Growing Faith

Growing Faith
Rev. Douglas Taylor
UUCB
12-10-06

We planted bulbs at my house this year.  It is the first time I’ve ever done that.  I’ve planted seeds before.  I once planted dill and raised a handful of dill caterpillars on it.  But I’d never dug up the earth at the end of the growing season and entrusted bulbs to the cold earth.  I see why they say ‘to plant a garden is an act of faith.’  The first day after putting our bulbs in the earth I chased a squirrel around the front yard to retrieve one of my tulip bulbs.  I returned the half-eaten bulb to the ground, I don’t know if the squirrel got the bulb again later but the garden seems undisturbed.  So, I’ve done my part.  I put them in the ground, watered them, and chased off a predator.  My part in this is done; it is the Earth’s turn.  I look forward to seeing the colors in spring.  With trust and confidence, I look forward to seeing my bulbs do what bulbs do.  There is a grower’s faith that says ‘you are not in control of the growing, but there is a lot of messy, hard work for you to do.’

And we like to see the results; we like to see the spring bloom of flowers.  Spring is certainly the time I notice the beauty of the Earth.  People like spring: all that growth and bloom and color and happiness and beauty and fullness.  But if I were to ascribe a season for faith, I would not pick spring.  For surely it is in winter we experience the depths of loneliness and separation through the bleak and darker days – whether it is literally winter or the metaphorical winter-times of life.  Those are the times when faith is nurtured; it is in times of despair that faith is uncovered.  Not when we are happy and content, but precisely when we most need it.  Faith comes alive in the darkness and in the heartache of our deepest experiences.

I remember one snowy night more than fifteen years ago when my car spun out of control on the icy roads.  It was dark, the wind was blowing snow across the icy roads; I was on my way to work.  I had the overnight shift at the residential home for the developmentally disabled adults.  I was working for the Clinton County ARC at the time in Plattsburg NY while finishing my Bachelor’s degree.  It was late, it was cold, I was young, the car was a used little Dotson sports car my dad had given me when I got married, and I thought I could handle the road.  So I tried to pass one of the cars creeping along the road.  As I moved into the other lane and sped up, the car slipped and spun around and hurtled backward the rest of the way across the street toward the telephone pole and the snow bank.  A few seconds later, wedged firmly into the snow bank, I noticed my headlight illuminating the telephone pole half a foot away.  The front of my car, which was really the back based on the direction I was traveling, had slid within inches of that pole at forty or more miles per hour.  I’m guessing I was not in mortal danger during the accident; the pole would have hit the passenger side of the car.  But then again, who knows.

It wasn’t the first time I’d spun off the road into a snow bank and it would not be my last.  In and of itself the event was not remarkable beyond the short term consequences.  I wasn’t hurt, the car was not damaged.  I was late to work, but folks in the Plattsburg area expect delays like this when the weather turns foul – which is does regularly each winter.  And the thoughts that flashed through my head as the car was spinning out of my control were also unremarkable save one.  Certainly it is interesting to me that I did not panic, I was detached from the event as it unfolded.  I noticed the telephone pole and calculated where it would connect with the car if it connected, I noticed how foolish I must have looked to the car I had almost passed, I considered before I hit the snow bank that this was probably going to make me late to work.  Much of that, I think, can be chalked up to the standard teenage inability to comprehend the possibility of one’s own mortality.  But there was another thought that flashed through my mind that I suspect may have been somewhat more than that.  I remember thinking in the instant when I noticed it was all going out of control: I’m going to be alright.

Now, if this were merely the confidence that I would survive, that I would live, I would consider it another example to the standard teenage inability to comprehend the possibility of one’s own mortality – but that’s not what it was.  Instead it was a confidence that with all the possible outcomes of the moment, I would be all right.  I don’t remember considering all of them and thinking, “Yeah, I could handle that.”  But I do remember thinking, “I’m going to be alright,” in the sense that whatever happens, come what may, I will do what ever is the next thing to be done.  Where did that come from?  Have you ever felt that?

