First Baptist Church is a place where individuals respond to the word of scripture and seek their own interpretation. Where Separation of Church and State and religious liberty are taken very seriously. Where we hold our Baptist beliefs with deep conviction but we hold them in modesty.
» "Have a Little Faith" by Rev. Dr. Griff Martin
What is faith? It is one of those terms we use all the time, but what do we mean by it?
Is faith a list of things, doctrines, which one has to believe in order to belong? Maybe it’s the Trinitarian existence of God (three in one and one in three) or maybe it’s the Virgin birth or the fullness of humanity and divinity as found in Jesus Christ or maybe it’s holding to a certain interpretation of Scripture.
Is faith, to steal from the great writer Joan Didion, simply another form of “magical thinking”? Is faith almost Hogwart-esque, you run at Platform 9 and ¾ trusting there is more there than meets the eye?
Is faith a blind and pious acceptance of something, perhaps a creed from our tradition?
Is faith finding a belief system that hates and fights all the people and issues you already hate?
Is faith the answers to the questions that keep me up at night… questions about the nature of God and why God does this but does not do that…. or is faith the answers to the questions and fears and anxieties that wake me up in the dead of night… will the world be okay, will my children turn out okay?
Is faith simply trust? And if so, then trust in what exactly?
Is faith knowing and understanding and if so exactly how much do you have to know and understand to have faith? Which brings up a whole other issue regarding faith, the action of faith: is faith something you hold or is it something that holds you?
Is faith something you have or something you don’t have? We often talk about it like that…. That person- she was a person of deep faith. What do we mean when we say that? More often than not, what I think we mean is that she was faithful to the institution of the church, she was a person who was always here, she earned her perfect attendance in Sunday School, she was a person who was well behaved… but is that faith (and if so do any of us really want that… well behaved and perfect attendence)?
Or just the opposite when we say… That person- if only he had more faith. And I hate when I hear those words. First because they feed into some horrible theology about rewards and punishment, as if we believe holding faith will get you into God’s good graces. But also because more often than not, the object of those words, that person who we wish had more faith, is someone I can relate to (I know their doubts, struggles and humanity… and I know them because they are my doubts, struggles and humanity) and if they don’t have enough faith, maybe that means I don’t have enough faith either.
And so with all the mystery of faith and all our questions about what it is, here is what we all know: faith matters and faith is something we desire to have or desire to have us.
And that makes today’s Old Testament passage all the more important and all the more frustrating for us. It is one of the most central narratives in the Old Testament, the story of our founding father Abram and his faith journey. His story takes up more space in the Hebrews 11 Hall of Faith fame than any other figure, if there was a gold medal of faith- he would have held it according to the author of Hebrews. When you think of faith, his name is one of the first we think of and it’s largely because of this verse from our text today: “Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
But what, what exactly did Abram believe? That is the question I have wrestled with all week because I want to know exactly what Abram believed because that is what I want to believe so that the Lord too will reckon it to me as righteousness… and then I can share this discover with you and the Lord will reckon it to all of us as righteousness.
So I started digging into the text looking for what exactly it is that Abram believed.
And the first thing I discovered is that Scripture is of very little help when it comes to this story. It’s as if another writer takes over, a ghost writer of sorts. Abram’s story is full of all these little details… we have that horrible little story about Abram passing his wife off as his sister…. Chapter 14 begins with an awfully long and detailed litany of all the different Kings whose names are impossible to pronounce and their territories…. Even in this very passage we have the name of the servant boy Eliezer of Damascus…. To be honest we have some details that are frankly a little bit distracting to Abram’s story… and yet this pivotal line, “Abram believed” and we have no details.
So I started thinking about how we often define faith and how that fits into this verse.
Now it’s easy to know what Abram did not believe. I think it’s safe to assume that Abram has no understanding of a Trinitarian God, the virgin birth, the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, even the resurrection seeing as it has not occurred yet. So a lot of what we would say is essential to belief and faith can’t fit here.
It’s safe to assume that Abram’s belief has very little to do with answers to the personal questions and worries that keep him up at night, I mean that is the very first thing he says to God in this passage is all about those worries and fears: “O God what will you give me? Because if you forgot- you did promise me children and if you look around here- there are no young toddlers at my old feet. So when are you going to give me something?”
It’s safe to assume that Abram’s belief has nothing to do with getting things figured out in his head, of making sense of things. I mean this passage begins in the tent, and it’s a conversation between God and Abram inside that tent and then God sends Abram outside the tent and then we get the words ‘Abram believed.’ He does not have time to go sit in a monastic cave and figure things out, he does not get a chance to journal things out and he does not have time to process all he has heard and turn it into a plan or a nice little sermon.
Instead, Abram just steps out of the tent and then he believes.
