Archive for the 'Faith' Category

THE NEXT STEP/ACT OF FAITH

“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”—Hebrews 11:1-2 MSG

I’ve just discovered ancestors I had no idea existed. No, I haven’t been on Ancestry.com.  I read about George Houser who died last week at 99. He was identified as the last surviving member of the first Freedom Ride. I expected to learn about his participation in those integrated bus rides through the south that began in 1961 to test the Supreme Court ruling in Boynton vs. Virginia which had declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional.

George Houser didn’t ride one of those buses in the early ‘60’s. He rode the very first bus—in 1947. He and fifteen other men (eight white, eight black) took a bus trip through the south to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Irene Morgan vs. Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1944 Irene Morgan was returning to her home in Baltimore after visiting her mother in Virginia. When the driver asked her to give up her front-of-the-Greyhound seat, she refused—eleven years before Rosa Parks! The police were called. Mrs. Morgan was cited and fined. She appealed her case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1946 the court held that segregation in interstate commerce was unconstitutional. Southern states mostly ignored the ruling.

George Houser and some other early civil rights activists set out to test (expose?) the strength of the Court’s ruling. In April 1947, they set out on a journey they called the “Journey of Reconciliation”. Their bus trip wound through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  Black men sat in the front of the bus, and whites in the back. They all violated equally the (now unconstitutional!) segregated seating laws. When one of them was asked to move, he would explain calmly to the driver and/or the police, “As an interstate passenger I have a right to sit anywhere in this bus. This is the law as laid down by the United States Supreme Court.” Sometimes they found support for their position. Other times they were arrested, jailed, and sometimes beaten. In North Carolina black riders Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson were arrested and sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang for violating the state’s segregation laws–which the Supreme Court had already declared unconstitutional! Many consider that “Journey of Reconciliation” the very first Freedom Ride.

But the Journey of Reconciliation was only part of George Houser’s human rights legacy. In 1940 he was among a group of theological students who refused to register for the military draft begun by the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. The law exempted theological students , but they felt called to protest the system for peacetime military conscription. Houser and seven other students were sentenced to federal prison. George Houser served a year in a federal prison, and then set out to complete his theological education at Chicago Theological Seminary. When he and a (black) fellow student were refused service in a Chicago restaurant, their search for constructive action led them to become founding members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). George Houser served as the group’s first executive secretary. In the 1950’s, Houser’s focus shifted to South Africa and the struggle against apartheid. His activism for various soclai justice causes continued in some form until very shortly before his death at 99.

George Houser’s story reminds us that we all stand on someone’s shoulders. Dr. King and other better-known figures stand on the shoulders of George Houser and Irene Morgan. All who are working today to eradicate the poisonous racism that infects our society stand on their shoulders and on the shoulders of King, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, and many more. Their “…act[s] of faith…set them above the crowd.” The energy builds as Hebrews 11 tells the stories of ordinary people who engaged in heroic acts of faith: “…by faith…”, “…by an act of faith…”, “…acting in faith…”.  Faith goes beyond simply believing the right things to betting your life on them. People of faith live as though that barely-visible promised reality is already at hand.  We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us because of their “acts of faith”.

In 2007, a New York Times reporter interviewed 90-year-old  George Houser. How did he keep on working for difficult and often  unpopular causes when progress was often so long and hard? He referred to the hymn “Lead Kindly Light”, particularly the words that say:  “…Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene — one step enough for me.” “I believe that,” Houser said. “I believe one step is enough and you take it, as long as you have faith you’re doing the right thing to begin with.”

George Houser’s  “one step” acts of faith helped transform our society. Today George, Irene, and all our spiritual ancestors who’ve stood on their shoulders ask us: “What’s the next step? What’s your next act of faith?” It’s probably not a headline-grabber. It’s more likely a conversation with a neighbor, a co-worker, a child or grandchild. It might be a gentle, peace-full response to a harsh, aggressive word or action, or a series of lifestyle choices that say, “Here’s a different way for us to live together. Want to join me and try it out?” All our “one step” acts of faith in the right direction lead finally to the “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) envisioned by the prophets, Jesus, and others who’ve caught that vision.   

“Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in.”—Hebrews 12:1-2 MSG

 

A Moving Experience (1)–Now We Know

“…Abraham [and Sarah]…went out without knowing where [they] were going.” Hebrews 11:8

About six months ago my wife and I decided to relocate to Las Vegas, Nevada. I served churches there for a total of twelve years. [Yes, “Sin City” has many churches of “all sorts and conditions”.] Two of our children and all five of our grandchildren live there. Since I retired three years ago, we’ve made that drive (four hours each way from our home in north-central AZ) at least twice a month. We were wearing out the road and ourselves. The solution turned out to be to put ourselves close enough to participate more fully in our growing grandchildren’s lives. (They are, FYI, the top 5 most amazing grandchildren ever. But all of yours are also in the top 5. Don’t even try to do the math!) Our journey to that new home has followed a longer, twistier road than we’d ever imagined. The nasal/whiny voice from the back seat kept asking “Are we there yet?”, and our consistent response was a desperately prayerful, “Not yet. But we’re getting closer.”

Dianna and I are experienced movers. Her family moved every year or two while she was growing up. That experience equipped her well to marry a United Methodist pastor-to-be. My 40+ years of active ministry included more than a dozen job-related moves.  We are grizzled veterans of the Moving Wars. Every move has brought its own surprises. But this time we’ve felt a special kinship with Abraham and his journey. (See Genesis 12-25)  One of his spiritual descendants wrote that Abraham “…went out without knowing where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8 NRSV) That’s precisely how it was for us. No bishop had decreed and whispered in God’s ear our itinerary and final destination. “By faith…” we went out, “without knowing where…”

“Are we there yet?” The voice grew more and more strident. Our quest grew more and more complex. We looked at more homes in more places than in any move in almost thirty years. We encountered folks with hidden (and not-so-hidden) agendas well beyond simple real estate transactions. Two months ago we thought we understood the timeline. So we stored about 80% of our possessions anticipating we’d see everything again about now. We were wrong. So far all we’ve seen of those things is the monthly storage bill.

A few days ago we came to the city once more. We went out with our real estate agent (who’s become a friend) thinking we knew where we were going. Recently the price had dropped on a house we thought could be a good fit. Turned out the price was so reasonable because the house in the flesh was such a poor imitation of its online pictures and promises. We were disappointed but not surprised. We regrouped and turned to a home that had been on our radar. We’d more or less concluded it wasn’t right for us. Turned out it was. Within 24 hours we had a deal. NOW WE KNOW the where, what, and when of our new home.

“By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going.” (Heb. 11:8 MSG) We set out appallingly clueless about where we were going. We considered some seriously “out-of-the-box” options.  Family, friends, economics, and reflecting time on those long back-and-forth drives helped focus our search and clarify our needs and wants. But the crucial part of this journey was the act of saying Yes. It was the step beyond talking, “blue-skying”, and “what if-ing” to doing something. “Faith” goes far beyond simply believing “six impossible things before breakfast”. “An act of faith” chooses to embrace those counter-cultural, counter-intuitive beliefs and allow them to shape our life. The Message translation makes that very clear. Most translations render the roll call of faith heroes in Hebrews 11 with the refrain “by faith…”. The Message’s refrain is “by an act of faith…”. Faith isn’t faith until it’s shaping your life.

Our journey has raised all sorts of spiritual issues, not unlike the issues that confronted Abraham. What’s God’s will and how do we know it? Was our future home predetermined from the beginning in some heavenly script ? Or was it just the best choice available after our unsuccessful attempts to buy the other places we thought were “The One”? Our journey has also included numerous encounters with greed, idolatry, and assorted sin, and also with good and helpful people simply trying to do their best and be helpful. Perhaps we’ll address some of these issues in future posts.

Dianna and I are hardly the only folks “going out without knowing where….” Life shoves us out the door onto the road to somewhere more often than we care to admit. Here’s a prayer for all pilgrims who don’t know the GPS coordinates of their destination:

“Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (Traditional prayer quoted by David Lose in Preaching at the Crossroads)


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