Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
Choosing Faith, Nurturing Hope
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore September 15, 2002
Peter and the Storm (Matthew 14:22)
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." Jesus said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"
I feel like I've been through a bit of a storm this week remembering the destruction and death wreaked a year ago on September 11th. Listening to the names of the 3000 plus who died that day being read at a memorial service and broadcast on the radio brought forth tears of anguish. The worldwide outpouring of remembrance on Wednesday was another step in the long walk for our nation as we work through our grief and loss.
Over this past year, distracted by the storm and fearful of the waves and dark waters, many cried out against God. How could God have allowed this to happen? For some the magnitude of these losses reminded them of the Holocaust. How could a loving God permit this kind of mayhem? The pregnant mother stripped of her child's father, the couple about to marry permanently separated, the immigrant family establishing a new life here, now, without a bread winner, all cry out with the Psalmist, O God why has thou forsaken me?
This crisis of faith, be it faith in God or faith in the goodness of Humanity, is a little harder to bear than perhaps a few years ago. The religious structures of faith that support people in time of need continue to weaken and crumble. Science continues to debunk religious mythology showing its limitations and errors. Literary criticism and textual analysis reveal the patchwork construction and later revisions and editing of sacred text. Archeological digs shed doubt on the historical accuracy of scripture. Scandals within churches exposing the depravity of some of the clergy, however small, further undermine people's confidence in institutional religion.
Today's crisis of faith is particularly important because of the universal human need for meaning and value is as strong as ever. Ernest Becker, cultural anthropologist and philosopher, on whom I'll be teaching a class at the end of this month, was keenly aware of our pressing need for meaning to defend ourselves from our fear of death. As self-aware creatures, we need some way to organize our lives to make the painfully distressing awareness of our mortality tolerable. Our compelling need to deny our finitude can be satisfied by choosing and living a faith from which we can derive value, meaning and hope.
Several close brushes with sickness, injury and death in my youth may have stimulated my need for a meaningful and valuable life. I was raised with a strong Scientific Humanistic faith by my parents that was validated by my schoolmates who were the children of university professors. That faith gave me great confidence in the innate goodness of humanity and the principles of science and technology as sources of truth. In my early 20's, however, I discovered it had little to say to me about the larger purpose of the universe and my role in the cosmological story unfolding in this moment.
As I left the faith of my parents behind and began, in good Unitarian Universalist fashion, shaping and choosing my own faith, I discovered that purpose and my larger role in it not so much from teachers or preachers, sacred scripture or great literature, science or philosophy. I have found that purpose and role through my lived experience, my actions in the world and my reflection upon them.
Today I actively encounter and choose faith is in my public life as minister, community organizer and activist. I love people in all their diversity. I particularly love bringing people together to do something creative and useful. In my experience, well-run committees can be far more successful than any of the individuals by themselves. When I see something wrong that can be remedied with the resources at hand, I want to roll up my sleeves and get to work. I derive great satisfaction from getting things done.
Unfortunately, people like me encounter major challenges to their activist faith when working to make a positive difference in the world. The world's problems are legion and vastly beyond the scope of my talents. I can labor valiantly to mop up one small problem--then get hit with a tidal wave of new ones. Ask anyone working in human services, social reform, environmental activism, and lobbying, if you have any doubt about the daunting challenges of making any progress toward improving the human condition and saving the world. Without strong faith and deep commitment to energize this work, one's heart easily grows cold and cynical.
Those who endure the trials of the spirit and succeed in this kind of work and go on to inspire others are important teachers for me. A few impress me a lot. I'd liked to share a Bishop Desmond Tutu story with you told by the Rev. Jim Wallis that transpired in Cape Town, South Africa:
A political rally had just been canceled by the white government, so Bishop Tutu called for a worship service instead, inside [St. George's Cathedral.] The power of apartheid was frighteningly evident in the numbers of riot police and armed soldiers massing outside the church. Inside, all along the cathedral walls, stood more police openly taping and writing down every comment made from the pulpit. When Tutu rose to speak, the atmosphere was tense indeed. He confidently proclaimed that the "evil" and "oppression" of the system of apartheid "cannot prevail." At that moment, the South African archbishop was probably one of the few people on the planet who actually believed that.
…Archbishop Tutu pointed his finger right at the police who were recording his words. "You may be powerful, indeed, very powerful, but you are not God!" And the God whom we serve, said Tutu, "cannot be mocked!" "You have already lost!" the diminutive preacher thundered. Then he came out from behind the pulpit and seemed to soften, flashing that signature Desmond Tutu smile. So--since they had already lost, as had just been made clear--South Africa's spiritual leader shouted with glee, "we are inviting you to come and join the winning side!" The whole place erupted, the police seemed to scurry out, and the congregation rose up in triumphal dancing. (Faith Works: Lessons from the Life of an Activist Preacher by Jim Wallis, from Introduction)
When Peter stepped out onto the water and Tutu stepped out in front of the pulpit, they were sustained by a faith that transcended their immediate circumstances. They were not fooled into limiting their conception of reality to history or probabilities. They were moved by something greater than themselves.
Seeking relationship with the "something greater" has been a driving force in my life and my ministry. I'm very wary of putting words and labels on it like divine, holy, presence, spirit, grace, God, and Transcendent Being. What I know of it comes intuitively and is recognized in daily experience and validated by world scriptures and inspired teachers.
In most religious traditions, that something greater isn't discovered in normal activity. Moses had his burning bush. Mohammed had to go to the mountain. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert.
I too have felt the desire to pull out of ordinary daily living so I could explore and develop my inner life; retreating from the maddening rush of marketplace to a secluded setting to study, meditate, and find tranquility and inner peace. For me the pull of Buddhist meditation-practice is particularly strong. I'm drawn to develop my wisdom and powers of awareness so I can return to the world with greater clarity. I imagine I'd return to the world full of loving kindness. I'd abound with wisdom. Perhaps even I'd have developed some paranormal powers. All in all, I'd be a really excellent, close to perfect, enlightened minister that would be able to awaken people with a glance.
As you can see, I haven't gone that route. I've got a story to explain why. A yogi decided he wanted to learn perfect loving kindness. He left for the hills, found a cave and began chanting mantras, building shrines and praying day and night to become more loving. After a couple of years or so, he swelled with warmth, kindness and good feelings. From early in the morning to late at night he delighted in these feelings.
One day a dirty, hairy, smelly, loud and obnoxious vagabond walked by the cave entrance and saw the yogi blissfully chanting and bowing in front of his shrine. The vagabond walked into his cave and started rummaging around looking for food. This startled the yogi but he kept on chanting and bowing. After eating all the food he could find, the vagabond took off his rags and put on the yogi’s robes. The yogi stared at him in disbelief. The vagabond then walked over to the yogi and started laughing at him. Finally he got down on his knees, and got right up in the yogi’s face. His smell was overpowering. Then he belched, splattering the yogi’s face with saliva. The yogi flew into a rage and ordered him out of his cave. The vagabond smirked and said, "Where is your loving kindness now?"
Maybe God, Nirvana, the Tao, can be found on a mountain top. Right now, I'm convinced that I can fruitfully develop my spiritual life by using the grist of my daily life as fuel for awakening. If I want to accelerate that process, I need to be both more inward, honing my awareness, and more active in the world. I need to be more vigilant paying close attention to the results of my actions. And I need to let my faith penetrate my doubt.
Doubt is the major enemy of spiritual development because it works to reinforce our sense of separateness and isolation. The religious enterprise is all about discovering our relatedness and connectedness to what is beyond our individual selves. Faith opens our hearts. Doubt closes them. Faith gives us courage to act in the face of adversity. Doubt gives us an excuse to remain passive. Faith puts our life and death in a meaningful transcendent context. Doubt reminds us of our utter insignificance. Doubt is useful to protect against religious abuse but it cannot posit meaning that liberates us from suffering.
Faith is a tremendous force. Moses' faith inspired the people of Israel to leave the security of slavery and seek freedom. Jesus didn't claim credit for the healings he did. Again and again he said, "by your faith you are healed." The Muslim puts his faith before himself, surrendering his being to Allah. Buddhists have tremendous faith in the Buddha, his teachings and their spiritual community to sustain their practice.
I want to describe to you this morning my faith that sustains me. As these are faith statements, I cannot prove them. I can only testify to the meaning and value they bring to my life.
Here are five statements of my faith:
My faith strongly supports my passion for meditation practice and social action. The iterative process of moving outward in action and reflecting inwardly in silence connects me powerfully with what is both beyond me and within me.
This faith nurtures great hope in me. The power of participating in the ongoing creative process is fantastic. Religious communities, particularly Unitarian Universalist communities, are excellent places to explore tapping into that divine energy that flows through faith. We don't get hung up on how you choose to worship, pray, meditate, praise, think, act out, contemplate, deliberate or however you choose to experience your faith. We believe that the most effective way for free thinking people to find their faith is to work it out for ourselves in relationship with others who are working out their faith, too. Hearing and appreciating other people's faith can help us find our own.
Allowing people to choose their faith is not just good for Unitarian Universalism. It is a model for a livable pluralistic world. Unitarian Universalism is a microcosm of the religious diversity in the world. Discovering the connections between our faiths and other people's faiths, though the words and symbols, mythologies and metaphors are different, can be mutually beneficial and reinforcing.
You see, I don't think God wants us all to believe the same thing. That is inconsistent with the creative drive through which we came into existence. The divinity I imagine delights in the ongoing evolution of people's faith that is integral to the ongoing process of creation. As we discover the connections between our faiths, we can create a more accepting and peaceful world allowing for even more creativity.
Perhaps then the world will know and accept the truth that each of our faiths is but a single gem upon a rosary of beads and all are proven pathways to the goal of a meaningful life.
Copyright © 2002 by the Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.