Auburn UU Fellowship
Rev. Pamela Gehrke
March 19, 2017
Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust
I'd like to start by lifting up the spring equinox tomorrow—5:28 a.m. Central Daylight Time. As a newcomer to the region, I'm delighted and amazed every day by the unfolding of spring in species of blossoms: azaleas, dogwoods, wisteria, and others I don't know how to name. For some reason, I find the dogwoods always speak to me. Every dogwood I pass on my walks magically calls the phone out of my pocket for a photo.
Also this weekend, a pair of historic events have taken place in LaGrange, Georgia. Yesterday, a service of remembrance was held for Austin Callaway, murdered by a mob seventy-six years ago. At the time, the police ignored the crime; on January 26th of this year, city and police officials offered an apology. Early this morning, a sunrise service was held at the Southview Cemetery in LaGrange, “calling the names of all documented victims of lynching in the state of Georgia—nearly 600 between 1877 and 1950. The announcement reads:
It will be a bold act of faith. No one has ever done it. LaGrange will lead the way: Together in prayer and in hope, we will break the silence and find healing of our troubled past.
Though I did not attend the services, my heart swells with grief, and with gratitude for the hope these remembrances now represent.
It happens to be the time of the month when I need to be coming up with service titles for next month's newsletter. This reminded me that I struggled a bit when I came up with this one last month, knowing that there are many among us who dislike thinking about a religious term such as “faith.”
If this is the case with you, I really do appreciate that you are here today, no matter the service title. Another day, I'd like to create a whole service focused on choosing words. For now, I just want to let you know that I make an effort to use inclusive vocabulary. When we sing, sometimes we adapt lyrics to avoid sexist or gender binary or ableist language. Also, given that this is a theologically and philosophically diverse community, you occasionally do hear words from various linguistic registers, including both secular language and what we might call “vocabulary of reverence,” and everything in between. I ask everyone's forbearance in tolerating the latitude in word choice that reflects the rich diversity of the whole AUUF community.
There was a time when I struggled with the word “faith” myself. I remember discussing it with a friend from my home congregation—he happens to be a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and a devoted social activist. We share an interest in abolishing capital punishment, and we used to carpool to meetings of “People of Faith against the Death Penalty.” The group's name bothered us; we both felt excluded by it, belonging to a non-creedal religious community. Some time later, I gained an insight at a General Assembly workshop that has enabled me to feel comfortable identifying as a “person of faith." I no longer feel out of place in multi-faith, interfaith, or ecumenical gatherings.
“Faith” is not just a synonym for “belief,” after all. Like “belief,” “faith” refers to a proposition held to be true without proof, without any evidence. We believe something or have faith in something without knowing it for sure. “Belief” belongs the mental, cognitive realm. “Faith” is more emotional, spiritual, and behavioral. Literary scholar Terence Eagleton, a Roman Catholic and a social progressive, has said that “faith is performative rather than propositional.” I have come to think of faith as choosing a posture, adopting an attitude of trust.
Let's consider an example: the first of the principles listed in the Unitarian Universalist Association Bylaws. As a member congregation of the association, AUUF “covenants to affirm and promote” “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
Some UUs criticize the seven principles as being a kind of creed or statement of belief. Suppose, instead, we think of the principles as articles of trust. It is, of course, impossible to know the truth about anyone's “inherent worth and dignity.” How can we even measure or define these qualities? But what if we promise to assume every person's “inherent worth and dignity,” that every person is born innocent? What if we trust in every person's inherent worth and in the essential goodness of human beings?
This posture of trust, this faith, derives theologically from a belief that every person bears a spark of the divine or that every person is created in God's image—as in the Genesis creation narrative. We need not hold any particular position on the “divine spark” or on the Bible to recognize the value of treating every person we meet as a person of “inherent worth and dignity.”
We could go through all the seven principles and explore how faith, an attitude of trust, comes into affirming and promoting each one. We might also consider how the principles are connected with each other. Faith in the “inherent worth and dignity” of each person naturally entails “justice, equity, and compassion” toward others. Faith in the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” also promotes the forbearing engagement, shared loyalties, and mutual love that sustain a community's covenant.
In my life as a Unitarian Universalist, I've participated in a number of chalice circles—covenant groups—over the years. These programs offer support to help people navigate their individual challenges and troubles, and they also effectively deepen relationships that strengthen the community to which the group belongs.
At the start, each group works together to create its own covenant, a statement of how that particular collection of folks has decided to be in community together. Often, one of the provisions would be something like “assume good intentions”: trust that if someone says or does something hurtful, they didn't do it on purpose to hurt anyone. Proposing this guideline sometimes elicits lively discussion. What if the person's intentions really were not all that good? What if the intention was to cause pain or cast blame? Well, what then? Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
Trusting—having faith in people's good intentions—has at least a couple of advantages. Simply put, trusting the good intentions of other people has the advantage of contributing to a generally positive outlook on life.
However, I would not suggest throwing all caution to the wind. It is true that trust can be broken, that people you trust will disappoint you. Your voluntary vulnerability may be betrayed. It isn't contradictory to assume good intentions and to also communicate honestly when we're feeling betrayed or hurt. If you assume good intentions and if you value the relationship enough to repair damaged trust, you may be more inclined to let the other person know how their words or behavior affected you.
Trust goes both ways. Even with the kindest of intentions, we can cause harm. Too often, our apologies amount to defending our innocent intentions rather than acknowledging the hurtful impact of something we have said or done. This is often the case when people with white identity, through our ignorance, say something that seems benign or friendly to us, but has a painful impact on a person of color. It often seems risky to let someone know they have hurt you. It requires a relationship of trust, which we should honor by acknowledging the hurtful impact and by changing our behavior accordingly.
Trust creates opportunities for taking advantage of a kind listening friend to work through a problem. It also calls us to confront friends with unpleasant truths, to initiate difficult conversations. It means letting them know how you feel, letting your guard down. Some groups adopt a custom of saying “ouch” and “oops”—shorthand for important conversations grounded in loving relationships and assumption of good intentions.
Well, if you've come today to hear about “pixie dust,” I'm afraid I've betrayed your expectation. Whether or not you use “language of reverence,” I propose that you consider faith—or trust—a spiritually, morally healthy and reasonable attitude to cultivate. Consider the benefits for yourself, for your close relationships, for your congregation, and for the larger community. I close with these words from Susan Frederick Gray:
In the divisive time that we live in, it may not be our beliefs that matter, nor the quality of our facts and arguments, but the degree to which we shoe up authentically, vulnerably, to embrace and practice an ethic of love.
So may it be.