By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.... By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household.... By faith Abraham ... went out, not knowing where he would go.... By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive even when she was past the age.... These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
-Hebrews II:3, 7-14
Every once in a while, life can be very eloquent. You go along from day to day not noticing very much, not seeing or hearing very much, and then all of a sudden, when you least expect it, very often something speaks to you with such power that it catches you off guard, makes you listen whether you want to or not. Something speaks to you out of your own life with such directness that it is as if it calls you by name and forces you to look where you have not had the heart to look before, to hear something that maybe for years you have not had the wit or the courage to hear. I was on my way home from a short trip I took not long ago when such a thing happened to methree such things actually, three images out of my journey, that haunt me still with what seems a truth that it is important to tell.
The first thing was this. I was on a train somewhere along that grim stretch of track between New Brunswick, New Jersey, and New York City. It was a gray fall day with low clouds in the sky and a scattering of rain in the air, a day as bleak and insistent as a headache. The train windows were coated with dust, but there wasn't all that much to see through them anyway except for the industrial wilderness that spread out in all directions and looked more barren and more abandoned as we approached Newarkthe flat, ravaged earth, the rubble, the endless factories black as soot against the sky with their tall chimneys that every now and then are capped with flame, a landscape out of Dante. I was too tired from where I'd been to feel much like reading and still too caught up in what I'd be doing to be able to doze very satisfactorily, so after gazing more or less blindly out of the dirty window for a while, I let my eyes come to rest on the nearest bright thing there was to look at, which was a large color photograph framed on the wall up at the front end of the coach.
It was a cigarette ad, and I forget what it was in it exactly, but there was a pretty girl in it and a good-looking boy, and they were sitting together somewhereby a mountain stream, maybe, or a lake, with a blue sky overhead, green trees. It was a crisp, sunlit scene full of beauty, of youth, full of life more than anything else, and thus as different as it could have been from the drabness I'd been looking at through the window until I felt just about equally drab inside myself. And then down in the lower left-hand corner of the picture, in letters large enough to read from where I was sitting, was the Surgeon General's familiar warning about how cigarette smoking can be hazardous to your health, or whatever the words are that they use for saying that cigarette smoking can cause lung cancer and kill you dead as a doornail.
It wasn't that I hadn't seen such ads thousands of times before and boggled at the macabre irony of themthose pretty pictures, that fatal messagebut for some reason having to do with being tired, I suppose, and having nothing else much to look at or think about, I was so stunned by this one that I haven't forgotten it yet. "Buy this; it will kill you," the ad said. "Choose out of all that is loveliest and greenest and most innocent in the world that which can make you sick before your time and bring your world to an end. Live so you will die."
I'm not interested here in scoring a point against the advertising business or the tobacco industry, and the dangers of cigarette smoking are not what I want to talk about; what I want to talk about is something a great deal more dangerous still, which the ad seemed to be proclaiming with terrible vividness and power. We are our own worst enemies, the ad said. That's what I want to talk about. I had heard it countless times before as all of us have, but this time the ad hit me over the head with itthat old truism that is always true, spell it out and apply it however you like. As nations we stockpile new weapons and old hostilities that may well end up by destroying us all; and as individuals we do much the same. As individuals we stockpile weapons for defending ourselves against not just the things and people that threaten us but against the very things and people that seek to touch our hearts with healing and make us better and more human than we are. We stockpile weapons for holding each other at arm's length, for wounding sometimes even the ones who are closest to us. And as for hostilitiestoward other people, toward ourselves, toward God if we happen to believe in Godwe can all name them silently and privately for ourselves.
The world is its own worst enemy, the ad said. The world, in fact, is its only enemy. No sane person can deny it, I think, as suddenly the picture on the wall of the train jolted me into being sane and being unable to deny it myself. The pretty girl and the good-looking boy. The lake and trees in all their beauty. The blue sky in all its innocence and mystery. And, tucked in among it all, this small, grim warning that we will end by destroying ourselves if we're not lucky. We need no urging to choose what it is that will destroy us because again and again we choose it without urging. If we don't choose to smoke cigarettes ourselves, we choose at least to let such ads stand without batting an eye. "Buy this; it can kill you," the pretty picture said, and nobody on the train, least of all myself, stood up and said, "Look, this is madness!" Because we are more than half in love with our own destruction. All of us are. That is what the ad said. I suppose I had always known it, but for a momentrattling along through the Jersey flats with the gray rain at the window and not enough energy to pretend otherwise for onceI more than knew it. I choked on it.
