Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

December 10, 2006

 “In Solemn Stillness”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

The other day I was chatting with a friend who is a minister not in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, but in a mainline Christian church. She told me that a parishioner had come into her office very upset because he said he had lost his faith. He had come to a place in his heart and mind where he simply did not believe any of the basic tenets of Christianity. He didn’t believe in the virgin birth, he didn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God—heck, he wasn’t sure he believed in God at all. He was in a state of great distress. He had lost his religious moorings. He went to my friend, his minister, and poured his heart out.

“I’ve lost my faith,” he said. “I’m deeply troubled and confused. I am angry with God. I’m angry with myself. I’m afraid.”

My friend, his minister, replied: “This is great.”

When I was graduating from seminary, I had hoped to find myself a job working with a community in great need, ministering to the poor and oppressed. The trouble was that I had an offer of a job at a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, doing youth ministry in a typical UU congregation. Great kids with lots of needs—as we all have—but not a community of the poor nor oppressed. As you know, I took the position in Tulsa and it was the right decision, but before I chose to take it, I went through a period of time where I felt utterly confused about how to proceed. I had a sense of the kind of work I wanted to do, but no jobs of the type I wanted were available immediately—and, as soon as I graduated, I had to get out of that dorm, I was going to have to pay rent, buy food and pay back school loans. I didn’t have the option of hanging out in New York for months in the hopes of finding just the right job, because I was not financially in a position to take my time.

And yet, I feared that I would move all the way out to Oklahoma and feel that my work had no real meaning nor great purpose. I feared that rather than stepping into ministry that changed the world, I would simply end up with a nice career in a nice church. I felt confused and troubled, angry with God and with myself. I was afraid.

I went to the person at Union Theological Seminary whose opinion mattered the most to me, and whose advice I knew would be precious. I knew that Professor James Cone—revered not only by me but by many—would know the right thing to do.

I went to his office and it wasn’t long before I was in tears. I explained to him the soul-searching I’d been doing. I felt that my life and my soul was on the line in this decision because it would set the course of my ministry.

“Either decision terrifies me, Professor,” I said. “If I turn down the job in Tulsa, I am risking having no job and no money for who-knows-how-long. But if I take the job, then I’m not doing the kind of ministry that I just spent three years in seminary preparing myself for. I won’t be doing work that feeds my soul. I will be choosing a job because it pays the bills, not because I feel called there; and then how am I going to minister to the people in Tulsa if I don’t really even want to be there? Won’t that destroy my soul?”

I was at a crossroads and I felt that there was no way out. I felt utterly alone. I felt frightened of living a life of meaningless comfortableness. I felt desperate, faithless.

“Professor Cone, help,” I said.

And he replied, “It’s good that you’re going through this.”

Because of commercialism and consumerism but also because of the joy we take in giving to others, we think of Christmas as beginning on the Friday after Thanksgiving and ending on December 25. But according to the ancient Christian calendar, Christmas begins on December 25 and ends on January 6. The season prior to Christmas—the season we are in now—is not Christmas, but Advent—a time of waiting, of anticipation, a time of preparation, penitence, and even silence. That is, at least, how the church over the centuries has understood it. But religious teachings have a hard time competing against Wal-Mart.

Advent is intended as period like that of Lent, which precedes Easter—a time when we honor the waiting before the joy—when we honor the not-knowing before the knowing—when we allow ourselves to feel the absence of God or of faith or of meaning before we experience the joy of renewed faith, or freshly understood meaning.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah cries to God in the passage which Laura read us earlier, “So that the mountains would quake at your presence; So that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

The book of Isaiah is the largest of the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible or “Old Testament” and arguably the most important. Isaiah is the prophet who spoke of a child being born. Isaiah foresaw the trouble that was to devastate his people, but he also foresaw a time when a child would be born—was he speaking literally or metaphorically of a new birth?—a new birth which would usher in a time of peace and righteousness, when the poor would be cared for and when justice would prevail throughout the earth.

But Isaiah wrote during a time when such a vision seemed impossible. In reality, scholars tell us that “Isaiah” was three different men over a period of about 200 years—years in which the Israelites were conquered first by the Assyrians, then by the Babylonians, who threw them into exile and destroyed their holy temple.

By the waters of Babylon they sat down and wept for their home, their temple, and their god.

“You, God,” Isaiah cries, “have hidden your face from us.”

Isaiah feels the pain of his people. The job of a prophet is not to predict the future—although in the popular mind this is how we think about prophecy. The job of a prophet like Isaiah was to feel to his bones the pain of his people; to know their suffering and to name their suffering—and to point the way to a new future more glorious than any idealized past.“You, God, were angry,” he accuses God on behalf of his people, “You, God were angry, and we sinned. Because you hid yourself, we transgressed.”

We might have sinned, Isaiah cries, but you didn’t help matters any, God.

