Psalm 22:1-2; Luke 13:18-19
The Rev. Tom Herbek
October 22, 2017
When Krista Tippett interviewed Rachel Naomi Remen, Dr. Remen described how important stories are, how important it is that we tell our stories. It is one of the ways that leads us to truly become neighbors to each other. Dr. Remen tells the story her grandfather, a rabbi, told her entitled, “The Birthday of the World”:
This was my fourth birthday present, this story. In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light.
And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.
Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. This task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.
And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.
It’s a very old story, comes from the 14th century, and it’s a different way of looking at our power. I suspect it has a key for us in our present situation, a very important key. I’m not a person who is political in the usual sense of that word, but I think that we all feel that we’re not enough to make a difference, that we need to be more somehow, wealthier or more educated or otherwise different than the people we are. And according to this story, we are exactly what’s needed. And to just wonder about that a little: what if we were exactly what’s needed? What then? How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world?
This beautiful story is one example from the book we will use on Saturday at our retreat: Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Loving.
Especially today, we must allow for the possibility that, within each of us in a very individual way, there is a light that can bring healing in our own corner of the world. Perhaps that feels overwhelming and we doubt that we can have any real impact on all that is hurting in our world today. But that is why we have a church family.
Rabbi Harold Kushner once said: “We don’t go to church or synagogue to find God; God may indeed be more accessible in nature on a sunny day. We go to church or synagogue to find other worshippers who are looking for what we are looking for, and together we find it. We become something greater than our solitary selves.” (Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life)
We don’t go to church to be correct, but to be connected. I like how John Phillip Newell described religion: “There is a tendency in the West to absolutize our religion. Instead of viewing it as a road sign that points beyond itself, we consider it a stop sign. It becomes the destination, the end. When that happens, it becomes confused with the Ultimate Reality that is always beyond utterance, beyond embodiment, beyond form.” (The Rebirthing of God)
Especially at the beginning of our faith journey, it is easy to believe that everything is clear, precise, and completely understandable. Kent Nerburn describes his response to such a person, a new Christian believer, who came to his door:
The other day a young man came to my door. He was earnest, bright and on a mission.
Did I know Jesus as my personal savior? Did I know that God had a wonderful plan for my life?
He obviously had not been at this long. He was nervous and uncertain. His clothes were too new and a bit ill fitting. He looked for all the world like a young salesman out on the street for his first cold call. And in many ways he was. But what he was selling was his vision of God’s truth, and this buoyed him up. As I listened and did not reject him, he gained courage and confidence.
Would I like to sit and talk about Jesus? Did I ever have doubts about my own life? Would I like to read the Bible with him?
I liked him. In some ways, I envied him. He was on fire with his faith. And though he was obviously fulfilling some obligation to his church by knocking on doors, he was doing it with a joyful spirit.
His presence, more than his words, challenged me. Is this what my faith should be? By failing to profess publicly, am I keeping my light under a bushel?
I want my faith to offer light and consolation to others. But I cannot, in good conscience, force my faith on others. I have seen too much of the world to believe in the primacy of my own belief. I would rather try to manifest my belief in God than to profess it.
Are we truly so bold as to say that our way is the only way? There are many among us, like the young man at my door, who believe that we must. They see any way other than their own as a path of darkness, and they believe in their heart of hearts that they must suffer any personal indignity and go to any length to get people to believe as they do. Their God, they believe, demands it.
But I cannot share their conviction. I have watched the pious Jew walking his son to temple; I have heard the Native American woman softly telling her children to learn the ways of love from the animals in the woods. I have seen the deep peace and serenity of the Buddhist who humbly rises from quiet meditation.
To me, God wears many masks and speaks in many voices. I cannot, in good heart, believe that these people are not walking a path to God that is as worthy, as true, as the one that I, or the young man at my door, have been given.
Nerburn then goes on to describe how doubt is also a universal component of being human.
Doubt is a part of the human condition. We doubt our ability to be good parents, to be good children, to meet all the obligations that confront us in the course of a day. Yet that does not immobilize us. We go forward with such faith as we have, making progress by halting steps, striving ever toward the light. Yet we do not see this as faith, only as the necessary labor of a life well lived.
