Monday, May 02, 2005

Taking Chances on My Street

Today as I stepped out to the sidewalk a young woman on a bicycle rode briskly towards me down the center of the walk-way. I stepped backward (one “giant step”) to let her pass and noticed she wore a placid, serene, unchanging facial expression; her glance was straight ahead and unwavering. The thought struck me that it was the look of a person who was convinced she bore a charmed, invincible life. In uncanny confirmation she peddled out into the street without pausing, and on across a busy intersection. Apparently unmindful of near brushes with eternity she smoothly reached the opposite curbing and vanished from view.

On reflection, this sort of thing happens a lot on my street. Marked by a very busy four-way junction, its stop signs only seem to lend a spirit of risk-taking for both drivers and pedestrians – from all four directions. Many foot-sloggers out here, seemingly oblivious to the traffic, step off the sidewalk with or without benefit of the crosswalks, then amble towards various points across the vehicle studded thoroughfare.

We were taught at preschool age, if not before, to stop and look both ways before putting a foot out onto the macadam. That early training has not generally stood the test of time. For my part, having a certain respect for life and limb (at least mine), I do not emulate those ambulating lemmings out there mostly because I lack the ability to dodge quickly if need be. At least that version skirts the issue of cowardice, but in truth I tend to wince at any squeal of brakes in my street, the sound indicating a “charm” may have been broken.

The matter of faith comes in here, together with the question of faith misplaced. I admit a certain modicum of faith is required for me just to get out of bed on any given day; I probably lean on the everlasting arms in many routine, everyday situations – even in getting across the street. Other people seem to put a great deal of “faith” in the alertness as well as the good will, or the brakes, or gymnastic skills (say in the standing broad jump), of other wayfarers.

There is a serious error here, and one that is often overlooked. For one thing there is a very large difference between having confidence in something (or some one), and putting faith where it belongs. Armed with elementary science and some experience in everyday affairs I can gauge the confidence level to be expected of my traveling to the moon, (fairly low), or anticipating that my mail will be delivered to me rather than to my neighbor (usually a pretty sure thing, although mathematically there are no absolutely sure things in the realm of probability). In short, my confidence varies considerably with my small fund of knowledge and past experience, or alternatively how much confidence I feel in the word of friends or advisors. Having some idea of these confidence levels I may decide what chances to take.

We are really talking about the confidence we might have in the odds of some event occurring or not. With or without specialized information, over the long haul those odds will win out, but God can overcome them! Many times He offers Saving Grace to the faithful, but who are they?

As I think of it I realize that I do not, practically speaking, have faith in the weather patterns nor do I have confidence in them; the storms that rage and wreak havoc are not predictable to me and are simply to be avoided if possible. For similar reasons I do not have much confidence in my ability to cross my own street unless I look about with some caution first.

On that note, as long as we are differentiating between confidence and faith, I must hew to the difficult and to some the unthinkable: I seem to have much less faith in what I can see than what is unseen! But back to disasters, natural or unnatural for the moment; a passage in Luke is instructive to the weather-wise: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say ‘It’s going to rain’, and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say ‘It’s going to be hot’, and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:54-56). In this same passage some people in the crowd, like many people who today wonder why bad things happen, told Jesus of the report of Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus replied, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you no!… Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you no!” (Luke 13:1-5). Questions of weather aside, here the words of Jesus clearly suggest that the differences in those outcomes are not measured in degrees of sinning – we are all sinners, and to declare one’s self otherwise is risky. The issues are salvation and faith; those who have faith enough to repent of their sinfulness will live forever!

“For the power Thou hast given me to lay hold of
Things unseen:
For the strong sense I have that this is not my home:
For my restless heart which nothing finite can satisfy:
I Give Thee thanks, O God.”
John Baillie

Thomas the doubter needed to see for himself – Christ told us that even greater in the Kingdom are those who believe without having to touch his wounds. That is faith, as is the assurance that Paul showed when he said “Let God be true, and every man a liar”. (Ro 3:4). Then again, in worldly affairs the probability of anything being 100% true is impossible no matter how likely it seems; the law of averages tells us, (to the wonder and delight of many school kids ), that some day a pan of water will be placed on the fire – and it will freeze. The scientific community puts a high level of confidence in this effect even though no one has witnessed all instances of “water on stove”. We might say that this is a kind of worldly “faith” in things unseen. This sort of confidence is also implicit in the tenet “For every cause there is an effect, and for every effect a cause”. This too is a belief in the unseen, since not all cause and effect relationships have yet been witnessed.

There is a particularly knotty aspect to this problem because Original Cause appears never to have been discovered in any of life’s events. Science is very adept at putting together chains of events, one or more leading to yet another; this is done in a highly reliable and valid way and is referred to as empiricism among other things. When, however, one works backward to what seems to be the earliest event in a series, there is still no first, one and only, apparent reason for how – or why –- an event began to occur at all; there is always some condition before that one that needs explaining. You might try it with your friends: Start with some event such as how or why do plants grow, or why does the wind blow (i.e., warm air in the northern part of the state, cold front from the south, etc.). When you have gotten as far as you can in identifying one cause after the other, (with or without reference books), then ask why or how those special conditions existed to start the whole series of events in the first place. In the spiritual and emotional realm this question is frequently and poignantly asked in the form of “Why me, O Lord?”, when some unexpected and “unfair” calamity comes to pass. Fair or not, to my knowledge these questions have rarely been satisfactorily answered, and unless one knows what God knows, probably seldom will be. As in the passage from Luke above, Jesus immediately rejected human reasoning by his response: “causes” are not what you think in earthly terms! If and when we really need to have confidence in future events in our lives, earthly terms have limited usefulness; here we need faith, and faith is properly placed in the Lord – otherwise, blasphemy or at least idolatry; there is the ridiculous alternative of praying to a set of brakes or to on-coming pickup trucks. This brings us back to my street: That girl on the bike was either an example of divine intervention through prayer, (without moving her lips), or she was taking some mighty dumb chances in the hopes that the Lord had plans for her that did not include a hospital bed, or worse.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Great article!

I like the distinction you make between faith and confidence; and between what is seen and what is unseen. It seems we'd do a lot better if we asked God to increase our faith and downsize our confidence.