Another Look at Faith

You could almost say that faith is a gift that keeps on giving. That is, no matter how many times I visit the issue of faith, there comes another time when the subject deserves another look. It’s a very big subject.

Last September, in one of the rare occasions when I gave the message for the Sunday morning service at my church, I chose as a title, “What We Do; What God Does.” The message was about faith and grace—specifically, how our faith activates grace. Somewhere along the way, I had come to understand the concept that our faith is the mechanism that joins God’s promises with the fulfillment of those promises.

In other words, the promises of God are available to every one of us; they are the grace of God. But if I don’t come to them in faith that they are for me, I will never see them materialize in my life.

Both sides are required for the miracles to occur.

What prompts my latest reconsideration of this vast subject of faith is the book my Sunday study group has been reading: Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered, by Martin B. Copenhaver. A few weeks ago, the group took up Chapter 4: “Questions about Faith and Doubt.” In those pages was a quote by William Sloane Coffin: “Faith isn’t believing without proof—it’s trusting without reservation.” [Coffin was a former Yale University chaplain who was instrumental in creating the Peace Corps.]

I’ve spent some time chewing on the distinction Coffin draws. It doesn’t run parallel with the common Hebrews 11:1 guidance, which tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For one thing, the Hebrews verse is about faith as a noun; the Coffin quote is about faith as a verb. It’s hard to adequately compare nouns with verbs. Worse than apples and oranges.

You may think otherwise, if you take the time to live with the Coffin quote for a while, but it seems to me that if all we had was the first half (believing without proof), faith would have to be considered static, inactive, and even fairly lifeless. But that second half, now, (trusting without reservation), that’s faith that opens up unlimited worlds of life-giving grace.

           

Gratitude for What Has Been Taken Away

This morning I read a reflection by Henri J.M. Nouwen, the widely read priest and author noted for his work with the poor and disabled. Entitled The Spiritual Work of Gratitude, the reflection ended with this prayer: Lord, cultivate within me a spirit of gratitude for all you’ve given and all you’ve taken away. Blessed be your name, Lord. Amen.

Now, it’s easy to generate gratitude for blessings given, for people and events and things in our lives that we see as positives, but the second part about having a spirit of gratitude for all God has taken away from us – that’s asking for something else entirely. That’s probably why the prayer is for the cultivation of that spirit, because it doesn’t grow within us naturally. Nor is it necessarily natural to consider that important parts of our lives that have slipped away from us might have been “taken away.”

What would it mean to live in gratitude for all that has been taken away from us?

We can be grateful that what was so precious to us was, at least for some period of time, ours. We can be grateful for what we learned from the experience of having that promise/person/position/thing that we loved, and put our focus there rather than on the pain of the loss. We can be grateful for the implied possibility, that if we had it once, we can surely have it again. But beyond that, what would it mean to be grateful for what has been taken away?

If our perception is that the loss was the work of the Lord, the choice of the Lord, and if we at the same time believe that the Lord is good, then we become candidates for grace. Because then we will be living in faith. And faith is always cause for, always leads to, gratitude.

           

The Other Serenity Prayer

My niece recently posted on Facebook something called “The Other Serenity Prayer.” Most of us know by heart the standard Serenity Prayer, which goes: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Anyone who was active in the various support groups that came alive in the 1970s and ’80s knew that standard prayer well, because it was how we ended every “codependency” support meeting in those days.

The Other Serenity Prayer goes like this:  “God, grant me the serenity to stop beating myself up for not doing things perfectly, the courage to forgive myself because I’m working on doing better, and the wisdom to know that you already love me just the way I am.” This version of the prayer is attributed to Unknown.

The Bible gives ample support for the idea that God loves us as we are, because of His plans for our lives. Here are just a few of the hundreds of verses that follow this theme. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” [2 Corinthians 5:17] “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” [Ephesians 2:10] “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” [John 1:12] “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” [2 Timothy 1:7]

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey, faith can make you whole.

