January 13, 2019 - Why I Believe
As a general rule, I do not repeat sermons. To me, an old sermon is a bit like leftovers after a meal; a bit stale, not quite as fresh as the first time, and just not as appealing. I do, however, use bits and pieces of some older sermons on occasion, and will repeat some stories if I haven’t used them in a while. One of the main reasons why I don’t often repeat sermons though, is that by the time I finish reworking them it would have been simpler to write a new message. I say that for this reason – I went home from the office on Monday not feeling well and was out sick much of the week. Late in the week I decided it would be helpful to use a previous sermon, but after reading over the one I chose, rewriting it, and reshaping it, it really didn’t save me any time. The message comes from 2010, when I did a series titled Answering the Skeptics. The title of the message is Why I Believe, which is one that is probably worth sharing from time to time, because it is really less a sermon and more of a personal testimony, and I believe a personal testimony to our faith and our belief is one of the most important presentations we can offer.
I have often been asked Dave, why do you believe? Sometimes that question is asked because people want to know more of my story, in relation to my faith. What role has faith played in my life, how did I come to faith, and why did I come to faith? Sometimes it is asked as more of a challenge, in a why in the world would you believe that stuffsort of way. I believe the question why do you believeis one to which we should all have an answer. Most of us were born into faith, making it so much a part of our identity that we do not think about why we believe; we simply do. I was raised to believe. I was raised in a family where faith was important. I was raised in a family that attended church every week. Because it was important to my family, it was important to me. At some point, however, it was necessary for me to fashion an answer to the question of why I believe. To simply say that I believewas eventually not enough. It was necessary, as I became an adult, to decide what role faith would have in my life once I became independent of my family. It became necessary for me to decided how I would answer the challenges to faith. It became necessary, basically, for me to develop my own faith, a faith that was not dependent on my family.
This morning I will speak to you about the three areas that have formed my belief, shaped my belief, and continue to hold me to that belief. Those three are the head, the heart, and experience. I believe that faith and belief are very much of the heart, but I also very strongly believe that building and keeping that faith is a result of using my head. Undergirding both of these is my personal experienceof faith, that is, the way my faith and belief has carried me through some of deepest struggles and enriched my greatest blessings.
Our text for the morning comes from the 11thchapter of the book of Hebrews, the famous passage about faith. Follow along as I read Hebrews 11:1-2, 13-16, 32-40 –
1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
2 This is what the ancients were commended for.
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.
15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.
16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets,
33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions,
34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength;
36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—
38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised,
40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
1. The Head.
Our culture is very much oriented towards the heart side of things. We love to say things such as you’ve got to stop using your head and start using your heart; follow your heart, not your head; and your heart will tell you what to do. Well, that’s not always the best of sentiments, because the reality is, sometimes we have to use our head more than our heart. We need a careful balance of both, and the same is certainly true when it comes to faith. Sometimes we need to use the head – the brain – that God gave us in order to give an answer to some of the challenges that are presented to us, because the heart is not going to give us an adequate answer. Some of the challenges presented to us are very common and also very shallow, but they continue to persist and so we must answer them. Some of them, honestly, are on the level of a student that has just experienced their first ten minutes of philosophy class and believes that qualifies them as an expert on everything. I was once one of those students. Two days into college I thought I was so smart and so wise that I went to the store and bought a pipe, and I would sit in my chair in my room or in the lobby offering my incredibly insightful opinions about every matter of importance in life, all the while smoking my new pipe. If I could have grown a beard I would have done so, which would have allowed me to stroke my beard thoughtfully while smoking my pipe. As I smoked my pipe and opined about all manner of things philosophical, I thought I was the living embodiment of Rodin’s The Thinker statue. Actually I was more like Goober, in the episode of the Andy Griffith show when he grew a beard and suddenly believed himself to be a genius. It was embarrassing for me to act that way, and I can’t believe I’m actually telling you I did such a silly thing!
When we use our minds we will find, for example, that the oft-repeated news reports of declining faith, belief, and church attendance, are not actually accurate, because the ways in which faith and belief are measured are not always the best measures to use. For one, they are often measured by institutional participation in religion, such as church attendance. While I am all for church attendance, I also recognize that lots of people who have a very vibrant religious faith do not attend church, at least not on a regular basis. Secondly, when people are asked to name their religious affiliation, the answer given is increasingly “none,” especially among young people. Researchers have often assumed that a religious affiliation of “none” means people have no personal faith or religious belief, which is absolutely not true. Large numbers of those who self-classify as “nones” have religious belief; it’s just that it doesn’t necessarily attach itself to an institutional expression. And third, the change (I prefer the word “change” to “decline”) in belief is almost exclusively applicable to Western society. Much of the rest of the world is seeing an explosion in religious belief, to the point that atheism and disbelief is not increasing as a percentage of the world’s population, as is often assumed or often claimed, but is actually decreasing. About 85% of the world’s population can be classified as religious, which is an extremely high percentage, and the percentage of religious people, worldwide is increasing while the percentage of atheists, worldwide, is decreasing.
The mind will also tell us that another oft-repeated charge against faith, that Christianity has started more wars, been responsible for more deaths, etc. than anything else in historyis a completely false claim. It is so demonstrably not true that I find it amazing that people with a great deal of education continue to perpetuate this falsehood. Anyone who makes that claim, certainly anyone who has been to college, where it is so often perpetuated among pseudo-intellectuals, should ask for a refund on their education. There are serious questions to consider about belief, but some questions aren’t at all serious, certainly not in terms of their accuracy, and the charge that Christianity has caused all the wars and brought about more deaths than anything else in history is one of them. When you hear that claim, it only takes a little bit of the head to say, no, that isn’t true. Can you back up that claim? No, you can’t. It’s not that I do not take seriously the arguments against faith by skeptics. I have thought a great deal about those arguments, but I find most of them wanting. A few require more thought, but that is why God has given us a mind to use, because sometimes it takes more than just the heart. Sometimes we have to put in the hard work of thinking, and studying, and debating, and drawing conclusions that help to strengthen our faith.
For me, my mind tells me that the evidence of God is too overwhelming to dismiss. I have thought a good deal, for instance, about where we come from – about where everything comes from – and I always come back to the conclusion that the proposition of some that the existence of humanity is the result of nothing more than a chain of random events, and that human consciousness somehow magically came into being as an outcome of those random events, is a stretch that that I not only cannot make, but one that I find to be irrational and impossible to believe. I simply cannot, for instance, believe that the universe and all that it contains came about because of a series of random events. When we include human consciousness into that equation, I find it completely impossible to believe that consciousness can arise out of nothingness. Human consciousness is something much, much deeper than chemical and electrical reactions in our brains. While consciousness is based upon those reactions, there is something far deeper and more mysterious about how those reactions form our consciousness.
I Peter 3:15 tells us to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. Don’t be afraid to engage your mind in regard to faith. I have thought a great deal, I have read a great deal, and I have studied a great deal about faith and about the questions related to faith, and also about the objections and challenges to faith, and the end result of that study and thought has been the strengthening of my faith.
2. The Heart.
Having said all that, faith is something that does not come to everyone through the head, and through logic, and through debate. Some people have been argued and debated and reasoned into faith. I have had some interesting interaction recently through social media with a scientist, who is a former atheist and now a Christian, who came to faith through logic and the intellect. I very much look forward to reading the story of his conversion, in a book that will be out this spring. But probably more people find faith the domain of the heart, and more people respond through an appeal to the heart. While I believe that a good, logical argument can help to open the way to belief, I don’t want just the logical appeal to faith. Jesus spoke to the hearts of people far more than he spoke to their intellects. His parables were masterful stories that could tug at one’s heart rather than make them nod their head in intellectual agreement. Read through the gospels and you will find that much of what he had to say was directed more to the heart than to the head.
Much of our worship is designed to appeal to the heart rather than the head. As I prepare a message, I try to have some appeal to the head, but I more often appeal to the heart, because the heart is the language of our day. I remember a seminary professor of mine coming into class one morning and pausing his lecture after just a few minutes, telling us about a visit to the church of a student over the previous weekend. He told us, don’t just speak to my head, because you’re not going to tell me something I don’t already know (though the remark sounded somewhat pretentious, it was certainly an accurate observation). I want, and need, someone to speak to my heart. This is why we have music in worship and why it plays such an important role in our services, because music speaks to the heart. When we hear the choir sing a beautiful song or David shake the foundations of the building with an organ piece, does anyone think, that combination of a 6/4 time signature and the use of legato notes, along with the proper use of pedal tones is the logical thing to do and it results in a nice feeling in my head. No! We respond because it touches our hearts!
The church, for so many centuries has used beautiful, wonderful, majestic art to touch the heart. When Tanya and I visited Rome several years ago we went to the Vatican, which was an overwhelming experience. When we walked into St. Peter’s Basilica, the beauty of that sanctuary filled our hearts. Just after entering the doors, I looked to my right and there was Michelangelo’s Pieta, a stunning piece of art that I had studied years before in Humanities class, and now it was right in front of me. As we walked through the sanctuary, everywhere we looked was a beautiful piece of art that testified to the greatness of God. When we entered into the Sistine Chapel, and gazed up at the unbelievable art that covered the ceiling (from which the picture on my title slide is taken), it was an incredibly powerful moment. The chapel was packed with people but was absolutely still, as the crowd of people looked upon that great work of art that has inspired millions of people over the centuries. As I looked at that work of art I wondered how can anyone not believe?
3. The Experience.
One of the really interesting things to me about Jesus is this – he called his disciples to walk with him through life, inviting them into a personal experience. Yes, he spoke to their minds and he touched their hearts, but he also invited them into an experience. When Jesus called Peter and Andrew he said come, follow me(Matthew 4:19). It was an invitation to walk the roads of experience, to spend time together, to experience life and ministry together, and to tie together the head and the heart into a personal experience. There is nothing like personal experience to serve as an open door to faith. If you have traveled as a part of a mission or ministry team you probably found that experience to be one of the most powerful in your life. Why is it that people will give up a week of their time, endure bad food and cramped and uncomfortable sleeping spaces, work in uncomfortable weather and difficult conditions, and then say, at the end of the week, this was one of the most amazing weeks of my life? Why? Because the experience of helping others is powerful and life-changing. This is why I have been a lifelong advocate of church camp for young people. Camp was a very powerful experience for me. That one week would carry me through an entire school year. In the midst of difficult days at school I found great encouragement to know that camp was only months, or weeks, away. For many years now, as an adult counselor, I have witnessed the life-changing experience that camp continues to be for so many.
People walking into our church want to experience something. They want to know that the music, the message, the prayers, and the fellowship will facilitate the moving of the spirit in this place and in each of us to bring us to an encounter with God.
For me, the personal experience of faith began at home. Faith is more often caught than taughtsomeone has said, and that is certainly true in my case. My faith was caughtfrom my parents, from experiencing how it impacted their daily lives. As I remember, neither my mom nor my dad came from families that were church-going families. My mom’s mother, because she married a Protestant, was denied communion and thus rarely attended church the remainder of her life, so my mom would walk, with one of her brothers, to a Methodist church in their neighborhood. My uncle didn’t really go to church – he would hang out with friends – but he would walk my mom to and from church. My dad’s family were Episcopalians but didn’t really attend church. My dad and his brother, as kids, would sometimes walk to a Methodist church in their neighborhood. My mom and dad were married in an Episcopal church in Steubenville, Ohio, where my mom by then was attending, but my dad didn’t want to attend an Episcopalian church, because when he was nine years old his father died, and his father’s family tried to take him and his brother and sister away from their mom. Because of that he disassociated himself from them, including their church affiliation, which is a reminder that a negative experience will shape a person’s reaction to faith as powerfully as will a positive one. I saw faith as something very real to my mom and dad, and it made a huge impression on me. It wasn’t just that they took us to church; it was seeing the role that it played in their lives and how real it was to them that made a difference to me. They didn’t really talk about it that much, which may be what made it more powerful, because I saw that it was more about actions than just words.
I have two brothers who are also ministers, and we are often asked if our father was a minister. He was not, although he told me shortly before he died that he was thinking about possibly finding a small church he could pastor after he retired from where he worked. My dad was a steelworker, and my younger brother is also a steelworker and not many years ago began his move into ministry. He was not a very likely candidate for ministry, and he would agree with that description. After many, many years of rejecting spiritual things, a personal experience of faith entered his life and changed it dramatically. It was not long after our father died, and I was home, and my brother and I stood just outside of the garage – I can see it in my mind and can remember it as though it were yesterday – and my brother spoke of how our father’s death brought him back to a realization of his need for faith. It is proof, I believe, that after all the arguments for and against belief in God, it really, I think, comes down to some kind of personal experience with God. Something happens to us. We can’t force that kind of experience on someone else, certainly, but we can help to facilitate the opportunity for the experience to happen.
That’s why I’m such a strong believer in the local church. I believe in being connected to something – there is greater power in the many rather than the one, and the connectiveness that we have one with the other can help to bring about that experience with God. I know that church is not always a positive experience for some people. I’m a minister, so I can say it’s not always been a positive experience for me. I have been through my share of difficult experiences, but I couldn’t imagine ever letting go of this beautiful experience called church, or maybe more correctly say I can’t imagine this beautiful experience called church ever letting go of me.
What would my life be like if I did not believe, I sometimes wonder. To be honest, there have been times when I thought in some ways it would be so much easier to not believe. My time, my money, my life is all mine, but that seems a very impoverished way to live. Without belief, my life would certainly be so much poorer. Belief has affected every facet of my life. It was belief that helped me survive adolescence, surrounded by the drug use and abuse of so many of my friends, and helped me to avoid going down that road. It was belief that led me to Milligan College, to prepare for ministry, and where I met Tanya. Without belief I would have certainly been in another school and life would be very different. It was belief that led me to the different churches I have attended and served throughout my life – including this church – and I can’t imagine how much poorer my life would be without each of you and the countless others who have entered my life. Without belief I would not be in ministry, and I would not have had the opportunity to be invited into so many lives, where I have been given the gift of walking through the joys and sufferings of others.
Without belief I would not know the gratitude I have for the people who have invested in my life and whose love for me and confidence in me give me the strength to continue in my belief every day. Many of those saints are gone now and you would not know most of those names. My heart will forever be inscribed with their names and their influence. Thankfully, there are many people still involved in my life – among them every one of you in this church – and not a day passes without my giving thanks to God for the people he has brought into my life.
And that is Why I Believe.