St Helena United Methodist Church sermon

Belief and trust

For what we believe reflects what we take ourselves to be. Our opinions, biases, perspectives and understandings of how the world works and what its purpose is, are often a reflection of what we believe, of what we are taught, of how we perceive existence to function. When we are born, our minds and hearts, personalities, and bodies, are at a very early stage of development. We are not as once was said a blank slate waiting to be written upon, but we are a malleable, unidentified, porous being of great intelligent awareness, wholly unused to a body or an ego structure. So we immediately begin to learn how to function in this location of flesh and bone, organs and blood, presence and routine, stillness and activity. We learn so much from being in our mother’s womb, growing all the months from an initial single fertilized cell to a complex, multiplicity of cells, synapses and singularity. Much of this learning is by observing, our own observing, as we grow and change, becoming more capable and skilled each day. Especially since we are born out of our mother’s body, we begin to watch and practice our developing physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual abilities thru her. A fascinating process that developmental psychologist define as mirroring, is when we as infants learn by observing and copying those in our environment who are more skilled than we are. But it goes further than our simple attempts at copying how our parent or sibling, or caregiver moves or functions. It is not possible that we would be so differentiated at this early period in our lives to be able to think, “I cannot move easily as my legs do not function well, but I see that my Mom can move and walk and lift and carry me; how can I do this?”  no, this will happen in time, but the wonderful thing is our bodies know it before we do so in our conscious mind. The brain produces mirror neurons, nerve cells which connect and communicate via electrical changes known as synapses with other neurons, to allow our observations to begin to mold how we think and respond to a variety of early learning settings. For a child is always learning, especially when they are first born and over the next 2-3 years. It continues as they get older but generally the learning expansion slows to a more manageable pace as we age and begin to function more readily and consistently. Mirror neurons respond when a person observes another performing a particular task or action; they also fire when the person themself performs the task or function, or when they attempt to. It is thought that by observing the other who is modeling behavior we need or relate with, that our brains begin to respond in such a way that we start a pattern of brain activity, leading to physical or mental or emotional action to support our ability to function in the world as independent beings. This takes a lot of time and practice, but with many repetitions, and if the pattern works well enough, we find a way of relating and engaging with life so that we begin to believe, that it is who we are for it reflects our skills and understanding and eventually our values. So before we can functionally think as an independent self, our brains provide the neurological tools to allow us to learn and adapt somewhat unconsciously. Which is extraordinary when you think about it. It appears that most animal life also has mirror neurons that they use to function and learn, not just humans. But in time, humans learn to be conscious and to make choices, moving from the unconscious whereas, as far as we know, animals do not move from the unconscious to the conscious. At least not to the degree that humans can. Though certainly some animals seem smarter than some people.

So belief is not just about practicing the skill of walking or being physically capable. It is also about what we think to be true or relate to as real and genuine.

Following this same process of mirroring, we as children learn what our parents or families or churches or schools or cultures tell us, not by learning as in the classroom, but simply by being in the environment and soaking it up. This is where our sponge like nature comes into play, for we are steeping in what others think and believe all the time. But as we get older, we have the ability to have boundaries, to understand that our life is uniquely ours, so that we can consciously decide what we believe or do not believe. When we are young, we do not have this ability to separate and form our own opinions. That takes a lot of practice. So we learn at the kitchen table what to think about other groups or races, what to believe in politics or religion, what roles we play as boy or girl and what to be believe about the neighbors or the people in other countries or about our pets or animals or the world in general.

Belief is often so deeply embedded in our minds and psyche, that we find it difficult to separate from it. As children it is impossible to do so unless we are forced to. The older the belief, the more real it seems, the more unchangeable it is, and the more we trust it.

When others challenge our beliefs, we can feel hurt or angry or dismissive of their lack of knowledge or understanding. We might think they are foolish or stupid or evil for holding a different belief or opinion. As a result, we do not trust them, for they are clearly ill informed or dumb or gullible enough to believe differently than we do.

So trust and belief are closely linked together. And belief is not to be taken for granted but rather to be renewed and reviewed on a regular basis. How we believe today is not necessarily how we will believe tomorrow or next year or in 20 years. We learn in life all the time and so our beliefs will change and how we trust and what we trust will change too. This is right for it is how God works in the midst of life. We are given intelligence and the ability to accrue knowledge through experience and study, through relationship and prayer. In time, we also find that we have a little bit of wisdom, which like love is the essence of our life, the precious pearl that slowly develops in our soul, over the course of the many days, weeks, months and years of our existence in creation and God. Wisdom is not to be put aside or ignored but to be valued, appreciated and shared.

I used to believe like my parents, that there was no god, that the democrats were always right and that art was always good. Much has changed in my beliefs over time. And it has made me wiser, more loving and less judgmental. I still struggle with these and other tings all the time, but not as much as I used to, for I know that god will tell me when it is time to review and renew, for it is the nature of life. Life is change, constant change, but that is how new life comes into being. Just because something works well today, does not mean it will always be this way. In time it will change and this is good.

We need our beliefs to remind us of what is important in life, not to bind us to systems that no longer work for us. Belief can be a poison if we do not review and renew it on a regular basis. This is what God asks of us that we let our beliefs change, let our trust deepen, allow our faith to grow beyond the bounds of mere identification or observance, for if we let them grow, and ourselves along with them, then all these lead us in time to the truth, and the truth will set you free.

But if we do not allow this natural progression to take place, we will be trapped in a prison of fools and devils for fear of letting our beliefs change. Then we become stuck in old dysfunctional beliefs rather than allowing God and life to lead us to new knowledge, understanding and wisdom.

Know in the first place that the God you seek is within yourself. He is the life and soul of the universe and to attain Him is the supreme purpose of life. Evil and sorrow are due to your belief that you are separate from this universal Truth. The ego has set up this wall of separation. Have a strong and intense longing to realize Him, that is, to know that your life is one with the life of the universe. Then surrender up the ego by constant identification with God through prayer, meditation and performance of all action without desiring their fruit. As you progress on this path, which is the path of devotion, knowledge and self-surrender, your attachment to the unrealities of life will slacken, and the illusions of the mind will be dispelled. Now your heart will be filled with divine love, and your vision purified and equalized, and your actions will become the spontaneous outflow of your immortal being, yielding you the experience of true joy and peace. This is the culmination of human endeavor and fulfillment of the purpose of life.      Papa Ramdas, 1884-1963. Hindu mystic