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Conversations on Belief
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May 2007
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Caranam [userpic]
On the Nature of Belief

For my first offering, I bring an old sermon that seemed an appropriate start.

One of my favorites of the ones I've done, this one is based on Mark 9:14-25. For those who don't know it, a man begs Jesus to heal his son.

You believe . . .

Somewhat, anyway. Enough to get by. Certainly as much as the next person.

And well, who can blame you?

We live in times where there is so much to believe in, so many things demanding our time, our attention and our loyalty. And so many of these things are so little deserving of our belief: Money. Conservatism. Drugs. Media. Liberalism. Sex. Power. The Organic Movement. Music stars. Cars. Commerce. New Age Crystal Worship. Fame. Environmentalism. And so on – and on and on.

How can God possibly be heard over the screaming for your attention?

And the church doesn’t always help, does it? Some of the popular religious leaders of the day seem to think that they have God in a bottle, and can tell us all about the divine by reading the label on the side. The neat, prepackaged deity goes well for some – they know all they need to do is follow the rules now.

Yet, some of the rest of us find their enthusiasm and their neat little formulas, well, nauseating. Their faith is so simplistic – so formulaic – I wonder if they are even living in the same world I am.

God, for them, is too easy, too manageable, to be true.

Then there are those for whom there can be no question. Either your faith is your world and an absolute certainty, or you aren’t really a Christian. You must be a rock in the face of the world – never doubting, never wavering. With standards like these, who could possibly begin to live up to them?

Jesus is more realistic than these modern leaders on the subject of faith. Admittedly, this isn’t something you hear said very often, but its true. He didn’t expect overwhelming faith in the face of the world.

He didn’t say, “If you can have faith the size of a mountain, this mustard seed will obey your command.” No, instead he compared our faith with that tiny little seed, saying that was enough to move the very mountains. Jesus knew how hard it was to have faith. He knew that our roots are in sand and the soil, not in the heavens.

I believe he used the hesitation of the father in our Scripture today – that “if you are able” – to prove how little faith God needs in order to respond. It shows how far God is willing to go to aid you if you are willing to acknowledge your faith and how far you still have to go in return.

Looking at the story, we know almost nothing about this father – the Gospel writer doesn’t care about his biography. He has a sick kid who has been sick all of his life. The only other thing we know is that he lived in a time much like ours.

Wait; didn’t he live in tiny little Israel during the Roman Empire? No T.V., no running water, no democracy. What could I possibly mean by saying “much like ours?”

I mean he too lived in a time of many beliefs. Cults thrived all across the land conflicting with philosophies and mysterious new religions. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between the latest cult leader who came in from Karnack and the craze over the latest American Idol when you get down to it.

When this father came begging desperately to Christ with his son, he must have known how impossible it seemed to believe in very much in a world where so much is screaming for your attention and your time. And Christ says “all things can be done for one who believes.”

One who believes. The father has just seen the disciples fail in their belief in saving his son. How can he possibly believe enough?

“I believe; help my unbelief.”

This is a wonderful response. He was not a man of great confidence in the divine, but he never pretended to be. He was only an ordinary man caught in a world full of shifting values, beliefs and understandings – much like our own. He confessed to a partial faith, a faith that wanted to be more. He was trying and that was the best he could do.

How amazingly brave. I don’t know if I would have the courage to do such a thing in the face of sick child. Most of us would cry “Yes! Yes! I believe! Anything to save my son.” Yet he takes a risk and admits just how much he does believe – and just how little he believes.

And it was enough. Jesus spoke to the spirit disturbing this man’s son and the spirit departed.

This little bit of faith – this last desperate hope – reached out and somehow made contact with the wonderful graciousness of God. The prayer of his heart was answered.

Do you remember Michelangelo’s famous painting of the hand of God extended to the hand of Adam with their fingers almost touching? I think that’s how we really live. We reach out in our moments of greatest need and God’s hand is always there, ready to complete the connection.

“I believe; help my unbelief.” I think this prayer is one that God always answers. We are always invited and encouraged so that God may better to work in and through us.

You know what the best part of this is? You don’t need to be a Bible student or a theological genius or an expert at spirituality. We can just be ourselves – very ordinary people who probably seldom really think about God or prayer. But in the moment when our lives are brushed by holiness, when we feel desperate in our need, we can get in touch with our God. We can reach out and touch the hand of the Great and Loving Creator, and have God with us in our unbelief.

This kind of Grace is one of our greatest gifts. It’s not something we achieve under our own merit or power. We shouldn’t brag about it because we didn’t do anything for it. God makes the connection with us. God reaches out to us in our need, filling our hungry hearts and illuminating the dark places of our lives. And God responds to the simple cry of the guy who isn’t much of a believer, but really needs God.

One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, talks about this Grace, this reaching in his book Wishful Thinking. He says “The grace of God means something like: ‘Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. Its for you I created the universe. I love you.’

“There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it.

“Maybe be able to reach out and take it is a gift to.”

We reach out to God, crying “Help my unbelief.”

The astounding Good News of the Gospel to you is that God is only a yearning – a heart’s breath – away from you, ready to reach out and make the connection you need. The connection may not completely restore you – the beloved family member can still die, you continually fail to find that new job – but it will make you a whole person. God is here, ready to bless you the way in which God blessed the father whose son was ill.

You don’t even have to believe it. You only have to want to believe it, and the God who loves you more than you have ever understood love in your life will complete the connection and give you peace and joy. I know it’s hard to believe. But that’s the point of faith.


I love your natural tonality in this sermon. It really helps bring the point home that you are talking to everyday folks about everyday and yet supernatural things. Very well done!

Is this community just going to be for various Christian sects, or would you be open to discussing all faiths?

Thanks =) I think sermons work better as a conversation anyway.

While my flavor of belief is distinctly Christian, my hope is that the community would be open to all faiths.

This is a neat idea, and I like getting to read your and jorie's thoughts.

If you want this community to be open to people of all faiths you might want to make the community info a bit more clear on that. Right now it seems welcoming, but in a non-demoninational Christian sort of way. Not that that's a bad thing, but if your goal is otherwise then you might want to list a more diverse instead of vague array of keywords. Meow, this sounds more confrontational than I mean for it to, I'm sorry. Ummm. I like stuff.

meow. homework. *hug*

No, I get what you mean. I know I mean to include all faiths in discussion, but not everyone else does. I'll go make that clear on the info page.



“I believe; help my unbelief.”

I think that will go on the wall in my bedroom too, I really loved your sermon. I feel very dorky and kinda odd but I am really excited for this community. I am not sure how much I will participate but I like the idea of having a place to go and get a little dose of spirituality. A little fertilizer to help it grow though i'm not sure what it will grow into only that I am in desperate need of faith and repair. This sounds heavier than I mean it to be only that I am interested and excited. I don't feel I was every close to you at wooster but somehow in hearing little bits about what you were up to since then and then friending you i've wanted to know more about what you believe and think and kinda knew it would hit some sort of chord. so this all seems really silly talking about talking with people i only talk with online but still, i'm excited and i'm happy about it.

Re: rambling

I actually know exactly what you mean. There are a couple of people I've gotten close to purely through LJ. It is good to talk to you more, albeit only in the electronic format.

And thank you so much for telling me what the sermon meant for you - that is what every pastor longs to hear.