1. An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
2. Trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” cries a father to Jesus in Mark 9:24. The father, amidst the crowd in front of Jesus brings his son possessed by some kind of spirit. Fearful, carrying the pain of watching his child go through these episodes, the father pleads, hope-against-hope, to Jesus: “…if you are able to do anything, have pity and help us.”
The always-in-a-hurry-always-seeming-a-little-annoyed (the most human?) Jesus protests a little at the father’s plea: “if you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes.” Shortly after, Jesus brings the disease out of the child. The disciples, perplexed as ever, wonder why they couldn’t remove the disease plaguing the boy. Jesus replies to them, “this kind can come out only though prayer and fasting.”
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” may be a prayer that has been under my breath throughout seminary. Of course, I believe in Jesus! Of course, I think church means something! I like baptism, communion, and prayer! The Bible is foundational! And yet, there are moments where I know I believe, but I still have unbelief.
Do I believe that my baptism is a sign that I am part of a holy family that God has called, and has the power to reconcile us to each other? Do I believe that the meal we share, simple bread and cup, can feed me so that I may serve others? I believe in the Holy Trinity, but do I believe that they are here amongst us now? Lord, I believe; help my unbelief. I find myself both in the father in Mark’s Gospel, but also in the son: ragged, broken, burdened by disease that needs truly believing prayer and fasting. As much as we can celebrate the resurrected Christ, we are also part of Ash Wednesday – from dust, returning there, each of us. In that way, Ash Wednesday may be the most believable of all the special days of the church – we witness its reality every day.
During the next few weeks of Lent, we may take different approaches. Some of us will once again try to give something up as penance. Others will gather for Wednesday night meals, share in extra study of the Bible in anticipation for the Easter celebration. We may spend time in renewed service to those who are marginalized by society. Fasting, prayer, almsgiving: each one important parts of our Lent traditions. But underneath it all – amidst of doing action after action, I invite you to hear the words of the frightened father and Jesus. Many of us may believe, but what is our unbelief? Is the Lord’s prayer a statement of proclamation – “Lord, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” or rote words learned in dusty corner rooms in the churches of our youth? When we hear the words that we are forgiven and share peace with one another, do we really believe it to be so? Do we believe that we are truly, evermore, and always beloved? That we are chosen?
In the early centuries of Christianity, Lent was a time where individuals prepared themselves for baptism during Triduum – the high holy days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday – and those who were already baptized spend a portion of time remembering their own preparation. In essence, it was a time of reforming identity, and a journey through life to come a sense of belief that these words, actions, and symbols were true. We developed belief.
I encourage you (as I will be doing) to be reminded of what you believe, and pray for God to meet you in your unbelief. It may be in those places that what once felt dead awakens again – resurrection of belief itself.
Throughout Lent, I’ll be trying to send more NounStudy emails based on the prayer below attributed to Saint Ephrem the Syrian. I look forward to our conversations throughout the next 40 days!
O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to me, Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins, and not to judge my sister and brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
Nota Bene: If you read the passage in Mark 9, I’m sure it will seem to you – as it did to me – like the child is dealing with epilepsy. This certainly changes how we define what a miracle this may have been, but I’d invite you to consider what it may have been like for someone without the medical knowledge to witness their child amidst a seizure.