Choose Faith

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 14 September 2008

Have you ever had someone say to you: "I'd really like to have a faith, but I don't - I'd like to believe, but I guess I'm just one of those people that doesn't have faith...I've even prayed, 'God, if you're real, give me faith', but nothing has happened." I sympathise with this feeling. I've said similar things myself. I think that what people mean when they say things like this is that they lack a strong emotional conviction, or a certain kind of other-worldly experience, that makes them certain of the realm of the Spirit and the presence of God. Or that they expect to be able to leap through some mental hoop and be intellectually convinced of something that moments before they couldn't believe or accept.



However, I think that 'faith' isn't really any of these things. Perhaps 'faith', from the Latin fidere, 'to trust', isn't something that you 'have' or 'don't have'. Perhaps faith is more of a verb than a noun. And perhaps it's not really about what you believe, as in, what you think, or agree with. Maybe it's more active than that. Rather than being a stance, or a set of convictions that can be argued about, perhaps 'faith' is about choosing and keeping on choosing a particular set of actions and responses to things that happen in our lives.


Of course, in order to choose to faith, there needs to be some degree of inner desire, or orientation toward God, and a sense that what one is choosing towards is trustworthy. We all have different ways of deciding who and what to trust and on what basis. I'm fond of the image of the reinforcing cycle - there's a starting point where you choose a certain position or action - possibly one that's arbitrary and as much a matter of the will as anything else - and then reflect on what follows from that starting point, and then make another decision that builds on it, and then observe the outcome and so on. As you work round the cycle, you accumulate 'evidence', if you like, that feeds into the next decision. However, also as you go round the cycle, you are changed by the decisions you make and their consequences. You become a person who is more likely to make a certain choice, more inclined by experience to tend towards a certain interpretation of events and response to circumstances. Some of these cycles are positive and enriching and life giving. Some are cycles of destruction and despair. Some cycles need to be nurtured, others broken.



In my own life, I am inclined to see the faith journey as something of a reinforcing cycle. Somewhere along the line I decided that my life worked better, had more meaning, felt more grounded, had more openness and grace, if I exercised faith rather than if I didn't. And now, it would take a fair amount of input to the contrary for me to change my mind. So when I'm confronted with dryness and wearyness and doubt about the particulars of the Christian story, I'm more likely to try and respond to those experiences through a lens of basic faithfulness than to ditch everything.


The skeptic and the cynic in me responds to this approach by asking if there is anything, then, that is 'real' about faith, anything beyond a calculated set of decisions. My answer to that, if I'm honest, is 'I don't know.' When I practice faith, I'm more likely to have experiences and be open to interpreting events as though God is real and is touching my life. Blaise Pascal, who had some profound mystical experiences of God, was also the one who came up with the very calculated 'wager' by which he decided that on balance it was better to live as though God existed than not. In the end I find myself saying with Bob Dylan - that 'you're gonna have to serve somebody, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you're gonna have to serve somebody'. This seems to me to be to be true about the world...and I wager that there's more freedom in serving God than the tyrannies of myself, my conditioning, and my culture..


So, having established all this...what does it look like for someone to choose faith day by day? I'm going to look at a few examples from the Bible of some ways people expressed their faith. It's by no means an exhaustive list. Just some things that caught my attention this week. I'm going to use the broad headings: 'reaching out', 'seeing', 'asking', 'remembering', 'wrestling' and 'storying.'


Reaching Out. Three un-named women in the gospels are known for their faith in reaching out to Jesus. One is the haemorrhaging woman, who came up behind Jesus to touch the fringe of his cloak hoping to be healed. Another is the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus to prepare him for burial. Another is the woman who wept on Jesus' feet and dried them with her hair. These three women demonstrated faith in actions of devotion and trust. Who knows what intensity or conviction each one had internally? What we do know is that they took a moment that was presented to them to physically reach out and touch Jesus. What are equivalent actions for us, who don't have Jesus in front of us in the flesh? One option is the faith expressed in acts of prayer or worship.

