Archive for faith

Shadowy faith

Adoration of the Christ Child Gerard van Honthorst c. 1620

Adoration of the Child, Gerard van Honthorst, c. 1620


The fact that faith is shadowy is a blessing; it tempers the light to the eye’s weakness and prepares the eye for the light, for it is written: ‘He cleansed their hearts by faith’. Faith therefore does not quench the light but protects it. If you cannot yet grasp the naked truth is it not worthwhile to possess it wrapped in a veil?


Bernard of Clairveaux
On the Song of Songs 31.9; CF 7:132
quoted In the School of Love: An Anthology of Early Cistercian Texts. ed. by Edith Scholl, OCSO (Kalamazoo: 2000), p.72.

What is faith?

Abraham in Ur Bible Picture ABC Book by Elsie E. Egermeier

Abraham in Ur
Bible Picture ABC Book
by Elsie E. Egermeier


There’s a passage in Hebrews 11 with the heading “The faith of Abraham.” It contains some interesting imagery about Abraham sojourning and living in tents while pressing forward to the promised homeland–a city!–“whose builder and maker is God.” The contrast between the temporary shelter of obedient exile and the permanence of a homeland that’s not yet seen is surely food for thought, but it will have to wait for another day…

because this is the verse that caught my attention this morning:

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.

What does it mean to have faith? How do you do it? Is it about inner strength? Mental discipline? Force of will? Allegiance? All of this seems so anxiety-producing and beyond my abilities. I’ve read those stories about the people in Nazareth, and Peter trying to walk on water, and the frightened disciples waking Jesus in storm-tossed boat, and they don’t make me feel particularly confident that I would do any better. 

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive…since she considered him faithful who had promised.

In this verse, in the midst of the great narrative of Abraham’s faith, there is a small turn of phrase where the light breaks through for me: “…since she considered him faithful who had promised.”  

Sarah’s faith is about believing God is faithful. God keeps his promises. I think to myself, “Yes, I can go that far.” She considered him faithful. And somehow those few words and that turn of meaning create a perch where hope can rest.


Sir, we wish to see Jesus


Head of Christ by Warner Sallman Image: Wikimedia Commons

Head of Christ by Warner Sallman
Image: Wikimedia Commons


Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


King of Kings
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Laughing Jesus

christ w arms raised georges roualt 1936

Christ with arms raised
by Georges Rouault

homeless jesus19n-4-web

Homeless Jesus
Timothy P. Schmalz, artist and photographer


Head of Christ by Richard Hook

Lasciate che i Pargoli vengano a me

Holy Card
Photo: Holy Cards for Children

good shepherd icon

The Good Shepherd icon


Cristo Redentor de los Andes
Photo credit: Andy Stuardo licensed CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons



Pieta by Michelangelo
St. Peter’s Basilica
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


And Jesus Wept
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church near the Oklahoma City National Memorial
Photo: Crimsonedge34 licensed CC by 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

16th st baptist wendy mdfadden for xn churches together

The Wales Window for Alabama, created by John Petts
16th St. Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL
Photo: Wendy McFadden – Christian Churches Together

Rembrandt Jesus Staatliche Museen Preussicher Kulturbesitz Berlin

Head of Jesus by Rembrandt
Staatliche Museen Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Berlin

Isenheim resurrection

Resurrection of Christ
Isenheim altarpiece
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Inspired by a sermon about our different versions of Jesus, I thought I would share a few of the many. There are thousands out there in art high and low–and that’s not even counting the kitchy plastic dashboard Buddy Jesus bobbleheads. Suffice it to say, that people imagine Jesus in all kinds of ways–which says a lot about us, and only a little about Jesus. One thing it says loud and clear is, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

The sermon also made me think about Jesus’ words to Thomas (John 20:29), “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  I always felt those words as a rebuke to Thomas, but perhaps they have a second meaning. Perhaps it might actually be easier to believe Jesus is the Son of God if you never saw him in person.

How could it be easier to believe through a story than with a real flesh and blood person in front of you? When you hear the gospel, you can imagine him in almost any way you want: white, black, brown, tall or short, clean or scruffy, humble but with a presence–any way that is not an impediment. So the fuzzy edges of understanding might make it easier to embrace the truth, to be open to growth and deepening understanding. Perhaps waiting to see Jesus can be a sort of blessing, and our knowing that we do not know a semi-permeable membrane through which the Holy Spirit may pass. Perhaps we should have a bit of compassion for the people of Nazareth who in his presence believed they knew Jesus all too well and got caught up thinking, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?  Is not this the carpenter’s son?…” and they took offense at him. (Matt. 13)

Maybe we are blessed by hearing only and not seeing, and yet believing. Whatever version of Jesus speaks to us.

Prayer for healing

…Jesus is reported to have made the blind see and the lame walk, and over the centuries countless miraculous healings have been claimed in his name. For those who prefer not to believe in them, a number of approaches are possible, among them:

  1. The idea of miracles is an offence both to man’s reason and to his dignity. Thus, a priori, miracles don’t happen.
  2. Unless there is objective medical evidence to substantiate the claim that a miraculous healing has happened, you can assume it hasn’t.
  3. If the medical authorities agree that a healing is inexplicable in terms of present scientific knowledge, you can simply ascribe this to the deficiencies of present scientific knowledge.
  4. If an otherwise intelligent and honest human being is convinced, despite all arguments to the contrary, that it is God who has healed him, you can assume that his sickness, like its cure, was purely psychological. Whatever that means.
  5. The crutches piled high at Lourdes and elsewhere are a monument to human humbug and credulity.

If your approach to this kind of healing is less ideological and more empirical, you can always give it a try. Pray for it. If it’s somebody else’s healing you’re praying for, you can try at the same time laying your hands on him as Jesus sometimes did. If his sickness involves his body as well as his soul, then God may be able to use your inept hands as well as your inept faith to heal him.

If you feel like a fool as you are doing this, don’t let it throw you. You are a fool of course, only not a damned fool for a change.

If your prayer isn’t answered, this may mean more about you and your prayer than it does about God. Don’t try too hard to feel religious, to generate some healing power of your own. Think of yourself rather (if you have to think of yourself at all) as a rather small-gauge, clogged up pipe that a little of God’s power may be able to filter through if you can just stay loose enough. Tell the one you’re praying for to stay loose too.

If God doesn’t seem to be giving you what you ask, maybe he’s giving you something else.


Frederick Buechner, “Healing” in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.” Harper and Row, 1973.


Travel Mercies

Lots of folks are traveling this time of year, myself included, and so we are mindful of our need for travel mercies: protecting grace, sustaining grace, guiding grace, in the in-between places.

I do not know what you need. I doubt I know what I need myself.  Whatever your journey, literal or metaphorical, God bless you on your way.


“It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”

–Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.


God be with thee in every pass,
Jesus be with thee on every hill,
Spirit be with thee on every stream,
Headland and ridge and lawn;

Each sea and land, each moor and meadow,
Each lying down, each rising up,
In the trough of the waves, on the crest of the billows,
Each step of the journey thou goest.


Carmina Gadelica III, 195
From Esther de Waal, editor, The Celtic Vision (Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph, 1988, 2001).

Thanks to Dan Clandenin at Journey with Jesus.


That strange, elusive gift of faith


“Do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well.”  Luke 8:50b

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”  Luke 8:48

And Jesus asked his father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  Mark 9:21-24



If morning doesn’t hit me full force before my first cup of coffee, I like to take a look at readings in the Daily Office. I pull it up on my phone and try to take in a little nourishment before the energy flow reverses and I get swept up in all my doing for the day.

Today’s reading was Luke 8:40-56 — the story of Jairus’ daughter and the woman who touched the fringe of Jesus’ garment and was healed. In both of these events, there is a miracle that Jesus says is related to faith–to believing.

Now, the notion that miracles are tied to our faith has occasioned a lot of thought and no small amount of confusion over the years.  I can’t say as I understand it any better than anyone else, but a few things struck me this morning.

The first is that I don’t think we can compel God to do anything.  I don’t believe there is a magic equation where if we have enough faith, then God will do what we ask or demand.  We keep trying out that hypothesis, and it just doesn’t seem to be true.  What’s more reasonable, to my mind, is that if God is omnipotent, He will do what he wants. Whatever that statement means (and I know it’s a big issue. We can talk it about later!). My point is no matter how strong our faith, we shouldn’t imagine that belief makes us powerful in any way that diminishes God’s agency. Jesus feels the power go out of him, asks “Who touched me?” and then reassures a fearful woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” She hasn’t somehow stolen her healing; it wasn’t something she could take by force, but she was called to give witness to the miracle.

