Faith as a Verb

by Rev. Frank Clarkson

Faith as a Verb

Our worship theme for this month is “faith.” And I wonder how you hear that word. Does the idea of faith warm your heart, or leave you cold? I’m grateful for the opportunity to dig into this word, and what it represents, because faith is one of those things that gets spoken of a lot, but how often do we explore what it really means?

We are in the middle of a big upheaval in the religious world. Older ways of doing church aren’t working anymore, and are falling away. I grew up in a time when most people simply accepted what the church said, and tried to go along with it, or pretended to. Faith was not something you worked out for yourself—it belonged to the church, and you either signed on to that, or not. And if you were translating and making your own meaning, you probably did this quietly, right?

When folks come to our UU101 class, one of the things they often say is that they were the ones who asked questions in church and parochial school; they were the ones who wondered about these things. And sometimes they were told, “Don’t ask so many questions—just have faith!” This old-fashioned view of faith sees it as like a locked box; factual, unchangeable. But if that is what faith is, I wouldn’t be here. And I doubt you would be either.

To question, to wonder, to ponder; to struggle with the meaning of life and our place in it, isn’t this is what it really means to be a person of faith? And isn’t that why you are here? Because the church, with all its imperfections, still tries to offer what is increasingly hard to find in our society: some hope, some assurance that there is goodness and meaning in life. And some ways to be in touch which that which is holy and good. And some ways to be of use, so that we might leave this world a little better than we found it.

Sometimes I worry that we are failing you here—that I am failing you—that we aren’t doing enough to provide ways for you to really engage with these depths. That we aren’t doing enough to help you figure out what it means to be a person of faith; helping you to live the life that is yours.

Do you know what I’m talking about? You want to lead a life that is grounded and real, a life in which you feel connected to those around you and to that source, that mystery, that presence we catch glimpses of from time to time. And you want to be of use, to make a difference, right?

But this is easier said than done. There is so much in us, and around us, that seems to pull us away from the good life we seek. The poet Mary Oliver confesses,

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.[1]

The good news is, you can find your way back to that hope. You can, step by step, build a good life, a life of faith. But it doesn’t just happen by wishful thinking. It takes attention, and time, and effort.

You can find your way back to hope. But it doesn’t just happen by wishful thinking

And we are living in a culture that doesn’t much support this, that is more invested in the quick fix, in the easy way out. In efficiency and expediency over matters of the heart and soul, love and justice. But that’s why we are here, right? And I vow that this year, I am going to focus on faith, and faith formation. Not just for this month, but all year. Because it’s needed, these days. Because it’s central to everything else we might try to do here.

So if you’re someone who’s inclined to resist the word “faith,” because you associate it with rigid closed-mindedness or belief in the unbelievable, how about thinking of faith, not as a noun, but as a verb? As trusting your own deepest experience, that’s how meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg describes faith. As a way of living your life that is openhearted, creative, lively, happy. Anyone want more of that?

For some of you, it may help to disassociate faith from things churchy or pious. To seek faith less in cathedrals and holy books, and more in your own body, and in the holy things of this good earth. In dirt and the flowers that spring out of it, the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, our blue-green Earth and the stars and planets overhead.

And it may help to go back to today’s reading from time to time:

Faith is not a series of gilt-edged propositions that you sit down to figure out,
and if you follow all the logic and accept all the conclusions,
then you have it.

It is crumpling and throwing away everything,
proposition by proposition,
until nothing is left,
and then writing a new proposition, your very own,
to throw in the teeth of despair...

Faith is not making religious-sounding noises in the daytime.
It is asking your inmost self questions at night
and then getting up and going to work...

Faith is thinking thoughts
and singing songs and
making poems
in the lap of death. [2]

Our lives include joy and sorrow, excitement and boredom, struggle and pain. A life of faith is forged in this crucible of living. You lose a spouse or a child, and you wonder, “How do I go on?” You struggle with unemployment or depression or addiction, and dare to ask, “Is there any kind of life beyond this?”

Faith is admitting you are lost, and asking for help. Faith is putting one foot in front of the other. And when you are able, faith is reaching out to help someone else. Faith is not being sure, but cobbling together what you've got, as best you can, and trusting that it will be enough. Faith is a verb.

We just sang, “If they ask what I did well, tell them I said yes to life.” That’s what faith is, keeping your heart open in spite of pain and disappointment, saying yes to life when it would be easier to say no, and slam shut the door to your heart.

But you don’t have to travel this way alone. Though some of what I’m talking about is inevitably done in solitude, in my experience, the life of faith never fails to provide you with companions along the way

The poet Christian Wiman wrote a little book called My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, in which he explores what a viable contemporary faith would look like. He says, “Faith is not a state of mind, but an action in the world, a movement towards the world.” In a radio interview, he put it this way:

“Faith is an orientation of your life or it’s an energy of your life or however you want to define it. But I think it is objectless. (It doesn’t have to be faith in something.) And that has helped me to… to explain to myself why I do need some sort of structures in my life. I do need to go to church. I need specifically religious elements in my life. I find that if I just turn all of my spiritual impulses — if I let them be solitary, as I am comfortable in being, I’m comfortable sitting reading books and trying to pray and meditating. Inevitably, if that energy is not focused outward, it becomes despairing. It turns in on itself and I will look up in a couple of months and I find that I’m in despair. So I think that one of the ways that we know that our spiritual inclinations are valid is that they lead us out of ourselves.” [3]

Faith is not an object, he’s saying, it’s a direction. Faith is not so much a noun as a verb, the point of which is to take us somewhere. Deeper into our lives. Deeper into the world. Toward greater connection and more substantial commitments. Toward a richer and more meaningful life. Isn’t that what you’re interested in? Isn’t that why you are here?

To that end, we are going to be offering more ways to explore faith this year. Like our monthly after-church “reflecting on” series, in which we invite you to gather to reflect on our monthly theme. Today we’ll be reflecting on faith at noon in my office. And soon we’ll be starting up small group ministry—small groups meeting twice a month, offering an opportunity to connect with others and work on and work out your own faith. And if there’s something you’re hungry for—a workshop on prayer or some other practice, a class or group that will help you in your spiritual growth—will you let me know what that is?

And though this talk of faith may seem obscure to some of you, it’s not rocket science. It’s not that complicated. “Ours is a simple faith, life is a short embrace, heaven is in this place, everyday…” [4] It just takes attention, and practice, and the desire to get started.

And isn’t it good, that we have these lives we have been given, and we have one another, and we have this world that needs us? Isn’t it good, even, that we have these challenges and these struggles, that push us out of our comfort, and draw us toward something more? The hymn says, “Ever singing, march we onward,” and that is our calling: to be people of faith on the way, together.



  1. Mary Oliver, “When I Am Among the Trees.”
  2. Mary Jean Irion
  3. Christian Wiman interview by Krista Tippett on “On Being,” available online at A Call to Doubt and Faith and Remembering God
  4. Song by David Tamulevich, “(Ours is a) Simple Faith.”