“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”
I want to begin this post by sharing an e-mail correspondence written by my husband within days of Evie’s death. His words were published in the Canton Repository and although I could just link to the article I feel it necessary to repost them here because you really need to read it through to fully understand the impact of what I am about to set forth:
“On Tuesday morning, it had been three days since Evelyn died. I was worn down and beginning to lose the hope and the comfort that had sustained us immediately after her death. Around 5 a.m., I lit a candle, knelt before the cross that sits atop our family prayer table and began to express to the Lord (and to Evie) that I felt completely empty and abandoned – that all of this was completely meaningless.
For some time I knelt there attempting to capture in words the profound darkness that I felt inside. I then began to plead over and over with God to renew my faith, to help me to abandon myself to him and to constantly seek him even when I feel like nothing makes sense. I kept saying ‘please do something, please do something.’ In front of me, lying flat on the prayer table was Evelyn’s First Communion banner – a shield shaped piece of felt with fabric flowers sewn onto it in the shape of a cross by Evie herself.
Because I had laid my head upon the table weeping, I was able to see inside the upper portion of the banner where a dowel rod had been inserted so that the banner could be hung from the wall or a pew. Immediately after finishing my plea that God would ‘do something’ to keep me from losing faith, I noticed that a very tiny piece of paper had been shoved into the fabric sleeve alongside the dowel rod. I pulled it out. It was two fortune cookie ‘sayings’ rolled up together. I knew that these must have been put there by Evie because she habitually kept anything that had any significance to her (we called her ‘Stash-n-Dash’ since she never stopped moving and preserved every memory somehow/somewhere).
I unraveled the two quotes. The first one said, “The greatest ownership is the embracement of emptiness.” These words knocked the wind out of me. I already felt completely empty and alone. Now I felt as though I was being taunted, like there really was no hope and I just needed to admit it. Crying hysterically at this point – the lowest point of my life now that I think about it – I unraveled the second paper. The saying on it was, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.”
I immediately recognized these words as God’s own words to us in Hebrews 11:1 and, in that moment, heard them as a very clear exhortation to believe even when I cannot see a thing, to hope even when I feel nothing but hopelessness. In that moment God answered my prayer. He ‘did something’ just as I had asked. In his mysterious providence, he had arranged for those two particular quotes to be placed in those particular cookies, and then for Evie to ‘stash’ them in that precise part of that particular banner (and for that banner to be taken off the wall and placed precisely where it was shortly before I knelt there) so that I would read those quotes at that exact moment.
I’m not one to interpret the divinely intended meaning in every event – not even close. As a historical theologian, I tend to see meaning over vast swaths of time. But in that very moment, I clearly heard the voice of God speaking to me, saying exactly what I needed to hear, through crumpled up fortune cookie papers that should never have been found. And in those papers, I also heard the whisper of my precious little girl, imploring me to trust and obey – the simple lesson we had taught her every day of her short time in this world.”
My last post, if you recall, was about Evie’s birthday. As I relayed, I had been dreading that day for the past nine months.
Shortly before her birthday I discovered that the mass at St. Mary’s (our parish) would be offered for Evie on that day. This year, her birthday was on a Sunday.
Typically, I read the Sunday Mass readings in advance but for some reason, I did not read the passages for August 7th. In case you are not familiar with how the readings at Mass work, they are not chosen by the priest of the parish or the deacon or any other member. They are universal. Everyone on earth will hear the same Bible passages at any Mass they attend anywhere. The readings rotate on a three year cycle so as to expose parishioners to all of the Scriptures over time.
As I sat in Mass on Evie’s birthday, crying and begging God to feel close to her and to feel her with me, the lector walked to the front of the sanctuary and began to read.
The passage was Hebrews 11
I was floored. It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence that this chapter from Hebrews would show up on a tiny strip of paper wadded up inside Evie’s First Communion banner AND read on Evie’s birthday.
Not to mention the fact that as the passage progresses, it proceeds to illustrate the faith demonstrated by the likes of Noah, Abraham, Moses, King David and all the Old Testament saints who make up a portion of the “great cloud of witnesses.”
