I Used to Have Faith

On July 1st 2011, I began my fifth year as pastor at Asbury Church.   To be honest with you, it seems a whole heck of a lot longer than that..   Those Sundays, where I could awake, and approach the day with a question like “Do I really want to go to church today?” seem like a million years ago.  

I often find myself thinking about that first weekend.   I can remember being stressed as all get out on the Saturday prior to my first Sunday here.   I had no idea what to expect, or how I was going to be received, and I had no idea whether this great pulpit adventure would be successful or not.

I remember sitting in my living room, surrounded by boxes.  We had just moved into our new house a week or two prior, and had yet to have our furniture delivered.    I remember saying to myself;  “What had you gotten yourself into?”    “How did this happen?”   There were a whole slew of things I was scared and stressed about.  To top all that off, in just a few hours I would be delivering my first sermon at Asbury.

I knew that if I relaxed that next morning, I could deliver a halfway decent sermon.  I was once told that if you speak honestly and as a normal person about the struggles and successes of faith, people would respond. I was comfortable the congregation wouldn’t fall asleep or run me out of town during that first sermon.     Yet at the same time, I was also aware of the reality that the weekly message is often the smallest part of being a pastor.   

What truly stressed me out the most was what was bound to happen after service was done.  I kept asking myself how I am going to handle the bad time.  How was I going to respond when someone looked to me, to be the person to stand with them, alongside them, or for them when life got dark and hard?     I found myself asking if I was ready for that.

I think the safest answer to that question is no.   

I don’t think we are ever truly ready.  Very early on, I found a quote from some unknown author that summed up the role of people of faith in these situations perfectly.   The quote reminds us that we are not to have all the answers, or to have the right tools to make the pain and grief go away, but rather, as the quote says we are to “Show up, be present, and allow our hearts to break”.   

I use that quote frequently.   It reminds me that I don’t have the answers and that no matter what I shouldn’t pretend too.    In the end, what matters is that when any of us are faced with a situation where we are called to stand alongside someone who hurts, the words are not what are important.   It is our presence that matters.

There is a reality about faith.   When your faith is strong, others will see it in all you do.    If you live out your faith, in both word and action, people see in you, the people that they can come to or want to be with when they hurt or when they struggle.    Due to this fact alone, each of us will, at some point, be faced with the difficult questions, and we will be tempted with easy or cliché answers.    In the end, those standard replies will fall short; no matter how biblically or theologically sound.    The questions are too hard for easy answers.

The hard questions always begin with one unanswerable question; “Why?”   Why did she have to struggle so much?   Why did this disease take her?   Why did my spouse have to leave so early?   Why won’t my son realize the bad decisions he’s making?    Why did my husband cheat?   I once heard that if you listen and hear the word “why” in a sentence, what comes after reveals the harshest of doubts, fears, and struggles in a person’s heart.    I don’t know about that, but the toughest of situations I have faced always begin with that question;   Why?

Quite some time ago, I was sitting at table in the cafeteria of the factory that I work at with a Bible Commentary and a notebook spread before me.   I was using some free lunch time to work on a sermon.   It was too hot to work in the car, so the air conditioned lunchroom was perfect.  That afternoon a coworker who was nearing retirement, who we will call “Bob”, spotted the work on the table before me.  Bob was not someone who I was incredibly family with being one of the customer engineers residing on the other side of the building, but I knew him by name, and I also knew that he was a member of a Methodist church somewhere local.

On the same page, I have never hid what I do when I am not counting light bulbs.   As a matter of fact, I have my frame license from the United Methodist Church featured prominently in my office.   I keep it in a prominent position in my office to remind myself that in my life there should be no distinction between the secular and the holy.     Although I find myself constantly falling into the trap of referring to my 8-5job as my secular job, and Asbury as my “church” one, I see that license as the reminder that I don’t have two jobs; but rather one.   As people of faith, we only have one job: being a disciple of Jesus.   The reality is we just have different workplaces for that same job.

That certificate reminds me, especially when I am feeling less than holy, of who I am.    At the same time, it also reminds others about who I am.   Over the last three years, by nature of people realizing what I do, there have been many times when my office door has been closed, and people have shared some really hard or dark struggles.   I have chuckled that at times I have been more company chaplain than company forecaster.    I imagine that Bob saw the pastor when he saw me with the notebook at the cafeteria table and asked if he could join me.

