The Way is the means whereby the life within us - the life of the Spirit within us - can be endlessly renewed. As the prophet declared to the Israelites in exile, the Creator is eternal, possessing infinite and everlasting power. We may grow weary, but God does not, and this power is available to us when we are faint and powerless. Our physical strength can fail us, but if we “wait for the LORD” we renew our strength, so that we can “mount up with wings like eagles.”
The Way is our means of “waiting” for the Lord. It is a process of faith, a process of prayer; a process that relies on faith and will deepen our faith; a process that feeds our praying, enables us to pray, and makes our praying ever more effective, because our praying becomes more and more immersed in trust.
The Way is a tool that we can take anywhere and apply to any situation. It is endlessly adaptable and unfailingly useful. It is not exclusive to the Church, but in the hands of a Christian it is a means whereby we can assist anyone at any time; a means whereby we can identify and magnify the life - and the potential for life - in any given situation; a means whereby we can turn the most difficult situations around; a means whereby, even where difficulties are rife, resources are scarce and people are getting very depressed, we can offer them the transforming love and power of God.
The Way is a road of faith; a process of intensifying faith; a means of applying faith to generate practical benefits; a method of using faith to achieve the goal of abundant life for all. In particular, the Way is a means of applying faith to realise that vision in difficult or desperate situations.
The Way is an alternative method of decision-making. Another way of proceeding. In any given situation, we can choose how to make a decision. How to decide on our response. Our first option - the one we tend to assume is “good decision-making” is to assess the evidence, deduce from that evidence what options are available to us, and choose the one which best serves our purposes.
But there is an alternative way of proceeding. We can create a space in which we feel free to explore other choices, even though it is not immediately clear what these might be, or even that there are any other possibilities to consider. We can use that space to build up a picture of what matters most to us; what nourishes us and nurtures us; our treasure and our heart’s desire; that vision of abundant life which fills us and energises us because it reminds us that we are received, welcomed, loved and cherished. We can develop this picture, affirm it, give thanks for it, celebrate it and rejoice in it. And having done this, we then ask ourselves: How do we act as if this vision is true? What does it tell us about who we are? How does this vision shape our journey? What does it tell us about how and where and why we are travelling? What does it tell us about where we have come from, and where we are going? How does it form our dreams, desires and goals?
And having done all this, we then ask ourselves: So what is the next step? Can we identify one small step forward towards our dream? How do we act as if this vision is real?
Having identified the step, we take it.
And having taken it, we reassess the situation. Because now the situation has changed.
This alternative method of decision-making sounds longer and more complex but appearances are deceptive. In actual fact, once we are aware of what we are doing, we can make decisions by this method as swiftly and easily as we can by using the first method. And the more we do so, the more we realise that our ability to do this is something that most of us are born with, and that we develop and enhance as we grow up. Thinking like this is easy because most of us have been thinking like this since we were small. It is just that we have not been aware of doing so - of how we have been acting as if - living by faith - since childhood.
The Way of Jesus is a refinement of an aptitude and skill that almost all human beings possess, and that almost all human beings are able to use: and that almost all human beings use daily - the ability to sort and order our experience into a framework, to project that framework outside ourselves, and then act as if the framework is true, bringing others into the experience of acting as if it is true as well.
As I write this, my younger daughter is travelling into the centre of Birmingham to do some shopping. From our house, she will walk to the bus stop, where she will wait for one of several buses that will take her to the city centre. When a bus comes along, she will hail it, and unless it is already full, it will stop. As she gets onto the bus, she will pay her fare. She will then look for a seat, either upstairs or down, and if there is one available, she will take it. When she gets off the bus in Bull Street, she will go about her business, having lived by faith from the moment she left our house.
A simple twenty-minute bus journey into Birmingham requires her to act as if in a multitude of different ways.
The decision to go shopping in central Birmingham, rather than in our local shopping centre five minutes’ walk away, is based on the belief that shopping in the city centre will offer her more choice, or better value, or more fun. She does not know this will be the case, but she believes it is so, and acts as if it is true. If her belief is justified by her experience, then she will be satisfied with her trip. If her experience is otherwise, she is likely to become frustrated and disgruntled.
The decision to take the bus is a logical deduction from her circumstances. She considers the distance too far to walk; she does not drive; her father is not available to give her a lift in our car; the bus is cheaper than a taxi and more convenient than the train.
But the process of catching a bus relies on her willingness to act as if: she chooses a bus stop because she believes that buses from that stop will take her into the city centre; she hails a bus because she believes that it will stop to pick her up; she gets on because she believes it will follow the route that the bus company has advertised. She does, of course, have some experience - her own and other peoples’ - to back this up, but she does not know that this is how it will work today. She believes it will happen, and acts as if it will.
Day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, we make decisions that are based on more than simply what we know, what we can test, verify, prove. We make decisions that are based on our beliefs about the way the world is, and the way that the world works. We have sorted a mass of data, evidence and information into various kinds of framework and then we make decisions on the basis of those frameworks, those structures, those beliefs. We do not only decide, or act, on the basis of what we know. We also decide and act on the basis of our beliefs. We do it all the time, in thousands of little ways. We believe, and act as if what we believe is true.
Much of the time, our beliefs are justified by our experience, and we do not even think about the assumptions we are making. Our frameworks are subconscious, our decisions streamlined, our actions routine. This is “normal life.” All of us have frameworks or structures of belief which make our “normal life” possible. Some of them are personal to us. But others are huge. Some are vast, involving millions of people, all acting as if the structure is there, the framework is real, the belief is justified. And because we believe, it works. Most of the time.
The more complex society becomes, the more of these frameworks we become involved in, and the more we have to venture - believe - trust - to live life to the full, or to live at all.
Government, the law, banking and finance, welfare agencies, the mass media, the internet, transport, leisure industries and sport - all rely on our human ability to sort and order our experience into organisations, rules, codes and patterns which we then project outside ourselves and hold in common. We use this ability in ways that are large and small. Our enjoyment of Dickens or cricket or Sudoku or Strictly Come Dancing arises from our ability to enter into a particular framework of experience, delight in the implications, nuances and variations of the process, and share that framework - and our appreciation of it - with others. Our use of cars is based on the belief that most drivers have a commitment to the Highway Code. Our freedom to fly abroad on holiday is based on the belief that for most people, most of the time, it is safe to do so. Our entire economy is based on the belief that the tokens in our pockets have a certain value.
OK, so it doesn’t always work. Governments fall, the law makes mistakes, markets crash, welfare agencies make horrendous blunders, trains are cancelled, the hotel isn’t built yet and we cannot believe everything we read in the newspapers. Our frameworks are fallible. From time to time, they fail us and we suffer accordingly. But the fact remains that our life is built on the assumption that most of the frameworks will function fairly well most of the time. When they work, we take them for granted because we assume that this is how life is meant to be. We assume that this is what “normal” life is like. When they fail us, then we notice them, and how do we react? We get irritated, frustrated, annoyed, angry.
Our anger shows us the assumptions we have made. That we still make. That we are always making. In each case, we place our trust in a way of thinking about reality as we experience it, and then act as if that assumption is true, often bringing others into our assumption as well and all the time without any absolute certainty that the circumstances that have supported our belief until now will continue to do so. We are living life. We are not confined to what we know. We are venturing.
Our ability to venture is the root of our ability to imagine, dream, speculate, hypothesise, project, plan, take risks, gamble, aspire and worship. From this ability arises the whole of human civilisation and culture. Not only all religion, but also all the arts and all the sciences are ultimately based on faith: on our ability to suppose, and then act as if what we suppose is indeed true. The supposition is our belief. By acting on that belief, we step out in faith. As we act on our belief, we discover the extent to which our supposition is true.
We have invented an almost infinite number of variations on this game. One of the most significant variations is the extent to which our supposition, belief or hypothesis has to be supported by evidence that we have already collected. A scientist tends to collect a lot of data before she ventures a hypothesis. A novelist may be more willing to build a world out of his imagination. Secondly, we vary the type of evidence that we regard as relevant as a basis for forming our belief. A researcher will want data that can be measured, sourced, verified, assessed in relation to its context and which is clearly relevant to the inquiry. A poet may work on the basis of emotion, intuition: anything can be grist to the mill. Another variation is how tightly or loosely we define the criteria by which we judge whether our belief has been justified, whether our supposition is correct, whether our hypothesis works. Again, the scientist would define the criteria more tightly than the artist, probably insisting on quantifiable results and measurable data, where the artist, poet or prophet might be satisfied with a more subjective sense of the integrity and value of the outcome and the interest that it has sparked in other people.
But whatever our differences of attitude and detail, the process of creative thinking and creative living and creative development is the same across all human culture, and most of the time we take it for granted. It is only when things go wrong, when circumstances, as they unfold, do not support our beliefs, that we are forced to think about what we are doing, and why. Then we are unsettled because we have to stop and think about what is going on and why, and what we do next. The process of being creative is no longer automatic. We have to invest energy in it, and we are not always sure that we have that kind of energy to spare.