Finding Faith in the Darkest of Hours

The Winter Solstice was about a week and a half ago. In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. Around our area of suburban Philadelphia, that means the longest night was over fourteen and a half hours. That’s a lot of darkness.

The occurrence of the Winter Solstice each year makes me think of how different, in many ways, our modern lives are from the lives of humans who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. The shift to and from Daylight Savings Time, and the fact that many us of work indoors on fixed schedules, with nine-to-five jobs, can keep us insulated from the seasonal perturbations of our planet. We notice the days getting shorter in December, of course, but for many of us it doesn’t really affect our lives, other than we leave the house in the dark in the morning or leave work in the dark in evening.

Imagine how it must have been for peoples whose lives were tied more closely to the naturally occurring changes in daylight: our hunter/gatherer and farming ancestors who lived by the sun’s light.

Of course, smart humans, observing over a period of years, learned to anticipate the changing of the seasons. If you have some time on your hands, or more probably if your livelihood depends on it, you learn to measure the daylight, and you recognize that a certain date each year, what we call December 20th or 21st, is always the shortest day of the year. Through your learning, through your accumulated knowledge, you develop faith. You know through your observations that no, the sunlight won’t totally disappear and be gone forever; your knowledge, your faith, based on accumulated history, will tell you that there is a singular darkest day of the year, and after that the days will grow longer again. In that sense, your faith might be said to be based on knowledge.

In his book, Faith: A Journey for All, President Jimmy Carter cites an opinion from the Lutheran theologian, the Reverend Paul Tillich.  Reverend Tillich said that God is not a being, but being itself.[1] That statement is kind of hard to unpack, so let me say it again: God is not a being, but being itself. God is not a being, but being itself. President Carter goes on to say that he disagrees with that notion. He says, “I believe that through prayer I have a direct and personal relationship with God as a specific entity [emphasis mine], and I believe that God knows and understands me.”[2]

Now, President Carter is a widely reknowned Sunday school teacher at his Baptist church, but I respectfully disagree with him. As a Unitarian Universalist, I really like the notion of God as a way of being. I think God is within us when, for example, we are in right relation with each other. The way we be, that is an embodiment of God’s light that exists within us all. When we strive to be our best selves, we are becoming an aspect of God.

Two weeks ago, Reverend Peter preached a sermon here called The Mystery of the Incarnation, and I hope he won’t mind if I quote from it shamelessly this morning. Reverend Peter preached, “The God of my faith isn’t a thing, or a being, or an entity. It certainly isn’t a person. My God is a process. A process that is and that is always becoming. My God isn’t static - a “once and forever” God. My God is an evolving God, a growing God. A God that is part of everything and that takes part in everything. I think of God not as a partner in relationship with us, but as the relationship itself.”[3]

Those words resonated within me, and inspired me to think about God as the relationship itself. Okay, what, then, does faith mean in that context? A typical Christian might think of faith as a belief that, upon death, if they’ve lived a virtuous life, then they’ll have eternal life with God in heaven.

But if you’re a Unitarian Universalist, say one who believes not in God as an entity or a person, but as a process, as a relationship, what, then, is faith? What does it mean for us to have faith? Faith in what, exactly?

Everybody’s path in Unitarian Universalism is unique, but, for me, faith means an overriding optimism that, even the darkest storm clouds will pass, and eventually things will get better. Now, I’m no Pollyanna here. “Eventually” may be predicated on a lot of things happening, a lot of things that take a lot of work by a lot of people working together over a long period of time. If we don’t fight racism, for example, individually, collectively, and institutionally, racism will not go away on its own. But if enough of us work hard enough and long enough, I have faith that the human condition can improve.

Of course, it’s one thing for me to stand before you and state an optimistic belief and label it as “faith.” So let me share a couple of stories that may illustrate different ways of thinking about faith.

This past October I attended the celebration of life and internment of Matthew Shepard at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Matt Shepard, you’ll recall, was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998.

Let’s talk about that for a minute. Matt was murdered in 1998. He was finally, finally laid to rest in the National Cathedral this year, 2018. That is twenty years, friends. For twenty years Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, were unsure where to inter Matt’s remains because they knew – they knew – that where ever he was laid to rest would be picketed, would be vandalized, would be desecrated. 

Let that sink in for minute. Imagine you have a son. Imagine he is brutally murdered, left to die, tied to a fence for eighteen hours in the freezing cold. Then imagine that you cannot lay him to a final rest, because even after his death his remains would be desecrated. How does that make you feel? How does that shake your faith? Believing that, how do you even have any faith?

Well, Judy Shepard came to know the Episcopalian Bishop, the Right Reverend Gene Robinson. Bishop Robinson put the Shepards in touch with the Right Reverend Mariann Budde, the Bishop of Washington, and the Very Reverend Randy Hollerith, Dean of the Washington National Cathedral. Matt Shepard’s remains were welcomed to the National Cathedral, and twenty years after his death Matt Shepard was laid to rest in the cathedral crypt, alongside President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, among others. Matt can rest at peace, and the plaque marking his grave will serve as an inspiration to visitors for years to come.

The Right Reverend Robinson delivered the sermon that morning, and I’d like to share some words of his. He speaks in “God language,” and if “God language” doesn’t work for you, feel free to translate it mentally as I read, 7 but come back to me at the end of the quote, okay? Bishop Robinson preached,

“My whole life in ministry I have been warning people to be very leery of those who claim to speak for God. . . . But that is precisely what I’m gonna do. . . . I have a magnet on my refrigerator and it says this: ‘Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.’ Okay, so here’s the miracle. Here’s the miracle. Every one of you is God’s favorite. Every one of you is God’s favorite. I don’t know how that can be; I just know that it’s true. And I don’t want any of you to leave here without being reminded that you are loved by the God of all that is. You are loved beyond your wildest imagining. And nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate you from that love. So, the picture I have of Matthew Shepard right now is Matt sitting in God’s great big lap, surrounded by God’s great big loving arms. And that’s all I need to know.”[4]

Now, Reverend Robinson is an Episcopalian Bishop, but those are some of the most Unitarian Universalist words I can recall ever hearing from an Episcopalian: “Every one of you is God’s favorite.” That’s Universalism right there. Every one of you. And I don’t know how that works. But I know it’s true. And that’s all I need to know. Matt Shepard went from being so feared, so misunderstood, so hated, that his parents could not even bury his remains for twenty years, to sitting in God’s great big lap, surrounded by God’s great big loving arms. And that’s all I need to know. That’s faith, friends. The Shepards’ faith endured for twenty years until their son was finally laid to rest. That is faith.

Now, earlier I said that my theology doesn’t include God as a person or an entity, but as a process or as a way of being. So why do I think what Bishop Robinson said about Matt Shepard sitting in the great big lap of God is faith? Well, for two reasons. First, maybe Bishop Robinson is speaking literally, or maybe he’s speaking metaphorically, but either way, it’s okay. His faith tells him that Matt is finally at peace, at rest, and I believe that, too. Second, it took twenty years for Matt and his family to find peace, and I absolutely have to believe that some notion of faith carried them through that time. That perseverance, that determination, to find a resting place for Matt, that is an act of faith in any religion.

There’s a quote from Anne Frank that you may have heard, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” I’m struck at the incredible humility, at the incredible faith, embodied in those words: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” As we know, Anne Frank was murdered by the Nazis when she was 15 years old, because she was Jewish. I suppose a cold, bitter person might ascribe her optimism to the naiveté of a child, but I choose to lift up her words as perhaps the ultimate statement of faith.

Because it’s important to take a quote, any quote, in its broader context, I’d like to share more of Anne Frank’s diary entry that included those words. She wrote, 

“It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals; they seem so absurd and impractical. 10 Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It's utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I'll be able to realize them!”[5]

Anne Frank wrote those words on July 15, 1944. She died about seven months later in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Anne wrote in her diary about living in dark times, indeed. As she wrote, “Ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality,” and her grim reality was the grim reality of the Holocaust.

We live in dark times today. Everywhere we turn, civil rights are being rolled back; LGBTQ rights are being rolled back; the very right to exist of anyone who can be labelled as “the other” by the powers that be is threatened. Everywhere, it seems, it’s hard to keep our faith as Unitarian Universalists. How can we continue to have faith that justice shall roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream?

But then I take a deep breath. I look to those whose faith truly was tested: the Shepard family; the family of Anne Frank and the other victims of the Holocaust. Their faith helped carry them through their dark times, perhaps the darkest of times. Their faith helped cast a light that pushed back the darkness. We have to have faith, friends, we have to. Faith in God as a holy process, working through us. Faith that all of us, everyone, is God’s favorite. Faith that the human spirit can never be extinguished.

As the calendar pages turn and we enter a new year, may your faith be strong. May your faith keep your light shining brightly with the hope that the new year, and the years beyond it, will bring us peace and justice. Amen.

______________________

[1] Carter, Jimmy, (2018). Faith: A Journey for All. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, p.37.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Friedrichs, Rev. Peter. The Mystery of the Incarnation. Sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County (Media, PA) December 16, 2018. Retrieved from http://uucdc.org/worship/sermons/mystery-incarnation.
[4] Washington National Cathedral. “The Celebration of Life and Interment of Matthew Shepard.” YouTube, October 26, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSXtHMXuaPI.
[5] Frank, Anne. (1947) The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler (eds.), Susan Massotty (trans.). Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/AnneFrankTheDiaryOfAYoungGirl_201606/Anne-Fra....