Leaving a Trail
“If only faith didn’t require faith.” That’s the sort of paradoxical thinking my mind bends toward when I start to think about faith. And I think about faith a lot – what it is, why it is, what justifies it, what contradicts it, how to get more of it, what to do with it when I have it, and what to do when it seems to have evaporated. I’m not sure how unusual I am in how much I think about faith. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard that comes with being a pastor, but actually I thought a lot about faith long before I was ordained. I remember struggling with faith already in second grade while I was memorizing a bunch of Scripture verses for a Sunday School competition. My mother and grandmother were so impressed with my memorization skills that they became convinced I was going to become a minister someday. What they didn’t know was how much already at seven I was struggling to believe the stuff I was memorizing.
While growing up, faith was something I wanted more than something I had. I attended a catechism class in my middle school years not so much because my parents made me, but because I was hoping it would help me have more faith. It did, and it didn’t. I loved the things I learned, enough to believe them, sort of. I was the youngest kid in the class, and decided to make what’s called “profession of faith” in my tradition. I thought that might help seal the deal, eliminate my doubts, and propel me into a vibrant, no longer backsliding caliber of faith. My faint recollection of the Sunday I stood before the congregation was that I was the only one doing it, which seemed to really impress the adults in the church, including my aunts and uncles. It made me a star, at least for a day, and that felt good. But by Monday morning I realized there probably weren’t any silver bullets to feeling full of faith. I knew faith wasn’t supposed to be a feeling, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was supposed to be instead.
Well, this wasn’t supposed to be my autobiography of faith, so I’ll skip to this morning. As I was preparing breakfast, I was engaging in my usual practice of reciting a few of the verses I’ve memorized over the years, including a couple of verses from Hebrews 11:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (v.1)
And without faith it is impossible to please God. For whoever would approach him must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who seek him. (v.6)
Even though I’ve recited these verses hundreds of times, this morning I became aware of the different ways these verses come at faith. They point to four dimensions of faith – temporal, spatial, existential and transactional. (No, I didn’t learn those words in second grade.) I find the sequence here interesting. First comes the temporal, or what faith hopes will happen over time and especially at the end of time. Here’s the thing about biblical faith: it’s not just focused on the present, but on living in the present moment in light of the future. Christianity isn’t just a set of beliefs, it’s a story. A story that’s ongoing and has an ending. And it’s not just a truth story or myth (though the Bible contains many of these as well). It’s a story that’s connected to feet-on-the-ground history, a true story. The bare-bones version of this story is summarized in what’s sometimes called “the mystery of faith” that’s recited around communion – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again! The word “Christ” itself has a whole story behind it that includes the entire Old Testament. As folks at the Bible Project remind us: the Bible is a unified story that leads to Jesus. A Jesus who gave us a glimpse into the future through his healing and teaching ministry, who engaged the violence of his day by fully absorbing it in his own body and defeating the dark forces of sin, death and evil. Jesus’ resurrected body was a further witness to the New Creation he'd begun to inaugurate, but wouldn't be fully revealed and consummated until his return.
So biblical faith is temporal. It’s a future-focused faith, a faith that's tethered to hope. I sometimes tell people that the Christian story is the best story out there, and the story with the best ending.
Faith is also spatial. This God who is Lord over history is also hidden. That’s why we need faith to relate to him. That’s why the writer of Hebrews describes faith as “the conviction of things not seen.” It’s not just God we can’t see, but all spiritual reality. That doesn’t mean faith is blind. We’re able to see and hear and touch all sorts of things that point to his existence. Yes, God is present and accounted for! For example, a variety of birds have been unusually active outside my study window this morning, including a few pairs of nuthatches and a rare bluebird. During my morning walk our neighborhood pair of sand hill cranes allowed me to get within 30 feet before sedately walking away with their own peculiar gait. God’s fingerprints are everywhere. As Isaiah writes, the whole earth is full of his glory!
