How much FAITH is enough?

The theme of the sermon this morning was “My Statement of FAITH.” The church recently got a new pastor and the installation ceremony takes place today.

During the children’s sermon, a statement was made that struck me as odd:  “You have to have a LOT of faith.” I think she might have even said, “You’d have to have a lot of faith to make that happen” which is a whole other issue but for right now I’m going to focus on the LOT of faith statement. She was speaking about the Israelites having faith that God would provide food (manna) and water for them during their journey in the wilderness after they escaped from slavery in Egypt. (The manna story is told in the Bible in Exodus 16)

The people of Israel called the bread manna.
It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.
(Exodus 16:31 NIV)

I wrote a note to myself that said, “Isn’t any amount of Faith enough?” What would constitute a LOT of Faith?

Faith as a Mustard Seed: Image by Juliane Bjerregaard via Flickr CC license.
Faith as a Mustard Seed: Image by Juliane Bjerregaard via Flickr CC license.

What about the parable of the mustard seed?

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
(Mark 4:31 NIV)
Mustard Tree

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Luke 17:5,6 ESV)

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
(Matthew 17:20 NIV)

Image by Steluma of Ain Avdat in Israel, via Flickr CC license.
Image by Steluma of Ain Avdat in Israel, via Flickr CC license.

Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen.
(Matthew 21:21 NLT)

Black and White mustard seeds: Image by Mattie Hagedorn via Flickr CC license.
Black and White mustard seeds: Image by Mattie Hagedorn via Flickr CC license.

The image of a mustard seed sized bit of faith has always been a source of fascination and something I ponder. I wore a mustard seed necklace somewhat similar to this one for quite a few years. (I still have it, but the chain is too short for me to wear it now.)

I thought about what I think Faith means. I thought of Hebrews 11:1,3, 6, 11-12

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

And it is impossible to please God without faith.

Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.

And then, I mused about the very personal experience I had with the story of Abraham and Sarah’s miraculous child: (for a more complete telling of this FAITH and GRACE-filled story, read this.)

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man (and one woman), and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

If I ever get a tattoo, the one I would most consider would be an image of the word faith slicing through the word grace, as in “by faith are you saved through grace.” (Faith through grace, get it?) Something like this, but with it cutting through a larger word “GRACE” done in a way so that both words are clearly seen.
Faith tattoo image

But I digress.

The pastor ended with the thought that each person’s statement of FAITH is their life. Your statement of FAITH is YOU.

My faith is personal. I am not one of those people who evangelize every person I meet. I don’t, however, avoid talking about my faith it if is relevant to the conversation. I pray throughout the day. If I tell someone I’m going to pray for them, I do. I have deep convictions about certain beliefs and a very strong sense of liberal theology (which isn’t surprising given the hodge-podge patchwork of churches I’ve attended so far in my life). This quote* says it so well:

In essentials, unity.
In non-essentials, liberty.
In all things, charity (love).

Faith is not a creed, a recitation of a list of beliefs. Faith is not something that can be measured.

Faith, in my opinion, can not be more or less than it is. One either believes or doesn’t.

Yes, there may be reservations or questions — but when it comes right down to it — are you IN or out? You can’t stay on the Titanic and be in the lifeboat at the same time. Well, technically, I guess you could do that but your ultimate choice would be Titanic in the end.

At some point the decision has to be made.

I don’t think there is more or less, to it.
I don’t believe one can have a “LOT” of faith.
Faith just IS. Or it isn’t.
You’ve taken the leap or you haven’t.

One tiny grain of faith, as small as a mustard seed is enough to move a mountain. Given that, does attempting to quantify faith make any sense?
How much more faith than that tiny grain is possible or even needed?

Faith has gotten me through all the major decision in my life. I’ve seen miracles. I’ve lived miracles. I’ve had sorrow, sadness, heartache and pain. There has been joy, laughter, and love. Through it all, like a thread woven into a gorgeous piece of fabric — FAITH is what holds it all together for me. Thanks be to God.

*The attribution of the quote is quite a story. You can read all about it here. Research points to this person as the author: Marc’ Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624), archbishop of Split (Spalato).


Reconciling the “new” post-Mockingbird world with the old

Mockingbird Image by Mark Moschell via Flickr CC license
Mockingbird Image by Mark Moschell via Flickr CC license

I finished reading “God Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee yesterday afternoon.

I do not think it is impossible to reconcile the two Mockingbird worlds.

This new novel is a “coming home” book. Familiar territory to me, really. I was “born and raised” in a small town in northeastern Indiana. We had 699 people and 1 stoplight. My dad had a barber shop on the main street through town.

image by Randy Von Liski, via Flickr CC Springfield IL - Bob & Gale's Barber Shop
image by Randy Von Liski, via Flickr CC
Springfield IL – Bob & Gale’s Barber Shop

My childhood was similar to Scout’s in that we roamed free from early morning ’til the lightning bugs came out. We played barefoot; swam (mostly unattended) in the lake among the lily pads and fish; and created imaginative scenarios for “play” involving whomever was in the back yard that day.

We had a cement driveway and a basketball goal (regulation height). We had a playhouse and a yard large enough for kick ball. We had a ranch house that we could play “Ollie Ollie Over” around. My mom would make Kool-Aid and cookies. Grass stains, bug bites, sun burn — no problem. Life was good. Days were long. Fights were rare.

Steve Lustig, via Flickr CC Haunted House #2
Steve Lustig, via Flickr CC
Haunted House #2

We even had a “haunted house.” It was an abandoned house just a few blocks away from our neighborhood, and we walked by or rode our bikes by it (never alone, though) whenever we were feeling brave enough. The house was not inhabited (alas, no Boo character for us), but the trepidation we felt and the stories we imagined kept us in a state of fear whenever we were near it. That didn’t stop us, though, from finally gathering courage to explore the house (on one very sunny, bright summer day). The mystery was blown. There was nothing there. It was just an old house, mostly empty of everything — except the faint clues and hints about the lives that had been lived within its walls.

Boo and Scout

Now that I think about it, we did have a kind of Boo Radley character. His name was Slim Miller, and he seemed to live in his car. I don’t know the real story of this poor man’s life, but I imagine it was rough (or possibly a result of mental illness?). He had longish hair, a scraggly beard, and an unkempt appearance (no big surprise since he lived in his car). As far as I know he never did anything illegal and he never said “boo” to me or to any of my friends.

Haiti, Port-au-Prince, Croix des Bouquets, Jumecourt, Inn at Jumecourt, Source de la Grace, Source de la Grace Jumecourt Children's Village, SDLG, The Global Orphan Project, image via Flickr CC license
Haiti, Port-au-Prince, Croix des Bouquets, Jumecourt, Inn at Jumecourt, Source de la Grace, Source de la Grace Jumecourt Children’s Village, SDLG, The Global Orphan Project, image via Flickr CC license

When I turned 18, I went away to college after a summer church youth group trip to Haiti. That trip changed my life. I looked in the mirror at some point during that trip and was surprised to see my white face instead of a dark Haitian one. I could count the number of black people in my home town on one hand, and I believe that moment in the mirror opened my eyes and heart forever.

Movie Marquee, image by Pioneer Library System, via Flickr CC
Movie Marquee, image by Pioneer Library System, via Flickr CC

I attended a large state university for one year and then transferred to a Christian liberal arts college (with an excellent music conservatory). Going home for visits and summers as the college years flew by, brought into focus some of the ways my world views were changing/had changed. Assumptions and beliefs I had never questioned growing up either became stronger and more dearly held or gradually morphed into a larger coherent (to me) framework to include the people, cultures, and experiences of my life — broader and wider than many “back home” might hold with but still centered in Faith and Love.

So, I can relate to Scout trying to make sense of her kin and town folk — Harper Lee’s words ring true.

After reading the new book, I mulled over the troublesome issues trying to understand how to piece these two novels together into one coherent narrative.

Some have thrown up their hands saying, “She never meant for this book to be published” or “She wrote this first, submitted it and then the publisher requested major revisions. Mockingbird is the result.”  I don’t buy either of those.

Mockingbird Morning, image by TDlucas5000 via Flickr CC
Mockingbird Morning, image by TDlucas5000 via Flickr CC

I think it is clear she wrote this as a sequel. However it started out, the version that was published yesterday expects that we have lived through that earlier Maycomb County summer with these characters.

I think it was deemed not publishable for various reasons which might have included fears of inciting violence in the ongoing Civil Rights movement, the fragile state of world politics (Cuban crisis, Vietnam, space race, etc), and (apparently) Harper Lee’s own wishes.

The reconciliation will come in part 2.  I’m still working it out.

Finite Infinity

Finite Infinity

I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.  It is so frustrating to be tired, so tired and not be able to let go of being awake.  I often get up because after a while lying there tossing and turning and thrashing around makes no sense.

Sometimes I do a crossword.  Sometimes I eat a small snack (or a big one).  Sometimes I read a book.  Sometimes I write.  I try not to use the computer or TV, but sometimes I do that, too.

Recently during one of these sleepless nights, I grabbed a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson.  I’m familiar with many of her poems, but had not read this particular book all the way through. The book is in three sections:  The Poet’s Art, The Works of Love, and Death and Resurrection. I’m pretty sure it was a Thrift Shop find and that it has been on my bedside bookshelf for quite a while.

I found several poems that spoke to me.

As I read, I found many poems that were new to me.  Or maybe I found poems that were new to my heart.

I’m not a Dickinson scholar.  I’m not even a poet (though I may write poetry from time to time), but it seems to me that she struggles quite a bit with issues of faith and eternity.  She seems to be asking if it (heaven, life after death, grace) is real and if it IS real, then how does one wrap one’s mind around the concept of infinity?  Of infinite life and of infinite grace?

Sea of Tranquility
Sea of Tranquility (Photo credit: Storm Crypt)

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself –
Finite infinity.

I love the alliteration of solitude of space and solitude of sea.  I think it makes the word “death” seem more abrupt because our ear might be expecting to hear the word silence (or some similar word).  And what does she mean about polar privacy?  Is it cold and barren?  Or is it diametric opposition between a soul and itself?  We are left with finite infinity.  (Talk about diametric opposition!)


Early summer morning

One Joy of so much anguish
Sweet nature has for me
I shun it as I do Despair
Or dear iniquity –
Why Birds, a Summer morning
Before the Quick of Day
Should stab my ravished spirit
With Dirks of Melody
Is part of an inquiry
That will receive reply
When Flesh and Spirit sunder
In Death’s Immediately –

I’ve tried to write about Joy before.  Several times, in fact.  I have tried write about the feeling of Joy that feels sharp and cutting. ( and  It seems to me that Emily came to the conclusion that we’ll find out on the other side of Death — when Flesh and Spirit sunder. Her words convey her confidence that there IS an afterlife.

Iconic Two Trees, Ventura California

That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don’t believe
Does not exhilarate.
That if it be, it be at best
An ablative estate –
This instigates an appetite
Precisely opposite.

I admit I had to look up the word “ablative.”  I thought it meant empty or blank.  I was wrong.  It indicates separation from something, separation away from its source.  In this poem, I hear some doubt about what happens after death:  believing what we don’t believe.  This sounds to me that Emily is wrestling with the unbelief.  Emily was the original YOLO person!  If you only have one life every precious second is sweet.  You never know what really happens after you die, so enjoy LIFE.

Dust storm over Kuwait and Southern Iraq, Apri...
Dust storm over Kuwait and Southern Iraq, April 16, 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
“Dissolve” says Death – the Spirit “Sir
I have another Trust” –

Death doubts it – Argues from the Ground –
The spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.

In this poem, Emily seems to me to again be standing firmly on the side of Spirit and belief.  This dialogue between Death and Spirit ends with Spirit discarding the Overcoat of Clay.  So there, Spirit says: I’m living on!

English: Weather Vane Beautiful weather vane o...
English: Weather Vane Beautiful weather vane on Low Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy – don’t know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips—and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

In this poem Emily seems full of doubt again.  The last two lines “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth That nibbles at the soul –” leaves huge question marks hanging in the air.  She also says “Faith slips—and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –” which to me sounds like she is afraid to admit her doubts to herself or to anyone else.  She seems to be consoling herself (and us) that even though philosophers, scholars and generations of people have asked these questions there is scanty evidence for the leap of faith.  I hear hints of her faith in this poem, too, though:  the Species standing beyond Invisible as Music, positive as Sound, Strong Hallelujahs rolling, asking the way — all of these convey to me a sense of hope and of belief.

English: Organ pipes (Bass (8') - Pedal) Itali...
English: Organ pipes (Bass (8′) – Pedal)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –

From this—experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –

Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Domini’s –

This poem is a valiant attempt to describe infinity.  More than valiant.  I think she describes it superbly.  This is why we are still reading and discussing and loving Emily Dickinson’s words nearly 130 years after her death.  I love the idea that Forever is composed of Nows.  It isn’t all that different from what we know, except for its infiniteness.  Months dissolve, years exhale and it all goes on forever.  

more ilica waves201
As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea –
And that – a further – and the Three
But a presumption be –

Of Periods of Seas –
Unvisited of Shores –
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be –
Eternity—is Those—

Again, she paints us an amazingly detailed and mind boggling picture of eternity using just a few words and images.  Seas inside of seas inside of seas and seas with no shores themselves the Verge of Seas — and thus, Emily helps us get a glimpse of Eternity.  

God Bless Emily Dickinson.  I pray that she is at peace and has all her doubts and questions answered and that Infinity is now her reality.