Trust in God, But Tie Up Your Camel

Our Spiritual Theme for the month of March is "Trust." This Sunday, Rev. Peter, DRE Chrissy Bushyager and Worship Associate Ed Mathis offer their perspectives on the questions of in whom do we place our trust and how far does it go? 

Sermon: "Trust in God, But Tie Up Your Camel"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

Do you remember that song, “Jesus, Take the Wheel?” It was Carrie Underwood’s breakout hit in 2005, her first single after winning American Idol. Sitting at the top of the Billboard country chart for six straight weeks, it garnered Underwood Grammy awards for Best Female Vocal Performance and Best Country Song, as well as Single of the Year from the Academy of Country Music. With nearly 2.5 million downloads, it’s hit triple-platinum status, and it catapulted Carrie Underwood from stardom to super-stardom.

I have nothing against Carrie Underwood, or even country music for that matter. But I hate that song. If you recall, it’s about a woman driving home on Christmas Eve, with her baby in the back seat. Her car hits a patch of ice and spins out of control. In the midst of this impending disaster, she throws up her hands and says:

Jesus, take the wheel
Take it from my hands
'Cause I can't do this on my own
I'm letting go
So give me one more chance
And save me from this road I'm on
Jesus, take the wheel

Now, of course, this song was a big hit because it appealed to Country Music’s base, many of whom are Evangelical Christians. It affirmed their theology that Jesus is always there to save us if we just turn over all our problems to him. Which is exactly what bugs me about this song: the whole idea of surrender. Of “letting go,” as the song says. Of “letting go and letting God,” if you will. Maybe I just think a lot of myself, and what I’m capable of, but I’m just not ready to completely let go of the wheel. I need to hold onto some semblance of control, even if it’s illusory.

Instead of letting go and letting God, I’m more of a “Trust in God, but tie up your camel” kind of person. That expression has been attributed both as an Arab proverb and as something said by no less than the great prophet Mohammed himself. What speaks to me about this expression, where “Jesus take the wheel” doesn’t, is that it keeps us in the game. It doesn’t require us to throw our hands up. It says that faith is good, but a blind faith that abandons common sense and any degree of agency goes too far. It puts us in partnership with God, instead of putting our fate completely in God’s hands. “God is My Copilot” but not the captain of the ship.

Now, I’m guessing that, at least for some of you, the “tie up your camel” part of that proverb is fine, but the idea of trusting God makes you squirm. Tying up our camel speaks to our own abilities, our own sense of control. It also appeals to the strong history of humanism in our faith. Our reliance on reason and our faith in the prospect of human endeavors dates back to the earliest days of American Unitarianism in the 18th Century. The Humanist branch of our theological tree really flourished in the latter half of the 20th century and it still flourishes in some of our congregations today. When I came to Unitarian Universalism in the early 1980’s, one of the jokes that was told was that the only time you heard the name “Jesus Christ” spoken in a UU church was when the janitor stubbed his toe.

Religious humanism elevated the real over the supernatural. Science and reason became the “new gods,” if you will, replacing any notion of a divine being. The first Humanist Manifesto, written in 1933, proclaimed that “Man will learn to face the crises of life in terms of his knowledge of their naturalness and probability” and that “humanism will… discourage sentimental and unreal hopes and wishful thinking.” Another principle expressed in the original Manifesto was the rejection of traditional religious practices that focused our intentions on God: “In the place of old attitudes involved in worship and prayer, the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being.” The Humanist Manifesto has since been amended twice, and its third and current edition, produced in 2003, concludes with this simple and direct sentence: “The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.” There are several generations of Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists for which these principles have resonated strongly, and maybe they speak to many of you here in the Sanctuary today. I know that there’s a part of me that they speak to as well.

But only a part. And here’s where I’d like us to spend the rest of our time together this morning. Because I don’t know about you, but I have a longing for something more. Something more than science and reason and rational thought. I trust in those things, but they’re not enough. These things speak to my head, but I also need the things that speak to my heart, that feed my spirit. Things like Beauty. And Joy. And Mystery, and Wonder, and Awe. Think about it this way: what would our lives be like if the only films we ever saw were documentaries. Or the only books we read were non-fiction. We’d be smart. We’d be well-informed. But would we be moved? Would we be touched? Would we be inspired? I don’t know any of us who would want to live a life without art, or poetry, or music. A life lived in the dark without a view of the stars. I long for the “something more” that lies beyond our knowing, our thinking, our purely rational and scientific selves.

And, so, when I say “Trust in God, but tie up your camel,” I’m asking us, yes, to be practical. To be smart. To use our faculties to take reasonable measures and precautions in any particular situation. But I’m also asking us to consider whether, and to what extent, we might also be willing to open ourselves up to other possibilities. What might it look like to place our trust in someone or something else, something that perhaps we can’t even name, much less define? Something intangible and amorphous. Dare I say even something a little irrational?

