Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Heb. 13:1-8, 15-16[1]
I’ve had some pretty amazing mentors in my life. My Grampa was the first. He taught me how to treat all people with respect and dignity. My Uncle, David Simonds, modeled what it means to be a father for me. My Scoutmaster, Ed de la Cruz, gave me the day in and day out encouragement to try new things and venture out. My Band Director, Ron Welborn, impressed upon me the importance of seeking to do what is right. I’ve also had professors who were mentors to me—Frankie Rainey gave me an unforgettable example of the compassion of Jesus Christ in action. James Brooks, whom I served as a graduate assistant for 3 years, was probably one of the most important mentors for my professional life. Even though he had taught the same class for decades, he still felt compelled to spend time in the office every day preparing for class (while other professors would use their time to write their next book).
If we took the time, I’m sure we could go around the room and recite name after name of those who shaped our lives by their personal example. In a very real sense, that dynamic is what has sustained the church through thick and thin for centuries. Not official hierarchies or enforced doctrines, but the living, personal example of mentors who shape the next generation of faithful servants. We can find a great deal of emphasis on the importance of personal example as a means of passing on the tradition of faith and life that developed among those who followed Jesus throughout the history of the church. In many contexts, it has “codified” into an official statement of dogma that was considered to be the “rule of faith” to guide the faithful.[2] There is a balance to be struck here—sometimes traditions develop just because people do things the same way they’ve always been done. Just because everybody, everywhere always believe something doesn’t make it true. [3] There are times when Christian faith calls us to strike out and blaze new trails; there are times when it calls us to stay on the well-worn path.
In our context, we have many resources that we can use to walk that path, to access the tradition of faith and life handed down to us by those who have gone before. In a very real sense, much of what we do comes from the witness they bear to us about their faith—through hymns, prayers, stories—these gifts they left for us continue to bear witness to their faith. One of the ways we can access the tradition of faith and life is by using our Book of Confessions as a guide. Using the confessions puts us in touch with the rest of the Body of Christ as we seek to define our faith and our life.[4] As we use the resources left for us by those who have gone before, we can follow them in their faith.
Now, of course, the opposite extreme is the one that approaches the Christian faith and life as if we all have to start from scratch or re-invent the wheel. I can tell you from personal experience that is a very confusing road to travel. When I was a young minister learning faith and life for the first time, a lot of people told me I should have a “quiet time” every day that consisted of reading the Bible and praying. What I always wanted to know was, “How am I supposed to go about reading the Bible?” and “What am I supposed to pray?” There are, after all, many ways of reading the Bible—there’s the random, pick-and-choose method; there’s the “cover to cover straight through all the begats” method, neither of which really work very well. The random method makes “gobbledy-gook” out of it all (that’s a theological term), and the “cover to cover” method bogs down about 1 Samuel (if you make it that far). I had never heard of the lectionary, or that there was a systematic pattern for reading the Scriptures that the church had developed centuries ago and that the vast majority of Christians follow today! Following that pattern of reading the Bible gives us a place to start in learning how to read the Bible for ourselves.
And there are also all kinds of ways of praying. In the context where I was at the time, you would never merely “read” a prayer that someone else had written. In that context, the only way to truly pray is to just “say what’s on your heart.” And there is some truth to that. But I’ve also found that only praying in such a “spontaneous” way can lead us to dwell excessively on me, myself, and I. We have a tradition here that can guide us as well. Our Book of Worship developed out of the tradition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which was compiled first in the 16th century. So in and of itself, that tradition of prayer and liturgy goes back almost 500 years! But many of the prayers and thoughts and encouragements and expressions of faith in the Book of Worship and the Book of Common Prayer represent a tradition that goes back even farther than that; in some cases all the way back to the early days of the church.[5] Praying with the saints through the ages gives us a place to start in learning how to pray on our own.
This theme of following those who have left us a personal example seems to have been important to the apostle to the Hebrews. In the midst of the difficulties they faced, he urged them to “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Heb. 13:7). And the reason for that is, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” In a very real sense, when we choose to obey Jesus’ call to “follow me,” we will find ourselves standing up to the “powers that be” on behalf of the disenfranchised—and that means facing the inevitable backlash that comes when we dare to rebuke those who see themselves as beyond reproach. The “Hebrew” Christians addressed by this book were facing some of that. And the apostle to the Hebrews tells them and us that the way to get through it and out on the other side is to follow those whose pattern of living we have seen firsthand.
I’ve had some amazing mentors who have taught me a lot about life. At that same time, and this may come as a shock to you, but I’ve also always been an incredibly independent person. I have a strong tendency to go the way that seems right to me, even if everybody else is going a different way. You might say I’m something of a “maverick.” My wife might even say that I’m stubborn! But that doesn’t mean I have never followed anybody. I guess I’ve just been pretty “selective” about those I choose to follow. I personally think that’s what the apostle to the Hebrews has in mind. We have all kinds of paths we can follow—even within the community of faith. It seems to me that, as we seek to complete our contest of faith, we should actually follow the paths we know to be reliable by following those whose lives we have witnessed firsthand.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/29/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Augustine viewed the “analogy of faith”—the faith expressed in the Scripture as interpreted by the tradition of the Church—as the standard for all biblical interpretation. Cf. Johannes Quasten, Patrology, IV:425–26; Robert Grant & DavidTracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 80; Anthony Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 115. While this is understandable, because the rule of faith provides a “boundary” within which one can be assured of being “safe,” it does not answer every question that believers of different times might ask.
[3] Cf. Duncan Ferguson, Biblical Hermeneutics, 20-21: “the assumptions and attitudes of faith will always be influenced by temporal concerns”; therefore faith must be constantly tested over against the content of Scripture.
[4] Cf. Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, 50-53. We use the confessions of faith as guides because they represent the consensus of the church in various times and places. As human documents, however, they are also inevitably prone to error. That is why we need a collection of confessions that guide our faith. Cf. also Karl Barth, Homiletics, 106: “For and understanding of the bible we need particular guidelines which like buoys in the sea mark off the channel, and sometimes detours as well, but always serve to protect us against running aground through ignorance or negligence.”
[5] Cf. D. E. W. Harrison and Michael C. Samson, Worship in the Church of England, 29 et passim; Kenneth Stevenson, “Worship By the Book,” in The Oxford Guide to The Book of Common Prayer, edited by C.; Hefling, C. Shattuck, 9-20.

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