Slippery Strands of Faith

Faith is a funny thing.

For some faith is just a lifelong journey beginning with the waters of baptism. It is a beloved relationship. Spirituality may not be something completely understood, but there is nowhere else we are likely to be found on a Sunday morning than right here with our eyes fixed on the cross.

For others, faith is like a wrestling match – trying to reconcile all the pain and suffering in the world with the belief in a loving God. Worship and time spent with the Scriptures is equal parts soothing for the spirit and fuel for the flames of our questioning as faith is both loved and something with which one struggles.

For others, faith is a lot like a love story. At some point or another, this person falls deeply in love with the Gospel – perhaps through some life-changing experience. But like all love stories, after the initial swooning and falling and deep, sweeping emotion, and after all the fire of first passion has burned away, hopefully there is still enough heat left in the embers to keep the flame alive over the years.

Faith is different for each of us. There are different reasons that bring you and I to this place each week to think about God and thank God and show our devotion to God and wrestle with God.


Many famous words have been written about faith to try to convey the many different facets and understandings of faith.

Martin Luther wrote: God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.

Oswald Chambers wrote: Faith for my deliverance is not faith in God. Faith means, whether I am visibly delivered or not, I will stick to my belief that God is love. There are some things only learned in a fiery furnace.

And my favorite is from E. Stanley Jones: Faith is not merely your holding on to God–it is God holding on to you. He will not let you go!

I really like Nicodemus, the Pharisee leader of the Jews central to our Gospel for today. Here was a man who was publicly a religious leader, kind of supposed to have matters of a religious nature figured out. So when you think about it that way, perhaps it is no surprise that he comes to Jesus by night to ask him questions. He has seen the amazing things Jesus can do, he has seen his miracles and he wants to know more. He is drawn to Jesus.

To tell you the truth, I’m so jealous of Nicodemus. I covet what he gets to do here – because he gets to share this quiet moment with Jesus and ask him the deepest questions of his heart. Just he and Jesus, alone together, sharing in conversation about the kingdom.

And I love how Nicodemus peppers him with questions and Jesus is trying to explain his answers and Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” And Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Because I know that if I were ever to have a quiet evening conversation with Jesus, I would be asking Jesus questions like this and many others and eventually he would say to me something like that, too – “Ruth, are you a pastor at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church, and yet you do not understand these things?”

But I am certain he would say it with a twinkle in his eye – because he would know already how desperately little I understand. He would know already how slippery the strands of faith can feel on my fingertips some days. He would already know that every day I long to feel closer to him and my only comfort is the knowledge that he is closer to me than my own heartbeat – whether I feel him near or not.

There’s an old story that illustrates this thought pretty well. I’m sure you may have heard it before. One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”

Our vision is small and we can only see so far. This life is such that we are oftentimes only given glimpses of the glory of God. We spot him in those moments of grace or deep truth or mercy, when we witness true, selfless love, the perfection of sunlight rippling on the water or the scent of a baby’s cheek next to our face. We catch glimpses of God all the time. And yet, for those countless times when we do not, there is something else – and it is quite something. It is a promise.

Jesus and Nicodemus, I don’t know how long they were able to speak that evening, but we know that after spending a great deal of time talking about the questions in Nicodemus’ heart, Jesus finally tells him what it all comes down to.

It’s a verse we all can probably quote by heart, John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But it doesn’t stop there – praise God it doesn’t stop there. Verse 17 reads, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When I think about the context of this conversation, it is so particularly beautiful. Nicodemus, a man coming to Jesus in secret at night, because he doesn’t want everyone to know how he questions and how he feels a desperate need to know Jesus more deeply – and Jesus tries to explain all these inexplicable things to him patiently and with care – but finally he sums up everything for Nicodemus and for us saying, “I didn’t come to condemn you, I came to save you.”

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our questions, or for our lack of faith. He came to love us and save us in spite of those things. Although faith may feel like wandering in the dark much of the time, may we never doubt that Jesus is right there in the darkness beside us, closer than we could ever know.

When my mother was dying back in 2011, I was surprised the moments of comfort that would come. Of course, none of them could take away the pain that I was going to lose her, but they helped me catch glimpses that even though I had to travel this road of her death and the grief to come, I was not forsaken. I would be okay. Mom would be okay. I wouldn’t know how until I journeyed into that unknown – but we would be okay.

And out of nowhere, the lyrics of old hymns that my family used to sing together when my brother and I were children, those lyrics would run through my mind over and over. “When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul.”

I took those moments of peace and comfort as the gifts from God I know they were. I held tight to them and hold them close still. There have been times in life when God has seemed remote to me – but that was not one of those times. And I know that peace wasn’t given to me because I am good but because God is good.

