Faith in an Unfinished Symphony

February 14, 2015 – Rev. Jan Hryniewicz

Text:  Psalm 51: 6 – 12 & 1st Corinthians 13

Remember a couple of weeks ago, I said that hugs are good for us….boost our immune system, lower our blood pressure and are good for our hearts?  Well hear this now: T.M. Luhrmann, professor of anthropology at Stanford wrote in a 2013 NY Times article entitled The Benefits of Church: “One of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you!  Religious attendance….boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life.  The reason for this is not entirely clear.”  So welcome to your worship work out !!


I just finished reading Ann Patchett’s book  Run.  The following passage resonated with me most profoundly. I share it with you now:

“Night after night, Father Sullivan was awake with his thoughts….  When he was a young priest, he kept up a crushing pace in every waking moment so that sleep was like falling down a mineshaft – straight to the bottom of something nameless and dark. …  It is his thoughts of God, a God and a Church with which he might not be in peaceful accord…[ that kept him awake now.} .. .. It would be incorrect in every sense to say that so near the end of his life he had lost his faith, when in fact God seemed more abundant to him in the Regina Cleri home than any place he had been before.  God was in the folds of his bathrobe, the ache in his knees.  God saturated the hallways in the form of a pale electrical light.   But now that his heart had become so shiftless and unreliable, now that he should be sensing the afterlife like a sweet scent drifting in from the garden, he had stated to wonder if there was in fact no afterlife at all. Look at all these true believers who wanted only to live, look at himself, clinging onto this life like a squirrel scrambling up the icy pitch of a roof.  In suggesting that there may be nothing ahead of them, he in no way meant to diminish the future; instead Father Sullivan hoped to elevate the present to a state of the divine.  It seems from this moment of repose that God may well have been life itself. ….God may have been the masses in which  he told people how to best prepare for the glorious life everlasting, the one they couldn’t see as opposed to the one they were living at that exact moment in the pews of the church, washed over in stained glass light.   How wrongheaded it seemed now to think that the thrill of heartbeat and breath were just a stepping stone to something greater.  What could be greater than the armchair, the window, the snow?  Life itself had been holy.  We had been brought forth from nothing to see the face of God and in his life Father Sullivan had seen it miraculously for 88 years. Why wouldn’t it stand to reason that this had been the whole of existence and now he would retreat back to the nothingness he had come from in order to let someone else have a turn at the view?  This was not the workings of disbelief.  It was instead a final, joyful realization of all he had been given.  It would be possible to overlook just about anything if you were trained to constantly strain forward to see the power and glory that was waiting up ahead.  What a shame it would have been to miss God while waiting for God.

Father Sullivan did not believe that he had been part of any sort of miracle, but wouldn’t that be a glorious transition to make so late in the day, to go from the business of saving people’s souls to the business of saving their lives? If he was right and God showed God’s face to the living, then it was the surgeons to whom we should offer our novenas.  Let us pray to the ones who keep our tired hearts pumping.” … Ann Patchett, Run

These thoughts of Father Sullivan,  words, so beautifully conceived and written by author Ann Patchet in her book Run resonate with me most profoundly.  I wish that Father Sullivan was just down the street instead of on the pages of this book….so I could go and sit with him and ponder his insights.

It seems to me that too often, faithful church attendance and religious ritual faithfully performed was presumed to be a ticket to heaven…. assurance of a glory filled afterlife… like fulfilling some earthly requirements to pass the bar to eternal life.  I can relate to the musings of Father Sullivan…. wondering if instead of inspiring relationship with a Divine Presence that is deeply personal, the church has been guilty of using fear tactics and promoting doctrine and mandatory attendance to sustain its power over the masses.

I will never forget a moment some years ago when I was serving the First Baptist Church in Fall River, MA with my friend, Rev. Don Meir who was the senior pastor.   The woman who was the long time church secretary was just starting on a personal spiritual journey, reflecting on her faith and reading some books that Don & I had recommended to her. When I arrived at church one morning, she and Don were involved in a heated discussion, and she was in tears.   I was about to retreat when she said: “ No, come in. You are to blame too!”   Hmmm… nice way to start the day!   “ To blame for what?” I asked searching my mind for what I could have done to contribute to her emotional outburst!  “  You all lie.  Your whole ministry is a lie! You encourage people to believe that Adam and Eve really existed….that Jesus was born of a virgin…. that Jonah really lived in a whale’s belly for 3 days….and then later on let us discover that these are all metaphors and allegories.   How helpful is that?  Why not teach the truth from the start. People are not idiots. I feel like I have been royally deceived. Now I don’t know what to believe.  What is true and what is not!”

I tried to offer some excuses….about a readiness level to hear the truth… sounding a lot like Jack Nicholson screaming at Tom Cruise in  A Few Good Men…. ‘ you can’t handle the truth’!!   This led to a discussion of what is the truth.  How do we know the truth?  Do we take the Bible literally?

This incident as you can well imagine, prompted an ongoing discussion about the importance of relationship with God, about personal faith, about our experience with the incarnation of the Divine Spirit into our lives…. epiphanies and miracles that are true and real even if the facts can not be verified.  God is Mystery.  Oh what profound truth we can glean about the nature of the divine and our relationship with it from the poet’s pen, a creative children’s book,  a transforming life experience….or  from profound metaphors and deeply layered parables.


Did you see the story on the news on the Today Show yesterday about a14 year old boy in Missouri who fell through the ice and was underwater for 15 minutes before his ice cold body was rescued.  He was pronounced dead after much effort was made to revive him. His parents were notified and told he had died.  The mother came into the hospital praying “ O God do not take my son from me!”  And miraculously, the boy began to respond and was revived.  Seems to have survived even without brain damage!  The medical team is astounded.   A miracle has been declared.  God answered the prayer of this heartbroken mother.

Was it a miracle?   Is it true?

Yes….for that family it is a miracle! It is true.

They experienced the divine Spirit in that crisis moment in their lives.  “ God wanted me to live” the young lad said.  Now I can get all intellectual ( as I am prone to do)  and rant on about the fact that I don’t believe in an interventionist God….who would choose to rescue 14 year old John Smith ( that is reported to be his name!) and allow  many others to drown. And if he had died, would been God be blamed for taking his life.?  It all gets complicated, doesn’t it?  But all my questioning and doubting cannot take away the miracle of that moment when John Smith opened his eyes and was alive!  God was in that moment for that family…and perhaps will be a priority in the life of that young man as he grows. His gratitude may define his life….all their lives… in wonderful ways.


This Sunday, I am wrapping up the sermon series…

“Journey with the Spirit”  by suggesting that such a journey is a deeply personal, ever evolving voyage of faith and insight….which as John Forssen suggested in his quite provocative essay…. “faith is tricky and seems to involve a waiting game which makes us all fidgety!”  We have to figure out what works for us.


In her scholarly, but quite approachable book  “ A History of God”, Karen Armstrong writes about rabbinic insights that proclaim that God does not come to human understanding oppressively but commensurately with our ability to  receive God.  It is a very important rabbinic insight that God cannot be described in a formula as if God were the same for everybody. God is essentially a subjective experience.  Rabbis contend that each individual will experience the reality of God in a different way to answer the needs of his or her own particular temperament. To this day, theological ideas about God are private matters in Judaism and are not enforced by the establishment.  Any official document would limit the mystery of God who is utterly incomprehensible.”

This is why I have a huge problem with creeds of any kind which declare a fixed statement of belief.  Who can or should do that!?  For me they create a barrier that some cannot climb.

In one of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips, Linus and Charlie Brown are engaged in serious conversation.

“I have a theological question,” says Linus, “When you die, and go to Heaven, are you graded on a percentage or on a curve?”

“On a curve, naturally,” Charlie responds.

Linus asks puzzledly, “How can you be so sure?”

Charlie brightly answers, “I’m always sure about things that are a matter of opinion.”


Aren’t we all!?  Ed and I have many conversations about this.  I say “ You always think you are right!”  To which he responds:  “Doesn’t everyone!? If you thought you were wrong you wouldn’t think it!!!”

I must admit that that makes sense!  ( Public admission!)


An ancient Hindu story, you probably have heard tells about six blind men who were brought to see an elephant:

“It’s very like a wall,” said the first man as he touched the side of the elephant.

It’s very like a spear,” said the second man as he stroked the elephant’s tusk.

And the third man taking the elephant’s squirming trunk in hand said) “It’s very like a snake.”

“Nonsense!” the fourth man shouted. Stretching his arms about one of the legs, he concluded “this wondrous beast is very like a tree.”

The fifth man, touching the elephant’s ear, cried, “even the blindest man can see that this animal is very like a fan.”

And the sixth, grabbing the tail, assured his friends that “the elephant is really very like a rope.”


There are those who hear different people from different religions saying that they have touched God. But the gods they describe are as different as the blind men and the elephant. This has led many to conclude that – just like the blind men of the parable – everybody’s right, they just have hold of different parts of the same God. Good conclusion.


  1. Centuries ago, in Athens, that was the predominant belief.

The city of Athens was a very religious city. Within the city there were over 30,000 idols. One scholar noted it was easier to find an idol in Athens than to find a person!

And yet (while highly religious) these people were confused about which god to worship… and so they worshipped them all. AND in fact, just in case they missed a god – they erected an altar to an “Unknown God.”

