All Faith Responds to Longing, UUS:E Worship, March 27, 2022

“All Faith Responds to Longing”
Rev. Josh Pawelek

I want to thank Penny Field for last week’s service, “Hineni: Here I Am.”[1] Last fall I invited Penny to speak about her spiritual journey as part of a two-part series on our March ministry theme, renewing faith. This morning’s service is Part II. I call this sermon, “All Faith Reponds to Longing.”

Hineni. Here I am.

In the Hebrew Bible, Genesis chapter 22, God calls out: “Abraham!” Abraham, who has no idea how God is about to test his faith, responds, “Here I am.”

In the book of Exodus, Chapter 3, Moses gazes at a burning bush just off the path. God calls out to him, “Moses, Moses.” Moses, who has no idea how radically his life is about to change, says “Here I am.”

In the Book of Isaiah, chapter 6, God asks the seraphs, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah, who does not know the mission God has in store—cries out: “Here am I; send me!”

Powerful images of faithfulness: people responding to God’s call even before they know God’s intentions.

But what if God doesn’t call? What if we never encounter that divine voice? Penny’s experience is the opposite of the Biblical characters. She told us about her deep “longing for a personal God that cared about and loved me…loved us.” This longing kept her and keeps her searching. “I asked everyone, even strangers standing next to me in line at the grocery store, what they believed about God. I read incessantly on the topic. I attended services and lectures in and on multiple faiths. In church after church I lit candles. I prayed, I meditated, I chanted, I wrote poetry, I walked in nature and I called out Hineni! Here I am! I’m ready my Lord!”

Silence. No sign whatsoever that God is listening, or that God even exists.

At times, I suspect, knowing Penny, the silence was beautiful, mystical, mysterious, comforting in its own way. But it was not God. At other times, I know, the silence was disappointing, painful, heart-breaking—and also not God. Penny is not fully at peace with this “not God”—she still searches. But she has certainly come to terms with it. She told us: “What I have finally found, as opposed to the kind of faith that means no doubt in the existence of God, is a deep acceptance of the truth of where I am at any given moment and a willingness to be open to it all…. When I accept my doubt as part of my faith as opposed to the opposite of faith, everything in me relaxes and opens. The more I’m open to life, to other people, to the things that scare me, the more I come to know what I can count on. I grow in faith in those things and those people and then this faith can be renewed again and again.”

Penny articulates the theological place in which many Unitarian Universalists—not all, but many—find themselves. It may sound something like this:

I don’t hear God’s voice. I’ve never heard God’s voice. I used to think I did, but it was just my childhood imagination.

A part of me that envies so-called believers who find great comfort in their certain faith in God, but even if I could fake it, I can’t handle the dogma, the hate, the exclusion that so often accompanies it.

I can’t in good conscience say the words of a creed I don’t actually believe. Why dedicate energy to saying the words if I don’t have any experience that tells me God is real?

Instead, I strive to embrace the here and now. I welcome and embrace my doubt, trusting it can lead to growth. I endeavor to live the best life I can, to treat people well. Through such living I discover there are things I can count on: family, friends, community, Nature, music, art, literature, creativity, the wonder of children. And yes, I can count on suffering too.

Mine is not a traditional faith. It’s not an unchanging faith. It’s not a faith in eternal things. It’s thoughtful faith, a humble faith. It works for me.

I want to elaborate on how, in my experience, this faith works.

A week ago I met a colleague for coffee, a United Church of Christ minister. She told me about a 12-year old girl in their congregation who died after a life-long illness. They were holding the memorial service later that day. We agreed there are no adequate words in response to the death of a child. Despite this, my colleague still had to speak at the service. With moist eyes and conviction, she assured me God would be there. This family would know God’s love in this moment. I don’t pretend to know what these words meant to her, but I can tell you how I heard them. She wasn’t saying God is an eternal, omnipotent being who intervenes in our earthly affairs. She wasn’t uncritically repeating an ancient creed. She was speaking from her heart—I could hear it in her voice. Most importantly, she wasn’t telling me God told her any of this, that she had heard God’s voice. What I heard was my colleague pronouncing her version of the ancient Hebrew word, hineni. Here I am. What I heard was her faith that if she stays open and present to  this family in their unfathomable grief, it doesn’t matter that there is nothing adequate to say: the family will experience a love for which there is no other word but divine. Faith isn’t a question of whether God is real or not. It isn’t a question at all. It’s a response to the moment, a response that can be as equally full of doubt as it is full of confidence: Here I am.

Earlier I shared with you a prayer from the doctor and Jewish spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen. She says when she prays she is moving from mastery (i.e., knowing) to mystery (i.e., unknowing). She’s moving not into certainty, but away from it.  She’s entering the unknown and asking, despite not knowing, that her actions will make a difference. Hineni. She says: “Understanding the suffering is beyond me. Understanding the healing is, too. But in this moment. I am here. Use me.”[2] That’s faith.

