Fret not - let your faith take you deeper

NOTE: My worship notes for Sunday, October 3, 2010. This is World Communion Sunday in my tradition - also very close to St. Francis' Feast Day, too - and I am bringing my series on the feast of God's love to a close in two more weeks. This message considers what the feast of God's grace has to offer us when it comes to the stages of fath (a la James Fowler.) I am also concerned about how the pendulum has swung too far towards the primacy of feelings in our corrective to the more sterile and academic faith concepts of a previous generation. The two primary texts are Psalm 37 and Luke 17: 5-6.

There is a little tune by Yusuf Islam – those of us of a certain generation know him better as Cat Stevens – that is both a prayer for calming the soul and a call for deeper faith. In a way, it mirrors parts of all our readings for today…

I listen to the wind – to the wind of my soul
Where I’ll end up well I think, only God really knows
I sat upon the setting sun but never, never, never, never…
I never wanted water once: no, never, never, never

I listen to my words but they fall far below
I let my music take me where my heart wants to go
I swam upon the devil’s lake but never, never, never, never…
I’ll never make the same mistake: no, never, never, never

Verse one says that even when we don’t know where the Lord is leading us, do not fret for it is God’s nature to provide. Psalm 37 advises that we take delight in the Lord so that God can give us the desires of our hearts, because God will not let us down regardless of what our feelings might suggest.

• And verse two notes that when our understanding of the Lord is incomplete – when we feel like the disciples who cried out, “Lord, give us more faith” – the grace of God replies “be still before the Lord.” There is no such thing as “more or less faith.” Rather, there are stages of faith that even our mistakes can help us comprehend.

Behold the tiny mustard seed – or in our world the poppy seed – which represents the first stage of faith. In time, this little kernel can mature and cause great things to happen, but not all at once. In fact, it usually takes a lifetime of practice doing ordinary and unspectacular things before we ripen and bear fruit, yes?

We have mistakes to make. We have small and regular acts of fidelity and service to share with one another. We have ordinary people to love when they – or we – are unlovable. And we have hearts to nourish and train at the feast of God’s grace that are often restless and bored and not just a little selfish. We have, in other words, stages of faith to explore – not more faith or less – but stages of faith.

And the more we learn to rest – or trust – in the Lord, the greater our capacity for experiencing and sharing God’s peace. “Do not fret” the Psalmist urges three times in nine verses, because it always leads to trouble.

• Literally the word “fret” in Hebrew – charah (חָרָה) – means to burn or kindle oneself into a fit of anger and agitation. Did you hear that? It is less about worrying and more about getting “all worked up” or even infuriated from the Latin word infuriato meaning to become maddened into a fury.

• Now unless I miss the mark, most of us don’t have to practice being agitated or working ourselves up, right? It is organic. In fact, some of us may have already matriculated from the university of under-graduate anger and are ready to start an advanced course in irritation and resentment.

Small wonder the poet counsels the polar opposite – fret not and take up waiting patiently for the Lord – for this how our faith matures and grows deeper. In fact, the scholarly consensus on Psalm 37 is that “the real danger isn’t the emotions of getting intensely worked up or even consumed by the problems of the world. No, it is the self-harm we do to our relationship with God that results from bringing this state of being onto ourselves!” (Robert Morris, Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina @ )

Don’t get me wrong or misconstrue what I am saying:

• Arguing with the Lord is not the problem here: think of Abraham challenging God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if he could find even 12 just and loving people amidst all the wickedness.

• Nor is being angry with God a sign of infidelity: consider Job’s outburst and tirade when he was at wit’s end or even Christ’s cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

It isn’t anger or confusion that is the spiritual problem of Psalm 37. Rather, it is what happens when we consistently let our emotions carry us away from trusting in God’s love. Remember that when Abraham challenged the Lord’s judgment, when Job screamed about his experience with God’s absence and when Jesus cried out in agony and despair as the nails pierced his flesh: they were expressing a lover’s argument with the Beloved. They may have wept and cursed and felt abandoned, but they also trusted…

… and trusting God in the midst of trouble is very different from letting our emotions become the Lord of our hearts, don’t you think? Sometimes it happens to us all – it is another stage of our faith – where we have to call everything we knew as a child into question and maybe let it go. How did St. Paul put it in I Corinthians: when I was a child, I spoke like a child and thought like a child and acted like a child… but now that I have grown-up I have… what? Put childish things away.

