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Reflection August 2, 2020
And Finally: Faith by - Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Today (July 26) we begin what I’m calling “The Final Five” - the tying together of some 46 years of the preaching life. This series will not be a summation of what I’ve learned but, rather, a fresh exploration.
The light generated by the light of faith is, at best, a dim light. And, yet, “this little light of mine, I’m going let it shine!” Of course, the light of faith is always reflected “through a glass darkly.” So it was. So it is. So it will always be. And yet, what other life-pursuit is so worth the price?
The life of faith is a life lived within an infinite Mystery. As (the 19th Century Lutheran theologian) Christoph Luthardt wrote: “Everything visible conceals an invisible mystery, and the last mystery of all is God.” To paraphrase if I may: Everything we see is but the shining surface hiding a deeper reality.
Faith is the willingness to live without all the answers. Faith is the willingness to live inside the questions. Let me add something lovely from Frederick Buechner: On her death bed, Gertrude Stein is said to have asked ‘What is the answer?’ Then, after a long silence, Stein answered: ‘What is the question?’ Buechner continues: “Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks.”
Faith is not the absence of doubt. As I’ve preached previously, the opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is certitude. Faith is nourished by doubt. We forget this to our peril.
God protect me, God protect us, from those who stubbornly insist they know all the answers or that the Bible contains all the answers (it doesn’t!). I’ve encountered many misguided Christians over my decades of ministerial life. Anyone who thinks he or she has more answers than questions is on the wrong path.
The simple truth is that it’s easy to get lost when it comes to the journey of faith. The path of faith is not a well-worn highway. The path of faith is a rocky, hilly footpath. It’s good to have traveling companions. Faith is a journey best undertaken together. This is why church is so important. On our own we inevitably go astray.
The anonymous author of the Letter to the Hebrews asserts in chapter 11, verse 1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” What might this well-known passage mean? It might mean many things but for me it says that faith is a way of seeing in the dark.
As I mentioned, faith is a rocky, hilly path. And we must travel it often in the dusk and in the dark. That’s why we need others whose hands we can hold, especially in the dark. This reminds me of the truth that no friendship is an accident. I forget from where this quote arises but it is well-worth pondering. (Actually it comes from O. Henry - editorial insert!)
Our life of faith is not about whistling in the dark. Our life of faith is about getting comfortable with uncertainty, getting comfortable with the Mystery in which “we live and move and have our being” - to quote Paul’s preaching in Athens (Acts 17:18). What we may not know is that Paul was quoting an invocation to the Greek god Zeus. Be that as it may!
Faith is the ability to not panic when the bottom falls out, which it will as some point in everyone’s life. Yet when we look at our world, we cannot help but panic. We panic not only because of our current Covid-19 crisis. We stoke the fires of panic with crazy conspiracy theories and fear-mongering.
Who among us can watch the evening news and not panic? Our news reporting is built on producing panic. And please know I’m not suggesting we abstain from the news. We need to know what’s going on. There’s an old adage that to preach rightly requires the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.
We know well that life is hard. It was the American writer, O. Henry, who stated in his wonderful The Gift of the Magi: “Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.” This pretty well sums up life, doesn’t it?
Faith is the heart-felt willingness to be open to experiences of God. The theological term for such experiences is theophanies. Our world is awash in theophanies, on fire with the flames of theophanies. I believe theophanies are best experienced with the heart. The problem is that we've been trained to silence the heart, to ignore the spirit-driven stirrings of the heart.
As I wrote in one of my books long ago: "God is best experienced not in the head but in the heart." We have a need to experience God. But we've been misled to think such experiences, such theophanies, are epic-making, like those we encounter in the Bible.
The truth is our experiences of God are much quieter and much less dramatic. God comes to us gently, akin to our Chicago poet, Carl Sandberg’s famous description of fog. Fog comes from his 1916 collection, Chicago Poems: The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on. Sandberg wrote this poem while strolling through Grant Park. It’s an American Haiku.
I love this little poem. Not only because I love my native city. I love this little poem because, for me, it speaks not only of the fog but also how I imagine God works in our world. It’s possible that my 13-year immersion in the world of cats has had a deep influence on how I experience the movement of God around me and within me!
We have a profound hunger for God; what’s been described as a hunger for transcendence, a hunger to experience Ultimate Mystery. Let me quote from my 2nd book, Fashioning a Healthier Religion (1992): “Humans may have a genetic need to experience transcendence in their lives. Perhaps that’s the fatal attraction of drugs, as (the American psychologist) William James suggested many years ago. Perhaps when our religions don’t help us feel one with all life (in other words, with Mystery), the need may be so compelling that we’re easy prey to the sway of drugs.
“God seems to have ‘wired’ us with a longing for transcendence, a hunger for God ... The creature needs to know the Creator. We, who are made, keep searching for our Maker. But we discover the truth of Isaiah 45:15: ‘Truly you are a God who hides yourself.’”
We are seeking God. We call this journey, this fragile expedition, the life of faith. I opened this sermon with the well-known story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35).
Let me quote the New Testament scholar, Barbara Bowe, from her book, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality - Touching a Finger to the Flame: “The story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus is the story of faith for each of us. And for the contemporary Christian the need to have our eyes opened to the presence of God in our midst is urgently apparent.”
I’ve preached the idea of faith as floating on the surface of the ocean. This image comes from the great 19th Century Danish philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard.
I’m afraid of the ocean. I’m afraid of the ocean mainly because I’m a poor swimmer. I have waded into the ocean and even tentatively floated very close to shore. But I have yet to swim in the ocean. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen but the ocean scares me and it’s really hard for me to relax when scared.
So the notion, the image, of faith as floating on the ocean challenges me, as it should. Will I ever feel comfortable in the ocean? Perhaps if I spend enough time near the ocean? Did I hear someone say “Maui”?
When might I finally learn to trust, to have faith in the “buoyancy” of God? Don’t rightly know! I’m working on it. Faith is not easy, trust me on this. It’s much harder and requires more effort than many preachers would have us believe.
Let me end with some wise words from the clergy person Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark: “The good news is that dark and light, faith and doubt, divine absence and (divine) presence, do not exist at opposite poles. Instead, they exist with and within each other, like distinct waves that roll out of the same ocean and roll back into it again. As different as they are, they come from and return to that same source. If I can trust that, if I can give my heart to it, then faith becomes a verb (rather than remaining a noun).”
She concludes: “This faith will not offer me much to hold on to. It will not give me a safe place to settle … I think I can even live inside this cloudy evening of the soul for a while longer, where even my sense of God’s absence can be a token of God’s presence if I let it. Because I do not understand a thing about this, does that mean I understand God? I do not know. All I know is that there is no place I would rather be.” There is no place I would rather be! Amen! Amen!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor