Saturday, June 23, 2012

What is Faith?





What is faith?
Is it a feeling? Can you measure it?
Can you make it or lose it?  How do you get it?  
How do you know if you’ve got it?  How do you know if it is enough?

I once knew a family, with a 12 year old boy who was horribly injured two years before I met them in a freak sledding accident.  When I met them, he was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from neck down. 
The family called themselves people of faith.  They prayed every day for this boy to be healed.  Faith meant that if they believed in it strong enough, if they prayed hard enough, and if enough other people prayed too, God would heal him. And the whole family and all their energy revolved around the impending healing of the boy.  Every day that he woke up still paralyzed was just an illustration of the weakness of their faith, and they applied themselves doubly hard the next day to believing God would heal him.
In the meantime the girl had become a teenager, disillusioned and confused, the father had left, his faith too weak, unable to hold on any longer to this way of life, but still the family prayed and believed.  Any adjustment to life as it was was conceding that he would not be healed, so every day they lived in holy resistance.  This was great faith.
And I wondered at this Jesus, who allowed their kid to be paralyzed and was dangling healing like a taunting reward just out of reach until they could produce the proper measure of faith, and I wanted to ask, but never did, about this Jesus, Who then is this?

A very old man is dying, surrounded by his family – daughters, grandchildren, great grandchildren.  He has been living in and out of dementia’s fog for some time, sometimes recognizing their faces or their voices, sometimes mistaking his eldest daughter for his wife of 60 years who preceded him in death a few years before. 

He had been an ordinary man, a little too dependent on the booze, a little too stingy, sometimes funny, often quiet, a little racist, a little sexist, but by in large a good and kind person, shaped in huge part by his difficult childhood during the Depression in inner city Baltimore.
The day comes when he is to breathe his last, and his youngest daughter sits at his bedside and asks him if he has given his life to Christ, if he wants to spend eternity in heaven.  She takes his hand and prays with him, and she has a sense that he really understands her in that moment, and is filled with great peace that her father is now saved.
At his funeral she shares this story – to the people he went to the Baptist church on the corner with whole adult life, the friends who had weathered thick and thin with him through decades, and his grandchildren in the front row.  And she assures them that he has indeed given his life to Jesus – on his very deathbed – and the faith he found in those last few moments was enough to save him now from hell.

And I look at the faces of those he loved around me, and at my grandpa in the casket, and I think of this Jesus, who allowed him to squeak into heaven at that last minute and overlooked his whole life before then, and whatever weaker manifestations of faith he had exhibited until that moment, and I feel the question burning inside me, about this Jesus, Who then is this?

I walked into the room on the oncology floor, a brand new baby chaplain, and there were his parents, standing next to the body of their teenaged son, taken by cancer.  They could not have been more different. The father’s face twisted in grief, his body was hunched over in a chair by the bed, he looked like he had just been sobbing. 
The mother erect, brisk, composed, she was saying to the father,  “God wanted him; this is God’s will.  This is how it was meant to be. It does no good to cry about it, we should be rejoicing! He is with God now! Where’s your faith?” 

He stared at her like she was a stranger, this mother of his son. Something like horror, disgust and despair filled his eyes, and I almost heard his question aloud as he thought of this Jesus who would take their son from them and require that they celebrate it, Who then is this Jesus?

Why are you afraid? Jesus asks the drenched and trembling disciples. Have you still no faith?

If we had faith we could move mountains. If we had faith we could calm storms. If we had faith we wouldn’t feel afraid when we are faced with the very real possibility of perishing, or grieve when someone we love dies. We wouldn’t worry so much, we wouldn’t doubt so much, we’d feel sure, happy, confident. If we had faith we wouldn’t have questions, or feelings that were not positive.  We’d never feel overwhelmed or angry. If we had faith.

And I wonder, when I hear this story, What is it about us, what is it about me, that when we hear this story, when we see the storm and witness the disciples’ terror, and then watch Jesus speak to nature, addressing the elements themselves, and observe that in an instant and the wind and the waves obey him – why, when we hear this miraculous tale of terror, dramatic salvation and amazement, do we fixate on one thing, the question, Why are you still afraid, Don’t you have any faith?
Like Jesus looks out from the pages past the disciples, right at us and asks, What’s wrong with you? Where’s your faith?  And we can barely stand disappointing Jesus, and so we nestle into the comfortable Christian shame that we’re just not good enough and maybe hope to try harder.

It occurs to me that perhaps we’ve missed the point a little.

Because if faith is loyalty to a monster who wants us to celebrate when our kids die, then I don’t want it. If faith is suspending life waiting for some miracle, or praying certain words so you don’t end up in hell, then, no thank you. 
And if Jesus is expecting me to ignore the storms around me or within me, or say that a raging gale is just a light summer rain – that losing a job or a friend, or gaining a diagnosis shouldn’t rattle me, or that tension between friends or regretful words to my kids are nothing to fret about, then I can honestly say I can’t do it.

