When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do was visit my grandparents and extended family in California. As a young family we moved from Southern California when I was five years old, leaving behind my Dad’s mom and his sister and her husband and their three children. They all lived in greater Los Angeles. The family we left behind on my Mom’s side were my Mom’s parents and her six siblings and their four spouses. For the most part, they all lived in central California, the San Joaquin Valley.
We would visit California once or twice a year, and most of the time we would see both sides of the family, namely my grandma in Pasadena and my grandparents in Pixley, a tiny town about an hour southeast of Fresno. Back in those days, to drive from Pasadena to Pixley, it took about three hours, which seemed like forever as a kid. I remember when we would come down out of the mountains north of Los Angeles into the valley, it was like we had landed on a different planet. If you think Illinois is flat and featureless, you have never been to central California.
At my grandma’s condo in Pasadena, I would marvel at the many books she stored on shelves behind mirrored, accordion doors. She was a high school teacher. My grandparents in Pixley were farmers; I would marvel at the vast tracts of land that stretched for many miles in all directions, with virtually no other houses nearby. At the risk of oversimplification, these two worlds formed my childhood imagination: the library and the land.
I want to bring out the inner child in all of you through show-and-tell. Remember show-and-tell? Two of my most prized possessions I have with me. The first is this Jeep that my uncle Chuck and I used to play with in the irrigation ditch with a bunch of other Tonka toys. Now children I don’t recommend that you play in the irrigation ditch! I dusted it off a little bit, but there’s still a little grime and dirt and dust in there that I think is probably from those days of playing with it in the irrigation ditch. Uncle Chuck gave this Jeep to me several years ago.
The other most prized possession that I have is this book from my grandmother’s library called, Toward Democracy: Great Documents of History, by Elizabeth Ryder Montgomery. This book was published in 1967, and this particular book is from the 2nd printing in March of 1968, which is when I was born. The author wrote in this book: To Chris, whose Grandmother June is a lifelong friend of the author — Elizabeth R. Montgomery. You probably know Elizabeth Ryder Montgomery because she was one of the authors of the Dick and Jane books, and she was the author of perhaps the most well-known sentence in American English: “See Spot run.” She she wrote some 75 books, most of them children’s books like the Dick and Jane books, and juvenile biographies of people like Walt Disney and found the founding fathers.
These two worlds, the library and the land, formed my childhood imagination. I specifically say, “imagination,” because, truth be told, as a kid, I was not a bookworm, and I was certainly not a farmer. I loved what books and farms represent culturally; they feed the hungry mind and feed the hungry body. There are large, cultural “packages” of beliefs that I inherited from my family, such as the values of education and working hard. Inheriting something, including beliefs, is largely a passive activity, which often passes along generations of patterns and practices, materials and possessions, evolving modestly over time.
Consider the grand “package” of the Shema Israel in Deuteronomy 6:
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
We read these words in a book, the Bible, that is nice and neatly packaged and that sits on a shelf somewhere in our home. These words conjure up the importance of believing the right things about God, such as, there is one God. And these words conjure up beliefs about the right way to behave, such as, to love God to the utmost. These words constitute the most central commandement in our Judeo-Christian faith. These words live in the “library,” if you will, of our faith. After all, the word “Bible” originates from the Greek word for “the books,” i.e. “library.”
7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
These words should not merely exist on a page in the library of our faith, we need to “farm” them into the “land” of our children. I love that the word, “farm,” is readily available to our imaginations as both a noun and a verb. To “book” something can be a verb, too, as in accounting, but I digress.
I want to pause here a moment and point out something quite subtle, yet important. I used the word, “faith,” in a loaded way: “Judeo-Christian faith” … “our faith.” I assumed when I used the word, “faith,” your mind would not stumble one bit. You would instantly and unconsciously know exactly what I meant, which was to use “faith” as a vast cultural “package” of religious beliefs, traditions, rituals, and so forth.
What about the word, “faith,” as used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13?
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
The usage of “faith” here means something else entirely than in the phrase, “Judeo-Christian faith.” It means, “to rely upon” … “to trust completely” … “to have complete assurance.” Perhaps the most helpful description of faith in the Bible is the beginning of Hebrews 11:
1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.
3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
Faith is, then, an experience or encounter with something beyond our physical senses. Faith is not, as a materialist may define it, a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” “Faith” is not the same thing as “belief.” We inherit our beliefs, and then we mold them and shape them based on our life experience and pass them along. I seriously question whether or not we can “have faith” in a pure intellectual and/or emotional sense if our beliefs remain static and unchanging. If our beliefs are static and unchanging, then the beliefs have us and not the other way around. In this sense, “faith” is not simply the foundation for “belief.” “Faith” is the ongoing encounter we have with the limits of our beliefs, with all of the limitations we have as human beings—mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
There’s an interesting story in my Dad’s family. They would celebrate birthdays with cake and candles, but they always had three candles on the cake, not by your age, just three candles that represented faith, hope, and love. And then one time my Dad as a little kid took a fourth candle and stuck it in the cake said, “And one for Peter!” So, in my family growing up we always had four candles for faith, hope, and love, and then one for that person whose birthday we were celebrating.
Beliefs—talking, thinking, reasoning—blow this way and that; they pass along; beliefs change, yet faith, hope and love abide.
I grew up in a family and in an extended family where love, though reserved in expression, was abundant; it was simply a given that we loved each other. As I grew I learned about the power of hope, about the power of persevering through the ups and down of life. And now that I am well into middle age, I feel I am, just now, starting to experience “faith” as I have described it, which has a lot to do with contemplation of my own mortality. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” This kind of “knowing fully” for Paul is not equated with intellectual, fact-based “knowledge” or “beliefs,” it has to do with the fulfillment of our entire being in the eternal presence of God and of the entirely resurrected creation.
In Paul’s greeting in 1 Thessalonians, he writes: “We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” This triad of faith, hope, and love is mentioned several times in the New Testament. I love how Paul knits together the three in this greeting. Faith produces work. Love prompts labor. Hope inspires endurance. These are not concrete concepts that we have (or do not have) rolling around in our heads like a set of ball bearings in a wheel. Faith, hope, and love interact fluidly with our real world experiences and actions; they are gravitational forces much greater than our own individual desires.
Love is actualized in marriages and other human relationships. Hope is actualized when we are eventually rewarded for having patience and perseverance. But faith? I think “having faith” is the most difficult of the three to grasp. How is faith actualized on this side of life? By reciting the creeds? By praying prayers? By worshiping? By singing? By studying the Bible? By doing the “stuff” of the “Christian faith?” Does the payoff for “having faith” only come in the afterlife? After we have been judged to have had the right kind of faith?
I don’t think so. Recall Ephesians 2:
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”
We are saved by “grace” … “through faith,” which is all the more reason to understand “faith” as our encounter with human limitation; we don’t save ourselves, God’s infinite grace does. “Having faith” is not “having the right beliefs.” “Having faith,” in the Christian sense, is “having trust in God through Christ” to fulfill and guide our lives, especially at and beyond our limits. The forces behind “having faith” are like the tides and waves of the ocean. Tides are created by the pull of the moon’s and sun’s gravity on the ocean. Waves are created by the swirling winds of the weather on the surface of the ocean. Similarly, the gravity of God’s grace and grandeur tug on the deep oceans of our life journeys. The swirling winds of life create waves on the surface of our daily experience, with their crests of belief and troughs of doubt, endlessly crashing on the shorelines of our souls. You can’t stop this process, but you can learn to surf the waves of faith and respect the tidal forces of God’s grace and grandeur.
Hear again these words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth:
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.
I would like to conclude with a few words from the “Author’s Note” in Toward Democracy. These words were written decades ago and are particularly prophetic and poignant for the uncertain and turbulent times in which we currently live. I hope these words will encourage you to surf and swim in the waves of faith in modern America. She started her “Author’s Note:”
Few things remain constant in this changing world. Many “facts” I learned in school are no longer valid. The old geography maps have become obsolete. Technological discoveries have shriveled distances and transformed industry. America’s isolation has been replaced by a world outlook. Its government has mushroomed into a complex colossus to fit today’s needs.
But the basic philosophy of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag has remained unaltered:
“Liberty and justice for all.”
Those words have always thrilled me. This, I believe, is the purpose of democracy, to assure liberty and justice to all people.
She concludes her note, “I believe with Winston Churchill that:”
Nothing is final. Change is unceasing, and it is very likely that mankind will have a lot more to learn before they come to their journey’s end. For myself, I am an optimist—it does not seem to be of much use being anything else. I cannot believe that the human race will not find its way through the problems that confront it.