The Integrity Of My Faith: Thoughts from a Cancer Caregiver

When one is a pastor, people look to you for answers. Those answers often have as much to do with how we act as they have to do with what we say. Thankfully, clergy (and their families) do not live in the same “fishbowl” which just a few decades ago dictated much of what pastors were to do and how they were to behave.

We can look at a generation of pastors that “broke the mold,” so to speak, particularly when it came to church planting pastors. For good or for ill, we have seen pioneers, a raising of a new generation of hip pastors. Forget just wearing jeans and frosting your hair, we added cussing and craft-beer drinking to the list of things which were “acceptable,” well, at least for some. Technology gave us a whole new way to refine our “style.”

Many of us, myself included, took advantage where we could of some of these new freedoms and approaches. Sometimes we experienced the grace of more wise clergy and friends who cautioned us. Sometimes we did not. In many cases, we suffered, our churches suffered, and our witness suffered.

No matter how we might package ourselves, no matter how we might try to position ourselves to advance the Gospel or our “brand,” there is one thing we cannot escape. At some point we are going to come face to face with the reality of the integrity of our faith.

Integrity is important to me. Those who know me know this is a core value in my life, maybe THE core value. But even so, I come up short, “....for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...(Romans 3:23).” I am not able to escape this reality anymore than I can escape my need for sleep or to eat.

So when I speak of an “integrity of my faith,” I am talking about the nuts and bolts, the nitty gritty, knee deep in the muck and mire reality of whether my faith counts for anything at all. We can talk about all the surveys and stats. We can talk about vital congregations, but from my experience and conversations, people looking for God, looking for faith, want to KNOW that you KNOW God and that you KNOW you are KNOWN by God.

The integrity of my faith has been tested in a number of personal challenges. It was tested when I went through testicular cancer, in two battles with clinical depression, and in loss of nearly 50% of my vision to name the more public challenges.

Now, the integrity of my faith is being tested by my wife’s cancer and my role as a husband and father. The integrity of my faith strains at cords of my covenant as a United Methodist pastor and as a caregiver. It is not straining because I lack help or support, heavens NO! I am surrounded by the love and care of my church family and friends and colleagues.

The integrity of my faith is being tested because this is life. What is being tested is the integrity of faith which has been nurtured and has grown since I first responded to God’s prevenient grace back in 1987. What is being tested is the integrity of marriage vows, of my wife’s faith in me (and my children’s faith). And this faith is not, no, cannot be measured by the state of my interior life. The state of my interior life will be measured and made evident by the integrity with which I live.

Father Simon Tugwell writes so appropriately in his book, Prayer in Practice, “...we read that ‘the Word was made flesh”, not that the Word was made mind. Of course his humanity includes a human mind and the Church fought long doctrinal battles over it. But even so the Bible says ‘The Word was made flesh”, and there is an appropriate exteriority about our religion which we should take seriously.” He goes on to state more pointedly, “...we are human beings, and it is our humanity that is redeemed in Jesus Christ. So let us not be afraid to use human language in human ways when we draw close to God.” The integrity of our faith is tested more than just in our declarations of morality. I think it is tested most clearly in the facing of mortality - the recognition of the frailty of ourselves and those around us and those most dear to us.

With each breathe and prayer I make throughout my day, this is the integrity of my faith which is being tested. The truth is, it always was being tested. James even makes clear (I'm still not sure that  joy is how to describe what I’m experiencing right now), “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James1:2-3)” What I can say, is be attending to your faith now! Do you KNOW that you KNOW God? This is the assurance of salvation which we find promised to us (Romans 8:16-17) by St. Paul and passed on through the Methodist Revival. It is a true promise to us, do not wait for it, ask for it, seek it now when your faith is not in a time of testing.

I know whom I have believed in and HE is able to sustain the integrity of my faith. And that I say with all the scars upon my body and my heart.

Storytelling Week 2: It is Our Story

Act 16:25-40 CEV  About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises to God, while the other prisoners listened.  (26)  Suddenly a strong earthquake shook the jail to its foundations. The doors opened, and the chains fell from all the prisoners.  (27)  When the jailer woke up and saw that the doors were open, he thought that the prisoners had escaped. He pulled out his sword and was about to kill himself.  (28)  But Paul shouted, "Don't harm yourself! No one has escaped."  (29)  The jailer asked for a torch and went into the jail. He was shaking all over as he knelt down in front of Paul and Silas.  (30)  After he had led them out of the jail, he asked, "What must I do to be saved?"  (31)  They replied, "Have faith in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved! This is also true for everyone who lives in your home."  (32)  Then Paul and Silas told him and everyone else in his house about the Lord.  (33)  While it was still night, the jailer took them to a place where he could wash their cuts and bruises. Then he and everyone in his home were baptized.  (34)  They were very glad that they had put their faith in God. After this, the jailer took Paul and Silas to his home and gave them something to eat.  

I could tell when I heard her voice on the phone, she was not happy.  “Pastor, I need to talk with you,” she exclaimed.  Jenny had begun coming to our new church start about a year after we had begun.  She had grown up Catholic but had not engaged God until recently as she and her daughter began coming.  At our new church, she wanted her daughter to learn about God but Jenny was on her own journey and had begun to ask questions about God.  We had given her daughter a Bible and they had begun reading it and had come to the story of Sodom and Gomorah.  That is when she called me.
“Ken, this is NOT a kid’s book!”  “How could God kill all those people?”  “Why would someone even write about this?”  How can I read this book to my daughter?” 

I’m not going to relay everything in our conversation as it was quite lengthy and it was a conversation that really taught me a valuable truth: our faith story does not happen in a vacuum.  Your story and my story of seeking God takes place in life, with people and in the midst of real life situation and sometimes, the real, messy, sometimes offensive and sometimes joyous, moments of life.  My life and my faith will forever be shaped and formed now by these past few weeks and these recent days of Heather’s cancer and the impact you, as a church community have had on me, on Heather and our family.  Our story as a family is now part of our story as God’s family here at Bethelview.  Our years of ministry together will be tied together because of this experience.

Christians, especially Methodist Christians, are a people of “One Book.”  That was a point that John Wesley made very clear.  Bethelview has been forever influenced by this truth.  How do I know?  For one thing, I’ve listened to many of you but I’ve also noticed something you may not have picked up on.  Each week, when you’ve come to worship, you have seen a picture of an open Bible.  You have a seen a Lamp on top of the Bible, reminding you that God’s Word is a Lamp to your feet and light on your path.  There is an open Bible with the greek letters Alpha and Omega, reminding you that Jesus is God’s Word, the beginning and the end.  And, those of you who have come back into the closet, the original pastor’s office, there is the Ten Commandments.

Some good, godly people wanted to be sure the Church here at Bethelview didn’t lose sight of what mattered.  They are still telling the story of God to us today.  It isn’t their story.  It isn’t your story,  It isn’t my story.  It is our story.

As we read the story of Acts 16 (see above), we look at the impact of choices and connections, we see action and reaction.  Rarely do we ever consider earthquakes as good things.  In these circumstances, the jailer clearly is distraught by the events that transpire. What happens if Paul and Silas sneak out when the doors open?  It appears likely the jailer would have died.  His family would be left without a father and husband.  It may have meant Paul and Silas (and others) would have become fugitives.  It might also have meant the jailer’s family would come to blame their loss on Christians.

But those things DON’T happen.  The story of Paul and Silas becomes the story of the jailer.  The story of the jailer becomes the story of jailer’s family.  I think we get the miracles mixed up.  It isn’t about the earthquake and that Paul and Silas get out but that the jailer meets Jesus and so does the whole family.  What do you think Paul and Silas were most excited about?!?!?  We need to remember that this book is full of our story. This is the story of the ways God intervened and changed the storyline. That story line is one that God is STILL changing.

There are three things that I take away from this passage, three things I'd hope you'd remember:

1. The worst of circumstances can be used by God. Prison and earthquakes? This is why we need the blues and why I asked Brandon Reeves to come be part of this service and singing the blues.

2. Our actions can transform reactions. Be attentive to others. Always be looking out for others. People are always surprised when other’s serve. Ya'll know I wear a nametag just about everywhere and I've been an unpaid employee at places like Lowes, Home Depot, Dollar Tree and Target, to name a few. People are always surprised to learn later that I was willing to help them even though I didn't work there.

3.     Simple storytelling saves souls.  Verse 31 is all we need.  Simple question and a simple answer.  When life is most real, no one is concerned about what “-ism” you are in or what “-ology” you subscribe to.  “Keep it simple storyteller!”

Today, one family is responding to God's Story and becoming part of Our Story here at Bethelview UMC. Not only are we excited their joining, we're also celebrating the baptism of a father and son together...

What Next?

Week 2
Pray for an opportunity to share God’s story with them. Maybe it is something in your family, something at church, or something at work, where God was evident.

Storytelling Week 1: It is God's Story

I began this series because we need to talk about evangelism.  When I say "we" I do mean my church here at Bethelview UMC but also the larger Church.  The Church, mainly in the west, has shied away from it.  We have many reasons for doing so but coming up with reasons doesn't mean much when it is central to our mission.  That being said, we seem to have a hard time doing a lot of things the Bible outlines for us to do as well.  

This is a much more personal approach for me, I like good stories and I prefer to be IN those stories.  It seems to me, we've neglected one of the most important ways we can evangelize and share the Gospel and that is Storytelling, telling others what God has been about in the world.  More specifically, I think the best thing we can do is learn to tell our own stories of God's Good News in our lives.

This makes the Gospel real and current.  It brings us back to the Gospel truth that we don't worship just a crucified Christ but a risen Savior, God incarnate who cares what WE face - TODAY.  My story right now is raw and very real.  My fears fight to overcome my faith.  I have struggled to be available to my family and meet their physical needs as well as the emotional and spiritual needs as my wife fights cancer.  This IS where telling our story matters because Jesus IS alive, God IS faithful and the Holy Spirit IS present - right now.

So welcome to Storytelling!  I pray God's Story is more real to you and you'll get active in your part of telling it!
 Philippians 2:4-114 Let each of you look not to your own interests (gifts/spiritual endowments), but to the interests (gifts/spiritual endowments) of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself,  taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.  9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.      
There is a story of a conversation between Jesus and Gabriel which is purely fictional, but illustrates a good point...
      ‘After Jesus ascended to heaven, the angel Gabriel approached Him and said, "Master, you must have suffered terribly for men down there."
      "I did," He said.
      "And," continued Gabriel, "do they know all about how you loved them and what you did for them?"
      "Oh, no," said Jesus, "not yet.  Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know."
      Gabriel was perplexed.  "Then what have you done, to let everyone know about your love for them?"
      Jesus said, "I've asked Peter, James, John, and a few more friends to tell other people about Me.  Those who are told will in turn tell still other people about Me, and My story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe.  Ultimately, all of mankind will have heard about My life and what I have done."
      Gabriel frowned and looked rather skeptical.  He knew well what poor stuff men were made of.  "But what if Peter and James and John grow weary?  What if the people who come after them forget?  What if way down in the twenty-first century, people just don't tell others about you?  Haven't you made any other plans?"
      And Jesus answered, "I haven't made any other plans.  I'm counting on them."’
                                               -- Lifestyle Evangelism,” Joseph Aldrich, p. 15-16

Evangelism is a scary word to most of us.  It brings ideas to our mind of walking up to some stranger or knocking on the door of someone in your neighborhood and asking them, “Have you met Jesus?” or “Are you saved?”  Even for those TYPE A, Extrovert People, this is intimidating.

The reality is most people who make decisions for faith in Jesus Christ do so because of the life and involvement in church with family and friends.  In his book, “The Unchurched Next Door,” Thom Rainer notes that 82% of people who are unchurched are “somewhat likely” to come if invited.  If that person is a friend, it is all the more likely. 

Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is an important one, and it remains so to this day.  I think one reason for this is the comparison he makes in the verses I read at the beginning.  Paul tells the listeners we are not to be concerned just about our abilities; our gifts, but others, and emulate those good things in our life.  But then in verse 5-6 he tells us, as God’s Son, Jesus looks at the Father, and sees the role he is to play, and takes on OUR form.  What does he show us in doing this?  Not that we try to be God but to walk the path of being a servant, a slave.  High and mighty is not the goal but humble and meek.

We are called to be storytellers.  We are called to tell God’s story in our lives.  We do not have to be knowledgeable in theological terms or in Hebrew and Greek.  One of the reasons Rainer gives for why Christians are not reaching those who are unChurched is because we don’t witness, we don’t tell God’s story. 

You have family and friends who are not going to church but who are wondering and wrestling with their faith.  There are also people watching and waiting for a genuine friendship to happen with a Christian.  Rarely is difference going to be made if your friend Earl meets your friend, Pastor Ken.  I too have a mission field of friends and acquaintances I’m working to reach.  What if you told God’s story to a friend?  What if we all did that, what if we all lived the story and told the story?

And that story is the story we tell everytime we come to the table.  It is the story of God becoming like human beings – same skin and same blood.

 ‘I have given you an example’ (Jn 13:15) and in whose footsteps we are to place our feet (1 Peter 2:21).” (Pg 95, Tyndale NT Commentary on Philippians)

What Next?

The acrostic FRAN, stands for friends, relatives, acquaintances, and neighbors.  Think about one or two people in each category who you know is not engaged in a church or with God.  Write their first name down and start praying for them this month.  This week, simply pray for God’s best for them. 

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