Sunday, February 3, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Sooner or later on our spiritual journeys, we come to the question of the foundation of our faith, what grounds us and opens us to our true selves in compassionate engagement with the world? Today we’ll wrestle with how we might answer that question.
The author Brene Brown, who writes on issues of shame and vulnerability, says she was struggling over how she might illustrate the importance of trust in relationships when her school-age daughter offered her a metaphor that she felt worked.
Her daughter told her about an upsetting episode at school when friends in her class had shared with others the story of an embarrassing incident that she had told them. The story caused a small uproar in the class when the other students in the class began to make fun of her. The teacher told the students to calm down.
As a discipline tool, she had kept a jar of marbles on her desk, agreeing to add marbles when the class behaved well and to remove them when they didn’t. When the jar was full, she would arrange a treat for the class. As the noise level rose, the teacher warned them that she would start taking marbles from the jar.
Brown’s daughter, though, said she didn’t care. She was mortified and would never trust anyone again. What should Brown say? What would you say?
Brown explained to her daughter that trust wasn’t something that you turned on and off. It was something more like the marble jar, where we added and subtracted trust based on our experience. One of our goals in life, she said, is to find “marble jar friends,” people who we find, as a rule, will add marbles to our jar, who we can depend on to be honest, caring and fair.
“As a rule” because we all mess up now and again. But “marble jar friends” are people who are willing to be vulnerable to us and reach out to us, apologize for the injury they do. In further research, Brown said she was interested to find that often it was not the big events but small things that had the most impact on building trust.
She recounted a story from the psychologist John Gottman. He told of one night when he was reading in bed when he got up for a moment just to go to the bathroom. On the way, he walked by his wife, who looked sad. As it is with us sometimes, his first impulse was to walk by. After all, he was anxious to get back to his book. But he didn’t. Instead, he sat next to her and asked, “What’s going on with you, babe?”
It is in such moments, Brown said, that trust is built. And it reminds us how vital trust is in our lives. We’ve all known moments when like Brown’s daughter we’re ready to declare that we’ll never trust again. But in truth that is never an option.
Trust is essential to our wellbeing, and we will always find somewhere to place it, even if sometimes that trust has not been earned. Indeed, it is the source of much grief that we extend our trust to unreliable sources, to people who abuse it or disregard it. One of the great lessons of growing up Is learning how and when to give our trust and learning to heal and grow when it has been betrayed.
The lessons of trust in relationships apply equally to a deeper sense of trust that underlies how we are present to and find meaning in the world. This is trust at the center of what we call faith. Faith is a word that we often struggle with because it is interpreted in different ways. Years ago, the theologian Paul Tillich described faith as a “restlessness of the heart,” a drive within us triggered by, in his words, “our awareness of the infinite” of which we are a part, but which, he said, we do not own “like a possession.”
Like trust, faith is integral to our experience as human beings. It has at its heart in a yearning for authenticity, for connection, for at-homeness in the universe. Whether or not or however we articulate it, faith manifests itself in our lives in our decisions about how we interact with each other and the natural world. Like trust, it grows and deepens as we grow and evolve, and equally, it can bring us grief when we struggle with betrayal and loss.
One historian of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, has argued that faith can cause us grief when it becomes equated with beliefs that are framed as intellectual propositions, dogma that separates us from our experience. Apparently, at some point in our history in the West religious leaders concluded that the heart was not reliable, that only rigorous intellectual argument could ground faith. Yet, this move, he said, removed faith from its original source.
Faith, he argued, is not an intellectual proposition but an emotional almost visceral affirmation. “The religious life,” he wrote, “begins with faith, and faith is finding within that life something to which one gives one’s heart.” And we give our hearts only to that which seems to us adequate or promising; in short, that which we trust. Whatever we humans may affirm intellectually, he said, we are ultimately guided, driven by that in which we trust, that in which we have faith.
I make my spiritual home in this religious tradition because is a place where, when you enter, we do not tell us you what faith is, supplying you with unchallengeable propositions about the nature of the world, the divine and all the rest. Instead, we ask you where your heart rests and invite you to deepen and grow your spirit with us, as together we work to understand what is called of each of us in our brief lives to help bring about hope, justice, and peace.
It operates in a sense as a kind of “marble jar” theology. where the faith that each of us brings evolves in each other’s company, where we process experiences that test and shape what seems true to us, then offer our hearts to each other, finding in that vulnerability the possibility of awakening to deeper truth.
In our lives, we experience epiphanies as well as disappointments and losses, and each of these changes us, often in ways we could not anticipate. And at times those experiences cause us to let go of once-powerful convictions or ways of looking at the world that no longer serve us.
In time, as Sharon Salzberg puts it, “we learn to trust our own deepest experiences” while being held in a community of trust. “No matter what we encounter in life,” she says, “it is faith that enables us to try again, to trust again, to love again.”
In time, like an ever-filling marble jar, trust grows and deepens. As it does our awareness widens, and our awareness is imbued, is colored with meaning. This is how we go about building our heart’s true resting place, a place where even amid the storms of life we have a bedrock trust we can turn to.
James Fowler, who we heard from earlier, proposed some years ago that there were identifiable steps, six different stages, that people moved through on the way to a fulfilling faith. We begin with the faith of childhood, he said, where we essentially receive what is given, and then, as we grow, we have opportunities to widen and deepen our faith, moving toward what he calls a universalizing faith of the widest possible focus. But, of course, advancing age doesn’t assure us of achieving spiritual maturity. There are any number of reasons why any of us can get stuck at one stage along the way.
As Fowler put it, if we are to be companions on the globe we are in need of “good faith,” faith sufficiently inclusive to binding ourselves as a human community to each other. Our faith, he said, “must name and face that deep-going tendency in us to make ourselves and the extensions of ourselves central in the world.”
We must somehow link ourselves “to communities of shared memory and shared hope with which we join in symbolizing our human condition and in enacting the vision that can animate and give new life.” This requires on our part humility, curiosity, and grace, to listen and know we have much to learn, to make common cause in gratitude, trusting in the truth of our common destiny.
I have pondered throughout preparing this sermon over how I might articulate what my own sense of trust has evolved to at this point in my life, how I might frame the conviction that underlies my own hopes, where, in the end, my heart rests.
As I have told you before, I begin with a trust in the natural world, this glorious, surprising Earth, with no need for intervention from afar. And when I look for the foundation of my hope, what guides me, transforms me, awakens me, I find it in something that I intuit but cannot prove, yet which consoles me and emboldens me even in the most frightening times. I’m not even sure these are the right words, but let me try.
It is that there is present in each of us and among us a profound and generous love of which we are capable, and that in that love is the hope of the world. This is, as I said, nothing I can prove. I only know that my heart sings when I act in its behalf, when I let go of my fears, shame, or uncertainties and admit it without reservation into my life.
It is a trust that offers no certainty that I won’t be hurt or disappointed. Indeed, the vulnerability it demands of me, assures that my heart will be broken, and not just once but over and over again, but never irreparably, and each time opened to new wisdom.
I cannot know where it will take me from here, but my heart rests in the conviction that if I can keep it in my sights – and I don’t always succeed at that – it will serve me, those I know and love and the world and bring about some small measure of peace in the brief time I have left in this life.