Thursday, October 20, 2016

How to Grow Faith  

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Even with 20 years of formal Catholic education, I’ve struggled with faith most of my adult life. Does God exist? Was Jesus really God? Am I fooling myself about God, Jesus, life after death?

I know I’m not alone. I suspect the vast majority of people of faith have similar doubts. But doubt doesn’t constitute an absence of faith. Everyone has a different way of approaching this problem. Here are my thoughts on the matter of faith and doubt.

First, I believe that faith isn’t just a question of the mind. We probably make most of our decisions - even the most important one, like the question of belief - based on emotion or a mix of emotion and reason. And that mix makes me and millions of others come down on the side of faith.

Accepting Uncertainty
Secondly, faith means accepting uncertainty, which doesn’t seem a problem in other aspects of our lives. Uncertainty is as pervasive as air. People we were certain were loyal friends turn out not to be. Before Einstein, Newton’s physics were certain. Almost daily revelations show we can never be certain about the effectiveness and safety of medications.

Third, faith is incremental. Jesus acknowledged as much when he used the analogy of the mustard seed. We need to act on whatever “amount” of faith we have and be grateful for it.

So if we have some degree of faith – if only the size of a mustard seed, which is no larger than the period at the end of the next sentence – how do we keep it and grow it? The point of Jesus’ analogy, I believe, is that even a minimal amount of faith is enough to believe that “anything is possible.”

Prayer, it seems to me, is the best start. If we believe in God, even with doubt, we should ask him/her to help us believe. And prayer, wrote the great mystic Teresa of Avila, “is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent converse, with him who we know loves us.”

Those in the Judeo-Christian tradition should read the Bible. Christians could start with something easy, like the Acts of the Apostles and graduate to the gospels and the letters of Paul. In the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, at least the early chapters, is also relatively easy to read.

Besides that, we should look for what will support our faith: articles, books, movies, TV shows, plays, conversations, friends. God knows there is plenty to influence us in the opposite direction.

Research has shown that many Christians, at least, depend on the knowledge of their faith they learned in elementary school. The rest of their knowledge may have grown exponentially but their faith is stuck in the rudiments, with a child’s understanding in an age when an adult’s understanding is needed like never before.

That’s not to say that believers need a formal education. Neither the prophets nor Jesus mentioned having an academic degree, but in an age when knowledge in every other aspect of our lives is exploding, having a child’s grasp of our faith is an obstacle, for us and those with whom we come into contact.

Fr. Herbert McCabe, an English theologian and philosopher who died in 2001, has some insight on the subject of faith.

“Faith,” he wrote, “is about what is beyond the horizon of the humanly possible. Faith is exploring into what people could never achieve by themselves. Faith is the mysterious need in us to get to where we could surely never go.

“Faith, in fact, is about what we call God. Faith is the inkling that we are meant to be divine, that our journey will go beyond any horizon at all into the limitlessness of the Godhead. Faith is not our power to set out on this journey into the future. It is our future laying hold on us. …Faith is not something we possess. It is something by which we are possessed.”

I still ask myself all those doubting questions mentioned at the start of this blog, but not as frequently as before. And I can attest that faith does indeed bring peace and joy.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Magical Thinking?

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I recently finished a book called “Not Forgotten, the True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea” by Kenneth Bae. The author, a Korean-American who had emigrated to the U.S. from Korea with his parents as a youth, is an evangelical Christian who was imprisoned by North Korea after a mission trip to that country.

The book is a mix of his prison story and the efforts to free him, and how it was all part of God’s plan. Almost every page recounts how God spoke to him and how God took care of him. It demonstrates a remarkable trust in God. Many, however, would call the story naïve and dishonest and Bae’s attribution of virtually everything to a continually meddling God “magical thinking.”

I prefer to withhold judgment. While I believe that God is perfectly capable of such intervention, I think it happens rarely. I believe God expects us to take as much control of our lives as possible, make adult decisions about ourselves and others and not depend on him/her for the daily living of our lives.

