Faith is a verb. You can write that down.
Used to, I thought faith was believing right things in correct ways. Even though I’ve always been a part of a non-creedal Christianity, I still thought you had to assent to certain creedal statements about church, God, Christ, Spirit, the Bible. Faith was about ideas.
Now I believe faith is a verb. For me, it’s more about my doing faithful things, acting in faithful ways, behaving with faithful intentions.
Faith is about change and transformation and personal commitment and the re-orientation of a life.
Faith is about my counting on the faithfulness of a God who creates and informs and sustains the faithfulness of my own faith.
It’s about entrusting myself to the faithfulness of the God who covers for me even when I do believe incorrectly and even when I do behave unfaithfully.
It’s about letting the whole of my life flow from the life of the God who is the ultimate Verb, the One who is ever the I AM; always present tense; always acting on behalf of all humanity for the sake of the Promise.
The Hall of Fame chapter
When we read the famous chapter 11 in Hebrews, we can’t miss how active real human faith really is. This chapter is chock full of verbs.
The faith of our fathers and mothers that “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, put enemies to flight.”
The faith of the martyrs who “suffered mocking and flogging and imprisonment, who went about persecuted and tormented.”
Faith is a verb.
Sometimes the verbs of our lives are less active, describing our efforts to endure fixed realities and to wait out whatever challenges come our way.
Other times the verbs of our lives are more active with the power to change our world; verbs of faith that can make things happen and transform our existing reality.
And yet, of course, faith also is a noun.
There are some facts, some realities that we must assent to before we can act. The Hebrews writer says we must first and foremost believe that God IS. And then we can believe that God acts.
Like air, even when we can’t see God, faith assents to this Divine Fact of our lives. It is the grounding of ourselves in this Unprovable Fact that moves us and motivates us to act as well.
Believing THAT God IS gives us confidence to entrust ourselves to the One who is the Ultimate Verb of eternal, always-present Being. As Hebrews says: God ‘rewards’ and responds; God acts and interacts with everyone in the life long process of our seeking.
Faith is not abstract, rather faithing embodies hope; it makes hope tangible and reveals invisible realities.
Faithing is stepping up, and then going beyond what we know is possible.
The Letter to the Hebrews pictures faithful living in one particularly powerful image with a decidedly active verb when it imagines faith “as a race that is run with perseverance.”
Hebrews envisions us faithful runners as surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses,” the faithful who have gone before, cheering us on. Hebrews presumes we do not run this race alone, on our own power and stamina and know-how; but rather we are running with Jesus, “the Pioneer of our faith, the Perfecter of our faith”while we are encircled by eternal encouragers.
The Boston Marathon bombing
A few years ago, a moving interfaith worship service at the National Cathedral honored those who were wounded and died at the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.
When I heard President Obama use these same powerful words from Hebrews as a way to comfort the Boston Marathon runners and the cloud of witnesses at the finish line who had been so traumatized on that terrible Monday, my spine tingled.
It was a powerful image in that setting: running the race with endurance and fortitude; rising again to run again in spite of the traumas life brings.
Running has long been powerful in the imaging of faith: keeping-on-keeping-on with patient staying power in this marathon of living.
But there is another profound image of running that speaks to us today, another image of running that makes my spine tingle: the picture of people running – not away from danger and disaster – but running right into it.
We’ve seen this kind of faith and faithfulness race to confront heart-breaking, gut-wrenching pain over and over again.
Wherever there is tragedy, faith and faithfulness will rush in. Faithful people will always step up, step out and go beyond what they know is possible. Their faithing will always embody invisible realities of hope and compassion and perseverance.
These are people who live their lives chock full of verbs.
And then, on the other hand, there is still another kind of story from Numbers, a little story about the paralysis and stagnation of unfaithfulness.
When Israel walked away from slavery in Egypt, they were walking in the direction of the Promised Land. The Red Sea opened up before them; a pillar of cloud and fire went ahead to guide them and followed behind to protect them; bread fell from the heavens and water flowed from the rocks.
Time and time again, God’s people saw evidence of God’s faithfulness and they experienced the “I AM” who is ever acting on behalf of humanity for the sake of the Promise.
But when the people sent their scouts into the land of promise to spy it out, the reports they received made them quake with fear.
It’s too hard. We’re too small. The challenges are overwhelming. Our resources are limited. The obstacles are like giants. We are like grasshoppers. We can’t. We won’t.
Instead of running the race set before them; instead of running into the challenges that – yes – were very big; instead of facing the apparent impossibilities with the faithfulness of faith, the people dug in their heels and turned their backs on their own future.
As the story goes, because of this faithlessness, they ended up running around in circles; they wandered in a wilderness of hopelessness for 40 years. “40 years” in Bible-speak = a very long time.
You probably noticed the Hebrews author did not include this little story from Numbers in his Hall of Fame in chapter 11.
The “pilgrims” and “sojourners” he praises weren’t wandering around in circles. They might not have known exactly where they were going, they may not have known how to get there, but Hebrews describes how these pilgrims of faith managed to see what was invisible.
He describes how they greeted God’s promises from a distance; how they could imagine a city whose builder, whose architect was God.
Even when they did not know where they were going, they knew they were going somewhere.
And if not in their own lifetime, they entrusted themselves and their children and their great-great-grandchildren to God’s faithfulness. They trusted enough to continue to live faithfully even if they didn’t see the promise come true for themselves; they were content to live toward the promises.
Consequently in the midst of all their unknowing, they still were able to live with focus, direction and confidence.
- So there is First, running with perseverance the race that is set before us.
- Second, running with courage right into the challenges that come to us.
- And now Third, running toward God’s promises.
Faith – the assurance of things hoped for; faith – the conviction of things not seen.
Anthony Thiselton says:
Like all God’s pilgrim people of faith…we need forward looking faith which will appropriate and act on God’s promises concerning the future purposes… Like Abraham, we must “venture forth.”
We need fresh vision, fresh courage, fresh perseverance, fresh heart in the face of stagnation and a desire to shelter within old securities. Hence we are urged: “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992) 265.
We have the same choices God’s people have always had.
We can let the challenges overwhelm us, paralyze us, or cause us to wander around in circles. Or or we can run the race that is set before us.
We can wait, hoping that God might send something more than manna (like say a GPS!) so that we can know exactly where we are supposed to go and how we are supposed to get there. This way we don’t have to depend on faith.
Or we can step out and step up before we know, faithing into our future, putting our faith and trust and hope in the One who promises to accomplish amazing and good and impossible things in us and through us.
We can pull inward inside our comfortable lives and protect ourselves. Or we can let our lives be broken bread and poured out wine: “sacraments of mercy and blessing” for others.
We can embody hopelessness or we can embody faithfulness.
I vote for faithfulness. How about you?
So may our faith – may our lives – always be chock full of verbs.
Living in The Story readings for Week 16