Faith for the Hard Times
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 16, 2012
I did not change the readings (“Hanukkah” by Kathleen McTigue and “Gratitude is not enough” by Elizabeth Tarbox) or other worship elements that were set on Thursday afternoon for the order of service to be printed up. I figured if the topic and sermon title held true then what we have would serve. But I typically have only a start or an outline on Thursday evening for the sermon. Friday and Saturday evening are writing days.
My plan for today was to remind you of the meaning of Yule. I was going to talk about what we do when the night grows dark and long, when the wind blows hard and cold. I was going to talk about how we store up reserves against the winter and we must store up faith against the winters of our souls. I was going to tell you about reaching down into the basement of your heart to find there in the small and broken places the pieces that carry you through the worst of times. And I suppose I am still going to tell you all of that.
Many of us I am sure have heard the horrible news of the shooting that took place in Newtown Connecticut this Friday. A gunman opened fire at an elementary school killing over 20 people most of whom where children. I remember tell you all back at the beginning of the month where I was preaching about a disturbing and brilliant novel that the part which disturbed me most was the violence against the children in the story. And then as I was working through what I would say this morning the events of Friday morning began pouring through the news to me. This kind of horrific tragedy tends to turn me into a ball of raging impotency. I get angry and sad and protective and frustrated. I want to do something and be helpful, but I’m not there and I don’t even know what I would do if I were. So I get frustrated and sad.
My colleagues around the country have been talking over the weekend about what to do this Sunday and how to respond. I figured my sermon topic was already set and suitable. What do you do when you need a faith sufficient to get you though the darkest nights?
Unitarian Universalism is something of a sunshine faith. One of the real strengths of Unitarian Universalism, and all liberal religion really, is the affirmation of human potential. Our base statement of faith is that all people have inherent worth and dignity; that we can choose to do good in the world, that we can do our part to usher in the beloved community. Our commitment to freedom and tolerance is another hallmark of liberal religion. But the edge to this is that these affirmations do not address suffering and evil head on.
What do our words of freedom and tolerance offer in the face of mass murder at an elementary school? Certainly freedom and tolerance still matter but that doesn’t offer comfort or meaning in the face of such events. Certainly I can still say all people have inherent worth and can do good in the world. And yet here is this gunman in Connecticut who murdered 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds. I don’t want to talk about his dignity and potential for good. I can do it. Because it is real, the shooter did have inherent worth as a human being, I can do it. I’m a professional, I can talk about if I must; but it is jarring.
But we don’t start, theologically, from a place that names such actions evil. Other theological systems begin with how we human beings are fallen, how we are born in sin, how all life is suffering, how destruction and creation go hand in hand. Our theology starts with a promise. We don’t even begin with a statement about human nature; that comes next. And here I am referring to the Unitarian Universalist Principles, “We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” And these Seven Principles in our covenant are really not in and of themselves “our theology,” not really. But that’s a layer of nuance that right now is a little annoying.
But my point is we don’t start by declaring humanity fallen or sinful or stuck with suffering unless we figure something out. We start by saying everyone, every single person, has worth and dignity; and no one gets excluded. And while I have no interest in backing away from that commitment, our onward-and-upward theology does not say much for us when we experience loss and pain, when we are suffering or heartbroken. Or maybe what our theology says when we experience loss and pain, suffering and heartbreak is simply: “Yes, that hurts. It’s true.”
Our way of faith leads us toward a realistic outlook on life. It is still a hopeful outlook, an optimistic one, but realistic as well. And it leads us to take stock of our own resources. Unitarian preacher and author from a few generations back, Henry Emerson Fosdick offers it this way:
Nobody ever finds life worth living. One always has to make it worth living. All the people to whom life has been abundantly worth living have made it so by an interior creative, spiritual contribution of their own. Is life worth living? Most people seem to think that is a question about the cosmos. No, my friends, that is a question about the inside attitude of you and me.
The meaning of life is to give life meaning. And while I believe that to be true, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes this feels a little too much like we’re a do-it-yourself religion – which is great when you’re up for it. But when my resources are low and my energy is expended I am not always up to the task of pulling myself up by my own theological bootstraps.
But let me tell you where we go from here, our interconnectedness offers us more than our independence ever could. I am reminded of a song UU minster Meg Barnhouse wrote using the famous statement of faith by Julian of Norwich who said, “All shalll be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” In the song, Barnhouse poses a conversation with Julian and asks, how can you say, “All shall be well”? Don’t you know about sorrow and hunger and shame, don’t you know about loneliness and disease and cruelty? How can you say, “All shall be well,” when all these terrible things are out there in the human experience.
The song goes on with Barnhouse’s imagined response from Julian who says, “Nobody does not know about sorrow and hunger and shame. No one does not know about loneliness and disease and cruelty. But don’t you know there is also tenderness and friendship and love that never ends. And all shall be well, and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.”
