Monday September 27, 2010
Someone asked me a while back, what is faith? That may seem like a such a basic question, but it is a good one. Is it the same as belief? Is it the opposite of doubt? Is it trust? If I have faith in God, what do I do when doubt creeps in? And where does it come from, how do you get it? Surely you’ve heard of people losing it. What then? All of the scriptures for Sunday touch on it. Let’s take a look.
Background on this weeks readings:
Psalm 137- “By the waters of Babylon...”
You have surely heard the song, “By the waters of Babylon...” Well here’s where it comes from. This is a lament set in the time after the devastating experience of 587BCE. In that year the Babylonian army swept into Jerusalem, destroyed the city, the temple and everything that the Hebrew people held dear, and took all the leaders, skilled labourers and others into exile in Babylon. They were a people in exile, serving their conquerors. They were devastated. Had they been abandoned by God? The centre had not held. “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” And in the last few lines of the psalm, their lament turns to revenge. Anyone ever felt that rise within? Anyone ever seen it in the world? Have they lost their faith?
2 Timothy 1:1-14 “Faith lies within us. How does it get there?”
You might try reading this from “The Message” (above second url) paraphrased by Eugene Peterson. Here the writer writing in the name of Paul writes to Timothy urging him to hold fast to the faith he has been given, and has shown in his life and vocation. This is a tender appeal rooted in both a love of Timothy and a deep respect for the way faith has been planted and grown in him. This reading offers a respect for the way faith comes to us, settles in us, emerges in our lives. Our mothers and fathers in faith are part of that, and there is some greater mystery at work.
So, here’s the thing. This gospel reading contains two parts. In the first part Jesus responds to the disciple’s plea to “increase our faith,” as if faith were some kind of commodity and more is better. Jesus responds with the assurance that they have a tiny but powerful grain of faith (a mustard seed), and as grandma used to say, “a little dabb’ll do ya.” Then he moves to the image of slaves and a master. Here he seems to be addressing the disciples expectation that faith has external rewards, that acting in faith will get them something. But as any parent will tell you, at a certain point maturity requires that the choices we make have internal rewards, that the rightness of them be enough, that living in faith is the very thing that makes living in faith rewarding.
What is faith? In a chapter in his book “The Heart of Christianity,” Marcus Borg talks about several ways of conceiving of faith. These include faith as assent to beliefs and doctrines, faith as engaging in religious practises, and faith as trusting in a relationship. The mustard seed faith that Jesus identifies in the disciples seems to be the trust kind. Trust is such a critical element in any relationship, and faith conceived as trust means everything to a Christian life. We know this in our families, in our marriages, in our vocational work, when trust is shaken, everything gets shaken, and when trust is gone, it is hard to get it back. Faith in a God who is somehow with us- faith in a world that God inhabits, that trust is at the core of the Christian Way.
But as the psalm writer shows, and Paul alludes to, “holding fast”, is not always easy. Despair creeps in during hard times. Trusting in the essential goodness of life does not protect us from suffering, even devastation.
So why trust when there are no guarantees? And the evangelical atheists of today would say, why trust a God for whom science has no empirical evidence, and why follow a religious system which, when pushed, so often turns violent (Psalm 137)? Our response to these questions goes to the very heart of our faith. How would you respond?
1. Who are the people who have demonstrated faith to you? What difference did it make in their lives? Who are your “mothers and grandmothers” (2Timothy) in the faith?
2. In Psalm 137 the lament is deep and soul wrenching. How has your faith fared in soul wrenching times?
3. How do you live well without guarantees in life? Does trusting in God, in a “more” as Borg would say, make a difference to the quality of character you bring to life? How?
4. Some would discredit a pursuit of faith with science or by pointing at violent parts of the bible or violent practitioners of faith? How do you respond?
I am going to try to post the introduction to Bill Bryson’s recent book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. Great book. Buy it. Read it. Wonder at how deeper scientific knowledge can instil wonder and faith.