Another is the difficult task of reaching out to the Christ we see in others - either to receive what we need, or to express care and devotion, or to express regret and sorrow. It is tempting, in this life, to be insular and self-protective at the level of intimacy, even if we're essentially extroverted in our normal social lives. The kind of reaching out done by these three women in the gospels is the impulse to touch, an expression of risky openness, kind of embarrassing for everyone else, but transforming for those included in the interaction.


Again, the faith involved in this impulse isn't something that we work up inside ourselves before we can express it outwardly. The faith is in the reaching toward, the decision to be vulnerable enough to expose ourselves - taking the risk that the other will turn on us with indifference, lack of recognition, or even hostility. Sometimes, it is an act of great faith even to reach toward someone we love and trust, in an effort to find greater intimacy or to heal a breach of relationship. Jesus tells us, though, that this kind of faith can make us well. Is there someone that God calls you to reach toward? Or is Jesus calling you to greater intimacy of prayer with him?


Seeing. Faith is partly about what we choose to see, and how we interpret what we see. Faith is 'the decision to keep your eyes open.' (Doris Betts, quoted by Kathleen Norris) Faith is about stepping out of the ruts that force our vision along predictable paths. It involves asking the small details of everyday life to yield up the presence of God hidden within them. One of my favourite stories in the First Testament is that of Elisha's servant, who got up one morning and discovered that an army of horses and chariots was lined up all round the city they were in, about to besiege it. Elisha tells the servant not to be afraid, and prays for the servant to have his eyes opened. And the servant is suddenly able to see that the mountain is full of horses and chariots of fire.


Faith is choosing to see a world with God in it, to attend to situations as though God were present, to ask the question 'where is God in the midst of this?' We may not always get to see the chariots of fire - sometimes people and situations are just plain difficult, without any sense of God in them. But, to be honest, most of the time we're not even looking or asking to see in this way, because the events of the day and time pressure and distraction take over. Mostly, we're barely present to the moment at all, let alone allowing the moment to reveal its sacred core. What are the conditions under which you're more likely to see God in the world?


Asking. Today's Lectionary gospel reading is from John's gospel - the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus and struggling to understand Jesus' teaching about being born again. In this exchange, Nicodemus asks several questions: 'How can anyone be born a second time...can one enter again into their mother's womb? How can these things be?' He's frustratingly literal, where Jesus is being metaphorical. But Jesus takes the time to have a conversation with him. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, but Jesus doesn't chastise him the way he chastises the other Pharisees. Nicodemus has come to him with his genuine questions, wanting to connect with Jesus and understand his message. Similarly, the disciples don't always 'get it', even when they have time alone with Jesus. But they keep on asking questions.


When people ask questions they are exercising faith, and Jesus responds. Never let anyone tell you that faith is about not needing to ask any more questions, or that faith is only in the answers. There is a kind of questioning that is not faithful - this is the questioning of the Pharisees, designed to trick and trap, questions without any heart behind them, asked only to prove a point or undermine Jesus. But where a genuine heart struggles with genuine questions, faith is expressed. Sometimes the answers are enigmatic, or impossible, but the questions themselves and the willingness to ask them are signs of life, and sometimes sufficient in themselves. What questions do you have for God today?


Remembering. Remembering is at the heart of religious practice. Most religious ritual is about enacting those things we want to remember, to have as part of our identity, that shape our way of being in the world. In the Jewish heritage, moments where God intervened for the liberation of Israel, such as the Passover, Purim, and Hannukah, re-enact the stories that remind the people of God's faithfulness.


Jesus' followers, immediately after he died, had to choose how to remember him and his message, and the traditions of the church ever since have been efforts to do the same - with festivals of Christmas and Easter, with the breaking of bread in Holy Communion, Baptism, the reading and illustrating of Scripture, especially the Gospels, and the composition of creeds and liturgy for people to memorise and internalise.



