Scripture Reading: Acts 17:10 – The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.
I recently read of a young lady who lived through the Columbine school shooting. These many years later, every time this lady smells pizza she becomes physically immobilised by fear. Would anyone care to guess what she was doing when she was exposed to that fearful tragedy? Obviously, she was eating pizza.
We all know that we are psychological beings. In certain settings of the church we might use the word soul more than the word psychological. The soul is made up of the mind, emotionsand will. What amazes me about the soul is how deeply and profoundly it is impacted, shaped, formed and fashioned by the environment it is exposed to – even reaching all the way back to the world of the womb.
In understanding the relationship between the environment and the shaping of the soul, the story I just related of the young lady at Columbine makes perfect sense. In her case the scent of pizza within her physical environment touched off a very particular soul issue. That process looks something like this: First the environmental factor of the scent of pizza. Second, the stimulation of memory – a very particular memory. Third, the memory stimulates theemotions- a very particular emotion: FEAR. Fourth, the memory and the emotion combine to impact upon the will, which in turn determines behaviour – in her case physically immobilising her.
I am not qualified to talk about this; but come to think of it, that has never stopped me before. Sometime ago I stumbled upon a program that was absolutely fascinating. It was an episode of ‘The Nature of Things’ which dealt with the physiology of memory in relation to our sensory realm. Let me try to illustrate this. Whenever I smell the scent of freshly cut hay there is instantly a parade of memories that move through my mind. Some of these memories go back to my earliest recollections. I am a little boy again. I recall summer. I see old barns. I see neighbourhood kids – people I have not seen in the past forty to fifty years. I see the childhood games and hear the sounds of: “Bang! Bang! You’re dead, and if you don’t fall down I’m not playing anymore.” I don’t have to fight to recall those memories. All it takes is the smell of freshly cut hay.
The program I referenced explained how all of this works from a physiological point of view: the chemical soup, the nerve endings, the brain cells and so forth. Obviously that part I will never understand. What I do understand is this; we touch something, we see something, we smell something, we taste something, we hear something and those environmental factors trigger a thousand memories which in turn stimulate various emotions associated with those memories. In the wake of those memories and emotions the will makes choices regarding conduct or behaviour.
Against this rather sketchy introduction, let me give you the theme of this message: Faith… Environmental or Berean???
Just in case I lose my way in this message and find myself going down bunny trails, let me make an attempt to state what the intended challenge of this presentation is. I will express it in the form of two questions: First -What is the basis of your personal faith experience?Second -Who is responsible for your personal faith?
Getting right to it let me begin with this: There is a very real possibility that our faith can be shaped and determined entirely by environmental realities. When such is the case our faith becomes dependant upon our ability to create and maintain that environment. For this reason some people are never able to settle into a faith community. Their entire life is spent in an exhausting search to find that one magical environment most suited to their present perception of faith.
I would suggest that in the journey of faith we have all experienced some of this – in fact I am not sure it can be avoided. The danger is not in having been there but in never maturing beyond that point of environmental dependence. One of the telltale signs that we are stuck at this level of environmental-based faith is when the function of our faith is dependant uponenvironmental triggers.
There are all kinds of environmental triggers. The first and perhaps most common is words; and this is where it gets really crazy because it’s not just the words but it’s how those words are pronounced, and beyond that the body language that accompanies the utterances. Why is it that with the exception of two hours each week, the word is “Halleluiah”, but suddenly between 10:00 AM and noon each Sunday it becomes – ‘Hal…LE…LU…IAH’? And then we add the body language so that we don’t just hear the word but in some sense we see the word.
These trigger words differ depending upon the environment in which your faith was shaped. Just for the record I will tell you a few of the very important trigger words from my environment: fire, wind, water/river, Holy Ghost as opposed to Holy Spirit.
Sermon preparation in those days was quite simple: just add the trigger words, know how to make them sound, know how many times to repeat them and know the right body language to go with them. And eventually you would draw out the soul response of the congregation tied to those environmental triggers. Everybody returned home with their “faith” strengthened.
Please note that the trigger words may be good Biblical words. But good Biblical words in and of themselves do not constitute good Biblical faith. The far deeper issue is Holy Spirit born revelation of the true Biblical meaning of those good Biblical words.
Let me clarify something right here: This did not mean that I was insincere back in those days when I stood and shouted out the trigger words and phrases. Nor did it mean that the people were insincere in their response to the environmental triggers. Frankly, to this day I am very sensitive to that inherent propensity to judge the motivation of the heart on the basis of external response. I am not called to judge the motivation of the heart, but I do have a responsibility to assess the reality of my faith. And what I can tell you about my faith in those days is that it was valid at core but grossly immature in development, and in need of growth and purification.
