One of the most beautiful definitions of faith came in last week’s lectionary, Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I love both the simplicity and wisdom of this definition.
Faith, not being something tactile, is based on both future thinking and an understanding that things exist which are not tangible. Easy! From that definition we can come up with a myriad of things we have faith in, from the lottery to government, our children’s futures to security in our old age. All of these examples, under this definition of faith, are faith acts. The problem is that while you may be able to claim “faith” in those and meet the definition, there is more to faith than just the things hoped for and conviction for things not seen.
The context of this definition is really interesting. Hebrews 11 is dealing with a fundamental question for people of faith: what does it mean to believe in God? For many people in the modern world, this is a real struggle. There is so much in this world that would cause us to not believe. From war and sickness, untimely death, persecution, terror---you name it, many people come back and say, “If God is a loving God, how can [fill in the blank] happen?”
The problem is that faith as we have come to know it in our society has become about us, how we feel, and who we see ourselves to be. I was in seminary when I first recognized this reality. It was the first time that I went to a “Taizé” service. The repetitive music was good, with nice words and a peaceful sentiment. But for me, something was missing. The service was about how we were connecting with God, not in a physical sense of what we were doing, but in the esoteric sense of what we were thinking and where our minds were. Even though we were in a corporate place, the focus was individual, at least for that service. In that moment, there was a real disconnect in my mind, because for me, faith is action.
Interestingly, when Brother Roger started the Taizé community, it was not about individualism. It was during the Second World War, and he and his sister were given the call to create a place of refuge. He used his resources to create a welcoming community where people could live and thrive without concern. For that reason, Brother Roger established a practice that prayer should be done alone, out of respect for those in the community that did not share the same beliefs. In his orders for the community, the communal life and mission of hospitality was primary to the individual wants.
The interesting thing that I recognized about the Taizé services is that what makes the Taizé community so powerful and makes the worship unifying is often lost in the United States, since when the services are performed here, you are typically in a room of like-minded people from a similar background. When I attended Taizé services in Europe, the power of the chanting was that it was not an individual experience, and the questions were never about how I individually felt. Instead, they were about being next to someone participating in the song when they looked very different, spoke very differently, and probably believed very differently then I did, but at the moment, we were one. This oneness allowed me to shed all of the baggage of being me, and be fully present with the people next to me. We looked and listened to each other as we went through the motions of the service. This was the opposite of the first time I experienced Taizé in seminary, when the emphasis was to retreat into ourselves.
I believe that faith is found in community. Later in Hebrews 11, the writer states:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In reality, it is the witnesses that drive the faith. It is the witness that gives assurance of hope and the conviction, because when we connect with others and live out our faith, we find truth and life.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen