Thursday, December 9, 2010

Waiting in the Middle Voice

As another partial repeat to keep this blog active through to the end of finals, I'm posting another article I wrote for my church's Advent devotional last year. This is partially derived from a discussion on this blog the previous summer that compared faith to the Greek middle voice, but since that was one of my most popular entries I thought you wouldn't mind the thematic repeat.

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I spent the past summer in a brutal Classical Greek boot camp, fighting in the trenches of grammar complexities like the infamous middle voice (not active, like “the boy at the banana,” or passive, like “the boy was eaten by the banana,” but somehow between the two in a way that English cannot articulate). In that dismal struggle, classmates became trench buddies, and I found myself soliciting their aid for difficulties that went beyond grammar.

I remember one particular conversation I had with a seminarian. It had begun with a minor theological point and had moved into the realm of the very nature of faith. After months of doubting God’s attentiveness to redeem a particularly dark situation in a friend’s life, this was a sensitive topic for me.

“What do you mean by faith?” I asked him. “What does faith mean when you can’t understand?”

“Well,” he puzzled, “faith is not at all an intellectual exercise. Sometimes faith involves seeing your doubt and despair as your own deficiencies and trusting other Christians to get your bearings.”

“But then what is faith?” I repeated. “Is it a feeling?”

“No, it certainly not a feeling,” he quickly asserted. “Feelings come and go, and I don’t think they would commend or condemn you. Your faith can’t rest on feeling good about God anymore than it would be hindered by feeling frustrated with him.”

“So is faith simply action?” I asked, feeling like we were running out of options. “Is faith acting as though God were good even when you don’t feel that he is or understand how he is?”

My friend pondered a bit as if we were trying to articulate ideas in slightly different languages. “No,” he struggled, “I think faith is different from all these things because it is not something we do at all. Faith is a gift; it is something God does. Faith is something we receive.”

“So faith is passive?” I asked, a bit surprised and unhappy with that answer.

“Well, it looks that way...” he struggled. “But it’s active as well because we have to receive it. It’s more like...” he glanced down at his textbook as he tried to articulate his response...

“The middle voice!” he suddenly exclaimed. “Just like in Greek: it looks passive, even though it’s meaning comes across as active. It is somehow neither and both.”

And on the off-chance that there are other people with the ability to find comfort in complex grammatical points, or on the far-more-likely chance that there are other people who struggle to maintain faith when understanding and feelings and actions all fall short, I thought I would share this conversation. If my friend is right that faith is the middle voice, then perhaps all I can do in times of doubt and despair is to prepare places for it, to dust out the corners where Faith would be living if it were there and wait for it to arrive.

Indeed, perhaps Advent embodies the entire posture of faith: the posture of preparation and waiting. Perhaps faith in the midst of doubt and despair, or even in the midst of simultaneously mundane and busy lives, is the act of creating the places for it and waiting for it to arrive. That may involve carving out places for prayer. That may involve holding out in the lives of those we cannot save but can only love. One way or another, it certainly involves preparation and waiting, and perhaps a little hospitality when it arrives.

“I am going there to prepare a place for you,” Christ said to his disciples on the night he was handed over to suffering and death. And as we are left wading through our fluctuating emotions and ideas and disasters, perhaps faith is the posture of preparing places for him. Take heart, then: faith can neither be conjured nor killed; it can only be welcomed.

1 comment:

Christian H said...

I like this. I know nothing about the middle voice, but I like this.