Other environmental triggers are certain doctrines, certain music, certain worship styles, and this may surprise us – geographical locations and physical settings such as buildings, etc.. For instance, is water baptism anymore valid because we fly to Israel and have it done in the Jordan River? I have had people tell me that it is just so much easier to talk in tongues in the upper room where Pentecost was first poured out. Every time I hear that something goes off in me and it is not at all pleasant. First of all the chances of that location being the actual upper room are somewhat slim. But that is not the issue.
The issue is we are tying the manifestations of God to a particular environment which creates the very real danger of inching our faith away from a purely scriptural base to an environmental base.
I know there is something very real and dynamic about the dedication of even physical things to the glory of God. It may be a mystery, but I believe the actual presence of God is released to and at that point of dedication; and His presence, His residing glory brings a sanctifying holiness to that setting. I am not talking about that. I am talking about personal Biblical faith. And my point quite simply is that if my faith is built upon and determined by this Sunday morning environment then the environments I am exposed to between Sundays are going to threaten, weaken and compromise that same faith.
Please note this difference: When we come together in this environment our faith is nurtured, built up, encouraged and strengthened. But the environment itself is not the basis or foundation upon which our faith rest.
The last environmental trigger I will mention is in many ways the most dangerous:Personality. I spoke this week with a good friend of mine who lives in America. He – along with all thoughtful people – sees America as being in what is shaping up to be the most vulnerable place she has seen in her history. In his words – there is such a desperate need for hope that all balanced debate and reasonable consideration has been aborted. And again in his words – because of this need for hope the whole nation is moving closer and closer to the hearing of a single voice to the exclusion of all others. And no matter what that voice speaks it is accepted as truth and reality. Of course, he was referring to the voice of Obama. At that point I broke into the conversation and suggested that we move his observation from the political and social realms of America and fit it upon the American church.
If I confide to you that there are few things that frighten me more than what I see in many televised massive gospel meetings – would you be offended with me? Before you become too offended let me tell you what frightens me. But first I should tell you what does not frighten me: It is not T. D. Jakes; It is not Joyce Myers; It is not Joel Olsteen; Bless your heart, it is not even Benny Hinn, nor Ken Copland, nor John Hagge. I can listen to what they teach and agree or disagree.
The second thing that does not frighten me is the response of the crowds. Jump, run, dance, fall down, shout, sit still or spin in circles: I’m not frightened, and in fact have done most of this myself. What frightens me is that there is no Berean discipline brought into this mix, and truth becomes truth simply because a certain personality spoke it.Even if everything they teach turns out to be the truth- it still is not my truth and my faith without my personal engagement with and in the scripture. When such engagement is made, and the Holy Spirit opens those scriptures in revelation to my spirit then the scripture becomes the basis of my faith rather than some personality in the church – or any other environmental factor.
Faith that is based upon environmental realities is subject to change with the changing of the environment. Here is an example of that. PS 137:1 By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst of it we hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, And our tormentors mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How can we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?
I do not want to be naïve in this, nor do I want to be flippant and shallow. But regardless of what I may or may not be this truth remains the same: True Biblical faith is able to sing the song of the Lord regardless of the environment in which it finds itself.Faith based upon the scripture does not change with the environment because the scripture does not change with the environment.
For that reason the book of Acts records that the song of the Lord was heard at midnight in a dungeon in Philippi. Look at the environment – pitch blackness, dampness seeping into the bones, the permeating smell of stale human waste and urine, the scent of your own blood leaking from the lacerations in your back. Your neck, hands and feet locked in stocks. Where are the triggers in that environment to call forth the function of your faith?
And yet at midnight, Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises unto the Lord. And suddenly the whole environment was shaken and chains fell off and souls were brought into the Kingdom of God.
Returning to the theme of this message – Faith… Environmental or Berean??? – I trust we have gained some insight into the correct formation of personal faith. In closing this out I will back up to the scripture reading and make a couple of notes.
Luke described the Berean believers as being noble-minded. The word used there in the original language means: ‘well – born, and/or of noble race.’ In other words there was something unique about these believers right from the get-go; something that set them apart from the moment of their new birth.
That uniqueness was demonstrated in two things. First - the way in which they received the word; and this has nothing to do with did they shout, dance, or sit still. The issue was the attitude or posture of their hearts in receiving the word. And that heart attitude is expressed in two words: Great eagerness. They came with an open heart, a hungry heart, a receptive heart. They were not argumentative, protective and defensive.
Secondly - having received the message they engaged the scriptures personally and privately on a daily basis. The purpose of that search (and it is critical that we understand this) was not to disprove the teaching of the apostle. Rather it was to confirm the truth of the teaching on the basis of their personal commitment to the scriptures. In this they knew what they believed, and they knew why they believed it. Bottom line: their personal faith was based upon the word of God as enlightened by the activity of the Holy Spirit within the discipline of their personal commitment to the scripture.
At the end of the day there is but one valid basis upon which my personal faith must rest and that is the word of God. And secondly, at the end of that same day I alone am personally responsible for what that faith is. This is the Berean difference, and it makes the whole difference between a faith that changes the environment and a faith that changes with the environment.