At age 55, after 25 years of marriage, after raising children, after the death of my father, after 23 years of professional ministry, I am convinced that a central facet of the human condition is longing. It takes many forms. As settled in our lives as we may at times feel, there is also always with us an ache, a wish, a desire, a yearning, a nagging sense—sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious—that something is still missing, that there could be more, that life isn’t quite what we’d hoped or imagined, that there is some work yet to fulfill, some community yet to build, some injustice yet to confront, some novel yet to write, some painting yet to paint, some song yet to sing, some relationships still needing repair, some relationships still needing to form and grow, some love still to give, some love still to receive, some greater joy, some greater hope, some more complete wholeness, some greater meaning, some more lasting peace, some more solid ground, some loving God, some primordial state to return to, some womb-like bliss to return to, some enduring, sheltering darkness to return to.

The poet David Whyte describes longing as “the defenseless interior secret core of a person receiving its overdue invitation from the moon, the stars, the night horizon, and the great tidal flows of life and love.” [3] When we experience longing, “it is as if we are put into a relationship with an enormous distance inside us, leading back to some unknown origin, with its own secret timing, indifferent to our wills, and gifted at the same time with an intimate sense of proximity …. to a life we want for ourselves, and to the beauty of the sky and the ground that surrounds us.”[4]

When I refer to longing, I’m not talking about a desire to escape from the world—to relax at the end of a long day, maybe with a glass of wine and some comfort food; or to take a vacation and ‘get away from it all’ for a week; or gaze mindlessly at a screen, play a video game, binge-watch the hottest new show. I’m not talking about a desire to tune out the relentless horror of the world. I’m talking about the desire to pursue our passions, to create beauty, to care, to nurture, to love, to connect with realities larger than ourselves; and, yes, to experience a loving divinity holding us, guiding us, grounding us.

Some will contend our longing makes us suffer, that the enormous distance inside us is unbridgeable no matter what we do, that we ought to seek ways of quieting our longing, letting it go, laying it tenderly to rest like those parents saying goodbye to their deceased child. There is truth to this. Our longing can cause suffering, especially if we’re longing for something we feel may not exist. That interior distance may be unbridgeable. There may be no heavenly court, no burning bush. God may be quiet, fragile and powerless.

And yet the world keeps calling to us, keeps poking and prodding, keeps eliciting our ache, keeps colliding with our longing. Someone has to speak at that child’s memorial service. And someone is fed up with their working conditions and is ready to organize. And someone is tired of being estranged from their parents, and wants to apologize. And someone is finally ready to fight their addiction, to move toward sobriety. Someone is ready to propose marriage, and someone has just realized their marriage is unworkable. Someone has just received a devastating diagnosis and is preparing for the fight of their life. Someone has just lost their job and realizes they can finally reinvent themselves. Someone has just given birth, and someone has just lost a child. Someone is fleeing war while their partner is marching to the front line. In such ways the world speaks to—some might say collides with—our longing. When our longing is stirred we can ignore it, pretend we don’t feel it. (I don’t recommend that.) We can try to let it go, try to detach ourselves from it. Sometimes that is the most appropriate, spiritually sound option. Or we can whisper into the silence our version of the ancient Hebrew word, hineni. Here I am. And then do what the world is calling us to do. We can respond. With or without God, that’s faith.

David Whyte describes longing as the foundational instinct that we are here essentially to risk ourselves in the world … that we are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing, for the right [person], for a [child], for the right work, or for a gift given against all odds.”[5] Acting on that instinct, taking that risk—that’s faith. I say all faith is a response to longing, a longing for God to be real, a longing for wholeness, a longing for peace, for justice, for solace. We can’t prove any of it is possible. Faith is our willingness to say “Here I am” in the absence of proof.

I am learning to trust my longing, even when it seems unrealistic, and especially when it brings me to tears. I’m learning to respond with my version of hineni. And I’ve learned that sometimes, as a result of my Here I am,” a grieving family, or a person facing eviction, or a teenager trying to figure out who they are, or an elder coming to terms with their diagnosis of dementia, or a friend who just lost their mother, may experience a love for which there is no other word but divine. Our “here I am” can bring something good into the world. That’s the power of faith. It’s worth the risk.

I leave you with Dr. Remen’s words: “Understanding the suffering is beyond me. Understanding the healing is, too. But in this moment. I am here. Use me.”[6]

Amen and blessed be.

[1] View the entire March 20, 2022 service and/or read Penny Field’s poems and sermon at

[2] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Prayer,” Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 272.

[3] Whyte, David, “Longing,” in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of everyday Words (Langley, Washington: Many Rivers Press, 2020) pp. 151.

[4] Whyte, David, “Longing,” in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of everyday Words (Langley, Washington: Many Reivers Press, 2020) pp.153.

[5] Whyte, David, “Longing,” in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of everyday Words (Langley, Washington: Many Reivers Press, 2020) pp.153 – 154.

[6] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Prayer,” Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 272.