But when it comes to faith in God, we have no confidence in the worthiness of our own struggle. We believe faith should come across us like a blinding light, transforming us, subsuming us in divine rapture. We want to be like Paul on the road to Damascus, knocked to the ground by a truth we cannot deny. If our faith is not like this, we reason, it is no faith at all.
But faith is not always so dramatic. It is sometimes a quiet shaping-an edifice built, stone by stone, from the hard labors of our heart.
We must remember that more people live in the shadow of doubt than in any blinding light of faith. When we show others that we, too, struggle with doubt but continue to walk forward in faith toward that distant and unfathomable light, we meet them in the shadow of their uncertainty and bear witness to the worthiness of their struggle. We strengthen their courage to reach out for the cloak of God in their own way. And in doing this, we sow seeds of faith as surely as if we were on fire with a private belief, professing with certainty and conviction.
We must witness what we can and point that witness toward the light of God. Feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, visit the sick, assist the fallen-whatever it is that we can do to increase the light of goodness, that is where our witness begins.
Speak of our God, manifest our faith, allow others to see that even though we do not feel we have a claim on absolute truth, we have a peace in our heart that comes from believing that there is an eternal truth from which we come and to which we shall return. Let others know that our faith honors their faith and meets it with a humble sense of respect and recognition.
As I stood on my doorstep, looking at the young boy before me, at once so fragile and so on fire with his faith, I knew that the measure of my faith was not that it should be as incandescent as his but that I should be able to embrace him in his own fledgling witness.
Perhaps, then, when he meets someone equally alive with a faith other than his own, he will remember the man who embraced his witness and, rather than contending, will embrace the witness of this person who knows their God by a different face or a different name.
- Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace
In our diversity, we can embrace our differences as well as those things that we hold in common. And in the days when we, too, experience doubt, perhaps we can see it as a friend and enabler of growth – not as the enemy of growth.
John Patrick Shanley wrote a Pulitzer prize-winning play entitled “Doubt” that Joan and I saw at GEVA ten years ago. It is a powerful play. In the playbill, there are some statements by the playwright:
It is Doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things. When a person feels unsteady, when they falter, when hard-won knowledge evaporates before their eyes, they’re on the verge of growth.
I still long for a shared certainty, an assumption of safety, the reassurance of believing that others know better than me what’s for the best. But I have been led by the bitter necessities of an interesting life to value that age-old practice of the wise: Doubt.
Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.
We try so hard to eliminate doubt and uncertainty, but doubt is the first inkling that we are ready to grow. It is the cutting edge of growth in our faith. It is a sign to us that we are ready to hear something new- about God, about faith, about ourselves.
Shanley comments: “Doubt is not paralysis. Certainty is. Doubt keeps the doors and windows open.”
Somehow, we must become less enamored of certainty in our society and more comfortable with uncertainty. I am not suggesting that we believe nothing, or believe in nothing, but that we allow ourselves to be more comfortable with what we do not know, more friendly toward ambiguity and questions and doubt.
When I was a kid and was squirming at the dinner table, my grandmother would ask: “What’s the matter? Have you got ants in your pants?” The theologian, preacher and novelist Frederick Buechner says: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” (from Wishful Thinking)
I suspect that sometimes, those who speak the loudest and with the most arrogance must have the deepest questions and the greatest doubts, and they are really trying to convince themselves as much as anyone else.
Doubt is the cutting edge of faith, the place where we are most open to growth. It is not something to fear, but to embrace as a friend. The vulnerability, ambiguity and uncertainties of life are the places where we are most likely to meet God in a new way. It may not be easy or comfortable, this place of doubt, but it is the reality of life lived to the fullest.
We are the people of God, who is the God of all life, even the toughest of doubts, the most ambiguous of circumstances.
So let us approach doubt with faith, not a faith of certainty in order to eradicate doubt, but a faith that embraces doubt as a catalyst for growth in our faith, and in our relationship to the living God of life.
But, especially when we experience the growing pains of doubt, may we also find strength and courage in the fact that we – all of us – are born to be healers of the world. We are not called to make a huge difference, but to heal the world that touches us, that is around us. And as Rachel Remen asked:
What if we were exactly what is needed? What then? How would we live if we were exactly what’s needed to bring healing, to lift up and make visible the light that is here? Right now?