Tag Archives: Christianity

I Believe in the Sun, Part IV: Conclusion

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.

— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.


In the first three posts of this series, I wrote about the complicated history of the “I believe in the sun” quotation and its provenance. As I related in the second post, the earliest printed reference I could find was from the July 13th, 1945 edition of the Quaker publication The Friend, from London, which gives a partial transcript (translated into English) of a German language BBC European Service radio show. A German P.O.W. held in England, and identified only as “Prisoner F. B.,” is quoted by The Friend as saying this:

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.

Prisoner F. B. gives the sentence about God in the middle of the quotation. In the third post, I wrote about the earliest source I found that gives the sentence about God at the end. The English language version of this source is the 1947 book The Tiger Beneath the Skin, by Zvi Kolitz, in which the quotation appears as the epigraph of the short story “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God,” which later became a classic of Holocaust literature. The original Yiddish versions of the story appeared on September 25, 1946 in Di Yiddishe Tsaytung, a Jewish newspaper published in Buenos Aires. The “Yossel Rakover” version of the quotation is the one given at the top of this page.

In this final post, I’d like to address a few final questions.


What is the connection between Prisoner F. B.’s story and Kolitz’s story?

There are three likely possibilities: Either Prisoner F. B. and Zvi Kolitz each heard the story from some common source (with possibly some intermediate steps), or Kolitz heard the BBC broadcast in which Prisoner F. B. spoke, or Kolitz read the transcript of the show in The Friend or from a source that quoted The Friend. There is something to be said for all three of these, but if I had to choose one as being the most likely, I would say that Kolitz heard the BBC broadcast, just because that show would likely have had a much larger audience than The Friend.

Is the story behind the quotation true?

Did someone really write some version of the “I believe in the sun” quotation in a cellar or shelter in Cologne? Well, suppose that Zvi Kolitz did indeed hear this story via the BBC or The Friend. Then the only source we have for the quotation is Prisoner F. B. As I asked in part two, how would Prisoner F. B. have heard of this? And what psychological incentives might he have had for embellishing the story, or even for stating as fact something he had heard as fiction, or as rumor?

On my part, I would not be surprised to find out that the story is true, that somewhere in Cologne American soldiers found those words on a wall. On the other hand, I would also not be surprised to find out that Prisoner F. B. made the whole thing up for the sake of providing a memorable story that could help alleviate the guilt he may have been feeling as a self-professed Christian who fought in the German military for five years.

Where did some of the variant attributions of the quotation come from?

In the first post I wrote about some of the places that people claim the “I believe in the sun” quotation was found, and one location that comes up frequently is the Warsaw ghetto. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God” is set in the Warsaw ghetto. For some time “Yossel Rakover” was taken to be a true account, and it begins with the “I believe in the sun” quotation as an epigraph, so it’s possible that people ignored or forgot the epigraph’s statement that the quotation is from Cologne and instead set the quotation in Warsaw. Also, in the story, the narrator Yossel Rakover describes how his 10-year-old daughter slipped out of the ghetto to find food, and was chased down and killed by Nazis and Poles. This is echoed in the versions of the “I believe in the sun” story that tell of a young girl who escaped the ghetto and wrote the words in a cave.

Is it possible for us to tell this story with integrity?

Well, it’s much harder to do so now that you know the history, don’t you think? Maybe you should have taken my suggestion and looked away.

Here’s one problem to face. The version of the “I believe in the sun” quotation that many people seem to like best is the one that mentions God at the end. But that’s not what the earliest source says. So if you believe that Prisoner F. B. (and the BBC transcriber, and the Quaker translator) got the words right, then you cannot with integrity put the sentence with God at the end.

If, on the other hand, you take Zvi Kolitz’s version as being closer to the truth, then you face another problem, as I wrote about more extensively in part three: Kolitz undermined the whole sentiment of the “I believe in the sun” quotation in his piece “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God.” I don’t think that it is possible, with integrity, to take Kolitz as the source and to give the quotation, with the “cellar in Cologne” story, at face value.

