Sunday, January 17, 2016

What I'd Give: Foundational Faith

This Epiphany season I’m writing about formative gifts I’d love to give, but can’t. Gifts that aren’t mine to give.

“What I’d give you if I could.”

Last week I wrote about the gift of “living into love.” The love is already given – long before the world was breathed into motion. But awareness of that love, willingness to live into that love: that’s the gift I would give, but can’t.

This week I’ve been thinking about the gift of faith: not just randomly directed faith, but faith in a God who dreamed the world in love, who spun it into orbit, who calls us into a compelling intergalactic narrative in which we all have significance, all are invited to a never-ending ever-after.

Faith, as we use the word, is often undirected: “Just have faith.” In what? Whom? Why?

Or it’s offered as a static expression of cognitive assent, expressed through a short sentence of prayer, or repetition of a creed.

Faith, as I see it expressed in the gospels, as I see it demonstrated and described by Jesus himself, is an immersive, embracing, encompassing reality: a foundation to stand on, a fellowship to live within, a future to run toward.
Sprouting acorn, Wikimedia commons

There’s no moment when we can say faith begins. It’s a seed, dropped into dark earth, with roots slowly spreading, slender shoots emerging, until one day, maybe long after, it’s an edifice of grace, feeding and fueling constellations of others.

I’ve been spending time in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 to 7, bemoaning the childhood presentation of faith that flattened something marvelous into a yes or no checkpoint on some Sunday School teacher’s script. The wise man built his house on the rock, Jesus said, and we were led to believe that rock was “Do you believe in Jesus?”

Believe what: in an old Hebrew name? In the flannel board figure drooping on the dusty backdrop? Believe that if I say a few words I can do what I want, and I’ll show up at heaven’s gates with a free pass that says “enter: one”?

The foundation Jesus described was at the very end of the teaching Matthew recorded, an encapsulation of the most radical, most impossible way of life any religion has ever offered: love those who despise you, persecute you, oppose you at every turn. Forgive those who harm you, hate you, do their best to make your every moment hell on earth. Give generously, beyond reason: resources, time, energy, mercy. Demonstrate deep faithfulness of heart and mind. Set aside fear, anxiety, anger.

Impossible without walking in deep friendship with the one who invites us.

What Jesus said was this: trust yourself so deeply to this way of life I’m offering you, align yourself so closely to my vision and my power, live into my love so completely that you become someone different: radiant, radical, redemptive. A light in a dark world. A beacon of joy when all reason denounces any glimmer of hope.   

My grandsons love Star Wars: the story of Luke Skywalker, orphaned nephew of a nowhere nobody, drawn into the fellowship of rebels standing against evil forces seeking to rule the galaxy. It’s a big story and they picture themselves inside it: rescuing Han Solo from his frozen doom. Confronting Darth Vader with light sabers and forgiveness..

All our best stories point to the one great story that fuels our faith. As a child, I read and reread the Chronicles of Narnia. I was Lucy, third of four children pulled from a boring train depot into a frozen world held hostage by the snow queen. I was captured by the idea that four children could be part of a story larger than themselves, a story that began before they were born, stretched on, larger and larger, to a grand and joyful ending.

Faith is no flat, propositional assent. Read Hebrews 11, one my all-time favorite passages: by faith Noah built an ark. By faith Abraham left his home and went to live in tents like a stranger in a foreign land. By faith Moses left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger.  By faith Rahab welcomed the spies. The list goes on: men and women who saw miracles, administered justice, faced great trials, suffered unspeakable persecution.

By faith.

If you’d asked them what they were putting their faith in, I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t have offered that favorite of all Sunday School answers: Jesus. They didn’t yet know him.

And I’m doubtful they would have offered a doctrinal statement. 

What they knew of God went beyond words: experiential, personal, immediate, life-shattering.

They were fueled by, compelled by, their experience of a God who called them by name, who invited them in to an unfolding story of obedience and rebellion. They were imperfect people, willing to set aside comfort, safety, the known status quo, propelled by a vision of a world where grace and goodness rule.

I have friends and relatives – many – who say “I just can’t believe God would welcome some jerk into heaven just because he said ‘I believe in Jesus,’ and turn aside someone who was good all his life but never said he believed.”

And I have friends and relatives who see faith as just one of those ideas people like to fight about because they want to be right: an unprovable proposition deserving no more than a shrug, a roll of the eye, a weary “sure, whatever.”

The Christian church – in its many incarnations – has done a great disservice to the life of faith by claiming to know who God will welcome, who God will turn away, by flattening the fullness of Christ’s gospel to a simple yes/no checkpoint on someone’s self-righteous survey.

The end of the Sermon on the Mount is instructive: it contains familiar words that are rarely considered as one, complete whole:

Sermon on the Mount, Charles Plessard, France 19??
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

I grieve at the way the notion of faith has been used as a cudgel to knock others into line, as permission to judge, to dismiss, to exclude.

I grieve at the way it’s been flattened, falsified, simplified, sullied – easy to ridicule, far too easy to reject.

The life of faith I’ve found has been that firm foundation Jesus offered: a fellowship of compassionate, courageous fellow-travelers, a plumb-line for each attitude and action, strength to face daily sorrows and struggles, a vision of redemption that shapes my decisions and propels me toward a future very different from today.

I can’t give you that. Can’t undo the harm done by institutional religion, can’t give you 3-D glasses when you can’t see what I see.

All I can do is live a life of faith that suggests, just a little, something more, something greater. Invite you to meet others whose lives are fueled by faith.

Pray you’ll be surrounded, supported, propelled forward by that great cloud of witnesses described in Hebrews  12 so that together we can “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

detail from The Christian Martyrs of Nagasaki; anon. 16th-17th century Japanese painting
During this Epiphany season (from the beginning of January until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, February 10) I’ll be blogging about those things I would give if I could.
January 3: What I'd Give You
January 10: What I’d Give: Living into Love