The Candle of Faith
“Life is suffering,” said the Buddha. “Man is born to trouble, as surely as the sparks fly upwards,” said Eliphaz the Temanite, a friend––or supposedly a friend––of Job’s.
I suppose one can argue with neither statement . . . Not even at Christmas . . . Nor can one argue with the following: that when people suffer; or are in trouble; or are beset by fear . . . and the foundations of their life begin to shake . . . It’s not too long until much of what they once held dear, or counted on, or thought unassailable, sometimes comes tumbling down; or evaporates into thin air.
It’s as life becomes a “mirror image” of the heart, as psychologist James Hillman once said. And when the heart begins to fail, or falter, so too one’s ability to make sense of the world, or “see the forest,” as a wise man once said, “for the trees.” “Indeed,” wrote Hillman, “the world, and God himself, is dead or alive, sadly, according to the condition of our souls.”
“I stopped believing in God a year ago,” writes a man named Levi. “It was a very dark time in my life, and I begged God to just take it all away. But you know, as far as I could see, He never did. I prayed day and night that what I went through would just go away . . . I even prayed this in Jesus’ name!! But nothing happened!! Tell me: what God would corner someone in darkness just to squeeze faith out of them, or to see how much faith they actually do have? For example, why would a loving and caring God ever want to see a child get cancer? And so I thought, maybe this God doesn’t really exist after all. And if he does, well, then maybe one day––maybe just maybe––He’ll prove it. Until then, sorry, but there’s no way I’m buying it anymore. Nope.
As far as I’m concerned, a “Loving Being of Light” ––or whatever you want to call him, or her, or it––probably, isn’t real . . . “
Today, on this Second Sunday of Advent, we have––to state the obvious––lit a second candle, to take its place alongside the first, what I called, as you know if you were tuning in last week, the Candle of Patience. (“But isn’t that usually the Candle of Hope?” And isn’t today’s candle the Candle of Peace? Yes, they are; but I’m taking a break from the usual scheme.) And so I’m calling this candle, the second candle, the Candle of Faith . . . And to be frank, it’s even harder to light than the Candle of Patience.
“Faith,” wrote the author of the Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.”
But how can one have faith in an age of Covid? It’s a tough sell, as one finds oneself standing––involuntarily––before the blast furnace of life; blasting, in this case, not warmth:––but the most desperate cold . . . “Faith is the victory that overcomes the world,” reads the First Epistle of John, but how do we get there?
Here’s an excerpt from a letter I received a letter some years ago, from one of profoundest Christians I have ever known. I mean, profound. You might find its contents shocking, but I don’t.
“With tears I write, longing to know if you are well, my dear friend. Wanting to know if in the stress and cares of this world if you find peace and rest in Jesus. Wanting to know if you still know from the depths of your soul that [the Word of God] is true.
For my soul wrestles in anguish. I would turn my back on Him but I cannot, I cannot. He seems so far, far away, and as for the truth, I cannot reach it. I have not written anything in 18 months; journals, letters; the odd list. Wanting to write words of comfort and encouragement and finding only tears and another loss. Am I so wretched He cannot use me?
I hate death. I hate the emptiness. Last year, for example, I prayed that [my friend] Nancy would be healed. She wasn’t. I sat with her, I bathed her, I fed her, I talked to her and tried to understand her, and I prayed; but she ended up cold and grey and still. We scattered the ash on the hill. The people prayed, but I could not.
And then eight weeks later Margaret, another friend about to die. I dared not pray––because maybe it is me that makes things not turn out right. For two years I had gone every Thursday to sit with her. The night Nancy died I heard the owls call in the forest––I heard them and saw them as I walked through the bush. Tell me, does God call my name???
Seven funerals in twelve months. What am I to learn? Forgive my writing like this, but everyone here thinks I’m doing “okay,” but actually my faith is shaken. When it comes to the Christian faith, do we deceive ourselves? Can God use someone like me?
What is ahead? More death? More loss?
And then, a dread emptiness?”
Yes, if you don’t watch it, sometimes the darkness can squeeze the faith right out of you, like having God’s gift snatched straight from your hands, before you have a chance to take hold of it.
Today’s Gospel reading is about just such a man, upon whom life had laid a great darkness . . .
It’s not a text one normally uses for Advent, but so be it.
We don’t know his name, this man. all we know is that, he is a father. And as you no doubt know, when it comes to suffering, there’s nothing worse than seeing your own child in pain, especially when you find yourself at a loss to help. Unsurprisingly, he is struggling to have faith.
And as he approaches Jesus, a crowd gathers. The disciples; various teachers of the Law; (who often flocked to Jesus, not because they loved the Law, but because they were spoiling for a fight); and an assortment of ordinary folk, whom Mark describes “as being filled with wonder” when Jesus shows up.
It’s apparent from the text that this motley crew of onlookers have been arguing with one another, as people do. As you may or may not know, “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, just argue.” And yes!! Those who can neither teach nor argue, just complain. At the sight of this Jesus himself is filled with anything but wonder.
“What are you arguing with them about?” he asks.
And suddenly it is this man, this father, who speaks up: “Teacher, I have brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
Now here you would think Jesus would show a little compassion for the man, who had had to care for a difficult child:––not to mention a little patience for the disciples, who had been called on to perform a rather difficult exorcism. Instead he seems to get a little testy, to put it mildly.
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replies, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
As if to say, “can’t you get anything right? Why are you so lacking in faith? Why are you so unbelieving? Why are you so given over to stupid disputation? Come on, people!!!! Unless you shed your unbelief, you’re not going to get anywhere. Believe; indeed, believe before you do anything else, then get busy and do what I have asked you to do.”
I am sure they were tempted––were Jesus not so angry––to reply in the following terms: “’Believe first???’ Jesus, are you kidding??? As far as we’re concerned, Lord, the ball is in your court. You need to act, and do something impressive, and then––and only then––WE, WILL, BELIEVE!!!” To which Jesus says, in so many words, “No, you’ve got it backwards. Believe. Believe first. Believe without seeing. Believe without understanding, (which, by the way, will prove blessings in themselves.) Believe without arguing yourself around the world. Light a Candle of Faith, and then do what I have asked you to do.”
Needless to say, this is how much of the modern world relates to God . . . “By the way, God, if you want us to have faith in you, that’s fine . . . But you need to act. You need to do something.
You, need, frankly, to impress us . . . In other words, as human beings we need to understand everything completely, and be in control completely, and denounce others completely––then we’ll believe in you . . . And then (and only then), we’ll do what you ask, ok??? Got it? Those are our terms, God, thank you very much.” This “walking in the darkness and putting your hand in the hand of God” thing is, in our view, highly overrated!!!
In any case, the child is brought to Jesus, whereupon there is a terrible manifestation; (demonic manifestation, that is), something which often happened, the Gospels tell us, when demonic spirits met the Lord. “When the spirit saw Jesus,” continues Mark, “it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. The child fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.”
Jesus asks the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answers.
“It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
On hearing this, it would seem, Jesus is moved with indignation for a second time. “‘If I can’? If?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
The famous 11th-century theologian and philosopher Anselm of Canterbury understood this dilemma perfectly. He also understood what Jesus was really getting at. “I do not seek to understand that I may believe,” said Anselm, “but believe that I might understand. For unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” Anselm termed this, in the end, “Faith seeking understanding,” not “Understanding seeking faith.” Faith first, then understanding.
The 4th-century bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo felt the same. “Do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you may understand,” said he.
This is a toughie for the modern world. We prize doubt over faith; and presume that believing nothing, until the same is proved; is always to have precedence over––is always intellectually cooler than––believing something, in advance of experiencing the same . . .
The disciple Thomas, of course, was terribly modern in this sense.
After the crucifixion, word had come that Jesus had risen from the dead . . .But Thomas was defiant. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side,” said he. I will not believe.”
But then, Jesus shows up. “Peace be with you!” he Jesus, and approaches Thomas. “Thomas, put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” “My Lord and my God!” says Thomas says, no doubt rather shocked.
Then Jesus makes a rather extraordinary statement, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.””
Does God despise Thomas for his doubting? I don’t think so. Because if have enough courage to doubt you may well have enough courage to have faith. In other words, at the very least you’re willing to take a stand.
“If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer; if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,’ ––writes Yann Martel, author of the Life of Pi,––“then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on, for to choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
When challenged in like fashion the boy’s father in our Gospel story exclaims, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
Moderns mock faith as the easy way out. Faith, in the words of some, is a a compendium of comfortable myths for comfortable people.
“There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths,” said the famous atheist and mathematician Bertrand Russell.
But the truth is, faith is hard. For me, personally, having faith has never been the easy way out. Never!! In fact, faith had made life a lot more difficult for me. For in choosing to have faith, and faith first, (long before a settled understanding of any many questions), I have had to face up to myself, and to the world. I have had to dare to hear the truth about myself . . . I have had to suffer to hear from the LORD himself, sometimes in stark defiance of the world. I have had to embrace mystery, and the occasional influx of entirely unwanted darkness. I have had to in all respects grow up, stepping out from the cozy and warm––as mitigated by culture––into something much more bracing, and at times, frankly, much more cold. I have had to the Kingdom of God reset, or reimagine, my whole life. Not my first choice––or preferred perspective––by any stretch of the imagination.
To take God at his word; to “walk by faith and not by sight,” as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5;
to look up when everyone else is looking down, requires astonishing bravery. It’s like looking up into the sky for the Star of Bethlehem, and lighting a candle to the same––a Candle of Faith!!––through what appears, at time, an endless veil of cloud . . .
“Faith sees the invisible, believes the incredible, and receives the impossible,” said Martin Luther. “Then, it accepts the impossible, does without the indispensable, and bears the intolerable.”
Perhaps Austin Fischer is right when he says that faith is “not the absence of doubt, but the presence of love.”
“When I am unable,” writes Joy Douglas, “God is able. When I am lost, He knows the path.
When I cannot see, he will be my eyes. All I need to do I ask and trust.”
In other words, all we need to do is light a Candle of Faith. Have faith first. Take God at his word first. Trust first!!––even if you don’t know the way. Even if you have no especial understanding. Even if you filled with doubt and misgiving. Don’t be afraid! Step out, and walk, to the very edge of the world, well beyond accumulated knowledge. God will more than “prove” Himself, and bring the gift of understanding:––that you may continue to walk from death, to life, and dare to seek healing.
Which is what happened when Jesus stepped in to heal this boy.
“You deaf and mute spirit,” Jesus said,
“I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately,
“Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
Jesus replies, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
How interesting. And who prays? The believing of course. People of faith, of course.
Even if it’s little more than a scream to the darkness, the believing pray.
This Advent, as you draw closer and closer to Bethlehem, even in a time of Covid.
Dare to light a candle of faith, against all odds. You’ll be astonished by the light it provides.
Thanks be to God.