Faith = Trust

Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t believe everything people say to you, especially if they are selling you something. Don’t trust politicians. If you want it done right, do it yourself ….

Reads like a charter for good living, eh?

Advice we give our children from a young age is meant to help us become street-wise, life-smart, common sense practicing members of society. We develop our sensibilities so that we can be safe and secure, survive and even flourish in a dog-eat-dog world of violence, competition, and rabid individualistic advancement and fortitude.

When I participated in the 5K event at Ottawa’s Race Weekend which attracted over 40,000 to the nation’s capital for Canada’s largest annual marathon event, thoughts of the Boston Marathon bombings a month ago came to mind. I couldn’t help but heed Federal Minister for Public Safety Vic Toews’ recent advice, for the public to remain ‘vigilant’ in a dangerous, scary world in which we live.

Remaining constantly vigilant sets the wise apart from the naive. And yet, I also can’t help but wonder about the damage we do to our lives of faith when we so readily consume the propaganda and messaging of the dominant culture of our day. I’m not saying that to be faithful is to be naive. But if we are a people of faith, then we need to re-discover a quality of faith suppressed by our culture.

Again, this time while teaching the Lutheran Course to a group of new members and other adults in our church community, I was asked: “Doesn’t faith mean ‘belief’?”

I wouldn’t doubt that belief is part of what it means to have faith — that is, to believe in a set of propositions about God: Jesus is the divine Son of God who came to save the world from the powers of the devil and sin, etc., etc.

But a quality of faith, picked up by Martin Luther and other teachers over the centuries, that is often overlooked is: trust. The expression of trust in our relationships — primarily, to trust God — demonstrates faith as much as, even more than, belief.

To trust another is a quality shown clearly by the God-fearing, Gentile centurion in the Gospel of Luke 7:1-10. It doesn’t right away jump out at me, after a first reading of this story about the healing of a slave. Underlying the interactions among the characters in this story, nevertheless, is the quality of faith. Jesus even concludes his dialogue by acclaiming the centurion’s faith (v.9).

A couple of plot points underscore the trust that is demonstrated in the story. First, never in Luke’s account does Jesus actually meet the centurion face-to-face. Moreover, never does Jesus actually touch the slave whom he heals. The principle characters in this story never meet!

Relationally, this is troubling, since I for one always value direct communication. I hesitate when ‘third parties’, middle management, or ‘a friend told me’ methods are used to get a message across. I ask myself: Why didn’t the centurion go directly to Jesus with his request? Let’s just say, I’m not very trusting of social triangles.

For starters, the centurion shows a pure, simple trust in others. He trusts the Jewish leaders to make a convincing argument to Jesus. He then trusts his good friends to advocate on his behalf. Trust imbues these relationships. The centurion’s faith is based precisely in trusting others, and not in depending solely on himself to ‘get the job done right’.

The centurion also, and significantly, trusts Jesus. But, more to the point, he trusts Jesus the person, not in any perceived magical abilities Jesus would have. In Jesus’ day, people believed direct contact with the person mediating the healing was necessary (see Luke 5:17, 6:19). There’s more here than someone seeking a magical, instantaneous snapping-of-fingers cure to a problem. This is not a mechanical spirituality being described.

What we witness is someone putting their trust in — literally — the word of Jesus. Jesus need only “speak the word” (v.7) from a distance. His power is beyond the limits of earthly perception. It is indeed super-natural, divine. The centurion trusts in what Jesus says.

This story reveals something two-handed. It’s a paradox. Very ‘Lutheran’, I might add! The centurion calls himself unworthy (v.6), even as he is hailed among the Jewish leaders as very much worthy to receive the help of Jesus (v.4). Which is it? Well, not either/or but both/and! Unworthy to earn favour with God by one’s own efforts to perfection. Unworthy to espouse individualistic self-righteousness as a deserving of God’s attention.

But very much worthy of God’s attention because another says so. Worthy because of who Jesus is. Worthy because Jesus makes it so, by God’s grace, mercy, and unconditional love.

So, in the end, Jesus trusts. Jesus trusts the Jewish leaders’ appeal. Jesus trusts the centurion’s friends’ advocacy. And, above all, Jesus trusts in the worthiness of the slave whom he hasn’t met during his visit to Capernaum by the Sea. Jesus heals someone ‘at a distance’, because the slave, too, is a beloved creation of God. Jesus has faith in the worthiness — the inherent value — of one who is, in the social structure of the day, not considered very worthy at all, someone at the lowest rung in society — a lowly slave.

The slave demonstrated faith. He or she did not recite a Creed nor prove their beliefs before getting healed. The slave was literally at the mercy of life and death. The slave, according to the New King James Version, was “ready to die” (v.2). The slave was ready to place their life in the hands of the Maker. The slave demonstrated a deep trust to let go and surrender, at the end. To the one who can let go into the arms of God who will never let us go, healing and wholeness comes.

God is faithful to us, even in death. God is faithful to us, even as we may not consider ourselves worthy of God’s love. Jesus healing power is available to us, even as we may feel distant from God. So, in bold faith, let us move forward and enter the door of God’s realm of mercy. For God is faithful.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

On the journey – Now

This final, inner circle is the purview of the Holy Spirit. Always centering us in the moment, the Holy Spirit brings us to the awareness that God is not just something of historical inquiry, and not just some program for success.

God in the Holy Spirit squares us with the reality of our lives that we face right now. In this very moment, the God we confess and the God we worship is doing something around you and in the world. And God is acting whether we’re tracking or not. The Holy Spirit blows despite us.

So, whether we’re naughty or nice, even in our imperfections and weaknesses — indeed through our limitations and brokenness (thank you Jesus!) the Holy Spirit blows, especially hard.

This is the function of God’s grace. To recognize God’s activity and presence right now in the mundane, ordinary and common aspects of our lives.

In this realization and awareness, then, the ‘now’ and the ‘wow’ are aligned properly. Because God is with us now in the Holy Spirit, it is God’s work that makes all good things happen — in Jesus we don’t have to make it happen. And because Jesus takes care of the ‘how’ we can truly celebrate and give thanks for the ‘wow’. Our worship, our dreams, our imagination, our joy — these are consequences not of our private, narcissistic projections. Our ‘wow’ and ‘how’ are expressions of an authentic appreciation of the creative act of God not only in our regular daily lives, but in the wider community.

Is the dream possible? Keep the ‘wow’, the ‘how’ and the ‘now’ properly aligned in God’s love, God’s work and God’s grace. And see the dream come true!

On the journey – How

This is the tricky one. Especially for us goal-oriented, success-hungry, ambitious types. For us who, almost compulsively, dive into our work. For those of us who first ask when a new idea is presented: “How will this work?”

And so we draw the second circle of our ‘trinity’ of circles. This one just on the inside of the larger ‘wow’. From the ‘wow’ we move to the ‘how’. The exuberance of youth must at some point translate into a work-able, do-able, achievable proposition. Somehow, the dream needs to have traction on the ground. We have to do something in order to make it happen. This, is the ‘how’ part of life.

But, as I said, this is the tricky stage. Because for so long we have convinced ourselves into believing that if anything good is to come in our lives, it’s because we’ve accomplished it or deserved it or earned it by our hard work.

To a degree, there is some truth here. We make decisions to the best of our judgment, hoping that we exercise discernment and wisdom. We work hard with good intentions. We are motivated to create a better society, and we act on it.

But more and more people are discovering that just because they work very hard at something, doesn’t necessarily mean they will succeed. More and more people are discovering this harsh reality on the journey of life and faith. Just because you sweat blood, sweat and tears in pursuing some ‘wow’ goal in life, doesn’t necessarily mean you will achieve it. What then?

Should we give up? Should we sit idly by and not do anything, resigned to fate? Like I said, this ‘how’ thing is tricky.

It’s also no surprise that this circle represents the second person of the Holy Trinity — Jesus. The first ‘wow’ circle was God the Father, the Creator, the beginning point. This second person of Jesus is the Saviour, the Redeemer. Jesus is the ‘how’ to journeying on the path of faith and life.

Up until this point, we may have thought that journeying in life through the ‘wows’, the ‘hows’ and the ‘nows’ was unidirectional — that it was all up to us to get it right. Jesus’ grace and presence in our lives suggests a two-way relationship. What we put into life is our approach to life and to God that says: “Thank you!” What we put into life are our efforts that don’t pretend nor presume our salvation and the salvation of the world depends on us.

Jesus won salvation for us already! He’s done the job. He’s figured out how to restore broken human relationships. Jesus offers us, and those we meet, forgiveness, grace, a new fresh start over in life — each day of our lives!

Jesus doesn’t love us because he has to; Jesus loves us because he wants to. “This frees us to simply receive that love, rather than feverishly try to make ourselves worthy of it” (p. 236, Richard Rohr, ‘On The Treshold of Transformation’).

Worth living for? Worth working for?

On the journey – Wow

A family came back to have their second baby baptized. The older brother was about four and he got very serious through the whole thing. In fact, he cried in the car all the way home, even after having the cake and everything. His father asked him three times what was wrong. The boy was inconsolable. Finally, choking back the tears, the boy answered, “The pastor said that in baptism we now belonged to the Christian family.”

“What’s wrong with that?” his mother asked.

“Well, I wanted to stay with you guys.”

In Confirmation, you affirm God’s promise of belonging to the Christian — that is, God’s — family forever. But as a teenager you may not feel as the four year old in the story. Maybe you are getting excited about where life can lead you and starting to get ready to spread your wings, so to speak. In short, you are appreciating the ‘wow’ factor of life. And this is good.

The ‘wow’ factor is about getting excited, dreaming the dreams, reaching for the stars, seeing the possibilities, celebrating life. Confirmation, in our tradition, is about young people affirming their baptism and calling in life. You are on a journey. And today is a milestone on that journey of faith and life.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday. Christians believe in the Trinity: one God in three persons. So, let’s draw three circles, reminding us of the Trinity, on this pad of paper here, and ask the questions: “What should I do to get through life that is largely before me?” “Is the Dream possible, on the journey of life?”
Each of us is given the gift of life on this planet. How, then can you travel well on the journey of life?

We draw these three circles inside of each other. The first, largest circle encompasses the other two. This first, large one, is the ‘wow’ circle. The next circle, a little smaller within the largest is called the ‘how’ circle. And the smallest circle at the centre of the other two is the ‘now’ circle.

The creation is ‘wow’. It’s the biggest one. It’s the starting point. It’s what it’s all about. Just look outside at this time of year to notice the bursting greens and thriving life coming from the earth. Or, whether you climb mountains or dive in the sea — or see the earth from space as Commander Chris Hatfield did — what God created is Wow!
Relish it! Experience it! It is beautiful!

And so are you. Each of us is created by God and is a remarkable human being, complete with unique gifts and talents and abilities and personalities. Wow.

This attitude of ‘wow’ accompanies us when we choose a vocation, undertake a new project, or make a major decision that you believe is a good one. In this initial stage we are in the ‘wow’ place — we see the possibilities, the goal, the big picture. It is the purview of visionaries, embodying the hope and potential of who we are in creation. It is the idealistic part of any undertaking.

It’s the proverbial honeymoon stage. It’s the best part of the dream.

And admittedly the one that gets short shrift so often. We don’t spend enough time visiting and revisiting this part of it in life, especially as we grow older. We so quickly gravitate to the ‘how’. And working through the ‘how’, without spending enough time in the ‘wow’, can often snuff out the spirit of whatever the undertaking.

Understandable to a degree. Because so often in life once we start that new thing, whether a relationship or a job, there are naturally disappointments that come along. Life is not all ‘wow’. And that’s the truth.

At the other extreme, failing to tap into and access the ‘wow’ in life, even in the midst of challenging times, can lead to living a chronically unhappy, unfulfilled life. We can become so fearful, jaded and cynical, that the joy has been sapped completely out of life.

