Jesus said, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Mark 9: 23-24
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of this mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.’”
I stumbled into the campus chapel on Easter Sunday of my sophomore year in college. It was one of the saddest days of my life to that point, following a series of soul-crushing events. C.S. Lewis describes the initial feeling of grief as akin to fear–the same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness. I was that kind of stunned and dazed, unable to focus on anything for more than a few minutes. And while I didn’t want to be alone, I also couldn’t bear to be in conversation with anyone.
I don’t remember anything about the Easter service that morning except one piece of the sermon. The priest said that there is only one way to grasp the meaning of resurrection, and that is through the experience of death on this side of the grave –”little deaths,” he called them, that give way to new life.
That’s what I was experiencing, I realized as he spoke. Something in my life had died, and it wasn’t coming back, no matter how much I wanted it to. I had no idea what resurrection would look like, and I didn’t have the sense it would happen anytime soon. But I left chapel that day with a seed of hope planted in my heart, and with that hope, faith. Faith that life after this death could happen, that it would happen, someday.
Later that day, or perhaps that week, a friend of my mother’s called me. She had heard of what happened to me and was reaching out to express her sorrow. I thanked her, standing in the hallway of my dorm, taking, as we did in those days, on a telephone tethered to a wall. “Mariann,” she said as we were saying goodbye, “God is with you, even if you don’t feel it.” I didn’t feel it; I didn’t feel much of anything. But what she said stayed with me. I didn’t have to feel it for it to be true. I hoped that, maybe later, the feelings would come.
In his book, Deep and Wide, pastor Andy Stanley describes what he calls “faith catalysts,” five distinct pathways through which we can experience the love of God. His particular focus is catalysts for those drawn to the Christian faith — ways we can experience God through the presence and love of Jesus and, in response, choose to place our faith in him. Two of the five, he suggests, come to us, as it were, from God’s side. They are the ways that God makes the initiative to reach us. The other three, he says, depend on our active participation.
One of the ways God comes to us is through other people, the particular people whose examples of faith inspire us, or who seem to come into our lives at just the right moment and say just what we need to hear when we need to hear it. They could be anyone: parent or teacher, friend or stranger, mentor or adversary. The faith experience is what happens when, through the example or presence of another person, we feel the presence of God. It’s not just a human exchange; it’s the spirit of God at work, speaking through another person. That’s how I experienced my mother’s friend calling me in my time of need. Her words didn’t take the pain away, but there was something more in her words–an assurance of God’s presence that stayed with me and gave me hope.
One of the catalysts that requires our active participation is what Stanley calls “practical teaching,” the presentation of a gospel truth that resonates deeply within us, speaks to us, and is, in that moment, both illuminating and helpful. That’s what I experienced on that Easter Sunday so long ago–an interpretation of the resurrection that spoke to my broken heart with a word of hope. I came away from church that day with a way of understanding my experience through the prism of the gospel. The gift came from the word spoken by the preacher–but if I hadn’t made my way to church that morning, I would have missed it.
I’ll write about the other catalysts in future posts. For today, I turn back to the passages that prefaced my words here. In both accounts–that of a desperate father seeking healing for his son and that of the apostles wanting Jesus to give them more faith than they had–there is a sense of longing, a desire for more, an acknowledgment of inadequacy in matters of faith and belief. And in both instances, there’s reassurance: we needn’t have perfect beliefs, or complete faith. Jesus says to us that a little bit of faith can go along way. As your bishop, I can attest to that truth.