Strength of Faith.

Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He comes to save you.

Over the months of Ordinary Time, a time dedicated to growth, we focus on how we live out the Christian faith, how we walk in Strength of Faith. Remember to focus on our Strength of Faith.

For weeks we have focused on Strength of Faith, and perhaps it is time to focus on its opposite, strength of despair. 

It often astounds me to see people struggling so much, to see the level of despair they are wrapped up in. I see young families struggling with schedules and financial resources. I see middle aged people trying to make sense of relationships that seem to be breaking down. I see older folks facing decline in health and vitality. At the same time, I know people who face the exact same challenges, yet persevere and come to victory.

Listen to a few words from Adam Zamoyski’s 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow

Although Moscow boasted a French Catholic church whose priest had remained at his post, churchgoing did not figure among the activities of the soldiers. A handful of officers, came to mass or confession, and the pastor was only asked to give Christian burial on two occasions. He went around the hospitals to talk to the wounded, but found them interested only in their physical wants, not their spiritual needs. He said: ‘They do not seem to believe in an afterlife. I baptized several infants born to soldiers, which is the only thing they still care about, and I was treated with respect.’

The difference between people who face the same challenges, and yet have different outcomes is the presence of both faith and the fellowship of Church in their lives. Zamoyski points to soldiers amid despair and on the losing side who were so self-iinvolved they refused to see God in their midst. Their strength of despair overtook faith and led them to give up, to seek no help. They were left with only despair.

You see, we have the actual answer. We have a God of love and complete forgiveness. We have a God ordained way-of-life. We have the Bread of Eternal Life and the Cup of Salvation. We have the “all” so many seek because Jesus said, ‘do this, live this way, receive My promises,’ and so we do.

I can attest this from my own life. Any time where I absented God my life became the definition of absence. It was a turning inward to despair. Yet when I turned to God and committed to live the life of the Church, I was made whole. The challenges did not end, only they were transformed by God.

I imagine the deaf man lived in despair, but then he was brought to Jesus who said: “Ephphatha!”, “Be opened!” Once he was opened his despair was transformed and so are we.

I give
up.

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days

We know that the human body needs food and water to survive. A human can go for more than three weeks without food, but water is a different story. At least 60% of the adult body is made of water. The maximum time an individual can go without water is about one week in ideal conditions, less in more difficult conditions, like the broiling heat of a desert.

Jesus in His humanity is just like us (except for sin). It is unlikely that He gave up all food and water during His fast. What He did give up in the desert experience was any hint of self will. There, He fully connected with the Father and conformed Himself to the Father’s will. He accepted the hard road ahead as His mission. This experience, separated from human company, barely existing, the ultimate in aloneness, prepared Him and strengthened Him such that no temptation, no allure could pull Him off the Kingdom mission.

Believers are often called into a profound and mystical desert journey. It is a certain time of aloneness and apartness where we face the big roadblocks that are in the way of our journey to heaven. In that time, we break down the roadblocks, grind down the speed bumps, burn away self-interest, and commit to the road toward the kingdom. In the desert, we find God’s mission for us and learn to differentiate between the things that keep us on mission or draw us away.

This week we faced a horrible tragedy in Florida. Lives taken, young, beautiful lives that will never have the opportunity to experience the desert journey of growth. Rather, they were pulled away from all of life’s experiences and opportunities.

Jenny Rapson, writing at For Every Mom, notes that seventeen souls lost their lives on the first day of Lent. She asks us to seriously consider what we are giving up for Lent as individuals and as a nation. Reflecting on Jesus’ desert journey. she says: “Let’s give up, as a country, as a nation, let’s give up whatever it is” that blocks us from doing what is right; “whatever it is that allows people armed with assault rifles and shotguns to keep coming into schools time and time and time and time and time again to murder our children and their teachers. Let’s give that up. Let’s identify that thing and then let’s lay it down and sacrifice it so no more children have to die.”

Her poignant words call us to rise to the challenges we face as individuals, communities, and as a nation. They remind us that the desert experience must be part of our everyday lives. We must take the desert road to determine what we must give up. the actions, thoughts, and words that do not live up to the Father’s will and His Son’s example of resisting temptation, bringing healing, offering peace, and living anew.

I give
up.

“You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

Christians are oddball people. It took me quite awhile to figure that one out. They give up.

When I was young I used to read the prayers in the pew missal. There were all kinds of prayers – a prayer of confession. There were prayers to be said after receiving communion (something we find on pages 1-8 of our pew missal). A there was this prayer that really bothered me. A few lines from that prayer (attributed to Ignatius of Loyola):

“Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess”

I said to myself – hold on – that cannot be right. Why would I give up those things? Didn’t God give me a will in the first place?

Frankly, this prayer confused and angered me. In those feelings I eventually found the source of my sin, and the source of all sin. It is our tendency to say ‘my way or the highway.’

Throughout biblical history God asked His people to surrender, to give up their will and to do His will. Again and again His people said no.

Jesus set before us the prime example of surrender as He prayed to His Father in the garden: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus agonized over surrender so much that He sweated drops of blood. Surrender is hard work. It requires intense warfare against our tendency to say no; to say ‘my will be done.’

Jesus asks us to do the hard work of surrender each day and today’s scripture exemplifies the level of surrender we are to have. It is extreme, it is powerful, and it is scary. It means saying yes to God and no to the world – even to family and friends. It means we may be hated or even killed.

If we surrender everything to God, if we choose – and we have to choose one way or the other – we rely on God to work things out. We stop trying to manipulate, plan, force our agenda, or control the situation. We no longer react to criticism or rush to defend ourselves. Our way of relating is changed. People are no longer the other. They are now before us. We are no longer self-serving but other serving. We let go and let God work. Instead of trying harder, we trust more.

Each day let us truly give up – giving all we have up to God. In that we will be victorious. As Revelation tells us: they have conquered because they loved not their lives even unto death.