Monday, April 20, 2009

A Faithful Existence

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the April 19, 2009, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

When I told my partner Emily that today’s topic was “A Faithful Existence,” she got a kind of faraway, glassy look in her eyes. She was polite enough to keep any “yes,, that’s interesting” comments to herself. But we’ve been married a long time, and I knew something was up.

The concept of “faith” didn’t speak to her because it seemed too wrapped up in a belief in god. Or more specifically, a distinct kind of monotheistic deity with distinct ideas about how we should be living our lives. For those of us who find divinity everywhere, sitting through a service like that is a recipe for boredom at best or alienation at worst.

Certainly the word “faith” has become a loaded term. People of faith, faith-based initiatives, faith communities...on my best days, the images that pop to mind start with my friend Matt, a devout Catholic who leads an interfaith worker’s rights organization, has run for office as a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, and is my exemplar of a truly feminist man. On my less-than-best days, though, those phrases about faith conjure images of people waving Yes on Prop 8 signs, screaming outside Planned Parenthood clinics, and protesting at funerals.

But faith is larger than religion. The truth is, each of us already lives a faithful existence, in ways large and small. Without even thinking about it, we take a lot on faith every day. In this moment alone, I assume that my internal organs are going about their business, my house still stands, and gravity will continue to operate. Often this faith is grounded in reason – especially that thing about gravity – but trust, expectations, and past experience all play big roles as well.

It’s an act of faith to go to bed at night and assume we’ll wake up the next morning. This isn’t something people with terminal illnesses can take for granted – maybe making their leap of faith that much bigger.

It’s a tremendous act of faith to become a parent. How will I know what to do? What happens if I lose my job? What if my child turns into a person I love but don’t like? There’s so much that’s unknowable, and the stakes are enormously high. Yet here we are, nearly 7 billion people later.

I think the biggest act of faith, though, is believing that we can find meaning in life. It’s a profoundly human tendency that transcends religion. We look for signs and omens. We cross our fingers and make wishes on stars. We ask for guidance, from the universe or the directions or our higher power or our best selves or from god or the goddess. We sit here on Sunday mornings. When times are tough or tragedy strikes, when the inexplicable and wholly irrational occurs, still we ask, “Why?”

When I was a junior in high school, I lived in Germany as an exchange student. The scholarship I’d won to get there allowed me to escape the torment I experienced at home and at school. That year abroad literally saved my sanity.

About eight months into my stay, a major existential crisis hit. I was a 16-year old desperately needing to make some kind of sense out of everything that had happened to me. One Saturday, as I sat by the river that formed the valley where my host family lived, looking up at the mountains of the Black Forest, I kept repeating, “What does it all mean? Why are we here?” with tears streaming down my face.

Much to my surprise, I got an answer. As though whispered in the back of my head, I heard, “For the beauty of it.”

Well, figuring out the meaning of life is heady stuff for a 16-year old. I tried to share this new insight with my host mother when I got home that afternoon and discovered for the first time that not everyone contemplates the meaning of life all the time. (This news came as quite a shock.) I tried sharing it with friends at school, but I couldn’t seem to convey the depth of my experience by the river. And while I’ve come to think of life’s beauty more in the sense of poetry rather than some neat and pretty package, at the time I struggled to reconcile what I’d learned with things like famine, violence, poverty, and the crazy-making way mosquitoes buzz your ears in the middle of the night.

But those words whispered to me more than two decades ago have stayed with me. It may not be your answer to why we’re here. It’s not even always my answer. But that long-ago afternoon gives me faith that the yearning for meaning will point me in the right direction to find peace.

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