The girls and I had spent last September and October studying the Old Testament together before Evie died and learning about the great faith of these very men. Evie loved celebrating the saints. She expressed her wish to enter heaven around All Saints Day. The name of our farm reflects that desire.
God works in mysterious ways.
Since then, I’ve been pondering the meaning of this. What is the Holy Spirit trying to convey to us through our little girl and this immeasurable suffering?
The message comes back full circle to the words penned by my husband after finding those fortune cookie papers.
Trust and Obey.
We seem to live in an evidence-based culture these days. We want answers and we want them fast. We want proof for everything. We only believe and take in what we can see right in front of us. God is for the superstitious, unintelligent, archaeic, less-evolved among us.
So we build our towers…higher than God. We presume to know everything. We’ve got it all under control. We don’t need Him.
Until we do.
Until questions arise to which there are no answers.
Until something life-changing occurs and we realize that we are incapable of controlling anything. Then we realize that trying to hold life with a clenched fist is like trying to hold water in your hand.
It’s an illusion.
Faith is stepping outside of our control, our preconceived notions, and our pride and opening ourselves up to a realm of existence far beyond our limited experience.
Men like Noah, Abraham, and Moses demonstrated extraordinary faith beyond anything we encounter on a daily basis. They were willing to sacrifice their livelihoods, their reputations, and their families to answer God’s call. Even more profound is the fact that these men never saw the fruits of their faith in their own lifetimes.
Yet they trusted in God and obeyed.
Can you imagine God asking you to build a gigantic boat filled with animals? Or being willing to walk your only son up a mountain to slay him? Or approaching a powerful king and letting him know that you’re about to evacuate half of his kingdom?
These men represent the “cloud of witnesses” spoken of later in Hebrews. We are literally surrounded by extraordinary saints…men and women who answered God’s call to do radical things. Think of women like Blessed Mother Theresa, who left her religious order to answer God’s call to minister to the poor and destitute living in the slums of India. She remained faithful to this calling even through years of spiritual darkness. St. Monica relentlessly pursued and prayed for her wayward son Augustine for more than 17 years and he eventually became a saint. St. Louis Martin trusted God through the death of four children and his beloved wife from breast cancer and lovingly submitted when God called all five of his daughters to cloistered religious life.
These ordinary people were able to live extraordinary lives because they had faith. Not the kind of faith that says, “Yeah, I believe in God and I go to church.”
They had the kind of faith that makes the world stop and take notice. They didn’t exactly blend in with the crowd. Their faith actually became “evidence” for the existence of God because nobody would live like that or do those things unless God were working through them.
In my grief, my faith ebbs and flows. There are times when I feel close to God and hear Him speaking to my heart. Other times, all I can see is my daughter buried in the earth and broken hearts that cannot be fixed in this lifetime. The mess in front of me looms large and the impossibility of what I am trying to accomplish weighs me down like a leaden vest. Like the Israelites, I question what God is doing and trudge along wearing foggy lenses… only seeing my own misery and not the Promised Land that God has in store for me. Sometimes I can’t imagine that Heaven could be any more glorious than the life I lived before October 31, 2015.
It’s easy to get caught up in the here and now when life is hard. When life is good, we get comfortable and think this world has it all.
But there is so much more than this world. There is a whole realm of which we are not even aware. There are angels and saints. There is a resurrected man with scars on His hands and our names written on His heart. There is a God who is weaving the fabric of our lives into a beautiful tapestry even when we can only see the tattered threads.
Do we live like this is is true? Are we “running the race to win the prize?” Do our daily lives, our decisions, our relationships reflect our ultimate goal…heaven? Or are we blending in with everyone around us, forgetting that Jesus calls us to live radically different lives…to stand out as “salt” and “light” to an unbelieving world?
We don’t need to look inside a Chinese cookie to know our fortune. We need only crack open the Scriptures to see that God’s promises are clear and true. He’s preparing a place for us…if only we will trust and obey.