Hope in Things Unseen…AND Seen

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.”

Have you ever heard someone express concern about “losing faith?” Having grown up in North Carolina, I have admittedly come across occasional anxiety regarding particular social activities or actions that may entail “losing one’s faith.”

A friend of mine describes his adolescence in rural Tennessee, where he was very involved in a local Methodist congregation. Even as a sixteen year old boy, he was sure to attend every prayer meeting around the flag pole, even if they met at 7:30 in the morning. One morning on his way to the schoolyard he saw that they were already praying: was he late? He came closer and suddenly heard his name being mentioned:

“Father, we pray for our brother Jack, because we know that he has gone dancing.”

It seems silly to my ears to hear something akin to fearing for someone’s soul because they went dancing, but I recall another conversation I had with a friend of mine who was off to medical school while I was packing my things to attend seminary in New Jersey:

“Are you going to lose your faith?” he inquired. “I’m worried about you. I will pray for you every day.”

For going to seminary? I can understand the living in New Jersey part, but why is it so scary to engage with the church’s history or with biblical texts?

It’s a real fear, the fear of losing faith. For many of us, faith is a precious object, a rare treasure. If we have it, we want to hold it close or keep it locked away in a beautiful breakfront like where my mother keeps her Royal Doulton figurines.

Faith is not ours to possess, however, nor is it a tangible object as my mother’s beloved Balloon Lady. Faith is in fact a verb, and it is also a gift which comes from something wholly outside of us. Who is the origin of such a gift? The Holy Spirit, a part of the one Triune God. In the colloquial, faith is a swimming arm that only sustains its strength by daily laps during lunch break. However, we are not its source.

In her long ministry in Calcutta, Mother Theresa has been universally heralded as a woman of great faith in her service to the poor and the downtrodden. Little known, however, is her 20 year depression that took place in the midst of her saintly duties. Apparently, she kept journals conveying her feelings of “distance” from God, though she continued to wake up each morning to care for the forgotten. I would argue that she acted in faith, for the faith was not exhibited in her feelings on a given day or even during a given decade, but in her ability to rise each day and act in her vocation. She could simultaneously doubt God’s presence and yet keep to her ministry: this was a sign indeed that she had been given a gift.

And what was it exactly that we are expected to have faith in? I would argue that in our present day, a lot of faith is placed in the abilities of both science and technology. This is a legacy that we have been given from our forefathers of the Enlightenment era, but whatever our feelings towards the likes of Descartes, it would do well to consider this question: Can we honestly have faith in something that we trust only because we believe it to be certain? In other words, can faith be possible without the perils of risk?

I have a self-confession to make, and that is that I try my best to avoid major social events whenever Dan Brown writes a new novel. I do this because I can remember when The DaVinci Code came out about ten years ago, I was attending a Christmas party with friends from back home, and everyone wanted to talk to the token divinity school student about the new “biblical secrets” that were at last unveiled in a book they purchased at the airport.  I had just finished my exams and was trying my best to avoid any conversation on Church History, but the engineers were hard pressed:

“Did Jesus have a relationship with the Beloved Disciple? Have you found out about all of the dirty secrets the Roman Catholic Church has been hiding in your one semester?”

There is no doubt that some truth may be found in the work of Dan Brown, but he is a novelist and not an archeologist. Brown writes stories, which by their nature, are not filled with facts. Stories may contain truth, but they cannot answer the questions that belong to science.

For The DaVinci Code, I suppose a truth which does become unraveled is that when an institution is given unexamined power, despite its good intentions, it is subject to corruption. The frailty of human nature is not a fact derived from information, but is something we know from a narrative accounting the relationship to humankind with God taking place somewhere in a country garden with lovely orchards.

The Bible is a book full of stories, and thus we give scripture authority not on its know-how for lawn care or dieting plans, but on its narratives of who God is and what God has done for humanity. This is quite different from information, for it will require our trust and therefore risk. In the letter to the Hebrews, a litany of remembrances is expressed as the writer recalls the stories of God in the past, present and future. To know God, we are given God’s story. Get ready for a bit of a leap, as we imagine the following:

a)       What if you were suddenly walking down the beach when a voice thundered in the clouds, imploring you to build a magnificent Royal Caribbean cruise ship to sail on Lake Michigan when the Great Chicago Flood arrives in two weeks? You are asked to bring your entire extended family, in addition to all of the animals at both Lincoln Park and Brookfield Zoos respectively.

b)       You were promised children long ago, but were never able to conceive. It is now your 95th birthday and you wake up with morning sickness. You go to the doctor who tells you that you are pregnant, despite your never having been able to conceive during your reproductive age- and now you’re 95.

c)       God’s Spirit leaves you a voicemail suggesting that you relocate to an off-the-grid permaculture community in Alberta, Canada. Leave your smartphone behind, and forget that 401K. Where you are going life is reportedly so much better.

It’s fairly safe to suggest that any of these things were proposed, we’d write them off as magnificently crazy. Though when more closely examined, we make note that these were the promises given in the stories of the lives of Noah, Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac.

In each narrative, God made an extraordinary promise, and the promise was delivered, regardless of the absurdity. The writer wishes for the Hebrews to know that these stories reflect the truth of who God is.

The greatest story, arguably, is that which we encounter at the beginning of the New Testament. Just in case we thought the previous tales were nuts, how’s this one for size?

The Lord of the Universe creates heaven, earth and everything in it. The Lord is all powerful, all knowing, and unbound by time. However, in a desire to be in relationship to God’s creatures, this deity asserts that it would be a fine idea to become a human being, not just in a hypothetical exercise but in the entirety of the human existence. This God decides to leave no stone unturned: God comes into the world a screaming child from Mary’s womb, and experiences all of the dependencies of any other infant on his parents. No one would look at this child and think to herself “Aha! This is God!”

As an adult, Jesus is no different. In fact, Jesus manages to get himself killed rather unglamorously at a very young age as a common criminal and makes no attempts to evade mortality. Unto death Jesus descends, eventually being buried in a tomb as any other. Being risen from the dead? He had to be dead first.

Now why, why in all creation would God ever choose to do any of this willingly? So that we may follow suit? If I could get out of mortality, I certainly would. God certainly could have- but didn’t.

This is the story. The Eternal is bound by time and suffers all of the consequences so that the mortal may join God in eternity. Is this incredulous? Absolutely. Have we any evidence that it is true? Not a shred.

This is why faith must remain a verb. Faith is an action and movement, and is created from hope given from outside of ourselves.

How would we ever encounter this hope?

Paradoxically, I think it necessary that we acknowledge our mortality and limitation(s) as human beings. It would be foolish for us to have faith in ourselves, for if we are but mere mortals, why put hope in that which is finite? Probably a better idea to stick to the Eternal.

Once those obnoxious limitations come into view, there may be opportunity for a kind of new freedom. This freedom is a kind of courage to live out one’s passion in hope, as your friendly neighborhood Bohemian might say. It is the case that so many writers and artists are near penniless in their lifetimes, or if they have some financial security, they live in an ordinary neighborhood and still have to pick things up at the local Target. I’ve always been an enormous fan of Claude Monet, and used to wonder why it was that he kept having money trouble. After all, think of all of those Monet originals that he kept in his studio!

Monet may not have been given many tangible rewards for his art in his lifetime, but I am so thankful that he had the hope and courage to press on with his vocational pull to paint- the world would not be the same without his beautiful waterlilies! It is this hope, this pull towards something not yet seen, which is the movement of faith. We are enticed by something larger than ourselves and ultimately must take a kind of plunge.

Is all unseen? Not entirely. We are given stories of who God is, and are left with narratives which point towards the greater truth of what it is to be in this world that is created, redeemed and sustained by the Triune God. This is not information, and we cannot operate from certainty. If we decide to order our lives to these stories, we will encounter terrible risk. However, the stories speak of a merciful God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. If we believe them, we may find the risk to be worth the trouble.