A few years ago I read a magazine article whose title was “Walking through a Generous Universe.” The story was about Tony Rasch, a hiker who had recently completed a trek from Mexico to Canada. He did it in parts, over many, many years, and he did it traveling with minimal supplies. Tony didn’t like to be burdened with the modern trappings of hiking, like a GPS, a cell phone or even a tent. Reflecting on his lifelong journey through the wilds of the American West, Rasch told the reporter that throughout his time on the trail he always remained open to possibility and to impulse.  He said, “I feel like I live in a generous universe.  Doors open for me, as they open for all of us.  I walk through, keep going, and more doors will open.”

How’s that for a statement of trust? A statement of faith? Notice that Rasch doesn’t say he puts his faith in God, or that he throws his hands up in the air and lets “Jesus take the wheel.” But he trusts in the abundance of the Universe, in its generous nature. He approaches his life with attention to what’s going on around him, and when the Universe opens a door for him, he walks through it, trusting that it will lead somewhere positive, and that more doors will open along the way.

Maybe Tony’s use of language about a “generous Universe” sits well with you, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you hear it as simply a form of linguistic gymnastics where “generous universe” means the same thing as “loving God.” But either way, Tony’s statement invites us to consider how we see the essential nature of our lives, and the context in which we live them. Do we see the Universe as a place of abundance and generosity, offering us up gifts that we can embrace if only we take the time and pay attention enough to notice them? Or is life dark and dangerous, filled with malevolent forces that seek to defeat us? Maybe we see the Universe as neutral, neither positive nor negative, full of natural processes and forces that we’re simply a part of and subject to. Who, or what, can we trust?

How we answer this question will play a large role in how we choose to live our lives. The degree to which we trust – in God, in the Universe, in each other – determines the degree to which we’re willing to take risks. Right now I’ve got a friend who is considering making a significant career change. The circumstances he finds himself in are far less than ideal. It’s a pretty hostile work environment, and the organization is cutting budgets and salaries. His family needs his income to help pay the bills, and yet he’s pretty miserable and reaching the end of his rope. His willingness to take the risk of leaving his current job for an undetermined future prospect is a very real choice he’s facing. Does he play it safe and stick it out where he is until he finds something better? Or does he believe, does he trust, that a door will open to him if, and maybe even only if, he steps off the cliff and just leaves? Not step blindly off the cliff, mind you. Not throw up his hands and let it all go. But with preparation, with support from family and friends, with some due diligence. “Trust in God, but tie up your camel.”

If we are prepared to place our trust in something beyond us, something we might choose to call “the Universe,” or “God,” or simply our “gut” or our intuition, we’re more likely to live into the fullness of our lives. Put another way, if we believe that the Universe is a dark and sinister place, or we believe that it is morally, ethical and spiritually neutral, we’re much less likely to leap into an uncertain future. But here’s the thing: the future is uncertain, no matter how rational and deliberate we are. There is no mathematical formula that says if we do or don’t do these certain things that we’ll be assured of this certain outcome. If there’s one thing we can trust in our lives, it’s that there are no “sure things.”

Walter Cook, who used to teach at Bangor Theological Seminary, tells a story of when he was a young boy many years ago, growing up in upstate New York, working with his grandfather in the apple orchards. In those days, in order to keep the harvest fresh, with a lack of refrigeration, apple cellars were dug, and the bushels of apples were stored deep in the ground.  Once a cellar was dug, a ladder was lowered down into the cellar and bushel baskets were carried down the ladder. Walter told of a day when he was working in the orchard with his grandfather, and his grandfather had disappeared down the ladder, into the darkness, totally out of sight to this young boy, who was hovering around the hole at ground level. When Walter asked his grandfather if he could come down into the cellar, too, his grandfather said that he could. “Just jump,” his grandfather said, “I’ll catch you.” And Walter told what a little boy he was and how dark the hole seemed, and who knows how deep, and yet he knew the voice, and he loved and he trusted his grandfather, and so he jumped. And that, Walter said, is the best definition of faith he knew.

Who or what we trust, and how much we’re willing to trust – each other, our intuition, God, the Universe – depends in large measure on how we’ve been treated in the past. If we trusted and that trust has been violated, if we’ve been burned, we’re bound to hold back. By the same token, if our leaps of faith have led to soft landings, if we’ve walked through open doors and been welcomed and loved, found beauty and joy on the other side, we’re bound to look for more doors and to walk through them again and again and again. In whom or in what do you place your trust? I cannot answer this question for you. But I can invite you to ask it of yourselves. And while you consider your answer, just be sure to keep your camel close at hand.

This day and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.

Closing Words:

In talking about leaps of faith, pastor and activist William Sloane Coffin wrote that “First you leap, and then you grow wings.  One must dare to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty.”