Cross Words – November 2018

  Rev. Ed Rees and I were classmates together in Seminary and we share a passion about growing faith in our churches. I hope that you will enjoy reading it as much as I did.  Pastor Clark
  Cultivate a Habitat Where Faith Thrives By the Rev. Ed Rees / Faith ColumnistPastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church
  The ivory-billed woodpecker is, or was, one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, native to the Southeastern U.S. Marked by a distinctive red crest, black and white plumage, and a thick, three-inch bill, the bird is listed as critically endangered, with no actual confirmed sightings since the 1940s. Thanks to the familiar story of extensive habitat loss, combined with hunting by collectors who prized its bill and feathers, the bird is assumed to be all but extinct.
Similarly, there is another formerly common feature of American life that also appears endangered – faith in God. Study after study tells us that people – particularly young people – are abandoning their faith in droves, leading to shrinking churches and the declining influence of religion in our national experience.
The reported decline in faith appears to be caused by factors similar to those that have adversely affected the ivory-billed woodpecker. While many parents think they have been dutiful in passing their faith along to the next generation, studies reveal that those who walk away from their faith when they leave home never felt deeply connected to that faith in the first place; in other words, the “faith habitat” was compromised.
For example, when we promote the idea that faith is primarily a matter of “being good,” young people soon discover that people of faith do not have a monopoly on good behavior. They realize at some point that you don’t need to be a part of any organized religious group to pursue “goodness,” however that is defined, and so choose the do-it-yourself path.
When questioning is discouraged, and young people are told that they must simply “believe,” regardless of any doubts, they do not learn how to integrate their minds with their hearts. They become easy prey for those who raise intellectual objections to faith, and their belief then withers, because they’ve never been shown that reason and faith are partners, not enemies.
When parents make sure that all in the family attend church, and go through all the religious activities, but in their own lives display blatant ethical lapses and hypocrisy without any repentance, they are building their children’s spiritual houses on sand. When young people begin to see their parents through maturing eyes, it’s like a flood that sweeps everything away.
In addition to this poor habitat for faith, there is the practice of pursuing faith for what you can gain from it, just like the woodpeckers were hunted for their bills and feathers. Children are taught – wrongly – that if you are “good” and read your Bible and go to church and pray, then God will “take care of you,” meaning he will give you good stuff in your life and protect you from everything bad. When tragedy and heartbreak and disaster strike, as they must in every life, trust in God crumbles.
The solution is to re-cultivate a sound habitat for faith to grow. We must demonstrate that being good is not the purpose of faith, but the natural side effect of a healthy faith in God who loves us in spite of our own lack of goodness. We should encourage vigorous questioning, demonstrating that there are sound reasons for belief in God, while not being afraid to admit there are lots of questions for which we have no clear answers.
We especially need to prepare our young people for a harsh and difficult world, reminding them of Jesus’ words: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
The best thing we can do is teach that it is God alone we should be pursuing, not any gifts or blessings we hope to receive from him.
The Psalmist wrote, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:25)
I don’t know if the ivory-billed woodpecker is still out there, wild and free; what I do know is that the Creator who gave us that bird has offered us himself, if we know where and how to look for him.

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