Affirming what one believes has a long history in religious traditions. Confessions and creeds have often been used to confirm orthodoxy and express communal faith.
For some, these kinds of shared affirmations come easily. Others find the embrace of a repeat-after-me faith to be either cold or smothering.
Some consider orthodoxy – as they and their circle define it – essential for inclusion in the Christian faith or at least in their version. Others are content being deemed apostate by those so sure of themselves.
Such thoughts arose recently when I came across a taped interview with the late author/activist Will Campbell at his writing cabin in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, in September 2004. Among the topics of our wide-ranging conversation was his close relationship with country outlaw singer Waylon Jennings who had died two years earlier.
“I loved Waylon to death,” said Will, who officiated at the singer’s funeral in Arizona and a memorial service in Nashville.
Waylon and his wife, Jessi Colter, who had the crossover hit, “I’m Not Lisa,” in 1975, first came out to Will’s farm for a wedding of a mutual friend, singer Johnny Darrell.
Will and Waylon hit it off and Waylon would come out to the farm – usually just to sit quietly in Will’s cabin. “He said he got renewed here,” Will told me.
One summer when book royalties were slow, Will asked Waylon for work and hit the road with the band. Aboard the bus, Will never quite figured out his job. So he just decided to be the “cook” because he opened and closed the microwave the most and chose where to stop for meals.
At one point, Jessi, whose mother was a Pentecostal preacher, asked Will to talk to Waylon about his personal faith. It was not something Will wanted to do.
“I always had trouble being an ecclesiastical Peeping Tom, talking to someone about the state of their soul,” Will confessed.
On the bus very late one night, Waylon, who had a serious drug addiction that he later kicked, was still awake. So, Will decided to reluctantly do what Jessi had asked.
“I said, ‘Waylon, what do you believe?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’”
“I said, ‘Yeah? What is that suppose to mean?’ He said, ‘Uh-huh.’”
“And that was the end of witnessing to ol’ Waylon,” said Will. “But he remembered that.”
Years later, Waylon wrote and recorded a song titled, I Do Believe. It begins, “In my own way I’m a believer; in my own way right or wrong. I don’t talk too much about it; it’s something I keep working on.”
And it concludes, “I believe in a loving Father, one I never have to fear. That I should live life at its fullest, just as long as I am here.”
Here’s Waylon’s longer testimony, stirred by a brief, middle-of-the-night conversation with a trusted, unorthodox preacher.
Will said Waylon often told others about their awkward evangelistic encounter on the bus that led to the song, which Will considers Waylon’s enlarged answer – beyond “yeah” and “uh-huh” – to the question of what he believes.
However, Waylon’s initial grunting responses, said Will, were “an affirmation of faith; he knew it and I knew it, so why pursue it.”
Often faith affirmations are so well packaged and overly enforced that they miss the need for authentic faith to be worked out and expressed individually within one’s own timing.
Sometimes that which is conveyed as firm faith is actually the most fragile. Any emerging insight is rejected, without serious consideration, as a threat to the foundation on which the whole house of faith is built.
There is a difference between taking a thoughtless “believe anything” approach and allowing room for faith to grow – not only in strength but, sometimes, in new directions.
Unlike static faith, maturing faith is dynamic enough to be rooted and expressed in ways that welcome emerging light, knowing it is always filtered through a blurry lens.
Ever wonder why those whose faith is so well defined and strongly defended are the first to abandon the basic values of that long-claimed faith for a taste of political porridge salted with fear?
Perhaps uncertain faith is not contradictory or weak, as some suggest, but necessarily pliable enough to adapt the priorities of those commitments to newly discovered realities. Mature faith includes a willingness to acknowledge the cultural blinders worn when establishing and cementing one’s faith.
Many of us have faced (or have been) those cocksure believers who compile their own “essentials” of faith and then demand that others believe likewise in this version of orthodoxy. The natural reaction from those on the receiving end is often, “If believing like this causes me to act like you, then, no thanks.”
My preference is for healthy doubt over unhealthy certitude. Especially as I now watch the masses of so-called orthodox believers eagerly going over the falls of hostile authoritarianism.
Just think of all the confessions and creeds they have muttered or signed that apparently meant less than claimed. Even the basic Christian values of compassion, justice and facing the future with faith rather than fear are expendable.
So, Waylon’s “yeah” and “uh-huh” are more appealing affirmations to me than the worries of fine-tuning orthodoxy. When reading the Gospels, it’s hard not to notice that Jesus sought risk-taking, faithful followers while reserving his harshest judgments for religious elitists who claimed doctrinal and behavioral purity.
Through the decades, my appreciation for lived faith over professed faith has grown. And I find my own faith rooted now in fewer but firmer embraces of the truths worthy of my time and attention.
And they were there all along: faith, hope and love – with the greatest of these being love; loving God with all my being and my neighbor as myself; and seeking to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
When Jesus and Paul deem something “the greatest,” it is probably wise to believe them.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.