Believing In You
I’ve enjoyed - and endured - my fair share of high school graduation ceremonies, but one I attended many years ago helped change my concept of faith.
The valedictorian was a Vietnamese American young woman riding a full scholarship to an Ivy League school where she would study biology. She matter-of-factly explained that after medical school she would earn a Ph.D. and become a cancer researcher. I was struck by the precise determination with which she had already mapped out her future.
Unlike many valedictory speeches, hers was not a syrupy soliloquy about achieving your dreams. Her talk was a testament to the power of faith, although she never spoke a word about any faith she possessed.
She told the story of how her parents had been newlywed teenagers living in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. Like many they had to escape the country because their families had worked with Americans. Remaining there would have meant certain imprisonment, or worse.
They made their way aboard a tiny fishing boat crammed with other refugees and set out on the ocean. They were attacked by pirates, and many passengers died.
After weeks at sea, they were rescued by a US Navy ship, transported across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal, and deposited at Corpus Christi, Texas. Her young parents worked menial jobs, saved money, started a small business, and had children. This valedictorian was the eldest of those kids.
In her speech she noted that her parents made sure she studied hard. But the thing that had the greatest impact on her life, she said, was a simple routine. Every morning before she went to school, her mother quietly told her daughter that she had faith in her. She described that small daily affirmation as a powerful dose of positive spiritual energy. Her belief in herself was unwavering because she knew her mother believed in her.
She then paused for a moment, collected herself, and told the crowd, “Last year my mom died. She had ovarian cancer. Everything I am, everything I do, and everything I will do in my life, is because of my mom’s faith in me. Believing in someone - and telling them so - is the greatest gift we can give.”
Her speech was jaw-dropping in unveiling a truth hiding in plain sight. My long-held concept was that faith is something to be acquired and possessed. The more faith you had, the more you’d understand the mind of God and the more God would love you.
As a child I pictured faith as a vitamin supplement. With more faith, I’d be stronger, have more endurance, and be able to achieve greater things. Faith was something to be consumed for my own good. The more I went to church, the more I read the Bible and prayed, the more faith I’d gain.
Faith was also similar to altitude, or the stairs of a very tall skyscraper. Climbing higher took effort. The people with the most faith strolled blissfully around the observation deck, able to see everything clearly for miles, and conveniently, at that height they were nearer to God.
I’ve even thought of faith as earning points in pursuit of a reward. My wife wears a fitness tracker. I’ll often walk with her, and she’ll stop abruptly after the gadget has buzzed, glance at her wrist and triumphantly announce, “Ten thousand steps! Now we can go home.”
It made sense to me that as a points-earning system, with enough faith I would be made invulnerable to trouble or pain. Illness? Injury? Loss? No problem. I’d have enough accumulated faith to see me through anything.
Those ways of thinking about faith can work, until they don’t. Life often doesn’t seem to care how much faith we’ve accumulated, earned, or kept in reserve. Maybe that’s why Jesus told a parable about a mustard seed; the point being, even a tiny bit of faith is plenty. He didn’t seem to think of faith as something we can quantify or selfishly possess.
Like that wise young valedictorian taught, faith is a gift we receive and is meant for us to give away. It’s not for our sake or to be kept to ourselves. It grows in proportion to how much we share it with others, by believing in them and saying so.