As our journey through significant words of scripture and faith continue we come to that word, yes, Faith.
Few of our words are as biblically defined as faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” says the author of Hebrews.
The dictionary summarizes: A confident belief in the truth, value or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
Loyalty to a person or thing or thing; allegiance.
Faith then, is deep-seated confidence. It is what Tillich called things of “ultimate concern.” Yet I think, as Frederick Buechner, Kathleen Norris, and countless other writers on Faith suggest, Faith is better thought of as a verb, rather than a noun.
What do I mean by this. Well, the best place to start speaking about faith is your own story. Some of you will recall I did not grow up in the church. I consciously remember walking home from school in fifth or sixth grade asking myself if I thought God was real and believed in God. And I remembering thinking, of course I did, because everyone else believed.
That’s all I did about what I believed!
Fast forward six or seven years and our family is in turmoil as mom clings to life following a terrible car crash. In the midst of that storm, an island of calm arose for me as I began to take notice of a congregation that continued to reach out to our family with meals, cards and calls of empathy. The actions of this community of faith brought warmth and stability into my life when all else was cold and terrifying.
Their actions of faith awakened faith in me. That is when faith is concrete. When faith is an action, rather than a “thing” you either have or you don’t.
In the gospels faith is not an abstract possession. Jesus does not talk about faith so much as he responds to it in other people. He tells a woman “your faith has made you well.” In the judgment forecast from Matthew, Jesus proclaims the Son of man will separate sheep and goats in the kingdom based not on belief, creeds, and sound doctrine, but whether food, water, clothing and care has been offered to the stranger and the least in our midst. Faith as a verb.
Faith also is not a sure thing in the gospels. Peter is constantly first out of the gate to display the strength and depth of his faith. Then, when Jesus is arrested, and the storm again surrounds him, Peter is the first out of the gate to deny Jesus! Those who will tell you in the midst of your own stormy sea that all you need do is have more faith, fail to take in such biblical ambiguity about faith.
Novelist Doris Betts asserts that faith is “not synonymous with certainty…(but) is the decision to keep your eyes open.” Which is like the prescription of a fourth century monk describing the attentiveness required for a life of faith: “The monk should be all eye.”
Faith is a process then, not a possession. As Peter illustrates, it is on-again-off-again, rather than once-and-for-all. Hebrews recounts the tale of Abraham as an example of faith. It is perfect, for faith is not being sure where you are going, but going anyway. It is a journey. That is what Abram of Ur, did, he got up and went. Yet faith is a journey without maps. Which is why Tillich noted that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith. Again, just ask Peter.
Or Mother Teresa. She spent her life trying to relieve the anguish of the sick and dying of Calcutta. Some years after her death, Come Be My Light, a collection of her letters was published. Over and over she confesses that for years she harbored doubts about the existence of God, even as she continued her work. Her confession evoked a wave of criticism. Was she a hypocrite? Had she been faking it all along? In all the hullabaloo, a student came close to the mark in a letter to the editor. Krista Hughes wrote: “Mother Teresa’s life exemplifies the living aspect of faith, something sorely needed in a society where Christian identity is most often defined in terms of what a person believes rather than how he or she lives. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
In Peter, in Mother Teresa, we recognize that faith, our faith, is much more than that collection of belief statements we might hide behind as evidence of our faith. (We’ll take up the word Believe next Sunday.) For now, we focus on action. That verb sense of the word faith, not the noun, that possessive sense of the word.
Faith is fragile, it needs tending. That is what Mother Teresa did, she tended her faith through a lifetime of work. It is a lifetime of prayer, scripture reading, but most of all, keeping your eyes open to the other who is in need. When asked, a fifth century monk declared “Faith is to live humbly and give alms.”
Back in college, in the months after my mother’s car crash. I tentatively tried out my budding faith, attending church, reading the Bible, trying to pray beyond the words, “Dear God, save mom.”
And then one day I hit a wall. I had just moved into my dorm room. On the desk I had placed a Good News Bible that a member of the church had given me. In walked a suitemate to introduce himself. Almost immediately he picked up the bible and asked me if I was a Christian. Though I had yet to be baptized, and uncertain of the protocols, I didn’t want to fail a test, so I said yes. I had a bible after all! Without batting an eye, he asked, “But do you believe in substitutionary atonement?”
“HUH?” Who in their right minds, in a situation like that, admits total cluelessness. Well, I didn’t. I don’t remember what I said, something along the lines of “um, um, um.”
I do remember what I thought. “Maybe I don’t have faith because I don’t know what that is.” In the weeks that followed, I attended a “Christian” group on campus. Then walking the campus, every time I saw a member they would greet me and end the conversation by saying “Bless you. Praise Jesus!” It was all a bit awkward rushing to a 9AM class no one wanted to be up for. But I figured that was how you were faithful. It just seemed a lot of “blessing” and “praising” though, and not much else. My chagrin at trying hard to incorporate such language into my conversation as a sign of my faith was frustrating. I was speaking like everyone else, but I was not experiencing what I experienced at the church that had thrown me the life-line in the storm the year before.
It was not until years later that I began to understand that faith is about practicing Christianity, not proof-texting it or lip-servicing it. I saw a bit of this when I worked in a haberdashery in Princeton. The Jewish owner took over the shop in 1927. I worked there in 1987. He used to help me with my Hebrew. Ever the salesman, he was also a bit of a rabbinic scholar. I learned from him that Jews always say their religion is best understood not as a creed, but as a way of life. So perhaps that is why the earliest term used to describe the religion of the New Testament is not “Christianity,” but “The Way.”
Faith is the “way” we go about practicing, doing, following Jesus. You may not have the definition of “substitutionary atonement” at your fingertips, but if your eyes are open to the needs of others around you, you just might be on a journey of faith.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”