August 8, 2010
Let me begin by saying that to deal adequately with what I find to be the frankly difficult readings of this week’s Lectionary would, I believe, require the heart of a prophet and the soul of a saint. And I am neither.
Instead, I come as a woman wrestling with issues of faith, inpatient with herself, buffeted by the quotidian demands of work and family. I often feel that in this community of long and steadfast tradition, I bring adolescent questions and yearnings even as I look squarely at my own aging and mortality. Far too often, I am confused and restless. Far too frequently, the fidelity I am building to daily spiritual practice seems shallow and inadequate, my prayer stale and my meditation empty. My heart cries with a world that is broken and wounded, but I know my response to be incomplete and lackluster.
I read the writings of Elizabeth O’Connor and our own dear Marjory Bankson and I keep thinking that I must be doing something wrong. That somewhere, just beyond my field of vision, just beyond this moment of distracted spiritual practice, there is a world of committed certainty and joyous service where I have become the saint I have yearned to be for so very long.
Against this backdrop, I have struggled to “listen to the teaching of our God” as found in this week’s readings. In doing so I have concluded that, insofar as I understand them, they bring to me messages about my life of faith and I invite you to listen with me to the words that I have heard.
Before doing so, I begin with a simple consideration of what “faith” means. As a “good girl”, the eldest of four in a rambunctious family with few resources and parents struggling, faith was early defined by credal statements of belief.
My parents may never have attended church, but I was marched off to whatever Sunday school was available as my father moved from one Coast Guard base to another. Usually Episcopalian, occasionally Baptist in the rural South, these early experiences taught me “believing things”, however implausible, defined the life of faith.
I vividly remember in the fifth grade learning the phrase from the Episcopalian liturgy, “Christ was like us in all things except sin.” And immediately, I concluded that Christ was, therefore, not at all like me. It was already clear to me that much of my inner life consisted of aspiring and failing, of being less than I knew I ought to be, of “sinning” and somehow stumbling on carrying knowledge of this and finding some way to not be broken by it. I now have no recollection of what these “sins” were of that fifth-grade girl that I was. But more importantly, I see in retrospect that there was no room for questions, no delight in complexity or confusion, no welcoming of doubt or darkness in this understanding of faith.
Is this what faith is: the ability to assert both verbally and internally propositions that defy reason? And derived from this, is faith then a basis for categorizing the world and others into spiritual “haves” and “have nots”? To me, this seems both too much and far too little to be the basis of our relationship with the one who calls us each by name. Fortunately, both the Latinate and Greek origins of the word “faith” have a far different meaning. They have little to do with organized belief and instead connote trust, reliance, confidence, and genuineness. These are sturdy relational attributes that would seem to arise from lived experience. Reliance and trust, confidence and genuineness often grow during periods of questioning and difficulty and darkness, providing room for silence and for doubt. Trust and reliance, confidence and genuineness assume authenticity. And this I propose is the faith which is spoken of in today’s Scriptures
Isaiah begins by brutally denouncing the Temple practices of his day. And these do, indeed, sound repugnant: burnt offerings of rams, the blood of bulls or lambs or goats. It is too easy for us to quickly and trivially join with Isaiah in denouncing these practices. For what do we care about the festivals of new moons or Sabbath convocations? It is all too easy to imagine that these words of condemnation were spoken to a neglectful and unsavory people utterly unlike our selves.
But these are sober words that may require translation into an idiom a more familiar to us here at Seekers in order that they speak to us as they deserve.
Imagine that one of our prophets stood up and spoke from the authority of call, saying in the name of our God, “What to me is your lovely Sunday liturgy beautifully organized by Celebration Circle? I have had enough of your tithing and your Mission Groups. I am weary of your Easter breakfasts, and your monthly sing-alongs. Your Stewards’ meetings and classes in the School of Christian Living have become a burden to me. Even when you pray, I will not listen”
Now we gasp. Now we protest. Surely our hands are not full of blood and our sins are not like scarlet. Surely all this need not be taken from us.
The purpose of this exercise is not to engage in some erudite discussion our own situation and the relative merits of Judah at a time of great prosperity combined with oppression of the poor, at a time of international intrigue and threats of catastrophe. Nor is it to contrast and compare Temple Judaism and Seekers’ Christianity.
Furthermore, I’m not impressed by the tidy calculus of Isaiah, assuring that a willing and obedient response to this word will bring plenty, while refusing to do so will bring destruction.
But I return to Isaiah’s words which would snatch precious communal religious experiences from Judah. What does this have to do with my experience of faith?
For me, at least, there are times when any communal religious practice leaves me unmoved and “outside”. At such moments, celebrations suddenly seem as empty as those described by Isaiah. The liturgy may be articulate, the class may be wonderfully taught, the discussion may be heartfelt. But I am not there. Some piece of me is weary and I cannot imagine a prayer worthy of being listened to.
Unlike Isaiah, this experience does not come to me as a gift of prophecy, nor does it speak any judgment on the worshipping community. But something precious has been wrenched from me, as Isaiah imagines that God wants to wrench temple religion from Judah.
When collective prayer leaves me weary, when hymns do not delight me, when I cannot feel myself part of our beloved community, what does my faith ask of me? What am I to do when there is silence and darkness rather than joyous celebration?
Isaiah is clear. Faith demands that we persist: learning to do good, and seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed and defending the orphan, pleading for the widow. These are the activities of those who have confidence and trust in the summons of their God, who know that the darkness and the silence that can take the place of celebration are simply a deeper summons into the heart of God. And I am also invited to question and to protest through these times. I can, as Isaiah suggests, “argue it out”. This is the genuineness of faith that is not creedal, but sturdy and relational.
If Isaiah speaks of our communal worship, for me Luke speaks of faith during the dark nights of our inner life.
Luke recounts Jesus beginning his discourse with the ominous words, “Do not be afraid” to his disciples. It is clear to me that if angels or heavenly visitors ever appear suggesting that I need not be afraid, they are actually bringing ominous news indeed. So it is no surprise that this is immediately followed by the simple injunction that they are to sell their all their possessions and give alms.
But let’s consider the many images that follow of waiting with lit lamps for one who will come at an unexpected hour.
Why am I here at Seekers? Why am I in a Mission Group and why have I invited Kate to be my sponsor as I consider becoming a Steward? There are many answers to these questions, but fundamentally it is because there have been those moments in my life when the master has returned and invited me to eat and served me and I have known the inexpressible delight and joy of a love utterly undeserved and entirely gift. The irony is that I have not kept the lamp lit, I have not been dressed for action, and I have not always gotten up to open the door when I heard the knock. There have been long fallow periods of neglect and wandering in my spiritual life. But through the years, there have been those moments that define all others in which I know that I am loved and called to love.
The purpose of these remarks is not, however, to speak of these moments when doors open to the sacred. Rather, it is to confess that my spiritual life is suffused by a persistent ordinariness and the absence of God. I cannot even say that I yearn for my God, for to yearn is itself a gift.
I cannot see God.
I cannot feel God.
I do not know God.
This is not depression; ordinary human relationships, the demands of work, the raging of a summer storm all move and affect me. I run in the morning and sing in the shower and hike with my partner and play with my grandchildren with real delight.
But spiritually, my daily practices of prayer or devotion are characterized by a sense of abandonment. There is no reward or consolation. The aridness is unrelenting. And of course I wonder if I’m doing something wrong. Should I read a different book? Should I undertake a different spiritual practice? Should I “do more”? Perhaps, if……
Such times of aridity and darkness come to many. Predictably, credal faith, the assertion of codified belief, is of little value in such times. We know the God of intimate summons beyond suddenly opened doors cannot be expressed with words. Now we may find all words, all theologic formulations are empty, useless, and even irritating. .
This is the via negativa, the assertion that God simply cannot be known. An early Christian wrote, “That which is infinite is known only to itself.” Early Christian desert fathers and mothers, monastics, various theologians, and mystics throughout the centuries have spoken of not knowing…..and have recognized the value of such not knowing.
So much can happen in the dark while we wait. False images, of ourselves and of the one whom we seek, can be recognized (however painfully) and surrendered. In the dark of waiting I can see the complex and selfish motivations that entangle my every good deed. In the dark I see the emptiness of my striving and competitiveness.
In the dark we remember what we often wish we could forget.
I was much younger and circumstances had given me the time and brought me to a place where I was volunteering and then leading volunteers in a wonderful inpatient hospice. In some way beyond words, I found what we here describe as “call” in simply “being with” those who were dying, in trying to teach others about presence and accompaniment at the end of life. This was a source of great joy to me, but after describing this to a good friend, his thoughtful response was unequivocal. “You’re in your 30’s. You have a young son and a family. But I think you need something and you are using the dying to fill your need. I think this is sick.”
I did not then, and do not now, want to see the ways in which he was right. Certainly a partial truth. But a truth.
In the dark and waiting, such truths about ourselves come to us.
Similarly, the accumulated weight of false images of God may also be recognized and put aside. Sister Joan Chittister once observed, speaking of the Trinity, “God is more than two guys and a bird.” Indeed. But in the dark we may find ourselves saying of God, “Not the many. Not the three. Not the one. Not contained within any enumeration, any number.”
In the dark, echoing cries of our wounded world, of our own wounding may shatter our sometimes saccharine and self-serving images of God: Jesus, for example, as a smiling, well-clothed and sparklingly hygienic young white man playing with children. Rather, the cries of the dying in earthquake rubble echo and confound us, and we find ourselves not just baffled, but bereft.
Faith as sturdy trust and reliance is re-defined in such times. This new and deeper trust can no longer be based on the proposition that I deserve the love of God. I do not, and I know I do not. This new and deeper confidence is not based on the proposition that God can be understood and exists to comfort and support me. I see God as mystery and utterly unknowable. Stripped bare and barren, genuineness grows along with a new reliance that slips the bonds of words and time.
My friends in Christ, this is the night in which I, and perhaps sometimes you, wait.
And waiting is enough.
If all I can do is say a psalm while my heart remains unmoved, then it is enough. This is the night of waiting.
If I know nothing of God, but meditate in confused and sometimes sleepy silence 20 minutes every morning, then it is enough. This is the night of waiting.
If my heart breaks for the people of Haiti and Eritrea and Iraq and Anacostia, and I do not know what to do but weep and compose a prayer and write a check, then it is enough. This is the night of waiting.
For times of communal celebration and joy, I give thanks. For doors that open to the sacred, I give thanks.
But equally, for times of silence and desolation and darkness and waiting, I give thanks.
This is the sturdy faith defined by trust, reliance, and confidence. This is the genuine relationship with the unknowable one who nonetheless calls us each by name and who loves us with an unending love.