Ultimately Dependent on God
Judeo-Christianity teaches that we’re ultimately dependent on God for our existence and our ultimate fate, but not necessarily that God has a detailed plan for each of us and all we have to do is find out what that is and carry it out. That would impugn our freedom, in my opinion, and if God were continually intervening in our lives, he/she would deserve criticism for the bad things that happen as well as praise for the good.

The Bible is filled with references to God’s intervention in human affairs, of course, in both the Hebrew and Christian renditions, though Scripture scholars have pointed out that it happens in the Hebrew Bible less and less often when going from the oldest to the newest sections of the Hebrew canon.

And God intervened often in the lives of members of the early Christian church. According to the Acts of the Apostles, God knocked the persecuting Saul from his horse and converted him to a staunch ally, made the prison chains fall from Paul, Peter and Silas and brought death to a couple who cheated on their promise to contribute  to the early Christian community.

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And no God intervention is more powerful and complete than that expressed in the Christian belief that God became a human being in the person of Jesus.

But even Jesus wasn’t continually intervening in people’s lives. He worked miracles, according to the gospels, but over the presumed three-year period of his public ministry, not very often when you consider that he travelled continually and met hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. That’s presuming that all or most of his miracles are recorded in the gospels.

Jesus didn’t appear to make life easier for his disciples, didn’t punish his critics or bring harm to the many who ignored him. He didn’t “call down fire from heaven,” as requested by his disciples.

So if God intervenes rarely, what should our expectations be when we pray?

The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians in the Christian Bible urges us to “…pray at every opportunity in the Spirit…that speech may be given to me to open my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains, so that I may have the courage to speak as I must.”

So the writer of Ephesians, whom Scripture scholars say is likely someone other than Paul, asks for inspiration, boldness and courage, not a magic bullet.

Sister Mary Kay Oosdyke, who teaches theology at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI, points out that many of us have prayed for God’s intervention to relieve illnesses, improve the weather, find a suitable mate, win a football game.

Not Sure How God Works
But, she writes, “In time we all face the question of whether we really believe our prayer changes things. We don’t doubt God; we are just not sure how God works with us in our world.”

I like what God is reported to have said to Solomon in the Hebrew Bible when God invited the new king to ask for something.

Solomon asked for wisdom and knowledge and, in The Message translation, God answered, “You didn’t grasp for money, wealth, fame, and the doom of your enemies; you didn’t even ask for long life. You asked for wisdom and knowledge…. Because of this, you get what you asked for – wisdom and knowledge….” He threw in the “stuff” as a bonus.

And so we who search for God are left with uncertainty, but also with the urging of the Hebrew Bible, of Jesus who taught his disciples to pray, and that of ancient Christians to pray despite our doubts.

Magical thinking? No, that’s faith.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Case for Change  

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A few years ago, I visited a Greek Orthodox monastery in Arizona with my wife, sister and brother-in-law. It was a beautiful, tranquil place, an oasis in the desert. But in walking around the grounds, we noticed that the monks we past were not communicative. The only one who was worked in the monastery gift shop, and he was not particularly friendly.

In fact, when he rang up my purchase, he asked what religion I professed and when I answered, “Catholic,” he began to tell me why Catholicism is inferior to orthodoxy and how the Second Vatican Council – the gathering of Catholic bishops in Rome that aimed to reform many Catholic beliefs and practices – showed that Catholicism isn’t faithful to Christ’s message.

I couldn’t resist arguing but soon realized that it was useless and gave up. A couple of ideas occurred to me, however. First, the monks didn’t appear to prize Christ’s “law of love” above all else. Second, they aren’t the only religious people not to do so nor the only ones who cling to the past.

At Least As Reliable
The only things that are certain, according to the cliché, are death and taxes. But another certainty is at least as reliable: change.

That’s because without it, everything and everyone would cease to exist. Biological change is the most obvious, but virtually everything about us and our world, including religion, requires continual change. So why do we resist it as if it were a fatal disease?

Often it’s because we are presented with an agenda for change without knowing why the change is needed. That, in my opinion, accounts for much of the resistance to the changes brought about by the Vatican Council. But it happens in businesses and organizations, too. Employees, without having any input, are expected to embrace changes thought up by the executives.

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Religion is especially resistant to change, probably because many are based on centuries of revelation and practice. It’s true that religions, if they are to maintain their identities, must guard the “deposit of faith,” as my church calls it. But that doesn’t preclude continual re-evaluation of the contents of that deposit.

It’s obvious that one’s grasp of religion is tied to a sense of history. My faith would be much harder had I not had at least a basic understanding of how my religion developed and how it has affected my church and me.

What has been lacking in the process of distinguishing between the essential and the peripheral in religion, it seems to me, is humility, plus the tendency to think that revelation stopped with the completion of the New Testament 1,900 years ago. There’s no reason to think God has stopped communicating with us, however.

And in reviewing what should be kept at any cost and what should be changed, we shouldn’t ignore all the ways humans, their institutions, societies and knowledge have changed. We can’t pretend that all this had little or no influence on what we profess.

Writing about seminary training of new priests in America Magazine recently, T. Howland Sanks, professor emeritus of theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University in California, made this point.

An Agricultural World
“Much of (the church’s) teaching developed in an agricultural world in which children were an economic asset and necessity, when the majority of children died before the age of five and when the average life expectancy was less than 45 years. And much of the doctrine on authority in the church was developed in a world that took monarchy, hierarchy and patriarchy for granted.”

As for the composition of society, “People of another culture or religious tradition who once were thousands of miles and an ocean away are now right down the street,” Sanks writes. We pretty much still ignore the wisdom traditions of Asia and Africa while “much of our theology is still very geocentric and anthropomorphic.”

Just think how much we know about the universe compared to only 100 years ago. It’s mind-boggling. And people searching for God must take this into account. How does the contemporary view of the universe and its development affect one’s faith? (It has strengthened mine.)

The need for change in some things and not in others may be confusing for some people searching for God. But isn’t change necessary, and inevitable, in all areas of life, whether you’re a monk or not?



Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Disconnect Between Faith and Sex

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Driving across Nebraska recently, I tuned to a local radio station featuring a conservative religious program. A caller told the radio host how grateful she was for the “prayer before the marriage act” the host had composed.

"Yikes!” I thought. “What better way to throw cold water on ‘the marriage act’ than to say a prayer beforehand!”

My reaction is an example of the obvious disconnect between faith and sex many of us display. (Like many Catholic families, my wife and I have crucifixes hanging above the beds in our bedrooms. Some who sleep there may have a reaction similar to mine about the “prayer-before-the-marriage-act.”)

Many young people identify sex as one of the areas that most turns them off about religion, but when is the last time those of us who go to church have heard the subject mentioned in a homily? Most homilists and professional religious people avoid the topic like they would a poke in the eye.

So I’m writing about this topic again, not because I’m any kind of expert on sex but because I believe it’s so important in people’s lives and because faith can’t be excluded from any human activity. You can’t have a faith drawer, a work drawer, a play drawer and a sex drawer, as if they were socks or underwear. Faith is all-encompassing.

Among the works to which I’ve referred in past posts on this topic is Donna Freitas’ 2008 book, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. Its main topic is the “hookup culture” and its effect on students’ “love lives.” She has now published a sequel. I believe much of what she has discovered on college campuses applies to many of us.

For those unfamiliar with the term, the hookup culture involves the practice of casual sex among students, often fueled by alcohol. Freitas’ works result from extensive interviews on college campuses, secular and religious, Catholic and Protestant. Hookups, she found, are pervasive as is students' dissatisfaction with the hookup culture, especially among women.

