A Divine Push


by Rev. John Morehouse

First in a Series on the “Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism”

 

I begin with a story. Ellie walked cautiously into the neo-intensive unit. The machines were beeping and blipping. Ellie held on tightly to the nurse’s hand. All around her in little plastic tents were babies some smaller than her hand. She was led reluctantly to the last tent on the left. “Here is your baby Ellie” said the nurse. Ellie looked blankly down at the little child. Ellie was a 16 year old girl, a drug addict and scared. She really had no idea how pregnant she was until labor began in a crack house on Chicago’s South side. The baby had been born prematurely and although not addicted would soon die without her mother.

The nurse knew how important this moment was. If Ellie rejected the baby, the little tiny girl would die. If she accepted her the chances were quite good she would live. “Here, just reach your hand in here. It’s all right, she is small but she is still yours and she is alive Ellie, feel her.” The nurse held her breath. Ellie did not move for almost a minute. Finally, she reached her hand into the incubator and touched her little girl’s hand. Almost instantly the baby wrapped her little fingers around her mother’s finger and a smile broke out on Ellie’s face. The child would live. (I do not know the source of this story, though I remember reading it).

This story has a happy ending, although many don’t. Ellie took care of her child, found her way into detox and moved back in with her mother who helps her take care of little Elissa. Ellie recounts the power of that moment. It was the moment when she found, in her words, “God”, God in the touch of a little child. She says it was then that she found her faith.

James Luther Adams was a tweedy man. Born into a Baptist family at the turn of the 20th century, his parents called him Luther and raised him on the fear of hell fire and damnation. But Adams was always a free thinker. Troubled by the closed faith of his childhood he posed the following query to his parents when they pressured him as a boy to be “saved again”, worried as they were that he would be cast into eternal fire while they all went to heaven. “Didn’t you say that to be in heaven is perfect bliss?” he asked his parents. Yes, they agreed. “Well, if I am in everlasting damnation, burning in the fires of hell, how can you be in perfect bliss up in heaven?” It was that same sharp whit and mind that would make him into one of our foremost theologians teaching at Harvard until his death in the late 1980s. Adams was quite in demeanor but anything but in action. This was a man who after studying in Germany right before the Nazis came to power, helped to rescue hundreds of Jews. This was a man who sat before Senator Joseph McCarthy and called him ‘the most dangerous man in America and a liar’. Here was a man who defined for a movement what it means to openly faithful and humanly religious. Wedding the ideals of humanism with the faith that can hold us through the long dark night. In his classic work On Being Human Religiously, he outlines what he calls the “Five Smooth of Liberalism”, Adams outlines the basic foundations of our faith as religious liberals. Over the next five Sundays I will be exploring each of these stones as a way to deepen our own understanding and faith. The first of these stones is what Adams called “open revelation”, in his words ‘revelation is continuous, Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete.’ Especially in terms of faith. Faith, as one young person put it to me is the belief we live and die with. It dawns upon us like a revelation. Like Ellie’s revelation that she was a mother. The point for us as religious liberals is that this is far from the end of the story. Other revelations are possible, new meaning dawns. Ellie will not always believe in God just because of this one experience.

Open revelation is a faith finding its expansion. All of us have some kind of faith. For some of us that faith is supernatural or vaguely agnostic, for others it resides in the goodwill of others, for others it is science and reason, others still money and power. What makes our faith different is that we don’t rest it in one story or one dogma. We rest instead to the continuing revelations that life puts before us. Revelations like Ellie had. And because those revelations are not sealed our faith can expand and contract with our experience. Faith is rarely taught. Remembering my seminary days I can see I wasn’t there to learn faith. Early church history and systematic theology are not what I am talking about; rather that deep feeling of meaning that comes from a revelatory experience bolstered over time. This is why I think, for instance, the debate on abortion is largely a waste of time. The positions are too deeply rooted to reach meaningful compromise.