           

Faith: a matter of spurning the opposites

Marcus Borg’s Days of Awe and Wonder, is one of many books my friend Linda and I have read together to share the points that amaze us or help further our own spiritual journeys. The subtitle is “How to Be a Christian in the 21st Century,” so it’s no small task set for this compilation of Borg articles, sermons, essays, speeches, interviews, and lectures published posthumously.

Though a book like this offers almost unlimited starting points for a blog entitled “Everyday Spirituality,” I have continued to think about a small section of a sermon on faith delivered by Marcus Borg in 2005.

Four meanings are given to faith in the Christian tradition, says Borg. “Faith as believing” is the one commonly put forward—believing the doctrines of the tradition, believing that there is a God, believing that Jesus is divine, and so forth. Borg concludes that this meaning of faith is not only a modern distortion but absolutely impotent in our lives. “You can believe all the right things and still be miserable,” he writes.

So he turns to three other meanings that he considers more ancient and authentic. The first is faith as trust, faith as radical trust in God, which may have very little to do with where a person lands on the beliefs continuum. Here is the key for me: the opposite of this definition of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith as trust is anxiety. This provides a sure-fire way to measure the depth of your faith.

The second of the ancient meanings of faith is faith as fidelity to a relationship, specifically a relationship with God. The opposite, therefore, is unfaithfulness. Borg writes that unfaithfulness has frequently been referred to as adultery; however, the prophets were not talking about sexual conduct, but rather about unfaithfulness to God. It’s hard not to think of the commandment here: You shall have no other gods before Me.

The third of the ancient meanings has to do with a way of seeing “the whole of that in which we live and move and have our being,” writes Borg. Is it hostile to us? indifferent to us? or is it the gracious force that created us and continues to nourish and support us?

These meanings may not be the usual “definitions” of faith we are given, but they seem practical for everyday life. The faith that enables me to see the whole in a way that sustains me is the one that is based in trust in God and faithfulness in my relationship with God.

           

Today Is Ours

 

American poet and actress Beah Richards passed away in 2000 at the age of 80. One of her contributions to the world is the following poem:

 

Today is ours. Let’s live it.

And love is strong. Let’s give it.

A song can help. Let’s sing it.

And peace is dear. Let’s bring it.

The past is gone. Don’t rue it.

Our work is here. Let’s do it.

Our world is wrong. Let’s right it.

The battle is hard. Let’s fight it.

The road is rough. Let’s clear it.

The future is vast. Don’t fear it.

Is faith asleep? Let’s wake it.

Today is ours. Let’s take it.

           

Search for Meaning

Yesterday I attended Seattle University’s Search for Meaning Book Festival, which has brought together readers and writers of spiritual books every February for a number of years. The event gives many authors a chance to sell and sign books, and readers have a chance to speak directly with writers about their work.

But what I value most are the workshops and keynote addresses. My favorite this year was a presentation by Timothy Radcliffe OP entitled “How Can Christians Touch the Imagination of Our Contemporaries?” The presentation was built around the French film Des hommes et des dieux (Of Men and of Gods), which recounts what happened to eight Trappist monks in Algeria when work at a monastery was interrupted by terrorists. Actual events that inspired the film occurred in 1996 at the monastery of Tibhirine.

The film, said Radcliffe, is an exploration of the beauty of our faith as these men “embark on a terrible adventure that may cost them their lives.” That they seem ordinary people, with similar fears, feelings, and opinions to our own, is one key to the appeal of the film and its ability to touch the imagination of people of our times.

Evoking a sacramental imagination is another key. Religious sacraments resonate widely throughout Western culture, even among unbelievers, so the monks’ Last Supper touched a chord for viewers. Another is the paradox that as the men became more Christ-like in the course of the film, they became at the same time more different from each other. Radcliffe’s point was that a Christian identity does not make us all the same but actually more differentiated as we each become the person we were intended by God to be.

The vision of nonviolence may have been another point of the film’s appeal. Radcliffe said, “It is beauty that ultimately overcomes evil.”

Having seen only the four short clips shown during the presentation, I am eager to get my hands on the film in its entirety and urge you to see it too.

           

Faith Is a Lifestyle

Mary Morrissey has a number of ways of being available to people. One of these is her blog (where the link leads) and another is a daily dispatch via email. Recently she published a “Daily Dream Builder” post on a T-shirt slogan she had seen: “Faith is a lifestyle.” Mary explained the slogan as “we put our believing mind toward possibility.”

While that is beautifully stated, it passes through a bit quickly. To me, the point is so important that it deserves a deeper look.

“Faith is a lifestyle” describes a way of being in the world that is defined by the decision to believe. It describes a relationship you have chosen to live within – whether you see that as a relationship between yourself and the Universe or one between yourself and God. It says that you will conduct yourself within a range of behavior and you believe that what’s on the other side of the relationship will also conduct Itself within a range of behavior. It says that you have chosen to trust in the Good. It says that when life seems rough, you choose to believe that ultimately some positive result will manifest itself and you are willing to wait and watch for that. It says that you have your role and however you define the larger Spirit also has its role, and the two roles together shape your life.

What do you think?

           

Gratitude and Faith

Among the possible hallmarks for a life, the guiding principles that will at the same time distinguish you and shape your future, there may not be any that can surpass gratitude and faith.

We’re coming into the season in the USA in which people give more thought than usual to being thankful, and it’s an excellent thing that we devote one day a year to giving thanks. But gratitude is more of a 365-days-a-year kind of thing, more of an ongoing attitude of recognizing that all that comes to us has the potential to be a gift that warrants our thanks. And the more we purposely express gratitude, the more we will find to give thanks for. The very attitude by itself is enough to scour negativity out of our minds and out of our hearts.

Faith acts on us in a similar fashion. As long as we have faith – in the work we are doing, in the God we worship, in the integrity of our relationships, in the lives we are building – we can maintain the trust, conviction, and hope to carry forward until we accomplish what we have set out to do. Faith, in this sense, is the opposite of the cynicism that leads to despair.

Every day or so, I receive a “daily insight” in my email box from the folks at AsAManThinketh.net. Here is one from a day or two ago, suggesting that Maya Angelou has a similar outlook on gratitude and faith:

Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.                                                                                                                   ~Maya Angelou

           

Off the Cuff

In a short article in the September 18 issue of The Christian Century, I learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was not from a written, rehearsed text but was instead extemporaneous. The singer Mahalia Jackson stood near as Dr. King rose to speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and she said to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Hearing her, King folded up his prepared speech, put it away, and instead spoke from his heart.

The result was one of the most famous, most quoted, most remembered, most cherished speeches of all time. Chances are, if he had ignored the prompting of his heart and read the text printed on the paper, the speech might have been a good one, but with nowhere near the impact and reach of the one he gave.

So, can we say that “I Have a Dream” was impromptu? Not if we consider King’s background in faith and religious studies. The same Divinity Who said to Moses: “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” [Exodus 4:12] and to the 12 disciples : “At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” [Matthew 10:19-20] could certainly have whispered the same message to Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, on the heels of the exhortation from Mahalia Jackson.

           

Waiting, Trusting

My recent posts are starting to fall into a theme: waiting on God, trusting in the slow work of God, being patient, staying in faith.

Last night was a meeting of a group of women friends – we’ve been meeting on a semi-regular basis for over 18 years. As I thought about the things I would share with them, I realized how much of my life right now feels like waiting and trusting. That’s been the case for a number of weeks. My spouse’s health has taken a new, mysterious turn and the doctors are doing more guessing than diagnosing, so we wait in faith for a return to a more stable place. My novel manuscript has been for seven weeks now with the agent I most want to represent it, and I await his decision. The major project that has been the source of our livelihood for many months is coming to an end, and the questions are beginning about what will come next.

These are all important matters for our peace and security, and all of them are outside my direct control. But I take the steps I can see to take, and for the rest, I stay in faith, waiting and trusting.

Lately, the people who come to me to share their personal journeys are mostly in that place, too, of seeing avenues they would like to walk but that aren’t quite available to them yet and having to trust that God will open the doors that are right for them and keep closed the ones that aren’t. Maybe they are seeking me out because they sense that that is my journey too.