The second thought I had, is that, truth to tell, we can’t even compel faith.  If you’ve ever tried to push aside all your questions and uncertainties about God and salvation, you know that that way leads to the Land of Denial–an unhealthy place, but one where you’ll have a lot of company.  Besides, how could you say with certainty that your faith was increasing?  Is the presence of faith measured only by the absence of doubts?  Are feelings a reliable measure?

Then I was reminded of another story of a parent bringing a child to Jesus–the boy with the convulsive spirit in Mark 9:14-29.  The disciples are unable to heal the child, and when the father says, “If you can…have pity” Jesus responds, “If I can! All things are possible to him who believes.” Which leads the father to respond, “I believe; help my unbelief!” — completely, wonderfully, articulating the way our faith is a small weak thing, often mixed with doubt, and ultimately a gift, an instance of grace. Like love, it can be nurtured or starved, it can grow or wither, but it doesn’t seem to be something we can create.

After Jesus casts out the spirit, the disciples ask him privately why they were unable to heal the boy–which says to me that faith was not the issue for them.  They believed and they knew they believed, so Jesus’ words to the father didn’t answer their question.  Jesus’ response, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” is something I’m going to have to ponder for a while.  But you know, it’s good to have something to think about.


photo via

Life and death at the extremes of faith

Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford
photo by Lauren Pond for The Washington Post


A while back, when GraceisEverywhere was only a tickle in my brain, I came across an article in The Washington Post about a snake-handling pastor.  It’s a good, thoughtful article that doesn’t try to sensationalize or ridicule its subject, and, as I often do, I filed it away in memory.  Six months later I read that the pastor in that article, Randy “Mack” Wolford, had been bitten during the outdoor service he’d been planning and died an agonizing death. As the photographer noted, Wolford was “a victim of his unwavering faith, but also a testament to it.”

It can be easy to dismiss the people who occupy the extremes of Christian faith.  To think they’re crazy.  To shake our heads and say, “I can’t go there.”  But a more interesting and complicated question to my mind, is not why are these Christians so different, but how are we alike?  What part of the Christian message is so important to someone that they would handle snakes? How do they see God?  Why do they adopt this practice and not any one of the many other available options?  What do they believe about God that makes this possible, desirable?

People like Mack Wolford believe that God is powerful–that He makes promises and keeps them.  I suspect that a lot of you reading this would agree.  I also sense that people in Pastor Wolford’s tradition believe that we can compel God to do things when we act on His promises.  I’m not so sure it works that way.  But how different is this approach from what Elijah was doing with the prophets of Baal in I Kings 18?.  Are we ready to condemn Elijah for his audacity? Are we ready to say that tests of faith never come from God? Should we never remind God of his part in our covenantal relationship–never make demands of the Almighty?

Perhaps we need to ask these sorts of questions from time to time, so we don’t grow too comfortable in our own practices and forget how strange most of them are to anyone who is not a believer.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What do I believe about God that makes me do what I do?”  Are the extremes of faith so far from where I stand?


In addition to the two articles already mentioned, I commend to your attention “Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith” by the Post photographer who stayed until the end.



Souls seeking God

Faith lengthens the soul, charity widens it, hope gives it height.


Isaac of Stella (d. 1169)
English Cistercian
translated by Hugh McCaffery

From In the School of Love: An Anthology of Early Cistercian Texts, selected and annotated by Edith Scholl, Cistercian Publications, 2000.

Faith is your steering wheel

You’re probably familiar with images of the Old Ship of Zion and the Gospel Train, but in 1957 the Dixie Hummingbirds updated the mode of transportation for the journey to heaven.  “Christian’s Automobile” features the incomparable Ira Tucker, who sang with the group for an astonishing 70 years.  Like many of the gospel train songs, this one is both serious and playful as the metaphor gets stretched further and further.  Tucker tells us

You gotta check on your tires
You got a rough road ahead
And when you are weary from your journey
God will put you to bed….

You’ve gotta check on your lights
And see your own faults
Stop while you can see them, children
Or your soul will be lost….

But my favorite image comes at the end, when Tucker sings:

And I’m not worried
About my parking space
I just want to see,
See my Savior face to face

What better way to express “I go to prepare a place for you” and the hope of the beatific vision at the time when Americans dreamed of seeing the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet.

Prayer is your driver’s license.