My opening story for today has to do with how a major episode of self-doubt on my part proved to be a pivotal moment in my life. It came about when I was about 4-5 years into my ministry with the Nashua UU Church. After few ups and downs, I was feeling well established enough to explore more fully some of my interests beyond my minister life.
I learned that there was an organization down in Lowell that put on an annual literary and cultural festival in the name of their native son, Jack Kerouac. I’d read most of his works at an earlier time in my life, and while I found I was attracted to them I did not pursue that interest any further. Then we moved to Nashua, and I realized I was living only a short distance from his hometown.
So, I asked around a bit and got myself invited to one of meetings of the Committee that produces these festivals. I went to a few meetings and found I liked the people on the Committee. Every minister needs at least one circle of people to hang out with where he or she is not wearing their minister hat.
That doesn’t mean you hide your ministerial identity, it’s just not the primary way in which you are known in a certain social circle. As I say, practically every minister needs such acquaintances. I hope you’ll bear that in mind as you settle a new minister in the very near future.
But as much as I liked having this new circle of acquaintances, I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to being a part of producing a 3-4 day festival every year. So I hung around the edges of the group rather than jumping in with both feet.
Then, as the time for the 1993 festival approached, I got a call from one of the Committee members. Would I chair a panel symposium during the festival weekend on “Kerouac and Spirituality.” I’d missed several of the planning meetings in the months prior, and I was surprised to be asked. But maybe they figured, what with me being a minister and all, I was supposed to know something about the subject of spirituality. I said okay, I’ll do it.
It wasn’t until a week or so later that I thought to ask about who would be on the panel. Turned out it was a couple of local poets, and, oh yeah, Allen Ginsberg is coming. Whoa, hold on; I’m supposed to lead a symposium with Allen Ginsberg on Kerouac’s spirituality? I’d always wanted to meet the guy, but to hold my own in a conversation with him in front of what we knew would be a large crowd of people—that was another matter altogether. But rather than admit to all these misgivings and second thoughts I said, “Hey, that’s great.”
The day arrives. The meeting room is packed. I’d deliberately dressed down for the occasion, so naturally Ginsberg shows up clean shaven, well groomed, and in a suit and tie—playing against type of the hairy wild-man poet image he’d cultivated at an earlier time in his life. He takes a seat next to me behind the table we had on stage, extends a hand, and says, “Hi, I’m Allen Ginsberg.” (Yeah, I know).
Feeling a bit overwhelmed already I look up and see sitting in the front row one of Kerouac’s principal biographers. She is generally regarded as one of the more well-informed historians of that whole era; and she’s got her note pad and pencil all poised. I somehow knew that she and Allen were old friends from way back. Hmmm, maybe she would like to chair this event
By now I’m wondering if there’s a back-door where I could slip out before anyone figures out that I’m an imposter. In order to looked like I knew what I was doing, I glanced down at my “prepared remarks” that were supposed to launch the discussion. All I could think was, “What a load this is—you can’t say this crap out loud!”
Well, it was about then that I gave myself a metaphorical slap up side of the head, told myself to cut it out with the internal whining, and summoned up a bit of wisdom I’ve long carried around: “Just fake it ‘til you make it and get this thing underway.” Really; I just figured, OK I don’t quite know what I’m doing here, but I’ll act as if I do and see what happens. And somewhere along the way my feeling of faking it got tamped down at least enough that I began to enjoy mixing it up with all those on the panel, including Mr. Ginsberg.
I still didn’t have a good sense of how the whole event had gone, though, until a week or so later when the Committee met for a post-festival evaluation meeting. A lot of the conversation was about how well the symposium went—for which I was frequently thanked. I decided I hadn’t made a complete fool out of myself after all. In fact, I thought maybe I’ve got a future here after all.
Some of you know where it went from there. A major episode of self-doubt turned out to be a pivotal moment for me. A few years later I was President of the organization and teaching some Beat Literature classes at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and ended up writing a couple of books on Kerouac; and so it went. And it all began when somebody asked me to do something I wasn’t sure I could do.
In the many stories I’ve heard over the years from persons who have become deeply involved in the life of a UU congregation, I’m aware of how some of them are variations on the story I’ve just told. It was because someone asked them to take on a task they weren’t sure could do, and which opened up another world for them.
“Fake it ‘til you make it” was the stance or attitude that got me through the experience I just described. At first hearing the phrase may sound like I’m being as advocate for phoniness or fakery; but not really. I use the expression to describe a circumstance where you don’t quite know what you’re doing but know you have to act anyway; or where you don’t know with absolute certainty that the stance you’re taking is the right one, but you still have to take a stand.
In the end, “fake it ‘til you make it” is not about being phony or inauthentic; instead it’s about trusting yourself while in the midst of uncertain or difficult circumstances as you are trying to get your bearings. It’s about cultivating a capacity for self-trust; it’s really about living by faith.
Now there’s a word, i.e. “faith,” I know gets a little troublesome for some UUs. But I can tell you that for all the twists and turns my journey in ministry has taken, with the latest piece of that journey being right here, I’ve always considered myself a person of faith who is on a journey of faith. It’s just that the nature of my faith that has changed over the course of my life to date. Let’s run with that for a few minutes.
As I recalled that symposium experience I just shared, I remembered something I’d read in a book titled And a Voice to Sing With. The book is Joan Baez’ autobiography. [The grammatically correct title for it, by the way, is “A Voice With Which to Sing’, but if you’re Joan Baez you can say it however you like.] In her story Ms. Baez tells of occasionally having feelings before a concert similar to the ones I just described as having before that symposium: Self-doubt, inadequacy, “what do I think I’m doing here” kinds of feelings.
I was amazed to read that. Ms. Baez has had, over the past 40-50 years, one of the most clear and beautiful singing voices I’ve ever heard. It’s dropped a register or two as she gotten older, but still…it’s beautiful. Joan Baez’ mantra in such pre-concert moments of self-doubt, as she tells it, was to say to herself, “Put it in the hands of God,” and pick up her guitar and walk out and do her concert.
Reading that got me to thinking (here comes the theological part): When I say “Fake it ‘til you make it” and Joan Baez says “put it in the hands of God” are we each in our own way saying the same thing? I can’t say for sure, of course. I did have the pleasure of very briefly meeting this amazing woman many, many years ago, but we didn’t talk about God. “Put it in the hands of God”; “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Is this a case of different language for the same thing? Could they both be the same statement of faith? Well, they could be; it depends upon what your understanding of faith is.
Let’s flesh out this term “faith” a little more since it clearly means different things to different people. Mark Twain’s take on it was, “Faith is believing in something you know ain’t so.” A more recent version of Mr. Twain’s line comes from Richard Dawkins, whose book, The God Delusion, I referred to few Sundays ago. For Dawkins, having faith in a Supreme Being God is a sign that one is deluded. These are two learned gentlemen, and while I don’t dismiss what they have to say on the subject, I would say that they haven’t considered all the possibilities or options when it comes to living a life of faith.
To stay with Dawkins and Twain for just another minute or so, and to put a softer touch on their takes on faith, what they are describing—Dawkins more than Twain actually, as Twain was just having a little fun—is a faith that is ultimately vested in the realm of the supernatural, or in whatever one may believe is above and beyond the workings of the natural world. This usually involves a willful and intentional God who is ultimately in charge and who gives one’s life meaning and purpose and value. Absent a God of this kind and life is devoid of any ultimate meaning for those who hold to this kind of faith.
You’ve heard enough of my stories by now to know that this is the nature of the faith in which I was raised. I’ve long since ceased to embrace it but I don’t disparage those who do. Okay, we’ll call all that Faith Option One.
Moving on, how about a Faith Option Two? For this one I go to the works of William James, who gives us our quotes for today in our Order of Service.
