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October 4, 2016, 12:22 PM

Faith in Discouraging Times

by Sandy Bach

I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began... (2 Timothy 1:3-9 NRSV)

 

I remember the 1950’s, standing next to my father in worship as the congregation sang “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” There was hardly an empty seat in the sanctuary. We needed ushers to help people find a place to sit.  I remember walking to the church after school to meet my mother who had just finished a Bible study in the Pastor’s Study and was headed to the kitchen with the other women to give it a good cleaning.  My brother’s youth group met every Sunday evening. They planned a trip into the mountains to collect mistletoe to sell during Christmas in order to fund the church a new sign.  Sunday school classes were full to overflowing.

Then 1965 happened. It was the beginning of the end of an era. From that time forward the mainline church in America would show steady decreases in their membership rolls. To this day, we find the church “bumping the stairs.”

Some say the church in America is dying.

Denominational allegiance is all but gone. The Methodists or Presbyterian or Catholic DNA just doesn’t exist anymore. Lois and Eunice are sit in worship with their children and grandchildren. They sadly admit their families are involved elsewhere and wonder if they’re to blame.

Megachurches who have served the Boomer generation are having to reinvent themselves.

Meanwhile, Christianity has secured for itself a reputation of legalism, mean spiritedness and humiliating tactics against anyone or any group who dares to disagree with their particular brand of theology. And we all get painted with the same brush, despite our best efforts.

Some say the church in America is dying.

We could play the blame game. We could point fingers at this generation or that one. Perhaps the GI (or Greatest) Generation weren’t tolerant and flexible enough with the Boomers. The Boomers didn’t want to force their children to go to church; they wanted them to make up their own minds about God. Which led to a generation of very few people knowing God. Some would like to blame the Millennials for the lack of enthusiasm for keeping everything the same as it’s always been.

The letters to Timothy were written to a minister at difficult time. Christianity had become a threat to the Roman establishment. Judaism was familiar. Christianity was new and different and strange. They were called cannibals because they ate of the blood and body of Christ. They were considered atheists because they only worshiped one God instead of a pantheon of Roman gods. They were misrepresented and misunderstood at every corner.

The author is in prison. The church is struggling. Certainly the times were unsettling and discouraging. But what he writes is a letter filled with joy and encouragement.  He remembers with great joy and a few tears when he visited this congregation and ordained their young leader to the ministry. He can’t forget the faith that was passed on to him from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.

Several years ago I heard the story of a family therapist who held a seminar on marriage enrichment. During the break a middle-aged man visited the seminar leader.

“I’ve fallen out of love with wife. What should I do?”

“Love her,” was his reply.

“But, I don’t love her anymore. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. So, what should I do?”

“Love her. Remember what you fell in love with and rekindle that love once again.”

The young minister will have to rekindle his love for and his faith in God. There are difficult and discouraging times in ministry.  This mentor knows this and gives the young man tools to use for those difficult times.

Don’t be ashamed he tells him. Join with me in testifying to God’s power that you learned at the feet of Lois and Eunice. Help your congregation see God’s grace alive in the church. You’ll suffer at the hands of the culture. Do it with courage and hold your head high. We’re doing this for the Good News of Christ our Savior.

We’re doing this for future generations.

We’re doing this for congregations thousands of miles and thousands of years from Ephesus, who will need this example of faith. They will need to know that God is at work and that God’s grace is all they need to take important steps into their future.

When I gaze out on our churches today, I see many people.
The matriarchs who stand tall, but with humility, keeping the church moving forward. The patriarchs who are leaders who now serve by mentoring the next generations.  Newer members who respect the old guard and step in beside them with their own unique gifts and talents. Younger members who have active careers and family responsibilities who make time to serve Christ’s church.
Young people, entering the job world. They’re learning to manage their time and their money. They’re creating new relationships in what to them is a new and exciting world of work and creating new families of their own. The children who are engaged in the life of the church.

I also see the hurts and disappointments. Lives broken by death or illness or disability. Families torn apart by mental illness. Dreams set aside to take on the life-long responsibility of caring for disabled loved ones in their home. Empty-nesters. Caregivers for parents.

When the cards seemed stacked against you, it’s easy to lose the vision. It’s easy to play the blame game. It’s easy to be diverted into activities that only increase our negativity and our shame.

Christ is head of the church. And I believe that God has been at work shaking the very foundations of Christ’s Church in order to build up something new and more faithful.

We’re a part of that. Every week I see examples of faith and rekindling. “God didn’t give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (vs 7.) It is God who makes us strong and loving and wise. It is God who is at work, bringing us into a new reality.

As I look around each day, I see people of great faith, who are making a difference in the lives of others every day. I can’t see any lack for the abundance. I can’t play the blame game because of the steadiness of those in the faith.

When the disciples asked Jesus to "increase our faith," Jesus' response was simple.  Only have the faith the size of a mustard seed.  You don't need to worry about what you lack or feel guilt over what you've done or left undone.  You only need to look on Christ and know that the Holy Spirit is at work, turning that grain of mustard seed into something bigger and better than any of us could ever imagine.

Some say the church in America is dying.

Maybe it is.

But what I absolutely believe without a shadow of a doubt is that death leads to new life.  Transformed and transfigured.

And you and I are an important part of that.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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