When we look back at August 2016, I wonder if, amid all the news of trials and tragedies around the world, some people at least will remember it as the summer of Pokemon Go. Wherever you travel around the city and beyond, you’re likely to encounter young adults apparently mesmerised by the screen on their smartphones, as they try to capture these cartoon creatures who appear for a limited time in specific real locations. My otherwise intelligent son will admit to running the length of the Leamington Road in hopes of catching a Charazar which was apparently located somewhere close to the Finham roundabout…but of course REALLY there’s nothing there at all. These are virtual creations, invisible without the help of a smart phone…and in collecting them, my son and his peers are collecting nothing of any real value whatsoever. But of course, to those in the know, they are engaged in something that’s absorbing and entertaining. You just have to understand how it works.
And of course, many of those who grasp the appeal of Pokemon will find themselves completely baffled by the number of people who get up on Sunday morning and come some distance, negotiating the complications of Sky Ride et al, to engage with what they might describe as our own particular “imaginary friend”. For them Christianity is simply an exercise in mass delusion – and if you’ve ever tried to explain why you’re here on strictly rational grounds, you’ll know that it really isn’t easy.
The problem is that we can’t offer any objective proof that we’re not completely barking. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen said Paul…and even for us, who have got here by hook or by crook this morning, faith is not a steady state. In fact, faith and feelings seem all too inextricably entangled, so that the times in life when external challenges make us particularly focussed on our NEED for something beyond the immediate struggles may also be the times when we feel least certain of God’s love for us.
The point, then, is to remember that while faith is not the same as knowledge, neither is it the same as feeling. Emotions ebb and flow and are a pretty bad guide to reality. If we only believed in God when our feelings enabled us to do so, - on those golden days when all's right with the world, then I’m guessing that there would be many many Sundays when we stayed at home. What’s interesting is that in his celebration of the faith of his fathers, Paul relies above all on story…Abraham acted on his own experience of a God who spoke and made promises – and then Abraham’s obedient action became in itself compelling evidence to encourage the faith of others (right down to the present day). Sarah, who didn’t have that initial encounter with God, found the whole thing much more problematic – but clearly she had faith in her husband. Her experience of him was that he was probably neither mad nor bad, and so she allowed herself to be uprooted repeatedly,to be swept up in his great adventure – only really grasping why when her son was in her arms. She trusted him – and their story became evidence to inspire the trust of others.
And I’m guessing that for most of us, it has been the experience of knowing other Christians, people whom WE trust, that has inspired our own faith journey. Perhaps we have seen them tackle life differently, opt for slightly different priorities, perhaps we’ve noticed an indefinable something – maybe love, maybe joy, maybe peace? – and wished that we could share it.
Sometimes, of course, God intervenes directly and very powerfully – as he did with Abram. One of the great delights of ordained ministry is that people feel able to talk about that kind of encounter, without worrying that we will automatically assume they are deluded – so I’ve been privileged to hear some amazing and wonderful stories. God is constantly in the business of building a relationship with each one of God’s children. If the church as we know it vanished tomorrow, that process would continue….BUT ….If we are here because of the faith of others, then we need to recognise that our own faith, however faltering, our own longing to lead a life shaped by our relationship with God, will have an impact in its turn.
So – be conscious of the value of your own story…On a bad day, you may feel that all you can offer is a dogged determination to keep on behaving AS IF you believe, because at least that gives you a sense of purpose and of hope, however faint and unreasonable. On a better day, count your blessings but be prepared, also, to share the results of your counting. Be expectant, alert, hopeful. Gossip the gospel. Write about your God moments in a journal, so that they can resource you at the empty times. Most people don’t have news of extraordinary miracles, but everyday graces that confirm the presence of loving God who is working for our transformation can speak just as loudly. And please, PLEASE don’t be afraid to share your own personal good news…the gospel according to YOU.
When we did the NCD survey together in the spring, it was notable how few people felt able to share their glimpses of God, even with friends from this, their own faith community. That's really sad – because I'm confident that if you pause to think, you'll find examples of God's presence in the ordinary and also, maybe particularly, when things are tough. Of COURSE nobody wants to hear a bunch of platitudes that owe more to the Hallmark Card school of theology than to any lived experience – but there's plenty to say without resorting to a suggestion that life is an experience of roses all the way once you begin to follow Christ.
The path of my own faith is definitely erratic…lots of troughs, days, even weeks, when the whole thing seems to be no more than smoke and mirrors,a mad delusion designed to offer comfort in a sometimes lonely and hostile world...but also times when I have been completely overwhelmed by God’s presence, his transformative action, the knowledge of his love - or brought onto holy ground as someone else spoke of how they’d experienced God at work in their life, their world. And, most of the time, it seems that my story and my experience is enough.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen... And always, for me, there is that sense of aspiration that pulls me onward…that sense of longing that fills the pages of the Old Testament prophets…that straining forward to something beautiful that is just beyond the horizon.
They desire a better country…Yes, oh YES. And I will live by faith in the meantime…even when that faith feels smaller than a mustard seed, until, by God’s grace, I see for myself that place where we all belong. Let's travel there together.