Following Jesus

Mustard Seed Faith

A Lesson from Opi

March 23, 2021 by

JEmbed
Germination. Artwork by Ken Alexander.

Easter is approaching and we are in the season of Lent, a time to deepen our faith and try to take in the enormity of Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection: the heart of the Gospel. The Gospels begin and end with faith, but faith is ultimately a gift, and humanity has wrestled with the question of faith since the beginning. Indeed, even walking and talking with Jesus himself, his disciples struggled with it. Why else would he have encouraged them, “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17: 20–21). Amazing words. I always imagined those little round yellow mustard seeds that sit on our spice shelf. Those are pretty small; in fact they’re tiny, really, if you stop to think about it. That’s not asking for much faith; no big deal… Well, sometimes even to have that much faith is a big deal, and Jesus knew it.

But then a couple of years ago someone who had been to the Holy Land spoke about those words of Jesus. As he was speaking, he had some children walk through our congregation holding pieces of cardboard onto which had been taped mustard seeds from a mustard tree in Israel, the very seeds Jesus was speaking about. We were all stunned, amazed, excited. Do you know how big those seeds are? You can hardly see them! Tiny black flecks. Chop up a strand of your hair into one millimeter pieces, and you’ll have the likeness of a mustard seed. Wow! That’s really all Jesus is asking of us?

Then why is it that for so many faith is still an enigma, elusive, and at times seemingly unattainable? Why does it seem so fragile, vulnerable, easily lost? And for those of us who have found that it is indeed the very bread and breath of every day – that we can’t go a single step without it – why are we so helpless to pass it on to those we love? To those who seek answers in the tangle and confusion of our faithless world, yet are looking in the wrong places? Perhaps because faith is not ours to give in the first place, and perhaps because in reality it does cost something.

My father, known as Opi to most, grappled with this question of faith many times. It is a theme that comes up repeatedly in his letters because his young correspondents in particular asked him about it. Here is one letter, written in 1999 to a youngster whom he knew had been raised with faith. In his typical style it is both very direct and deeply thoughtful.

To say “I don’t believe” is preceded by a decision. A decision is an act of the will when faced with a choice. It is preceded by an evaluation of the attending reasons, along the lines: “If I believe, the consequences for my life will be…” and, “If I do not believe, the consequences for my life will be…”
You know that if you believe, you place your person and your life under an authority which is not yours, but that of an unconditional, absolute, immutable truth. This belief relates our life to eternal truths and values, gives it substance and meaning, sense and purpose. It shelters the apparent relativity and limitation of our life in the greater system of what belongs absolutely and eternally to life, and with it truth, love, and light.
But it strips us of our self-centered autonomy. We lose our own authority over ourselves, our jurisdiction over our own lives, our unrestricted freedom of choosing our own actions and morals.
I just don’t buy it if somebody like you tells me “I don’t believe,” and uses her God-given intelligence to disguise misery, selfishness, and ill-conceived freedom into Sophoclean tragedy. Yes, I do believe that you don’t believe, but what it means is that you have chosen not to!
Take time and think about that.
And the second thing, dear child, is this: you went out there wanting to do the “right thing.” Well, you did for a while; the whole day was given to serving children in need, and that is a right thing. But it is also axiomatical that if you want to do the right thing, it has to be the whole thing. If you want to help those kids [with their problems] resulting from broken families, unrestrained sexual mores, social need and poverty, and so many other ills, you have to be yourself free from those same sources of misery, besides being fully aware that in the end they all have to be tackled. You know that, because you know that your parents have recognized this, and have dedicated their whole lives, time and energies to a life where all of this is fought against! And let me also tell you that, because of this totality of purpose, and adoption of a different spirit, your parents are doing as much for the poor kids in the ghetto, and in the whole world, as anybody else.
To better know what I am driving at, you have to stop, sit down, and think! Maybe you shouldn’t ask yourself whether you believe or not, which is the first question the devil puts into our minds, but ask yourself what is it you want or not. What do you want for yourself and for your life, as you hold yourself against the background of this sick, sick world we live in? Does earning money to go to college give meaning to your life? Does college give a meaning to your life? What does?

Jeanne King lives with her husband, Paul, at Darvell, a Bruderhof in East Sussex, United Kingdom.

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