Warren Buffet tells the story about a man who was on an important business trip in Europe when his sister called to tell him that their dad had died. Her brother couldn't get back but said to spare nothing on the funeral, whose cost he would cover. When he returned, his sister told him that the service had been beautiful and presented him bills totaling $8,000. He paid up, but a month later received a bill from the mortuary for $10. He paid that, too - and still another $10 charge the month following. When a third $10 invoice was sent to him the next month, the perplexed man called his sister to ask what was going on. "Oh," she replied, "I forgot to tell you. We buried Dad in a rented suit."[i]
We live in a time where short-term thinking so often is being substituted for long-term vision. But the writer of Hebrews names the source of life-giving vision. "Faith," the writer says, ". . . is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
Faith carries us into deep places in our lives - in joy and hardship. Hebrews describes faith that keeps us looking up and looking out. This faith is about what we are journeying toward, not what we have left behind; this faith is rooted in the assurance that we do not create - or maintain - the world in which we live. That is accomplished by the word of God; this faith moves us toward a way of living where we have to leave behind the life we have known to receive the world God has created. Strangers. Foreigners. A people journeying toward the world God has created, not backward to the world left behind.
The writer of Hebrews is both deliberate and exuberant in proclaiming the reality of God's hope. The writer is both measured and boundless in proclaiming how God offers a deep promise of hope that we possess in the present and hold onto in the future.[ii]
Faith is for today, and faith is for tomorrow. And Hebrews, in example after example, tells of those who journeyed obediently in faith and those who were tested by suffering as they followed. We see time after time that this faith requires deep trust; this faith is profoundly dislocating; this faith is utterly dependent on God.
In using all these examples of those who lived and died in faith, the writer of Hebrews also says, without question, this way in the world - this way of faith - is very hard.
When the late news anchor John Chancellor retired in the 1990's, he was asked about the most memorable moment in his 43 years of reporting. Chancellor didn't mention Vietnam, or Watergate. Instead, he named the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Black delegates were scarce on the convention floor that year - coming just in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Chancellor recalled stumbling upon an older African-American man toward the back of the auditorium who was holding on to a pillar. The man was weeping and mumbling beneath tearful heaves, "All my life . . . all my life."
At first the newsman thought that the man had fallen. But when he leaned in closer, Chancellor saw that the man's sport coat was riddled with cigarette burn holes. A fellow delegate had decided that this man would be his personal ashtray and then other delegates joined in. "The pain and anguish on that man's face is something I will go to my grave remembering," said Chancellor.
1964 . . . 2019 . . . and still the cries: "All my life . . . all my life."
To say then as now that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen is certainly to know dislocation. And if this faith leads us to depend utterly on God, we don't come to that without pain and hardship, and an intense feeling of being a stranger in this world.
Seth Godin recently wrote: "The magic wand store is closed. It's fun to imagine what we'd do if we had a magic wand, something that, with a wave, could produce the funding, the open door, the technology, the breakthrough, the insight, the inspiration, the shortcut, but they stopped making magic wands several millennia ago."[iii]
Just so, even though many continue to try to peddle us knock-off magic wands (read this book, take this seminar, try this diet, fear those people, join this movement, use this substance, get this degree, get angry at this outrage, follow this candidate, lead this cause), what we have is not a magic wand, what we have is faith - the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
It is a very courageous way of living that will test us as it dislocates us, as it drives us deeper into dependence in God. We are called to follow, even like Sarah and Abraham, not knowing our destination, to a loving, risking, tender trust. We are called to seek a homeland whose architect and builder is God, even when we don't have a map or a blueprint.
We are invited to obey before we fully understand. We are called to act in a love and hope we can only imagine before there is any sense that faith in the living God will guide us to the city of God's design.
Vincent Harding, who died five years ago, was a veteran of the civil rights movement who drafted some speeches for Martin Luther King Jr., including "A Time to Break Silence," which King delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, exactly one year before he was killed.
Not long before his death, Harding was interviewed about how the song This Little Light of Mine was sung in Selma during Bloody Sunday. Harding remembered rather than saying, "Governor Wallace, give us our freedom," the whole contingent of marchers sang: This little light of mine/I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine/I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine in the face of government power and angry mobs and dogs and guns and water hoses - This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
Harding said the most basic, deepest word was: "Whatever you do, we're gonna let our light shine. God gave it to us. We're gonna let it shine. . ."
For faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Then Vincent Harding said, "Someone was writing recently making fun of 'a Kum Ba Yah moment'. Whenever somebody jokes about Kum Ba Yah, my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where co-workers were coming from all over the country, to come and help in the process of voter registration and taking great risks on behalf of the transformation of that state and this nation.
"The first week of orientation was the week in which Schwerner and Goodman and their beloved brother Jimmy were there. And it was during the time that they had left the campus that they were first arrested then released and then murdered.
"The word came back to us that the three of them were missing. And we got up and told these hundreds of young people that, if any of them felt at this point they needed to return home, we would not think the less of them at all. We said, 'Let's just take a couple of hours just for the people to make this decision and make it now.'
"What I found," Harding said, "as I moved around among the small groups was that, in group after group, people were singing: Kum Ba Yah: come by here, my Lord, someone's missing, Lord, come by here. We all need you, Lord, come by here."
"I could never laugh at 'Kum Ba Yah moments' after that," Vincent Harding said, "because I saw then that almost no one went home from there. They were going to continue on the path."[iv]
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
It means we trust the one who is sending us into the world. It means we will feel profound dislocation as we live in this faith. We find that, in the middle of the journey, all we can do is depend on God to see us home, because according to Hebrews, the destination of the journey of faith is never in doubt.
Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers, better known to generations of children and parents as "Mr. Rogers" from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, was often honored for his work on his children's program and regularly found himself appearing before groups of celebrities.
Whenever he did this, no matter the audience or the occasion, Fred Rogers never failed to end his remarks, not with "thank you very much" or with "have a good evening." He always concluded his remarks with the simple benediction: "May God be with you." Note that he didn't say, "God bless you" - asking God to do something new. He knew that God had already blessed them, couldn't help but bless them, would always seek to bless them.
"May God be with you" meant "I hope that you are aware that God is with you."[v]
Faith is exactly like that. It is present. It knows the challenges of life and the strife of the world. But God renews faith daily.
Faith gives us a home. It gives us a road to journey toward that home. God's hope is persistent and lasting. It goes eye to eye with hardship and keeps on hoping.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
May God be with you . . . today.
[i] From Warren Buffet's 2007 Letter to Berkshire-Hathaway Shareholders, March, 2008. p. 20
[ii] Thomas G. Long, Interpretation Commentary on Hebrews. WJK, 2011
[iii] "The magic wand store is closed," a blog post by Seth Godin, November 19, 2016
[iv] From Krista Tippett's interview with Vincent Harding on her show "On Being", August, 2011
[v] Eliot Daley, "The Presence of God in Fred Rogers' Life and Work", The Huffington Post, Junek 30, 2011