Faith:  A House Abandoned...a Lenten reflection

Faith: A House Abandoned...a Lenten reflection

Faith – it’s such messy business.

Ever passed by an abandoned house along the road, and wondered who once lived there?  Broken down, weathered by storms, decrepit, forgotten…alone.  You know there must have, at one time, been a family sheltered within.  With age, decay and storms buffeting its foundation, and lack of maintenance…that house resembles our neglected souls.

When I was a young boy, an “event” occurred – a whisper, really – one that would compel me to return again and again to my father’s forest…seeking that same whisper.  Many years later, the whisper returned, with a directive.  (If you’re interested, you’ll find that story explained in a previous blog.)  To this day, in all honesty, I don’t fully understand it.

Was my decision to follow that directive truly my decision…?  If you believe it was not, I suppose you might say I was either:

  • Compelled by some unseen force; OR,
  • Schizophrenic (at very least, possessed by an over-active imagination)

If you believe it was my decision, you might say I “acted on faith.”  But is that true?

And here’s the really bad news:    whichever you believe true, you’d be hard pressed to prove it.

My point…?  Our concept of “faith” is steeped in misunderstanding about elements of the mystical.  If you, like myself, were raised with a rather strict enforcement of:

  • weekly mass or other Christian services;
  • catechism classes or “Sunday School;” and,
  • stern rebuke for behaviors unbecoming a young Christian…

…you know exactly what it feels like to have a belief system foist upon you.

For my Jewish friends – your religious & spiritual upbringing may not resemble these rubrics.  That does not mean you’re saved or damned.  Neither does it free you of the obligation to grapple with sin, forgiveness, and (wait for it…) faith.  We are ALL on a journey.

Living has taught me to tread lightly in matters of the mystical.  Not all notions that enter our thoughts are necessarily put there by a “higher power.”

Which brings me to the purpose of this essay.  For too long, in this country, we have permitted ourselves to dance with so-called “faith healers” via televangelists, social media, and our collective Christian upbringing.  But do any of those actually bring us closer to faith? 

In my humble opinion, their value – in matters of faith – is limited.  My reasoning is simple:  if your journey to faith has entailed moral twists, ethical contradictions, and profound disappointments, then you know your faith is based on some personal experience beyond your ability to render anything more than an elementary recitation of that experience.  Most of us don’t want to go there, because…well, people may think us unstable.  (Believe me, I’m not entirely discounting that option.)

“Why now?” you may ask.

Two reasons, really:

  1. This week, Christians the world over begin an intensely personal forty-day “walk in the desert,” beginning on “Ash Wednesday;”
  2. The sequel to Charlie’s LadderThe Last Altar Boy – is now prominent in my work schedule…a suspenseful, unconventional faith journey to save a soul.

Perhaps, with the convergence of these two, this feels (for me) like the perfect week to begin reflecting on the role of faith in our quest, travelling our solar system on this strange and wondrous planetary rollercoaster.  Or, perhaps it’s simply that “obligation” has nothing to do with faith.  Allow me to explain…

Catholics, in addition to Sunday mass obligation, adhere to and observe something called, “Holy days of Obligation” (…not kidding, protestants, I couldn’t possibly make this up.)  This will give you a reasonable overview of how, what, and why such days came to exist, per the Vatican. 

Fact:  In the list of “Holy days of obligation,” you will not find Ash Wednesday among them…ever.  Yet, Ash Wednesday seems to hold a place of deep personal significance in the collective conscience of most Christians…protestants and Catholics alike.  Mass hysteria…?  Hopefully not.  Ash Wednesday is a day unlike any other, because it seems we (Christians) annually return to the roots of the “faith” we were taught, or embraced of our own accord, regarding an itinerant rabbi and all-around rabble-rouser…namely, Jesus.  Or, perhaps such deep compulsion is more primal – something encoded in our DNA.  Who can say with any tangible evidence?

Regardless, Ash Wednesday compels us to return, year after year, attending a service in which our foreheads are signed with palm ash while being reminded:

Remember man/woman that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Not exactly a cheerful meditation.  Perhaps, though, it’s instructive – it offers the opportunity to reflect upon some essential truths about our mortality…and our immortality.  Saint Augustine – often credited as the father of western philosophy – wrote:

You move us to delight in praising you; for You have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.

Is Augustine correct?  Have you ever experienced that “restlessness?”  Is there an imprint on our souls, tethering us to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, David…and the itinerant Jewish rabbi, Yeshua?  Do we believe that we belong to Him and with Him?  Either way you answer, you are likely correct.  Think about it… 

This life, on planet Earth, is not easy, and is often filled with pain.  The vast majority of us live with internal battles we seldom share.  Buffeted by political and civil strife, humanity is plagued by war, famine, political blood sport, income inequality, homelessness, racial unrest and abuse of one another. “Social media” provokes our children to bully and intimidate…until someone dies.  We are, indeed, an ailing society.  

Against this backdrop, crime is ever-present, and often violent. Poverty seems, indeed, unending and unsolvable. We are a primitive species in some ways.  But we struggle to rise above; and in that struggle, we look toward the unfathomable heavens, longing for the meaning of our own existence.

Well, here’s some wake-up juice:  there IS NO meaning to this life if we have faith in nothing.  That doesn’t deny God’s existence; rather, it affirms what James – Jesus’ brother – meant when he wrote, “Faith, without works, is dead.”  (James 2:26 – NAB) 

“Pray as if everything depended on God.  Work as if everything depended upon you.”

- Saint Augustine.

If the brother of Jesus and the “father of western philosophy” are so aligned and correct about this point, faith is less about professing, more about doing.  These two passages – remarkably parallel as they are – point us toward an action-based faith that we must put into practice.  But how to accomplish that in the absence of solid, tangible proof?  In my experience, though people may be called into action, it is difficult to sustain that action on a long-term basis without individuals’ commitment to the vision.  It must become everyone’s vision.  But that word – vision – ah, that’s a sticky wicket.

Consider this: Jesus’ apostles initially lacked that vision.  After witnessing Him brutally savaged, flayed open and nailed to a cross, they were all certain of one thing:  that they wouldn’t be walking with Him ever again.  Only the women closest to Christ retained their faith…and immediate proximity to his grave over the next two days.  The men – James excepted – all ran and hid.  Even after the ladies’ joyful, jubilant proclamation of what they’d seen and heard, it took real convincing for the apostles to even entertain the notion that he might have somehow survived crucifixion, let alone returned from death.  No…that was an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary proof:  seeing, hearing, touching (in the case of Thomas) – tangible evidence to prove the unfathomable.  Did those men lack faith?  I humbly submit that they lacked not only faith, but the courage required to spread that faith.  

With the benefit of hindsight and the profound teachings of the Gospels, one might make the case that we have all we need for faith.  But you know, as well as I, how easy it is to become doubtful and disenchanted in the midst of pain, anguish and seemingly catastrophic loss.  You know this, because you’re still reading. 

And yet…nothing less than courage, perseverance and tenacious faith will suffice to sustain our hope of salvation.  We are those broken-down houses, lacking love and hopes…our faith battered and bruised – our very souls rocked to the foundation. 

We are a primitive species.  We are weak.  But we have Jesus’ promise, the Gospels, and each other.  May our journey into the desert bring us insight, healing and renewed faith. 

Peace.  Shalom.

(This is the first of three reflections on faith during this Lenten season.  The next will come within 2 – 3 weeks.  Please feel free to offer your own perspectives – both on this website, and via Facebook.)
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