Late one afternoon, a teenager sneaks into the back row of church. He takes off his backpack, unplugs his i-pod and rolls his basketball under his seat. He’s overwhelmed because he lives in that strange land between childhood and adulthood, and he tries to cope with everyone’s expectations: the expectations of his teachers that he be a scholar, the expectations of his coach that he be a champion, the expectations of his friends that he be cool. In the quiet of the church he centers himself. He begins to pray, “Lord, it’s me, Joe.”
In another part of the church a businessman sits with his head in his hands. It has been a horrible day. He has had to fire five people from his small business. The work just isn’t there. He tried to do all that he could to keep them on the payroll, but he couldn’t make the numbers work. Although he knows it was the necessary thing to do, he now feels like the worst person in the world. As he clears his mind, he begins to say, “Lord, it’s me, Sam. Help me keep this together.”
Before mass begins, a woman in her forties is praying. She’s reciting a prayer off a card that her friend gave her. As she says the words, her mind is somewhere else. She’s thinking about yet another confrontation with her daughter, about the sure signs of her mother’s growing dementia, about what she could do with the growing estrangement between her and her husband. Suddenly she stops reciting the prayer and says in her own words, “Lord, it’s Megan. I don’t know whether I have the strength to go on.”
We all have burdens to carry. Some of them are really difficult. We get stuck in things we can’t change about ourselves, about our work, about our families. And it’s when we must carry those burdens that we need to know above all, that God is real and that there is someone we can turn to. It’s when these difficulties of life press in upon us that we need to have faith.
That is what makes today’s gospel so important. Today’s gospel tells us where faith begins. It contains perhaps the most well known line of the New Testament, John 3-16. This is the line that is held up on placards by evangelists at political rallies and football games. “God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that those who believe in him might not perish, but must have eternal life.” This verse from the scriptures tells us where faith begins. It begins in the love of God. If we are to have faith, we need to believe in that love that God has for us. We need to believe that God so loves the world and so loves us that the power of God is available to us in Jesus Christ. We need to believe that we’re in a relationship with a God who cares for us, a God who will be with us in our time of need. Faith has to be personal, believing in a God who cares for us and will act on our behalf.
Seen from this perspective, it is clear that faith is so much more than knowing the Ten Commandments or coming to mass on the weekend. Faith is believing in God’s love for us, a love that is deep enough and real enough to be present in our lives. It is so easy to let this fundamental truth slip from our view. We begin to fall into an empty routine of just coming weekly to mass, into a routine of the externals, thinking of ourselves as Christians on holidays, on Christmas and Easter. We do not realize that faith is not just a matter of the mind. It is entering into a relationship that has the power to change us, a power that is overwhelming. We must understand that God’s love for us is what grounds our belief.
So, what do you do then, if the love that God has for you seems to be absent in your life? What if you’ve been hurt and it’s difficult for you to believe that God cares? What if you’ve been busy or preoccupied and God’s presence in your life seems far away or even an illusion? What if you have doubts, doubts about God’s real presence in your life and you can’t remember the last time when your faith was personal, when your prayer was real?
The great thing about faith is that we can ask for it whenever we are ready. There are no preconditions because faith does not depend on our love for God but on God’s love for us. So we can ask for that love whenever we need it. But it’s important to know what we’re asking for. We’re asking for the awareness of God’s overwhelming love in our life. We’re asking that we might know that God so loves the world and so loves us that faith can be real. And if we have that love, then everything else follows. But if we don’t have that love, then faith is useless. It has no power.
So then let us ask for faith, real faith, today. We can ask for it without any preconditions. We can ask for faith in our anger or our fear. We can ask for faith in our emptiness or in our doubt. We can ask for faith in our confusion or in our joy. The burdens of life are too heavy for us to carry them on our own. So let us ask for what we want and what we need today. In whatever place or whatever time you choose, simply place yourself in God’s presence and say, “Lord, it’s me. Let me know your love.”