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Faith and the Butterfly

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (RCL, Year C)

August 08, 2010

The Reverend Susan Beth Pinkerton, Associate Rector

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.”[1]  Such a beautiful and lyrical sentence belies the deep, interior struggle/conflict that faith is for many of us. It is no news that faith can be a baffling, mysterious and elusive concept.   I imagine that many share my life-long struggle, like Jacob wrestling with the angel through the night, to have a better understanding of what it means to have faith. 


Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian minister and writer, shares his understanding of faith, He states that “the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us is not the last truth about the world but only the next to the last truth…faith is the eye of the heart, and by faith we see deep down beneath the face of things…we struggle against all odds to be able to see that the world as God’s creation, …and that is the last truth about the world.” [2]


            At St. Mark’s we embody and embrace the whole spectrum of positions on belief, from atheist and agnostic to the very traditional plus everything in between.  Many discuss quite easily and openly what it means to have faith in ourselves and in others; faith in the system; and, even faith in humankind without hesitation.  But when it comes to talking about faith in the context of God, a divine entity or spiritual presence, the dialogue is suddenly ratcheted up several notches and brings us to a higher, more sublime, elevated way of thinking, reflecting and perceiving about ourselves and the world we inhabit.   We are challenged by inadequate vocabulary that falls short of describing the sometimes indescribable.


            I find that when I think about faith and God within the concept of relationship, it makes sense and puts flesh on the issue.  It gives me an existential frame of reference from which I can better relate to the esoteric concept of faith, giving me a wider space to explore, gain some insight and possibly understanding.


            This struggle to grasp the meaning of faith, or lack of, appears to have been the undercurrent within the communities to whom both the Gospel and Epistle lessons address.  Luke’s gospel reading is about having faith in the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven by setting aside worldly goods and concerns. The Letter to the Hebrews, whose author is unknown as is the community to which it is addressed, is more overtly focused on faith[3] - a covenantal faith between the individual and God; a faith based not so much on right belief (which is more about religion) but on right relationship between myself and a higher being/divine entity/the Holy Other/God.  The writer extols several Old Testament personalities, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah, and holds them up as exemplar persons who have lived lives of faith, being in right relationship with their Creator.   And, with faith, we are to follow these examples….but not so fast.


Even though the author does not mention it, I feel quite certain that these folk had several moments, days, even years when their faith was tested beyond all endurance. Times when they may have lost their faith or felt weary, angry, depressed, betrayed or simply foolish to even think, let alone believe, in this contrary, mercurial divine entity that gives so lavishly yet takes away all in the blink of an eye.  Of course, they did, they were human just as we are.


Parker Palmer, Quaker writer and teacher, talks openly about his struggle with depression.[4]  He is quite honest that in depth of his suffering, the thought of God and any theological beliefs or convictions were simply dead.[5]  He felt as if he were dead.  Many friends tried to help but the one who helped him back to the health was a Quaker elder who visited him daily.  About four in the afternoon, the elder would come by, sit down, take off Palmer’s shoes and begin to massage his feet, saying very little and never giving advice.  Every so often he would tell Palmer that he intuited his struggle, affirming the suffering that Palmer was enduring.


 In reflecting on this passage of his life, Palmer believes it was the elder’s willingness to be present during his suffering that made the difference and eventually helped him back to be with the living.  He says that by rubbing his feet, the elder found the one place in his body where Palmer could feel a connection to another human being.


Through his connection, this relationship, Palmer found new life.  He rediscovered the ineffable life force that connects us to each other.  I understand it as perceiving and experiencing the Incarnational presence of Christ in the midst of our lives and within our very beings.  It is through my relationship with others, being present in each other’s lives, that I become cognizant of this spiritual connection with the Other, the world and all of Creation.  And, for me, it is through relationships that faith is most tangible and viable.


Like Palmer, we may discover that in the most simple, small acts we each can have a tremendous impact on another and the world.  I understand it to be a bit like the “butterfly effect” in chaos theory – the one small act can set off a chain of events that have a tremendous effect in ways we could never imagine or anticipate.[6] 




My ten month old grandson, Zachary Charles, was baptized while I vacationed in Colorado last month.  It was a moving and beautiful service.  I was a doubly thrilled in that I participated in this ancient Christian rite of initiation, baptizing my first grandchild surrounded by family and several old and dear friends. Little Zachary was dressed in a beautiful long, linen gown that my youngest daughter wore at her baptism three decades ago.  But the memory that I will always carry with me took place in a fleeting moment towards the end of the service.


Zachary is sitting on his mother’s lap and has stopped wiggling long enough to look up with those beautiful aquamarine eyes and watch the rector of the church walk towards him. Suddenly, Zachary’s face brakes into this beautiful smile and he lifts his arm and holds out his open hand toward the priest.  This wise and much loved priest responds and reaches out to Zachary as their hands lightly touch in mid air….the pudgy tiny hand of a newly baptized baby reaching out in spontaneous delight and joy to touch the wrinkled, weather beaten hand of an elderly priest.  It was a grace-filled moment of truth.  It was a kairos moment; a tiny child, full of joy and innocence, reaching out to connect with another human being, with the full expectation that he would be received with the same joy and delight in which he was offering.  


This is the essence of relationship, becoming fertile ground for seeds of faith, where we experience love, Incarnational love.  I believe it to be that the very thing that many of us deeply yearn for; to be connected to each other, to the Holy Other, to God, in the very midst of our shared humanity.



Today’s Epistle reading, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-6.

[3] Biblical scholars agree that Paul is not the author of Hebrews and that its author remains unknown as well as the community to which the letter is addressed.

[4] Parker Palmer, in Einstein’s God by Krista Tippett, New York: Penguin Books, 2010, 240.

[5] Id. at , 239.

[6] Sir John Polkinghorne, in Einstein’s God by Krista Tippett,  New York: Penguin Books, 2010, 265.  The “butterfly effect” alludes to the theory in quantum physics that when the butterfly moves its wings, it creates a miniscule change in the atmosphere, which can lead to major weather changes, such as a tornado because the butterfly’s movement changes the trajectory of the atmospheric system.

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