Lives founded on conviction.
by Brad Nelson (B.A. '02)
Abraham, the book of Hebrews tells us, embodied the virtue of faith. "By faith Abraham, when called to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going."  This same chapter in Hebrews summarizes the faith of many others saying, "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them from a distance, admitting they were foreigners and strangers on earth."  Does anyone else find these passages disturbing? Not knowing where I'm going is crazy making. Dying before receiving what is promised and hoped for? I've yet to see this verse on one of those calendars with daily Bible verses of God's promises: "Good Morning! Chances are good you're going to die before your hopes and God's promises are realized. Hebrews 11:13."
When I arrived at Cornerstone, my faith was surprisingly clear. I possessed a set of beliefs that informed what I expected to be a deliberate journey of living out my calling for the good of God's kingdom. I'd major in philosophy and go straight to seminary and probably pastor a church. I soon learned that pretending to understand Jacques Derrida would not turn into a lucrative career. Instead, I majored in education and then graduated only to become a realtor; which makes total sense. It wasn't long before my wife and I were miserable, wondering how we'd gotten here and what the path forward would look like.
Then we read Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy and had our world turned upside down. We started having conversations about telling a compelling story with our lives. Soon we were involved with a church, serving on the missions team. In time, we sensed God leading us to move to SE Asia to serve as liaisons between the church and its SE Asia partners. As we began raising support, I quit my job in real-estate and became a janitor at our church to draw a paycheck until we left. This rapid descent down the corporate ladder was not instilling my father-in-law's confidence in me. Shortly before we were to move to China, my younger sister's newlywed husband was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb. The explosion that took his life forever changed my understanding of faith. We knew we couldn't move to China to care for widows when there was one in our midst. We stayed, and my sister moved in with us.
His death exposed my faith for the house of cards it was. I spent a year questioning everything I'd ever believed. I lamented. I raged. I grieved. Like Jacob, I wrestled with God and walked with a limp. Not only was life not unfolding as I'd expected, I was questioning everything I'd ever believed. Prior to the roadside bomb, my faith had been an arsenal of certainties. Certainties about who God was, how God interacted with the world, and what it meant to be a child of God. Now, those certainties had been annihilated, and there was no new understanding to replace them when the smoke cleared. So I got a rabbi and spent the year practicing Jewish ritual mourning. That was the year Abraham started making sense to me.
Abraham takes his first step of faith in Genesis 12, leaving his Father's home for the unknown place that God will show him. There's an interesting detail in Genesis 20:13 that reveals Abraham's understanding of the journey God had him on. Having been warned in a dream about taking Abraham's wife for his own, king Abimelek questions Abraham saying, "Why would you do this thing?" Abraham's response is telling. He responds, "When God made me wander from my father's household…."
When God made me wander.
Abraham's own understanding of God's call on his life, a life of exemplary faith, is wandering. The Hebrew word for wander is hit'u and it means "to wander, to err, or of intoxication." What a great word. Abraham's life is no journey of spiritual certainty from point A to point B. In reality, he stumbles forward, lurching this way and that, drunk perhaps on uncertainty. That's a life I can relate to.
As I've aged, I've been haunted by this paradox: Faith is being certain of less and strangely confident of more. I used to think of spiritual maturity in terms of the sage on the stage: someone with a lifetime of experiences and all the right answers. As I age, spiritual maturity seems just the opposite. It is more like becoming a child again, open to wonder, full of questions, and brimming with a holy unknowing trust that everything is somehow going to be fine.
You might say I'm learning the virtue of faith is really about learning to wander well, trusting not that things will work out precisely as we want them to, but that God is with us here and now; it means trusting that God is leading us toward something—the right thing—whatever that something might be and whatever path it may take to get us there.
And along the way there are these holy encounters, glimpses of God's future coming to meet us in the present. Pay attention to those glimpses. They're signposts reminding you you're learning to wander well.