Advent season is upon us, and Jeremy finally returns to writing for the Gospel Worldview Blog. Perhaps it’s in anticipation of the New Year and those dreaded resolutions. (If I recall correctly, I think I had something purposefully vague like “write more often” in my short list last year…) Maybe it’s also that I feel like I’ve had something to say for a long time but haven’t had the discipline or mental energy to sit down and do it. It could also be that I’ve been inspired by discovering a friend’s posts about life here in the inner city of North Philly – posts I find hilarious, but also thought-provoking. I wish I could write like that.
But enough self-conscious reflection about my actual sitting down and writing. Too much more of this, and it’ll feel like i’m trying to imitate a Dave Eggers novel.
Advent is a concentrated season of reflection on the incarnation. It’s also a season where we emphasize hope, and try to practice it. People also talk about love in this season – “Love was Born on Christmas Day,” as Christina Rossetti poetically put it (wait what? Hm…gotta think about that a bit…). Not as many people talk about faith. Faith seems to be more Hebrews 11 territory. Or maybe the book of John, or even Romans. We don’t teach about those passages so much during Christmas time in Christian churches. During and leading up to Christmas, we talk about the beginning of Luke or Matthew, maybe even pop open Isaiah 9 or Micah 5.
I want to talk about faith.
What does real faith look like? How is it connected to beliefs? If it is “by faith” that we are absolved of our sins and made right with God, what does “faith” mean?
This morning, a young guy came to our church’s morning Bible study and prayer time. He lives only about a block away, but we hadn’t seen him in a while – since about the middle of the summer. He’s a chill guy in his mid-20s (Ok, so I clearly need to work on my descriptions of people…). Came to Philly from Puerto Rico not long ago. As we were starting our Bible study, he told me why he was back:
“I wanted weed this morning but I couldn’t find any of it. Man, that was God talkin’. He wanted me to come back over here for church.”
He confessed that he’d been recently addicted to Heroine; honestly, only three days clean. I back-calculated: that means he’s been clean since Saturday. I had stopped by his place on Friday to pick up his little brother for a youth church event, and we had chatted a little bit. Maybe God used that short moment that we talked (as I waited for his little brother to put on his jacket and get out the door), to remind him of God’s presence, I thought to myself.
“Last night I was prayin’ and I felt that flavor on me, you know. That flavor that’s like…God telling you something.” I nodded.
Yeah. I know that flavor, I thought to myself. I’ve experienced it before too. I experience it a lot. It’s that conviction that I receive as I pray that God would remove my sin – the conviction that God is pleased with my prayer. That ineffable thing I feel when I pray in hope for God’s kingdom to come, and I somehow just know that it is happening, that God has listened to my prayer. It’s that sense of God’s special love for me that I get sometimes when I’m doing something that’s really hard for me to do and that I really don’t like doing – “picking up the cross,” you could call it.
He felt that flavor. And somehow, he knew it was God. But not only did he recognize it was God, he responded – waking up early today to come to morning prayer.
He told a bunch of other stories about times he’s experienced God’s special touch, stories involving guns and cops, demons, drugs. I believed him about these stories – not just that he felt that he experienced those things, but I believed that he was right: those things were really God’s revelation of himself to him. God really was speaking to him in those experiences, I thought. Instead of responding with a default attitude of suspicion that relegates these types of stories to the “superstition”/folk religion box, I saw these stories as testimonies of authentic experiences of faith. Experiences from God.
Maybe part of it was that since the beginning of this advent season, I’ve been reading about a lot of “supernatural” (although I’d prefer the word “wondrous”) sorts of things that occur when God shows up to dwell amongst human beings: an angel appearing to a young virgin and telling her she’s going to conceive a son, and an awesome one at that; hosts of angels making an appearance to a bunch of shepherds grazing their sheep (Have you ever wondered: did the sheep see it too?), that spectacular star that guides a bunch of sages traveling from the East to come honor this baby with gifts worthy of a king.
Maybe I believed with this guy that those experiences were really experiences from God because of my own recent “touched by an angel” experience. In a time when I cried out to God and needed his confirmation of his presence, guiding hand, and protection, he assured me of his presence in a wondrous – yes, even angelic – way. Not angels singing in the sky, not an angel delivering me a message, but, I believe, angels nonetheless.
So I haven’t talked that much in this post about faith yet (maybe I’ll need to save that for a future post…), but suffice to say, it is these kinds of lived experience of faith that I see a lot here in the inner city – experiences which I would likely in the past have readily dismissed off-hand – that have gotten me thinking about the nature of faith. Not a lot of people here, I would say, have what I would consider a robust theological system of beliefs about God. In fact, a lot of their beliefs about Jesus are problematic. But, their experiences of God, I think, are real (or, at least, many of them). Of course, I’m not endorsing a blanket assumption that all peoples’ self-understandings of their experiences of God are authentic, but as I’ve listened to people here and lived here, I’ve come to see the need for me to refine my understanding of what authentic faith is. These people are following the same Jesus I’m following. They’re trusting the same savior I’m trusting, experiencing the same God-with-us that I’ve experienced. Some of their beliefs will have to change over time, and I hope my church is a part of that. But their relationship with God, I’m convinced, is one of authentic faith.
So then, what is it that we have in common? What is authentic faith? Sometime, I think I’ll try to take a look at all the uses of the word faith (which Roy Clouser does a decent job of here), but for now let me take a stab at it here:
Authentic faith recognizes God’s very presence (Immanuel – “God with us”) in the person of Jesus. It hears the promises of God’s messengers, and takes them to heart, treasuring them. It recognizes when God is using certain things – like times when you can’t find drugs to get high on, or experiences of that Holy Spirit flavor – to wake you up Spiritually and get you back in church. It recognizes that when that drunk driver who was about to run over you narrowly misses at the last second, it wasn’t blind luck: it was because, for those who take refuge in the Most High, God’s angels won’t let their feet strike even a rock.
I think being here in the inner city has grown my faith and helped me to better understand this season of Advent.
What do you think?