Sunday, January 22, 2012

Trusting and Following

Mark 1:14-20

“Trust me.” Those two words may trigger different reactions in different people. There probably are no two words that generate more distrust inside of me than to hear someone say, “Trust me.” Maybe it goes back to my early childhood, in which I had a habit of asking thousands of questions about everything. Maybe it goes back to the days when I first began to realize that some people can’t be trusted, and maybe even to the days that I had to admit that even I couldn’t always be trusted.

Many of us want to trust, but we cannot. I suspect that a number of us can relate quite well to the words of the Russian proverb that former President Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting: “Trust, but verify.”[2] I never heard him ask the next obvious question—if you have to check up on the one you trust, do you really trust at all?

You can’t force anyone (yourself or someone else) to trust. Trust is not simply a matter of the intellect, although the intellect plays a part.

Trust can even lead one to take steps that your intellect will tell you are foolish. Sometimes we think we know better and reject the wisdom of those who have come before. Sometimes we are just testing boundaries. I read a New York Times article this past week about a troubling behavior pattern that has been emerging among some teenagers: giving away their passwords. For those who are not familiar with the way the Internet or Facebook work, let me explain. When someone wants to sign on to the Internet or Facebook, they start by creating a User Identification—it’s like giving yourself a special name for the Computer World. But the designers of the computer sites know that someone reading a computer can’t see who is typing a user name. What is there to prevent someone from stealing your user id and pretending to be you? The computer world invented the Password—a modern-day equivalent of a secret code that lets you enter the computer world. If someone has both your user ID and your password, they can enter the computer world as you. They can read your mail, they can send out messages under your name, and no one can tell the difference. Giving out your password is one of the big “No No’s” of the cyber world.

This New York Times article quotes Tiffany Carandang, a high school senior in San Francisco, as saying ““It’s a sign of trust. “I have nothing to hide from him, and he has nothing to hide from me.” Her friend Cherry, age 16, overhears the conversation and says, “That is so cute. They really trust each other.” We do, said Ms. Carandang, 17. “I know he’d never do anything to hurt my reputation,” she added.”

The Times goes on to state the obvious. “It doesn’t always end so well, of course.”[3]

Do you trust anyone in this world so much that you would share your deepest, most inward secrets with that person? Do you trust that person so much that you would give that person the keys to put words in your mouth for the rest of the computer-world to see? Do you trust that person so much that you would give that person that degree of power and control in your life, against the wishes and recommendations of other people who know you and love you?

Some people shouldn’t be trusted. Some of you will remember Jim Jones and the story of Jonestown. This tragedy took place in November, 1978. More than 900 people (including 200 children) committed suicide on the orders of leader Jim Jones. It can be amazing how far people will go when they blindly follow someone in whom they trust.[4]

Yet when Jesus invited Simon and Andrew and James and John to follow Him, He invited them to trust. Did they follow Jesus because they had conducted a background check, reviewed his FBI files, read His Facebook page and Twitter posts and searched his name on Google? No, of course not, not even in within the equivalent norms of Ancient Israel. There is no indication of any questions asked—not about Jesus, or His family, or His vision for ministry. They left their nets immediately.

This sound strangely impulsive to us. Can you imagine yourself responding this way, following a chance meeting? Even acknowledging the special intensity and magnetism that seemed to follow Jesus, can you see yourself walking away from your place of business, from your family, from all that you ever knew to follow this wandering prophet from an obscure village?

There is an intricate, complex relationship between trusting God and following God. We are told to trust in the Lord. What does it mean to trust in and follow God? How does one learn to trust in God, who we cannot see, and who seems to be beyond our comprehension?

The more I learn about our spiritual journey, the more I recognize how difficult this can be, and how much preachers’ answers can leave the seeker feeling really empty with a few simplistic phrases. I don’t promise easy answers, but let me offer a few suggestions.

First: Let go. Let go of your preconceived notions about who God is or how God should respond to your situation. Many people have trouble trusting in God because they are trying to make God conform to their own expectations of who God should be. When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he asked God for His name. God’s response was cryptic, to say the least: “I will be who I will be” (Exodus 3:14). We encounter God on God’s terms, not our own. We should enter into our relationship with God in awe and reverence for the mystery of God which is beyond our comprehension.

Second: Keep quiet. After emptying ourselves of our expectations of who God should be, we need to develop habits of the heart that will enable us to listen when God speaks. We speak of this as developing “spiritual senses,” similar to the physical senses. Do you have trouble accepting the idea of spiritual senses? What about in your own life—do you have trouble with the idea of loving and being loved by a human being? Do you recognize a spiritual connection that grows between you and your beloved? This connection of love is not something that you can see with your eyes or touch with your fingers. But you can still feel the love. You sometimes have to get quiet to recognize that God is there. The Psalmist says “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

Third: Take baby steps. We don’t expect our children to be able to run like track stars the day that they are born. It takes time. We have to learn to crawl before we walk and we have to learn to walk before we run. At times, we fall down. Sometimes, we may even get hurt. What a sorry world we would be living in if we allowed those initial falls to defeat us. The writer of the Book of Hebrews used a different metaphor—there is a time when we will be ready for the solid food of the spirit; but we start out on a diet of spiritual milk. While we still are spiritual infants, we need “milk, not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).

Fourth: Orient yourself toward God. If you continue to look for answers to life’s ultimate questions of meaning, purpose, death and life in money, friendships, jobs, status, fame, then why will you need God? It is only when you recognize that you can find ultimate meaning and purpose in God alone that you will be able to achieve this level of trust. This is why the Psalmist said in today’s Psalm, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:5).

Fifth: Act on the faith that you have. Don’t wait to be fully mature in your spiritual life before you follow God. Peter was pretty quick to jump up from his nets to follow Jesus. Peter also was prone to mistakes. Jesus called him anyway. Even though Peter denied him, Peter still was found worthy to lead the early church through those first turbulent years after Jesus’ ascension. Do you trust because you follow or do you follow because you trust? The answer is that it takes a little bit of both, working together. Don’t miss the journey while you wait for answers to all your questions!

I learned something about what it means to trust God from a young woman named Anna.

Anna is my niece. You may have seen her name on our Prayer List. Anna has struggled with more pain in her short lifetime than any person should have to endure. Pain that the best doctors in the country haven’t been able to cure. Because of her illness, she missed a lot of school, and she was given tutors to help her catch up with her schoolwork. One of her tutors was a lady that took great pride in her “super-Christian lifestyle.” One day this woman, who was supposed to be a source of encouragement and support, told Anna: “don't you think God has forsaken you? Do you feel like He’s even there?” Anna was dumbfounded. She told me that all she could say in response to this lady was “no ... He just pops up in the funniest places.” Anna left it at that, hoping that the tutor would realize what a terribly unhelpful thing she had said.

Anna told me this story with tears streaming down her face. She said “Every day, I make the choice to believe in God. Sometimes it’s difficult for me because I DON'T feel God ... Most of the time I can’t and that's been so hard for me. I know He's there but there is a difference between knowing and believing—and it’s something I have to choose to do every day ... not because it’s fun or easy or even just the only thing I know to do, but because I know it’s right.” Every day, Anna makes a choice to let go of her own notions of how she should experience God.

What is your level of trust today? We so often jump to the question of following before we are ready. First, we need to learn to trust. What is this trust? Trust is not an act of the head; it is an act of the heart.

Many people have experienced pain when their trust has been abused, and it can be painful to trust again, let alone to follow the one we are supposed to trust. Learning when to trust (and when not to trust) may be one of the difficult lessons in life that we must master in order to live fully, effectively and abundantly. Even in areas of trust, God meets us exactly at our point of need. After all, God pops up in the funniest places.

Thanks be to God!

Tom Frost

January 22, 2012[1]

© 2012 by Thomas E. Frost. All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.

[3] Richtel, Matt, “Young, in Love and Sharing Everything, Including a Password,” in The New York Times, (January 18, 2012).