Regardless the circumstance, we have to find a way of keeping the ‘wow’ going …..

Thanks to a couple of Anglican friends, the Revs. Peter John Hobbs and Monique Stone who introduced to a gathering at a local clergy day in Ottawa the concept of “Wow, How, Now” — on which I have extrapolated in this 3-part post.

Together, now!

When we feel, however, that in our lives we are neither on a vacation nor able to fulfill our vocation, what then?

Perhaps we are at a loss for words. Perhaps we are so dis-spirited and dejected that we feel hopeless and without purpose and meaning. Perhaps our spirit can do nothing other than cry to God for help: ‘Abba! Father!’

Saint Paul had something to say about that: When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spiritbearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God … (Romans 8:16)

The very fact that we turn our selves to face God, the very fact that we think about God – good or bad thoughts! – the very fact that we lift our hearts to God even in pain and suffering, is God’s Spirit touching ours. We are indeed ‘children of God’ before we do anything remarkable, life-changing or effective. We are already given our inheritance before we can earn it or prove somehow we are worthy of it, before we are rid of all that ails us.

One salient fact in the Pentecost story from the Bible stands out – right at the beginning: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place …(Acts 2:1)

Normally when we read or hear this text, we hurriedly breeze through this first verse to get to the sensational parts of the wind blowing through the place and the tongues of fire appearing on the disciples’ heads. We so readily go to what stimulates and excites us, don’t we?

Yet there is a gentle, subtle truth here, which also reveals the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives: We cannot do it alone.

Sometimes we seek renewal in nature, in solitude, by ourselves, secluded, isolated – in nature, on a vacation. And we feel God’s presence. We say, “the spirit of God is here.” Maybe so.

But Lutherans and Christians in general, I believe, would affirm that the Holy Spirit’s power is not primarily individualistic. The Holy Spirit, based on the biblical witness on the Day of Pentecost, comes to those gathered ‘together in one place.’

The only way we can truly and effectively live out our vocation, is to be with others, engage the world around us, and do it together.

Apart from the ever-expanding community of faith, the Christian Gospel cannot be effectively witnessed and proclaimed. Apart from the community of faith, you and I may do good works and be good citizens. Apart from the community of faith, we may find comfort and solace in distractions and the seductions of our materialistic culture.

But, if you want to see true, spiritual power and healing in your life and those around you – let’s do it together, and watch God’s Spirit change the world!

Even on a vacation, let’s live out our vocation – together!

To be Lutheran, to be ‘both-and’

What is our vocation? Professor Mary Jane Haemig at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis/St Paul describes it this way: Our vocation was born in us when we were created by God. When we were born, we received our vocation to care for others in creation, to serve a world in need.

Basically, our common vocation as human beings is mutual support and care, which reflects our interdependence with one another and the importance of all our relationships – with creation, with ourselves, with others, and with God.

Professor Haemig goes on to say that at our Baptism, God forgives us our sins of failing to live out our vocation. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are forgiven and set free to live for the sake of others. The cross of Christ not only saves us from our sins, it saves us for serving the needs of others.

Reflected here is something that characterizes the Lutheran brand of Christianity. Those of us who undertook the “Lutheran Course Two” this past month – including our new members whom we receive formally this day – discovered this “two-handed” style of thinking that is prevalent not only in Lutheran theology but in our practice of faith. For example, one of Martin Luther’s famous sayings was that we are simultaneously saints and sinners.

Not either/or, this or that, black or white. But both/and.

Rather than pit a vacation apart from vocation, then, we would affirm that vocations can still be lived out during a vacation. Martin Luther was very clear to state that all people in society were members of the ‘spiritual’ class – not only bishops, pastors, and religious people. Even the most mundane of jobs can be living out our God-given vocation. It’s not so much what we do, but how we do it.

With what attitude and attention to others around us do we approach and do our jobs? Can we be on vacation and still exercise our vocation – when we spend time with our family and nurture our friendships and build healthy relationships reflecting the love and truth of God? On the other hand, can our vocations be fun, at times – as are vacations?

Yes, and Yes!