Seven Last Words 07


"Into your hands I commend my spirit" - Luke 23:46.

Faith is not the opposite of doubt, it is the flower that can only bloom where doubt has been sewn; but whereas doubt will always be there, the flower of faith will bloom and fade before it blooms again. The Church sustains "The Faith" because it is a corporate enterprise, a huge garden of questions where, through the Grace of Our Saviour, there are always some flowers blooming. Hopefully, it is never completely Winter in the garden of Jesus; and, hopefully, in the way of divine institutions on earth, there will be times when the array of flowers is stunning, like one of those magical, searing Summer days when Van Gogh was lucid.

Because it is a flower that blooms and fades, faith commands the greatest care: the thought and love of the gardener, the right nourishment, the balance between sun and shade. And yet, as different flowers of faith, we all need different kinds of fertiliser, different balances of sun and shade. Some of us grow in clay, others in sandy ground, others in chalk. Some of us are gaudy and long for the Summer sun, others, more delicate, long for the misty days of fine rain and Winter's pale sun.

Our gardener, Our Saviour, will give us all the nourishment we need, the right balance of sun and rain to suit our needs, to help us best accord with God's purpose for us as flowers in the earthly garden. But we turn to other gardeners, to other nourishment; we crave more sun than is good for us or more rain; we see another flower in the distance and think we should be like that flower and not simply be ourselves.

This is not a parable about beauty or earthly pride, this is a parable about the way we have come to misunderstand faith. We have persuaded ourselves that faith is robust and uniform instead of seeing it as fragile and highly differentiated.

Yet There are some Christians who walk in Our Saviour's Church Of Faith with a list in their hands of all the essential ingredients, who think that God is one kind of gardener and that all of us are not delicate and different flowers but are cabbages to be forced into uniform ugliness and utility. We are not in a garden where the blooms vary and where our own flowers fade and revive, we are not individual believers in a corporate church; we are identical plants that react in a uniform way to the correct dosage of divinely approved but humanly manufactured fertiliser.

We have all grown familiar with the idea of faith as some kind of production line that begins at Baptism and ends at the Crematorium or the cemetery. In this we have misunderstood faith in two serious ways. First, as I have said, faith is not a production line where standard nutrition is poured in and a standard product is forced out. Faith is a risky business. One year a flower will not bloom at all. Sometimes the ground is too dry, at other times too wet. Sometimes there are blights and infestations. More often, however, we have abandoned our gentle gardener and opted for a supposedly more reliable, hermetically sealed greenhouse. Secondly, faith is individual to us but the garden in which we bloom is as old as mankind. We grow in the soil of saints and martyrs, of those who went before us in faith, who bloomed in a different time but in the same place, whose flowers look strange and exotic.

Those who went before us as saints and martyrs lived that they might be worthy of Our Saviour, that their spirits, too, might be commended, through Him, to the Father. When we listen to Our saviour as he Hangs upon the cross we do not hear Him say: "Father, into Your hands I deliver my spirit as part of a spiritual job lot". There is in his word, the humility of commendation, the possibility in the word that what He has to offer might not be good enough.

Our ultimate act of faith is to doubt our worthiness, to flex our capacity for self knowledge and look at our self image. It is so easy over time to mould our self image so that it adjusts to new circumstances. The young person that demands an answer and searches feverishly is replaced by the older person who has found an answer that is good enough; and in turn that older person becomes increasingly desperate as time wears on. Is the faith which we have now going to carry us into the presence of God or have we been too complacent?

Unfortunately for our sense of stability and comfort, faith is reflexive; we have to have faith in faith; and, at the same time, faith is indispensable.  Just as true wisdom is to know what we do not know, true faith is to know the limits of our faith, to know that we have been unable to take the step of abandoning ourselves to God. By this act of abandonment we do not give up trying to lead virtuous lives, it simply means that we know the virtuous life is not enough, no matter how virtuous. We must count everything we have done as nothing compared with what God has done for us through Our Saviour.

And what is this Spirit which, reflecting the cry of Jesus, we commend in faith? It is, above all, the spirit of courage. WE are not called upon to be right for Our Saviour; we are not called upon to be prudent for our saviour; we are not even called upon to be pious for our Saviour; we are called upon to be brave for our Saviour, to commit, to take the risk, to risk being unpopular, even to risk being wrong. While the fashion is for this or for that, that spirit of courage might involve staying still and waiting until the gardener reaches us.

I am restless, I am full of ideas, I strive but the striving usually amounts to an assertion of the human will. Instead of faith in stillness, in subjecting myself to the sun and rain, instead of being content to be in the ground where I was planted, I long for a programme of forced virtue, to make me fat with grace, to make me shiny with virtue, to make me ripe with advice, to make me rich with learning and oh, the consequence, to make me feel fitted in all my ripeness and  richness, to judge all those plants that never seem to flower, that are limp and bedraggled.

How easily we are moved by the rich and the colourful, the perfumed and the pretty; how much we value the aesthetic and under-estimate the healing powers of unglamorous plants. Yet only Our Saviour who tends us, nourishing us with that endless grace which flows from the reservoir of His blood, only He can commend us to the Father as He commended His own spirit as He hung on the cross, ready to die for us. We cannot, no matter what we do, commend ourselves.

A flower blooms; a flower fades and dies; and a new flower blooms, nourished by the blood of the Cross.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, as You hang upon the cross in ultimate obedience to the Father, forgive us our resort to a coarse and cold faith: may we struggle towards the cross in soul as well as mind, learning to grow in submission to You so that our frail flowers of faith may bloom in Your tender care. Amen