The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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A Forced Sabbath

Geography influences your reaction to snow.  I doubt that people living in northern regions or at higher elevations have the same reaction as many of us in the south.  We start with a milk and bread panic.  Everyone goes to the grocery store, even if the snow is only projected to last one day.  We stock up for a single snow fall like pioneers used to stock up for winter.

But once we arrive at home, the groceries are put away, and the snow starts to cover the ground, we shut down.    We have less snow removal equipment and more unpredictable roads than in other parts of the country, so we stay home for a while.  The initial snow is pure white and  muffles all sound.  Everyone else is also at home; there are no expectations to return phone calls or to respond to emails.   we can take a deep breath and rest for a moment in this weather-forced Sabbath.

In Deuteronomy 5, Moses repeats the commandments given at Sinai, including a refresher course on the Sabbath.  As he teaches the children of Israel, Moses recalls that they were once slaves.  He says to them, “Remember you were once slaves and remember that God has ordained the Sabbath Day as a day of rest.  He has given this day to you who had no choice when you worked or how long you worked.  No longer is your life all work, uninterrupted by rest.  God has given you the Sabbath as a gift.”   Their former taskmasters gave them forced labor; their new Master gives them rest.

Do you remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees who complained about the way he and his disciples observed the Sabbath?  Jesus said, “The Sabbath was not made just so you could observe and obey it, but the Sabbath was made for you.”  He is reinforcing the idea of Sabbath as a gift.

Let’s imagine that somebody gave you a very expensive piece of clothing as a gift —an expensive cashmere sweater.  Would you ruin the sweater by taking it out and washing the car with it?  Of course not.  What if somebody gave you a signed, first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird for Christmas?  Harper Lee’s signature is one of the most coveted among book collectors.  Would you tear out a few pages of the book to use to start a fire in the fireplace?  Would any of us you ruin a special gift? Of course not.  I wonder why we ignore the gift of rest God has worked into every single week of our lives.  What a shame that snow has to shut down our town for me to take a Sabbath.


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The Anti-Beatitudes —- Cursed Are…..

A few years ago I was researching the Beatitudes for a sermon when I came across a quote by St. Francis de Sales who lived in the early 1600s.  After repeating the first beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”), he adds this commentary:  “Cursed then, are the rich in spirit for the misery of hell is their portion.” By reversing the saying of Jesus, he shed new light on the original Beatitude.   Here’s the way I understand his statement.  People living in poverty always know what they need. They need to eat, they need a roof over their heads, they need clothing.  They simply need someone to help. In the same way, the poor in spirit recognize they need help.  They depend on God and the they find themselves in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The View from the Mount of the Beatitudes, looking down toward the Sea of Galilee

The View from the Mount of the Beatitudes, looking down toward the Sea of Galilee

The rich, however, are self sufficient.  Only the rich are described as “self-made.” They don’t have to ask for a thing and depend on no one.  Thus, the rich in spirit never ask for anything related to their spirits because they’re so sure they already have what they need.  They never depend on anyone else and, as a result, their portion is to be alone. While Scripture often refers to Hell as a place of burning it also refers to it as a place of loneliness and outer darkness where we are by ourselves (see Matthew 22:13 and Jude 13 for two references).  Following De Sales logic,  the poor in spirit ask God for help and get the kingdom of heaven.  Needing nothing for their souls, the rich in spirit ask for nothing of anyone and get to be by themselves.  Hell is their portion.  Only those who have never been lonely could miss what a curse loneliness is.

De Sales’ statement started me thinking about turning around all the Beatitudes.  Can we see the truth of what is blessed by seeing what is cursed?  If those who mourn are blessed by being comforted,  what about people who don’t care about their spiritual condition?  Cursed are those who don’t care what their heart is like because they get no relief.

Denying sinfulness is a bit like denying you have a physical disease. If you deny that you have an illness and never go get treated for it, that disease can damage, if not kill you.  Sin works the same way.  Left “untreated,” sin will kill you.  Those who mourn over their spiritual condition are blessed by God’s forgiveness and comfort.   Those who don’t care never mourn – never repent – thus, they don’t receive the blessing of peace and forgiveness.  What a curse.

Let’s take “Blessed are the meek.  Meek is a word that no one likes.  Who has meekness as a goal in life?  We think of  the meek as people who are afraid to stand up for themselves, afraid to demand their place at the head of the line.  In the land of assertiveness training, which personality test lists meekness as a strength?

Yet, meekness is, if we understand it correctly,  self-control.   It’s deeper than being well-mannered, but well-mannered might be a good image to convey its meaning.  Add a dose of chosen humility and we may have an accurate picture of meekness.  The meek do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time.  They can put others first because they have the self control to put themselves last.  The meek are blessed with inheriting the earth because they know how to be satisfied.  (See “Hobart and Manners” for a post on a meek man.)

So what is the opposite of meekness?  Is it the need to be in control constantly?  The anti-meek demand that their lane move the fastest, that their children’s “C” be changed to an “A,” and that life gives them more.  The people who try to control life instead of themselves find that life never pays off as they expect it to.  They can never control enough of life to get what they want; they come up empty-handed every time.  Cursed are the demanding because they never get enough.

Do you see how the anti-Beatitudes work? It is very easy to see how certain things are cursed.   If those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied then those who have no moral bearing whatsoever will never be satisfied. If the merciful shall obtain mercy, then the hardhearted will find that what goes around, comes around.  If the peacemakers are called children of God, what are the troublemakers called?  We can even turn around the beatitude on persecution: cursed are people who don’t have anything beyond their own lives to live for because that must be the most empty and barren of all lives. Cursed are those who never have to pay any price, because there isn’t anything they care enough about paying the price for.