But I can’t see God himself, and that’s hard for me. It often catches me up short. I know part of the problem is that we post-Enlightenment folks tend to be trapped in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “imminent frame.” There are all sorts of reasons I can come up with for why we wouldn’t be able to see God. One being that God actually can’t be seen. Any God that could be seen would be way too small for me to trust. Of course, God couldn’t resist trying to be seen anyway, which is where Jesus comes in. We call it the incarnation, God in human flesh. But Jesus was God in a highly reduced form. We’re told that Son of God had to “empty himself” to almost nothing to become human (Philippians 2:6-7) . And of course there’s more to God than the Son of God (i.e. the Father and the Holy Spirit). Actually, this whole Trinity thing has come to make a lot of sense to me, and I find myself relating in some specific ways to each of the Persons these days, which has really enriched my faith. But doggone it, I still can’t see him/her/them (you thought pronouns were a problem with the political left?), and that sucks. Yet there are so many signs, so many. Jesus being the most important.
So faith is temporal – it’s tethered to hope. It’s also spatial – it involves relating to a God we can’t see, even though the signs of his glory are everywhere and he showed up at a particular moment in time through Jesus.
The third dimension of faith is existential: “For whoever would approach him must believe that he exists.” Given all the signs, including Jesus, why would we doubt God’s existence? I was reading some articles recently about the Death of God movement in the 60's. The clincher for one theologian, Bill Hamilton, was Auschwitz. According to his son, Hamilton saw only two options: “First, if God is not behind such radical evil, he cannot be what we have traditionally meant by an omnipotent God. Second, if God really is the architect of all things, then God is a killer.” Plug in your own experience of suffering or the suffering you’ve read about in the news. Given the present state of things, it would appear that either God is powerful but not loving; or loving but not powerful; or maybe powerful and loving but not wise; or none of the above – because he doesn’t exist. And if such a God does exist, who cares.
My best friend heads up a child trauma center. He’s been opening his heart daily for decades to children whose stories bear the marks of the most extreme abuse. He does assessments for kids throughout the state, trains social workers and educators about child trauma, and testifies in other parts of the country as an expert witness when minors have committed heinous crimes. It’s hard for me to hear just a few of the stories. I don’t know how he does it. It’s also hard for me to grasp how a powerful, loving, wise God can allow kids who are supposed to be his children go through such horrific experiences that leave such horrendous scars.
I know this sounds strange, but part of the reason I believe God exists is because of suffering. Suffering demonstrates how omnipotent God actually is. Again, I’m grateful for Jesus for clearing some of this up for me, or at least making it less muddy. Martin Schleske, a German violin maker, talks about what God’s omnipotence means biblically. He says that it’s only the most powerful God that is capable of limiting his power. God is truly omnipotent only if God’s power limits itself so that there can be life that exists apart from him – life that is allowed to flow in indeterminate directions without God always intervening. This is the cost of freedom, and ultimately this is the cost of love and real relationship. This kind of omnipotence makes God himself quite vulnerable. The cross of Christ is the supreme demonstration of God's vulnerability, and his omnipotence.
The first chapter of the Bible says that God made human beings to reign in this world. In his omnipotence, God gives us space to figure that out – with his help, but only if we want it. As Dallas Willard said, we’re in training for reigning for the age to come. Our reigning is for the purpose of promoting the flourishing of this world and its inhabitants. But we’re fallen creatures, which is why we need a Savior, God’s ultimate intervention; one that ultimately covers and even transforms our screw ups – past, present and future.
One of the ways God’s omnipotence is demonstrated is through his patience. This is a God for whom everywhere is here, and all of time is now. God stands outside of time and knows the end of the story. Nothing will stop him, not even the torture and killing of his Son (when it took all of God’s omnipotence to restrain his omnipotence). Yes, love, the most powerful force in the universe, has won and will win. “Faith, hope and love – these three remain, and the greatest of these is love.”
Speaking of love, evidence of any sort can only take us so far towards faith. The last step is a leap of love. It’s not just a matter of believing what we’ve seen, but delighting in it, desiring it with all our hearts. For me this means delighting in the God who revealed himself through Jesus. The story happened, it rings true, and the main Actor has won my heart. I can’t imagine giving it to anyone else.
Finally, in addition to being temporal, spatial and existential, faith is transactional. Sorry, I couldn’t come up with a better word. The word transactional has pretty negative connotations these days. It’s basic meaning is that ‘if one gives, one will receive,’ which is actually what God promises. As the writer of Hebrews states: “He rewards those who seek him.” Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Seek what? Wrong question. Seek whom. "He rewards those who seek him.” Not spirituality. Not awakening. Not nirvana. But him. He happens to be the risen Ruler who fills the world with his Spirit. And so when we seek the King we’re seeking his kingdom too (Matthew 6:33), which, again, is a realm of flourishing for everything and everyone. So when we seek the living Christ, he promises to reward us with himself first of all, and also his kingdom, a kingdom of abundance and flourishing.
Jesus satisfies, or at least takes the edge off, my yearning to know God and my hope for a new and renewed world. I’m pretty sure these are universal desires. Maybe you resonate with them as well.
So how intently and intensely do we need to seek God in order to get the reward? “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart,” writes the Old Testament prophet (Jeremiah 29:13). Jeremiah also seems to connect seeking God with seeking the kingdom. A few verses earlier he writes, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v.7). In other words, ‘Don’t worry about the fact that these are your enemies, and that they destroyed your holy city and temple, killed your family members and fellow citizens, and dragged you into the capital of the empire that took everything from you; a city filled with idols and temples that make your skin crawl. Seek the peace and prosperity of the city anyway. They’re your neighbors now, so you need to love them.’
Yesterday morning I was reading about this black guy driving a chariot. He was from Ethiopia where he was the Minister of Finance. Ethiopia is a long way from Jerusalem. In fact, the Romans and Greeks sometimes referred to Ethiopia as the end of the earth. Even though this Ethiopian was riding a chariot, at 25 miles a day it still would’ve taken him up to 90 days to arrive in Jerusalem – 180 days round trip. He seems to be a novice at all this. While his driver is steering the chariot, this guy is trying to read a scroll of the prophet Isaiah (which would have cost him an arm and a leg, by the way) and can’t make much sense of it. He’s already been to Jerusalem and is on his way back. It’s not hard to imagine the reception he received. He was a Gentile, a non-Jew, and so couldn’t have entered into the temple proper. At best he would’ve been restricted to the Court of the Gentiles. Plus, we’re told that he was a eunuch. Eunuchs weren't supposed to come anywhere near the temple. But maybe he didn’t know that.
So what was he doing there? What was he seeking? Who was he seeking?
This Ethiopian’s search is rewarded with a serendipitous encounter with a Jesus disciple named Philip. It happens in the middle of the desert. While Philip tries to explain to the eunuch the meaning of the passage the traveler was reading, lights turn on for the Ethiopian. When they, again by “chance,” come across a spring in the middle of the desert, the Ethiopian says he wants to be baptized. (Okay, he’s a little pushy.) Philip complies. (You can read about all this in Acts 8.)
I find that when I’m actually and actively seeking God, he leaves a trail. For the Ethiopian it may have been a chance encounter with a Jewish trader who pointed him to Jerusalem. The particular passage he was reading when Philip showed up was from Isaiah 53, which more than any other passage in the Old Testament describes the meaning of Jesus’ death hundreds of years before it happened.
This morning I “happened” across a quote from Frederick Buechner while reading an old issue of Christian Century. Buechner died a couple of days ago at the age of 96. He was an influential writer for me earlier in my life and has been a timely mentor for Christians across the theological spectrum. The quote I happened across this morning is from Buechner’s book, The Final Beast, and describes a moment in the journey of one God-seeker:
“Please,” he whispered. Still flat on his back, he stretched out his fists as far as they would reach – “Please...” – Then opened them, palms up, and held them there as he watched for something, for the air to cleave, fold back like a tent flap, to let a splendor through.... Two apple branches struck against each other and with the limber clack of wood on wood. That was all – a tick-tock rattle of branches – but then a fierce lurch of excitement at what was only daybreak, only the smell of summer coming, only starting back again for home, but oh Jesus, he thought, with a great lump in his throat and a crazy grin, it was in agony of gladness and beauty falling wild and soft like rain.... Maybe all his journeying, he thought, had been only to bring him here to hear two branches hit each other twice like that, to see nothing across the threshold but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world’s tongue at the approach perhaps of splendor.
I read somewhere recently that when Buechner was asked late in life how to summarize what he wanted people to take from his work, he responded, “Pay attention to your life.” Instead of seeking to be a celebrity, Buechner sought God. Avoiding the spotlight, he paid attention instead to his life, where God always seemed to leave a trail, a trail sometimes stumbled upon by his faith, and at other times by his doubts.