be restored soon. In the interim, we can still look to the cross as our “restore point” where our faith in God can be made whole again, before doubt and fear took over. When we despair that anyone anymore acts selflessly: look at the cross. When we wonder if God cares: look at the cross. When feel burdened by sin: look at the cross. And be renewed, refreshed, restored.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

This post is the final one in a series based on my recent sermon “The Debt of Love,” preached at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Northport, Alabama.

“The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).

The Book of Leviticus says that correcting or rebuking someone about their behavior is an expression of love (Leviticus 19:17). The Gospel of Matthew (18:15-20) gives an example of such loving admonishment in the community of faith. Someone has wronged another member of the church. What is to be done? There are several options. The one wronged could stew about the grievance and hold a grudge. He or she could spread rumors about the offending brother or sister. Or the hurt one could do the unthinkable: go to the person who committed the offense and talk. Love wants a relationship to be made whole again. Love that does no harm knows that a sister or a brother is harmed by being alienated from another, whether he or she knows it or not. The one who was hurt is harmed, too, because he or she doesn’t have a proper relationship with the other member. Wholeness is found in community. The purpose of the conversation, as difficult and painful as it may be, is to regain a positive relationship. Love leads us to seek out those who have done us wrong and talk seriously about what happened.

None of us likes to talk about things that are unpleasant. Sometimes we’d rather sweep problems under the rug. We seem to believe that if we ignore them long enough, they’ll go away, like a stray dog who comes around wanting food and a scratch behind the ears. And ignoring a problem works. For awhile. But if that’s our standard method of conflict management, we’re in for a rude surprise. One day, like a volcano, it will all erupt—all the pain, all the anger, all the frustration, and for the slightest of reasons. Except that what we see as a triviality is really a trigger.

My first time in seminary, I shared a house with three other guys named Jim, Ernie, and John. I barely knew John and Ernie; they seemed to be gone most of the time. But Jim and I got to be good friends. Some of the things I did rubbed him the wrong way and vice-versa. But I was brought up to be nice; you simply didn’t say things to people. Talk about them behind their backs, yes, but not to their face!

But one day I had had it. For some reason, the way Jim answered the phone pushed some button. All my anger and frustration and irritation focused on the silly way Jim pronounced “hello.” I confronted him, and we had it out about all the issues that I had had and he had had since we met. Our friendship was actually stronger after that. I had gained a brother.

Paying the debt of love isn’t easy. But Paul is convinced that trying to fulfill every detail of the law would be harder still. He should know. He tried and failed, as did his peers. Better to have one focus, one ultimate calling, one principle that guides us in every situation. People in debt try to consolidate all their payments into one monthly amount to one company. Rather like that, we follow this one summary statement that fulfills all the requirements of God: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We can’t live such a life in our own strength. And we don’t have to. The good news is always that we are not alone and that we don’t need to be afraid. Whether we’re gathered in a little group of two or three, in a megachurch filled with thousands, or anywhere in between, Jesus has promised to be among us. Prayer holds us up, as do our sisters and brothers. Faith in God’s purpose gives us hope. And so we can go out to love.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham