By Debie Thomas
I was two months old when my parents left their native India to begin a new life in the United States. Like many immigrants, they came to America in the hope of securing a better future for themselves and their children. But also like many immigrants, they struggled for decades after their arrival to accept themselves as “hyphenated” people — people who live in the liminal and often lonely spaces between homelands, identities, and cultures.
I had no words for such complexities when I was little, but I sensed my parents’ restlessness all the same. Their passionate desire to belong, combined with a fierce need to stand apart. Their yearning for a safe place to call home. The torn, divided gaze that marked them as foreigners — glancing backwards in nostalgia while straining forward in hope. Their will to shape a life worthy of the sacrifices, losses, hurts, and challenges that came with immigration. Their tireless conviction that more and better was not only a possibility, but a promise.
In our lectionary readings this week, the Biblical writers capture similar experiences of in-betweenness — experiences of loss and hope, exile and belonging. Directed by God, Abraham gazes at the night sky, trying in vain to imagine descendants as numerous as the stars, while his wife, Sarah, remains heartbreakingly barren. The Psalmist writes of those who “hope in [God’s] steadfast love,” even when that hope entails little more than patient endurance through famine, suffering, and death. The writer of Hebrews acknowledges that the heroes of the faith “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth,” seeking a homeland even as they toiled in exile, desiring “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” And through the Gospel writer, Jesus describes faithful servants who wait for their beloved Master through the long watches of the night, hopeful that he will return home and reward their diligence — albeit at an unexpected hour.
Each of these readings describes the lives of the faithful. Each explores what faith looks and feels like in the world we actually live in. Abraham’s belief is credited to him as righteousness. The eye of the Lord is on those who trust him as their help and shield. Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The servants who put their faith in their Master’s return are blessed and rewarded.
Okay. But what is faith?
Growing up, I was taught that faith was a matter of creeds and doctrines. A matter of intellectual assent. To accept Jesus into my heart, to be “born again,” was to affirm a set of claims about who Jesus is and what he accomplished through his death and resurrection. To enter into orthodox faith was to agree that certain theological statements about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the human condition, the Bible, and the Church, were true. When the Christians I knew spoke of “growing in the faith,” what they meant was that they were honing their doctrinal commitments. Making sure they had their theological ducks all in a row.
For me, this way of believing — this way of defining faith as an intellectual assent to precisely codified doctrines — has slowly but surely fallen apart. Not because I can’t assent, but because my assenting, in and of itself, has not fostered anything close to the meaningful relationship I desire to have with God. If anything, the intellectual assent has been a smokescreen. A distraction. A poor substitute for the real thing.
So again, what is the real thing? What is faith? As I’ve spent time with the lectionary readings this week, I’ve been struck by the fact that they affirm a definition of faith that my immigrant parents would understand. The texts describe the faithful as people who set out for new places, anticipate new arrivals, wait for big changes, and search for new homelands. In these texts, the faithful are nomads. They wander. They contend with a holy restlessness. They straddle the hyphen. They work for the transformation of this world even as they yearn with all their hearts for another.
Faith as it is described in Scripture is not, in other words, a destination. It’s not a conclusion or a form of closure. Faith is a longing. Faith is a hunger. Faith is a desire.
According to Abraham’s story, faith is the restless energy that pushes us out the door and onto the road in pursuit of the inheritance God has promised. Faith is the audacity to undertake a perilous journey simply because God asks us to — not because we know ahead of time where we’re going. Faith is the itch and the ache that turns our faces towards the distant stars even on the cloudiest of nights. Faith is the willingness to stretch out our imaginations and see new birth, new life, new joy — even when we feel withered and dead inside. Faith is the urgency of the homeless for a true and lasting home — a home whose architect and builder is God.
Likewise, according to Jesus’s parable of the diligent servants, faith is a posture of active, engaged alertness. It is the rightly aligned heart, the dressed-for-action body, the lit lamp on a dark night. It is the humble willingness to steward a house we don’t possess until its rightful owner comes home. It is the patient ability to wait on a Presence that has not yet arrived, a promise that has not yet been fulfilled. It is an overwhelming desire to welcome, serve, and nourish Jesus — whenever and however he makes an appearance. It is the daily business of living on our tiptoes, our eyes on the door, our hands ready at the knob for the Master’s joy-filled arrival.
By these definitions, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is complacency, apathy, resignation, and cynicism. The opposite of faith is falling asleep. It’s pie-in-the-sky, a disengaged acceptance of the status quo, a refusal to embrace holy restlessness as an incentive to work for a more just and loving world here and now. The opposite of faith is accepting anything less than the kingdom God wishes to give us. It’s hanging back and holding still when the call of God on our lives is to move.
As a child of immigrants, living at a cultural moment when immigrants are facing unspeakable hatred, contempt, and abuse here in the United States, I am particularly grateful that God loves the traveler, the wanderer, the foreigner, the exile. I love that those who embrace in-betweenness can serve as vital, living metaphors for the life of faith — contemporary parables for the Church’s growth and edification. I love that those who don’t belong are the closest to the heart and mission of God. And I love that the holy restlessness we feel as people of faith comes from God’s restless love and desire for us. The home we strain towards is the same home God is preparing for us right now, because it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. All we have to do is journey towards it. All we have to do is welcome it by faith.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: (1) Calvary Baptist Church, Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin USA; (2) Discerning Jesus blog; and (3) Wikimedia.org.
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