I tried to listen to how Abram would tell this story if he were with us today… and I think his version would include a few detail that Scripture misses. I think when Abram was telling this story, he probably is sheepish about admitting how he so bluntly asks God “What are you going to do for me?” I mean that is not the prettiest prayer in our book. And then he goes on to tell what God said and then he gets to that part about God calling him outside the tent and his eyes fill with tears…. And those tears answered my question of what Abram believed.
You see those tears were not tears of pain, but tears of awe. They are the tears we get when we hear the theme from Swan Lake played by an amazing orchestra, or when we see the art of Banksy, the tears that come from witnessing a sunrise or reading a great poet or seeing our children smile. Tears of awe.
And those tears helped me figure out how Abram told the story and how I would tell the story.
A few weeks after Jude was born he woke up one night and Abby went to feed him and brought him back to our room and told me she thought Jude had a fever. I felt his forehead and told her I did not think anything of it and he probably was just a bit warm because we had been outside all day and maybe he was in the sun too much. She went ahead and called the doctor who told us although he felt certain it was nothing, we should go ahead and take him to the children’s emergency room only because he has not had his shots yet and was just a few weeks old. We took him in and the doctor on call said the same thing but said just to be on the safe side he wanted to do a spinal tap. We got the spinal fluid, Abby went home to rest and I was told Jude and I would be put in a room and as soon as the tests came back and we knew all was well we would go home.
A few hours later the test came back and Jude had a virus, which in infants quickly develop into something very serious. The good news was that it appeared we had gotten Jude to the hospital within hours of the first symptom and he was already being treated with the right antibiotics. The doctors felt safe in saying that we would do a 12 day course of intense antibiotics in the hospital and then Jude would be fine. Which is exactly what happened. Jude did several IV treatments per day for 12 days and all has been well for Jude.
The same was not true for me. You see for 12 days what Abby and I heard over and over and over was this: “You guys are such good parents. So many parents would not have noticed the small fever right away or would have written it off and it would have turned into full meningitis and you would be in a really different place right now. If not caught early babies are handicap, blind and in some cases this is even fatal. You guys are really model parents.” And the nurses meant that well, as a compliment.
But what I heard was my first reaction: “oh it’s nothing, let’s go back to bed and see if there is still a fever in the morning- it’s probably just sun.” And then my mind went to all those horrible what-if places the nurses were talking about. And soon my life was plagued by wanting to control every detail of my life and Blake and Jude’s life. I was constantly on alert and scared that I would miss the next time. I was trying to make sense of it all.
And then that darkness took over and I become a really horrible person to be around. I was short with everyone. I was in full on control mode. I was worried about everything. I was not really eating or sleeping. And I was like this for several months until one night at dinner I said something awful to my best friend Cole and he looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with you? We are not leaving this table until you tell me what is really going on.”
And it all came out, in huge and ugly mess of tears and snot and words… all the worries I had about what could have happened and what would happen if I missed the next time, I shared all those horrible fears we have as parents that we are scared to say aloud, I talked about everything I was trying to control in my life, the things I was trying to make sense of in my head, all that I was holding and how it was absolutely destroying me.
And he looked at me and he saved me with these words: “What a mess and you have been holding all that in by yourself…. How awful. Those are not your fears to hold alone, you are trying to control things that you can’t control, you are trying to make sense of things that you can’t make sense of. It’s time to let that go, get out of that place in your head.”
Or maybe what God said to me in my friends words was this: “Come out from the place where you have been hiding and made home… come outside your tent and look up at count the stars. Look toward the heavens and count the starts, if you are able to count them.”
Abram’s belief might have everything to do with the move from getting outside the tent he had so carefully constructed and instead being lost in the world God had made for him. A journey that for many of us will look like the move from the head to the heart. Abram’s belief had everything to do with getting to a place where he was not trying to make sense of the words he had heart but instead able to trust the one who had spoken them.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Faith is not doctrine, not correct theology. Faith is not having it all figured out. Faith is not having all the answers. Faith is not being right.
Instead faith is having hope.
Faith is having courage.
Faith is obedience.
Faith is being real.
Faith is getting outside your head. Faith is getting outside our church. Faith is getting beyond ourselves.
Faith is stepping boldly into the voice that named us and called us out of our tents.
Faith is knowing that the world which surrounds you right now at this moment is not all there is.
Faith is knowing that God is going to be true to God’s promise even when we see no evidence of it and even though we may be in a place of waiting.
Faith is not just knowing the promise of God but centering your life around that promise.
Faith is going to a table, surrounded by your community and sharing bread and wine and knowing that it is so much more. Faith is that brief moment we share at the table where we posses in the present what has been promised for our future.
And by faith Abram believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
May the same be said of us… And by faith the people of First Baptist Austin believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to them as righteousness.
Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan Jozsef Molnar (1821-1899)