He started off with a simple question.   He said:  “So you work as a minister too?, must be hard to juggle the two.”    Honestly that is usually the first statement that comes from people when they see the framed license or the Bible on the book shelf.   It so common a statement that I long ago come to a planned and formal response.   I tell folks that it’s not something I do in addition to this place….It’s my faith…Its who I am.   More times than not, this response is met with a smile, and a nod…and sometimes a moment of reflective silence.  In those moments, I can almost picture the person making a mental note to scratch my name off the list to share a beer at the local tavern after work.  

(On a side note, it’s funny that folks still equate having faith, as automatically creating this existence that means no beer, no playing cards, no dancing, no rock and roll, and no television.  As a bit of a disclaimer and hopefully not lowering your impression of me in anyway, I must confess that I am a fan of the occasional Bud Light [typically after a hard day of yard work], I once enjoyed Poker [having stopped playing not on religious grounds but rather because I am bad at it],  I dance in a way that although enjoyable is better at clearing a room than raising the level of celebration [Think Elaine from Sienfeld], I enjoy classic rock [I have a wide range of musical tastes that range from Frank Sinatra to Metallica], and the television is my best friend….   All this, however, is a topic for another message. )

Bob didn’t leave the conversation there.   Instead he added a simple statement, with his eyes cast down.   “I used to have faith.”

He went on to tell his story, which I will paraphrase this morning. 

I was active in a church, he said.  

I went almost every Sunday.   I volunteered for dinners and on the council.   When people were asked for help, I was always one of the first to raise my hand.   I did all of it, but that was when things were different.

We were just married and our daughter was only a few years old when we joined the church.    It is amazing how much life changes when a kid comes into the picture.    I realized that I needed to grow up.   I needed to succeed at business.   I needed to be the textbook provider.     I needed to be the role model.

I through myself into work, joined a church, and started to be the proverbial dad in the proverbial middle class family.   For the longest time, everything worked out just as I had planned.     It wasn’t always easy.   There was a lot of travel with work, and a lot of late night meetings, but the 401k and the college fund both grew.    I was, by the time I was 35, the man that I was supposed to be.  It was amazing how quickly it all changed though.  

He said this nervously fumbling with the sandwich in his hand, and for a few seconds I thought his silence indicated he had shared enough.   Thankfully, I said nothing and I waited for him to continue.  When he did, his face turned pained.

He was in Detroit when things changed.    He was in a hotel after having had a daylong meeting with engineers at Ford.   They had just landed a big contract on a SUV  and he was feeling like the hero at that moment.   Everything changed with a single phone call. 

It was a call from his wife that told him his daughter was riding her bicycle, when a driver didn’t see her, and struck her as he was making a corner.   She was killed instantly.   She was not quite 9 years old.  It that moment, he says his breath was stolen from his chest and has yet to fully return.

As a matter of fact, since that afternoon, whenever he closes his eyes he is tortured by the fact that he wasn’t there when she died.   He told me that for a long time he had trouble sleeping.   When sleep finally came, he we have to fight just as hard to get out of bed in the morning.   Every time he closed his eyes he would think of his little girl’s last moments. 

  • He would remember her laugh, and how it would light up a room.
  • He would remember how she could be so goofy one minute, and so quiet and reserved the next.
  • He would remember how she rushed to the door each time he came home.
  • He would remember how she looked so peaceful as she slept.

All these things reminded him that he was the man he was supposed to be at 35 and a broken man at 36.   He did try to find comfort in the church.   When a Pastor who didn’t know, or didn’t care enough, to know when to shut up, said it was a blessing that he was young and could have more kids, it was like he was sucker punched.   He didn’t want more kids, he wanted Melissa.   He didn’t want to start over.   No, he wanted a do-over.

If he knew that she would be taken from him, he would’ve done things different.

  • He wouldn’t have bought the cheaper swingset.   He would have emptied out his 401k to buy the Taj Mahal of swingsets.   She was a good kid and deserved it.
  • He wouldn’t have pushed play time off, but instead fallen on his hands and knees with every one of her toys, and may the kingdom of misfits toy right there in the kitchen.   There would have been no equal in size or scope.
  • He certainly wouldn’t have made such a big deal about vegetables left on her plate.    Instead he would have found the time to have picnics of cake and candy corn every now and then.

 If one thing was evident, it was that Bob was tormented by what he should’ve done.   He was tormented by questions.   Did she think he was a good father?   Did she know why he had to be gone from home so much?   Did she know how much he loved her?   Would he ever understand why?

I sat and listened to him for over an hour.  I had no answers then, and I still do not.   I would have liked to say that I turned him back to the church, but I didn’t.  He left the cafeteria still hating God and feeling as if he wasted all that time at church.   Like all of us, his question of why, still remained unanswered.   After more than two decades, he was still broken.   All he knew was that he would pay and do anything and everything to have one chance to do it all over again.    He would do it different.

There is a scripture that is read in the church once a year, and part of me wishes it should be read maybe three or four times.  It’s the story of Mary found in the Gospels of John 12, Matthew 26 and Mark 14.  (Click Here for the Message Translation version of this passage)

Before we recap it, most academics believe that the stories of Martha or Mary that are scattered throughout the pages of the Gospels, represent the actions or the lessons that we all need to learn as disciples and followers.     They are more than just a recapping of a particular moment in Jesus’ ministry.   As is the case with all the stories in the Bible, we are supposed to hear our own stories in their adventures.

In the stories of Martha and Mary throughout Scripture, one of the many voices I hear is Bob’s.

In the passage, Mary came face to face with God, and responds with over the top extravagance by washing Jesus’ feet with perfume and drying them with her hair.   The disciples are shocked, and some even decide then and there that Jesus is not for them.    In the end, Jesus honors the woman and her simple act.    In effect, he quiets the room.

Mary was a first hand witness to the love that defined who Jesus was, and she was radically and forever changed by it.   The same can be said for those that you and I love.    If we truly love someone, we are permanently changed.   We are not the same people anymore.   Whether it is the love for a spouse or our children or a friend, we are different people after we run head first into real love.  It has been said that we define ourselves in not only that which we treasure and that which we love, but how we respond.

Mary was no different.  She was completely changed by Jesus.   When she experiences and understands God’s love, she can’t help but be moved and to respond.  She responds in such an wonderfully, over the top way that those around to witness are made instantly to feel uncomfortable.   Perhaps it was jealousy that made them angry, or perhaps they wish they could experience what she did.   Either way, they didn’t know how to react.

(How do we respond to the Love that is shown us?)

What Mary did, Bob would have sold his soul to do for his daughter.   After Jesus, there would be no what “should have” or “could have” beens for Mary.    Mary responded completely to that love.  For Mary there will be no regrets.

(Are you living your life or traveling your faith journey so as there are no regrets?)

In  the end, that’s another thing we need to take away from the Martha and Mary stories.     There are times when we are certainly called to be Martha’s, or workers in the field.   We are called to serve Jesus by serving others.    We are to be mission and ministry workers, because love so radically and completely changed our lives.  We are to be the hands and feet of Jesus to this community.   This is our commission and our responsibility.

At the same time, we are called to be Mary’s.   We are called to sometimes just sit and listen.    We are called to respond to love with extravagance.    Maybe its these two things that make us the full disciple;  our willingness to serve and willingness to respond.

In the end, I believe this is one of the most important things we can take from Mary, this story, and even Bob.  When we meet love, we need to respond completely, totally, and extravagantly.     There doesn’t have to be dreams for do-overs and fresh starts if our perspective is in the right place.   Today, If you stop and realize that there is something  in your life that is in tilt, and there are relationships that are not in sync, than stop and take care of it today.   Respond in love.  If we respond as our heart commands there are no regrets.   If we are willing to respond as fully, as we are loved, than there can be no second guessing. 

We need to be a people fully and completely called to respond to the love found in the world around us, as well as the love found in our relationship with Jesus.

We have this tendency in our faith to make this whole God thing complicated.   We have made the Gospel message complex and complicated.   It doesn’t need to be that way.   The message that was delivered by Jesus was a simple one.   He calls us to the place where love can and will change everything.   That love is complete and pours out, not only towards God, but toward everything and everyone.   It that moment when we truly experience the love he has for us, we cannot help but be all about showing it to the world.   In that moment we become like Mary.

Over time I have come to believe that the Gospel is nothing if it is not an Extravagant Response to Extravagant Love.   Although I am far from the point where it shows through in all I do, I will hold on to that fact.    Certainly I fail, I fall, and sometimes I am a jerk.    In the end, the Gospel I chose, the Gospel I celebrate, and the Gospel that I have chosen to dedicate my life and my work to the one that is nothing more than the extravagant response to extravagant love.      I pray that however long the great pulpit experiment continues, I can invite the Bob’s of this world to experience that Gospel.    

 (Bob’s story has been changed enough to keep his story personal.   Although many of the details have changed, the general feel and impact of the story remains true. ~SMM)

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