By: Eleanor Wellford, Priest Associate
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
A few weeks ago, I was preparing for a class that we’re offering here this summer on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. We use a study guide with questions that we’re supposed to think and write about before coming to class. There was one question in particular that really caught me off guard and it surprised me by how much I struggled to answer it. The question was: How do you define faith? Have you ever tried to do that? I think you know if you have faith, but how do you describe what that is? Is it trust or a belief or are those words more like synonyms rather than definitions?
In many of his letters, Paul praises his communities for the faith that they have in Christ Jesus. In this morning’s letter to the Hebrews, he defines that faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). That sounds really good, but what does it mean?
Paul may have known how difficult faith is – not only to define it, but to have it – which may be why he wrote to the Hebrews about acts of faith to remind them of what their ancestors did as a result of their faith and to encourage the Hebrews when having faith became difficult. Paul wrote that by an act of faith Abraham said “Yes” to God’s call to travel to parts unknown because he trusted God’s promise that it would become his home. By an act of faith, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was able to conceive a child at an advanced age because she trusted God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky.
The point that Paul wanted to make to the Hebrews was that Abraham trusted God and so did Sarah. So maybe trust isn’t a synonym for faith but rather a precondition for faith. And if that’s the case, what is it that we have to trust in order to have faith? That’s a question that is explored in a still-popular book called The Shack, (Los Angeles: Windblown Media, 2007) written by William P. Young. It’s fiction based on the author’s real-life journey of faith; and whether you ascribe to the author’s theology or not, it at least gives us something to think about.
He tells the story through a character named Mack – a married father of 5 children who searches to find meaning in his life after his 6-year old daughter, Missy, is abducted and killed during a family camping trip. In the midst of what the author refers to as the Great Sadness which overwhelmed Mack in the aftermath of his loss, Mack is invited to spend the weekend at a secluded cabin, or shack, in the middle of the woods. Not knowing whether or not this was some kind of joke, Mack reluctantly makes the trip hoping to find anything that will help him from drowning in sorrow.
He isn’t there long before he figures out that his hosts for the weekend are none other than God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It’s at this point that he seriously begins to question his sanity. Then he begins to wonder if he had died and ended up in heaven.
What he is struck by immediately upon meeting his hosts is the beauty of their community – the circle of love that the Trinity shares equally; the trust that binds them implicitly. He wants so badly to be part of that beautiful community but he can’t seem to let go of his pain and anger long enough to know that God wants that for him, too. Mack is still stuck in why God would have allowed such an evil thing to happen to Missy.
It’s during a pancake breakfast on Saturday morning, that God explores this with Mack by saying: “You humans try to make sense of your world (especially the evil things that happen) based on a very small and incomplete picture of reality. It’s like watching a parade go by through a tiny keyhole. (How could you possibly experience the pageantry and beauty of each float if all you could see as it passed by was the rusted out engine that powered it or the scuffed up tires that carried it.)
“If you knew that I was (inherently) good” God said, “and that everything (that happens) is covered by my goodness, then while you might not always understand what I’m doing, you would trust me. But you don’t. You doubt my goodness, then push me away, which only increases your pain.” (p.128). “I don’t know how to change that” admitted Mack. “You can’t” replied God. “Not alone, anyway. But together with my Son and the Holy Spirit, we will work with you and help you understand that trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved. And Mack, I do love you” (p. 126). As the weekend progressed, a change took place in Mack and the Great Sadness that had separated him from God for so long slowly began to disappear.
So what is it that Mack learned about faith and trust? I think he learned that he needed to stop judging God as good or evil by human terms which are always flawed, because there’s no possible way for him or anyone else to understand the big picture of what God is up to. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t entitled to feel angry or sad about what happened to Missy; it’s just that he got stuck in those emotions by assuming that God had abandoned him, or that God’s goodness had failed him or that he wasn’t worthy of it in the first place.
Don’t we judge God, too, by what happens to us? Don’t we also want to know how we can trust God’s goodness in a world where there are mass shootings and deadly diseases or any number of evil things that impact our lives?
Sometimes there are things that happen after a tragedy that give us a glimmer of hope and help us to trust that God is somewhere in the midst of our sorrow. They’re called “silver linings” and they have the work of the Holy Spirit all over them. A child whose parent dies of an awful disease, grows up and discovers a cure for it. That’s a silver lining. Candace Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Drivers after her 13-year old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver. That’s a silver lining. And Mack found faith in a good and loving God in the midst of the tragedy that caused his Great Sadness.
These silver linings are small but powerful glimpses of God’s redemptive love – God’s ability to make something good out of evil. They are tiny windows onto the big picture of what God is up to. And what we have to trust is that despite evidence that might seem to the contrary, what God is up to is always good. Maybe that’s the best and simplest definition of faith – trust in the absolute goodness and unending nature of God’s love – for us and for all of God’s creation.
As hard as we try, I don’t think that’s anything that we can understand with our intellect. It’s something that happens when we are ready for that to happen as Abraham and Sarah were and as Mack finally was. It’s a turning of the heart at its deepest level toward God and for some of us that can only happen when we’re struggling the most and have nowhere else to turn.
It couldn’t have been more clearly stated than in the Psalm that we read together this morning. “Our soul waits for The Lord; he is our help and our shield. Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, for in his holy name we put our trust. Let your (goodness), O Lord, be upon us, as we have put our trust in you.” Amen.