Process

art 01Referring to the seven pillars of faith may be misleading. Pillars are substantial; they hold things up and don’t move; they can remain in place long after their purpose is gone. Virtually all that remains of the Parthenon, perhaps the most perfect example of Classical architecture in history, are its pillars, surrounding shards of stone, holding up nothing but memory. It can be that way with faith, too.

The first five pillars of my faith – silence, presence, attentiveness, responsiveness, and integrity – could do nothing more than adorn a whitewashed tomb that enshrines the dry bones of the past, were it not for the sixth pillar: process. Living faith does what living things do. It grows, changes, adapts. It goes through cycles and seasons, embraces contradictions and inconsistencies, accepts gains and losses, and passes through the transformation of death and regeneration – several times.

Lenore Bierbaum, one of my undergraduate psychology professors, served up advice for the ages when she said the last thing you want to be is a well-adjusted person. What you want to be, she said, is a person who adjusts well. Life is never static; only death is static. Life is inquisitive, creative, adaptive, and experimental – flagrantly so. Even when life is passing away, it’s adjusting to the new reality of each successive moment, so why wouldn’t our faith?

Even the faith of Jesus changed. Luke tells us that as Jesus grew in years, he grew in wisdom and in God’s favor (Luke 2:52). At one time, he believed God had sent him only to other Jews (Matt. 15:24). Then, after life-changing encounters with people of other traditions who had strong faith – a Roman soldier (Matt. 8:10), a Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:28) – he grew to understand that God’s grace was for all people, not only a chosen few.

My faith is not the faith of my childhood – nor, I’m sure, is yours. I don’t know if God has changed, but my concept of God has changed, and it continues to change as I grow toward what I trust will be a graceful wholeness (Heb. 6:1). I no longer believe in a God of pure goodness and light; now I’ve come to appreciate the God of shadows – the God of Isaiah, who forms light and creates darkness, who heals and wounds (Isa. 45:7) – the God of Ecclesiastes, who imbues life with stunning ambiguity and opposition (Eccles. 3:1-11) – the God of Jesus, whose purpose for creation can seem so at odds with my welfare (Matt. 26:38-39) and who establishes death as the entry to life (Mark 34-35).

The pillars of faith support a dynamic and living faith rather than a static, immutable one. Real and authentic faith, I believe, doesn’t focus on the destination of life; it focuses on the process of reaching life’s destination, on the journey. A.J. Muste, founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way,” echoing a line from an old railroad song, “Isn’t it the going and not the getting there.”

Many years ago I learned about “the going and not the getting there” during a drive from Manhattan to my home in Missouri. Rather than push the speed limit as most other drivers did, I eased back and drove about five miles per hour under the limit. I got off the Interstate and traveled secondary roads; I saw more of the country and encountered fascinating things I wouldn’t have known otherwise; and I still got to my destination. I didn’t arrive as quickly as I would have if I had pushed harder, but I didn’t lose time. I merely spent time differently, and my journey was richer because of it.

Here’s another example of the importance of the going rather than the getting there. Sometimes I hear someone talk about how unsatisfying the experience of worship is on Sunday morning, and I’ll ask some questions. What was your process for getting to worship? How did you live with the scriptures during the week before? What was your routine for daily prayer and Bible study? What holy conversation about the intersection of faith and life did you have in your covenant group? How did you practice your faith intentionally in deeds of mercy and justice in the community? How sacrificial, really, was your offering of time and money?

And what I usually discover is that worship for that person is a destination, not a process. It’s an event to be attended and consumed, like a sing-along showing of The Sound of Music, rather than the culmination of a series of thoughtful, intentional, daily choices. People like that come looking for a blessing during a worship celebration, but they treat it as if it’s an audience-participation entertainment event. And they lose the countless blessings that would have been theirs if they had given more attention to the process of getting to worship.

This is not a dress rehearsal, someone said about life. This is not when we prepare for eternal life. The life we call eternal is spread all around us; it permeates every moment, every decision, every conversation, every action and interaction. There is no way to eternal life; eternal life is the way we live every moment of every day. It is the process, not the destination.

Think about the fellow whom Jesus healed at the pool by the Sheep Gate (John 5:2-9a). Thirty-eight years he lay stuck in his paralysis, settled in status quo, until Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well. Enough of excuses, Jesus said; get up and walk – but take your mat with you. Walk in wholeness, be made well, but realize that your wellness is not an arrival at a destination, it’s a journey. It’s a daily, moment-by-moment process of deciding with every step not to lie down again in your former paralysis. It’s the going and not the getting there.

An eight-year-old girl in a former parish studied the adults around her and thought she had this life figured out. You’ve got to do well in grade school, she said, so you can do well in high school. And you do well in high school so you can do well in college, And you do well in college so you can do well in graduate school. And you do well in graduate school so you can get a good job. And then you die. We laughed, sadly.

The point of faith is not that we end up in the right place. God has already taken care of that. The good news Jesus proclaimed, the gospel, is that God has moved decisively to restore creation and everyone in it to perfect unity and wholeness, and nothing we can do will leave us excluded from that wholeness (Mark 1:15; 2 Cor. 5:19). The point of faith is that we reorient ourselves and live as if that good news is true.

Faith is not about whether I get from point A to point B, from estrangement to reconciliation, from brokenness to wholeness. Faith is about how I get there. It’s not about whether God will bless me in the end but whether I’ll enjoy the blessings God gives me today. The strength of faith is not in whether it will take me to the right destination; its strength is in how I choose to cooperate with the process by which God is taking me and everyone else there.

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