This past weekend I presided at a wedding at which the mother of the groom told me that although she had grown up in a South American- and very Catholic- country, and she had gone to a Catholic school, at 15 years of age, she had turned away from the church because her teachers told her it was a sin to question. That true faith required that the believer never waivered, never wondered, never questioned.
My eldest son had a similar experience, here in Canada. When, at age 8, he began to ask questions of his Sunday School teachers, he was told to “take it on faith”. He understood that phrase to mean, “don’t ask”. Take it on faith.
Today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews begins with a discourse that speaks to the implied question: “What is faith?” And the writer says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.
Like so many of our common phrases, it may trip off the tongue, but when we stop to try to explain it to ourselves or to someone else, I often find it more complex and layered than it first sounds.
Webster defines faith as a “strong belief or trust in someone or something”. And Wikipedia adds, “a belief not based on proof”.
I remember when my daughter Julie was about 3, I came home from work one day. I had my briefcase in one hand and some shopping in the other. As I opened the front door, Julie came running down the stairs that led into the front hall and from the fourth or fifth step, leaped out toward me, knowing that her daddy would catch her.
I did, by the way. However, there was some cleaning up to do from the groceries that I had to drop in order to catch my little girl. But I had caught her, just as she knew I would.
Could you say that she had faith that her father wouldn’t let her fall, that no matter what else was happening, she’d be safe? She’d never done that before- jumped from the stairs into my arms- but she somehow had faith that it would be ok.
Faith is often invoked as an antidote to reality, belief in spite of the evidence. But I don’t think this passage is saying that’s what faith is. It only says that we trust and look towards things we can’t prove. And that we set our hearts on things that we know on some level, but which aren’t yet in view.
There are plenty of things which are invisible to us, but whose existence we don’t doubt. Gravity comes to mind. Physicists still haven’t explained gravity, but we all know the effects of it.
And there’s the old poem:
“Who has seen the wind? Neither I nor you, but when the trees bow down their heads, the wind is passing through.” We don’t see the wind, but when we feel it on our cheeks or hear it blowing through the trees, we know it’s there. And although we can’t see beyond the horizon, we believe that if we keep sailing, we’ll eventually get to a new place.
Those examples, of course, are only metaphors for faith. Each is in some ways, “provable”. But I think they help illustrate that faith is, in a way, a mode of perception. Through “the eyes of faith,” we can see things that aren’t otherwise visible or clear.
And I think it’s also important to understand the author of Hebrews isn’t asking an abstract question or debating a point of philosophy. His people needed to know what faith was because they were being crushed by the persecution and public abuse that was being inflicted on them, and on their families, and friends.
Faith wasn’t a subject of academic interest to them– it was essential for their survival. Their persecutors aimed to make them submit to the worldly “gods” of empire and culture. But in the midst of that persecution, they were held up by their belief that the Good News of Christ, resurrected, offered them a city over the horizon that they couldn’t yet see. They had to have faith in that to survive.
They needed to know that their daddy would catch them, even if his arms were full of groceries.
Faith, I think, is linked not to evidence, but to hope. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul may have been making that point when he connected faith to hope, and love. For me, a wonderful example of faith and hope is the life of Terry Fox. As we all know, in 1980, with one leg having been amputated, he embarked on his historic cross-Canada “Marathon of Hope” to raise money and awareness for cancer research. He couldn’t know where his run would lead and even though the spread of his cancer eventually forced him to stop at Thunder Bay- 5000 kms into his run, and ultimately cost him his life, his efforts resulted in a lasting, worldwide legacy.
The annual Terry Fox Run now has millions of participants in over 60 countries and is the world’s largest one-day fundraiser for cancer research; over 650 million dollars have been raised in his name.
Nellie McClung was another Canadian who, though faith, moved forward toward something that she knew but couldn’t yet see.
It was largely through her efforts that in 1916 Manitoba became the first province to give women the right to vote and to run for public office. She also championed dental and medical care for school children, property rights for married women, mothers’ allowances, factory safety legislation and many other reforms.
Today we recall the faith stories of Terry Fox and Nellie McClung much the way the writer of Hebrews recalled Abel and Abraham. They all knew that the hope of heaven wasn’t separate from the hope for a transformed earth.
In other words, the trials of today are connected to the promised-land just across the horizon. We step forward in faith not because we’re sure everything will work out in the next few days – but because we put our hope in God’s beautiful dream for creation.
But what about questions? I wonder if Terry Fox had doubts. I suspect that on the dark nights out on the highway, he might have wondered if it was all worth it, if his epic journey would really make any difference. I’m sure that Nellie McClung and the other women who were fighting against all those cultural barriers had times when they questioned their faith in a future when women would be given the same rights as men.
We know the disciples had many questions. They often didn’t get what Jesus was telling them. And I have to admit, that I often find that I have more questions than answers in my own faith journey.
Questioning, wondering, being unclear about our faith is, I believe, how we come to a deeper understanding of our relationship with God. For me, at least, faith isn’t a one-time thing- a moment of clarity where all things become evident. We’re told that in this life, we see through a glass darkly, and for me, at least, that’s how it so often feels.
God has blessed us with reason and with the ability to consider and weigh facts and make decisions. But, in the end, I think what God’s asking of us, is that at some point, like my daughter Julie, we need to trust in him and simply leap. Knowing that he’ll catch us. Even if his arms are full.
So, I sometimes wonder what that leap looks like. I suspect it’s different for each of us, and perhaps different at various times in our lives. Deciding whether or when to move off-island- or on-island for that matter- is probably a decision like that. Maybe the leap into God’s arms is as simple- and as hard- as accepting that once we’ve made the best decision we can, we need to let go of being the one in charge and ask God to help us move forward in the direction he knows is best for us. Or maybe it’s accepting that some things are simply a part of the mystery, and that there actually are things that I will never be able to explain or know, and that that’s ok.
So, in the end, perhaps my son’s Sunday School teachers weren’t saying “don’t ask”, but that it’s ok to question, in fact, it’s good to question. Saying to God, “I don’t get it” is an important prayer.
But, in the end, after learning and studying all we can, they may have been saying that we can find the peace that Jesus offers us if we can settle into the eternal mystery that is our Creator, and allow his love to hold us up. Maybe that’s what they meant by “take in on faith.”
Faith’s tough. It’s not possible to prove that God’s love is always there for us. But I think we can, in faith, live into the assurance of it, and allow our hearts to be comforted in that conviction. And that, at the end of the day, I think, is the greatest gift of faith.