Cambridge, MA. A news report the other day about the killing of 10 aid workers in Afghanistan reported: “The director of International Assistance Mission Dirk Frans denies the Taliban's accusations that the members of his group were missionaries. He says they were on a peaceful mission to help people in a remote area of Afghanistan. ‘We had no security people,’ said Frans. ‘We actually are a humanitarian agency. We don't have any armed guards. We allow no weapons at all.’ While the group's website says it is a Christian organization and cites a ‘dependency on God’ as one of its core values, it notes that the group does not discriminate in giving aid nor uses it to further a particular political or religious standpoint.”
If you go to the website for the Mission, you find a simple statement of its guiding principles: “IAM is an international charitable, non-profit, Christian organization, serving the people of Afghanistan, through capacity building in the sectors of Health and Economic Development. IAM’s core values are: Dependency on God; Love for All; Teamwork; Accountability; Learning; Quality Work.”
I am not an investigative reporter, and cannot say more than I read in the various news sources or at sites such as the above. But at the moment it seems clear that IAM is an organization that offers Christian witness though acts of charity, love of neighbor, sustained over a very long period of time. The IAM workers were people of faith, whether explicitly Christian or not, whether preaching by word as well as deed, or not. (Perhaps I AM is more than an acronym?) Tom Little, their leader, had spent much of the past 40 years in Afghanistan, living such witness in love of neighbor — the folly of faith, one might say.
Indeed, these men and women seem to have lived up very well to what many of us heard in church this morning (Sunday, August 8), a reading from Chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews. This is a chapter on faith — the word "faith" appears over 25 times in the chapter, and the word "by faith" (pistei) 19 times. It is defined not in terms of assent to doctrines, nor as something one has or lacks — as in “I have faith” or “I lost my faith” — but as something that happens to you, defining a whole way of life: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The chapter is filled with examples of people who lived by faith, betting their entire lives on “things hoped for,” promises made by God to those who listen to God, even if to most people such conviction is foolish, because no one can see or prove “things not seen:” Abel made a worthy sacrifice to God, even if soon after it he was killed by his brother Cain; Noah made the Ark, when everyone else thought it ridiculous to plan for a deluge that surely would not come; Abraham and Sarah left home and went off to an utterly new, strange land, because God called them to do so; Moses left the comforts of Pharaoh’s palace, and even more improbably took up the foolhardy task of leading his people out of Egypt; Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho (in Joshua), risked her own life to provide safe haven for Joshua and his fellow spies. And so on, extraordinary lives, resting only on the mysterious foundations that are faith.
The author of Hebrews is not an optimist, but rather admits that all these noble women and men lived in-between lives, on missions provoked by rare, fragile encounters with God’s word, missions that were rarely or never completed in their lifetimes: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” They lived by faith, caught in between a Word that gave them a life and a mission, and the inevitable failings and ultimately death that cut short such missions. As in Afghanistan the other day. They gave themselves to a risky and unexpected work, and died before there was peace in Afghanistan, before every eye was healed, every sick person attended to: by things hoped for, things unseen.
They were, in the end, part of the story which should be ours as well, since we too need to be vulnerable to a faith that unsettles our lives and draws us into the improbable, the unheard of, missions with no scheduled end point. This is what Chapter 11 of Hebrews says at its end: “Yet all these people, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for all of us, so that they would not, without us, be made complete.” We are all, still, on journeys that should seem foolish to many, and that will not end in our life times with a satisfactory completeness.
Or, in words of Cardinal Suhard that were favorites of Dorothy Day (and that I carry in my wallet as a reminder of what my life is supposed to add up to): “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
All of the above found its way, in different words, into my homily this morning. I asked my listeners in church — and ask you, my reader — to come up with your own list of people who have, did, do live out journeys of faith like those in Hebrews 11: who do you know whose life would not make sense if God did not exist — whose life exists in that space where hope and the invisible things of God matter concretely? Who is the Noah, the Moses, the Rahab, the Tom Little or Karen Woo you have met along the way?