Donna Freitas
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In a recent article in America Magazine, Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz is quoted as saying that “middle-class heterosexual women have ‘never been so sovereign in terms of their body and emotions’ but ‘emotionally dominated by men in new and unprecedented ways.’”

Student participants in the hookup culture complain about the loss of romance, freedom and dignity it entails. Though many students cite freedom among the benefits of non-participation in religion, the hookup culture has brought little of it. Many students feel compelled into hookups, fearful that they will be considered prudes and irrelevant if maintaining their virginity. Many, Freitas found, long for meaningful, lasting relationships. 

The absence of communication is key to the hookup culture, Freitas writes, just as it often is in the failure of marriages and long-term relationships. Communication creates intimacy and attachment. The more you communicate, the less likely you are to see the other person merely as a sex object. And heavy drinking is a great help in limiting communication.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts on the subject, if religious views on sexuality are messed up, it doesn’t compare to the degree that they’re messed up in society. Casual, gratuitous sex - and all that Freitas in her college interviews found that goes with it – is more and more evident in movies, TV and streaming video and we ignore the obvious consequences, especially for those who are emotionally immature.

Saturated with Sexual Images
We turn our back on the depravity of pornography, ignoring its exploitation of women while pretending to be a generation that honors women. We allow ourselves to be saturated with sexual images in advertising, books and magazines, but get upset out-of-proportion when people with sexual mental health problems violate the confusing signals society sends. As with other mental health problems, instead of helping people, we lock them up and throw away the key.

Is this any less hypocritical than the hypocrisy about which so many complain regarding religion’s view of sexuality?

The bottom line is that people searching for God must include their sexual lives in whatever faith they find. God is not limited to human social or justice issues, politics or human relations. It may not be necessary to pray before “the marriage act,” but it is necessary to view sex as another of God’s incredible gifts and treat it accordingly.



Thursday, September 22, 2016

God Myopia

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Back in the day, the Des Moines Register, where I worked for 22 years, was a marvel of a newspaper. It had expert writers in so many areas, including a drama writer, a markets columnist and a book and movie reviewer, to say nothing of people who specialized in science, religion, medicine, business, the courts, government and, of course, sports.

Unbelievably for such a small market, Time Magazine named The Register among the top five newspapers in the country in 1985. Like all newspapers today, however, it’s struggling.

One of the best of those Register specialists was Bill Simbro, the religion writer. He covered his topic like a good reporter, looking for stories he knew would be of interest to readers. A former Methodist minister, he sought out good stories wherever he could find them – among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, cultists and non-believers.

Simbro and the Register recognized that religion was important to many readers, that like all the other topics in the news, it was an important part of many people’s lives. It still is. Though religious affiliation has been declining, over 70 percent of Americans call themselves Christian while the number of adherents to other faiths have held steady.

Mostly Ignore It
Though this suggests a strong demand for news about religion, most news outlets – including the Register – mostly ignore it.  

Still, as a blogger on the topics for over three years, I can attest that it’s hard to get people’s attention when it comes to God and religion. There are dozens of competing interests, all of which seem much more interesting to modern readers.

Society appears to be indifferent, at best, to the question of God. Research shows that even many people who go to church regularly live their lives as if there were no God. They go through their days never referring to their beliefs and ignoring them on social and political issues.

Most Americans say they believe in God but many are vague about what that entails. They pray mainly when they are in trouble or need a “favor.” They avoid articles and broadcasts that aim to inform them. They may think that sometime in the foggy future they will commit to God and religion, but in the meantime, there are “important” things on which to focus.

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In the blogging world, if you want readers, you write about food, exercise, pets, sports or politics. You’ll get plenty of interest.

I believe many people avoid thinking about faith because it makes demands on them and appears to contradict what they know from everyday life. Faith, they perceive, does nothing to promote their “pursuit of happiness,” a noble goal.

