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“How Long Oh Lord?” Dealing with Doubt

October 6, 2007

The Backseat Homilist

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

How long oh Lord? I cry out to you but you do not listen!”

This little passage in Habakkuk may be the first time in the Israelite scriptures that someone had the gumption to question the ways of God (1). We’ve since gotten very good at. “If there is a God then why is there so much war and violence? If God is love than why does He let bad things happen? I prayed to God and still got a bad grade!”

Habakkuk was writing about 600 years before the birth of Jesus, in a time when the kingdom of Israel was marked by turmoil, idolatry and injustice. Why do you make me endure this evil? he demands of God. But the answer he gets in the first reading today is to a different question – perhaps the prophet’s own deeper, unspoken question: how can I keep faith in you, oh God, when it seems like you’ve abandoned me?

And here is God’s answer: “Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not be late.”

Here we have a spiritual exercise that has been at the heart of liturgical practice both ancient and modern. To thwart doubt and prevent despair, contemplate the original vision of God’s loving promise – the one that captured your heart and mind and prompted you to pick up and follow in the first place. Write it down. Read it. Commit it to memory. Look for it and wait for it. Be patient, but expect it to arrive.

That is the beginning of faith in God: holding a clear vision of what God’s redeeming relationship with the world looks like. The other part of faith has to do with how we live in the meantime.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples ask him to increase their faith. This, by the way, directly follows Jesus’ suggestion that they forgive their neighbor seven times a day. It is as if his followers are saying “increase our confidence that any of this will make a difference.” Jesus replies with a spiritual exercise: are you feeling doubt about the effectiveness of your role? Get back to work; do what you know God expects of you.

The work, like the vision, is not a mystery. Jesus might have invited them to revisit Moses or the prophet Micah: “You have been told … what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”(Micah 6:8)

And what about that mustard seed comment? Just like you can’t be a little bit pregnant, it may be that you can’t be just a little bit faithful. Either you believe in this vast loving enterprise of God, or you don’t. If you have signed on as a servant of God, then you take your place in the ongoing task of bringing the vision to fruition. If you doubt and fear and whine and complain, you won’t see it when it comes, and you won’t recognize it when it is right at hand. It won’t matter how many times you went to church.

Faith is the muscle that allows us to recognize and confidently celebrate a vision that is not readily apparent to those who doubt and fear. It is “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11: 1) I like to think of it as walking toward something as though it’s there.

And in turn, I think our faith attracts God, the way that a big, yellow, pollen-filled flower attracts the bee. I say this because of the way that people’s faith astounded and amazed and delighted Jesus. A priest I know in Baltimore said it best: Jesus would melt in the presence of faith.

Consider who Jesus praised for their faith, and you have a good picture of what faith looks like from God’s perspective. A woman who had been bleeding for 12 years touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak with the assurance that healing power resided in him. Jesus said to her “”Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”” (Mark 5:34). A blind beggar called for Jesus to heal him when he heard that Jesus was passing nearby. “Go your way; your faith has saved you,” Jesus told him (Mark 10:52). A Roman centurion, recognizing Jesus’ divine authority, asked Jesus to give the order that his servant be healed. Jesus, amazed, told the crowd, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9)

To ones such as these, it is not that God’s intervention is remarkable, but that it is expected, a part of the accepted way that God does business. For those with faith, God’s promise to fix a broken world is so immediately available that all one really need do is ask God for it when God passes by.

Today, the context of faith is not overwhelmingly different from Habakkuk’s Israel of 600 BC or of Luke’s Christian community of 80 AD. Our world is awash with violence and injustice and crushing inequalities. Our cries of outrage, when we utter them, seem small and impotent. It’s been a long time since we’ve asked for a miracle, and maybe longer since we’ve seen one. We doubt. We fear. And we wonder why so little seems to change. We lack faith.

How do we join the ranks of hemorrhaging women, blind beggars and gentile soldiers who dare to reach out for God’s healing and grace … and get it? Today’s scriptures suggest that we hold ever before us the vision of a world imbued with the love of God, so that we can recognize it when it is at hand. And we are also exhorted to get back to the work of creating such a world, claiming the “rich trust” of abilities that God has given us for the task: that spirit of power, love and self control of which Paul in his letter to Timothy was thoughtful enough to remind us.

(1) Introduction, The book of Habakkuk, The Catholic Study Bible

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