What do you believe? It’s a dicey question these days, isn’t it? Fake news. Mis-information. Foreign governments trying to influence each others’ elections. Classes on “detecting fake news” are popping up everywhere.
As dicey as the process is of figuring out what’s real news, the process of figuring out what we believe about our faith can be way more complicated. Is there really a God, or is God just an idea we made up? Does love really permeate the universe, or is the idea of universal love the result of wishful thinking? Does religion make a difference, or is all of it one big projection onto the universe spurred on by human desperation?
What do you believe…about God? About life? About love? Are you satisfied with what you believe? Do your beliefs bring you peace?
Several years ago, when asked what she believed about God, 8-year-old Madison wrote this: I believe when the wind blows in your face, it’s a sign of God. And I believe when we’re scared or sick or sad, God can help us. I think God is really interesting. I think God is watching over us. I think God really loves us, and will no matter what. I believe the brightest star is God.
What do you believe about God? Do your beliefs bring you peace?
There’s a note in your bulletin under the anthem title, “I Believe.” It refers to the complex history of the text used in the piece. I encourage you to read that series of four posts. (https://humanistseminarian.com/2017/03/19/i-believe-in-the-sun-part-i-look-away/) The first is titled, “Look Away.” If you don’t want to have what you’ve been told about this text challenged, stop reading. Look away, the blogger said. Because what you’ve heard before, what you’ve come to believe about this story, probably isn’t true.
In the most familiar version, the poem was found on a wall in the cellar of a house in Cologne, Germany, a house that had harbored several Jews during World War II. It wasn’t long before the story was embellished. The Jews were hidden in the house by a group of Catholics. It wasn’t just any Jewish person who wrote the poem, but a 12 year old girl. A 12 year old girl, one author said, named Anne Frank. Another version has the words written on the wall of a prison in Cologne. Yet another places it on a wall in Auschwitz.
The blogger listed in the bulletin set out to find the true origin of the poem. The first mention of the poem they could find was a transcript of a BBC interview with a German prisoner of war—code-named “FB”—in England in July 1945, shortly after the war’s end in Europe.
He said he’d always been disturbed by the actions of the German army—of which he was a part—mostly, because of his commitment to doing what he could to build up humanity.
Even my five years as a soldier, FB said, have not been able to shake my resolution (to build up humanity), but have only deepened and strengthened it. Mountainous difficulties tower up before us, and no amount of goodwill will be able to surmount them, unless this good will is borne up by pure love of our fellow human beings and true faith in God.
In a shelter in Cologne, where young Catholics were keeping some Jews in hiding because their lives were threatened, American soldiers found the following inscription:
I believe in the sun—even when it is not shining.
I believe in God—even when He is silent.
I believe in love—even when it is not apparent.
This inscription is only one of those signs which give us cause to believe that faith and humanity have not died.
On the face of it, beautiful words. And because the words were published just four months after Cologne was liberated, it’s likely this is the first published reference to them.
So, let’s think about this. A German prisoner of war in England just weeks after the defeat of his country. A person who, despite his commitment to building up humanity, was part of an army that had been tearing humanity down in horrific ways for years.
Could FB’s take on this story have been influenced at all by guilt? Or even fear? He was, after all, still a prisoner of war. Or maybe it was simply wishful thinking…that despite all the atrocities that had occurred–some, perhaps by his own hand–humanity still had won out.
It’s impossible to know F.B.’s intention in telling this story the way he did. It is clear, though, that if the words were written by a Jewish person in hiding, this Christian man assigned his own meaning to them…a meaning that downplayed his role in the atrocities that had occurred.
It can be hard to learn that the story you have known about something might not be true as you knew it…especially, if you’ve had positive associations with it. I am grateful to the blogger, though, for doing the research on this story. The words are beautiful. It is good that they are remembered. But to assign meaning to them without knowing the actual context in which they were written is to coopt blindly another person’s experience. Coopting someone else’s words about their own beliefs, especially beliefs about God…
…is something we do all the time, isn’t it? We often quote other people’s beliefs about God. Sometimes we quote them and pretend those beliefs are our own. Sometimes we quote other people’s stated beliefs about God to explain why we no longer believe in God.
Why do we do that? Why quote other people’s beliefs about God? It’s no great mystery. We quote other people because articulating our own beliefs in God is really hard, isn’t it? And it’s hard because figuring out what we believe about God is even harder. It’s easier to quote someone else’s beliefs than it is to compose and profess our own.
If I could interview FB, the German prisoner of war, I would ask him about his own beliefs in God, especially in light of what he’d had to do during the war. He said what he believed about humanity, but what did he—he himself—believe about God?
Figuring out what we believe about God…it’s hard work. Were we to interview Nicodemus, I suspect he would concur. As a Pharisee, he had all the “right” answers to the “Who is God?” question. But he’d begun to have questions about the answers he’d been given. His questions were pointed enough, that he came to Jesus. At night. Away from prying eyes.
He might have been embarrassed by his questions, but Nicodemus was still brave enough to ask them. Even as Jesus kept talking over his head, Nicodemus stayed in the conversation. Did Nicodemus come to a deeper understanding of his own beliefs because of the conversation with Jesus? Perhaps. When Jesus dies, he makes arrangements for Jesus’ burial. Regardless of where he ended up in terms of his own belief, Nicodemus is one of my heroes…not because of where he ended up, but because he dared to ask—and wrestle with—his own God questions.
A story written in 1947 by Holocaust survivor, Zvi Kolitz, shows the results of one person’s decision to ask their own God questions.
“Yosl Rakover Talks to God” is set in the final conflagration of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland. By this point, Yosl has lost his wife and all six of his children. The room he’s in–in one of the few houses not already on fire–is strewn with the corpses of friends. As he awaits death, Yosl writes a letter to God.
Here’s part of what Yosl writes. “God of Israel, I have fled to this place so that I may serve You in peace, to follow Your commandments and glorify Your name. You, however, are doing everything to make me cease believing in You. But: if You think that You will succeed with these trials in deflecting me from the true path, then I cry to You, my God and the God of my parents, that none of it will help You. You may insult me, You may chastise me, You may take from me the dearest and the best that I have in the world, You may torture me to death–I will always believe in You. I will love You always and forever–even despite You.”
This story begins by quoting the words sung by the choir this morning. I believe in the sun—even when it is not shining. // I believe in love—even when it is not apparent. // I believe in God—even when He is silent. By the end of the story, Yosl has not simply accepted these words written by someone else. He has done his own wrestling with God and—for himself—has decided to love God…and, truth be told, to hold God accountable.
At the end of his letter to God, Yosl offers these words as a counterpoint to the “I believe in the sun” poem. “I die at peace, but not pacified; conquered and beaten but not enslaved; bitter but not disappointed; a believer but not a supplicant; a lover of God but not God’s blind Amen-sayer.”
I suspect that the peace Yosl professes at the end of his life comes from knowing—with certainty—what he believes. He asked and wrestled with his own questions and came to his own conclusions about his relationship with God.
What are your own personal God questions? Have you wrestled with them? Do you know what you yourself believe about God? Do your beliefs bring you peace? Do you believe when the wind blows in your face, it’s a sign of God? Do you believe that God is really interesting? Do you believe the brightest star is God?
What do you believe about God? Does it bring you peace?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2020