Faith also contradicts science, according to the popular view. Faith, it is said, promotes belief in the “unbelievable” – in the case of Christianity things like the virgin birth, the miracles of the gospels, the “tolerance of evil by an all-good” God.

Then you have the teaching of religions on social issues, particularly on sexuality, consumerism and end-of-life issues. They don’t align with the values that are promoted in society.

But does the popularity of opinions determine their validity? Isn’t it possible that, as religious people for centuries have claimed, the universe is saturated with God, that God is in us and around us and in and around the earth’s billions of people, whether they acknowledge it or not? And isn’t religion the obvious way of expressing faith?

Big Stumbling Blocks
I know that the faith issues mentioned above are big stumbling blocks for many. Not for me. Once I get past the question of a God who created the universe – admittedly in a way that is not understood in or outside of religion – I can accept for good reason any of the other “incredible” issues mentioned. They’re small potatoes by comparison. 

I believe we’re all infected with a kind of communal myopia, a condition in which we see clearly things that are close but things farther away are blurry. Immediate rewards are clear, delayed rewards are fuzzy. Faith promises mostly delayed rewards but we have to have clear vision to detect them.

Vision is an important metaphor in the Bible. Lack of clear vision signifies a lack of spiritual insight. The messianic message in the Hebrew Bible is “a light to the blind.” Jesus calls the Pharisees of his time “the blind leading the blind.” And the healing of blindness is one of the hallmarks of his mission.

I’m trying to help people see more clearly in these blogs, and in doing so, trying to help myself do the same. I’m probably not grateful enough that sometimes, both may actually happen.







Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Blight on Humanity’s Soul

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As I age, I find it much harder to watch scenes of violence on TV or in movies. That’s especially true of period dramas that depict Nazi atrocities or the abuses of slavery in 17th and 19th century America.

Slavery is flagrantly anti-human and degrading, a blight on humanity's soul. It deserves the old-fashioned word, “abomination.” And isn’t it frightening to realize that we treated each other so inhumanly only 150 years ago?

Yes, it’s frightening, but slavery is much closer to us in time. Its modern term is “human trafficking” and though we may be in denial about it, it’s in our own back yard.

A 30-something couple from a Des Moines suburb last year has been accused of kidnapping a 20-year-old woman, torturing her, threatening her and her family with death and transporting her to Virginia where they sexually assaulted her and forced her into prostitution. The two are being prosecuted on federal charges of sex trafficking and transportation of a person for prostitution.

An attitude adjustment
The case was a shocker for many Iowans who consider the state to be relatively peaceful and secure. A few weeks ago, however, I attended a meeting in which Michael Ferjak from the state attorney general’s office made a presentation on human trafficking. It was an “attitude adjustment.”

It turns out that “agriculture” is one of the principal industries for which people are trafficked. Besides farm workers, nannies, immigrants, children and the mentally disabled are frequently trafficked, and teen “throwaways” – kids whose parents kick them out of the house – are also often victims. Ferjak said there are 500 throwaways a year in Iowa, and many end up trafficked by people who take advantage of their vulnerability.

The result of abuse of these teens is unambiguous. “When abuse begins,” he said, “development ends.”

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Traffickers use Craig’s list and events like the state fair to do business. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of trafficking victims are women and children.

So what does this have to do with the goal of this blog – to help people searching for God?

Just that faith is as much about doing, and not doing, as about belief; as much about how we treat each other as about prayer; as much about healing social ills as about going to church. In my opinion, you can’t genuinely search for God without developing a social conscience.

In imitation of the God we seek, we must be on the side of goodness and kindness, compassion and justice. Practices like human trafficking are violations of basic justice and can’t solicit a mere “ho-hum” from people searching for God.   

“Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit human beings for some type of labor or commercial sex purpose,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. “Victims are often lured with false promises of well-paying jobs or are manipulated by people they trust, but instead are forced or coerced into prostitution, domestic servitude, farm or factory labor, or other types of forced labor.”

3,646 Cases a Year
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center says 3,646 cases of trafficking were reported in the U.S. in the first six months of this year, 32 in Iowa.

So what can we do, practically, to combat human trafficking? First, said Ferjak, be aware and make others aware of the problem. Second, if you see anything that appears to be an incident of trafficking, call 911 and “tell them what you see,” or call 866-347-2423 (toll free) or report it online at Third, since God-seekers are people of prayer, we can pray for the victims and for a change of heart by the perpetrators.

Pope Francis recently visited a refugee center in Rome that houses people rescued from prostitution and spoke with 20 women rescued from sexual slavery. According to America Magazine, “all suffered severe physical abuse during their ordeals and are living under protection.”

The Pope, who has been outspoken on the subject, calls trafficking and slavery “a crime against humanity’ and “an open would on the body of contemporary society.”



Thursday, September 8, 2016

Waiting, Not Camping Out

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For many years before he became a branch manager of a paint and glass company, my father was a traveling salesman, and a good one. His byword, common among salesmen, was, “You have to make the sale.”

You can exchange small talk with your customers all you want, ask about their families, discuss the weather and the economy, talk about sports, but eventually you have to get them to buy. And it's similar for customers. They have to decide whether to take the plunge and buy the product.

Somewhere along the road in our search for God, we have to decide for or against him/her, though the choice might be incremental. Do I believe? Is there a place for God in my life? Am I committed to God? And if I am committed, what does that mean?

In his famous book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis uses the analogy of a hallway off of which are several doors leading to various rooms, representing belief, disbelief, and religion as a way of expressing that faith.

Not a Place to Live In
“The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. …It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at.

“I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. …But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping.”

British novelist, poet and university professor, Lewis died in 1963. He is most famous today for his fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, now a film series. He developed Mere Christianity as a series of radio broadcasts in Britain during World War II.

C.S. Lewis
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A baptized Christian, he became an atheist at age 15, later describing it as being “angry at God for not existing.” He returned to Christianity at age 33.

“Lewis vigorously resisted conversion,” according to Wikipedia, “noting that he was brought into Christianity - in his words - like a prodigal, ‘kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.’”

Lewis’ broadcasts apparently had a profound effect on many of his British countrymen. Many were bewildered and despairing of human nature after witnessing the horrors of World War II. They were open to hearing about God. Seminaries and monasteries filled after the war, it is said.

"The war, the whole of life, everything tended to seem pointless,” wrote a member of the British military. “We needed, many of us, a key to the meaning of the universe. Lewis provided just that."

Living a half century later, we may not have gone through what the wartime people endured, but the deepest realities haven’t changed.

“All of our notions of modernity and progress and all our advances in technological expertise have not brought an end to war,” writes Kathleen Norris, poet and essayist, in her forward to Mere Christianity. “Our declaring the notion of sin to be obsolete has not diminished human suffering. And the easy answers: blaming technology, or for that matter, the world’s religions, have not solved the problem.

Evil Our Only Alternative?
“The problem, C.S. Lewis insists, is us. And the crooked and perverse generation of which the psalmists and prophets spoke many thousands of years ago is our own, whenever we submit to systemic and individual evils as if doing so were our only alternative.  

“Many of us hold out a hope that at some point, God will reveal himself/herself, if only in some small way,” she continues. “Or, we think we will suddenly gain some new insight, some intellectual breakthrough that will compel us to believe.”

That reminds me of what Tomas Halik, the Czech theologian I’ve often quoted in these blogs, has to say about faith: “If the signs of God’s presence lay within easy reach on the surface of the world, as some religious zealots like to think, there would be no need for real faith.”

People searching for God should not expect to camp out in the “hallway,” as Lewis describes the endless procrastination about faith some of us exhibit. Eventually, we have to decide, even if we have to accept that our faith is “as small as a mustard seed.”