Faith The Reverend Dr. Linda Anderson
Talking about faith is like trying to explain one of those 3D pictures. You know the ones that seem to be all color in random patterns and all of a sudden you see a whole scene step out of the color chaos, almost as if it were alive. You can stare and stare at the picture and never see the scene. Your friends can tell you to relax and let your focus soften and for sure you’ll see the cow in the hot air balloon riding over the Long Island Sound. But hard as you try, you can’t make yourself see any of it. No one else can see it for you. But then, all of a sudden, you don’t know how or why, that cow slides over Long Island and into your view. Do you know what I’m talking about? That’s what faith is like. I can describe it, others can share their own experiences, but ultimately one has to know it for oneself.
Why is that important? Because faith is “the magnetic force of a bone-deep, lived understanding, one that draws us to realize our ideals, walk our talk, and act in accordance with what we know to be true.” (Sharon Salzberg, Faith) Realizing our faith acquaints us with the deepest assumptions and beliefs we hold about life. We need to know what these are so that we can discern how our faith helps or hinders our living. Whether or not it brings hope, joy, comfort, courage and kindness. Whether or not it makes us agents of peace, justice and love. We need our faith to lead meaningful lives. Unitarian Universalism is all about knowing your faith, articulating what you believe in, and then living it. Some religious teaching will tell you what is true and expect you to believe in it. Not us. Instead, we will ask you to name your own truths. It’s not anarchy though, (though at times it might look that way). We define our own faith among others who hold ethical values similar to ours. Thus your beliefs would fit into a value system that recognizes the worth of every person, that sees all of life as interconnected, the insists on each of us finding meaning in our lives, that asks we live with peace and justice. So what you deeply believe about life and death, God and no God, human nature and the better ways to live affects the choices you make. I ask you then, what do you believe in? What is your faith? What are you teaching your children and grandchildren to believe in?
What is faith? The dictionary says it is “1. confident belief or trust in a person, idea or thing. 2. Loyalty, allegiance. 3. Secure belief in God and the acceptance of God’s will. 4. A religion.” (American Heritage Dictionary) The English word faith comes from the Latin fides, which means loyal or trustworthy. The basic core of faith is trust and loyalty. From that core, many descriptions of faith have grown. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, professor of comparative religion at Harvard, defined faith as “an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response, a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of, a transcendent dimension.” Eastern religions add yet another way of understanding. The Buddha said that faith is the beginning of all good things. In Pali and Sanskrit the word faith means hospitality, to draw near, to set forth. To place one’s heart upon. From these brief examples, a possible understanding of faith emerges as a way of being with oneself and the world that rests upon trust and an inner quality that helps us to remain engaged with life, that keeps us swimming in the cream rather than drowning in it. The capacity for such is inherent in each of us and we can learn to recognize it and communicate with it.
In my work as a hospital chaplain I see this all the time. I see that inner quality that keeps people engaged with life even as serious illness brings them closer to leaving it. Just this week I sat with a family in the ICU and we talked about their father and husband. They remembered good times, and a few bad times, they expressed gratitude, they cried for what was to come. They talked about their belief in the afterlife and asked God for peace and strength. They were engaged.
Does faith require “secure belief in God and acceptance of God’s will,” as the dictionary notes? I don’t think so. Faith does not depend upon a deity if one understands it as an inner quality that helps us maintain our trust in life. For some of us, some being greater than us may help us maintain our trust and hope in life. For others it may not. Nor does faith rest upon doctrine or dogma. Faith is not a commodity which you either have or you don’t have. Faith is not a definition of reality, not a received answer. Faith is not a litmus test for moral goodness, or political correctness, for that matter. Which is why the faith of no one particular religion should be legislated for the general populace if it does not also serve the common good. Faith is not blind belief. Faith is, rather, an active open state of being that changes and emerges and hides and emerges again, different. It’s a way of being that informs our thoughts, understandings, relationships and actions.
A way to approach faith is to listen to other people’s experiences of it. Sharon Salzberg, a writer and teacher of meditation, talks about a faith experience. “From her island in New York City harbor, the Statue of Liberty has welcomed countless immigrants, including my grandparents, at the end of their wearisome journey and the beginning of their life in a new land. . . . I’ve adored the Statue of Liberty for a long time,” she says, “and admit to having bought many photos and souvenir replicas of her from shops in New York City. As a woman bearing light, as a symbol of bottomless compassion, she has long been my personal icon. . . . In the days following the attack on the World Trade Center in September, 2001, I feared for her. Then a new image of her appeared in newsstands and souvenir shops – an image that is profoundly related to faith. She stands, lamp aloft, promising freedom to the tired and the wretched, while huge plumes of black smoke billow up from behind her. Beneath that smoke, in the rubble and the ruin of the World Trade Center, lay terrible tragedy. Yet despite the horror and destruction, she still stands there in welcome.” Keeping hope alive, she gave Salzberg faith that the light, the welcome, still stood.
Mother Teresa, as a young nun, recorded in her journals an ecstatic experience of feeling a deep connection with Jesus, to the point of having him present before her and receiving instruction from him about conducting her ministry in the poorest slums of Calcutta. She tried to persuade the higher-ups in her order that they should allow her to actually do this and it took her a while to get started. For about nine months she continued to feel the ecstatic connection with the divine and it propelled her to persevere through a difficult beginning and plant the seeds of a tremendous service to humanity. And then that ecstatic connection was gone. She lost it and it never returned. Years later, a priest went to see her and asked how she continued to do her work. What was the source of such great faith? He described his difficulties in remaining with his own ministry because he had lost his faith. How long had he been without faith, Mother Teresa asked. Seven years, he answered. She assured him that seven years was no length of time at all. She herself had been without faith for thirty years.