As well as remembering Jesus, faith invites us to remember God's activity in our own personal story - when and how we came to faith, people who have inspired us, moments of renewal and grace, times when we experienced God most profoundly. In our culture, we're not very good at marking out and observing important life events. We do birthdays reasonably well, maybe wedding anniversaries. But we don't have many tools for marking stages of growth, thresholds, and signposts. To be faithful is to deliberately and regularly remember God's involvement with us, and to be thankful. An annual retreat or stock-take, done alone or with family or close friends could be a way of choosing to remember. Or daily practicing the prayer of examen. When was the last time you looked back over the story of your life with particular attention to remembering God's presence or guidance?


Wrestling. This dimension of faith is not always spoken about as often as it should be. The famous wrestling story in the Bible is the one with Jacob and the angel, where Jacob is spending the night alone and a man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak...Jacob's hip is put out of joint but he gets a blessing. Jacob interprets that night as a moment of seeing God face to face. Another First Testament character, Job, figuratively wrestles with God. Not content to accept received wisdom about his afflictions, he keeps on pointing the finger of accusation at God until he gets a response. Jesus, in the garden, cries and sweats blood as he wrestles with accepting the cup God has given him to drink.


Part of living in this world is to experience discontent, confusion, impediment, and difficulty. In the midst of this experience we can choose despair or faith. Despair often doesn't look like despair, it can be just a quiet normalising...the unconscious giving up of goals and hopes, and values, until our lives bear no trace of the commitments that used to characterise them. We become content to conform, to think and to act in ways that cause no ripple to our comfort or our culture. Faith, however, meets God head on in the midst of challenge and change and says 'I will hold on to you until you bless me, no matter how shaken around I get.' Faith is willing to confront God and accuse God and reject those things that we thought were God but turned out to be lies.



Not all Christians are very good at allowing others to wrestle. They want everything to be nice. But often, life isn't nice, and we need to know how to wrestle or our faith will become too small to handle the hard stuff. Is there anything - a dream, or a doubt that you've just quietly put aside because it seemed too hard to pursue it in the midst of opposition? Does faith invite you to pick it up and wrestle with it again?


Lastly, Storying. This is the process where we are willing to include God in the story we tell about our lives. Many times a day, we tell stories about what's happened to us: the story of the traffic jam on the way to work, the story we tell our partner about the conflict we had with one of our kids, the information we give about ourselves when introduced to someone new, the answer we give when someone asks 'how are you', or 'how's your day been?' Then there are the bigger stories - the times when we're asked to share something from our lives with a group, or when we are explaining to a friend why we've decided to go and live on the other side or the world, or trying to describe to a counsellor the problem we're having in our relationship. In each of these times, we can write God in, or write God out, of the narrative. The choices we make over time can have a profound effect on the way we feel about our relationship with God, and our expectation of God's involvement with us.


When Jesus met with the woman at the well, in chapter four of John's gospel, she ran off after their conversation to tell people 'come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Can he be the messiah?' After his death and resurrection, the disciples became people who named and spoke out their experience of what they had seen and heard and touched. In doing this, they were exercising faith. The converse, of course, is Peter, saying of Jesus: 'I do not know the man.' Sometimes our denials are outright verbal lies, like this one, but sometimes they're just internal failures to acknowledge the importance of God to us, the eliding of God from our decisions and our plans. How much are you in the habit of naming Jesus, naming God, as a dimension of all your experience? Is there a way you could write God in a little more often...even if just to yourself?


So, this is some of the stuff of faith: questioning, reaching out, wrestling, naming and speaking, remembering, and paying attention. Of course there are many more ways in which people choose faith in the Bible, and our own experience. The main thing, is that faith isn't an inert substance - something one either has or doesn't have. Faith becomes real in the choices we make.

Like intimacy between people, sometimes it feels strong and profound and tangible, and sometimes the feeling of it recedes into the background, but we go on communicating, caring, keeping the relationship alive knowing that intensity comes and goes, and that's okay. Faith can be nurtured and tended and encouraged, or it can be neglected, and dwindle by disuse or misuse. I've tried to describe some of the ways that faith can be nurtured. I'm sure you could come up with others. My encouragement to us is to choose faith and to go on choosing faith. May God meet us as we do so.