It’s impossible. I am a rattleable person. Sometimes I am strong, but a lot of the time I worry and I fear.  I feel weak and confused and I have a lot of questions.  And if I have my whole life to perfect this thing and strive every moment of every day, I will never reach the level of faith that keeps me calm in a storm.  My stomach still drops in the turbulence on the plane, and my heart pounds at the word that someone might be mad at me.  So where is my faith?

But I think there’s another line in this story that shows faith.  (And it’s not when they accuse Jesus of not caring while they’re dying, by the way).  It’s actually the disciple’s awe and fear-filled response to the whole thing. Even the wind and the seas obey him!  Who then is this?
Who then is this? Who is this God?  The story asks. 
And by asking, it invites us to notice:
Jesus is the one who gets in the boat with them to lead them to the other side.
Jesus is the one who calms the storm.
Jesus hears their cries.
Jesus looks on them with compassion.
Jesus wishes they were not afraid.
Jesus wishes they had more faith.
Jesus can see what’s bigger than the storm and invites them to see that too.

This story isn’t to tell us to buck up and have faith so we don’t fear.
It’s a reminder that even when we fear, God is there.
That whether what we fear comes to pass or not, we are not alone.
That we can have an emotional outburst at God and it doesn’t chase God away.

And faith is
 that point- whether before it all happens or after it’s all over, or ,God-willing, right in the very thick of it, where the question is allowed to surface within us, Who then is this Jesus?

There’s a little conversation that gets repeated now and then at my house.  It’s when some squabble happens between the kids and they’re fighting over something,
then Maisy begins screaming and crying runs to tattle to Andy, “Daddy! He’s not sharing! Don’t you even care that I’m not going to get my half?”
and then Andy says, “Maisy! Honey! Don’t you trust me? I wont let you go without!  It’s my job to take care of you and make sure you have what you need, I’m your Daddy.” Basically, “Why are you afraid? Don’t you trust me, my dear?”

And the question of faith gets stirred in her, Who then is this, my daddy? Will he let me go without? No. My daddy takes care of me, and my brother too. He makes sure we both have what we need.
And this exchange invites her to deeper faith, to perhaps next time, to say instead the cry of great faith, Daddy, please help me!

Why are you afraid?
Because this storm is going to kill me.
Because my arms and back are tired, and the wind is cold, and it’s loud and terrifying.
Because you are asleep. You don’t seem to notice the utter peril I am in and it makes me feel alone.  And then comes the reminder, I am here. I will take care of you. Don’t you trust me? And with the question, Who is this Jesus? comes the faith.

Our storms are not always something that happens to us. Sometimes they happen within us – as the Psalmist prays, longing to trust God to act, frustrated about the pain in the world and people who do not fear God seeming to get away with evil on God’s watch. 
Sometimes our storms are wrestling to come to terms with what we’re experiencing, or an addiction we can’t shake that threatens to overwhelm us, or feelings of helplessness at what we see around us.
When Faith asks, Who then is this God? It gives us perspective. We see, in the observation of the Psalmist,
God cares for the poor
God made some promises
God sees all people as valuable
God hasn’t given up
God is a stronghold for oppressed and a helper in need,
And then the prayer becomes, Look God! I know you care. I know you can make things right. And I hate what’s happening to me. And to people who seem not to be seen at all. You see us.  God, please help now!”

And sometimes storms happen between us. They breed mistrust and jealousy; they allow us to stop seeing one another as human beings and instead as adversaries or threats.  And the accusations flash like lightening and the arguments roll like thunder and we are overwhelmed in the storm.
But sometimes we have faith in the middle of a situation, and we can ask about God, Who then is this? Who are you, God, in the midst of this?
When we remember that God does real things in our life, even right now,
and that God made all of us in God’s image,
God wants us to be connected, in relationship,
God loves me and loves them too
God brings wholeness and healing,
And then, like in the letter we heard tonight, perhaps we don’t need to run or give up in fear, but can hang in there and seek to be reconciled, can be vulnerable even in pain, and can reach out and seek to make things right, even if there is no guarantee that it will succeed.

Life is scary.  Relationships are messy. Being a person in the world is a scary, messy business.  And instead of leaving us to sort it all out on our own, Jesus joins the mess,
and stands right next to our fear,
so that in the storms around, between and within us,
and in the times of calm and peace,
when we feel strong and sure and full of confidence,
or weak and scared and utterly confused,
when life is ordinary and boring or extraordinarily meaningful,
in all our moments, whether we know it just then or not, Jesus is present, and we are invited to trust him,
and to both delve into the answer
and be drawn into the question, again and again,
Who then is this God?
And THIS, my friends, is Faith.  This is the faith that holds us. The faith to which we’ve been called.
Amen.

For another exploration of faith that riffs on this theme, check out David Lose's thought-provoking article, What if faith is a question?

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