“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. “
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren. Therefore, from one person, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw them.” Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
Many have tried to define what faith is and this has been challenging, to say the least, because faith has so many dimensions. There is faith which is belief, faith which is knowledge, faith which is vision, and faith which is trust. Some people are so sure of their faith they are willing to die for it, others experience genuine faith as mixed with doubt and uncertainty.
The passage from Hebrews is one of the most well known definitions of faith in the Christian tradition. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here we touch the heart of what can be the most confusing aspect of faith, the conviction of things not seen. The author of Hebrews would say that faith has its reasoning which scientific proof cannot capture. We all know that love cannot be proven scientifically. It is something that touches the heart, something that is inexplicable even to the most articulate of us. The proof of faith is also not scientific. It has its own proof. We are asked to trust what we cannot see.
Sometimes it is easier to think of making a bigger leap of faith when we remind ourselves that every day we put our trust in things we don’t see or understand and that fact doesn’t hold us back. For example, I have an iphone. I honestly have no idea how it works. It amazes me that something so small can do so many things. I can email or text, listen to music, play games, chat with others online and make phone calls to people near and far. I have no idea how all that happens. I don’t see any signals flying through the air. I know it makes sense to some people out there but it does not make sense to me and somehow I still trust it and enjoy the benefits. So I’m willing to believe in the power of my iphone but I find it’s harder to believe in God’s power and communication with me without proof. Can you think of something that you trust in its power but don’t see or understand how it does what it does?
We look to the Bible and to the stories and experiences of others to find some kind of proof for why we should have faith. We have inspiring examples of those who showed commitment to the unseen in the biblical figures mentioned in the reading. Abraham had his doubts but believed in God’s promises and followed God’s vision of hope for his future. I have often felt a sense of connection with his wife Sarah, not just because we share the same name, but because of the doubt and hope she expressed with the audacity to laugh at God’s promises that she would bear a child in her old age. I find that more often than I would like, I laugh at the amazing hope God offers for my future. I make the excuse that I am saving myself from the pain of disappointment by not getting my hopes up. It is painful to have faith and to hope in something that seems unattainable and yet there always seems to be a part of my heart that refuses to give up completely. Things may not turn out the way we thought they would. Our happily-ever-afters are not as picture perfect as the movies but somehow we hold on to the divine promise that all things work together for good.
Faith is less like certain knowledge and more like an invitation to an adventure into the unknown. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is full of incredible adventures. I have been quoting Professor David Lose a lot lately but he has another fascinating point for today. He says that “The really amazing thing about the Bible is that it not only tells us the stories of faith, but it actually invites us into that same fantastic story. The Bible starts at Genesis and ends in Revelation, and you and I live—right now!—somewhere between the Acts of the Apostles and Revelation. At this very moment you are being called to take up your part in this story, to struggle to believe in a world of doubts, to love in a world of hate, to offer hope in a world of despair. And whether you succeed or fail, I promise you that you may still take heart, for the God who created the world out of nothing and raised Jesus Christ from the dead will not give up on you, has not given upon you, and will work through you for the health of this world.” And so we ask, “Where can we join what God is doing now?” How can we go forward trusting in God’s promises and embracing the adventure of the unseen?
Over the past few years I have thought a lot about sight. I have come to question that phrase “Seeing is believing.” Most of you already know that I am losing my central vision because I have Stargardts, a form of early onset macular degeneration. During the past five years my central vision has become blurrier. As this has happened I have had to adjust to and become more comfortable with the fact that the way I see is not the way things actually are. I used to think that seeing was believing, that the world was the way I perceived it. I have found that there is a way in which losing my actual sight has helped me to gain a clearer vision of faith. I have discovered a stronger resolve to believe in the unseen and trust more in the divine mystery of life beyond what we know and experience with our senses.
We structure our reality around what we can sense, see, hear, feel, smell. It is comforting to imagine that all there is can be known through our senses and our reasoning. When we start to take into account the reality beyond that, it can be overwhelming because it can be beyond what we consider our normal experience of existence. There are times when I wonder if maybe in our minds we have made our world too small, too understandable. In our quest for order, stability and comfort we take out the mystery and even the truth of creation beyond our experience. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t’ exist. There is much more than meets the eye.
We do not see the true fullness of life. Although it may be hard to admit, we are limited in what we can know and experience. Some people, rather than admit their limitations say that there is nothing beyond what we can know. It can be comforting to think that way. The world seems understood and understandable, but I think that many of us have caught glimpses of the reality beyond our knowing, beyond scientific proof. Those glimpses help us to hope beyond what we imagine is possible. I would like to share with you the story of just such a glimpse.
When I was in high school, my grandmother (my mother’s mother) was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She had to go in for surgery and we were all very worried about her. My mother went with her to the hospital and prayed with her until my grandma was taken away to the operating room. My mom stayed in the hospital room, praying and hoping that everything would be alright. After a little while she felt like she was leaving the room and she saw that she was going to a meadow. Her mother was there in the meadow. The meadow was full of light and in it she felt completely at peace and totally loved beyond anything she had ever experienced before. She eventually felt herself return to the room and soon after her mother was brought back from surgery. When my grandmother was able to speak, the first thing she said to my mother was “Wasn’t the meadow beautiful?” Somehow they had both experienced this vision of peace and love beyond earthly experience. It was such a gift. Months later when my grandmother passed away, it gave my mother and I a great sense of comfort to believe that my grandma had returned to that meadow, that she was ultimately in a place of peace and love. I did not see this vision with my own eyes but I believe in it and it is one of my most precious stories because it gives me hope that ultimately all things do work together for good. Beyond what our human eyes can see, there is a realm of God’s reality that we catch glimpses of and are called to believe in not because of scientific proof, but because our hearts tell us its true. May you be bold and believe, even when you can’t see, that your life is the embodiment of God’s creativity and ultimately all things are working together for good. Amen.