The Scripture text we read from Habakkuk was apparently part of an ancient hymn or psalm. The beginning of chapter 3 reads: “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.” We don’t know what that last word means, but most think it was some kind of musical term. The last line of chapter 3 reads: “For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.” This text was very possibly part of a song intended to be sung in worship. It is a song of faith.
Heather Whitestone, who was at one time Miss America, has the disability of deafness. The fascinating thing is that in the talent competition she danced. I read somewhere that by means of a special hearing machine, she was able to hear the music. She had to place the machine right next to her ear and turn it up very loud. Of course, she couldn’t dance holding a hearing machine. So she memorized the music——every beat. When the time came for her to dance the ballet, she moved precisely and beautifully to the rhythm of the music she couldn’t hear. But she had heard it before, and she remembered.
I wonder how many of us are capable of dancing to the song of faith without hearing the music? Sooner or later we all face life without the music. It is not true that if you love God and are faithful to God you will always hear the music, that you will never have any doubts or face uncertainties.
For more and more people today, especially Christian people, the old answers are no longer sufficient. Questions arise that either we were not encouraged to ask or perhaps even allowed to ask. And when we did ask them, we were given short, simplistic explanations as if that settled the issue, or our questions were simply dismissed as insignificant. In some faith communities still today there are things we dare not challenge. They are true because someone in authority says they are true. And so we live with someone else’s answers, until the answers no longer work.
I heard about a man who was traveling on a dinner flight and found an enormous roach on top of his salad. Back home he wrote a harsh letter to the president of the airline. A few days later he received a letter from the president explaining how that particular airplane had been fumigated and all the seats and upholstery stripped. There was even the suggestion that the aircraft would be taken out of service. The man was very impressed until he noticed that quite by accident the letter he had written had stuck to the back of the president’s letter. On his letter there was a note that said, “Reply with the regular roach letter.”
More and more people today are finding that the generic replies, the standard answers to questions of faith are no longer sufficient. Sometimes it takes an experience of unusual suffering and loss to jar us awake——the death of a loved one, or the breakup of a marriage or significant relationship, or the loss of employment, or a debilitating disease. Or it may come about simply through a growing feeling or gnawing sense that the old answers are not true.
At some point in our journey it is necessary to find our theology lacking. Otherwise we would never question and grow. Healthy spirituality is not about having the right answers, it’s about asking the right questions, better questions. This is why pastors, teachers, psychologists, social workers, writers, anyone who works in the area of human development have to question and challenge beliefs and practices. There has to be some tearing down before there can be a building up. Deconstruction precedes reconstruction.
Habakkuk is forced to question some of his beliefs. The people of Israel as depicted in the Hebrew Bible often throughout their history interpreted plagues and invasions from other nations as evidence of God’s displeasure or judgment. Habakkuk, no doubt, to some degree shared that belief.
And it sends him into a quandary. The Babylonians are coming. They are a ruthless and violent people; a law unto themselves. They worship might and power, they promote their own honor, and they are a people to be feared and dreaded. They will sweep down and set their hooks and nets into the land and gather the people in like a fisherman gathers in his catch, to be used and disposed of at will. The prophet says to God, “We cry for help but you do not listen. We cry out for deliverance but you do not save. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted” (1:2-4). That is the prophet’s complaint.
It’s a question of justice. How can it be, cries the prophet, that God would use a more wicked people to punish a less wicked people? Israel wasn’t innocent, but they were not as vicious and ruthless as the Chaldeans.
Hard times are ahead. The music will be drowned out by the screams of mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, boys and girls when the Chaldeans ravage the land.
What do we do in those times when we cannot hear the music on account of the screams of violence or the noise of own fearful chatter and cries for help? What do we do when things don’t go as expected, when our plans get thwarted, our dreams dashed, when our questions and our prayers go unanswered, when circumstances entrap us in prisons of disappointment and despair? Do we give up on faith and say it was all a mistake, all an illusion, that we were just kidding ourselves to think that we ever heard the music at all?
We do what Habakkuk did, what the woman in Jesus’ parable did in light of the injustice she faced day after day. That great line in the book of Romans——the just shall live by faith——was not original with Paul. He got that from Habakkuk (2:4). Habakkuk says that the just, the righteous will live by faith.
The righteous or just are not those who are sinless, or who never question or cry out in anger, or who never feel lonely or abandoned, or who never argue or complain to God. No. The righteous are those who keep covenant with God. That is, they remain faithful, loving God and loving neighbor.
In the OT the term that is translated “just” or “righteous” does not refer to personal piety, but to covenant faithfulness, especially with regard to the most vulnerable and weak. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann points out that the righteous or just person is one who invests in the community, and is particularly attentive to the poor and needy.
You see, to live by faith is to keep the covenant, it is to invest in and live for the good and well-being of the community. It’s a matter of pursuing peace and justice, doing what is good and right, being compassionate and generous and forgiving and kind.
At the end of the parable in Luke 18 the question is asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” The question is not asking whether or not there will be people who believe certain doctrines about Jesus, the question is asking whether or not there will be people who stand up for what Jesus stands for. The question is asking whether or not there will be people like this oppressed widow who keeps praying and working and doing every thing within her power to see that justice is done.
Faith means being faithful to the covenant even when life gets difficult and our questions go unanswered and we have to live with inconsistencies and contradictions. Faith is being faithful to God when God seems silent, when we cannot hear the music. Faith is not about getting our doctrines right. Nobody gets the doctrines right. It’s about doing the right things.
I like the way Sara Miles says this. Sara was raised an atheist, but for some reason wandered into church one day, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal church in San Francisco, where everyone was welcomed and encouraged to take Communion, so she ate the bread and drank the wine and found that it somehow nourished her soul and quenched her thirst. She kept coming back and she started a food pantry, right in the middle of their beautiful church sanctuary.
Being in California, they have access to excess or very inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables, so every Friday when the foods are delivered they have a community food pantry in the Sanctuary. All are welcome. There are no forms to fill out. People come and choose what they want. The down-and-out, the addicted, the messed up and banged up and screwed up, the poor, the mean as well as the good, all are welcome and all are treated with dignity. Sara and the other volunteers pray with those who want prayer, they listen and bless those who need a blessing. Those who come are considered part of the church community.
Sara says in her spiritual memoir titled, Take This Bread, that what she was learning about faith by directing and working in the pantry was that it was more about “orthopraxy” (right practice) than it was about “orthodoxy” (right belief), that what counted wasn’t fundamentalist or liberation or traditional or postmodern theology, it wasn’t denominations or creeds or rituals, it wasn’t liberal or conservative ideology, it was faith working through love. That’s what mattered: Faith working through love.
She writes: “That could mean plugging away with other people, acting in small ways without the comfort of a big vision or even a lot of realistic hope. It could look more like prayer: opening yourself to uncertainty, accepting your lack of control. It meant taking on concrete tasks in the middle of confusion, without stopping to argue about who was the truest believer.”
So we keep the covenant. But how do we do that when we can’t hear the music? Habakkuk remembers and prays. Habakkuk says, “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” (3:2). What follows in the text is a litany of God’s engagement with the world.
We, too, remember and pray. When we gather in community and sing the songs of faith, when we engage the sacred texts and break bread in fellowship and in Holy Communion, we remember and celebrate God’s investment in our world, our community, and in our individual lives. We give thanks for the love that was embodied in Jesus’ life and death and vindication. We rejoice in the love poured out in our hearts through the Divine Spirit. We find strength and courage through the love expressed in so many concrete and tangible ways by people like Sara Miles, and by so many in this fellowship when we tutor a child, paint a house, build a ramp, cook a dinner, make a visit, listen to complaints, offer a ride, send a note, work in the soup kitchen, teach a class, say a prayer, and give money to build a maternity clinic or support the ongoing work of our church in this community.
There are many like Habakkuk and the widow in Jesus’ parable who are able to dance without the music. Dietrich Bonheoffer remained faithful to the covenant from a German prison cell waiting execution. Others less known have kept going, caring, and loving in hospital rooms, funeral homes, refugee camps, war zones, and in the destructive aftermath of floods, storms, and tsunamis’.
What about us? Can we remember and pray and give thanks for God’s presence with us at the graveside of a loved one, in the throes of a tragedy, in the grip of a debilitating illness, or in the ruins of financial collapse? Can we find the courage and strength and hope to keep working and praying and loving and caring as best we are able? With the help of our sisters and brothers, with the prayers and support and encouragement of our faith community, with the abiding presence of the Spirit of Christ, I believe we can.
Gracious Lord, help us to trust you in the midst of the heartaches and heartbreaks of life, to keep covenant with you, to pray and persist and love our neighbor. We are grateful that you are not offended by our questions and complaints, that your grace covers our sins and gives us the strength to get up after we fall again and again and keep going. We rejoice in your love for us and in your presence with us. Hold us close, hold us up, and guide our path. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.
Chuck Queen www.afreshperspective-chuck.blogspot.com