What kind of faith was she talking about? There’s bright faith, that time of love filled delight in all possibilities and eager joy at the prospect of actualizing, with the sure conviction that God, or whatever the source/object of belief, is walking by our side. It’s ecstatic faith. Hugely energizing and inspiring, although it does not seem to last forever. Often a period of doubt and questioning will follow bright faith. Even sometimes loss of faith. This is what Mother Teresa seems to have experienced. When this happens we go through a verifying period in which we question everything and agonize over our doubts. We examine the teachings, and the teachers, that inspired bright faith. Often, through that dark night of the soul, we come through with abiding faith. Faith based upon our own experiences of ecstasy and agony. Faith based upon our own understandings. Faith with eyes wide open regarding that in which we have placed our trust and to which we have given our loyalty. “Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth.” (Robert T. Weston) Mother Teresa might have lost her bright faith, but I imagine that she arrived at abiding faith. I don’t know how she could have done what she did without it.
Here are some of the things I have faith in. They reflect the way I experience life. 1. Interconnection is fundamental to the nature of life. It means we, and everyone, are in relationship with everyone else. 2. Change is also fundamental to the nature of life. This means that our relationships are dynamic, flowing, changing. 3. Life is a process. It is not static. 4. What I know as God resides in the processes and holds all the possibilities. God is the order in the changes and the change in the order. 5. Human beings have free will, which means we make our own choices. We are capable of anything and everything. Which means that God does not know what we will choose. Nor does God preordain anything. 6. God is with us and together we co-create this life. 7. Human beings intrinsically know the better choices to make. 8. When we make them we move in harmony with this God and we experience our choices as goodness, love, peace, happiness, justice. Do you see how my faith leads me to be and to act in the world? At the same time my faith arises out of my experiences in living. Experience and faith have a mutual influence upon one another.
“If faith depends upon believing what we are told, when those beliefs fall apart, we are left with no where to stand.” Sharon Salzberg tells the story of a friend who “began to feel uncomfortable maintaining the Santa Claus myth with her growing daughter, and decided to tell her the truth. She explained that the presents under the tree on Christmas morning were put there by her parents. The child listened to this information, then sadly left the room. A few minutes later she returned to inquire, ‘Are you the Tooth Fairy too?’ Her mother said yes and again the child left, looking sad. Soon she returned with the question, ‘Are you the Easter Bunny as well?’ When her mother said yes, the child looked at her fiercely and demanded, ‘Is there a God?’ . . .” Don’t believe it just because somebody says it is so.
To be in conversation with our very own deepest truths, on which, knowingly or unknowingly, we base our whole lives – to be in conversation with our deepest truths is magnificent. It gives us the wherewithal to keep on going. Faith animates our hearts and stimulates a relationship with our own goodness and capacity to love. Faith enables us to make a choice for generosity, kindness and clear-seeing in our behavior. Faith allows us to see through the pretense of accident and find the connections within the randomness of a 21st century life. We seek to discover those deep truths upon which we rely because we need them. Nobody can tell us what to believe; we can’t even tell ourselves what to believe. Yet we believe something. It’s there, deep in our souls. What is it that you believe? Can you tell me the five most important beliefs you put your faith and trust in? What are the guideposts you reach for to convey a sense of meaning in your lives?
Sometimes we get to the ultimate concern, the deepest truths upon which we rely, through extreme experience, in those moments when we walk a little closer to the edges of life. Suffering is often a doorway to faith. In those places and at those times we also encounter fear. Faith is the opposite of fear. Faith is what enables us to give ourselves to what is happening in the moment, rather than giving ourselves to the paralysis of fear. Fear is about estrangement and disconnection; faith is about connectedness. Faith can turn fear into hope. Remember the young frog who almost gave up, so afraid was he. But he didn’t. He had faith in his friend who told him to keep hope alive.
Sometimes we’re shocked into the awareness of our faith. Sometimes we grow into it. A herd of cows arrives at the bank of a river. The mature ones see the stream and simply wade across it. The younger cows stumble apprehensively on the shore but eventually, tentatively, they too go forward and cross the river. Last come the calves, trembling, some just learning how to stand. But these vulnerable, tender calves also get to the other side. They follow the lowing sounds of their mothers. (Buddha) We might be like the younger cows, inexperienced and tentative. We might be like the calves, afraid and barely able to stand. But through the help, even the guidance, of trustworthy companions we have the experience for ourselves of crossing the river. Thus we begin to put together a way to describe our faith.
Such a basis begins with intention. If you wish to be in touch with your faith, with the deepest truths upon which you rely, with your ultimate concerns, then you start with the intention of connecting with such. You put yourself among people, in a community perhaps, that seems to be aware of such. People who seek to live faithfully, with loyalty to their own deep beliefs. People who will share their thoughts and their stories and encourage you to develop yours. People who will moo loudly enough for you to follow the sound of their voices as you make your own way through the waters. I think it would be a wonderful Sunday service if several people here shared their faith experiences. Faith keeps us going. It particularly helps in hard times, but it is useful all the time. No one can give you faith or tell you where to place your trust and loyalty. Only you can do that. Where is your faith? In what do you have faith? The possibility of faith exists for each of us, if we want it. May it be so.