Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness:’ Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. .. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
If I were to ask how you define what it means to be a Christian, what would you say? More specifically, how would you define what it means to be a believer, a word sometimes used to distinguish between nominal Christians and those for whom faith is central to their life? Where would you start?
An understandable place to begin would be to talk about what Christians believe—or are supposed to believe—about God and about Jesus, as God’s son. If we were to start with the meaning of Christmas, we might say that it’s when we celebrate the decisive moment in history when God chose to be with us by becoming one of us. Jesus was born, as we all are, in great vulnerability. As a man he showed us how to live and how to love, by the way he lived and loved. And gave us a glimpse into what God looks and longs to relate to us. He died a terrible death at human hands, both as an act of solidarity and an example of sacrificial love. What happened after his death, what we call resurrection, or rising from death to a different kind of life, is what we celebrate at Easter. In his rising, Jesus assures us that nothing can separate us from God, not even the worst that can happen to us, the worst that we can do to ourselves or one another, and not even death itself. And that his spirit is with us always, to the end of time.
I happen to believe all those things, or I certainly try to. Most days I succeed. At the same time, as I consider what it looks and feels like to be a person of faith, I wonder if we might start from a different place—not so much about what we believe and more about where we place our trust.
On the topic of faith, and what constitutes faith, the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, an Anglican priest in the Church of England, writes this:
When we think faith is all about belief, we risk beating ourselves up for not being able to hold together all the mysteries and contradictions and far-fetched ideas. But that’s not what Christianity is really about. The Christian faith is really about trust . . . It’s about facing the unknown and seeing Jesus turn around, offer us his hand, and say, “We’re going to walk across the unknown together.”1
If faith is more about trust than belief, then the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, all that we wonder about and don’t quite believe, but rather, anxiety. In anxiety, we are more likely to act and make decisions according to butterflies in our stomach, the weight on our shoulders, or the vague sense of panic that gets caught in our throats.
Anxiety is as contagious as a cold, and we’d have to be made of stone not to be affected by it. I suspect that each of us could name at least one or two things that we’re anxious about at the moment, where we lack faith, defined not in terms of what we believe about God, but rather as our desire, and our intentional effort, to trust God.
It’s hard to trust God to help us in the places where we feel worried or at a loss. Especially, we might say to ourselves, when we have all these doubts about God, when we don’t know God particularly well, or how to reconcile the conflicting claims made in God’s name. How can we give anything to God if we aren’t sure God is there or willing to receive it?
Those are tough questions, but in the end, I’m not sure that they matter as much as we think. What matters is our willingness to let go, to stop trying to hold everything together ourselves and surrender the idea that it’s up to us to make everything work out the way we think it should.
What matters in a life of faith is our willingness to let God in.
And what does that look like?
The image that often comes to my mind is that of an unclenched fist, releasing into the universe all that we’ve been holding so tightly. And after we let go, there comes a time of waiting. Putting our trust in God involves a lot of waiting—for a sign, a word, a sense of direction, a glimmer of insight to mark our path. This season of Advent in the Christian year is meant to give us a spiritual container filled with images and metaphors and stories and songs that can help us in our times of waiting, whenever and however they come.
The earliest Christians were clear that their new life was less about right belief and more about following a path, a way to God that had been made known in Christ. The first name for Christians, the Bible tells us, was simply that: “People of the Way,” and the way was one of trust. We’ve just heard a reading from the Gospel of Mark, the first biblical account of Jesus’ life to be written, and it begins with the exhortation, “Prepare a way,” hearkening back to the ancient prophet Isaiah who also spoke of God making a way, clearing a road for those who were in exile to return home.
Preparing the way almost always involves what in biblical language is known as repentance. Repentance is a big part of Christian path, something John the Baptizer will never let us forget.
One meaning of the word repentance is to turn away from sin, turn away from that which makes us less than who we are, and it evokes a sense of sorrow for all the things we regret that we’ve done or left undone. We need to come to terms with the parts of ourselves we’d rather avoid.
There are other ways to think of repentance. For example, Brother Curtis Almquist of the Episcopal Religious Order of St. John the Evangelist, recently posted these words on Facebook: “You may find, when facing a decision, that you feel completely in the dark. Back up into the light. Go back to where you could see clearly enough, and pick up the trail again there. God gives us as much light as we can bear.” Almquist then quotes the song of Zechariah, John the Baptizer’s father, who Scripture tells us burst into song when his son was born: ‘In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us… to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ The dawn of God’s tender compassion and guidance for you will come,” he assures us. “Wait for it. Watch for it.”
