After the funeral of Martin Luther King, one of the newsmen covering the event stopped to talk to an old man standing at the edges of the cemetery. The reporter asked him: “What did this man mean to you? Why was he special to you?” The old man, through tears, answered simply: “He was a great man because he was faithful. He believed in us when we had stopped believing in ourselves, he stayed with us even when we weren’t worth staying with!”
That is a testimony to a life well-lived. If, at your funeral, someone says that of you, then you have lived your life well, even if there had been many times in your life when things weren’t going well. What this old man defines so accurately in his testimony to Martin Luther King is what faith means. To be full of faith means precisely to be faithful. That is more than a play on words.
In the end, faith is not simply the good, secure feeling that God exists. Faith is a commitment to a way of living beyond good and secure feelings. To have faith means to sometimes live our lives independent of whatever feelings may come. Ultimately faith is not in the head or the heart but in the action of a sustained commitment. Faith is fidelity, nothing more but nothing less.
And, perhaps more than anything else, that gift is what is needed today in our families, in our churches, and in our world in general. The greatest gift we can give to those around us is the promise of fidelity, the simple promise to stay around, to not to leave when things get difficult, to not walk away because we feel disappointed or hurt, to stay even when we don’t feel wanted or valued, to stay even when our personalities and visions clash, to stay through thick and thin.
Too often what happens is that, in our commitments, we subtly blackmail each other: We commit ourselves inside of family, church, community, and friendship but with the unspoken condition: I will stay with you as long as you don’t seriously disappointment or hurt me. But if you do, I will move on!
No family, friendship, church, or community can survive on this premise because it is simply impossible to live or work with each other for any length of time without seriously disappointing and hurting each other.
Inside of any relationship – marriage, family, friendship, church community, or even a collegial relationship at a workplace – we can never promise that we won’t disappoint others, that we won’t ever mess-up, that our personalities won’t clash, or that we won’t sometimes hurt others through insensitivity, selfishness, and weakness. We can’t promise that we will always be good. We can only promise that we will always be there!
And, in the end, that promise is enough because if we stay and don’t blackmail each other by walking away when there is disappointment and hurt, then the disappointments and the hurts can be worked through and redeemed by a faith and love that stay for the long haul. When there is fidelity within a relationship, eventually the hurts and misunderstandings wash clean and even bitterness turns to love.
Many is the man or woman who, on celebrating the anniversary of a marriage or the commitment to religious life, priesthood, friendship, or work at a certain job, looks back and no longer feels the countless hurts, rejections, misunderstandings, and bitter moments, that were also part of that journey. These are washed clean by something deeper that has grown up because of fidelity, namely trust and respect.
You sometimes see this, wonderfully, in the mutual, begrudging respect that eventually develops between two people who, while both sincere and committed, are for years at odds because of differences in personality, politics, religion, or history. The simple fact of having to deal with each other over many years eventually leads to a rich understanding and a respect beyond differences.
This also holds true for prayer. All the great spiritual writers give only one ultimate rule for prayer and that rule has nothing to do with method, style, or content. It is simply this: Show up! Don’t ever give up! Don’t ever stop going to prayer! As long as you persevere in going to prayer, eventually God will break through. Don’t ever stop trying! That’s true for all of our relationships.
The greatest gift that we have to give is the promise of fidelity, the promise that we will keep trying, that we won’t walk away simply because we got hurt or because we felt unwanted or not properly valued.
We are all weak, wounded, sinful, and easily hurt. Inside of our marriages, families, churches, friendships, and places of work, we cannot promise that we won’t disappoint each other and, worse still, that we won’t hurt each other. But we can promise that we won’t walk away because of disappointment and hurt. That’s all we can promise – and that’s enough!