The Question of Faith

Sermon Audio: 

The Rev. Susan milnor
December 3, 2017

Explaining Unitarian Universalism to others can be challenging at times. Often clergy face some form of the question, “How can you be a minister in a religion that has no faith?” Perhaps a few people say that to give offense, but most, I believe, are truly perplexed.

After all, we grow up in a culture in which “having faith” means being certain about theological beliefs: a father God, the unique divinity of Jesus, heaven. At the same time, the greatest theological and literary minds tell us that one cannot have faith without experiencing doubt. As someone who had trouble ever embracing traditional doctrines, very early on I assumed I had done doubt; I could check that one off the list. That is, until I had a real crisis of faith and found out how unsettling it is.

Nearly twenty-eight years ago, our daughter was born three months prematurely, weighing one pound and two ounces, hanging onto life. I was very will from pregnancy and hanging on. The whole experience was traumatic in ways we don’t need to dwell on, including fears about what would happen if she lived. But I confess. I was no longer certain of the tenets of my faith: that life is good or that something positive can be wrested even from tragedy. In moments, I even wished I hadn’t passed on the gift of life to a child who might inherit a complex, struggling existence. I was a physical, emotional, and spiritual wreck in the midst of a faith crisis.

As it turned out, our daughter’s path proved unbelievably fortunate. I recovered physically. And my faith is stronger now than I could have imagined then. But writer Flannery O’Connor counseled well when she said, “Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty.”

Trust is something we feel through our entire beings, not something we only hold in our minds. Daniel Chesney Kanter, Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, in a recent book called faith for the Unbeliever, writes that if we view faith only as belief, we have “lost het battle with those who say we can’t be people of faith without a traditional religious system.” More importantly, we miss out on the “richness of seeing it [faith] in everyday experience.” My friends, real faith is just as possible for questioners of doctrine as for those who profess certainty. The ancient Hindu term for faith, straddha, means to set one’s heart on something, to live loyally to it. The Hebrew, Greek, and Latin roots are based on credo, a words that comes from “heart” and means to entrust, to lend, to commit.

We accept this reality of faith in our lives every day. We know that a faithful partner is someone who keeps the heart lent toward the beloved. When it comes to a faithful friend, we might debate whether it is someone who always supports us or someone who gives us a kick when we need it, but either way we know faithful friends do not turn their backs on us. It’s not really very different when it comes to the meaning of our lies. Although beliefs serve as important touchstones, if you want to find you faith, don’t ask yourself, “What do I believe?” Ask yourself “To what do I give my heart? To what do I entrust my deepest, most profound hope?” As Poet Wendell Berry wrote, “What I stand for is what I stand on.” Kanter expresses his own faith this way: “We know something deep and abiding about life: As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.”

At times trust falters, but with grace we can still live faithfully. In Denise Levertov’s words from our reading, “Credo,” I doubt and interrupt my doubt with belief. My own credo might go something like this. I lend my heart to people together creating community that brings out the best in us. It’s not easy; it requires speaking the truth in love, letting go of grievances and hurts, even apologizing and forgiving. But we can trust a path to the Beloved Community. I lend my heart to making the world more just. If at times we don’t believe much in the world anymore, we can entrust ourselves to the path that would make it so. I commit to embracing the creative presence that moves through life. I call it God but what we call it does not matter. We find it when a survivor commits to combatting violence or disease or hate so that others will suffer less or when a parent loves a child unconditionally. There is a force coursing through our spiritual veins that lifts us above the concerns of our days and gathers us into a whole of which we are a part. That trust become the living answer to the question of faith.

All those years ago, after weeks of doubt and anxiety, one day a social worker at the children’s hospital asked to meet with us. The hospital had a request: they were partnering with United Way in a campaign to reduce premature births due to lack of prenatal care and drug use. They needed a baby whose photograph would appear, anonymously, on posters and billboards throughout the region. They asked us precisely because Abby’s birth did not result from those circumstances.

We wanted to think about it. When consulted, several people cautioned us not to do it because it would distress us to see the images. Worse, they worried, it would someday scar Abby to see herself cast in the role of a child of negligent parents. But as I listened, I found my heart leaning in a different direction. I trusted that if she survived and grew up, we could have a good conversation with our daughter about how important it is to bring good of bad situations. After weeks and weeks of doubt, faith had showed up again. “I want to do it,” I said to Terry. He agreed.

Yes, it was startling to look up while driving across the city and see our daughter on a billboard, looking so impossibly small. But the campaign faded; years passed, Abby reached pre-adolescence. One day in conversation about life, I told her what had happened, why we did it. She immediately wanted to see the poster, so I rutted through a closet and hauled out a copy. She studied it carefully. Then the only thing she said was, “I was a pretty cute baby, wasn’t I?”

In both the hardest times and the sweetest, little is inevitable or certain. This universe is a mysterious place, and the questions can prove unsettling. But with real faith, and with real doubt, we find our way to live the answers, again, and again, and again.