People of Trust

“What Does it Mean to be a People of Trust?” Susan Ryder

This morning we begin our June/July worship series dealing with what it means to be a people of trust. It’s a topic with many different facets, so we’ll have much to explore over the coming weeks. This morning we’ll consider what it means for us as progressive Christians to be a people of trust – and I’ll invite you to ponder a question. When it comes to your own spirituality – where do you put your trust? In yourself and your own agency or responsibility? In God? Or a combination of the two?

Be thinking about that question as I begin with a couple of readings.

Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

Trust in Allah, but tether your camel first (Arab Proverb)
A Master was traveling with one of his disciples, who was in charge of taking care of the camel. When they arrived at their resting place for the night, it was the disciple’s duty to tether the camel; but he left the camel outside, untethered. Instead he simply prayed to God, “Take care of the camel,” and fell asleep. In the morning the camel was gone. The Master asked, “What happened to the camel? Where is the camel?” And the disciple said, “I don’t know. You need to ask God, because I told Allah to take care of the camel, I was too tired. You are always teaching ‘Trust Allah’, so I trusted. Now don’t look at me with anger, this is not my fault.” The Master said, “Trust in Allah yes, but tether your camel first — because Allah has no other hands than yours.”

When we think about trust in a religious or spiritual sense, it is usually considered synonymous with faith, so I’m going to be using the terms interchangeably this morning – trust as in having faith that life or God or the universe or who/whatever will look after us somehow. So, for instance, our Jewish friends lift up the Exodus story as part of their liturgy quite often, in order to encourage faith and trust that God will help us make our way even when things look their darkest, even if it takes longer than we want or expect. Likewise, the practice of prayer for our Muslim friends is about reminding oneself to have faith that you are always in Allah’s safe hands. Unitarians translate similar sentiments using the language of having faith in “a Love that will not let us go,” while traditional Christians are comforted by prayers and hymns about faith in God watching over us. “When we walk with the Lord, in the light of his word, what a glory he sheds on our way. While we do his good will, he abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”

What about progressive Christians? Where do we fit when it comes to being a people of trust? Well, we certainly don’t sing that hymn here at NCC – pretty sure we haven’t sung it once since Bob and I have been here. Why? Because while it may bring back some nostalgic memories, its “trust and obey” theology just doesn’t fit for us, does it? Neither does Carrie Underwood’s song “Jesus Take the Wheel.” It’s not a hymn, but was her breakout hit and first single after winning American Idol in 2005 and catapulted Underwood from stardom to super-stardom in a very short time.

Now it’s no secret I am not a fan of country music, and while I have nothing against Carrie Underwood, I cannot stand that song. The lyrics tell the story of a woman driving home on Christmas Eve with her baby in the back seat. She’s got 50 miles to go and she’s running out of faith and has a lot on her mind – she’s had a tough year. So she’s driving too fast when her car hits a patch of ice and spins out of control, and in the midst of this impending disaster, she throws up her hands – not metaphorically. No, she literally takes them OFF the steering wheel (instead of turning INTO the spin, which is what we are taught to do) and sings:

Jesus, take the wheel, take it from my hands ’cause I can’t do this on my own, I’m letting go
So give me one more chance and save me from this road I’m on, Jesus, take the wheel

And apparently Jesus did take the wheel – because she ended up safely on the shoulder of the road with her baby sleeping peacefully in the back seat. And right there and then, for the first time in a long time, she bowed her head to pray, “I’m sorry for the way I’ve been living my life, I know I’ve got to change.” And she promises to let Jesus take the wheel of her life from now on.

The song was a big hit because for one thing, she’s a great singer. It was also a hit because it appealed to Evangelical Christians, many of whom are also country music fans. It affirmed their belief that Jesus will always be there to save them if they just have enough faith and turn over all their problems to him like it says in the Proverb I read earlier. Which is exactly what bugs me about this song: that whole idea of complete surrender, of “letting go and letting God,” like the disciple who was too tired to tether the camel. But that’s not my idea of faith – I am more inclined toward a “trust in Allah but tether your camel” kind of faith, the kind that doesn’t ask us to throw our hands up, metaphorically or otherwise. I love the words of the Master – “Allah has no other hands than ours.” In other words, blind faith which abandons common sense and any degree of personal responsibility goes way too far. Trust in Allah AND tether your camel puts us in partnership with God or the universe or whatever that “something More” is, as Marcus Borg called it, instead of putting our fate completely in God’s hands.

