Why is faith so difficult?

I am writing a sermon on Matthew 14: 22-33, the passage wherein Jesus invites Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water with him…in the midst of a storm.  Peter has always seemed to me to be the naïve, overeager, overachiever type.  He’s like the kid who sits in the front of the classroom and raises his hand, hops up and down in his seat, and shouts, “Me! Me! Pick me!” to every question the teacher asks.  Peter is far from perfect, but he wants so badly to be perfect, he wants so badly to please Jesus and to prove his faith. So when Jesus approaches the disciples’ boat, walking on the water, overeager Peter thinks he should walk on the water too.  So he asks Jesus to command him to come to him.

Even if you don’t know the story you can see where it is headed.  Jesus invites Peter to step out of the boat. Peter gets out, takes a few shaky steps on the water, then panics because the wind, and the storm, and the waves are still raging around him.  Peter sinks.  Jesus has to save him.  Then they both get in the boat and the storm, miraculously, ceases to rage.  This is the point where I imagine Peter, wet and water-logged, traumatized by his near drowning, and humiliated for being told he had so “little faith,” is thinking to himself, “Okay, Jesus.  Couldn’t you have made this a little easier?  Couldn’t you have made the storm cease before I stepped out of the boat?”

Have you ever found yourself asking this question?  Why is faith so difficult?  Why does Jesus call his followers out of the safety and security of the boat into the middle of a storm?  Why does faith require so much courage, and effort, and strength of will?  Couldn’t you make this a little easier, Jesus?

But faith isn’t easy.  By its very nature, faith isn’t easy.  Faith is not something that we can rationalize, or explain, or even obtain with any measure of success.  If we were to attempt to explain it we might talk about reaching for the unreachable, finite hands grasping for that which is infinite.  Faith is the bridge that is built between stark dichotomies; it is hope in the face of despair; it is love in the face of hatred; it is peace in the face of violence; it is beauty in the face of ugliness; it is justice in the face of injustice; it is courage in the face of fear.  Faith is a dynamic, spirited force that moves us from the place where we are to the place where we ought to be.

Which is why it is so difficult.  Faith is supposed to move us.  Faith is supposed to change us.  Faith is supposed to better us and open us, deepen us and mature us. And that journey isn’t easy.  In fact, it’s the most difficult, most intimidating, most risk-filled journey we will ever take because it means consistently stepping out of the safety of the boat into the wind and the waves and the storm.

Theologian Paul Tillich describes faith as “dynamic.”  If faith becomes static, if it fails to move us, open us, deepen us, better us, then it is no longer faith.  Instead it is an idol; it is simply another idol that we put up on the mantle to worship but with which we don’t actually do anything.

Couldn’t you make this a little easier, Jesus?  Thanks be to God the answer is “No.”





Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Come Up To Me

Junior Sarah Miller played the organ beautifully during chapel service today.  It was thrilling to hear our music fill the whole chapel.  What follows is my meditation on Exodus 24: 12-18.

“Come Up To Me”

Exodus 24:12-18

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 28th, 2011—MC Chapel Service

Have you noticed how people are always climbing mountains in search of God?

In today’s text Moses is in need of instruction, he is in need of the law on stone tablets, and, I imagine, he is in need of reassurance that God is still with him as he leads his people on an excruciatingly long exodus through the desert.

Elijah, in a moment of great despair and desperation, climbs a mountain in 1 Kings and experiences God in the sound of sheer silence.[1]

Jesus takes his disciples and climbs a mountain in this Sunday’s Transfiguration text where the glory of the Lord shines around them and God’s voice is heard from a cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”[2]

According to Judaic tradition, the Temple or synagogue was always built at the highest point in the city so when the people went to worship they had to go up, they had to climb the mountain, singing their songs of ascent as they went.

Climbing the mountain in search of God is a tradition that continues today and draws together many religious traditions.  It’s a theme that is evident in literature (remember Tolstoy’s story from last week where the emperor climbed the mountain in search of the enlightened old hermit.)  It’s a theme evident around the world…I was struck on a trip to Austria how every mountaintop was adorned with a large cross.

Climbing the mountain in search of God is something people have done for centuries and still do today.  And all of this is rooted in an ancient Near Eastern belief that the mountain is the pillar of the earth, holding the earth and heavens in place.[3] So in order to experience God you climbed the mountain.

After graduating from seminary, a friend of mine and I took three weeks to go backpacking through Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.  Austria is one of my favorite places in the world and I was bound and determined to climb some of those beautiful mountains while we were there.  I believe we were in Innsbruck, Austria when we tackled our first mountain.  The trail was well cut and we set out with confidence.  But, after a couple of hours of hiking, my feet hurt, my back was aching, and we weren’t even close to reaching the summit.  We made it, eventually, and it was beautiful at the top of that mountain.  I still treasure the pictures I took from there.  But that night for dinner all I could eat was Ibuprofen as I lay in bed moaning because my body was so sore and hurt so bad.

Climbing mountains is hard work!  And it’s important for us to recognize this as we consider this theme of climbing mountains in search of God.

I am a pretty big believer in the idea that experiencing God doesn’t just happen.  It takes some work on our part.  Sure, we might have the rare experience of God that just happens spontaneously, but most of the time we need to be pretty intentional in preparing our hearts, in opening our minds, in being attentive to the movement of the Spirit, in order to truly experience God.  Climbing the mountain is a good and helpful metaphor, then, because it reminds us of what is necessary, what we need to do in order to experience God.  Traditionally, as the people of God climbed the mountain, or as they ascended to the Temple, they were singing spiritual songs, they were praying prayers, they were opening themselves up to receive what God wanted them to receive, they were working hard to experience God, they were working hard at worship.

When I met with our Student Chaplains for our first meeting together we talked about the hard work of worship.  I said to them that for worship to be done well it would take a lot of hard work.  It would take preparation, and prayer, and thoughtfulness, and creativity.  It would take us being open to the Spirit’s guidance, and we have to intentionally open ourselves to receive that guidance.  Worship is hard work.  And it’s not just the worship leaders who have to work hard at worship.  For worship to truly be well done, for us to truly experience God in this time and place, we all need to be prepared for some hard spiritual work.

The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard helpfully compared worship once to a play in a theater.  With this image in mind, Kierkegaard mourned the fact that too often worshippers come to the sanctuary imagining the minister or the worship leaders as the star actors on the stage, with the musicians or the choir as the supporting actors, and then the people in the seats as the audience.  So this is how people typically view their roles when they come to worship.  But, Kierkegaard said, this is all wrong.  Comparing worship again to a play in theater, Kierkegaard said it is the people in the seats that are on center stage, with the minister and the leaders acting as the directors, and then the audience, of course, is God.  As we worship then, we offer ourselves to God as our audience; we sing to God, we pray to God, we attend to God and to our relationship with God.  We….every single one of us….work hard as we worship God.  And if we do, if we all work hard, then worship will be well done, God will be pleased, and we (more than likely) will experience God in this place.

I have noticed that there aren’t many mountains here in Illinois.  It’s hard enough to find a good hill for sledding around here, let alone a mountain.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience God.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t go up to the Temple, singing our songs, praying our prayers, and preparing our hearts to be moved by the Spirit of God in this place.  And of course, God is eager to meet us here and to move us here, as God bids us to “Come!  Come up to me!”

Now to this God who bids us to come and worship, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 19: 11-12

[2] Matthew 17: 1-9

[3] Judy Fentress-Williams, in “Exegetical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010), pg. 439.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Do Not Worry

We’ve begun holding chapel services again every Monday from 12:10-12:40pm in Dahl Chapel.  In a hard-working academic community such as ours, I believe it is important to provide a moment of holy “pause,” an opportunity to catch our spiritual breath, and time each week to reflect on this journey of life and faith.  Today’s service featured some beautiful Taize music led by Dr. Dan Ott on piano, Carleigh Shannon, ’11, on flute, and Emily McClay, ’14, on cello.  All are welcome to attend these ecumenical worship services. What follows is my meditation on Matthew 6: 24-34 from today’s chapel service.

“Do Not Worry”

Matthew 6: 24-34

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 21st, 2011 – MC Chapel Service

I am the type of person who can be easily distracted.  I may be physically present somewhere (bodily present) but sometimes my mind and my attention are elsewhere.  And this, of course, has its consequences.

For instance, I may be at home with my children but in my mind I am still here at work worrying and thinking about our next chapel service, or about a prayer I am trying to write, or about a conversation that I had…only to wake up and realize that my 3-year-old son has just given himself a “haircut” with the kitchen scissors.

Or, I may be sitting somewhere playing with my Iphone, obsessively checking my email, only to wake up and realize that I was missing the most beautiful sunset.

Or, I might be at a party or a reception thinking that I really needed to talk to the person across the room, only to wake up and realize that the person I was with was actually saying something really interesting and that I was missing an opportunity to connect with her.

So I sort of constantly have these moments where I “wake-up” and realize what I am missing when I allow myself to get distracted, or when I allow worry to carry me away from the present moment.

One such “wake-up” moment in particular stands out in my mind because my daughter really got my attention.  I was at home, but I wasn’t really at home, because my mind was still here at work….when all of a sudden Ella (our 1 ½ year-old daughter) crawls into my lap, takes my face in her chubby little hands, puts her nose to my nose, and with big, wide, attentive eyes, starts saying, “Hey!  Hey!  Hey!  Hey!”  Well, needless to say, she definitely got my attention.

