Getting the Faith

The Owl longs to speak with theologically literate others. Literacy and numeracy are considered the most basic elements of education. It would be more accurate to say they are basic preparations. For an education that supports life, we need a third thing more basic: faith, italicized here as foreign words are, because it is wholly outlandish, not a thing not taught by flesh and blood.

Faith is neither a concept of mind nor a force of nature. It is more like a gift, or even an assault, from outside the world’s horizon, disproportionate in its impact. We can’t construct faith for ourselves, nor find it by some epic theodyssey. Unlike Odysseus’ assailants, the names of ours are Love, Mercy, and Freedom—all fierce enough in their ways.

Upbringing

Growing up, I attended Church with my family from early childhood on. I went to a Lutheran parochial school through first and second grades. I thought I had received the faith. When it came to specific beliefs, I put Bible stories in a hierarchy, from more plausible to less. It is relatively easy to believe there really was a battle of Jericho, though maybe it took more than trumpets to make the walls fall. It is harder to imagine the Creation as described in Genesis, and harder still to think God could make mud come alive by breathing on it. Some commentaries explain the miracle of the Exodus as a great wind that can push the waters of the Red Sea so strongly that a crowd could march across dry shod. And so on. The last and hardest thingto believe is that Jesus rose from the dead. That one is held in reserve for overachievers; the final step in completing one’s Christian faith.

NO! For without Christ’s Resurrection those other stories are not theology, only bogus cosmology or archaeology. None of them is anything worth without Jesus Christ’s own demonstration of His life in the faith of His creature. That is the first step, the sine qua non. Every line in the New Testament was written in Resurrection faith. Every image there is a Resurrection appearance. So is every encounter at the Communion rail.

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Skeptics have their patronizing explanations for faith in God: fear of death, the need to turn one’s doubts and anxieties over to a benevolent authority; the wish to have one’s decisions and actions taken in hand by some outside entity. Another explanation given for faith is the supposed happiness one gains by adopting a socially approved set of morals and the assurance one gains from the embrace of the society.

All these are evasions, but God is not so easily mocked. If we listen to people who actually receive the faith, we get a surprise. The usual reaction is neither relief from anxiety nor self-satisfaction but shame and humiliation; remorse for a regrettable past, or simple astonishment: “How could I have been so stupid for so long?”

Wandering and Arrival

By a quirk of fate, I got a seminary education (M.Div., 1971). During my time in school, interviews would come up in which a professor or potential employer would ask whether I had a calling to be a Christian minister, the unspoken question whether I was a man of faith or not. I gave equivocal answers to these questions, avoiding extravagant claims of being “saved” or “born again.” I thought we would find out as time went on.

After graduation I scarcely entered a Church until October 13, 1985—note the passage of fourteen years—when my wife and I attended a service of dedication for needlepoint kneelers at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Ventura, a project in which she had participated at the invitation of her friend Virginia Merrill.

We seldom failed a Sunday after that. There came the day when we heard a Lenten homily by the Rev. Canon Keith deBerry. He said, “Here it is: the Love that made the world; the Love that made you; the One Who knows you better than you know yourself. Do you want it, or not?” Then he taught us a prayer for whoever wanted to use it, simply asking for the gift of faith. No one need stand or raise a hand. Those who had no need for it could pray for the others who had. He promised that as we left he would ask each of us whether we had made the prayer, and to each who said yes he would give a copy of the Gospel of John. So he did, and as we left Judy and I were each surprised to hear the other say Yes. For years afterward, we scarcely missed a Sunday.

John Wesley described his conversion in Aldersgate Street: His heart was “strangely warmed.” I felt flushed and sweaty, and I received words that in themselves are not very remarkable: “You don’t need a perfect father; you have a perfect Father in Heaven.” The sense is plain enough, but knowing Who gave them to me is the point. Jesus Christ was dead and now He is alive; How He got that way is not important. Jaroslav Pelikan famously said, “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not rises—nothing else matters.”

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Everyone knows the sayings, Know thyself, and The unexamined life is not worth living. If one has a life to examine, or a self to know, one must already have been touched by the living God.

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