Hineni: Here I Am — UUS:E Worship, March 20th, 2022

Penny Field

“. . . And I said, Hineni: Here I am; send me. And God said, Go.” (Isaiah 6:8-9)

Sitting by the window in the slanted light
of late Autumn, I close my eyes
to look for you. I hear the clock in my ear,
life passing one tick at time.
Into that steady sound I defy the search
and declare: Hineni! Here I Am,
insisting you find me.

If faith is the opposite of certainty
then I am certain that I have no faith.

I want to see the crimson leaves, drifting
toward the golden ground, as evidence of you.
I can’t see the wind that brings them down
but still, they swirl in colored currents
all around the yard and I don’t doubt
that I will need to rake them to the curb.

But I want more than metaphor. I want
you to appear in my house, the ficus aflame,
your voice proclaiming that all will be well
or directing me to some burdensome task
that will change the world.

You are quiet as ever, leaving me
to my longing for you to locate me.
Hineni: Here I am.


Penny Field

On a grand tour of Italy,
I stand in church after church,
shoulders draped in thin crepe
to show respect, inspecting
the details, astounded how
every crevice is carved or painted,
life and death depicted in stone
and bronze and tempera, a sudden
ray of sun revealing crucifixion
in bright colored glass.

I light a candle in every nave,
dropping a coin, cha-chink,
into the little metal box, praying
to a God I don’t think exists
but still hoping the light I buy
will save all of our souls.

In the Eternal City, I am awestruck
in the Santa Maria del Popolo
church. A Caravaggio masterpiece
leaves all the drama
of St. Paul’s conversion
to the effects of light.

As I light another taper,
the match sparking sharply
in the shadow of the great
apse, I burn to know
what Paul knew,
ache for the darkness of the world
to have meaning
in the bright contrast.


Penny Field

On the last Tuesday of every month a small group of us meet with Reverend Josh for God Talk. Our news bulletin describes God Talk as a discussion group for UU theists and each month Josh, or one of the members of the group, poses a topic or a question pertaining to god and we discuss. Please know that you are welcome to join us and I hope you do. It’s always a fascinating conversation. There are as many beliefs about god as there are people in the group and it’s been it’s a wonderful, thought provoking exercise that I thoroughly enjoy but I will say, it sometimes reminds a bit me of an old UU joke.

The joke says, “A group of UU’s are walking along and they come to a fork in the road. The sign says: this way to heaven, that way to the discussion about heaven and the UU’s all go towards the discussion about heaven. God talk and this joke both illustrate why I feel so at home as a member of a UU congregation but also why I struggle here. I love the discussion of spiritual things and I have many words to theorize on theological ideas but I also long for a direct experience of transcendence; of some power greater than myself; a personal experience of god and of faith. I have struggled to find that, not just in UUsm, but anywhere. My strong intellect tends to get in the way but I’m incredibly grateful that the 4th UU principle, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, so consistently allows me to work with the polarization between my head and my heart as I continue to discover what it means for me to be a person of faith.

Like many of us, I grew up with a god that was an old man with a long white beard in the sky who created the heavens and the Earth and ruled over us with the all the power to punish and to reward. My family wasn’t particularly observant and our Judaism centered around the cultural practices that maintained a connection to our heritage as opposed to any of the religious practices that were designed to bring one closer to god. My formal religious education at the synagogue was pretty dry and focused on learning the basic old testament stories, and some Torah informed history of the Jewish people. I also learning to phonetically read Hebrew so I could have a Bat Mitzvah, that ritual that marks a child’s moving into adulthood at the ripe old age of 13. For most of us kids, it was all about the party and the presents and little if anything to do with God.

It didn’t occur to me to question or even wonder about that all powerful God until, as a teenager, a series of incredibly painful things happened that launched my long search for a God that I could believe would actually help.

Once I really started looking, it became apparent to me that the god could not be all powerful unless he was a sadist and it made no sense that he was out there listening   deciding whether or not to answer our prayers based on some merit system. So how did it work? After studying history and comparative religion in college, I graduated as an Atheist. With the amount of suffering, the amount of darkness in the world and in my own life, I found no god in any of the great world religions that made any sense to me. I did, however, find much evidence that all religion was created by humans and easily used to control and manipulate people. As faith fell away and I became certain that there was no god, I felt lost and incredibly sad.