Earlier I asked where Progressive Christians fit when it comes to being a people of trust? Well we tend to run the gamut, and experience a variety of perspectives on faith and trust, ranging from those who adhere to “trust in Allah and tether your camel” to those who prefer the more simple “tether your camel,” and everything in between. I can be in both camps, depending on the day or situation. Sometimes I adhere more to the latter – simply “tether your camel.” That means it’s up to us to make sure things turn out alright. And other times it’s both – trust in God AND tether my camel. The idea of trusting in God alone, letting Jesus take the wheel – that feels inauthentic and does not represent my beliefs, and never did. But taking responsibility for tying up our own camel – that speaks to our own personal responsibility, a sense of control, which resonates with me. And yet, sometimes I still need something more – something more than this physical realm, more than fact and science and reason and logic. They speak to my head, but I also need my heart to be touched and my spirit fed.

So most days I find myself leaning toward “Trust in God, but tie up your camel,” which for me means to be realistic, practical; be smart. Use my abilities to take sensible precautions. If I don’t want Daisy to run away, close the gate. If I don’t want to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, keep the tank full. In other words, keep my hands on the damn wheel! But at the same time, make sure to open myself up to other possibilities – to also trust in someone or something I can’t see or name, something intangible and amorphous, something I may not completely comprehend.

It helps me to keep in mind that this kind of faith is not the same as belief or religion. Belief is the holding of certain ideas. Religion is an accumulation of traditions, creeds, rituals, scriptures, myths, symbols and ethical teachings. Faith is deeper and more personal than these. Wilfred Cantwell Smith said “Faith is a quality of the person and not the system. It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response, a way of seeing whatever one sees and whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension.”

Faith is the foundation, the air, the background that permeates every aspect of what we think and say and do – sometimes without our even realizing it. Beliefs are the ideas that organize our basic sense of reality into a bridge between the transcendent and the world. A person’s faith that everything happens for a reason might lead her to believe that there is a god that designed creation for the greater good. A person’s faith in true democracy might lead him to believe that he has to sacrifice his own happiness for the greater good. Religion articulates our beliefs and gives us a venue to receive and demonstrate understanding. Religion is what we do to help us validate our faith, and find a way toward clarity and community with others. Religion is literally the tie that binds. And we bind ourselves to one another when we gather here together on Sunday mornings, when we speak and sing together and share this bread and cup. With that in mind, it helps to remind ourselves that our faith is not about who others are not, but about who we are and who we want to be.  What does your faith tell you about yourself? It touches the center of your being, and allows you to conduct your own moral inventory. It allows you to form a moral compass as you make decisions. Faith invites you into your own darkness to find your own answers, and allows you to develop, to make progress. Faith is not about the perfectly impossible but about being perfectly imperfect.  Faith admits change, allows us to learn something new, to see a new side of things, of ourselves. And faith gives us reassurance. It tells you what you can expect from yourself and from others, and allows us to connect with others in a way that makes sense, and heals the fact that we are separate. (Paraphrased from Sarah Pearson)

For me, this kind of faith – “trust in Allah AND tether your camel” – is a spiritual call to trust that ultimately life comes to us as a gift, even though it certainly does let us down from time to time. It’s all too easy to convince ourselves that life is our enemy, especially these days when things seem so bleak and hopeless, and we are assaulted every hour of every day with some new tragedy or travesty. But if we can balance our faith in practicality AND something “More” than just the reality we see with our eyes – well then, we just might be on the right track.

What do you think? Which camp do you most often fall into? When it comes to your own spirituality – where do you put your trust? In yourself and your own agency or responsibility, as in tether your own camel? In God, as in “Jesus take the wheel?” Or a combination of the two – trust in Allah AND tether your camel?