The second thing was not unlike the first in a way, as if, in order to put the point across, life had to hit me over the head with it twice. I haven't led an especially sheltered life as lives go. I've knocked around more or less like everybody else and have seen my share of the seamy side of things. I was born in New York City and lived there off and on for years. I've walked along West Forty-Second Street plenty of times and seen what there is to see there though I've tried not to see it-wanted to see it and tried not to see it at the same time. I've seen the adult bookstores and sex shops with people hanging around the doors to con you into entering. I've seen the not all that pretty girls and less than good-looking boysmany of them hardly more than children, runawaystrying to keep alive by clumsily, shiftily selling themselves for lack of anything else to sell; and staggering around in the midst of it all, or slumped like garbage against the fronts of buildings, the Forty-Second Street drunksnot amiable, comic drunks you can kid yourself into passing with a smile, but angry, bloodshot, crazy drunks, many of them members of minority groups because minorities in New York City have more to be angry and crazy about than the rest of us.
I'd seen it all before and will doubtless see it all again, but walking from my train to the Port Authority bus terminaland with that ad, I suppose, still on my mindI saw it almost as if for the first time. And, as before, I'm not so much interested in scoring a point against the sex industry, or against the indifference or helplessness or ineptitude of city governments, or against the plague of alcoholism; because instead, again, it was the very sight I saw that scored a point against me, against our world. I found myself suddenly so scared stiff by what I saw that if I'd known a place to hide, I would have gone and hidden there. And what scared me most was not just the brutality and ugliness of it all but how vulnerable I was to the brutality and ugliness, how vulnerable to it we all of us are and how much it is a part of us.
What scared the daylights out of me was to see suddenly how drawn we all are, I think, to the very things that appall us-to see how beneath our civilizedness, our religiousness, our humanness, there is that in all of us which remains uncivilized, religionless, subhuman and which hungers for precisely what Forty-Second Street offers, which is basically the license to be subhuman not just sexually but any other way that appeals to usthe license to use and exploit and devour each other like savages, to devour and destroy our own sweet selves. And if you and I are tempted to think we don't hunger for such things, we have only to remember some of the dreams we dream and some of the secrets we keep and the battle against darkness we all of us fight. I was scared stiff that I would somehow get lost in that awful place and never find my way out. I was scared that everybody I saw coming toward me down the crowded sidewalkold and young, well dressed and ragged, innocent and corruptwas in danger of getting lost. I was scared that the world itself was as lost as it was mad. And of course in a thousand ways it is.
The third thing was finally getting home. It was late and dark when I got there after a long bus ride, but there were lights on in the house. My wife and daughter were there. They had waited supper for me. There was a fire in the woodstove, and the cat was asleep on his back in front of it, one paw in the air. There are problems at home for all of usproblems as dark in their way as the dark streets of any citybut they were nowhere to be seen just then. There was nothing there just then except stillness, light, peace, and the love that had brought me back again and that I found waiting for me when I got there. Forty-Second Street was only a couple of hundred miles from my door, but in another sense it was light-years away.
Part of what I felt, being home, was guilt, because feeling guilty is one of the things we are all so good at. I felt guilty about having, at home, the kind of peace the victims and victimizers of Forty-Second Street not only don't have but don't even know exists, because that is part of the price you pay for being born into the world poor, unloved, without hope. "I was hungry and you gave me food," Christ said. "I was a stranger and you welcomed me.... I was sick and you visited me," Christ said (Matt. 25:35-36), and by coming home I was turning my back not just on Christ, but on all the sick, the hungry, the strangers in whom Christ is present and from whom I'd fled like a bat out of helljust that, because hell was exactly where I'd been. But I wouldn't let myself feel guilty long; I fought against feeling guilty, because as I sat there in that warm, light house, safe for the moment from the darkness of night and from all darkness, I felt something else so much more powerful and real.
Warmth. Light. Peace. Stillness. Love. That was what I felt. And as I entered that room where they were present, it seemed to me that wherever these things are found in the world, they should not be a cause for guilt but treasured, nurtured, sheltered from the darkness that threatens them. I thought of all such rooms everywhereboth rooms inside houses and rooms inside peopleand how in a way they are like oases in the desert where green things can grow and there is refreshment and rest surrounded by the sandy waste; how in a way they are like the monasteries of the Dark Ages, where truth, wisdom, charity were kept alive surrounded by barbarity and misrule.
The world and all of us in it are half in love with our own destruction and thus mad. The world and all of us in it are hungry to devour each other and ourselves and thus lost. That is not just a preacher's truth, a rhetorical truth, a Sunday school truth. Listen to the evening news. Watch television. Read the novels and histories and plays of our time. Read part of what there is to be read in every human face including my face and your faces. But every once in a while in the world, and every once in a while in ourselves, there is something else to readthere are places and times, inner ones and outer ones, where something like peace happens, love happens, light happens, as it happened for me that night I got home. And when they happen, we should hold on to them for dear life, because of course they are dear life. They are glimpses and whispers from afar: that peace, light, love are where life ultimately comes from, that deeper down than madness and lostness they are what at its heart life is. By faith we know this, and I think only by faith, because there is no other way to know it.
"By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear," says the author of Hebrews. Faith is a way of looking at what is seen and understanding it in a new sense. Faith is a way of looking at what there is to be seen in the world and in ourselves and hoping, trusting, believing against all evidence to the contrary that beneath the surface we see there is vastly more that we cannot see.
What is it "that is seen," as Hebrews puts it? What is seen is the ruined landscape I saw through the train window, the earth so ravaged you can't believe any green thing will ever grow there again. What is seen is all the streets in the world like Forty-Second Street-the crazy drunks, the child whores, the stink of loneliness, emptiness, cruelty, despair. Maybe most of all what is seen, if we're honest, is that there is in all of us what is both sickened and fascinated by such things, attracted and repelled. What is seen is a world that tries to sell us what kills us like the cigarette ad and never even gives it a second thought, as you and I rarely give it a second thought either but rush to buy what the world sells, and in our own way sell it ourselves.
Who or what created such a world? On the face of it, there seems to be only one answer to that question. We ourselves created itthat is the answerand it is hard to see on the face of ithard to seethat what created us can have been anything more than some great cosmic upheaval, some slow, blind process as empty of meaning or purpose as a glacier. But "by faith," says Hebrews, we see exactly the same world and yet reach exactly the opposite answer, which is faith's answer. "By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God," it says, "so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear."
By faith we understand, if we are to understand it at all, that the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to the last truth. Madness and lostness are the results of terrible blindness and tragic willfulness, which whole nations are involved in no less than you and I are involved in them. Faith is the eye of the heart, and by faith we see deep down beneath the face of thingsby faith we struggle against all odds to be able to seethat the world is God's creation even so. It is he who made us and not we ourselves, made us out of his peace to live in peace, out of his light to dwell in light, out of his love to be above all things loved and loving. That is the last truth about the world.
Can it be true? No, of course it cannot. On the face of it, if you take the face seriously and face up to it, how can it possibly be true? Yet how can it not be true when our own hearts bear such powerful witness to it, when blessed moments out of our own lives speak of it so eloquently? And that no-man's-land between the Yes and the No, that everyman's land, is where faith stands and has always stood. Seeing but not seeing, understanding but not understanding, we all stand somewhere between the Yes and the No the way old Noah stood there before us, and Abraham, and Sarah his wife, all of them. The truth of God as the last and deepest truththey none of them saw it in its fullness any more than we have, but they spent their lives homesick for itseeking it like a homeland, like home, and their story is our story because we too have seen from afar what peace is, light is, love is, and we have seen it in something like that room that love brought me back to that rainy day on the train and the bus, and where I found supper waiting, found love waiting, love enough to see me through the night.
That still, light room in that houseand whatever that room represents of stillness and light and the possibility of faith, of Yes, in your own livesis a room to find healing and hope in, but it is also a room with a view. It is a room that looks out, like the window of the train, on a landscape full of desolationthat looks out on Forty-Second Street with its crowds of hungry ones, lonely ones, sick ones, all the strangers who turn out not to be strangers after all because we are all of us seeking the same homeland together whether we know it or not, even the mad ones and lost ones who scare us half to death because in so many ways they are so much like ourselves.
Maybe in time we will even be able to love them a littleto feed them when they are hungry and maybe no farther away than our own street; to visit them when they are sick and lonely; maybe hardest of all, to let them come serve us when the hunger and sickness and loneliness are not theirs but ours. "Your faith has made you whole," Jesus said to the woman who touched the hem of his garment (Mark 5:34, kjv), and maybe by grace, by luck, by holding fast to whatever of him we can touch, such faith as we have will make us whole enough to become something like human at lastto see something of the power and the glory and the holiness beneath the world's lost face. That is the direction that home is in anywaythe homeland we have seen from afar in our dearest rooms and truest dreams, the homeland we have seen in the face of him who is himself our final home and haven, our kingdom and king.