Life abandons us sometimes.

I was so very saddened this week by the story of the young family from California who became stranded in a snowy canyon in Oregon. Theirs is a story of a kind of exile in their own snowy Babylon. Theirs is a senseless tale—the kind that causes us to cry out that God has turned away—or that life is without rhyme or reason.—That intelligent, resourceful people who do nothing wrong can simply wander into a circumstance from which there may be no escape.

You didn’t help matters, any, God (Isaiah might say). You didn’t help matters any,—life—or reason. How were they to know which way to turn? How are we ever to know which way to turn? “For you have hidden your face from us,” Isaiah cried all those centuries ago, “And have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

James and Kati Kim took a turn, probably one asking the other, “Does this look right to you?” The other saying, “I think this is right.”

After some time, “This doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.”

Then, “Maybe we should turn back.”

“Well, we should hit a road out soon.”

And at some point, after sharp frightened exchanges, the terrible realization that they had gone so far that if they turned back, they would run out of gas before getting back to safety.

What a horrible moment, when, with two very small children in the car, they decide that the last of their gasoline was best used to keep them warm while they wait and pray for rescue.

Days go by.
It’s all my fault.
It’s all your fault.
It’s all God’s fault.
The universe is indifferent to my existence.

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept for our what we had, for our home, for our past, for a time when we felt that we were protected and safe.

What is there to have faith in when an innocent couple with two innocent babies can take a Thanksgiving vacation and, through no fault of their own, find themselves in the impossible and terrifying situation in which the Kims found themselves?

We hear the voice of Isaiah: “You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

Each summer, for a couple of days prior to the national UU gathering called General Assembly, the ministers have meetings of their own. For each of the last 187 years, a distinguished Unitarian minister has been asked to deliver an address called the Berry Street Essay during the ministers’ gathering. Last year, the speaker was William Schulz, who was the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association for eight years and went on to become the Executive Director of Amnesty International in the United States.

His essay was named “What Torture’s Taught Me.” As he was addressing himself to ministers, he made an appeal that our theology as Unitarian Universalists must take into account the kinds of sadistic torture that he has become aware of in his work with Amnesty.

“I would submit,” he told us, “that no God worthy of the name is present in a torture chamber.”

Schulz continued by telling us that over the years he has become increasingly comfortable using the word “God” to describe “that source of graciousness upon which we depend for our very lives. [But],” he said, “whatever our conception of God,” he warns, “it needs to be both complex enough and circumscribed enough to account for the fact that God’s absence—true absence—is [a] real phenomenon.”

“For you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

No one has to convince Kati Kim of that. No one has to convince any of us of that.

It doesn’t matter whether you are one who rejects the idea of God or embraces it. Whether the periods of exile in your life are understood by you as the absence of God or as the simple indifference of the universe. The experience is the same, and it is real, and it has been experienced throughout the ages by the ancient Israelites, by the young family in their car in Oregon, and by victims of torture all over the world.

When my friend, the minister, told me how she had reacted when her parishioner came in to her office, I imagined the look on his face. When he cried to her that he did not have any faith, that he was in spiritual exile, she told him, “This is great.”

He asked her what on earth she could mean, “This is great.”

His pain was real. Exile is real. And yet, having been there herself, many times, she said with all sincerity, “This is great.”

She tells me that she told him that something new and truer and richer and deeper and subtler would come of this place of exile in which he found himself. She told him that the pain of losing faith was absolutely necessary in order to find a kind of faith that is beyond any doctrine—a faith knows that exile does not have the last word.When Professor Cone responded to my desperate pleas for answers by saying, “It’s good that you’re going through this,” I thought, “Why did I think that Professor Cone was the guy to talk to?”

But he was right.Bill Shulz ended that Berry Street essay this way:

“We Unitarian Universalists know, out of the depths of our faith and the teachings of our tradition and the succor of our community, that the chess master was right: Chancing upon a great painting in a European gallery of a defeated Faust sitting opposite the devil at a chess table with only a knight and a King on the board and the King in check, the master stopped to stare.

The minutes changed to hours and still the master stared. And then finally, “It’s a lie,” he shouted. “The King and the knight have another move! They have another move!”

Passing through huddled and ugly walls
By doorways where women
Looked from their hunger-deep eyes,
Haunted with shadows of hunger-hands,
Out from the huddled and ugly walls,
I came sudden, at the city’s edge,
On a blue burst of lake,
Long lake waves breaking under the sun
On a spray-flung curve of shore;
And a fluttering storm of gulls,
Masses of great gray wings
And flying white bellies
Veering and wheeling free in the open.

In this season of hectic shopping, of family pressures, of true joy and feigned joy, underneath it all the earth in solemn stillness lies. Between the huddled and ugly walls, the gulls fly free in the open, and the chess board reveals another move.