What is faith?
In today’s gospel, we have the disciples asking Jesus to “increase our faith!”
How often do we find ourselves in that place of needing more faith, needing someone to come along and help boost our moral, give us hope in God, hope in one another?
Taken from the context of today’s readings, we have this poem, this song from the book of Lamentations, which is a bleak lament over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire.
The name Zion is another name for Jerusalem because Jerusalem was the holy of holies, the Temple of God, God’s home on earth. The belief was that when Jerusalem was destroyed or, more specifically, when the Temple was destroyed, so was God’s home. God has left God’s people behind.
It’s a very human experience, to lose a sense of faith. When this is where you find yourself, when you believe that God has left you behind… indeed, where can faith be found?
But what is faith? What is it we’re talking about when we use the word “faith?”
Sometimes we use the word “faith” to describe our set of beliefs. We ask, “To what faith do you belong?” Or we say, “Our faith is outlined in the creed.” But belief is different than faith. Belief is about concepts – like the concept that God’s home is the Temple. Or that God came to live among us in the human form of Jesus the Christ. These are beliefs.
Faith is something much more embodied. It’s an engagement, an assent, an experience of participating in the world. It’s an active curiosity in what God is up to and, so goes beyond anything we could conceptualize, anything we could think of, anything we could imagine in the limited views of our minds.
And this isn’t because our minds are feeble. This is because humans are designed to understand the world through concepts and these concepts are a result of our own context – from the life we’ve lived, from the things around us, from our families and friends, from our work and specific location on this earth.
Faith takes us beyond what we know, beyond what we believe.
So if faith is about things we cannot conceptualize, things we cannot imagine… of course it’s hard. Of course it’s something we need help with. And this is why prayer is so important, why worship in community is important. Worship is a way of opening ourselves up to something new. Asking, what is it God is doing now? Asking, what would God have me do? These are questions of faith.
It’s a sense of risk because we know we are being asked to imagine something new – a new understanding of ourselves, a new understanding of another, a new understanding of God. Faith is a curiosity in God.
What must it have been like for the Israelites to experience that kind of devastation? The destruction of their beloved Jerusalem and the forced exile of Israelites to foreign lands? They believed that they were God’s chosen people and were given this land by God. And this was a deeply held belief in who God is and how God works. The military takeover and the destruction of their holy of holies was utterly devastating.
It’s easy to imagine, actually. If we were invaded by another country and our capital city destroyed, I imagine we would feel as if God deserted us too. It might even shatter our belief in God.
And this is why faith and belief are not the same thing.
It’s why faith is a harder path.
But it’s also why faith always takes us a step further than belief. It’s why faith is ongoing, while belief is often a temporary state.
Faith is the decision to see something else, the decision to expect something new, the decision to set aside our own needs and definitions and concepts, these beliefs that we have, and open ourselves up to see what God is doing in our midst.
I’m not saying that God creates devastation in order to teach us lessons. Devastation happens. Evil exists in this world. But in the midst of our devastation, indeed, even in the midst of our joy… God is always up to something new. And faith is what enables us to follow God’s call into something new.
Because the God of Life is one that will never stagnate, will never die. The God of Life, the God that we worship, always finds a way rise, to grow, to breathe. The God of Life seeks to inspire us to new understandings and new ways of being and in the process can make us mighty uncomfortable.
The long arc of Judeo-Christian scripture is one that demonstrates God’s preference for those who are marginalized by society’s limited beliefs. We are always being asked to see beyond who we think God is, to imagine a different way God may be speaking to us in our own lives.
The God of Life that is spoken about throughout the scriptures is one that is boundless, not limited to temples or national boundaries or governments or churches or religions or beliefs or traditions. Always asking us to be faithful, to be willing to surrender who we take ourselves to be to become who God is calling us to become.
This God of Life reminds us of our call to love because though love growth is nurtured. And this God of Life is one that opens us, that feeds us through our breath. Because breath is life.
Our scriptures tell us just how integral breath is to life. From Genesis: in the beginning God spoke, “Let there be light!” Then God formed humanity from the elements of the earth and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life. Speaking, breathing. The Word of God is not just this written word, it is the incarnate expression of God’s life-giving breath. The Spirit of God – inspiring us as we breathe in this breath of life.
Using our voices in prayer is a way of ensuring we use our breath. Giving voice to the things we care about gives them a life outside of our head, outside of our conceptual understanding of them. It makes them incarnate. Intentional breathing is the most basic, most profoundly nourishing form of prayer because it invites God’s spirit to fill us with new life, new understandings, a renewed faith that helps us see beyond our own limited views of how we think the world works.
How many times are we told by doctors and care workers to take a deep breath? Even if it’s only to assess our lungs and our heartbeat. How often are we told that breathing is a tool for relaxation, that breathing deeply will help to calm us?
Buddhists and Hindus focus on the breath as they meditate and pray. Many Jews believe the word for God – Yahweh – is a word for the breath itself. And one of our members of the Holy Trinity is the Holy Spirit, the word “spirit” having the same root as “inspiration”, both having as its base, the word for breathing – spirare – to breathe.
This breath of God is so intrinsic to our life that, unless we’ve ever had difficulty breathing, we usually take it for granted. And when breathing is only automatic, we become passive in our engagement with it. This air that we breathe gives us the nourishment to live and move and have our being. But more than that, this breathing is prayer, the most important prayer that we have because simply breathing deeply brings new life into our cells. It oxygenates our blood. It calms our fears and literally inspires us.
And it’s why speaking and singing are so vital to our worship of God… because it requires us to breathe more deeply, to take more air into our lungs and stir us. It shifts our breath from passive to active.
I’ve often thought that, perhaps, this is one of the reasons we have had a decline in our religious participation… we’ve increasingly removed ourselves from labor, which requires us to breathe deeply. We don’t walk as much as we used to. We don’t garden as much as we used to. We don’t talk to each other as much as we used to. Instead we use cars and eat prepared foods and communicate through text and email messages. I’m not shaming us for this lifestyle, but I do notice that we can so easily become disconnected from our breath that, when we are asked to breathe deeply we sometimes experience it as an inconvenience rather than a life-giving, heart-nourishing interaction with God.
But this breath is inspiration. This breath is God’s nourishment for us. This breath is God’s Spirit giving us life and offering to us faith in the midst of our own concepts and fears and limitations. Faith is found, not outside of ourselves in leaders and loved ones who please us, but in our active engagement with God’s Holy Spirit, the Breath of Life – breathing deeply in the midst of both devastation and joy to seek out inspiration in our prayers.
Breathing, speaking, singing, inhaling and exhaling, exclaiming and crying, humming and chanting… living. The experience of faith is one that breathes us just as we breathe this life into our blood.
And so, I return to my question – what is faith?
Faith is the experience that God is in the next breath. And so we take the next breath… no matter how risky it seems. We take the next breath. And the next one. And when we do this intentionally, mindfully, deeply, it’s prayer… it’s worship.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.
Words – Edwin Hatch, 1835-1889