Seth Patterson April 28, 2019
Scripture Matthew 5:1–11
What a glorious day! It has been an absolute joy and honor to spend almost every Wednesday evening with eight eighth graders this year. Since September, we have met in rooms across the church in an exploration of what it means to be a believing being in the world. We asked questions like: What are the things that we hold to be sacred and important? What is currently foundational to the way in which we encounter the world? What is worth fighting for? and What is essential to the naming of who you are today? We explored the various traditions of Plymouth Congregational Church in order to offer older and broader perspectives than these 14-year-olds are typically exposed to.
These young people are full of passion and wisdom. They care deeply for other people and for creating systems of equality. There is great concern for the marginalized and forgotten in our society and disappointment in the ways that the generations before them heard the cries and did not respond in a way that made better structures. They are greatly concerned about the state of our earth and the ways that they see it being abused. They are afraid that we have all made disastrous decisions that they will have to live with on an earth that will be unlike what any of us have experienced.
These young people are lovely and playful, one moment acting like big children while they mix some sort of awful concoction in a cup and dare each other to drink it. At other moments, they are like young adults speaking eloquently about the ways that their childhood lessons are no longer applicable and the need to find new paths forward. They are often comfortable in a chaos that I do not understand and can comprehend each other even when they all are speaking at the same time. We are a fortunate community to have these young people as our present and our future.
In keeping with the tradition of Plymouth, we did not focus on what we should believe, but rather what we each believe right now, how it differs from when we were younger and how it shapes our lives. Our beliefs necessarily change throughout our lives as we encounter new information, extraordinary and painful experiences, and the incredible variety of other people whom we bump into and share our journeys with.
This confirmation was an attempt to name what they believe right now so that they will have some formalized practice at this as they grow and continue this journey of exploration with their beliefs. So, in an effort to be fair (fairness being something they care a lot about), let’s join with our brave young people and say aloud something that you may believe now? What are the things that you hold most sacred and are foundational to who you are and how you approach the world? The confirmands shared a short portion of their current beliefs, which is an incredibly vulnerable act, so I ask you all to take a moment and do the same.
[Seth listened to and repeated answers from the congregation.]
Naming these things can be scary and uncomfortable. This is not something that we do in our current society or in our church culture. Thank you for your bravery. These beliefs, while being incredibly personal and intimate, also have the power to unite us together. How many of us heard something that someone else said and thought, “Yeah, me too!”
Naming our deeply held beliefs aloud in public is not only hard because of the fear of judgment, but because each of these beliefs is somehow connected to a doubt. For us to form our own beliefs, we must hold our doubts to be equally important. Beliefs are rarely the result of absolute certainty but rather the place we get to after much questioning and doubt. A wise person once told me that to believe something without first questioning it is like wearing someone else’s coat. It may serve a purpose and even be temporarily comfortable, but at some point you need to alter it, even slightly, in order to make it your own. Someone else’s belief can never become our own without first wrestling with it, altering it and making it fit our own life and experiences.
Doubt is foundational to belief. Jesus begins his beatitudes in Matthew by saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Some commentators have speculated that being poor in spirit means to have spiritual humility or doubt. This humility is only possible if we are not full of our own certainty. This humility is only possible if we stand with our doubts long enough to let them make meaning out of our beliefs.
Doubt is a powerful tool, as Rilke reminds us in the earlier reading [an excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet]. While on one hand doubt can fill us and take over: It can incapacitate and be “a destroyer” if we let ourselves become full of doubt. Instead, though, doubt can be a most useful tool that leads us to a more meaningful belief. Rilke says that, if used respectfully and responsibly, “[doubt] will become one of your best workers—perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.”
Doubt allows us to be present. We cannot have the foundations of belief if we do not first encounter the world with a certain amount of doubt.
How do we model this to our children and youth? How often do we adults act as if we are certain in our beliefs in a world full of watching young people? I heard this confirmation class ask how they were supposed to name their beliefs if they, at 14 years old, were not absolutely certain of what those beliefs might be? It seems to me that we adults may often inadvertently model to our young people that certainty of belief is the only way forward, that doubt has no place in our learning. It also seems to me that we are doing a disservice to our youth if we do not show them what wrestling with belief looks like, and that means admitting doubt.
Each member of the confirmation class was assigned a mentor. And I asked each mentor to write their own “What I Believe Now” statement and present it to the confirmation class in February. My hope for this was threefold: 1) We will not ask young people to do something that we as adults are not willing to do ourselves, 2) the mentors get to have some “skin in the game,” so to speak and 3) the young people see demonstrated in front of them the very doubt and vulnerability that we adults often try to hide from them. The mentors did a beautiful job modeling this and naming what they believe now. And I would be remiss if I asked them to do something that I was also not willing to do, so I would like to share with you my own statement of “What I Believe Now”:
When I was younger I believed that God was a giant. God was a man, a white man, with flowing white hair, who invisibly stood astride the whole world. I believed this because it was what was fed to me by images and films. It was reinforced by the language in churches and by people who knowingly or unknowingly modeled belief in such things. I no longer believe this, and I got there by initially rejecting the entire concept and then rebuilding my belief. I believe now that God is so far beyond any human imagination that a picture cannot be consistently formed and held. I believe now that God is within us and surrounding us and most importantly in the spaces between us. I believe that every single person is a manifestation of the great possibilities of God, and each of these children of God ask us to decide who God is calling us to be.
I believe in God. Not because I am in any way certain of this and not because anyone has told me that I should believe this. I have many doubts and even more questions, and many days it is not easy to hold this belief and some days I fail. But I have also had so many moments and situations in my life that become so much more meaningful if I place them into the presence of God than if I ascribed them to coincidence, chance or luck.
I believe that all people are worthy of love, especially when we don’t want to or know how. I was taught this as a child and have wrestled with what to do with it ever since.
I believe that questions are more meaningful that answers. Questions are how we express our wonder and awe at the world around us. Answers are often the end of a conversation, but questions continue the talking, the learning and the wonder.
I believe that the Bible is not a book of knowledge but a book of exploration. I was raised in a culture that told me that the Bible was magical and had the ability to answer all questions and solve all problems. My experience has taught me otherwise. Instead I find the Bible to be a beautiful collection of ancient people wrestling with their own history and trying to make meaning out of it all.
I believe that prophetic voices still exist today and are found where prophetic voices have always existed—on the margins. People of color, indigenous people, immigrants, LGBTQ+ folk, the disabled, the poor, the imprisoned, children and all people who live on the margins of the dominant culture and status quo have the ability to speak prophetically. It is the responsibility of those of us in the dominant culture to listen and act.
I believe that white people are responsible for the creation and continuance of the systems and structures of white supremacy and it is our responsibility to dismantle it. I believe that it is not enough to be merely nice and respectful to other people, but we need to give things up in order to change the caste system we have created.
I believe that the mysteries of the world are an indication of God being beyond our imagination. There is still more that we do not know about the universe than what we know, and exploring these questions is by itself a worship of God.
I could keep going. This is an important and difficult exercise and I invite all of you to try this yourself. As a spiritual practice this week, join the confirmation class and their mentors in naming what you believe now. Recognize how it may be different from what you had been taught or previously believed and acknowledge how this lives out in your life. And don’t be afraid to name your doubts, for they are the building blocks of your belief. Share this with another person in your life and be brave. Jesus has told us: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” What do you believe right now, and how does doubt get you there?