Long ago and far away, there was a girl named Vasilisa. Sometimes she was called Vasilisa the wise. She was never called Vasilisa the sad, even though her mother died when she was just eight years old. Of course, she was sad about her mother’s passing. But she had fond memories of her, too.
Before she died, her mother called her daughter to her bedside and place a doll in Vasilisa’s hands. It was one she had carved especially for her. Vasilisa’s mother said, “Take good care of this little doll and she will take good care of you.”
Vasilisa put the little doll in her pocket. On the day her mother died, despite her tears she remembered to care for the doll. She saved a few crumbs of cake that day and, in the evening, brought them to bed with her, along with a sip of tea. She placed her doll on her pillow, gave her the treat, and sip of tea. She told the doll her troubles, ending with a question, “Little doll, little doll, what shall I do?”
It seemed that the little doll’s eyes shone like fireflies. It was as though the doll spoke and said, just as her mother had always said, “Do not be afraid, Vasilisa. Be comforted. Say thy prayers and go to sleep. The morning is wiser than the evening.”
And it was true for Vasilisa as it is for me. Things never seem as bad in the morning as they do in the evening.
Every day, Vasilisa would save some bread or a few raisins and bring them, with a glass of tea, to her bed. There she fed her doll and told her all her troubles, ending with the question, “Little doll, little doll, what shall I do?” (ask congregation to say it with me)
Talking to the doll like this always comforted Vaslisa and gave her courage.
Even when her father found a new mother for her, who wasn’t her mother.
Even when the woman gave her the worst of all chores.
Even when this woman sent her to fetch a new flame for their fire and Vasilisa had to walk all alone through the forest, with its creaking trees and dark shadows.
Vasilisa held her little doll tight to her chest and found strength.
Even when she arrived in the forest clearing, at Baba Yaga’s hut, which stood on chicken legs and was surrounded by a fence made of skulls and bones.
Even when the horrid Baba Yaga appeared cackling, spitting, and scary as can be.
Even when the horrid Baba Yaga told Vasilisa that if she wanted the flame her stepmother had sent her to fetch, she was to do endless chores: cleaning the whole house and the yard and making dinner too.
And even more than that the horrid Baba Yaga demanded that, besides usual sorts of chores, Vasilisa do impossible things like sorting the chaff form the wheat and the dirt from the poppy seeds.
Baba Yaga was unhappy that Vasilisa managed to do all the impossible tasks Yet Baba Yaga kept her promise and gave Vasilisa the flame her stepmother wanted. She was only too eager to do so, for she could tell that Vasilisa’ strength came from her mother’s blessing and this was not something that Baba Yaga liked to be near.
When Vailisa left, she carried the new flame with her. It allowed her to see the forest with new eyes. She realized it was not dangerous and she was no longer afraid.
When she came out to the other side of the forest, she saw, by the that same light, that her stepmother’s house was not Vasilisa’s home and never would be. She walked right past it.
She walked on and on until at last she came to the home of another woman, one who welcomed Vasilisa to live with her. This woman encouraged her to care for the doll and taught her the skills she needed to find fortune and happiness.
Still, every day, Vasilisa saved some bread and a few raisins and brought them, with a glass of tea, to her bed. There she fed her doll. Now she had as many joys as she had troubles to whisper to the doll.
Someone recently said to me that they felt I was brave for stepping out in front of the Miami/Dade School District Board and speaking in favor of October being set aside for LGBTQ History month. And while I was a little concerned about, shall I say afraid of, some of the Proud Boys and Mothers for Liberty there, I didn’t feel particularly brave at the time. I tend to think of courage in terms of some of the routine activities of life rather taking a public stand or speaking truth to power at large events. I think of the courage it takes to learn to ride a bike for the first, second, and third time, or the courage it took to ask my wife to marry me. As a kid I had to be courageous when my toes were cut off by a lawnmower (not to worry they were sewn back on). As an adult I had to be courageous when I decided to become a father, and be a better father to my kids than my father was to me. These are the kinds of things that required real courage from me, the events of life that required me to show up for myself and do something that I was not sure I could do.
