Faith Is a Verb
A Sermon Given
by Rev. Roberta Nelson
January 25, 1998
at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church
"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings while dawn is dark," writes Tagore. The
quote arrived in a Christmas card many years ago. I might not have paid much attention to it if
the word faith had not become part of my religious vocabulary. The word did not have any
baggage for me; it simply had not entered my vocabulary until I took a course with Dr. James
Fowler at Harvard University in the early 70s. At the time, he was doing research on how people
developed their faith. I had not heard the word faith used in my UU church, in my youth group
(LRY, the predecessor of YRUU), in college or even in theological school. Fowler defines faith
as a way of knowing " a dynamic process." He believes faith is a way an individual gives order
and coherence to life. An individual's faith includes their image of what they consider to be the
"Ultimate Environment" or the central value of their life. "Faith" comes from the Greek and
Latin roots which included aspects of trust and commitment. Thus, Dr. Fowler's definition
challenges us to experience faith as a crucial life-giving and life-sustaining force for our children,
as well as ourselves. It is something we do; it is an action word--a verb; it changes and expands;
it involves action with others. Credo, the Latin word for faith is also the form of the verb usually
translated as "I believe." According to Padrick O'Hare, the verb can also be interpreted as "to
give one's heart." Faith is not an estate to be attained or a stage to be realized. It is a way of
being and moving, a way of being on a pilgrimage.
Each of us has chosen this religious home because it encourages and nourishes our
religious search. Most of us have struggled with religious questions: questions of chaos and
meaning, hope and despair, joy and sorrow. Each of us has asked ourselves "What is at the heart;
what gives my life meaning?" Faith can give order and coherence to life. In an article "Keeping
faith", Rabbi Laslo Berkowitz of Rodef Shalom in Falls Church Virginia writes "On my
liberation day, May 2, 1945, I had a sudden mystical insight: now I really know what is important
in life. To be free is important. Friends are important. Family is important. Things are not
Our friend Beejee, while dying of cancer, wrote "I . . . take each day as it comes because I
would panic over the possibilities otherwise and faith gives me strength, calmness, and serenity."
Beejee's dying process was a powerful experience for me. As I watched and listened and felt I
was constantly aware of how deep were the well springs of her faith in herself, her doctors, her
family and her friends. She knew that she could live and die with grace and dignity; that her
spirit would triumph. She gave all of us who knew her a gift beyond words to explain. She
served as a mentor and guide for my own faith pilgrimage.
Faith has been my companion on many pilgrimages. Faith in myself and others helped
me cope with my parents' deaths. Faith has made it possible for me to reach out to others in the
darkness following a tragedy. Other's faith in me has made it possible for me to stretch the
boundaries of my knowing and being. The first time I ventured into the work of death and dying,
it was because Charles, facing death from Multiple Sclerosis, wanted companions to help him
through his despair. His challenge changed my life - my faith had been enlarged and expanded.
Over the years, I have been asked many times "How could you let (Heather, Joy or
Jennifer) do such or such a thing - travel alone, enter the Peace Corps., spend a year abroad, etc.
I have been asked "Aren't you worried, how can you trust them?", "How will you feel if (you fill
in the blank)". From the earliest times I have had faith in their intuition, skills, abilities, decision
making. All through their growing up, we tried to provide opportunities and trust in them, so that
they would be able to affirm who they were and who they wished to become. I can honestly say
that my parents had faith in me and it is a gift handed down from generation to generation.
My Faith in the basic goodness of people continues to be tested by the events that
surround me on a daily basis. I have doubted on many occasions Anne Frank's words .. "I
believe that people are really good at heart". Evil exists in the world. Each of us has within us
the potential for evil. We are kept from doing evil by grace and love. My faith is realistically
sustained by my experience of the power of the human spirit to be guided by a vision of
goodness, mercy and compassion. My colleague Dick Gilbert writes:
Faith is not belief despite evidence,
It is adventure in scorn of consequence
Faith is not credulity in the face of occasional miracle,
It is discerning the miraculous in the daily round;
Faith is not blind confidence in the hereafter,
It is the will to live in the here and now;
Faith is not clinging to creedal assurance,
It is grasping the uncertain with conviction;
Faith is not confidence in salvation which lies beyond.
It is trust in the life which surrounds us here
John Westerhoff in his book Will Our Children Have Faith? Compares the different
faith to the growth rings of a tree. Each ring is complete and whole, a tree with one ring is as
strong and good as a tree with many rings. Our faith grows and expands with the proper
nourishment, experiences, and interactions. We acquire more rings to our tree in a slow and
gradual manner. As our tree grows it doesn't eliminate rings but incorporates all that has come
before, enabling us to add new ideas, realizations and insights.
Angus MacLean a Universalist theologian, teacher and mentor to many explored more than fifty
years ago the apostles answer that "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of
things not seen". He writes, "faith catches all the dynamic qualities of the soul that guide and
direct. Faith is not born solely of logic and reason, faith is . . . not only a summation of all, it
goes before and abides . . . as a discipline and relative principle.
In a faith community we meet on holy ground. It is within this community that we are
free to ask all seekers "what moves my heart?, to what values and attitudes am I faithful; what
are the things I love; how will I act so that my heart will be moved?"
Cary Kauffman, a CLUUC member struggling with cancer, writes;
So I try to live my life as I should have all along, not knowing whether I have one day, two years,
or four decades, and having to make choices with all those options open.
I am very grateful to Unitarian Universalism, for providing me with a religious
community in which I can own my Humanists experiences and theology without
being rejected or having to reject others with different experiences and views. For
the sense of connectedness that results from knowing others who are thinking of
me or praying for me without having to define that. For the freedom from an
externally purposive universe that would require me to ask "Why Me?" For the
freedom to live my experiences as I sense and interpret them. And of the loving
and caring and competent community that we are.
May our lives be blessed with faith communities that: