This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on January 15th, 2016.
An artist friend of mine e-mails from the Outer Banks of North Carolina where she is walking the beach and taking terrific photos of island foxes, burrowing crabs, running terns and sunrise. “I don’t know why, but when I put a sea shell to my ear and listen, as I did when I was a little girl, I feel very calm, and I feel the presence of God.”
Her remark makes me think of the deep past from which we emerge; the unfolding process of evolution that has littered the beach with whelks and scallops and coquina shells, and dappled the earth with humankind. We ought more often press our ears to a burnished conch, or tilt our heads toward the morning skies to listen for God in whom we live and move and have our being.
“Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean,” writes Marcus Borg in his small gem of a book The Heart of Christianity. “If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.” Marcus Borg, recalling the great nineteenth-century thinker Soren Kierkegaard, reminds us that Faith is trust, fidelity and vision more than it is an assent to a list of proposed beliefs. Faith is a relationship with God; a way of life, a path, and a journey. Faith is a way of listening in an often fraught and noisy world.
These are tense times for many. Not all Americans have equally experienced the vaunted economic recovery of recent years. Displaced persons are on the move from Central America to the north in our hemisphere, and from Africa and the Middle East into Europe on the other side of the pond. Partisan rancor is high this presidential election cycle. How does a person relax and float on such stormy seas? Break out the water-wings and the shark repellent!
As in a marriage, trust in God has to be built through attention to the partner. You can’t sit yourself down and force yourself some Faith, but you can put yourself in the company of the Beloved and in the company of people who strive to love as God loves. You can take a deep breath, reorient, and give yourself over to the buoyancy of God’s enveloping Spirit. The opposite of Faith is not doubt, says Borg, but mistrust, anxiety and worry. Those are the philandering demons that will rob us of our peace and distract us from a cheerful day.
Jesus seems idealistic in the Gospels with his counsel to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field; this itinerant rabbi who had no fixed address, bank account or pension scheme. Our anxieties drive us to be considerably more practical than that. Or perhaps our anxieties just drive us. Perhaps we are more afflicted by worry than we know, driven by a desire for a level of safety, security and certainty which does not befit the human condition.
Jesus was always the calm eye at the center of the storm. He knew what we have yet to understand; that a relationship with God brings deep calm to the froth and foam of a troubled sea which no amount of fret can purchase. Faith is learning to float when you’re more inclined to fight.
The Book of Common Prayer contains many helpful Collects, and one of my favorite is this: “O God of peace, you have taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God.”