What, you say?
Well, it’s one of those times when the English language isn’t quite adequate. The New Testament infinitive verb pistēo, however it’s conjugated, is usually translated as some version of “believe.” The problem is, most contemporary English-speakers use “believe” for something like “mental assent.” We might say, “I believe it’s going to rain soon,” based on the weather forecast, the appearance of the sky, and the feel of the air. We’re just making a dispassionate observation.
But pistēo connotes more commitment, more skin in the game. We might tell a child who’s entering a competition, “You’ve got this. I believe in you.” So when the scriptures use pistēo, even if it makes it into English as “believe,” it’s this second sense of “believe in” that we need to see, rather than the more cerebral “believe that.” It’s like if “faith” we a verb. (If “parent” and “impact” can be verbs, I guess “faith” can, right?)
Stuck as we are in the midst of a global pandemic, with an end only vaguely in sight, the activity of faith-ing is in a particularly challenging context. The word that has been bouncing around inside my brain over the last several months is “straitened.” As in “strait jacket” or “dire straits” or “straits of Gibraltar.” To be straitened is to be … well, constrained (the words are obviously related), to have limited range of motion, fewer options than would otherwise be the case.
Most of us are maintaining a basic threshold of mental health in this season, but it’s not easy. There is a great deal of pent-up frustration churning beneath the surface of our society, and occasionally erupted. We are constrained by the virus, and our constraints translate into palpable loss, and the grief that always accompanies loss. The Class of 2020, at whatever level, was not able to mark the milestone of graduation in anything like a fully satisfying way. The restaurant industry is literally dying in front of us. Professional sports seasons have been completely messed up. The lack of live music and theater impoverishes our souls. Summer vacations got re-thought and re-shaped. For many of us, Thanksgiving and Christmas will not be anything like what we have come to expect. We are constrained; we suffer loss.
Speaking personally, my single opportunity to ever attend the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops evaporated before my eyes. My final diocesan synod was via Zoom. And, quite apart from the coronavirus, I contemplate imminent retirement, not of the “toes in the sand, drink in the hand” variety that I might once have foreseen, but as caregiver to a spouse slowly being consumed by dementia. My life is straitened and loss-filled.
How does one “keep on faith-ing” in a time like this?
The first direction we might turn is to grasp at hope, and this hope is actually quite plausible. The pandemic will end. We might very well be able to have Holy Week and Easter in a recognizable fashion in 2021. The Class of 2021 has a good chance of having graduation festivities in a “normal” fashion. I am cautiously optimistic that the 2021 Major League Baseball schedule will have 162 games on it, and symphony orchestras and opera companies will be back on stage a year from now. The restaurant industry will come back. They won’t all be the same as the ones we know, but others will replace them.
I don’t want to discourage hope, but I wonder whether going there first is to miss an opportunity. The straits through which we travel are nothing less than thee cross that Jesus bids us take up (daily) in order to follow him in discipleship. Victory is through the cross, not around it, over it, or beneath it. There is grace for us in the straits, not just because we’ll eventually get through them and enjoy smooth sailing in open seas, but actually in the straits. I’ve been trying to train myself, daily, to see the constraints of my life as precisely the places where the Holy Spirit is trying to “work” on me, as an opportunity to “mortify the flesh.” I encourage all of us to make ourselves more fully available to this challenging season while we are yet in the midst of it. Yes, it will end, but will it not be wasted if we don’t emerge from it closer to sainthood than when we entered it?