Repentance also asks us to acknowledge the limitations of our sight. “Go beyond what your mind can see,” might be another way to understand what it means to repent. “Live not by your lights alone, but by the light of God. Trust what you cannot see.”
This week, as part of your Advent practice, consider picking some area of your life that is causing you to be anxious, and every day ask God to guide you. You might pray something as simple as, “Dear God, or Dear Jesus, please show me your way. Show me your way for our family; show me your way for our marriage; show me your way in my work; show me your way for my health.” Once you’ve prayed this prayer or something like it, all that’s left is to be still and wait. Wait for whatever comes to you that feels different to you than your anxiety. If nothing comes, perhaps this is a time to do nothing, or to continue waiting until the path becomes clear.
It’s not easy to truly let go and be open to whatever God might have to say. Speaking for myself, I sometimes resist asking for God’s guidance, because I don’t really want to hear what God might say. I want what I want, and am not particularly open to something else. Yet trusting God would have us do what we resist—–-make our concerns and desires known to God, ask for God to show us His way, and wait for the wisdom and love of God to guide us.
There are two approaches to this kind of trust we might consider. The first is starting with the smaller things, the concerns that weigh heavily on our hearts, but in the larger scheme of things aren’t matters of life and death. I am one to fret about small decisions, and it takes considerable spiritual energy for me to remember that I need not carry the weight of them alone. These are precisely the areas where I do well to practice putting my trust in God, asking for guidance from God, acknowledging to the people around me that I don’t know what is best to do or say, and to ask for their insights. Then, there is the waiting time. If nothing comes to me by the time I need to make a decision, I go with the best that I’ve got and dare to trust that God is okay with whatever I decide. But whenever I’m given some sense of direction or guidance, I do my best to follow it, trusting that if I’m hearing God totally wrong, there will be a course correction along the way.
The second approach to trusting God is more dramatic, because quite honestly, it’s the only path left to us when we have tried everything in a situation of great difficulty and have failed, or when we’re facing something so big that we know at the onset that we don’t know what to do. Now we trust in God because there is no other choice. I daresay that we’ve all been there at one time or another—in the hospital, or when relationships are in crisis, or when we’re faced with a sudden, unwelcome change or an enormous decision with the potential to forever change our lives. We’ve been there, I suspect, when our loved ones have made foolish decisions or are in danger and we don’t know how to help, or when we’ve done something really stupid and harmful to ourselves and others and we don’t know what to do next. Then we surrender and trust in God, if you can call it that. It feels more like dying.
In both approaches, both small and large, there are some guideposts along the way. The most striking thing to me is that we are rarely given the entire plan, or the big picture, the comprehensive strategy. We might catch glimpses on occasion of the longer road before us, but more often than not, trusting God feels like doing what we can see to do today, without knowledge of tomorrow. A theologian I admire, Ann Ulanov, once said, “When trusting God, you rarely get to choose among options. Rather you take the one thing that is before you, and only after you’ve taken it, do you see what to take next, and only after you’ve taken that, will the next thing become clear.”
The psychologist Carl Jung wrote much the same thing in a letter to someone who had asked him for advice: “Your questions are unanswerable,” he responded, “because there is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed or would be the proper one. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.”
Doing with conviction the next and most necessary thing is another way of trusting God to illuminate our path. It helps us to move forward without getting too far ahead of ourselves, or ahead of God.
Another guidepost on the way of God for our lives is the gift of peace that the Apostle Paul wrote about. And it is a gift, surpassing understanding, that cannot be evoked on command but rather comes to us. In my experience it doesn’t last long, but when it comes it enables me to accept the ambiguities and uncertainties of my life, and carry on. It’s not something I could ever say to another person in a stressful or suffering time. don’t worry, be at peace. But when God says it, and we feel peace washing over us, or witness that peace washing over another, that’s an experience to cherish and hold onto, and to ask for.
In the everydayness of life, we may never know for sure what is best to do. Yet God has a hold on everything, both small and large. God is there in the ebb and flow of it all. If Christ’s coming to be with us means anything at all, surely it means that God’s love in this imperfect world can be trusted.
I leave you with one final word, one that serves well as a mantra of trust. It’s taken from an old hymn entitled Lead Kindly Light. I first heard it from a bishop as he announced to his diocese that he was stepping down from his position because of a terminal cancer diagnosis. He had always been a man of faith, but now he spoke of what it meant to trust in God from a deeper place. He did so using the refrain of this hymn: “Lead Kindly Light. Lead Thou me on. I do not ask to see the distant shore. One step enough for me.”