“Default Faith, Emerging Faith” -preached by Winton Boyd on May 14, 2017


Like many of you, I’m grateful for my two pastoral colleagues. I value them for many reasons, including the approaches we share in life and the ways we move differently in the world. One that has arisen in the last couple of weeks is the way Ken Pennings and I have related to and incorporated some of the writing of Paul Smith, author of Integral Christianity. Ken preached extensively from Smith’s book last week, and referenced his conversations with the Progressive Christianity Book Group.

Quite serendipitously, I read the same book alone while on sabbatical, underlined it extensively and marked areas for future exploration. I loved the way Ken laid out the idea of the three realities of God from the perspective of integral Christianity. Some of the book can be quite dense and complicated, but Ken did a lovely job of keeping things clear and focused. Of course I won’t recap the entire sermon but in a nutshell, he spoke of the

The Infinite God – the face of God beyond our understanding; the God we talk ‘about.’

the Intimate God – the face of God is that is personal and close to our heart; the God we talk ‘to.’

The Inner God – the aspect of God that is within, allowing us to speak ‘as’ God.

He spent a good part of this sermon exploring this inner God, helping us wrestle with understanding that we share the same divinity as Jesus; and that collectively we and all of creation are part of God and thus speak ‘as’ God.

But, something else that happened while he was preaching. At one point Ken stopped preaching and made a joke about wondering whether lightning was going to strike him because of what he was preaching. (He said this knowing that this ‘new’ way of thinking was deeply at odds with the faith he learned and lived for the first 40 years of his life!) I appreciated Ken’s honestly in regards not only to beliefs about God; but also for the way he modeled that for each one of us, the move to a new understanding and a new way of living with and relating to God is a journey – often a life long one. Most of us continue to wrestle between the ‘default’ faith we learned as children and the ‘emerging’ faith we are seeking to live into and explore at this point in our lives. This journey can be joyful and painful, full of both land mines and new discoveries. And the journey out of this default faith, even for the most intentional, is usually a lifelong process.

I came away from the book appreciating the theology, but even more wondering HOW we make this precious journey. I say this as a pastor of a church that espouses all kinds of progressive theology; but which is also congregation filled with many spiritual wounds from our backgrounds in other traditions or no traditions. I recognize that saying we agree with a progressive and ‘new’ theologian is only one part of the journey to incorporating a new way of relating to and being with God in our walk of faith.

I’d like to share a bit of how I struggle with the tension between my default and emerging faith and then raise some questions for how we all continue moving towards to holistic, embodied and life-giving quest for a faith worthy of our spirit, our time and our work in the wider world.

For example, the idea of an infinite God is one that I very much resonant with, even as I see ways in which I am both attracted to it and hindered by it. The infinite reality of God is that part of God beyond not only our understanding, but also our attempts to describe it. It is the deepest, widest and greatest understanding of God.

Over the past few years, just absorbing pictures of the Lagoon Nebula has been ONE way I’ve tried to live with this mystery. Or I’ve walked along the ocean beach, or listened to wind atop a mountain or been absorbed by the deep connection I have to some music.

These experiences remind me that the God of all creation evokes awe, wonder and power. I’m prone to use the language of “The Holy.” This evokes a sense that my small little self is a part of something amazing and beyond comprehension; and I feel a deep sense of giftedness to be a small part of the big whole. These experiential ways of connecting to the infinite God bring theological discussions about the infinite God into context; reminding me of the grand nature of the Holy and the limits of our language used to describe it.

Where I wrestle with the Infinite God is in the liberal church’s propensity to equate thinking about God with the Christian faith. (thinking or talking about God ? a living faith).

I cringe at times at how easily we can talk about, debate, pontificate or argue about the nature of “God” while all the time staying in our heads, detached from anything that has real meaning for us. I sometimes feel like we – the liberal church – not just ORUCC – are actually bored with it all but are going through the motions. If we have failed as the church, it has often been because we cherish our ideas about God and our ability to speak nobly about God, but have little actual faith to guide us through life itself.

And so I ask – “how do I embrace the infinite without getting trapped by my tendency to blabber on with little deep investment in what we are talking about?” I don’t discount the mind, I love that we don’t check our minds at the door, but I also see the trap when we equate the ‘infinite face of God’ with what we are currently thinking. I ask, “how do I nurture those spiritual muscles that help me appreciate the mystery and wonder of God? How do I do that even if it isn’t my default?” When it comes to the breadth of the infinite God – a struggle within me between head and heart.

When I think about the Intimate God, I realize it is the aspect of God I have struggled with most with over the course of my life. I grew up in an evangelical church and I spent several years of my young adulthood working in an evangelical church. Jesus my savior. Jesus my love. Jesus who walks with me and talks with me. These were all powerful songs and sentiments that tapped into that aspect of God that is personal, close at hand, a friend and an advocate. The trouble is, as much as I loved the singing and the sentiments, I never really ‘felt’ that aspect of God. I felt community with others, but I’ve never had a deep sense of God as an intimate mother or father. I could list many reasons for why this is, not the least of which is that the abuse of the ‘me and Jesus’ faith leads to all kinds of insider/outsider language and the privatization of our faith.

I have been drawn to the writing and sentiments of Anne Lamott. When asked about her prayer life, she wrote, I hear His–sometimes Her–God’s presence immediately. I know that someone’s listening. It’s the knowledge in my soul that when I say, “Hello, hi,” someone’s hearing me.

I have such an unsophisticated prayer and religious and spiritual life that I have a very immediate relationship with Jesus, so it’s usually to him that I pray.

I usually say “hi,” and I can just feel him say, “Hi, hi hon.” Sometimes if I’m praying for discernment, when I’m really stuck and I don’t know which way to turn–or, most likely, when I absolutely can’t let go of something that’s driving me nuts, then the way I hear is this kind of Holy Spirit nudge on my heart, where all of a sudden I have the answer. It always makes me laugh that it’s so obvious.

I love this…but it is  not my experience and so I ask the question, “how can I lean into this reality more in my life? Even when it feels distasteful or disingenuous? What practices would help me leave behind the faith of my childhood that was mostly in the mind to embrace this intimate and loving connection to my Creator?”

And thirdly, I live with a love/fear relationship with what Smith calls the ‘Inner God.’ The deepest part of ourselves that is indeed divine just as Jesus was divine. Just as all creation is divine.

I love this aspect of God because my own experience and my experience with others suggests until we fully embrace the spark of the divine, the inner light, the True Self, the inner teacher, the Spirit within (of course language is limiting here) – we can never be out best selves in the world. Without embracing and exploring our inner divinity, we will always be distracted by external voices and noises.

At the same time, I have a healthy fear of this affirmation turning into the worst of ‘navel gazing’ and ego centric, small-minded living. I have experience with all kinds of people and communities that cannot see the divine in the world around them because they are so focused on themselves.

And so I ask – “how do I develop spiritual practices to help me embrace the inner God, be wary of the ego and connect this inner God with the other aspects of God?”

So let me pause here.

I’ve share three things

  1. I’ve affirmed the Infinite, Intimate and Inner aspects of God
  2. I’ve shared briefly how I wrestle with each of them.
  3. I’ve asked the question, what spiritual practices help me with that wrestling?

I know there are many ways of exploring and explaining God. Paul Smith’s is one I like, but it is not the only one. You may have others that are more helpful. That’s great. What I am going to say next still applies.

I don’t presume that my wrestling is the same as yours. I offer it not as a template, but as a witness that we all wrestle with some aspects of God. Your wrestling may include the fear of lightning bolts or it may be rooted much more deeply in boredom or depression. The point is to acknowledge and honor that we are all wrestling.

Our personal spiritual journey involves both intellectual and emotional travel; conscious and unconscious movement; the embracing of new ideas and the letting go of old ideas – however well they did or did not serve us.

The question that is most intriguing to me as a pastor and a member of a community of faith is – ‘how do we do that?’ How do we move from where we are into a walk of faith that is even more life-giving? What are the practical and on the ground spiritual disciplines that aid us precisely because they are working on all these levels or aspects of the Holy in our lives? And equally important, how do we support one another in attending to this journey?” Not for the sake of theology, but for the sake of helping to bring in the reign of God here on earth; to be change agents of compassion and resurrection in a world that often feels like it’s gone mad.

I’d like to offer a few ideas, in no particular order but possible ways of attending to the truth of all three of these aspects of God.

  1. Committing time and energy to living in a state of awe. I mentioned oceans and the wind and music. The ways we do this are unlimited, but that we do something to evoke awe is critical to the life of spirit and to coming to know the infinite face of God. For most of us, this requires intention and commitment. With busy schedules, social media, family obligations, work commitments and the struggle to get through the day emotionally because of our own sadnesses or the politics of the season or our economics – creating space for awe can be hard. Sometimes it is right there in front of us, we just have to shut off our brain and our busyness to embrace and celebrate the mystery right there. I find that I also need to be with others who are better at this than I am. To hike with a bird lover, to play with a child with a gifted teacher, to discover music with someone who’s more experienced than I am. And so I ask – how do you evoke or attend to awe in your life and how might you open your heart to framing that as the infinite face of God?
  2. Committing time and energy to personal prayer, meditation, or stillness of some sort. The great Howard Thurman once wrote, ‘If you cannot hear the sound of the genuine within you, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls…. So I wonder if you can get still enough—not quiet enough—still enough to hear rumbling up from your unique and essential idiom the sound of the genuine in you. I don’t know if you can. But this is our assignment.” We can call it many things, and indeed it can take many forms, but every wisdom tradition knows that time in personal prayer, reflection, listening, meditating is central to developing a sense of connection and intimacy with God. Most of these practices are less about words and more about stillness and silence, breathing and listening. Many of us pray and many of us practice mindfulness and many have other ways of doing this. The question I ask is how do we continue to nurture that discipline or that practice so we can deepen our connection to all that is holy, remembered that ‘everything is holy now.’
  3. Committing our time and energy to a communal walk of faith. Just a couple of weeks ago I spoke to the Northwest Association of our Wisconsin Conference and I named the need, in these times, to lean more deeply into Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies. A woman in the crowd remarked that she’d seen a lawyer on TV defending someone who had committed a sexual crime against a minor. “How can anyone love someone like that.”

I offered to share a story. I told in very broad strokes the journey this congregation has been on for the last year when one of our own was arrested on similar charges. That case is not over, but it has put the spiritual disciplines and the call to love all people to the test for many in this church.   The beauty, I said, is we haven’t had to do this alone. I’ve been incredibly gifted by those in our congregation – men and women – who have both shared their own stories of victimization and their willingness to pray for an alleged perpetrator in our community. None of us could do this journey alone, I said, but together, we might find a deeper faith, a more real love for all people. There is no guarantee and we aren’t all on the same journey, but amazing transformation has happened because we’ve journeyed together.

The life of faith is a long and often confusing one. All of us struggle, at times, to leave some aspects of our ‘default’ faith behind. We are always moving back and forth between relating to the infinite, intimate and inner God.

My hope and prayer, frankly, is that we continue to explore not just the ideas of an emerging faith, but the inner life of transformation that must accompany it so that we will be ever more capable of living with compassion and tenacity.

I invite us into some extended silence now to simple pay attention to our relationship with the Infinite God, the Intimate God and the Inner God. Ponder how you’ve journeyed; where you are; where you’d like to be more intentional and what practice might help you get there.  Amen