The first time I came to Vermont was in the 1950’s and there were no interstate highways. Our family set out early in the morning from New Jersey for Greensboro, up in the Northeast Kingdom, with a mailed, written confirmation of our reservations at a lodge there and a colorful brochure, showing simple white cottages, a shimmering blue lake with sailboats and canoes, and a dining room full of happy people eating stacks of fluffy pancakes dripping with Vermont maple syrup. For a while we traveled on the Garden State Parkway, then the Northway section of the NYS Thruway. Then we headed east to Whitehall, following my father’s carefully laid out route, up through Rutland, and on up into Killington, squirreling along Rts. 100 and 107 to Bethel and then, not onto Route I-89, which didn’t exist then, but simply on and on, around endless twists and curves, trees and more trees. I don’t remember when I started asking, “Are we there yet?” but I have a feeling it wasn’t much beyond our Northway exit. By the afternoon, my dad introduced us to the game where you would count the number of cows you saw on your side of the car (back when there were lots of cows to count), a white horse doubled your count, and a cemetery wiped out your numbers. That was fun for a little while. But the route kept going and going. It got so that every time I caught a glimpse of blue–what I thought surely must be Caspian Lake–I would ask, “Is that it?”
I realize now, having been the driver with kids in the backseat on a few similar journeys, what an incredible test of my parents’ patience that drive must have been. If they hadn’t had that brochure, if they hadn’t had been assured by friends who had been there that it was a wonderful place, if they hadn’t paid that deposit, it would have been sorely tempting to pull over at any number of spots, turn around and head for the Jersey shore, a familiar place less than 2 hours from home. Of course, I’m glad they kept on. We ended up vacationing at Highland Lodge in Greensboro year after year, and both my brother and I worked there during college summers. I fell in love with Vermont, ended up going to college here, and, lo and behold, moving here 18 years ago this week to become the pastor of Second Congregational Church.
But if my parents hadn’t ventured forth, assured that those white cottages and stacks of pancakes were real, my life might have taken a very different path.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance, and he set out, not knowing where he was going…” So says the writer of the letter, which is really more of a sermon, to the Hebrews, who really aren’t Jews but rather a young Christian community. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
What is it you hope for? That makes a difference, doesn’t it? in the direction you travel, in the path you take. It makes a real difference if your hope is more than just wishful thinking. If what you hope for is, say, fame and fortune, you’ll make certain decisions about what you’ll do, where you’ll live and work, the kind of people you’ll associate with. If what you hope for is good health, you’ll make certain decisions about what you eat, how you exercise, what you do with and for your body. If only, alas, you could choose your genes, which may be possible some day, because that has a huge effect on our health. If what you hope for is a comfortable life, with enough money to pay your bills, a few friends or family to keep you company, then that too determines the kinds of decisions you will make about what you do with your time, where you’ll live, what you’ll spend your time thinking about.
All of these hopes, at least initially, chart our course. The thing about any kind of travel or journey, of course, is the unexpected. “Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans,” right? What if fame and fortune don’t come, or maybe they do, and you discover you’re absolutely miserable? What if, despite all your best efforts, no matter how many green smoothies you drink, no matter how many aerobics or yoga classes you attend or miles you run, a lump still appears in your breast or your PSA comes back elevated? What if, despite the beautiful house and brilliant children, your partner decides to leave or one of your kids starts to smoke pot? What about the “assurance of things hoped for? The conviction of things not seen?”
“Where your treasure is,” Jesus said, “there your heart will be also.” Where is your heart invested?
It’s faith that the writer of Hebrews says is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. Faith. Too often, and in fact for generations of Christians, “faith” has been a thing, a list of propositions to give your assent to, a creed to memorize.
When my life broke open seven years ago [writes poet Christian Wyman of his diagnosis of an incurable cancer], I knew very well that I believed in something. Exactly what I believed, however, was considerably less clear. So I set out to answer that question, though I have come to realize that the real question–the real difficulty–is how, not what. How do you answer that burn of being? What might it mean for your life–and for your death–to acknowledge that insistent, persistent ghost? [My Bright Abyss, p. x.]
It’s the how, not the what, of faith that is the real question. Faith as list of agreed to propositions can sit on the shelf and not make a whole lot of difference in your life. It is possible to go about your business and not let that kind of faith impede your progress too much.
But faith that is more than a head trip, that wraps around your heart, where your treasure is, faith as trust rather than intellectual belief, that can change your life. That kind of faith can re-route not only your life path but your neural pathways as well. “The opposite of faith is not doubt,” wrote the great holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but indifference.” (Cited by Kate Huey in Weekly Seeds, 8/11/13)
There is no way to ‘return to the faith of your childhood,’ [writes Christian Wyman], not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. …No… Whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life–which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived–or have denied the reality of your life. [Wyman, op cit., p. 7]
“Where your treasure is,” Jesus said, “there your heart will be also.” Faith, in the sense of trust, in the sense of “ultimate concern,” the center of gravity of our lives, the longing of our hearts, that is our treasure. Jesus spoke of the kingdom or reign of God as that treasure, the kingdom that was both far-country and in our midst. “Do not be afraid, little flock, [he told them] for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus opened the door for the kingdom to come into our midst, and we’re not there yet. As long as there are people living in their vans, we’re not there yet. As long as there are children who must witness unspeakable acts of violence and depravity, we’re not there yet. As long as the earth’s air and water are polluted and the seas warm and rise, we’re not there yet. As long as some have more than they can possibly ever use while many more do not have enough, we’re not there yet. “All of these, the writer of Hebrews says, all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” “Not yet….”
“Don’t be afraid, little flock,” Jesus said. It is indeed fear that steals the treasure of faith away, and there’s plenty to be afraid of. Look around, turn on the news, read the paper, feel the change in the weather. “The madness and lostness we see all around us and within us,” writes author/preacher Frederick Buechner, ” are not the last truth about the world but only the next to last truth.” “Like the writer of Hebrews, Buechner knows that faith, that is trust, is a thing of the heart that helps us see the truth hidden sometimes beneath appearances, ‘the last truth of the world,’ the truth of God’s love, and God’s peace,” (Kate Huey, op cit.)
If we were to miraculously find a pair of “kingdom glasses” [John Jewell, Lectionary Tales, 8/11/13] that would provide lenses through which we could see the kingdom in our midst–the real last truth about the world–what would we see? Would we see Christ sleeping next to the homeless man and his cat? Would we see small groups of people taking up rakes and mops and scrubbers, cleaning up parks and highways and vacant lots? Would we see “angels” sitting beside us at death beds, holding us and gently leading our loved ones off to the dance? Would we see artists and musicians and dancers connected by rainbow musical scores and weaving threads of light through all creation? Research tells us that what we focus our attention on grows. Appreciate the good and the good appreciates. What do you hope the kingdom of God, here in our midst, is like? “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…”
Again, Christian Wyman, writing from the perspective of one who is actively wrestling with pain and death, but also with hope and life, says,
Perhaps it is never disbelief, which at least is active and conscious, that destroys a person, but unacknowledged belief, or a need for belief so strong that it is continually and silently crucified on the crosses of science, humanism, art, or
(to name the thing that poisons all these gifts of God) the overweening self. [p. 12]…Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life [he writes]. Those who try to make it into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures. Faith never grows harder, never so deviates from its nature and becomes actually destructive, than in the person who refuses to admit that faith is change…faith is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any fixed, mental product…[p. 18]
What you must realize, [writes Wyman] what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all…Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it. (Pp. 29-30)
“My Bright Abyss” is the title of Christian Wyman’s book and is what calls God, that homeland toward which he longs. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We’ve all set out on this journey called life, and our faith is intimately wrapped up in the journey. It’s not a “what” but more of a “how.” We’re not only headed to a far country, but are daily, in every moment, surrounded by it, it’s in the cells of our bodies. The kingdom is coming and now is. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” Pay attention. Notice your life. Live it, don’t just phone it in. “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
A woman was talking about the stresses of modern life with her doctor, who happens to be Hindu. “Live in the past,” he said, “and you will be depressed. Live in the future, and you will be anxious. Live in the present with gratitude and you will be at peace.” (Alyce McKenzie, patheos, 8/8/10) Live with gratitude. Live with God’s promise in your heart. So may we live with wisdom, courage, and faith. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark