Title: Seeking a homeland
Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Date: Aug 8, 2010
Author: Meghan Florian
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” – or, in another translation I memorized as a child, “faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.”
Surety. Certainty. Assurance. Conviction. All words that put me on edge, though I have also clung to this verse in troubling times, as a remedy to my fears, a definition of the kind of faith I have often put on a pedestal – the kind I’m not sure I’ve ever really had.
I envy those people who never struggle with doubt. Envy them, and admire them, too. I’ve known plenty of prideful cynics, usually snide intellectual types, who scoff at what appears to be “simple” or “naive” faith, but I think these folks are missing something. Faith is a beautiful thing to behold. It’s a good, good thing to know people who live their lives with conviction, especially as one who sometimes lacks that sense of assurance.
Sometimes, honestly, it can feel a lot like pretending. It seems to me that when we lack faith of our own, though, that we could do worse than to pretend, if pretending means following the example of those pillars of faith we so wish we could be like. Hebrews 11 tells the stories of many such “heroes” of faith, and I think this is significant, because even when we don’t have faith we still have the stories of the faithful to look to when we are in need of renewal.
This is different from the understanding of Hebrews 11 I’ve carried around over the years, which tends to focus on the distinction between “seeing” and “believing.” That is why verse one became a sort of mantra for me over the years, in hope that perhaps I might find the certainty it speaks of. But, as I meditated on Hebrews 11 this week, I realized that though it is about assurance and conviction, it is about something else, too: desire. The desire that what is unseen be made visible.
So, the distinction is not so much “seeing” and “believing” as it is the “seen” and the “unseen,” which seem to be different things. Faith, at least in part, is the desire to see that which is hidden. It’s not simply about whether we believe in the unseen God here and now, but whether we believe in God’s good future. It’s not merely about some other-worldly unseen, it’s about what we imagine for the days to come. And that brings us to the matter of hope.
One of my favorite descriptions of what hope is comes from Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose. The main character, Oliver Ward, is an engineer. He and his family are living out west in the middle of nowhere, where he is trying to get a canal built, but things keep going wrong, and progress is slow. Describing this period in which Oliver’s ambitions were constantly thwarted, Stegner writes, “Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality.”
Hope looks at the present reality, and rather than walking blindly actually sees further, beyond what is to what is possible – hope pushes the boundaries of reality, and imagines and asks for more.
Most of what I know about hope – what I have seen – is based on stories, including stories like Abraham’s. Abraham’s story is one of not knowing. He sets out despite the lack of clear directions, and despite the lack of a roof over his head he remains as a sojourner in a strange land. He must have had a better imagination than mine, to envision the city that God would build, when as one ancient commentator put it, “The one in receipt of the promise of the whole earth did not even own a plot three cubits long.”
Abraham, the text reminds us, was as good as dead. Both he and Sarah were very old when she conceived, when she bore within her very body the hope of God’s people, when she gave birth to God’s promise. And so, what I am wondering is, who are the people, and where are the places, that are as good as dead? And what promises might we see fulfilled by envisioning God’s good future, with them in it?
Two years ago, while I was a student at Duke, I went on a Pilgrimage of Pain & Hope in Brazil. Walking through favelas in Sao Paulo, Salvador, and elsewhere, I felt like I encountered more pain than hope most of the time. Almost always tucked into valleys where they can be easily ignored, the favelas were out of sight and out of mind for most folks, which is not so different from the United States, when you think about it – we like to keep such evidence of frailty hidden, so that our human hopes will not be jeopardized by the pain their existence displays.
On a journey specifically designed to highlight the juxtapositions of seen and unseen, rich and poor, white and black, I looked in many faces that were full of despair – and in others that ought to have been, yet were instead glowing with a hope I did not know how to respond to. When small children playing soccer in a favela paused from their game to tell me how they want to be doctors, lawyers, and professional athletes, as much as I wanted to take it as evidence of hope, I felt the opposite.
I saw things that made hope seem impossible, and when asked to respond to that, to name the glimpses of hope that appeared amidst the pain, all I had were tears. The poverty was paralyzing. Hope was naïve, without foundation. But Abraham “… looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” I want to find the foundation of that city.
While in São Paulo, our group spent time at two different churches. One church sat at the top of a hill, across the street from the edge of a favela. This church gave birth to a smaller church in the favela. While wandering around the sanctuary of the church on the hill, we got to look at a mural depicting plans for a large, ornate new building, which made reference to the favela and the smaller church. The new building still stood on the outskirts of the favela, with entrances on both the favela side, and the nicer part of town. I found it odd how even this incorporation revealed the church’s understanding of the poor. The church and the favela would always be separate in this vision.
In their future planning, there was no intention of integrating the churches, and certainly no visionary future in which the favela itself might cease to be. The church on the hill could support the church in the favela all it wanted financially, it’s members isolated from the poverty literally across the street, while remaining detached, never walking down that hill into the favela, never experiencing first hand its brokenness.
I think this is how we live, most of the time, because it seems too hard to hope in the face of such pain.
With this picture in my head, I wanted to hope, but it seemed wrong to even try in some way, to paint some romanticized picture of poor folks who have great faith, to be the affluent white american who admires the faith of the poor but has no intention of selling all I have and going to live in a favela, in an alley that smells like urine, among the rats and the fear of violence and drug wars.
It is too tempting to paint a sentimental, abstract picture of faithful poor folks in developing countries. Thus, while I couldn’t name the glimpses of hope myself, as time went on I started to see them anyway. As I met new friends, and learned their stories, they showed me where hope lies.
When I sat with Pastor Marcello, who was devoted to that church in the middle of the favela, a sojourner in that place, who desired to see the lives of the children there transformed, I was able to wonder if maybe, just maybe it is possible to disrupt the current order of things. Maybe, with hope based on the right foundation.
In the words of Hebrews 11, Pastor Marcello “desired a better country.” That is what faith is, I think. The desire for a better country. The ability to see beyond the current reality, to what could be – to what has been promised. To seek out what has been hidden, those invisible on the edges of society, and to make those bodies visible. To imagine a world without favelas, and to live as if such a world is possible.
What still troubles me in the text, though, is those who died – in faith – without having received the promises. We are told that “from a distance they saw and greeted them,” yet I admit I find it small consolation to say that they saw them from afar, when the fulfillment of God’s promises, still seems so far off.
All that I really know is desire. The desire for a better country. And to get there, we must put one foot in front of the other, even if it feels like we are only pretending to have faith sometimes, wandering on a pilgrim’s journey, seeking a homeland.
Augustine put it well when he asked, “How…when you are walking somewhere, will you even move your feet, if you have no hope of getting there?” We have to hope that we will get there eventually. If we do that, perhaps then it can be said of us as well, “God is not ashamed to be called their God.”