Thursday, July 30, 2015

Faith Inside Out

I loved Pixar’s new film Inside Out. I think being a dad with a little girl made me enjoy it more too since the action takes place in a young girl’s mind. I keep thinking about it and noticing things as I replay it in my head. One of my favorite things in the film is the control console. Riley’s emotions, each personified as a character, operate the control console inside her mind. When Riley is born the control console has just one button - so she just coos or cries depending on whether she is happy or sad. But as she gets older the console gets more buttons with more operations.

I thought about the control console while I was preparing to speak in a Mormon church meeting on faith and doubt. We tend to think of doubters as a specific class of people, separate from believers, but I think things are more complex than that. Faith and doubt are both parts of all our lives and faith changes through life. My understanding of God is different from when I was a young child. As we grow our faith changes and we experience challenges that shape our faith. A toddler has a certain kind of faith. She feels safe and secure with her parents. She is scared or sad when they leave. Her faith is simple, like the one-button control console. But as her world expands from parents, to playmates, to teachers, and to God her trust and faith expand and develop.

Our faith goes through periods of reshaping and complication. A child may learn to pray to God and trust that God will hear and answer prayers. But what happens when she doesn’t get something she prays for? This can be a learning moment when she learns more about the way God hears and answers prayers. Her understanding of God becomes a little more sophisticated and the older, more simplistic understanding fades away. We look at these kinds of episodes and understand that they are normal. This kind of thing doesn’t destroy faith. It’s just part of learning. We understand this well with childhood faith struggles but sometimes we are not as adept at dealing with the struggles of teens and adults.

Church is usually a very positive place. We like to share the success stories where everything worked out in the end. We like to be uplifting and faith promoting. That’s not a bad thing. But it’s not the whole program. Sometimes everything is not alright. Sometimes the things we learn in church and in the scriptures, or our interpretations of them, just don’t match our experience. When this happens it is necessary to develop new facets of our faith.

One of the most important characters in Inside Out is Sadness. Joy isn’t really sure what to do with Sadness. Mostly she just tries to keep her out of the way and keep her from doing anything. But when Riley experiences some tough transitions Joy can’t help her. Riley needs Sadness too. Faith is not always about peace and joy. Sometimes it’s about sadness and despair. Both the crucifixion and the resurrection are essential parts of the Christian gospel. The Hebrew Bible is filled with both psalms of praise and lamentations. We may want to keep these things in their own little circle, out of the way. But the darker moments are also part of the development of our faith.

Just like Riley needed Sadness to deal with her new situation there are aspects of faith that we need to develop as we grow. Life involves disappointment, loneliness, anxiety, fear, conflict, doubt, regret, loss, and death. The faith of our childhood may not be adequate to understand and deal with these things. A young child may feel secure knowing that her parents are there for her. But as she grows older she will realizes at some point that her parents will not always be there for her. Life eventually comes to an end and how we face that fact is a crucial part of our faith. How will we spend the time that we have with the people we love, knowing that our time with them is finite?

One of my favorite parables in the Bible is the dying grain of wheat. Unless a corn of wheat falls to the ground and dies it does nothing. But by dying it brings forth new life. I think faith follows a similar pattern. Our faith changes as we grow and become new creatures. Old ways of thinking must pass away to give rise to a newness of faith. Faith allows us to view the deepest, most important structures of our world, the things that have most meaning and are the most important. And faith must have as many shades and hues as the beauty and darkness of the world we face.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Ecclesiastes and Hakuin

Painting by Hakuin, Two Blind Men Crossing a Log Bridge

And the Preacher said, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, ‘See, this is new’? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)

Do you ever feel like things that used to be inspiring have become dull over time? Ideas, rituals, and texts that were once profound and rich can later lose their power. Fortunately, this transformation can also go in the other direction.

For the Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768) the path to spiritual awakening was a long, gradual process. Hakuin became a monk as a teenager and in his youth read the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important Buddhist texts. But Hakuin found the Lotus Sutra disappointing, nothing more than simple tales of cause and effect. He went under the tutelage of many teachers and had a partial entrance into enlightenment at age twenty-four. But his enlightenment was incomplete and he passed through several years of doubt, sickness, and mental breakdown. Hakuin finally had his final awakening at age forty-one while reading the Lotus Sutra again, the same text he had found so disappointing in his youth.

I like the story of Hakuin and the Lotus Sutra. I wonder what he might have said to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes.