We’ve got to have a little faith

We must have faithIn 1988, my news team at WDEF-TV in Chattanooga did something that no one had ever done before. We produced a month-long series on religion in the Tennessee Valley called “I Believe.” The project doubled our ratings and was the talk of the town.

I had just come from my days overseeing the top religious program on television, The 700 Club, so I knew things that my contemporaries didn’t, including that religion was a really, REALLY important topic that was ignored in the news. That news team — working for a third-place station with no hope of really being competitive — totally kicked the snot out of our competition, and to this day, it remains my favorite group.

One of the many items produced for that series was a documentary on snake handling churches in North Georgia. The practice of snake handling began in the region, and this documentary was fabulous. We got permission to videotape during a service at one church, and I’ll never forget a sound bite from the pastor. “You’d better have faith,” he said, “if you’re going to stick your hand into a box of rattlesnakes.”

And so this day before Thanksgiving, 2010, I want to write a note about faith, because it’s missing in the discussion about change today. It’s missing, because it’s one of those words you just don’t talk about, if you want to be taken seriously, and that’s a shame. It may be politically incorrect or, gasp, unprofessional to talk about faith, but I have no doubt that more people are with me on this than against me, so let’s talk about faith.

First of all, its place in our history is unmistakable, although those who make a living out of rewriting history spend a lot of time refuting it. I don’t blame them, because we’ve made a mess with our religions, and they want nothing to do with that. However, it’s intellectually dishonest to deny its role in history, so let’s assume it has a place. The pilgrims headed west in search of religious freedom and the freedom to profit, but to paraphrase that snake handler in Georgia, “you’d better have faith, if you’re going to get on that boat.” The founding fathers found the courage to rebel against the King through faith, be it in their God or themselves. Filled with faith in the rightness of their cause and in their God, the men who died so bravely on Omaha beach moved forward against machine guns and the high likelihood of death. Those who sit atop rockets built by scientists say a prayer and believe they will return safely. That’s called faith.

When you pull out a chair from the kitchen table and sit down, you do so with the faith that the chair will not collapse. But, Terry, that’s faith in science, not God. So what? It’s still faith, and we need to include it in our discussions during times of great change. Why? Because faith is a weapon against fear, and I see a lot of terrified people out there these days.

We need to talk about our faith, mostly because we never do, and because we don’t, we have so little of it at a time when we need it more than ever. People view faith as associated with religion, and that’s why we don’t talk about it, but even at the heart of the West’s most prominent religion, Christianity, is a view suggesting that faith has more to do with our day-to-day behavior than what we believe in our religion.

When I think of the red words in the Bible, I don’t think of the guy who said them as a religious fellow. Jesus wasn’t a wizard or magician, although that’s what a lot of people think. He was a human being, just like us. He spoke in parables, but that’s what people do who are beyond the norm in all ways. I also think of the Disciples as guys who tagged along, because they were fairly impressed with what was going on around them. I mean, why not? These are people we’re talking about, not some form of cosmic “chosen ones” with halos around their heads. Believers can look back and say they were, but I’m talking about in that moment.

So when they asked him about this thing called faith, they were parenthetically saying they wanted to be cool, like him. They’d heard him talk about faith, and they knew it was important, but they simply didn’t get it. They assumed that, whatever it was, if they had more of it, they could do magical things, too. So they asked him to “increase our faith.” His response, however, didn’t help.

“If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed,” Scripture quotes him as saying, “you could say to this sycamore tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.”

Holy crap. Sounds like “the force” from Star Wars. I can imagine the looks on the faces of his audience.

But faith isn’t some wizardry that involves moving heavy objects with a pointed finger to impress your neighbors. It’s much, much more basic and simple than that. He was talking about what human beings can accomplish.

The first thing to understand is that the mustard seed has faith. Since it has no consciousness, faith isn’t some mysterious force that you can conjure when you need it. It’s your fundamental behavioral pattern, and it’s based on who or what you are in nature. With its faith, the mustard seed grows into a giant plant. How? By doing what it’s supposed to do. That, more than anything else, describes tree or mountain-moving faith. Human beings lack faith, because we’re in it for ourselves, and that’s what Jesus was saying. If we simply did what we’re supposed to do, we could do anything.

What compels a bird to first jump into the sky? Faith.

Our culture was built on faith. It’s what has always separated us from other cultures. After due diligence, what compels the investor to sign the check? When the artist finishes her work, what gives her the courage to put it out there and risk embarrassment? When the explorer sets his sights on the undiscovered, what’s the final nudge he needs? What makes inventors climb aboard their devices in the face of crowds who insist “it’ll never fly?” Again, you can trust your measurements and your science, but remember the words of that pastor in Georgia when risk is involved.

Today, I see media companies everywhere afraid to pull the trigger on tomorrow. Everybody seems bound by invisible chains from taking a risk. Everything about our businesses, including our compensation systems, seem to discourage innovation and encourage safety, and that can be dangerous when the chair on which you’re sitting is about to collapse. It’s okay to believe in yesterday. It’s okay to wait until somebody else takes the chance. We can manage our way into the slow decline of the last buggy whip makers, but why not take the lead? We can be smart about it, but leadership is in our veins, and lead we must.

If faith means doing what we’re supposed to do, what we’re capable of doing, then let’s bring that to the table. We’ve got mountains to move, but we’ve faced them before. We know we can do it, so let’s get busy.

It could be worse. We could be staring at a box of rattlesnakes, and that’s my Thanksgiving message for 2010.


  1. Hi Mr.Heaton. Unfortunately this “weak” being has risen against the very thing he was created for. Some say it’s evolution of mind and science, I call it arrogance.
    Just as a side note, the media does talk about faith almost every day! they do talk about Islam all the time right? in a bad way of course but hey! that’s what the audience want’s to hear.

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