The most common complaint I hear from people who come to me for spiritual guidance is this: “Father, I have doubts about my faith.” Not doubts about the existence of God or about the teachings of the Church, but doubts about their own personal faith life… their own relationship with God.
So let me tell you a story…
When I was 6, we used to go every Saturday to Holly Hills Country Club (now called “Woodland Hills”) in east Shelby County. The greatness of this place was the fact that they had 4 different swimming pools, each on a different level. The lower level was a “kiddie pool” that barely covered your feet, but it had a sprinkler in the middle, so the little kids would splash around in it and play in the sprinkler and moms would sit in the shallow water holding babies watching them. The next level was the “family pool”, an enormous round pool that was 3 feet deep on the edges, but got to 5 feet deep in the middle. It was crowded with people of all ages and littered with every kind of inflatable toy imaginable. Balls, rafts, water wings, rings, etc. along with hundreds of kids with plastic boats, snorkels, masks and flippers, all trying to get the attention of someone else… and of course, 10 different games of “Marco Polo” going on at the same time. The next level was the “Olympic pool”… 50 yards long with ropes and painted stripes separating all the lanes. No toys, games, or little kids were allowed. This was for serious swimmers… for races and exercise. The adults and teenagers in there wore those cool goggles and rubber swim hats and swam hard races like the butterfly, the backstroke, or just stayed underwater the whole time. And the highest level… that was the “Olympic Diving Tank.” 20 feet deep with two diving boards on each side and a 3 tiered platform in the middle. You could see that platform all over east Shelby County. In the 3 years we went there, I never saw anybody dive from the top, and if anyone dove from the 2nd level, everyone in all four pools stopped to watch and then applaud. I went up on the lower platform once… it was as tall as our house, and I couldn’t get to the edge from fear of falling into the 20 foot ocean below… I am convinced my fear of heights today, comes from that platform.
When we got to the country club every Saturday, we would grab a strategic table and chairs, unload our stuff and then move to our pools. Mom and my little brother and sister to the kiddie pool, my older brothers and me to the family pool, and my dad to the Olympic pool. But every now and then we’d go up to the diving tank, and dad would try to teach us to dive. My older brothers would take turns, jumping in off the lower board, looking like frogs making huge splashes. Other, more experienced divers would dive in from the 5 ft. board or lower platform, performing swan dives and jack-knifes with very little splash. They would disappear under water for what seemed an eternity, then appear at the edge of the pool, and gracefully hop out and shake off the water. My brothers would do cannonballs and other “dives” that made big splashes, until dad would intervene and try to teach us the proper way to dive. I wanted nothing to do with this. If I couldn’t see the bottom, it meant anything could be down there, including the bodies of other 6 year olds who went before me. But dad would tread water 10 feet out from the board, and the life guard would sit high above in his chair with his life preserver and whistle, and tell me it was OK. This is why I bring this up today… it is a “leap of faith”, but not the way we think of it.
Abraham in the 1st reading is told to have faith in God. To take his only son, Isaac, a gift from God to him to fulfill his promise, and take him up the mountain and sacrifice him on the altar. That is exactly how I felt. Walking up the stairs to the diving tank, dad led me to the altar to be sacrificed in the 20 foot tank of death. But there was no ram in the bushes, only onlookers cheering me on, and my brothers calling me a sissy and a scaredy-cat. But there was dad, saying over and over… “you can do it.”
How did Abraham feel. This was his son, his promise from God, his gift from God. And now he had to offer him back as a sacrifice. We like to think of this “leap of faith” from Abraham as God testing him. That God is talking to everyone in heaven, going, “Oh my gosh, he’s really gonna do it… STOP!” And then rewarding him for almost killing his son. But that is not it. It is God saying, I trust you, you can do this. I see something in you that you don’t see in yourself and you need to strip away all the things that are keeping you from seeing you the way I see you. It is not his son that God wanted from Abraham… it was his faith, the faith that allowed him to see that God trusts in him and the gifts, talents and love he had given to him. That because God trusts in him, he can do anything. That the Glory of God is there, waiting to shine forth from each one of us.
That is why this reading is paired with the Gospel story of the Transfiguration. The story of Jesus revealing his glory to the apostles is of God showing the apostles a glimpse of not just what is behind the veil of Jesus, but what is in each of us. That we too will be glorified, will converse with Moses and Elijah, that we will be in radiant splendor. But that is scary… as scary as sacrificing what we love most, as scary as taking a leap of faith. Even Peter gets it wrong immediately afterwards when he asks Jesus if he can build tents there to honor Him, Moses and Elijah… but Jesus denies this to him. Because Peter wants to capture God’s glory and put it in a human construct, to trap his glory in a box that he can control. But what God wants, is to use that glory that he places in each one of us, and let it shine, uncontrollably, for all to see. To trust that God has written something on our hearts… that we are able to shine in splendor… that we can do anything out of love for him… as long as we have faith, and that faith is seeing how he trusts in us and the love he has already given us. Faith is a gift. You have it. It just needs to be exercised so it can grow.
I am now on the edge of a diving board. I am staring at my father who is calling me to be sacrificed to the gods of the diving tank. He is 10 feet out, and the lifeguard is watching me intently. Just like he tells me, I put my hands together, I dive forward towards him, and I bellyflop! I come up coughing and redfaced, but alive, and swim to him, as he comforts me and tells me I did it. He corrects my form, and even though I am afraid of the same slap in the face from hard water, I am not afraid of drowning, and the next one is better. And the next… and the next. “I knew you could do it,” my dad says again. Is that what God said to Abraham? Is that what Jesus said to Peter and the apostles when he gave them the Holy Spirit? Is that what God is saying to us every day we trust in him, and acknowledge his trust in us?
But maybe that answer we look for to strengthen our faith, has a much more concrete solution.
You see that corner room right there… it’s called a confessional. For many of you, it is the 20 feet Diving Tank of Doom! Going in there is like Abraham leading Isaac up the mountain, or Peter misunderstanding the Transfiguration, or me learning how to dive. It is a matter of trusting what God has already placed in our hearts, and listening to the Holy Spirit who leads us to a conversion and deeper faith, a stronger relationship with God.
Look at it this way: The cry room back there, that could be the kiddie pool, but really, the kiddie pool is those who only go to Church on Christmas and Easter, Weddings and Funerals, just enough to get wet and remind themselves they are believers. Our regular Sunday congregation, every Sunday, this is the family pool… all are welcome. It is safe here, only 3 feet deep on the edges, and it gets deeper in the middle… but is it enough to strengthen our faith? To erase our doubts? For that, maybe we need to move up to the Olympic Lanes of Church ministry: This lane is lectors, this one Eucharistic Ministers, this one for altar servers, this one for ushers, this one youth ministry, this one ministry to the sick and homebound, this one outreach to the poor, this one for the grieving, the divorced, those with special needs. These two empty ones here… that’s our music ministry, cantors and musicians… we can’t get anyone to swim there! We want to strengthen our faith, maybe we need to jump in here and exercise the gifts we have been given.
But maybe, to see what we have been given, to see the glory of God transfigured in each one of us, what is possible, we need to first get rid of what is keeping us from trusting in God and seeing his glory, and that means, jumping in to that diving tank we call confession. I know it is scary, but we need to ask ourselves: am I scared to admit my weakness and confess my sins? Or am I scared of seeing myself the way God sees me, in glory, shining for all to see? I think most of us are scared of shining and standing out. We are more like Peter than we think. We want to put the glory of God in a box and control it… and that is why to begin to live a life of faith, we need to jump into the confessional. Trying to control God, that is our personal sinfulness, and it is no wonder that our personal faith is weak if we keep in a box for only ourselves to use. That would be like coming into Church and treating it like a museum: “Look, we have God in a beautiful gold box, but you can’t touch Him, can’t cross these ropes… just acknowledge His beauty and go home.” But God is not like that and neither is the Church. We come here and share in His glory. We take the transfigured Christ into our body so that we may shine and radiate in splendor for all to experience. That is scary… and that takes a giant leap of faith.
Don’t worry… nobody has ever drowned in a confessional. I’m there treading water coaching you and assuring you that you can do it, and just like the life guard, God is up on the stand, his mercy and love is life preserver, saving our lives. You want to take a leap of faith… Lent is the perfect time to jump in… don’t just trust me, have faith that God trusts you… go ahead and jump, the water is fine… you can do it.