Magnificent Trilogy of Durability, I: Faith
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. —I Corinthians 13:13
“As for prophecies, they will come to an end,” wrote St. Paul in what might be, after the Twenty-third Psalm, the most famous, repeated, and memorized poem in the history of world literature.
“As for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it too will come to an end….For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then, face to face. Now we know only in part; then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known. Three things abide: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.”
When our modest lives complete their little shuffle upon this mortal coil after threescore years and ten, or, by reason of strength, fourscore years, three things will remain.
When life, that poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, is heard no more, three things will remain: faith, hope, and love.
When a dying star explodes to throw its furnaces beyond the orbit of the third rock from the sun and swallows it up, three things will remain.
When there is nothing left of this physical universe but silence and darkness and absolute zero, three things will remain. That’s St. Paul’s extravagant hypothesis.
Paul doesn’t really pause to explain why he thinks faith, hope, and love are the three eternal verities. Perhaps Paul’s just waxing eloquent. Perhaps he’s just giving his fluent quill a chance to sing its haunting tunes. Maybe it’s just poetry, just some fancy, lily-gilding oratory to get his rollicking, hedonistic, cantankerous Corinthian Church to slow down a little bit, to set aside their pretentious luxuries and trivial quarrels, and to notice what really matters. Perhaps it’s just poetry. St. Paul doesn’t pause to explain himself.
But twentieth-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr takes an admirable crack at an explanation. “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime,” he says; “therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be done alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”
“Life is long,” says Niebuhr, “longer than the span of our breathing existence; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Life is mysterious and eludes the grasp of our modest intellect; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Life is hard, harder than we can bear on our own; therefore, we must be saved by love.” Hope is longer, faith is larger, and love is stronger, than all the terrifying, rollicking vicissitudes life can throw up against us.
You know how Martin Luther King, Jr., loved the sound, the melody, and the music, of words? Dr. King rocked our world because the beat and melody of his language rolled like music in our ears. “I have a dream, that one day on the red hills of Georgia...” His words play like catchy tunes you can’t get out of your head.
Faith, hope, and love, he once said, are “a magnificent trilogy of durability,” paraphrasing St. Paul and recalling Reinhold Niebuhr, whose every word he’d read and reread while working on his doctoral dissertation. A magnificent trilogy of durability. Dr. King loved sesquipedalian Latinisms as much as monosyllabic Anglo-Saxonisms, and he used rhythm and rhyme to root those thoughts deep in our hearts and memory. Faith, hope, and love are a magnificent trilogy of durability, he said.
Faith is one-third of that great trilogy of durability. We are saved by faith because “nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history.” We are saved by faith, and not by our own achievements, because we are not the masters of our own destinies. Life is slippery and unpredictable.
Life throws surprises at us, twists and turns, knuckle-balls, flea-flickers, the old double-pump fake beneath the basket, and we have to give ourselves up to its uncertainties. We are saved by faith, not by our own achievements. We have to have faith that something will catch us when we start to fall or show us the way home when we get lost.
John Ortberg is a Presbyterian preacher on the west coast, but he’s from Rockford, Illinois, graduated from Wheaton College, and served on the staff of the Willow Creek Church a long time ago. He tells a story from when his daughters were little; he remembers that they were maybe five and three at the time.
The family was staying at a hotel with a swimming pool. John’s wife stayed in the room tending to their infant son and John took his daughters for a swim.
While he was playing with his five-year-old in the water, the three-year-old, who was supposed to be observing from the pool deck, fell or jumped in the water and disappeared below the surface. It took her father about a second and a half to grab her and lift her up above the surface but she was sputtering and choking and screaming bloody murder. “Daddy, Daddy,” she said, “I drownded, I drownded.”
John said to her, “No, honey, you didn’t drown. That’s not drowning. You just went in for a second. I was here watching you the whole time. You were safe the whole time. You did not drown. So, let’s not tell mommy about this.”
Because I knew what she did not know, that she was never at risk, that there was someone watching her, that there were a pair of arms ready to grab her all the time, that she was never really at risk, that she was always safe.
Dr. Ortberg says our faith in God is like that. “Even though real bad things may happen to us, nothing can separate us from the love of God. From an ultimate perspective, God’s world is a perfectly safe place for us to be.”
Life is a mystery, as that renowned theologian Madonna once put it, life is a mystery, so that its manifold layers, its unexpected twists and turns, its multi-hued, polyglot iridescence, its overflowing prodigality will always elude the short reach of modest human understanding.
So that we must adhere firmly to truths we cannot prove and throw our ultimate commitment into principles we’re never entirely sure will serve our purposes and forge laws that might have no meaning beyond what we grant them in our own little worlds.
We are saved by faith because “nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history.” Do you see how we were all saved by his irrational, outlandish faith?
Every January about this time I haul out Taylor Branch’s magisterial trilogy called America in the King Years. The other day I was reading around in the third volume, At Canaan’s Edge, about the year 1966, when Dr. King’s unflagging commitment to nonviolent resistance was being attacked on every side. Even many of his closest colleagues were begging him to relinquish the cause and give way to more belligerent leaders like Malcolm X, who was already dead—from violence, of course—and Stokely Carmichael and Adam Clayton Powell.
Even James Meredith, the thoughtful young black man who was the first to integrate the University of Mississippi, said, “Nonviolence has no meaning. This is a rough, tough, country and always has been. I admire Dr. King as an individual, but his philosophy doesn’t quite square with the American way of life. He’s never been in the military. He’s [nothing but] a professional preacher.” Nothing but a professional preacher, hawking his bland bromides about trilogies of durability.
But then long lines of black people marched clear across Mississippi, and with every mile the line grew longer as it passed through towns where black people couldn’t even register to vote, towns that had been segregated from schoolhouse to library since the first African slave hit those cotton fields 300 years before.
People standing by, just watching, gradually joined the line. “I was just looking,” said one, “and all of a sudden I was marching.” Aristocratic white matriarchs, shocked to see their maids and nannies marching, pointed and stared. “Yes, it’s me,” said one black maid. “I raised your babies and now I’m marching for my rights.”
Robert Green, a Michigan State University Professor on loan to the movement, departed from the text of his prepared speech at a Confederate Memorial in one of those small towns. “We’re tired of Confederate flags,” he shouted, as the crowd gasped audibly. “Give me the flag of the United States, the flag of freedom!” And then he wedged a small American flag behind the medallion of Jefferson Davis. It took another 50 years, but finally, many of those monuments have been toppled or stored in museum basements where they belong.
In March of that year, 1966, Kentucky defeated Duke in the semi-finals of the NCAA Final Four in Men’s Basketball.
Everybody in America thought that the Blue Devils had been the only thing standing between the Wildcats and a national championship. But then an unheralded team from Texas Western in El Paso somehow managed to reach the Finals from the other bracket. So there was this white guy named Don Haskins whom nobody had ever heard of going up against Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Blue Grass. Hopeless.
Even the president of Texas Western begged Coach Haskins all season to honor common etiquette and never start more than three black players at a time. If you watch old newsreels of the national championship game against Kentucky, you can hear a deafening hush fall over the arena when five black players trot out to center court for the opening tipoff.
“I just played my five best players,” said Coach Haskins after defeating Mr. Rupp 72–65. “In my mind, kids were kids, and I had some kids who could play...I didn’t know how important the game was until afterwards when I got bushels of hate mail.” Bushels indeed: forty thousand letters and notes.
When Coach Haskins retired from coaching in 1999 after 37 years, he’d earned 719 NCAA victories. He’s in the Hall of Fame.
Adolph Rupp is in the Hall of Fame too. When he retired after 41 years in 1972, he had 876 wins, more than any coach in the history of the game. In 41 years, one black athlete played for Coach Rupp. Just one.
But then of course Dean Smith came along, another white coach at a southern university, and broke Rupp’s record. 879 wins. Dean Smith marched against segregation. At North Carolina, Dean Smith had a few kids who could play too. On Dean Smith’s teams, nobody was more important than anybody else. He always listed his players in alphabetical order, no matter what. Every time. Which means that a guy with a name like Jordan, Michael, would end up just a little ahead of the middle of the pack.
Things change so slowly it tests your faith in even the most fundamental of principles. Nothing true or beautiful makes sense in any immediate context of history. But faith is larger than hate, faith is longer than small-mindedness.
Do you see how we were saved by Dr. King’s faith in a life that ended up on a cross, and his faith in a principle that looked irrational to almost every other American of the day, black and white, and his faith in a cause that seemed doomed?
Do you see how he kept faith in Jesus?
Do you see how he kept faith in angry young men who’d been denied opportunity their whole lives?
Most miraculously of all, do you see how he kept faith even in the native goodness of white people, despite all appearances to the contrary?
Do you see how his faith was one-third of that magnificent trilogy of durability, and that it will never grow old, and it will never die, not ever, even when there is nothing left but darkness, and silence, and absolute zero, and we’ve all gone home to God?
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Scribner’s, 1952), p. 63.
Martin Luther King, Jr., A sermon in Atlanta entitled “The Meaning of Hope,” quoted by Richard Lischer in “The Word That Moves: The Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr., Theology Today, vol. 46, #2, July, 1989, 173.
John Ortberg, “Faith and Doubt,” an unpublished lecture at the January Series, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, January 8, 2009.
James Meredith, quoted by Taylor Branch in At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), pp. 453–454.
Branch, p. 484.
Slightly adapted from Mary Batts, quoted by Branch, p. 487.
Branch, p. 484.
Historical detail of the 1966 National Championship game comes from Taylor Branch, pp. 449-450. Quotes of Don Haskins come from Richard Goldstein, in “Don Haskins, Barrier-Breaking Coach, Is Dead at 78,” The New York Times, September 8, 2008.