Questioning and arguing with God – wrestling with doubt – is a natural stage of faith development. What’s more, we all get caught up in our feelings from time to time. Like Cat Stevens sang, “I swam upon the devil’s lake” but then quickly adds, “but I’ll never, never make that same mistake.” Such is a part of growing deeper in faith.

Not so with letting ourselves become enslaved or even addicted to our feelings and fears until they take over and take charge. For then we are no longer in a lover’s argument with the Lord – we’ve given up trust – so that fretting has become our master. Are you with me here? Do you sense the distinction between sometimes get caught up in fear and anger – which can help us go deeper into faith – and being addicted to fear and anger so that they consistently replace trust?

To go deeper in faith – to nourish trust – the wise, old poet of Psalm 37 gives us two assignments: practice being still before the Lord and learn to wait patiently for God’s presence – and neither is as passive as they sound in our English translations.

+ You see, to be still before the Lord – literally to be struck dumb in awe of God – damam דָּמָם – is an act of contemplation, ok? It is learning to look for God’s presence in the ordinary events of real life and respond in wonder.

+And to wait patiently upon the Lord – chuwl חוּל – is to pause in longing expectation – to tremble before God’s grace – knowing that the fear and anger and injustice we see now is NOT God’s final word.

Dare I say that to wait patiently on the Lord is to nourish a sacred sense of imagination so that we might see the world as God intends for it to be rather than accept the mess we have created?My hunch is that this was the faith Jesus was describing to his disciples when he spoke of the mustard seed. They wanted MORE faith – they wanted clarity – and certainty – and maybe even the assurance that they were making progress. One preacher put it like this:

Like many of us we want faith to make everything better. Some seek a mystical (and trans- formational) experience, a faith that works like a drug to help us get through life’s ordinary challenges. Some aspire to faith as an antidote to struggle. With enough faith, the televangelists tell us, all doubt and illness and even economic hardship can be conquered. ( )

But Jesus says: No… no, no, no, no – never, never, never, never. Faith is NOT about more or less – it is like a tiny seed with stages of growth – and you can go deeper or remain shallow. Faith is cultivating a deeper relationship with God – learning to trust more profoundly – rather than looking for a new drug or a quick fix. And most of the time that means doing very ordinary and simple things: like being still so that you nourish awe instead of complaints or waiting patiently in creative imagination.

Fr. Ed Hays of the Community of Shantivanum – which means Forrest of Peace – once put it like this: to grow in faith and move beyond the tyranny of our feelings means we must learn the wisdom of our wounds. God gave us feelings, you see, for a reason and we best not neglect or deny them. But feelings are not God and until we learn the wisdom of our wounds they may enslave us. So like the wise, old the Psalmist, he notes: whenever our broken hearts or wounded souls tell us to do one thing, it is usually God’s grace that we do the opposite.

• If our fear kicks in and tells us to run away, it would be best to stay put and engage; if our anger impels our tongue to lash out with cruel words, it would be better to shut up and listen then make things worse.

• If we are afraid to take a stand and seek to slink away into the woodwork, it would probably be better to stand up for the cause of justice and grow in courage.

And if we don’t know what to do and doubt God’s presence – or even wonder what it is that God might be asking from us – rather than act in ignorance or arrogance, it would be best to wait upon the Lord and practice some creative imagination. For then – in God’s time rather than our own – we will grow and mature in faith. And that is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.



Black Pete said…
Lots here, RJ. Trust in God is a big issue for a lot of people, I suspect, especially after WW II. Fr. Hays! Haven't heard from him in a long time. I wonder if he is still living?
RJ said…
I think he is, Black Pete, althought retired. The retreat center is still going, too, althought the book division was incorporated into a larger Roman Catholic publishing house a few years back.
Black Pete said…
It was, in fact, absorbed. Years ago, I wrote a script-in-hand adaptation of Fr. Hays' story The Star, and decided to send it off to him via Forest of Peace publishers. Many months later, I got an e-mail from the former manager of Forest of Peace. It seems that the sale had happened and it took quite a bit of doing to find Tom Turkle and get him the message.

He in turn shared the script with Fr. Hays, who enjoyed it very much. Made my day, as you can imagine! Tom did say that Fr. Hays was close to the end of his life, and that is now 5 years ago, hence my question.
RJ said…
Wow, what a great story. Fr. Hays is one of my heroes... thank you for sharing this brother.

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