The song lifts up some of Julian of Norwich’s theology that suffering does not come from God. More, I think it offers some Unitarian Universalist theology that the way through suffering is in relationship – either relationship with God or simple human relationship, the song is open enough for different interpretations. It is our connections that feed us through the hard times. We each have a depth of experience and we have the support of tender, loving friends that can lead us to uncover a faith strong enough for the dark of night.
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. It is such a calm assurance. All shall be well. No, it is not all well right now. But all shall be well.
This calm assurance, this faith, is something to help us get unstuck from the mire of grief and anger that can overwhelm us. Faith is that personal discipline of calm trust when facing challenges and of a realistic hope for the future.
Yes, there are the difficulties of today and tomorrow, the grief and frustrations of yesterday and today, but we can still carry a calm assurance that we can get through. We sometimes confuse the faith to be synonymous with belief. It is not. Faith is more like trust. What you trust, what you have faith in – that’s your belief, but faith is the calm assurance that grows from our lived beliefs. Faith is that core you can touch at your center and always find refreshing. It is experiences that pour into you like living water.
Let me offer you a story that can serve also as an analogy. Antoine de Saint Exupery writes about a remarkable experience he had while flying a mail plane between southern France and northern Africa sometime in the 1920’s or early 30’s. He and the radio controller were flying over the Sahara toward Cisneros on the western coast of the desert. It was night and they were running low on fuel and a fog crept in to obscure their ability to see. This was back before all the gadgets to help plans navigate. The men flew low trying to spot a landmark because they knew they were off course but didn’t know by how much.
Saint Exupery writes:
We had no means of angular orientation, were already deafened, and were bit by bit growing blind. The moon like a pallid ember began to go out in the banks of fog. … The ports that signaled us had given up trying to tell us where we were. “No bearings, no bearings,” was all their messages, for our voice reached them from everywhere and nowhere. (Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939, p 26-32)
People describe the experience of being spiritually or emotionally lost like this sometimes. It’s like we’re in a fog with no bearings or landmarks, like we are in the dark. Sometimes it is an obvious tragedy that shakes us up and leads us to question our lives, other times the lostness creeps up on us quietly. Or maybe it is not about feeling lost so much as an endless struggle with personal suffering. But this imagery is compelling. This weekend, I have felt like I’ve lost my bearings. I was looking so closely at the heartbreaking story unfolding in Connecticut that I lost sight of the landmarks of my faith.
Saint Exupery reports that they flew on like that, blind and unguided for some time, anxious that they would run out of fuel at all too soon. Then finally Cisneros, their destination, makes radio contact. The two in the plane are able to get a bearing, but still they are nearly out of fuel and sure they will not be able to make it. Exupery sets their course so they will not land in the Mediterranean at least. He writes how other airports begin to wake up and chime in. “Bit by bit they were gathering round us,” he writes, “as round a sickbed.” And suddenly Toulouse breaks in, the headquarters for the line back in France. They simply say without preamble: “Your reserve tanks are bigger than standard. You have two hours fuel left. Proceed to Cisneros.”
I think this story from Saint Exupery’s experience is illustrative not only of the ‘dark night of the soul’ type experiences of lostness and meaninglessness; it also shows something of the way we get through such experiences. Part of the answer is in the response of the community, and part of the answer is in the larger than believed reserves we each carry. “Though the oil has run out, light the lamps anyway.” This story leads me to see both my own resources and the companionship of others as the ground on which I discover my faith.
A decent place to begin is always with acknowledging that what you feel is real. Broken, bruised, scattered, alone or lost. Start there, for it is true. To act with faith is to then proceed with a realistic hope for the future while facing the challenges of today with a calm trust. It may not work out, but that’s not the point. Faith, if it is really faith, is a gamble and no guarantee. And a faith suitable for the darkest nights, for the hardest times, is the only faith worth having.
So think on the tenderness and compassion around you in your times of difficulty. Think on the ports that light up with concern, as Saint Exupery put is. Consider the companions with you on your journey. And consider the reserves you have within. Your reserves are larger than standard, they are larger than you think.
Regardless of how broken we may feel or scattered or lost. We are connected with all that is. Indeed the brokenness and heartache, the pain and suffering is a signal of our connectedness and of our compassion.
Faith is like the reserves we store up in our basements for the winter, back when winter really meant something more than it does today. When the night grows long and dark, and the wind blows hard and cold, remember your reserves. Remember to reach down into the basement of your heart to find there in the small and broken places the pieces that carry you through the worst of times. And remember to reach out to the companions with you calling from different ports around you. Take heart, though we feel lost and we fly blind – we are not alone.
In a world without end,
may it be so