The reason we are able to be expansionists of faith is that we, as liberals, believe in the here and now. As Adams puts it time is part of revelation. We measure what we believe with our experience and reason. Adams called this putting “faith in a creative reality that is re-created”. (Ibid, Adams) Truth is never final, it is always subject to new realities over time. A century ago we didn’t think women could even be trusted to vote, now we have a woman running for President and a black man as well!

Let me illustrate this smooth stone of expanding faith with a personal story. A story that had a lot to do with my entering the ministry. One of my greatest faith expansive moments came during one of my daughter’s birth. This is when Frances and I were building contractors. We weren’t particularly good contractors, we kept given low income people low prices but we tried. I was thirty feet in the air on a very hot August day working on a roof that was entirely too steep. Frances had gone into labor that morning but we knew her labors were long and rain was coming and I needed to get this done. She insisted I finish the job so there I was. We had decided to have this baby at home, not for philosophical reasons but because we didn’t have insurance. We had a great mid-wife and a good backup plan and Frances was an experienced mother. About mid-afternoon the man of the house told me my wife had called and it was time for me to get home. I was down off that roof and on my way in a flash.

Lois, our mid-wife was one of the most serene and faithful people I have ever known. She was a Seventh Adventist and was a mid-wife out of a sense of calling and vocation. She would not take any money from us, although we did build her a deck later on. (Besides at that time, having a baby at home was illegal in New York State). Lois had learned her craft in Mexico tending to some of the poorest mothers on the planet. She wasn’t there to proselytize her faith, she just did it. At since Adventists are so health conscious she was very careful and certain. Still Frances labor was very long and very hard. By early morning she was losing strength and we thought we might have to transport her to the hospital, it was actually very serious. Lois let her rest between contractions and asked me if I would pray with her. “Pray?” I asked. “Yes. Pray.” Now, I was a hard core atheist at this time of my life so this seemed like a dangerous idea but we prayed. It was so beautiful. None of this “God change this or God change that”, rather “God grant us strength and life.” The contractions began again. Frances was exhausted. Lois reached in and manipulated the baby’s head and then, from somewhere, my wife found energy that amazed me, and push she did and out into the warm light of early dawn came my daughter. Tears streamed down my face. God was here. A power of spirit rushed over me so intensely I almost collapsed. I did fall to my knees to hold my daughter, and pass her to her mother.

As baby and mother rested quietly, Lois turned to me and said, “We call that a divine push”. Well, yes, I thought, a divine push from Frances saved her life. “More than Frances” Lois said as if reading my mind. “You, John, you have been pushed. You are being called. I don’t think being a contractor is your life’s work.” She quietly put away her things and left.

I struggled with that push for a long time. It’s not as if I found Jesus, but it was a revelation that there is more to life and death than we can see. I have been searching for that “more” ever since. I don’t believe in a personal God despite this experience because, as a Unitarian Universalist, I temper my revelation with other realities. Science is part of that revelation. I know that we have the capacity to know so much more through reason and experience. But my daughter’s birth also taught me another truth, more enduring, more faith-full; that we will never know all there is to know, that at the heart of our living and being is a mystery. I temper my revelation with new revelations, about the power of emotional intelligence, common sense and yes, the power of surrendering myself to forces greater than I can be. Forces like compassion, love, forgiveness and grace. The heart and the head.

Today I rest my expanded faith on this smooth stone; God, if I dare use such a loaded word, is a power greater than myself, and is essentially a mystery, which is why I rarely use the word to describe my faith. I guess I am more of an enchanted agnostic these days – still searching but knowing that people are basically good and we need one another to survive the vagaries of reality, fortunate, painful or indifferent.

Kim Beach, a colleague and Adams biographer once wrote that “faith is fidelity to transcendent purposes and values” (From the introduction, James Luther Adams: The Prophet hood of All Believers edited by George Kim Beach, 1986). We are prepared to be open to the possibilities that there just might be more out there than we first believed. In Adams’ words “revelation is continuous”. Amen.

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