So if you want to tell this story with integrity, I think there’s no way you can avoid giving some of its history. It’s not something you can just mention as a quick aside. I think it is still possible to use the story — as I did in this sermon — but it takes some time to set the context, and to not brush aside the complexities.

Why should we take all of this so seriously?

The Holocaust is serious business. This is not an area where it is good to blur the boundaries between what it is true and what is false. There are still groups of people who would like us to believe that the entire Holocaust is fiction; and there are other people who would like to try to pass off false stories as true. Out of respect for the millions who died, we should be scrupulous about the truth.

And the stories we tell do affect what people think. While researching the “I believe in the sun” story, I found an interesting citation. The book Mediating Peace: Reconciliation through Visual Art, Music and Film, edited by Sebastian Kim, Pauline Kollontai, and Sue Yore, contains an article by Sue Yore that considers art works created by undergraduate students at York St John University1. Yore writes of one student (“Student E”) that she

was aware that she did not have any personal and familiar [sic] connections to the Holocaust and therefore had no right according to Stephen Feinstein, director of the [Center] for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota to convey the memory of it. Nevertheless she stated that she ‘still felt emotionally connected’ because as she put it ‘as a human being, suffering is universal, and the Holocaust affects every human.’ […] The student justifies [the use of the image of a bright shining light] based on an inscription discovered on a wall in Cologne where Jews hid from Nazis […]

Our familiar quotation, with its themes that seem so attractive to Christians, inspired a student with no personal or familial connection to the Holocaust to ignore advice about misappropriation in order to convey her interpretation of the Holocaust. Whether or not you think Stephen Feinstein’s guidance is correct here, there is no question that the “I believe in the sun” story has influenced an ethical decision by Student E. What would Student E have thought if she had known that the quote was perhaps about love, rather than about God? What would she have thought had she read Zvi Kolitz’s story about Yossel Rakover?


There are mysteries whose resolutions we will never know — and yet time and again I have found that with persistence we can find greater understanding and get closer, perhaps, to the truth. It has been a long trail, beginning with wondering about the music notes to a moving choral piece, and taking us through London, Cologne, and Warsaw; through the BBC archives, through the microfilm depository at the Graduate Theological Union library in Berkeley, through interlibrary loan and AbeBooks2 and Google Books; and here we are, finally, with more knowledge, and perhaps a clearer idea of the questions that remain.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. And if you take one moral from these essays, let it be: For heaven’s sake, always cite your sources.


The posts in this series:
1. Look away
2. The Friend
3. The secrets of tigers
4. Conclusion


Cover image: Cropped image of the Stockholm Public Library, taken on May 17, 2002 by Flickr user Marcus Hansson and released under a Creative Commons license that allows for sharing and adaptation, with attribution. Original version here.


  1. Sue Yore, “‘Seeing Paradise in the Dust of the Streets’: A Reflection on Student Art Projects,” in Mediating Peace: Reconciliation through Visual Art, Music and Film, ed. Sebastian Kim et al. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 74–98. 
  2. Where I purchased a copy of The Tiger Beneath the Skin, with dust jacket intact. 

I Believe in the Sun, Part III: The Secrets of Tigers

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.

— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.


Many people have found inspiration in this quotation and the story behind it, and have passed it along, sometimes with embellishments. In the first two posts in this series, I wrote about the embellishments, and tracked down what seems to be the earliest written source for the quotation — a source that gives the words in a different order, with a different meaning. If you have thought about using this quotation yourself, I hope you are considering now how best to be true to its history; and I hope that you might also share my discomfort about how often this story about Jews in the Holocaust has been used specifically by Christians to support their own faith — and not so much by Jews, to support theirs.

So when I tell you now that the quotation, exactly as given above,1 is given on page 81 of The Tiger Beneath the Skin, a collection of stories published in 1947 by a Jewish Zionist named Zvi Kolitz,2 perhaps you will feel some relief. There’s an early source, written by a Jew, with the words in the familiar order! We can lay aside our concerns, and go ahead and use the quotation as it is given above, with no qualms!

Or we can look more closely.


Zvi Kolitz was born in the little town of Alytus, Lithuania. In the 1930s he went to Italy for school, and by 1940 he had moved to Jerusalem.3 Kolitz was part of Zabotinsky’s Zionist Revisionist movement, as well as a member of the paramilitary Irgun, which was devoted to ejecting the British from Palestine. He was imprisoned by the British a couple of times, and yet he also joined the British Army in 1942 and served as the Chief Recruiting Officer for the British Army in Jerusalem, to help build up the forces fighting against Germany.

After the war, he traveled widely, representing the Zionist Revisionists (officially) and the Irgun (secretly). As an emissary of the Zionist World Congress, he traveled to Argentina in 1946, and later to Mexico and the United States.


In 1947, Kolitz published The Tiger Beneath the Skin, the collection of short stories mentioned above. The book is a powerful document of its time, a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, filled with rage, and sorrow, and dreams of mystical vengeance.

In “The Curse of the Rabbi of Rytzk,”4 a blind rabbi curses the German soldier who is about to kill him as he sits at prayer in his home. “Know then that it has been decreed from Heaven that you will not fall like a soldier in battle, but as a hunted criminal after the war shall have ended in your defeat. Your death will be delayed by Heaven so that you may live to witness the vengeance of the God of Vengeance on the evildoers of the earth. […] Your comrades […] will not know that God is preserving you only in order to avenge Himself on you […]” The soldier succeeds in his future battles, but he is haunted by a vision of the blind rabbi’s eye, filled with blood. He risks his life unnecessarily while fighting, and even tries to kill himself, but he always survives, and is driven mad by the constant vision of the rabbi’s eye. He escapes from the asylum where he had been placed and flees into a deep Russian forest, where, for a long time afterwards, Russian peasants tell of seeing a man walking on all fours, screaming horribly day and night.

In “The Legend of the Dead Poppy,”5 a mother and daughter are imprisoned in Treblinka. The daughter, 14 years old, is caught trying to escape, and is thrown alive into the camp oven. The daughter’s ash and bone is crushed with the remains of others and used as fertilizer for the fields of poppies surrounding the camp, and the mother believes she will be able to find the flowers that contain the soul of her daughter. She creeps through a wide spot in the electrified fence one night and wanders the fields, until she finds two poppies on one stem that look to her like her daughter’s eyes. She lies down with the flowers until morning, when the guards find her and drag her back to the camp, still holding the double-stemmed poppy. She, and the flowers, are thrown together into the oven. A few days later, when the Nazis pick poppies from the fields to decorate the tables at a celebration of Hitler’s birthday, the water in the vases turns blood red.

There are more stories in the book, as simple and as intense as these two. They are not gentle. They are not resigned. They echo the epigraph that Kolitz chose for the book, the epigraph that gives the book its title:

… For we are tired of bearing our sadness alone
And the secrets of tigers under the skin of a lamb.
—Ury Zvi Greenberg


Most of the stories from The Tiger Beneath the Skin have been forgotten, but one of them has become a classic of Holocaust fiction and has taken on a life of its own: “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God.”6

“Yossel Rakover” begins with its own epigraph: the “I believe in the sun” quotation, as given at the top of this page. But in contrast to the quiet, patient, passive faith suggested by the epigraph, “Yossel Rakover” tells a story of violent struggle, armed resistance, and argumentative faith. The story uses a framing device: It begins,

In the ruins of the ghetto of Warsaw, among heaps of charred rubbish, there was found, packed tightly into a small bottle, the following testament, written during the ghetto’s last hours by a Jew name Yossel Rakover.

