How the church can help the faithful stay faithful
Leslie Leyland Fields
My family and I are headed to our Alaskan fish camp this month, where we commercial fish for salmon every summer. This time last year, I was happily stripping out the season's first king salmon to put in our new smoker. When I was done, I set the white bowl piled high with carmine flesh on the counter, then called my two youngest sons, ages 8 and 10, to dump the carcass over the far cliff, where all our organics go.
A few minutes later they handed me the bowl, now empty, and turned back to their play.
"Thank you," I said unthinkingly. As I stood there with the bowl in my hand, I realized something was wrong. "Boys!" I shouted. "Did you just dump all the salmon over the cliff?"
They came running, looking up at me with innocent eyes.
I pointed to the carcass still in the box on the floor.
I calmed down—eventually. I've lost a lot of things out there, including all my journals and my wedding ring, which went down one year on a sinking fishing boat.
In such times, I can't help thinking of the poet Elizabeth Bishop's famous villanelle, "The Art of Losing": The art of losing isn't hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster."
But often losses are disaster. I frequently run into people who are losing and throwing away treasures far more precious than salmon and journals. A lifelong friend who grew up in a Christian home and went to Christian colleges wrote recently to tell me he no longer believed Jesus was the only way to God. Yesterday, I talked with a woman whose son had found faith in high school, but who now believed in kung fu instead. In Costa Rica, I met two young men, missionary kids, who had both abandoned their faith. "God didn't really do much for me," one said.
I'm always saddened by these encounters, but I'm not surprised. As evangelicals, we believe that faith is more than rote ritual, that God can be known intimately through Scripture and the Spirit, so we urge believers toward "a personal relationship with Jesus." But from what I've witnessed, it can become so personal it ends up being about the wrong person—me.
And so the church is stuck with a conundrum: We believe, rightly, that our faith must be individually chosen, not inherited from our parents or bestowed by any church body. And like good existentialists as well as evangelicals, we often feel it is our choosing that makes our faith authentic and personal.
In its best expression, our faith in Christ becomes our greatest personal treasure, the pearl of great price we have sold all to purchase. But in its worst, as owners of the pearl, we start to think faith is our property to throw into the sea, to toss off the cliff, whenever it loses its sheen.
(Ironically, while we insist that our act of choosing is necessary to the validity of our faith, in exit polls, those who leave usually lay the blame squarely on the church.)
As Christians and the wider body of believers, it's time we took more responsibility for keeping our faith polished as a pearl of great price—and it's time we understood whose faith it really is. The Book of Jude helps us accomplish both. Writing to the early church specifically about "the leavers," the author says to "keep yourselves in God's love," by "building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit … as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life" (1:20-21).
We must actively choose our faith—a faith Jude calls "most holy"—and we must just as actively deepen and build it up ourselves. And here's why: because it is ours, and yet not ours. Jude 1:3 identifies "your most holy faith" as "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints"—that is, the same faith delivered to all the saints in all the world through all time. This faith belongs to us if we choose it, but even more, we belong to it.
We will never fully end the trail of leavers who stand on the cliffs, throwing over perfect, beautiful flesh mistaken for a carcass. But if the church focuses less on a one-time act of choosing Christ, and more on building up, praying, and communally enacting this once for all most holy faith—I believe it will not be so easily discarded. Then we will together master the art of keeping.