William James was a really remarkable human being from a really remarkable American family. He was a 19th century American philosopher and psychologist and has been given the title “Father of American Psychology.” He taught the first psych courses to be offered at Harvard University in the late 19th century which gave that young social science an academic standing it had not previously had. His brother Henry James was a prominent American novelist and short story writer. His father was noted theologian. His wife, Alice Gibbons, was a woman of letters—many of them published posthumously; and among her more exotic endeavors were her experiments with psychedelic mushrooms.
All of that to say I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at some of their family dinners down there in Cambridge.
Due in part to the influence of his theologian father, William also had a strong interest in the role of religion in personal and public life that led him to write his book The Varieties of Religious Experience. It remains a standard text today in many liberal theological seminaries, including the one I attended.
In that work James noted: “It is essential that God be conceived as the deepest power in the universe.” I don’t know about the “essential” part, but James’ contention does offer a path—for me and maybe for you—to the Option Two faith I spoke of a few minutes ago
Follow the bouncing ball with me: We are creatures of the universe, along with the stars and planets and galaxies and all the rest. However our earthly lives may have begun, our ultimate origin is the Big Bang itself. So if “God”, to use James’ language, can be conceived as the deepest power in the universe then does not this same power rest in each of us as creatures of the universe?
You need not use Dr. James’ terminology to believe that. Remember Forrest Church’s words that “God is not God’s name. It is a name for that which is greater than all and present in all.” Since they lived in different times Doctors James and Church never met, but William may well have agreed with Forrest on that one.
To be a person of faith with respect to this second option is to believe you can access this deepest power that is both within you and beyond you. It is to believe that there is a depth dimension to life that you need not go beyond this natural world in order to reach, touch, and experience. I call it a sacred or holy dimension to life that is available to us if we truly seek and find.
Living a life of faith in such as way does not shield one from feelings of doubt or betrayal. It offers no protection from being let down, or on occasion letting others down. This kind of faith is not to be to confused with certainty. It means instead recognizing that we live in a world and universe that blesses us in some very wonderful and life-fulfilling ways at times, and in some inexplicable devastating ways at other times. To be a person of faith is to have the internal resources, that “deepest power” as James called it, to respond to both the blessings and tragedies of life and keep on going for as long as life is yours to have.
Staying with William James let’s consider those words of his that are in our Order of Service: “Believe that your life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact…Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” To believe that we are capable of living worthy and meaningful lives will, as James puts it, “create the fact.” That’s living by faith.
I especially like James’ use of the two simple words “as if.” To live a life of faith is to live “as if.” The story I opened with was a lighthearted and fun kind of way of making that point. I got by my self-doubt by acting “as if” I could do what I was supposed and expected to do. My “fake it ‘till you make it” line was, admittedly, a frivolous way of making that point. But to truly live “as if” goes way beyond fun type of story and a fun type of slogan.
“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
I’ve treated that line on a personal level up to this point. It goes way beyond the personal when it comes to envisioning the world in which we wish to live and to leave for those who come after us. Live “as if” your justice seeking efforts will make a difference. We must live “as if” our efforts for a safer and saner world will make a difference. I’d say that faith is being pretty strongly tested right now. We must continue to act as if the forces of bigotry and hatred and ignorance—to say nothing of unfathomable acts of violence at school children—will not have the last word. We must live with the deepest faith we can muster, and act on it in whatever ways we can.
This in closing: We bring our lives here in the faith and in the hope that they will in some way be transformed. It is one of the reasons you exist as a liberal religious Unitarian Universalist community—and why I have chosen to give my career to the UU ministry: It is to do my part in offering a place where people can work on transforming their lives in positive ways.
So it is that bring our lives here in order that we may place them in the hands of something greater than ourselves, that deepest power in our universe and in our lives. We need not all call that “Something Greater” by the same name—and that it as it should be in a free faith.
We come not always knowing for sure that we are going to “make it” with it comes to the challenges, the obstacles, and the defeats we all face at times. But we come in order to find the strength to act as if we can meet those challenges. We come in order that our “yes” to life may be ours to say for as long as we are given our time to say it.
February 25, 2018