Faith alone not our faith alone

“Increase our faith,” we pray.

Isn’t that what we want? More faith to get us through the tough times. More faith to make us better people. More faith to tolerate things in life that set us off course. More faith to believe in things that are not easy to believe in. More. If only we had more.

In the BBC television series called “Broken” actor Sean Bean plays the role of Michael, a parish priest in a small, industrial town. In one of the episodes he answers a question from someone in the youth group curious as to why he chose the priesthood.

He tells the story of when he was eighteen years old he went one day with a crowd of people to visit a falconer on the side of a hill. To see such a large bird with a with a vast wingspan take flight was a treat for the villagers, many of whom had never before seen a falcon. The falconer took time describing the bird to the villagers and even had some of them feed it.

Then they all watched captivated by the sight of the majestic bird lifting off from the falconer’s outstretched arm. Michael saw the bird circle once overhead before heading out into the vast sky overlooking the valley below. The falcon became smaller and smaller—a small dot over the horizon—until it finally disappeared from view.

The afternoon wore on. People looked at the falconer and each other, wondering what to do. But the falconer did not move from his place on the side of the hill. The hours turned and the sun was setting in the western sky. What had started as a large crowd dissipated until there was only the falconer and Michael standing alone there. Michael wondered why the people had left.

He sympathized, for sure. Perhaps, as he was feeling, there was no point in hanging around anymore. The falcon was gone. How would it know to return to this very spot after ranging across a sky which was so vast and covered the whole world? Why would the falcon even care to return? It was now free to roam wherever it wanted to go. What more could it want?

To Michael’s surprise, but not it seemed to the falconer’s, as the darkness descended on the hillside he heard a flutter and rush of wings. The falcon had returned and now sat perched contentedly on the falconer’s arm. Michael could see the white of the falconer’s teeth showing from behind a smile that stretched from cheek to cheek. Michael laughed with delight.

Here was faith. And it was the falconer’s witness of faith that inspired Michael on his life journey. That the falconer had waited on that hillside for what seemed like forever. To stay there, when everyone else had gone home, even if it meant waiting alone. To have no guarantee that the falcon would return. To not have control over how long and when. And if. But only do what he was called to do: Let the falcon go. Let that bird with whom he had a relationship, to be sure, go.

“Increase our faith.”

Maybe it’s not our faith that is at stake here. These texts assigned for today can easily lead us into yet another guilt trip or glory trip—as if that’s what faith is all about! We are either not worthy enough, not good enough. Or, look – I’ve moved mountains! If only we had more, even more, faith!

“Increase our faith.”

The faith talked about in these passages are Christian, but perhaps not in the sense of the faith of the Christians. Because dwelling exclusively on our faith alone often gets us spiraling into dark holes of depression and feelings of unworthiness, defeat and failure. We hit walls of misunderstanding when we separate our faith from the faith of Christ, the One we trust. Here the central understanding is not our faith but faith in Christ, a faith that mirrors the faith of Christ.

It is like eighteen-year-old Michael watching the faith of the falconer.  What Michael ends up doing with his life is secondary. What is at stake, what is the most important thing in Michael’s experience on the side of that mountain one long afternoon, is not his own faith but someone else’s.

Timothy is charged to ‘rekindle’ the mustard seed of faith that is within him. The mustard seed is tiny, almost undetectable to the naked eye. We don’t often recognize the gift that is already there.[1]

Perhaps we too need to wait on the side of that hill, and not just give up and go home.

Timothy is encouraged that there is something good within him working long before he even became aware of it. He has to be reminded that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began”. And that we are called to good things, “not according to our works but according to [Christ’s] own purpose and grace.”[2]

In prayer, in our relationships and interactions, the search-light of consciousness turns off ourselves and onto the living Christ. When the attention turns away from our stuff—good and bad—and onto Jesus, I believe we may feel a needed lift. Our heart alights. The pressure for performance relaxes. The guilt dissipates. And we can start by simply being in awe about the One whose purposes and faithfulness and love reach far beyond our own self-preoccupations, weaknesses and accomplishments.

What transformed eighteen-year-old Michael was not an argument about faith, not a debate which he won or lost and convinced him either way what to do with his life. What transformed Michael was an encounter with someone who showed him the way, who practiced faith. Our call is not to win all the arguments but to forgive as we have been forgiven and to love as we have been loved.

We are called to get in touch with the Giver of the gift of faith. We are called to give thanks for the One who beckons for us to stay on the journey, calling us not worthless, but friends along the way.

Let our prayer of praise therefore shout from the rooftops: “Great is Thy Faithfulness!”[3]Amen.

 

[1]Luke 17:5-10

[2]2 Timothy 1:1-14

[3]Hymn 733, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

The life-giving gap

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11)

The writer, James, makes a case for integrity and authenticity in the Christian life. For us moderns, living in a day and age where how we look, our reputations, our social standings and our bank accounts seem to speak louder than anything else about who we truly are and what we truly want. Is our joy at living based on these ‘worldly’ values, when we are honest about it? 

It becomes particularly challenging for us Christians, whose value system is acutely counter-cultural. It becomes a real war, actually, to embrace the true source of our lives in a world of celebrity politicians and glory-seeking suburbanites. And I think, for the most part, we live a bifurcated existence. We say one thing — I believe in the God who asks us to bear our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) — but so easily slip into a lifestyle that is really narcissistic, self-centred and selfish. The easy way.