I am sure that everyone here has had to be courageous at certain points in their life, in certain situations, most times just in the normal routine of living. Think back on those times—listen with your own ears and look with your own eyes—What do you hear? see?
Each of us at least occasionally feels a little afraid of something that another person might approach without a care in the world. I, for instance, am afraid of heights. So, when asked to climb up a telephone pole and jump off to grab a trapeze swing, needless to say I was a little hesitant; my palms sweated so much they dripped. One of the ways I deal with fears is to do what I am afraid of, at least once. I try to not let my fear keep me from doing whatever is before me. I think I should mention that the telephone pole was on a ropes course, and I was strapped in a safety harness. I was the first one up the pole that day, because I felt if I didn’t go up there first, I might not go up there at all. I don’t know if that makes sense to any of you, but that’s what works for me—being first in a difficult situation and intentionally not letting my fears stop me. This has worked for me on roller coasters, rappelling, talking about my feelings, and so many other activities I had difficulty with.
So how do you deal with situations when you feel some fear? Vasilisa dealt with fear by holding the doll her mother gave her close to her chest, by feeding it and talking to it. This might seem like a child’s way to cope with fear, but it did work for her, in essence, she had faith in the connection with her deceased mother that her doll symbolized. In my practice as a psychotherapist, I learned that there are certainly a number of more destructive ways of coping with fear than holding and feeding a doll. Loathe as I am to judge what people have faith in to help them cope with fear, I do warn people of the danger of the inherently destructive coping habits, like using drugs or alcohol or using any potentially addictive behavior—sex, porn, overeating, risky stunts-- to cope with fear. As we grow and mature, it is certainly useful to re-consider childhood coping methods, things/behaviors that we have faith in, things that give us a little extra courage when we need it, to see if we have outgrown them, if they are still working for us or to see if they are leading to less than healthy tendencies or even to try on new behaviors, rituals, strategies as we mature.
And so I wonder, how do we choose which spiritual coping strategies, ones that we have faith in, to help us with our everyday need for courage? The other day I attended a class called Religionless Christianity that gave me some insight. What is Religionless Christianity? Well I will get to that in a moment. First, let me say that this class started me considering the why’s and how’s of faith and spiritual coping strategies. Foundational to my thinking on this issue of courage is my belief that we all need a little help to bolster our courage from time to time so we can get through what life presents us. Some might say that we need a little faith in something to get us through some difficult situations. How do you find that extra courage? Do you make a conscious choice about where that boost to your courage comes from? Do you turn to friends, family, god, goddess, some form of divinity? Do you turn to meditation, prayer, ritual or an inanimate object that you have infused with some significance?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, a theologian and an anti-Nazi dissenter during World War II. He was jailed for his dissention against the Nazis, and was involved in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler—he helped put together a plan in which someone put a suitcase with explosives under a table where Hitler and others were talking. I would say that early on in his life Bonhoeffer found courage in his relationship with his god. Later in his life, his faith was based on his fervent and passionate belief in the need to fight the Nazi regime and Hitler in particular. But here’s the thing, once he was imprisoned, once he had time to reflect on what it was that held him together, what it was that gave him everyday courage, his faith transformed, which in turn transformed him.
You can find some clues to his evolving faith in his letters that were smuggled out while he was in prison. He wrote such things as: “I am often reluctant to name the name of God to religious people…Religious people speak of God as a point where human knowledge is at an end… or when human strength fails. Actually, it’s a deus ex machina … to solve insolvable problems.” In English that is "god out of the machine". The concept that god is somewhere out there and comes, or swings, into one’s life when something needs to be fixed or to solve an unsolvable problem. This is a god-ness many people of various faiths believe. They use their faith in this belief to give them the courage to face difficult situations. The problem is when the unsolvable remains unsolved—a person dies anyway, a person is still ill, a hurricane changes its trajectory at the last minute-- this faith can break down, leaving the person without a coping strategy, vulnerable, fragile, without a foundation beneath their feet for what they are facing and for what they may face in the future.
Unfortunately, I have seen this too many times. I have been called to help people rebuild a faith based on something other than a God that will fix things. Bonhoeffer wondered about a fix-it god after the failed attempt on Hitler’s life and during his many years of imprisonment. While in prison he also wrote: “We should find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know. God wants to be grasped by us not in unsolved questions, but in those that have been solved. This is true of the relation between God and Scientific knowledge, but it is also true of the universal human questions about death, suffering, guilt,” and I would add fear, and ultimately the courage to face all of these. In this concept of a personal God could still be like Vasilisa’s doll, something that we infuse with meaning and purpose and significance. Not a handyman god that fixes your problems, but a faith that grounds us in something important and meaningful to us—perhaps certain values, principles, or perhaps a connection to a person or people or a community that is significant to us. Perhaps a model such as the one that Bonhoeffer would later affirm: a Religionless Christianity; that is using the life and teachings of Jesus as a model for living.
As Bonhoeffer reminds us: “The ‘religious act’—[which might be a prayer, a meditation, a ritual]-- is always something partial, whereas ‘faith’ is something whole and involves the whole of one’s whole life.” What we have faith in comes from the whole of one’s liftime, from our experiences, from our relationships, from our lived connections with all that is around us.
Bonhoeffer goes on to assert that, “Our relationship to God—[at least a personal god as Bonhoeffer understands it]-- is no ‘religious’ relationship to some highest, most powerful and best being imaginable…that is no genuine transcendence…[genuine] transcendence is not [found in] the infinite, unattainable tasks, but [found in] the neighbor within reach in any given situation.” He is suggesting that through our relationships with people, friends, family, and stranger who are within reach we can encounter the deeply spiritual, the meaningful, the transcendent. These relationships are what we can have faith in, in the here and the now.
He concludes that we must “… recognize that [we] have to live in the world—‘etsi deus non daretur’ [“as if God did not exist”]…god compels us to recognize it. Thus, our coming of age leads us to a truer recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as those who manage lives without God.” According to Bonhoeffer, you must live in the world as if your god does not exist. Live your life without having faith in a god that will make things better. Live your life having faith that you and those you are in relationship with will make things better. Be the change you seek in the world.
This may not be a novel concept to some of you. And in true Unitarian Universalist fashion, even as I embrace this theology, I still think that a sense of god, goddess or divinity is useful to some of us, or at least useful to me. And this is where Bonhoeffer’s idea of a Relgionless Christianity comes from. Religions can and will only ever see part of the truth of how the world works and how we can courageously face what life presents to us. There is no perfect religion, as there is no perfect god to have faith in all the time in every situation. Religions have traditions, rituals, knowledge in which we can ground our faith sometimes, but not wholly, not over the whole of human experience or the whole of each human; all of the world’s religious traditions are always partial.
What we ground ourselves in, what we have faith in, what helps us in those times when we need everyday courage, needs to be fluid, responsive to us as we change and everything that changes around us. A rock that we hold onto in one storm, may only work sometimes, and not in every storm. We may need many different talismans, rituals, traditions, dolls, people, gods or goddesses—throughout a lifetime. And none of them will fix any of what we may be called to face. We use them to help us be brave to feel what we need to feel, to work through what we must work through, so we don’t feel so alone and so that we are confident that we have the strength or courage we need in a given situation. And it is really helpful to build within ourselves a sense of resilience in the face of fear and anxiety. How do we do this? By developing a rich deep faith, based on ritual, traditions, dolls, people, gods or goddesses that hold meaning for you. A faith that you can share with others, a faith you can live in the world, a faith that you continue to explore and consider for a lifetime. A faith that has real connections to this world, including the people in your life and your sense of who you are in this world.
Everyday courage is not something we have to find alone. There is so much out there to help you find the courage you need when you need it, if you but reach out to the hand of another, if you but make time in your life to look within yourself, if you but find the meaningful, the significant, the transcendent in your life. Faith is a verb. Go out and live it.