Faith For All

Faith for All
Rev. Kristen Rohm

When I was serving a small church in southern California, one of the kids, Yvette loved to make origami cranes. She gave me a tiny white one.  I had it on my desk for many months. It made the trip from California to Ohio undamaged.  I wasn’t entirely sure why I bothered to bring it all this way. Until one day I got a call that my cousin’s wife had attempted suicide.  As I was writing a note to him, I remembered the crane, was able to find it, and included it in my card, asking him to give it to his wife as a symbol of faith, to remind her that no matter how bad things might seem, she was not alone.

You probably know this story – on August 6, 1945, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. One mile from the epicenter lived a two-year-old girl named Sadako Sasaki. When she was 12 she developed leukemia from the radiation and was given a year to live.  She decided to fold 1000 paper cranes, inspired by the Japanese legend that one who created a thousand origami cranes would be granted a wish.  Her wish was simply to live. Her family says that she completed more than a thousand as she prayed for world peace. She did not get her wish and yet healing did happen for her and her family. She never lost faith in humanity. Her healing and hope live on.  In the decades since her death, her cranes have been donated by her family to many places, including Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Against all odds, something as simple as a paper crane has become a powerful symbol of faith in our potential.

Where does this faith come from?  What is this faith? In our culture, faith is often confused with rigid belief structures or religious doctrine that must be accepted without question.  That is not what motivated Sadako, or Yvette, nor is it faith. This month we are exploring what faith might be and how we might recognize and grow our own faith.

Faith is that which we set our heart on, that which means the most to us, that which we stand on when crisis happens, it is what we trust. Faith does not require a belief in God.    It may include our ideas about the universe, the mystery or God tested by and through our experiences in life.  Faith does not start with belief in a deity, nor rely upon such a belief.  If you struggle with this word, this concept, welcome.  If you wonder how faith might be for you because of what you believe or don’t believe, or because of your past mistakes or having left a religious tradition, because of questions or doubts, or for any reason, I say to you.

Faith belongs to you; faith is available to you.    Faith belongs to all of us because we are human. We discover our faith and then we grow into it. We deepen it bit by bit, because we practice it day-by-day, month-by-month, year by year. The way I make sense of faith is that it is a journey. Made up of many steps. There will be excitement, there will be doubt, there will be love, there will be despair, there will be fear, and there will be calm peaceful moments. Faith is a journey that lasts a lifetime.

Our conversation about faith is informed by Sharon Salzberg, American Buddhist teacher and practitioner, who wrote so eloquently about faith in her book titled Faith. She gives us a structure to talk about the faith journey and this sermon is indebted to her work. Please read this beautiful book.

Salzberg says, “Faith does not require a belief system, and is not necessarily connected to a deity, though it does not deny one…Faith is not a commodity we either have or don’t have – it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience. The Buddha said, ‘faith is the beginning of all good things.’  No matter what we encounter in life, it is faith that enables us to try again, to trust again, to love again…Even in times of immense suffering, it is faith that enables us to relate to the present moment in such a way that we can go on, we can move forward, instead of becoming lost in resignation or despair. Faith links our present day experience, whether wonderful or horrible, to the underlying pulse of life itself. A capacity for this type of faith is inherent in every human being. We might not recognize it or know how to nurture it, but we can learn to do both.”[1]

So let today be a clear invitation to each of us to set off on the path to recognize the faith that we already have and nurture it. There are some milestones to look for.  Buddhism talks of Bright faith as the first step on the journey to faith. It is when we meet someone who inspires us. Someone who is living the faith we wish we had, someone who inhabits the spiritual truths we are longing for.  It can be a bit like falling in love. Salzberg writes of feeling bowled over by several Buddhist teachers who were alight with love and compassion. How drawn she was to their goodness and love, wanting to be near them, emulate them, learn from them.  We can also be moved to bright faith by a sacred place or sometimes, a spiritual community.

One of my teachers is Bets, she was my first UU minister. She is full of light and love, clear, wise, kind.  She lit within me bright faith. Who has been such a person or place in your life?  Who has held up a mirror and helped you to get a glimpse of our own unique beauty and your immense potential to find insight and to grow compassion?  Let us take a few moments of quiet as we recall these lights and hold them in our hearts. We all need these guides to ignite our spiritual fire and encourage us to step out into the unknown.

We might like to stay here in bright faith; it’s full of excitement, trust and safety. The teachings of Buddhism are clear; this is only the beginning of our faith journey. Because it relies on someone or something outside ourselves.  It will not last, nor can it deepen into the kind of faith that sustains us in crisis, because we have not yet made it our own.  Our journey must continue, it cannot stop here. We arrive at the second step or stage – verifying faith. Our task is to do the hard work of questioning and making this this faith our own, internalizing it.

Gay will share a bit of her faith journey.

“I grew up in the Catholic church and said many things by rote every Sunday. I knew there was a special feeling at church: a blessing, a sweetness, a love. But with all the unhappiness and hatred in the world, the love didn’t last. When I was older, my insecurity and confusion drove me to be dependent on friends to help me, to therapists and self help books to figure myself out. Nothing worked. I experienced despair, and was prescribed antidepressants. Everything I tried was reaching out to an external source, someone else to save me.  Through insight meditation I began to learn that the answers to my depression, my despair, my suffering are within me. Through meditation I recognize and accept my true nature.   Although I do not consider myself a Buddhist, I have learned much more about how I can unskillfully cause discomfort within myself and with others, and how I can skillfully look at my inner monologue with awareness and loving understanding.     I use the acronym RAIN, introduced to me by Tara Brach in the book Radical Acceptance, in my insight meditation practice.     R stands for recognizing what’s going on inside and outside of you.   A is to allow this experience to be there- restlessness, judging, angry or loving.   I is to investigate with kindness.     N is your natural awareness, without attachment to outcomes or wishing they were different.      Because of this meditation practice, I am learning that Faith is not an intellectual word but a deeply felt knowing that the Buddhist teachings are true. They are what every religion strives for. You don’t have to believe with blind faith in Jesus, or the Buddha, or Mohammed, or the guru, although you can be devoted to them. If you internally investigate the teachings, you will find the truth that understanding them decreases suffering and can bring joy and happiness. Another benefit of insight meditation is that with practice, I begin to know, love and accept myself more, and therefor am more able to love and honor, ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person,’ and to have ‘respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part’.  My mom could have named me anything else, but I’m happy with Gay.”

Thanks Gay, her story shows the going beyond bright faith, beginning to internalize and make faith our own. As she said, we must question what we have learned. We must test the teachings against our own living. For a belief or a practice to be right for us, we must experience it and have it be helpful.  Many of us we are not born to Unitarian Universalism felt some bright faith when we find it.  Right?  A rush of relief, excitement, there is a place for me after all.  And Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism are in complete agreement that we need to do the hard work of asking questions about this faith we have found, we must verify it.  Your beliefs, wherever they came from, must be tested in the fire of your life.  Then we must develop spiritual practices to help us live them out. Thinking is good and it is not enough, practice is part of the hard work, part of the testing or verifying of faith.

If our practices help us to be calmer, more compassionate, more skilled in relationship, less reactive, then they are truly ours. If something helps hold us in our hardest, harshest moments, then it is ours.  The good news for most of us is that questions are encouraged; they are a necessary step on our journey of growing our own faith. They help us to verify our faith, to live into it.

Another necessary step in our faith journey happens when we encounter doubt. We might think that if we had enough faith we wouldn’t have any doubts, or that we’re failing somehow in our faith.  This is not true, it is a misunderstanding. For doubt is an intrinsic or natural part of faith. It is a signpost of a deepening spiritual life. Rest assured, if you have doubts, you are on the path.  You have not done something wrong. You are maturing your faith.

Doubt is important enough to faith that Buddhism identifies two types. It encourages ‘skillful’ doubt. Which means we ask a question and we stick around for the answer, we are curious and engaged in the process. We come closer. We pass teachings, beliefs, and techniques through our lived experience. We are open to what works. This is very different from unskillful doubt, or cynicism.  When everything is questioned from a cold, detached place and there is no interest in what does work. This is a refusal to get close to what is meaningful. It keeps us from connecting with others and separates us from the reality of the present moment. So be skillful, notice your doubt, engage with it, step closer and see where it takes you.

Another natural part of our faith journey comes when we are feeling despair, when crisis is upon us. Buddhism rests on the recognition that suffering is part of every life, all of us will know times of despair. So a faith journey includes times when what we hold dear, be it a person or a practice, falls away. We will lose a loved one to death or change; we will feel that our truest spiritual practice no longer works for us. We will feel bereft. Alone. Confused. This does not mean we have failed.  For our faith deepens when we can be in these times with openness. When we feel what is happening and move through it.

I’ve had awful crisis with both of my young adult children. Both times, my world fell away and I experienced doubt and despair.  All that I had stood on felt gone. The first time, a few months out I said to my spiritual director, “I feel like my faith fell away from me during this crisis. I was not able to sustain my usual prayer and yoga practice in the midst of it.”  He wisely said, hmm, tell me what you did do, what helped you.  I told him of my prayer on the fly, in the car or the hospital corridor, “Help me, hold me”, of a few yoga poses and breathes, of the poem one of my mentors emailed me, the phone calls with colleagues, of my siblings and my friends who did more than I asked, of so many who accompanied me through the awfulness, one hour at a time.  “Seems like God was in the people who helped and held you and your family. Sounds like your faith was solidly there for you because you were able to be present to what you were experiencing, be available to support your child through the months of healing and to continue to minister to your people. Kristen, that is not a lost or failed faith. That is a mature, hard working and deepened faith.”

Whatever your personal beliefs, wherever you are on you spiritual path of faith, my friends, I can see that it is working.     Yours is not a lost or failed faith.  You are here, brave traveler.  In this moment, let me be a mirror showing you your immense potential for insight, peace, love and faith. You have taken a step, probably many steps to bring you here – into the safe refuge of this spiritual community. Recognize your own unique faith and your potential and explore it this month.

I can’t give you my faith, but I will lend it to you for a while. I offer it as an invitation to join me on the journey.

Come closer; let us take one more step.

May it be so.

[1] Salzberg, Sharon, Faith, Riverhead Books, New York, NY, 2002.