09 August 2010

Growing in Faith

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 8 August 2010

Readings: Wis 18:6-9; Ps 33:1, 12, 18-19, 20-22; Heb 11:1-2, 8-19; Lk 12:32-48

"Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen". (Heb 11,1)

We call faith a theological virtue because it is a grace from God. No one can rightly say he has acquired faith out of his own doing. It is something that God puts in our hearts. It is also both a gift and a task. We need to deepen it, teach it discernment, partner it with reason, and make it grow as we go through the stages of life. But even its growth is still a grace from God.

Let us reflect on several levels of growing in faith. I don't propose though that this listing is definitive or exhaustive.

1. Faith is recognition of God’s handiwork in our life and history.

Once we recognize that God is present in our life, that He guides us, provides for us and gives us strength and encouragement, we know we have faith.

Heb 11 details how God, whose will Abraham followed, guided him in his journey, gave him a son with his wife Sarah in their old age, tested his faith but spared Isaac from becoming a human sacrifice, and made him indeed the father of many nations as promised him.

Not only is He the God of our personal lives, He is also the God of history. The First Reading from Wisdom mentions the Passover, the great feast celebrated by the Jews in remembrance of God liberating them, through Moses, from slavery in Egypt. We Christians celebrate the Pascal feasts of Christmas and Easter in remembrance of God liberating us, through Christ, from the slavery of sin and death.

2. Faith is trust in the Lord.

If we recognize the many ways that God shows His providence and love for us, then we are also made to see that He is worthy of our trust. The next level of faith is trustng in the Lord.

The columnist Fr. John Kavanaugh, SJ, reflects on Heb 11,1 via an experience he had:

"Long ago, when I spent a month working at the 'house of the dying' in Calcutta, I sought a sure answer to my future. On the first morning I met Mother Teresa after Mass at dawn. She asked, 'And what can I do for you?' I asked her to pray for me. 'What do you want me to pray for?' I voiced the request I had borne thousands of miles: 'Pray that I have clarity.' She said no. That was that. When I asked why, she announced that clarity was the last thing I was clinging to and had to let go of. When I commented that she herself had always seemed to have the clarity I longed for, she laughed: 'I have never had clarity; what I’ve always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust.'"

Much as we wish to understand everything that happens in our life, there will always be things that lie beyond our comprehension. Much as we wish to see clearly what lies ahead, there will be always be variables that lie beyond our vision. So what we need to pray for is not so much attaining greater clarity as greater trust in the Lord.

Our daily lives function generally based on the trust we give to people we barely know except for their credentials, experience, reputation or the company they’re with. Think of doctors, drivers, teachers, technicians, engineers, etc. If we can trust them, sometimes literally putting our lives in their hands, why not in the Lord?

3. Faith is patient endurance.

The next level of faith is when our trust turns into a commitment to trusting in God in the long term. We grow in faith when our trust evolves into patient endurance.

There is a classic Christian story about a young man who went to an old monk to ask for prayer. "Will you please pray that I may be more patient?" he asked. The holy man agreed. They knelt together and the monk began to pray, "Lord, send this young man tribulation in the morning; send this young man tribulation in the afternoon; send this young man..." At that point the young man blurted out, "No, no, I didn’t ask you to pray for tribulation. I wanted you to pray for patience." "Ah," responded the wise old man, "it is through tribulation that we learn patience."

James 1,2-4 counsels us: “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Patient endurance is a virtue in stark contrast to a world that insists on instant gratification. I don’t deny the convenience and relief of having my needs met at the shortest time possible. It is just that many of the really important things in life need time. Fools rush in but true love waits. The wheels of justice run deliberately slow so all facts may be examined, and all rights respected -- otherwise, there would be no justice to speak of. Excellence in whatever field comes only with long and tedious hours of practice. Our bodies need time to grow, so do our spirits.

In the Gospel passage this Sunday, Jesus asks his disciples to be watchful and vigilant. Faith is waiting and watching. The exercise is good for our soul. It makes us mature and grow so when God’s blessings for us come, we are ready for them.

4. Faith is anticipation of God’s grace.

Finally, we know we our faith has matured when we come to accept and find joy that everything is grace. We know our faith has grown deeper when we can join Job in his prayer: "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!" (Job 1,26).

It is a sign of deep faith when we can take the bad things that happen to us and know that in our pain and confusion God is with us. Because of God, we know we can more than survive -- we can overcome, and come out of tragedy a better person.

What about the good things we receive? James 1,17 says: "All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." And Mt 10,8 says: "What you receive as a gift, give as a gift." Thus, in the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus asks His disciples to sell their belongings and give alms to the poor. The Kingdom is worth it.

In Mt 12,32, Jesus says: "Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom." Yet why is there always an element of gloom and doom when we talk about the coming of the Kingdom? God has demonstrated time and time again His love for us, yet why are we filled with anxiety over the master's return?

Sure, expressions like He will come like a thief in the night doesn't make things lighter. But the main problem  is when we let sin and guilt overwhelm us. We may think that for as long as we mininize the damage or that nobody else knows, we're alright. But every time we sin, our instinct for God is weakened. We gradually lose sight of His presence in our life. Our doubts about His love and protection grow steadily stronger. Having lost touch with our source of strength, we are easily disheartened in the face of difficulties. We begin to take Him for granted more and more. Some are even led to think they are beyond redemption. Sin pulls us away from God. When this happens, fear creeps in. And so our relationship with God becomes calculated and fearful.

This is not how God wants us to relate with Him. He wants to gift us with His Kingdom. What is this Kingdom? It is the state of things when God reigns, when everything happens according to God's plan by our free and conscious acceptance of His will. When the Kingdom comes, there will be endless joy and fullness of life.

For this to happen, we need to put our hearts to it. Mt 12,34 says: "For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be." We need to have our hearts fixed on the values of the Kingdom, not on riches that thieves can steal or moth can destroy. We need to let go of possessions and ambitions that prevent us from receiving more blessings from the Lord. We need to have a faith that anticipates God's grace.

What level of faith are you in right now?

Let us pray that our recognition of God's gifts lead us to trust and patient endurance and a yearning for the coming of His Kingdom. Amen.

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