When we stop and realize that the opposite of the Beatitudes are really places in life that we don’t want to be, we begin to understand better the blessings of Jesus’ original teaching.  Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who know that there’s poverty in their hearts that only Christ can answer because once they realize that poverty, the kingdom of heaven is available to them. Blessed are those who mourn over their sins because they shall be comforted with forgiveness. Blessed are the meek, for they will have all they ever need. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness because they will grow in the direction of their hunger.  Oh, they shall never be perfect, but they will become more Christ-like.  I would feel blessed if I became more like Christ today.

We find that Jesus did not simply utter beautiful words on the hillside beside the Sea of Galilee, but he gave a road map to all who seek God’s blessing. It is a map that any of us can follow.

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Hans Kung on the Kingdom of God – and a prayer

Google gives me information about the content which people read on The Substance of Faith.  The most commonly searched subject that brings people here is “the substance of faith.”  I edited the ABOUT page to provide additional information in order to be helpful to anyone looking for help on that search. Google hides other helpful information because they want me to pay for it.

For instance, I know that the second most read page is Quotes on the Lord’s Prayer – Thy Kingdom come, but I don’t know why.  Are you searching for quotes on the Lord’s Prayer, or are you searching for help with “the kingdom of God?”  No matter.  Below is my favorite quote about the kingdom.  I find it inspiring and it will serve either purpose.  And at the bottom is a prayer I wrote to go with a sermon I preached on the phrase “Thy Kingdom come.”  I hope both the quote and prayer are helpful.

What kind of kingdom will this be?

It will be a kingdom where, in accordance with Jesus’ prayer, God’s name is truly hallowed, his will is done on earth, men will have everything in abundance, all sin will be forgiven and all evil overcome.

It will be a kingdom where, in accordance with Jesus’ promises, the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are downtrodden will finally come into their own; where pain, suffering, and death will have an end.

It will be a kingdom that cannot be described, but only made known in metaphors: as the new covenant, the seed springing up, the ripe harvest, the great banquet, the royal feast.

It will, therefore, be a kingdom—wholly as the prophets foretold—of absolute righteousness, of unsurpassable freedom, of dauntless love, of universal reconciliation, of everlasting peace.  In this sense, therefore, it will be the time of salvation, of fulfillment, of consummation, of God’s presence: the absolute future. –From On Being A Christian by Hans Küng, p. 21

A Prayer for the Kingdom of God:

O God, we openly acknowledge  that we believe in your son’s miracles. We believe that the lame walked, that the blind were granted sight, and that hardened hearts were softened by his word.  We pray that you would work a miracle in our hearts, too. Work a miracle and change our will to desire nothing but your will. Change these cold hearts of ours into flaming torches of desire for you. If there is complacency within us, remove it as far as east is from west. Destroy the apathy that slows our hands from doing what our hearts know to be just. Move us by Your Spirit to participate in the work of your kingdom so that the lonely might be visited, that the fallen might be raised, that those who seek might find, and that the world might know that you are a good and great God. We pray these things for we know that if you will empower our living to do them, then our prayers would be answered and that your kingdom will come in us.  All we ask is to labor in the kingdom. And to know the blessing of your pleasure as we work. Remind us that you are indeed king and that we are your servants. May our obedience be perfect in this day. In the name of Christ we ask it. Amen.

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Lenin on St. Francis

Most of us have in a passing knowledge of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Russian revolution.  We know Lenin was an atheist.  We know Lenin was a materialist and rejected the spiritual dimension of life.  Here, however, is an interesting quote from Lenin when he looked back on his life and the accomplishments of the revolution he led:   “I made a mistake. Without doubt, an oppressed multitude had to be liberated. But our method only provoked further oppression and atrocious massacres. My living nightmare is to find myself lost in an ocean of red with the blood of innumerable victims. It is too late now to alter the past, but what was needed to save Russia were ten Francis of Assissi’s.”

Statue of Lenin in Petrozavodsk, Russia. (c) Joel Snider

Statue of Lenin in Petrozavodsk, Russia.
(c) Joel Snider

In his own assessment, Russia’s greatest need for the solution of its problems was ten examples of an extremely selfless and kind Christian.  Certainly ten St. Francis’s would have been a better solution than revolution.  Does anyone doubt that a change of heart would have a greater impact on the world than a bloody revolution?

I listen to the news over the last few weeks.  Putin jockeys for power on the world stage. What happens to Ukraine?   The ruble is in free fall, but so is the Euro.  Greece calls previous German restructuring of their debt immoral.  No one can determine if falling oil prices is really good for the US economy; wall Street disagrees with the people who pay at the pump.  Since 2008, stock markets have improved, but the standard of living for the average person is stuck in neutral.

What are the solutions?  Everyone offers political and economic ideas. Make a buffer out of Ukraine, but give Russia a port on the sea.  Greece can leave the Euro community or reaffirm austerity.  Should the Federal Reserve fear deflation and keep interest rates low, or fear inflation and start raising rates?

Maybe the world’s  economic and political problems have a spiritual component.  At their roots, the problems are problems of heart:  Fear, Power, Greed.  If so, then the best solutions must include a change in us.  How can the world change if each of us  stays the same?

Therefore, maybe we need what Lenin admitted would have been a better solution: ten Francis of Assissi’s to inspire us to better living.   Please don’t think of me as naïve; after all I am following the lead of  one of the most materially oriented individuals of the 20th century. If as a pragmatist, Lenin believed in the power of St. Francis, why can’t we?

My point is, today’s headlines are about war, currencies, governments, debt, interest rates, etc.  Look behind the headlines to see the spiritual factors involved.  What difference would it make if the followers of Christ truly sought the heart of Christ?  Who would say it would make NO difference?  That old atheist, Vladimir Lenin, thought otherwise.


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