It’s a rhetorical question. “Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water?” In James’ mind, of course not. A spring will either bring forth, on balance, mostly fresh or mostly dirty water. The meter will lean one way or the other. 

Which way do you lean? In your work? In the way you invest? In how you spend your money? In how you spend your free time? With whom? In what and how you communicate?

In the Gospel for today (Mark 8:27-38), Jesus says some difficult, counter-cultural things about what kind of way Jesus — the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, God incarnate, Almighty and Everlasting God — will travel the journey of life. And it is this God who beckons us to follow: in order “to undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31). Really? That doesn’t sound right for a person claiming godly power!

In an upwardly mobile culture we are suddenly and shockingly presented with a downwardly mobile God. Naturally and understandably, through the lens of worldly value, we shudder. Peter rebukes Jesus. And it is in response to Peter’s communication that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan.

The first lesson from Isaiah, the third chapter in the Epistle James and the Gospel reading for today are a call to discipline our speech — how we talk, and for what purpose. I would broaden this to say: How we communicate. The words we use. The body language we employ. They say that 70% of communication is non-verbal. I believe this truth is what prompted Francis of Assisi to say: “Preach the Gospel; Use words only when necessary!” It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Our actions speak louder than words.

We are called to pay attention not only to the words we use — important though they are, but our actions, our tone, our presence with another. We are called to pay attention to these details in assessing the quality of our relationships. Not to do so, to ignore and dismiss our attention to these aspects of relating, is evil. Not to hold ourselves accountable to what we say and how we say it to another is a satanic time-bomb waiting to happen.

The eighth commandment reads: Do not bear false witness against your neighbour (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). This means, what we say about them. Of course, first we have to look around and ask: Who is our neighbour? On Meadowlands Drive West, in Nepean, Ottawa, and in Canada. Who are our neighbours today? Do we know their names? Who are they? And then, what do we say about them, to them?

In his explanation of all the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther makes clear these are not simply about ‘not-doing’ — not gossiping, not slandering — but even more important what positive behaviour we do for the sake of the neighbour. He writes that it is imperative that Christians should do all they can to protect the good name and social standing of their neighbours — and he lifts up particularly the “sins of the tongue” in this context. (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in the Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p.420)

I can’t help here to think of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. I can’t help here but think of the many ways Muslims are disparaged in the media in the West not only in the press, but also in those malicious forwarded emails that circulate “like a hydra with multiple heads: so pernicious and so difficult to stop” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Inter-religious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.57).

James concedes to our human predicament. In the end, no matter how hard we try to do right by this, “no one can tame the tongue” (3:8). It’s as if the narrative of Scripture accepts the impossible capability of us, on our own, to get it all right all of the time. Even though Peter is in one moment ‘Satanic’ he is, in the next, the rock upon which the church will be built against whom “the gates of Hades will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). Martin Luther’s well-known paradox can help us frame this apparent contradiction: We are simultaneously saints AND sinners (simul justus et pecator). 

This ‘word’ today may make us feel uncomfortable. It does, me. And, probably for good reason. Yet, there is good news. God speaks into this confused darkness of our lives. God speaks the Word of creation into this murky existence (Genesis 1). A Word of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. 

And the Word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonic of sounds in the world. And as we speak, and try to speak truthfully, perhaps what we are doing is far less hanging labels around the necks of the things of the world. And instead we try to find those divine harmonics and speak and act ‘in tune’ with that Word first spoken into silence and darkness.

The image I like of creation is that God first makes a great cave. And then breathes into it. Speaks into it. A Word. And from the cave the echoes come back. Differently pitched. Differently aimed. A world of Word. And we find our place in that world listening to those harmonics, trying to speak and act in tune with them. Not to speak and act from our will or our passion for control. But to speak because we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the ‘music of the spheres’. (Rowan Williams, “The Spirit in the Desert” Meditatio Talk Series 2015 B Apr-June CD).

Those of us preachers and public speakers, especially need to think more about this. Paul says that the Body of Christ is made up of all parts, each important in their own right (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) — you are a hand, you a leg, you the eyes, you the foot. This morning, I am the mouth! And, like James, Paul also says that greater scrutiny and possible judgement will be brought upon those who speak (2 Peter 2:3;Colossians 2:20;1 Timothy 1:2-4). A timely word, perhaps, in a season of political campaign, mindless rhetoric and questionable election promises.

How do we speak in such a way that is authentic and true? Only by looking for the harmonics that that Word of God sets up. By refusing the mass pressures of culture. By becoming in our speaking as in our living a kind of invitation into the gracious harmonics of God’s world, into the resonances and echoes that are set up by that primordial utterance of God into the cave of creation.

Simone Weil used the concept of ‘hesitation’ to describe how to communicate in a healthy way For her, part of the essence of spiritual maturity was leaving the ‘life-giving gap’ between you, the act, and the other person (quoted in Rowan Williams, ibid.). Learning not so much to project straight away our ego compulsions into the other person; learning not so much to move right away into solving a problem on our own terms. But drawing away momentarily to listen for the sake of the other. And for the sake of the truth.

At the end of the day, we are called to check the compulsion to speak. And move back into a momentary stillness into which God’s draws us, and out of which God calls us to speak and to act with integrity and authenticity.

We would make James proud.