“Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5)! Who hasn’t wanted more faith at some time, more certainty in the face of doubts and questions about life, a more solid footing on which to stand when confronting life’s biggest challenges and burdens? Even those closest to Jesus wanted that, so they asked, “Lord, increase our faith!”
And Jesus said to them: If you had even the tiniest bit of faith, you could change the world (cf. v. 6). It’s not that they don’t have enough faith; he seems to be saying they don’t have faith at all, or they have the wrong kind of faith. I’m not going to try to characterize their faith, nor will I try to describe the faith Jesus had in mind, though a careful study of the scriptures might suggest those things. But I will say this: The faith that first drew the disciples to Jesus was not the faith they needed if they were to keep following him. And the faith you and I started with is not the faith we need if we are to reach maturity, the abundant life Jesus offers.
The Sunday school faith of my childhood was just what I needed then, but in my late teens and early twenties I grew beyond it into a faith outside the traditional church, a faith more authentic and personal. The faith that later drew me back to the church and eventually to seminary was not the faith I needed for the second half of life. And that faith is not the faith that carries me into the autumn of life. And my winter will give rise to a different faith. Faith changes as we change; it grows and ripens as we mature.
Ask for more faith if that’s what you need. But realize that the hunger you feel for more faith may be the labor pains of a new and different faith emerging in you. Don’t continue dressing in yesterday’s wardrobe; fashion the new faith that a growing life invites, until you are, as St. Paul describes it, “fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ” (Eph. 4:13 The Message). I don’t know what that faith will look like in you, only that it will be unique in each of you. But here’s what I’m learning about the faith that’s growing in me.
First, I’m learning to trust that no matter what I do or fail to do, God’s will and purpose prevail. “While I drink my little pint of Wittenburg beer,” Luther said, “the gospel runs its course.” The will of God in history, though not yet complete, is moving toward its fullness in every present moment, whether we see it or not, and nothing can stand in its way. With St. Paul, I’m learning to trust “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).
No sin, no failure, no misdirection of mine – and there have been so many of them – can prevent my being reconciled with God (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19). No hardship or disaster that befalls me can hinder or obstruct God’s will; it may distract me or blind me to what God is doing, but it cannot prevent what God is doing. If what God is doing seems slow in coming, just wait for it. It will surely come in God’s own time (Hab. 2:3). So I’m learning to wait, discovering that good comes to those who wait for the Lord, to the soul that seeks God (Lam. 3:25-26).
Second, I’m learning to trust that I personally have a role to play in God’s creation, in the perfection of the gospel, even though I have no clue what my role may be. And I’m learning to trust that without me, even me, creation would be somehow incomplete, imperfect. God provides for me as God provides for the birds of the air; God dresses me in splendor as God dresses the grass of the field (Matt. 6:25-33).
In the grass of my backyard, a small yellow flower blooms from time to time. Barely an eighth of an inch in diameter, it’s hardly noticeable, its glory hidden from everyone except those who pause to look carefully for it. Yet God placed it just there because it completes creation in a way only God knows. And it says to me that if the perfection of creation depends on a thing so small, then it must depend on me as well.
Finally, I’m learning to trust the good news of Jesus that the life I’ve dreamed about is at hand (Mark 1:14-15), spread all around but hidden from sight (Gosp. Thomas 113), and that if I don’t live that life here and now, later will be too late (Luke 14:15-24). Kalidasa, the great Indian playwright and poet of the fourth and fifth centuries, put it this way: “Look to this day, for it is life, the very life of life. In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence: the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty. For yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision. But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day. Such is the greeting of each new dawn.”
When I live authentically in the present moment – even amid all the failures, challenges, and difficulties of this ordinary life – I experience the completion of the gospel; it is realized and embodied anew here and now, and the world in which I live is transformed. “Whenever anyone is in Christ,” St. Paul wrote, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; [and] everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17)! It’s as if mountains are moved (Mark 11:23) or trees uprooted and planted in the sea (Luke 17:5-6).
So on this World Communion Sunday, with brothers and sisters everywhere, we gather in faith at a sacred table, perhaps the best symbol we have of the life God spreads before us. We gather here with all our brokenness, all our ordinary and small imperfections, all our frustrations and betrayals and petty arguments, all our different kinds of faith – we gather to be fed by a grace that never fails, to be loved with a love that is never contingent but is freely given to all, to be nurtured in a community of saints and sinners and brought home like a hen gathers her brood under her wings (Matt. 23:37).
Questions for reflection
- Write a personal statement of faith. In what do you believe? In what do you really trust at the deepest place in your life? Be honest here!
- Where do you feel doubt, a lack or weakness of faith? Where in your life, in what situations or conditions, do you want more faith? Be specific.
- Write the personal statement of faith you think Jesus would have written. Where do you think Jesus might have wanted his faith to be increased or strengthened (he was fully human, after all), and how did he deal with that desire?
- What helps strengthen or renew your faith? . . . What situations or conditions in which you can place yourself? . . . What faith practices or disciplines? . . . What people? . . . What inner, personal resources can you draw on to help increase or strengthen your faith?
- Revisit the personal statement of faith you started with. Rewrite it to describe the faith you want to have, the kind of faith you see in Jesus.
“Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.