At last Friday’s “Meaning of Life” discussion in the Weeks House, Corbin Beastrom, a freshman, caught our attention by quoting a story by Leo Tolstoy.  In this story an emperor goes in search of the answer to what he felt were life’s most important questions:  What is the best time to do each thing?  Who are the most important people to work with?  What is the most important thing to do at all times?  The emperor’s search ultimately takes him to an old hermit who lives high on a mountain and who was known to be an enlightened man.  The hermit didn’t answer the emperor’s questions immediately, though, instead he asked for his help in digging a garden outside of his hut because the earth was hard and he was an old hermit.  Then, while the emperor was helping the old hermit with his garden, a man suddenly runs up to them with a life-threatening wound.  So the emperor attends to the man and his wound and saves his life.  After all of this, it is very late and the emperor decides to go home thinking that the hermit does not have the answers to his questions.  But then the hermit surprises him by saying, “But your questions have already been answered.  The most important time is now, he said.  The most important person is the person you are with.  And the most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy…for that is the pursuit of life.”[1]

I think Jesus would agree with this.  In today’s text Jesus says to us, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own…But strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  In today’s text Jesus reminds us that we are alive today!  Tomorrow doesn’t even exist yet….but today….today is a gift….today is full of potential…today is full of beauty, and grace, and God.  So don’t take today for granted.  Don’t let worry carry you away from today.

I can hear Jesus now, “Don’t let worry carry you away from loving your children and being attentive to your children today.  Don’t let worry distract you from that beautiful sunset, or that bright red cardinal singing in the tree, or the feel of the earth under your feet, or the way the clouds dance across the sky.  Don’t let worry carry you away from the person sitting next to you, from the potential to touch a life with your attention, from the potential to make a new friend.  Don’t let worry seclude you so much in your own little world that you fail to recognize the plight of others…that you fail to recognize those who are poor…or those who are pushed aside…or those who are feeling unwelcome and unnoticed.”

Yes, I can hear Jesus now, and I can feel him, taking my face, your face, our faces in his hands, putting his nose to our nose, and saying, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”  You are alive today!  Today is a gift!  Do not worry!  Instead, strive for the Kingdom of God.

So…let us take a moment…this moment…to follow Jesus’ advice….to be present in this space….to notice the beauty that is here waiting for us….to notice the person sitting beside us…to hear the music that is calling to us….to notice the God who is here for us….in this moment….in this hour of worship…in this day….that we have been given as a gift to treasure and as an opportunity to realize…..

Now to the God who calls us to be fully present in this moment be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] As told by Thich Nhat Hanh in The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1975), pgs. 69-75.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sit Lux– “Let there be light.”

People thought we were crazy when we told them we were moving from sunny, warm, North Carolina, to Monmouth, Illinois in the dead of winter.  “What’s taking you there?” people asked, naturally curious.  If the question was asked in passing, and if I didn’t know the person well, my answer was short and simple: “We have new positions at the college there.”  But for those whom we knew well, the answer was different:  “We are moving to Monmouth, Illinois because we believe it will be good.”

Now belief is not certainty.  Belief comes hand-in-hand with doubt, questions, and fears. And we certainly experienced doubt, questions, and fears as we said goodbye to people whom we loved, as we left behind all that was familiar and comfortable, and as we loaded up our two cars, our two kids, and our dog and began the long, snowy three day drive that would get us here.  But what kept us going, what kept pushing us forward through all the doubts, questions, and fears, was the belief that this move would be good.

During my first week here I took a moment to go and sit by myself in Dahl Chapel.  I chose a seat in the middle of the chapel so I could look up and take in all of the architectural beauty of that space.  Dahl Chapel is beautiful and inspiring.  As I sat there alone I found myself contemplating our move, contemplating all the new things I was learning here, contemplating all the new people I was meeting, contemplating who I wanted to be and how I wanted to serve you as your new college chaplain.  While I was contemplating all of this I looked up and noticed for the first time something that should have been obvious to me from the very moment I stepped in the chapel; a large white arch over the chancel with bold maroon letters that read, “Sit Lux.”  Let there be light.

In chapter one of the book of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth and then God said, “Let there be light.”  And God saw that the light was good.

We came here because we believe it will be good.  We came following the light that emanates from this campus, from this campus community, from the people who work here and the students who study here.  We came following the light that emanates from the opportunities that lie here…opportunities to serve and opportunities to learn and grow among you.  We came here following the light.  We came here following the good light that is already warming us…even in the dead of an Illinois winter.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment