At age 13, I told another adult that I didn’t want to go home to my mother. I couldn’t take her biting messages and wordspinning anymore. The adult was my guardian ad litem, a kind of court appointed advocate in custody battle cases. I didn’t really know what was going on between my parents—my mom didn’t tell me. All I knew was that this woman had started meeting with me, checking in on me; and she had power to do something. I think it was a Wednesday afternoon in February, and by the evening I had a bag packed and was headed to my youth leader’s home. Three blissful days with my youth leaders and their adorable daughters. Paul and Gina were as lovely at home as they were at church. I don’t remember much from those few days: school, meetings, maybe I went to the courthouse, I’m not sure. But I do remember thinking, why can’t I find a nice family to take me in? Why do I have to be stuck with mine? What I really wanted my court guardian to do was fix the whole situation: make my stepmother go away, or become nice, make my mom less crazy, and then make my dad’s work keep him in town so he didn’t have to travel.

Instead, I lived with my father and stepmother; my court guardian became my counselor. By the end of highschool, my faith in pop psychology to heal was about as weak as my belief that families are good. I had no confidence in the system. I knew God had a way of changing things for the better, but couldn’t figure out how. I knew that healing comes, but couldn’t see from where. I knew that Jesus was my source, my wellspring, but my lips were dry and cracked. I just wanted to see what normal could be like.

God’s funny about how he pursues us, what little seeds he sets in our hearts (or thorns, depending on how it feels). As much as I wanted to experience an average, comfortable life, the knowledge of something better, stranger and more adventuresome, consistently drew me back to God.

Sometimes I can almost imagine what it may have been like for the early church communities: after the excitement of the apostle’s visit, after the authorities cracked down (again), long after the last disciple had passed away, and the Jesus stories were no longer new. Isn’t this the backstory of the letter to the Hebrews? People respond to the gospel of Christ, choose to have faith in Jesus, have an amazing experience, until suffering and persecution enter the picture. At first they’re able to stand in solidarity, having compassion for those imprisoned and not feeling overly anxious when they’re homes are ransacked, “knowing that you yourselves possessed something better,” the author reminds them. But it’s hard. If only life could go back to normal.

Here’s the kicker, though, they know the truth of the living God, and the story of salvation in Jesus Christ:

Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. For yet, “in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.” But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. [Hebrews 10:35—11.3]

So much for normalcy.

What is faith? How do we live by faith? I mean, I hope someday to have a house of my own, but what assurance could I possibly get for that? And, while I haven’t seen the middle of the earth, I’m fairly convinced it’s there, but only because such a thing as liquid hot magma exists, and can be seen and studied. Faith… Hope… Conviction… How do these things fit together?

We know what faith is not: it isn’t gullibility, we can’t fall into it. It isn’t a surface trust that breaks easily, like winter’s first ice on a lake. And it isn’t something abstract—there must be an object or person at the other side of faith. More than just anything or anyone, it must be something/someone with enough substance for us to sink down on.

Hope is a word that gets short shaft in the English language. Hoping quickly becomes synonymous with wishing or wanting. But, we can only hope for something that has been promised to us. Again, it’s the difference between an unattached wish, and something that might actually exist. Abram and Sarai wanted a child in their younger years, but hope arrived when God spoke.

The author of Hebrews lists our ancestors of faith, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham; and how we know they lived by faith is that they never received what was promised to them. “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” (Hb 11:13b-14)

What has been promised to you?

Abraham did receive one promise while on the earth: a son born to him and Sarah, even in their advanced years. Not simply family, but a descendent, the promise of a legacy. But that was only a portion of God’s promise to him. It all started with the direction to go to the land God would show him. It was the land and nationhood that God promised Abraham. Then, after he arrived there, came the promise for descendents to fill the land. As the author of Hebrews describes, “By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise..” (Hb 11:9-10)

Endurance… To live by faith is to go on a journey. It is to set out, destination unknown, but with a promise as coordinates. ‘Head that way’ This is no easy task. Sometimes, the promise can be as simple (which is to say, vague) as “I will be with you.” Yet even that needs to be enough to hold our confidence. Why did Abraham go camping in the promised land? For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. There’s no going back.

When I told my court guardian that I couldn’t go back, I knew that life with my stepmother would be far from serene; this was no promise land I was headed towards. Yet, I knew enough about God to know I’d get through it; perhaps even experience some healing. Living with my father and stepmother felt like tenting in a foreign land, which is a strange thing to say, (but true); and, I’m becoming grateful for it. As the author reminded the church, “in your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hb 12:4) There’s hardship…and then there’s what Christ endured. In the journey of faith we encounter tests and trials–it’s no secret or surprise. For this reason we cannot abandon our confidence in Christ, we cannot shrink back in the face of suffering. We cannot go back to normal.