Because, yes God is a glorious mystery….but God is not unknown.  We can and do experience God the one Divine Spirit, Creator and Sustainer of us all.

In his compelling book The Questions of Jesus, John Dear, who is a priest, author and peace activist wrote:  “ The purpose of our life is God’s glory.  We have been created to see the glory of God, to bring glory to God, to become the glory of God. According to Jesus, quoted as saying in John 11: 40;“ Did I not tell you that if you believe in God, you will see the glory of God.”

As followers of Jesus, we can meditate and ask ourselves: When have we seen the glory of God? As we look back over our days and years, we will see the hand of God at work within us. Once we start believing, the glory starts appearing everywhere. God’s calm presence of peace will open up new avenues of God’s loving, transforming care.”

This, I believe is the truth that comes to us from the prophets, from Jesus, from spiritual mystics down through the ages.   We have to believe.  We have to be open.  We have to make the journey a priority.

The beautiful words of the Psalmist, believed to be David provide us with the assurance, that if we ask, if we are available,  God will create in us a clean heart, purge us with hyssop, and put a right Spirit within us. The Apostle Paul in this much read passage from 1st Corinthians 13…the love chapter….suggests that now we only know in part…. that we see in a mirror dimly…but the time will come when all will be revealed to us….the full glory and presence of the  Divine Mystery.  We will know fully, as we have been known.  Love is the divine energy that will abide for all eternity.

I share a beautiful insight of Rumi from the book  The Teachings of Rumi, translated by Andrew Harvey:

“ In the school of Divine Love

You don’t even know the alphabet

Don’t worry; you’ll be filled like Mohammed

With the Light of Reason….

The Love of God is a fire

That consumes all difficulties:

Daylight chases away all ghosts.

You are loved by God; look for the reply

In the same place the question came from. /

The cornerless corner of the heart

Is the royal road to God:

The radiance that is neither East nor West

Comes from a single moon. //

Hunting your echo here and everywhere?

Look for the reply in the same place

You bent in adoration towards

When broken by grief you kept repeating

O my God, O my God, O my God!”

Sell intelligence and talent and buy pure wonder;

And I close with  a quote that truly touched my heart and I placed on the bulletin for your reflection:

In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.                           ….Karl Rahner

…and how beautiful is that thought!?  To have faith in the unfinished symphony, is to believe that we can continue to create it…make it more beautiful….to the glory of God and the blessing of ourselves and others , …through all the days of our life.  It is the purpose of our journey with the Spirit….to be one with the Divine Spirit… which is love. Amen.

The Awakening……

How to Stop the Fidgeting by John Forssen

Faith can be tricky  –you want it to be a kind of sleight-of-hand (at least, I do), something to be mastered with sufficient practice and perseverance, and humility, of course. One must always consider humility. But faith is also alluring, full of promise: the Gospels, especially, overflow with good news. For example:

Matthew 18:20 …for wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them….

Mark 10:52 …and Jesus said to him (the blind man) go thy way; thy faith has made thee whole

Luke 17:21 …neither shall they say Lo here! or Lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you….

John 14:12 …he that believest on me, the works that I do shall he do also….

It’s pretty heady stuff  –no wonder at all that people pray. With such assurances, they’d be crazy not to. When you tell me that the kingdom of God is within me and, with proper faith, I might do the works of Jesus, how can I be anything but empowered?

But maybe it doesn’t work quite like that. Who knows? Maybe it takes more than a wish and the snap of a finger; and maybe, after some period of time  –after one’s prayers have become common and threadbare for having been spoken so often–  one’s faith becomes crowded around with disappointment and ambivalence. In the end, faith can be a hard business. It requires patience and trust, both underwritten by time, and more, possibly, of that than any of us have in this life; just think, for example, of the scores upon scores of unanswered prayers buried in the rubble of history’s seemingly endless stream of violence and brutality.

My personal issue with prayer is that it is essentially passive, a waiting game: the anonymous letter, with no recourse, that may or may not arrive in the mail  –in effect, the stillness of it. And, as any child knows, waiting can be so difficult. It is impossible to keep from fidgeting.

My response to this apparent dead-end in recent months has been Reiki, the Japanese inspired practice of healing through touch and controlled breathing, taking in what practitioners call the life force and sharing it with those in need. I don’t pretend to Know it or to be very good at it, but it is pro-active, something that one can do to relax in the course of one’s prayers and alleviate the fidgeting. For me, to the extent that it satisfies such needs, it works. I can feel it happening. For others, a 5K run or a good work out at the gym may have the same benefit.

Whatever one’s preference, however, the question remains: is anyone out there listening? And, equally important, how do we bear the stillness?

            For me, that’s where the hugs come in. We hold onto each other; we share the beating of our hearts.