Tuesday, August 26, 2008

intentional faith development (romans 12)

For the last two weeks my eyeballs, at least late at night, have been glued to the television screen, in particular to the Olympic games. I have been watching gymnasts and marathon runners and swimmers and volleyball players and high divers and sprinters.

Like many of you I have viewed from a distance the amazing path that led many of these athletes to the moment when the gold or the silver is draped around their necks. It is a long journey, from the beginning exercises, through adversity and self-doubt, to the pinnacle. Surely they passed through the many dangers, toils and snares with the help of coaches, parents, sponsors, and encouragers. Most if not all of the athletes obviously have a great deal of inner drive, determination, evening calling to the effort. Many of them are born into athletic families---a parent, say, was also an Olympic athlete, or functioned as their coach---and so you might say they had it all in their genes. They have the gift, and yet, each of them had to develop that gift.

This summer we have been reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, which is also about a gift, the gift of salvation, to the Jew and the Gentile, to the insider and the outsider. This gift of salvation comes to us through Jesus Christ, his life, his death, his resurrection. Even when we were undeserving, far off, estranged, the gift was extended to us in Jesus Christ. From God’s side, the gift is offered. From the human side, the gift is accepted, or rejected. Some do reject the gift, for all kinds of reasons. This is a mystery, the human tragedy: We resist grace, we reject the gift.

But suppose, for this morning, we have accepted the gift, we have said “yes” to grace. What next? Well, that is the focus of the scripture for this morning: I appeal to you, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice…I thought about this verse as I watched the Olympic athletes. A sprinter who had won the gold medal said, “I left it all out there on the track”: That is sacrifice, the sacrifice of the body, pushing the body as far as it can possibly go. A marathon runner is so committed to his goal that he and his wife, also a marathon runner, must live at different altitudes because of the training requirements for their events. Sacrifice.

The gift is yours, Paul is saying, salvation is yours, but it doesn’t end there. That is what God has done for us; now, how do we respond?

We are focusing this morning on intentional faith development. It is a spiritual practice, it is a set of exercises by which we appropriate God’s grace, by which we fully receive God’s gift, by which we access the power to become all that God wants us to be, by which we enter into the life God has always wanted for us. It is a practice and a pursuit.

Intentional Faith Development is intentional in that we are on a road, a path. It is faith because it is not obvious, it is something we cannot see, but we know it is real. It is development in that we need to take the gift we have been given and exercise it, sharpen it, make it stronger. How does intentional faith happen?

As with the athletes, it is a process. It does not happen all at once. In American culture we are inclined toward instant gratification. We see the highlights of an amazing athletic feat, and we want to go out and do it, we want to swim, this weekend, fast.

But it takes time, it is a process. Intentional faith development is a lifelong process. If children will attend Sunday School on a regular basis, they will be exposed to the major stories of the Bible, from Moses being placed in the water to Jesus being raised from the dead at Easter. If children will sing in choirs, they will learn to praise God, to use their gifts, they will become leaders in worship. When youth participate in confirmation, and then youth fellowship and youth choir and the youth retreats and youth mission, something develops: faith. They become leaders and servants. And what is true for children and youth is just as essential for adults. But it does not happen in an instant.

It is a process, and it is all about showing up in Sunday School, or at Bible Study, or a worship service, week after week. 90% of life is showing up. A young woman who won the goal medal in gymnastics showed up at a small gym in Des Moines, Iowa, and her parents put her in a place for something good to happen, and she kept showing up. We see the end result, but it is all a part of something that has happened over a period of years, what Eugene Peterson has called “A Long Obedience in The Same Direction”.

I want to say this clearly. It is not that your child is good if she comes to church and bad if she doesn’t. Simply being in a place where faith can develop, however, increases the odds that she will have the skills, the knowledge, the desire, to live by faith. And if she sees that it is important to you, it will be important to her.

Intentional faith development is a process. It is not instantaneous. It is also something we do with others. Again, we see the athletes alone on a balance beam, or in a swimming lane, or on the diving board, but they are always surrounded by mentors and coaches and teammates, by parents and brothers and sisters, by encouragers of all kinds.

Yes, you might read the Bible on your own, in a given year, but it is more likely that you will do it if you are in a small group. Yes, you might pray, on a regular basis on your own, but it is more likely that you will do it if you know that others are praying with you. Yes, you might worship God on a weekly basis on your own, but it is more likely that you will do it if you are joining together with others.

In families, it is often true that young adults return to church when they have young children. As parents we tend to follow our children and their activities. And yet it is also true that children follow their parents, and value what their parents value. If a child sees his father praying, he will pray. If a child sees her mother reading the Bible, she will read the Bible. Intentional faith development is a process that happens best with others.

Now where are obstacles to developing faith, and they are worth mentioning: most of us don’t wake up wanting to exercise, to walk or run several miles or even through the neighborhood! And yet we know that if we are going to get into some kind of shape, walking or running is good for us. Now, I am going to say something that I want to ask you not to repeat too much. Sometimes people wake up in the morning and they don’t want to go to church. It’s true! I see the look of shock and disbelief on your faces.

One of my favorite authors is Anne Lamott, and one of her more humorous and profound essays is about her son, and the title is “Why I Make Sam Go To Church”. He never wants to go, he is the only little boy among his friends who attends church, and the short answer to the question of why Anne Lamott makes him go to church is simple. She says, “I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds”.

She talks about it a little more. "Of course, he doesn't want to come to regular worship, but he doesn't want to floss either. He does not want to have any hard work, ever, but I can't give him that without injuring him. It's good to do uncomfortable things. It's weight training for life." I like that as an image of intentional faith development: weight training for life. For Anne Lamott, intentional faith development is the simple act of showing up each week with Sam in her little church in the San Francisco bay area.

Now, why is intentional faith development important? This is captured in the scripture, and in the drama. To live by faith is to resist conformity to the world. Pride—that it is all about us, all about me. Vanity---that who I am, what I am worth is determined by appearance. Greed—that I need more, and when I get that, I will still need more, that my value as a human being is determined by what I own. Don’t become so well-adjusted to the culture that you fit into it without thinking. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.

How do we resist being conformed to the world? We are changed “from the inside out”. It happens through intentional faith development. What does intentional faith development look like for us? I spent a few minutes reflecting on many (not all) of the ways our people have taken steps toward intentional faith development.

Sunday School. Worship. A United Methodist Women’s Circle
Worship Readiness, where our first graders begin to learn about experiencing God in the sanctuary. A Disciple class
A Christ Care group. Youth Fellowship. Vacation Bible School. Scouts
Places: Camp Tekoa, Lake Junaluska, Garden City, BonClarcken
Confirmation, where our sixth graders prepare to make professions of faith and become members of our church.
The scholarships funded by the Wesley Class for students at Brevard College, Pfeiffer University, and Duke Divinity School
The Upper Rooms that Abe Moyer takes to our homebound members
The plan for reading the Bible each day that is printed in the Voice.
Singing in the Choir. Participating in a campus ministry
Going on a retreat (one of classes did that yesterday)
Teaching Disciple Bible Study in prison

So, here is the invitation. I am not standing before you this morning pitching a program, or two, or several. I am asking that you take the practice of intentional faith development very seriously. That you take one step, undertake one discipline, in your spiritual life. How that happens is a conversation between you and the Lord. But if every person in our congregation takes one step forward in this area, the effect within our congregation would be amazing. We would truly live into our vision, to be the body of Christ, glorifying God and serving others. Call it discipleship, or the pursuit of holiness, or the invitation to follow Jesus, or the desire to become the person God created you to be.

We have been given a gift; the gift of salvation. What do we do with it? We claim in and live into it, by faith. Intentional Faith Development will not happen by accident; it is intentional. Intentional Faith Development will not happen in an instant; it is developmental. But it can happen. As I watched the best of those athletes, I realized they were not in a competition with others. They were compelled to pursue their dreams by an inner fire; our lifelong calling is to become more like Christ, to be the light of the world. This happens as we are changed from the inside out. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Sources: Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies.


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