Testing the faith
Throughout our lives, we are constantly putting our faith in other human beings, such as the pilot that flies our plane and the surgeon that carries out our operation.
Although we know that there is a possibility the plane may crash and the operation may go wrong, we have faith in their abilities.
Faith is an incredible thing. Sometimes it is blind and other times it needs to be built up gradually until it is strong.
An example of the latter could be the faith we have in ourselves. When I think back to my school swimming lessons, I remember my reluctance to leave the safety of the shallow end.
I was determined on the last lesson of the year to put aside my fears but if it hadn’t been for the encouragement of a friend I would not have made those first strokes into the deep end.
I believe our faith in God is no different to this. In so much, he is with us always to guide and encourage as we develop our faith.
However, even once our faith in him is truly strong, there will be times in life that it will be tested.
At the time of preparing for a funeral rarely do the next of kin express their loss of faith; rather their sense of shock at losing a loved one.
Yet there are some very upsetting exceptions. I remember officiating for the funeral service of a baby who had unexpectedly died within an hour of being born.
My faith, never mind the couples, was tested. Following several miscarriages, why had God allowed this long awaited baby to die following all the joy at her birth and after being in the arms of her mother for such a short time?
Tears ran down my face as her little coffin was laid in the earth. Words seemed inadequate.
We talked before and after the simple service of their loss. My reassurance that their daughter was in heaven ‘In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ’, somehow seemed to lack credibility, for all the reassurance in the world would not bring her back.
Soon the mother became depressed and her and her family’s faith was surely tested. Hours of support were extended. Then some months later I learnt she was expecting again and in due course another daughter was born.
We talked of both the joy of the occasion of their new precious child and the acknowledgement of the daughter so soon returned to God. It was very apparent at the baptismal service that the family’s faith had been restored.
On the 2nd October 2006 a gunman entered an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and opened fire on ten little girls aged between six and thirteen. He then turned the gun on himself.
Five girls died and another five were badly injured.
The gunman was Charlie Roberts, the milk tanker driver who collected milk from the Amish community farm. He left a note with his wife Maria saying he was angry at the loss of their first born daughter who lived for only twenty minutes.
Charlie’s mum Terri was overwhelmed with anger, confusion and self doubt. How could her beloved son who she had brought into this world, nursed and nurtured, carry out this terrible act?
One of the first visitors to her house after the incident was Henry Stolzhoos in his Amish formal black visiting attire. He declared:” Mrs Roberts, we love you. This was not your doing and you must not blame yourself”.
At Charlie’s funeral, despite police efforts to provide a cordon around the cemetery, hordes of news crews and hundreds of spectators had assembled when the family arrived.
It was here that something extraordinary happened. A group of thirty or so Amish people stepped forward and formed a black wall around the family, shielding them from onlookers.
The group included parents whose children had died in the attack. They told Terri and the family: “We are so sorry for your loss”.
The faith of these Amish families was so strong in a loving God that despite their great loss, in grace they offered forgiveness not hatred.
In the past two decades alone, we’ve witnessed some horrific global disasters such as the 2004 Pacific Rim tsunami, the 2015 Nepal earthquake and the 2001 Twin Tower incident.
Why, oh why, does God allow these to happen? When death and destruction rains down on the world, how can our faith not be tested?
In each of these cases, two natural, one human planned, we require an explanation as to why God allowed it to happen.
If he is an all seeing God, surely these and other incidents and conflicts with great loss of life, could have been stopped?
Faith can be severely tested at this time, and for some who believe in a loving God, their faith is lost.
Yet many individuals, organisations and governments are moved to aid in these situations and for many their faith is restored in human nature to serve their fellowman.
And through these good deeds, faith in God for those who believe is made a reality.
Keeping the faith
Faith is defined as a firm belief in something for which there may be no tangible proof.
Clergy have a calling to serve both God and the people. Our faith and that of his people are significant.
Together we should hold an unquestioning believe in God. But so often the reality is that many ask for proof before believing and often faith is lost by incidents, not global, but personal.
We can help if we assure the individual of confidentiality, listen thoroughly, offer empathy and gradually extend a loving caring God.
With some, faith will be restored quickly but with others many meetings together will be required.
A frail elderly man stood at the door of their home as his wife was gently carried into an ambulance to be taken to hospital and he cried to her, “Do come back – you’re everything to me!”
We priests are called to lead others to faith, and for those whose faith is dented, although God has never left them, we must do all we can in his strength to restore their faith till they too say, “Do come back, you’re everything to me”.
The Reverend Priestly Brook, an Anglican priest, retired in August 2012 from the Colne and Villages Team Ministry in East Lancashire. His Bishop has granted him a licence with ‘Permission to Officiate’. He is married to Christine, with six grown up children. He is a well known preacher and after dinner speaker in the North of England.