Born of Bright Faith

BrightFaithReading – “Bright Faith” By Sharon Salzberg
The state of love-filed delight in possibilities and eager joy at the prospect of actualizing them is known in Buddhism as bright faith. Bright faith goes beyond merely claiming that possibility for oneself to immersing oneself in it. With bright faith we feel exalted as we are lifted out of our normal sense of insignificance, thrilled as we no longer feel lost and alone. The enthusiasm, energy, and courage we need in order to leave the safe path, to stop aligning ourselves with the familiar or the convenient, arises with bright faith. It enables us to step out, step away, and see what we can make of our lives. With bright faith we act on our potential to transform our suffering and live in a different way.

Bright faith can resemble blind faith: Both tend to be inspired by something or someone outside ourselves that can send us off on sudden journeys around the world in pursuit of a dream. But blind faith is associated with an unthinking devotion that is mistakenly seen as the fulfillment of the journey of faith rather than an early step. Bright faith, on the other hand, is seen simply as a beginning, and not a beginning in which we surrender discriminating intelligence, but rather one in which we surrender cynicism and apathy. Its abundant energy propels us forward into the unknown.

Sermon – “Born of Bright Faith”
Writer Elizabeth Lesser tells the story of when she traveled to Jerusalem under the guise of tourism, but in truth as a way of delaying dealing with her messed up marriage and off-track life.

One day, she found herself drawn to a narrow, dusky shop, so she went in. In the back of the room, she found two men drinking tea at a low table. After a while, the younger of the men came forward to greet her, and looked at her as if he was tying to read the secrets of her heart.

And then he said, in perfect English, “Come, you will like this picture,” and took her towards a framed piece of art.

At that point, the older man came to greet her, and placed his right hand on his heart, and bowed his head in the traditional Islamic greeting. “See the rose?” he asked.

Framed in dark wood, it was an image of a rosebud, with shimmering, pale petals holding one another in a tight embrace. Under the flower was an inscription, with the words that are printed in the order of service today – by Anais Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

As Lesser read it, she found her eyes stinging with tears.

“What is wrong?” the young man asked her.

“Nothing is wrong,” she tried. “I’m fine.”

“No. You are in pain. And do you know why you are in pain? Because you are afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” She asked, wondering how he could see so clearly into her heart.

“Afraid of yourself,” the man replied, and he placed his hand on his chest and patted his heart.

“You are afraid to feel your real feelings. You are afraid to want what you really want. Just what the painting says – your heart is like the flower. Let it break open. What you want is waiting for you in your heart. The time has come.”

Most of us recognize this kind of moment – both the struggle Lesser was in, and the hope of following a new path, the hope of finally blossoming after holding our lives tight in a bud. We get it because we’ve had it, in one way or another.

Overcome with loss, or struggle, or the pain of trying to make sense of the world for all its senselessness – we go in search of a new way, and somehow that new way presents itself, and we respond with yes, despite no new evidence, no change in fact of circumstances, just a new conviction – and then, we follow it through.

This is faith. And when life is falling apart, there is nothing more important.

To be able to say, despite any proof to support such an idea, there remains another way; to be able to say – we can choose love, or that love chooses us, and love can make a difference;
to hold on to that vision, that imagination, and to live as if it were true, and to make it so by living it that way.  This is life-saving faith.

In the Christian framing of this story, we might call that struggling place, sin. Afterall, sin in its fullest sense simply means to describe a state of separation.

Separation from one another, from our truest self, and from the source of life itself.

Which – to be clear – assumes that right living comes when we are in right relationship in all of these three – self, other, and the Spirit of Life.

And so separation in any would mean living a less than ethical life, less than the life we are called to live. Taken this way, it’s pretty clear that sin is its own punishment, as our Universalist tradition has long claimed.

In Lesser’s story, she was separated in all of these ways – from those around her – her husband and children, her travel companions, her country – separated from her truest values and the spirit of life calling to her – and separated from herself. The invitation in the Israeli shop was to return to relationship with all of these, to open herself to all of these, to live beyond fear and in love.

In that moment, something in her surrendered. She allowed herself to not simply imagine a world beyond her suffering, but to take steps to change her life. As Sharon Salzburg describes it, this feeling that allows for “actualizing possibilities,” this “love filled-delight and eager joy,” is described in the Buddhist tradition as a state of bright faith.

As Salzberg says, with “bright faith we feel exalted as we are lifted out of our normal sense of insignificance, thrilled as we no longer feel lost and alone.” And it is this feeling of joy that propels us forward, allows us to risk opening ourselves up to a new and greater love.

This is a different way of thinking about faith than many of us have been taught. Faith is so often thought of as an intellectual assent to some particular beliefs. But in this model, faith, in its earliest stages, is a feeling of joy and safety – like the earliest feelings of being in love. In this state, intellectual assent has no bearing. You only know goodness, that there is goodness, and its good, and so let’s have more of that.

Perhaps if you think back to your earliest days in this religious community – or in another Unitarian Universalist congregation – you will remember feeling like this. I know for me, the feelings I had when I discovered my first Unitarian Universalist congregation remain to me quite tangible. I cried through the whole service as I felt overwhelmed by a sense of joy and energy. Actually, I think I cried through the first three or four services I attended. It was like this great release, an exhale. I felt hopeful, and like the world I longed for was actually possible and I wanted to be a part of making it so.

Maybe some of our new members that we have welcomed today are feeling this same kind of abundant energy. Maybe these are the feelings that led you to say yes to the promise of membership, to say yes to partnering with this community of faith as we live as if love matters. I hope so.

As we think back on our journeys of faith, I wonder what we each remember about those earliest feelings, what we can say about their source, and what made us receptive to those feelings.

Salzberg describes that most often the source of “bright faith” is external – a person, or a place, or words, or ideas – any of these that grab hold of our heart and open us up, change us.

I know it may seem trivial, but the source for me back in that first Unitarian church, was the greeter at the front door. She saw my partner and I as a couple, and she welcomed us, and the next week, she remembered us, and welcomed us again. Which yes I do hope inspires more of us to be a greeter on Sundays. You never know who needs to see you, who needs you to remember them, and what your kindness will mean.

I was receptive to these bright faith feelings because I had been having the opposite experience in my family, and in the religion of my childhood. I had been feeling lost, and I yearned to be found. Without such a yearning and a struggle, without being so heartbroken, I am not sure I would have been as receptive to the experience I had that first and the following Sundays.

In the Christian narrative, faith comes in response to a confession of sins (remember: separateness – a confession of feeling separated – from yourself, from others, from God). But I have wondered, what if you aren’t feeling separate? Do things have to be broken apart in order for faith to matter?

After thinking about it a lot – I have decided the answer is Yes- and no.

Yes, because ultimately faith matters only when another world is needed. Faith is an act of imagination, and life-orientation. And you don’t need imagination or living “as if” something were true if it is already true. If this world and the life you have right now – is already enough, you don’t need to create another. Only when you believe life is less than whole or less than what it could be are you compelled into partnership with the creation of this new and better world.

And yet, you need not be living in this state of deficiency in order for faith to take hold on your heart. Which is good news for us Unitarian Universalists, not just because of our core assertion that people are not inherently sinful but inherently good – But also good news because we are so often people who live far from life’s edges, with abundant resources and a profound sense of security and goodness – which is not to say our lives can’t be a mess! But even with all these blessings, still faith calls to us. For the power of bright faith is its capacity not only to call you into a new life, but in the love-filled experience, immediately teach you why such a life is needed. Not because the prior life was bad, or you were bad, but because life keeps getting more possible, beauty grows, and we need all of us to live within the reach of love and its abundant gifts.

It’s like: the moment of holding my daughter for the first time. I had no idea what my life was lacking until Life called me into a greater joy. And it was perfect and could get no better, until a couple years later, it happened again with my son.

And, it’s like: the first time I sat with an immigrant facing deportation in the courtroom. I was there with other Unitarian Universalist clergy, we held him in prayer, and song – we were all held in prayer, and song. Surrounded by both love and hope, as well as heartbreak and suffering, I felt at once – the great sense of how my life was blessed, that I was ok – and yet Life itself, was not. And so I was not.

I have been thinking about this interim time – a lot, as you can imagine. Six months ago or so, I wondered how it all would work. Because I realized that for many of us, another world was not necessary – the one we have had is just right. There is so much goodness here – there is not separation; there is wholeness, and holiness. And yet I have this sense, and the Board has this sense, we have this sense – this vision for us that is more. But how do we talk about this more without appealing to a narrative of deficiency? Because there is indeed so much that is right, faith may seem unnecessary or irrelevant, right?

Except the thing is: bright faith keeps happening. It has happened here today for some of you, I am sure. Because there is so much beauty here, and we keep making more of it – and from these experiences we will discover both the goodness of what has been and also the possibility of something more. And from this we will feel compelled to act.

We – the Foothills Unitarian Church as we have been, and are yet to become – will be born – again and again – in these moments that strike us so deeply, unpredictably, grab hold of us.

We will be born of our memories of the past experiences that filled us so fully and compelled us and tell us who we are, and we will be born of these moments we experience during this interim time. Moments of joy, and love, and beauty. We need – more choir singing of the ways life is all connected; more sharing our stories in small groups; more building relationships with immigrant families; more learning together. We need to read stuff together, sing together, try new things together. Not because what we have is not enough, but because bright faith is not a one-time experience but always being offered anew, for a new age.

Some of what we do together during this interim time will be less than joyful – sure. And that will be important information too! But also, some of it will lead us to a beauty we had never before realized was possible. And some of it will lead us to understand the ways that our lives may be ok, but Life itself is not. And we – this church – our church – is compelled to act, to “step out, step away, and see what we can make of our” shared lives. To see where love calls us to now.

And still my friends – this is just the beginning. Bright faith is just the beginning.

While it is good to arrive, good to feel this feeling of surrendering cynicism and apathy and imagining all t he possibilities, the energy only matters when it actually leads to the work.

As my colleague the Rev. Mike Morran likes to say spirituality is not a spectator sport. You have to dive in. Last week David spoke about spiritual disciplines, or spiritual practices. In this congregation, you are invited to a whole host of potential practices, a path of 5 things that help move you along towards what the Buddhists describe as a “verified faith.”

Come to worship regularly, Connect in the community – build relationships with those around you, Grow in spirit through small groups or classes, and then serve within or beyond the congregation – and finally give of your resources in gratitude for all we have been given.

These things will transform elation and energy into depth and maturity so that our experience of faith is anything but superficial or temporary.

In our community of faith, let us put love-filled delight in the center of our vision, and let this joy call us forward into a day we cannot yet even imagine. And then let us dive in, do the work required – all those disciplines and practices – they are fun too it turns out – let’s do that work bearing the light of love for one another and for the world, so that we might keep on sharing, and growing – all this beauty.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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