I remember watching my mom while I was growing up in the church.  Churches are always messy, busy, slightly chaotic places when things are going well.  Some people would respond with much anxiety and running around.  There were always several things up in the air and none of them were going as planned or at least they were demanding full attention of several people who could not give their full attention … I’m sure many of you know what that can be like because that happens here at this church as well.  Anyway, my mother, who was the Director of Religious Education for many years and the Minister of Religious Education for a few more years, would remain calm in midst of all this and just continue to do the next thing that needed to be done.  She was a walking example of the axiom: this to shall pass.  I’m not sure I would have used these words then to describe what I was seeing, but now I can tell you, I learned a great deal about faith watching my mother move through church chaos with such calm.  She trusted that we would get done those things that needed to get done, and whatever we didn’t get done, well, we would figure that out when we got there.

Faith is a form of trusting, a confidence in life or in God or in yourself.  Having faith is occasionally seen to be the same things as believing; but it is not.  Faith is something like belief, but not the same as belief.  They point to faith as a form of trust or even confidence.  Certainly I agree that ‘faith’ is not the same thing as ‘belief’.  One distinction is that belief is passive, while faith is active.  For example, the Greek word for “belief” describes a mental stance, but the Greek word for “faith” was a noun-verb hybrid concerning a physical act based on a mental stance.  I had an active confidence that I would be alright – I did not ‘believe’ I could handle the car so as to avoid the telephone pole or that I could not be hurt or broken somehow.  At the time, at least, what I had was simply a confidence.

Last week I pulled out a quote form Painter Paul Gardner who said, “A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places.”  And so the same could be said of my faith or anyone’s faith.  It’s never finished; it simply stops in interesting places.  My faith is like a moving feast, it is dynamic and changing.  Life is always changing.  Mount Everest, the huge mountain standing as a perfect symbol of massive, unyielding, constant, solid reality is “growing” a quarter of an inch per year as the continental plate under India pushes under the Asian Plate to its north.  The whole universe is alive and pulsing with movement.  Life is always changing and it is to life that we must stay true.  And so, faith is always growing.

This summer I attended a minister’s conference on faith led by author and Buddhist meditation instructor Sharon Salzberg.  Salzberg had recently written a book entitled Faith: Trusting your own Deepest Experience which was the focus of her time with us. She approached faith from a Buddhist perspective which was delightful for me who had only ever explored faith though Christian perspectives and Unitarian Universalist perspectives (most of which are rooted in the Western/Christian perspective of faith.)

To talk of Buddhism we begin with the four noble truths, but I don’t really want to talk about the four noble truths.  I want to talk about the three stages of faith Salzberg described.  But of course I must briefly remind us of the four noble truths.  So, briefly: all life is suffering and that all suffering is due to attachment.  The reason we experience suffering is we are trying to hold on to something: desires, love, or happiness.  There is a way out of the suffering, a way to “extinguish the thirst,” to not get caught by all the attachments, which is the path of non-attachment, the eightfold path toward enlightenment, (right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right understanding, right mindfulness, and right concentration.)  It takes many, many pages of holy text to unpack that eight-fold path mentioned in the fourth noble truth.

Sharon Salzberg sat in the front and spoke of her experiences and her understanding of Buddhism.  I took a few notes, but had to buy her book because I didn’t take very good notes as I was held by her presence.  She made everyone in the room comfortable with her warmth.  She had not a joyous look so much as an amused look in her eye, and she threw out gentle one-liners now and then as she described to us her experiences of suffering and faith.  I remember thinking, “Oh, I wish I could be like that.” I try to be, I see many of you are like that in your own ways.  I bump into so many of you in this congregation who have a radiance about you.

“Bright faith,” is what Buddhism calls that first level of faith.  It is the beginning; like falling in love.  This faith is usually inspired by someone or something from outside you.  Typically when you are in Bright Faith you have abundant energy about your faith, it is a time of discovery.  Bright faith is said to be an intoxicating time of exuberant.  It is marked by a surrender of apathy and cynicism.  Every stage of faith, Salzberg told us, has a near enemy and a far enemy.  The far enemy of Bright Faith is apathy and cynicism: those things that are the near opposite of this kind of faith.  The near enemy of Bright Faith is Blind faith.  With blind faith we not only surrender apathy and cynicism, we also surrender discriminating intellect – and Blind Faith is not a beginning, it is a conclusion.  Bright faith though is recognized as the starting point.  It is a time to enjoy, and when you see it in others it is something to be encouraged.  Do you remember when you discovered Unitarian Universalism?  For some it was an experience of Bright Faith, of falling in love, of joyous discovery; but not necessarily.  For some, discovering Unitarian Universalism was an experience in the next stage of faith.

Verifying Faith, Buddhism calls it.  Verifying Faith is the time when we balance our discovery with examination.  It is a time of testing and doubting; checking what you’ve been told against your own experiences.  Salzberg writes, “It is a common assumption that faith deepens as we are taught more about what to believe; in Buddhism, on the contrary, faith grows only as we question what we are told, as we try teachings out by putting them into practice to see if they really make a difference in our lives.”  (p 48)

The far enemy of Verifying faith is fear.  Fear keeps many people from checking their beliefs against reality lest they discover their beliefs are false.  Fear keeps people stuck.  As I said last week in the sermon on Doubt, “Doubt is the handmaiden of truth, the constant attendant of new discovery.  Doubt keeps us honest.”  The far enemy of Verifying Faith is fear; the near enemy is walk-away doubt or unskilled doubt.  Salzberg explains:

Unlike skillful doubt which bring us closer to exploring the truth, unskillful doubt pulls us farther away.  A story from the Buddha’s life illustrates the consequences of unskillful doubt.  After his enlightenment, the Buddha arose from his place under the bodhi tree and set out walking along the road.  The first person he encountered was struck by the radiance of his face and the power of his presence.  Dazzled, the man asked, “Who are you?”  The Buddha replied, “I am an awakened one.”  The man just said, “Well, maybe,” and walked away.  Had he shown curiosity, taken the time to follow up on his doubt by asking questions, he might have discovered something profoundly transforming. (p57)

Doubt is useful – it is the handmaiden of truth.  But walk-away doubt leaves opportunities behind.

Abiding Faith usually does not arrive until after the fear, the testing, the doubt, the suffering, and the despair.  Abiding faith is hard to describe and most attempts are trite and cliché because they are bound by one’s own experience: they have to be.  In abiding faith you have come to know and understand the ultimate, unwavering rock upon which you can rest all your concern.  It is yours and yours alone and the words you use to name it are your words borne of your living. It is that which holds all.  You may have beliefs that describe that in which you have faith, but beliefs are not faith.

There is so much suffering in the world, so much work to be done to ease the hurting and to heal the heartache.  Having faith does not stop the hurt, but it does place the suffering in a bigger context of meaning.  Consider this story:

One day some people came to the master and asked, “How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness, and death?” The master held up a glass and said, “Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass.  It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight.  I touch it and it rings!  One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table.  I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.” (From Sitting Zen by James Ishmael Ford; p85 of Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander, ed.)

The glass is already broken.  Don’t cling to it, enjoy it now.  The tulip bulb is already stolen by the squirrel – plant anyway; the chaos has already caused trouble and misunderstanding at church – do your work with passion anyway; the car has already hit the telephone pole and is broken, you are broken – live anyway.  Enjoy life now, anyway.  Abiding faith does not change my suffering or heartache, it only changes me and how I am with my suffering and heartache.  Abiding Faith includes the Bright Faith and the Verifying Faith.  There is the joy and the pain, the hope and the frustration, the unquenchable question that demands an answer and the unwavering assurance that the answer holds only limited use.  “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)  Abiding Faith holds assurance that life at its root, though ineffable, is enough.

We, of course, move in and out of these three stages of faith.  Bright Faith is not a one-time experience.  It can recur.  I know I have Abiding Faith, but I am still occasionally swept up in the energy and excitement of Bright Faith all over again, but not so often.  I feel I have been in the Verifying Faith stage for quite some time in relation to our communal faith.  I have been testing and questioning Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition.  Many of my sermons are just such a testing of my own faith and of our faith.  I know, though, that I have seen what Emerson might call an ‘inner knowing,’ a glimpse of something upon which I rest all my concern.

Let go, trust in your self.  Let go of attachments: you can’t make the things you love last forever.  Let go and discover within you that divine seed that can spring forth in the dead of winter. To be true to yourself you will suffer and uncover an Abiding Faith that will last through suffering and loss and fear and even in the face of death.  With Abiding Faith you know, perhaps even despite the evidence, that you’re going to be alright.

In a world without end

May it be so.