Brothers and sisters, the good news for today is that no matter how you feel about your faith or how near or far God seems to you, he is here. God is journeying with you and holding you close – and God will not fail to remind you of that just when you need it most.

Prayer (a mid-week meditation for Lent)

Last Wednesday at my church we began taking a closer look at the spiritual disciplines of Lent. Every year on Ash Wednesday we commit to these disciplines of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love – strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament.  Last week we talked about self-examination and repentance.  This week, we’ll think about prayer.

Oswald Chambers wrote: “We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all.”

Or how about this quote from Corrie Ten Boom which is along those same lines: “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” 

Prayer is a spiritual discipline we tend to talk about more than others because it is part of our life together as a church.  We pray in worship and before meals. We pray before meetings.  We pray when we visit one another in the hospital and we even have a prayer chain where we can let people know the needs for prayer in our community.

Ask anyone here if they pray and I bet we all would say, “yes, of course.”  But ask a different question and the answers get more complicated.  How about if we ask, “Does prayer work?”

And while my answer would be “yes, prayer works,” it would feel incomplete to stop there because prayer does not “work” as we always or even often might wish it to work.

Prayer is not a magic charm.  We can pray and pray and pray for rain but that doesn’t mean we won’t still go through months of drought.  We can pray and pray and pray for healing to come but that doesn’t mean the healing will come when we want it to, or even on this side of the grave.  We can pray and pray and pray for an answer but sometimes all we feel for seemingly far too long is deafening silence and confusion. 

And when this happens – which it does – this confusing business of prayer can leave even the most faithful to feel disillusioned with the practice and wondering what good it does, wondering if it is really much different than hoping or wishing.  Then frustration can set in and sometimes people begin to pray less and this can really begin to diminish our spirits in serious ways.

Because the thing about prayer is that the more we do it, the more we feel the fullness of its’ benefits.  We need to pray.  This is why scripture advises us to pray without ceasing and to not worry about anything but instead to pray about everything. 

There are many ways that we talk about prayer in the Christian church and it never hurts to remind ourselves that prayer is about more than making requests of God.  In addition to our prayers for things we need and others need, we offer prayers of thanksgiving for all the blessings God has given us; we pray prayers of adoration, proclaiming how wonderful and faithful God has been to us; we pray prayers of confession – admitting our shortcomings to God and repenting of these things.  We can’t forget meditation – just being silent and listening for God – I like to do this when I’m out walking or sitting out on the porch at night. 

And I like how Max Lucado talks about prayer as also being a practice of receiving.  I read an interview with him when his book, “Come Thirsty” came out and he was talking about the imagery of water on the cover of this book that is all about prayer. 

He said he was noticing as his church was growing, people were busy doing a lot of things, but they looked as tired as people who didn’t go to church. They just looked tired; they seemed so busy—they had so many activities, good activities, things they wanted to participate in. But he realized they never talked about the importance of receiving.

He writes, “And the imagery of Jesus is that he can do for the soul what water can do for the body; he can go where it’s cracked and flaky and dusty and he can bring nourishment; he can soften that which is hard. So I got really fascinated by this and began to experiment with it in my own life. I realize, when you drink, you don’t drink one day a week for six days’ worth. You know, you don’t drink 3 or 4 gallons to get you through the whole week, but you take regular sips throughout the day.

And I’ve tried to develop a practice in my own life of receiving God’s moisture and his nourishment, on a regular basis, taking Jesus literally at his word. It phenomenally changed my own life; I found that I wasn’t anxious. I found that it was easier to forgive people, that I didn’t have worries; I slept better. What I was doing was on a regular basis, receiving the basic gifts of God, his forgiveness and his drink and his presence. It really changed my outlook.”

So what Lucado urged his people to do is on a regular basis, three, four times an hour, was to offer a prayer that says, “I receive your Lordship. You’re protecting me. Anything happens, it filters through you first and I receive your love because I can never outlive your love.”

Thinking about the practice of prayer as an intentional, regular, frequent practice of receiving God’s love and replenishment is something I think we all can benefit from and something we desperately need in our busy, stressful lives.  Praying in this mindful, frequent way, can work great things in us just as it did for Lucado – as we train ourselves to fix our eyes on God and not on our worries.

Prayer is a spiritual discipline, but it is also a precious gift.  How blessed we are that each one of us, at any time, can lift up our words and sighs to the God who made us, and God has promised to hear us.  Prayer may not be a magic charm – but I fully believe that is because God loves us too much to always give us exactly what we want in the way we ask for it – because our wisdom is not God’s wisdom, our time is not God’s time.  But in all things God works for the good of those who love him.

May God help us to be diligent in our prayers – to begin our days with them, to fall asleep with them, to raise our children up on them, and always trust that the One who loves us most hears us and will answer. 

In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.