I was not a happy atheist. A hole seemed to open inside me that no amount of alcohol, drugs, men, or chocolate could fill, though I admit I gave those things a serious try. I suffered deeply from God envy, longing for the comfort that so many other people seemed to find in their faith in god. I wanted to believe that I was being carried, that god wouldn’t give me anything I couldn’t handle, that god would lift me up when I fell, but I was completely unable to make that leap of faith.

That deep longing for a personal god that cared about and loved me…loved us, kept me 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! But my intellect was completely at odds with what my emotions so wanted. There was no concept of a personal god that made any sense to me. There is a saying that the longest journey we ever take is that from the head to the heart and for decades I believed that, in terms of finding god or a faith that worked for me, I’d never get there.

Over the years I’ve considered numerous intellectual theories about god including that perhaps God is the quiet, fragile, helpless God, that Josh preached about a few years ago: out there but having no power. Or perhaps god is an energy, not a being. Maybe it’s akin to electricity: I don’t understand how it works but it’s a power that I can draw on to help light my way. It doesn’t do anything on its own but if I put my plug into it, it can provide an energy source for whatever work I need to do. Or maybe god is nature or perhaps god just love. In me, in you, in us all. But none of these theories really touch my heart or help to fulfill my longing me to feel held by god.

I believe that the longing for the feeling of safety that a personal god would supply is a normal human longing. Who doesn’t want that? I feel that longing expressed in the hymn we sang: Comfort me oh my soul! Of course I want to feel comforted, taken care of, held, safe. I’m terrified most of the time. Life is scary and terrible things are always happening somewhere. Of course I want to believe that there is a plan, some divine wisdom behind it all and that there is some power greater than me that is in charge. To be certain of this would provide a comfort that of course I long for. But I have come to understand that doubting that this exists does not mean that I have no faith.

The bible defines faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. This is commonly accepted to mean that faith is an uncritical belief in divine beings, miracles, heaven and hell, and other phenomena that cannot be proved. By this definition, it is true that I have no faith. As I wrote in my poem:

I want to see the crimson leaves, drifting
toward the golden ground, as evidence of you.
I cannot see the wind that brings them down
but still, they swirl in colored currents
all around the yard and I don’t doubt
that I will need to rake them to the curb.
But I want more than metaphor.
If faith is the opposite of certainty
then I am certain that I have no faith.

But the Zen Sensei Sevan Ross says this: “Great Faith and Great Doubt are two ends of a spiritual walking stick. We grip one end with the grasp given to us by our Great Determination. We poke into the underbrush in the dark on our spiritual journey. Gripping the Faith end and poking ahead with the Doubt end of the stick. If we have no Faith, we have no Doubt. If we have no Determination, we never pick up the stick in the first place.”

I love this. If we have no faith, we have no doubt. So conversely, if we have no doubt we have no real faith. By this definition, faith isn’t about the certainty of unseen phenomenon, it’s about openness to everything. It’s about poking into the darkness, the unknown. Pema Chodron, a well-known Buddhist nun of great wisdom says, and I quote: “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice. Faith is being open to what scares us.” End quote.

This perspective of faith has allowed me to be gentler with myself while searching for truth and meaning. Yes, the journey between the head and the heart is long and sometimes has felt like 40 years of wandering in the desert, but another saying that I believe to be true is that it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey.  I can say that my journey has been and continues to be rich and growth-full and incredibly satisfying in so many ways even though, to this day, I have not found any form of traditional god based faith.

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. My intellect has allowed me to change my definition of Faith so my heart can experience the many mysteries of life as true spiritual experiences. I have accepted that I must live with the uncertainty and the pain of life and be open to my fear as opposed to continuing to search for something to relieve me that fear. To be open to the reality that there is no ultimate safety and that life is full of suffering as well as full of beauty.

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 and I grow in faith in those things and those people and then this faith can be renewed again and again. I have great faith in the power of people coming together to support one another through the joys and the suffering and all that is our lives. You, and this community, are all a part of that for me. My heartfelt prayer is that you each find your own path to a renewal of faith as we journey together.

Amen and Blessed Be.