Yossel Rakover is leaving a note for the future, telling the story of the final hours of the ghetto before the Nazis completely destroy it, and telling of his own imagined argument with God. He begins by describing how his wife and six children have all died by violence or disease, as they fled the countryside, came to Warsaw, and struggled to survive in the ghetto. He and a band of compatriots are in one of the last houses standing, and they have been fighting the German forces for days, with guns and Molotov cocktails. The house is crumbling, most of his friends have been killed, and Yossel Rakover is preparing for his own death: He has three bottles of gasoline, two of which he will use to kill Germans, and one he will soak himself with, so that when the Germans finally attack he will die quickly. Yossel Rakover believes in God, there is no question about that — but he questions God’s silence, and he wonders at how great God’s patience must be to allow the destruction of His people without interfering. Yossel Rakover argues with God, questions Him, accuses Him, and does not excuse Him. Yossel Rakover writes,

I die peacefully, but not complacently; persecuted, but not enslaved; embittered, but not cynical; a believer, but not a supplicant; a lover of God, but not blind amen-sayer of His.

And he closes with the words of Psalm 31:5 — Into your hands, O Lord, I consign my soul — which were also, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’s last words on the cross.


So yes, it is true: One can find the “I believe in the sun” quotation in Zvi Kolitz’s book. But to think that they summarize “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God” is to misread the story. “Yossel Rakover” undermines those words, and tells of a different kind of faith. “Yossel Rakover” is the tiger’s secret; “I believe in the sun” is the skin of the lamb.7


Before closing this installment, I should briefly say something about the amazing history8 of the story “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God.” Zvi Kolitz wrote the piece in Yiddish, and it first appeared (as “Yosl Rakovers vendung tsu got”) in the September 25, 1946 issue of Di Yiddishe Tsaytung, a newspaper serving the large Jewish community in Buenos Aires. Kolitz wrote the story when he was in Argentina in 1946; the editor of the newspaper invited him to contribute something to the paper to help commemorate the upcoming Yom Kippur observances.

The English version of the story that appeared in The Tiger Beneath the Skin was translated from the Yiddish original by Shmuel Katz9, who edited out some short passages whose theology he may not have agreed with. This 1947 translation apparently did not have much influence in literary society. However, in 1953 an anonymous Argentinian Jew sent a typewritten transcription of “Yosl Rakovers vendung tsu got” — without Zvi Kolitz’s name attached, and without any indication that the work was fictional — to the editor of a European Yiddish quarterly publication called Di Goldene Keyt. The story was published, but now it was taken to be fact, not fiction. It was widely spread, read over the radio in Germany, and discussed by public scholars, including Thomas Mann.

It took nearly 40 years for it to be firmly established once again that the piece was not an accounting of actual events, and was in fact written by Zvi Kolitz.

At present there are at least two English translations of the complete original text from Di Yiddishe Tsaytung. One, by Jeffry V. Mallow and Frans Jozef van Beeck, appears in the CrossCurrents paper listed in the bibliography below. The other, by Carol Brown Janeway, appears in the short book Yosl Rakover Talks to God10, and can also be found online here.

I highly recommend reading one of these translations. The story is compelling, and it will change your perception of the “I believe in the sun” quotation that this series of posts is devoted to.


The posts in this series:
1. Look away
2. The Friend
3. The secrets of tigers
4. Conclusion


Cover image:
Public domain image from Pixabay.com, uploaded by user Marcel Langthim. Original here.


Bibliography:

Kolitz, Zvi. The Tiger Beneath the Skin: Stories and Parables of the Years of Death. New York: Creative Age Press, 1947.

Kolitz, Zvi. Yosl Rakover Talks to God. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway; from the edition established by Paul Badde; with afterwords by Emmanuel Levinas and Leon Wieseltier. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.

Kolitz, Zvi, Jeffry V. Mallow, and Frans Jozef van Beeck. “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God: A Story Written Especially for Di Yiddishe Tsaytung.CrossCurrents 44, no. 3 (1994): 362–377.


  1. Except that where I have put semicolons, the original had commas. 
  2. Zvi Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin: Stories and Parables of the Years of Death (New York: Creative Age Press, 1947). 
  3. My source for this bibliographic information is the essay by Paul Badde in the 1999 edition of Yosl Rakover Talks to God, listed in the bibliography. I am not sure how accurate Paul Badde is. He gives Kolitz’s birth year as 1919, while the Library of Congress information at the front of the book gives Kolitz’s birth year as 1913, and Kolitz’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times says that he was 89 years old when he died in 2002. This all seems in line with the confusion that surrounds the history of “Yosl Rakover.” 
  4. Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin, 1–14. 
  5. Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin, 61–68. 
  6. Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin, 81–95. 
  7. Thank you, Bella. 
  8. This history is gleaned from the 1994 CrossCurrents paper listed in the bibliography. It’s also outlined in Paul Badde’s essay, but the CrossCurrents accounting is easier to follow. 
  9. Zvi Kolitz, Jeffry V. Mallow, and Frans Jozef van Beeck, “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God: A Story Written Especially for Di Yiddishe Tsaytung,” CrossCurrents 44, no. 3: 374. 
  10. Zvi Kolitz, Yosl Rakover Talks to God, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 3–25. 

I Believe in the Sun, Part II: The Friend

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.

— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.


In the first of this series of posts, I wrote about the many different ways the quotation above has been attributed. In this second post, I will tell part of the story of my investigation into the origin of the quotation.

If you search for this quotation using Google Books and look for older results, you will notice some variation in its wording. In the line about love, for example, you will find these three versions:

  • I believe in love even when it is not apparent.
  • I believe in love even when feeling it not.
  • I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.

The first of these is the oldest, and in this post I will explore its origin. I’ll recount the history of the other two versions in the next post in this series.


Sometime in the late spring of 1945, the European Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a German-language radio show that included interviews with German prisoners of war being held in England.1 The BBC released a transcript of that radio show, and one copy was given to Bertha L. Bracey, a Quaker educator and relief worker. Bracey translated the transcript from German into English, and on July 13th, 1945 a portion of the translation appeared on pages 453–455 of The Friend, a weekly magazine published by the Society of Friends in London.

The BBC broadcast focused on the reaction of German Christians to their county’s defeat in the war. One P.O.W., identified only as “Prisoner F. B.”, is quoted as saying the following:

Christianity became the content of my youth in time of peace. The wrongness and hollowness of National Socialism were clear to me in spite of its seeming triumph. Christ remained for me Lord of our days. I did not stand alone in this conviction. I found a youth community which did not consist of unworldly cranks, but had the courage in school, profession and youth organisation with Christian principles to swim against the tide of National Socialism. Many of us went into concentration camps in consequence. More than once was I myself brought up before Gestapo.

Even my five years as a soldier have not been able to shake my resolution 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 fellowmen 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.


This is the earliest published example of the “I believe in the sun” quotation that I have been able to find,2 and since it appeared only four months after the liberation of Cologne, it’s not unlikely that it is the first appearance of the quotation in print. This version of the quotation appeared in number of places over the next 10 or 15 years, before being eclipsed by another version. For example, the Gospel Messenger, published in Elgin, Illinois by the Church of the Brethren, quotes The Friend in their February 15, 1946 issue, as follows:

Found in a cellar in Cologne where German Roman Catholics had been sheltering some Jews

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.

—From The Friend

The AFSERCO News, a publication of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, gives the same quotation3, identical except for punctuation and slightly more detail in the attribution: “— From The Friend, London.” I was able to find a few other occurrences of this version of the quotation in sources from the 1950s, sometimes with the “cellar in Cologne” story, sometimes without.


What are some of the issues brought up by the article in The Friend?

One observation is that the quotation is significantly different from what is commonly given today. First of all, most of the versions you see after the 1950s say either “I believe in love even when feeling it not” or “[…] even when I don’t feel it” — the variation given here, “[…] even when it is not apparent,” is unusual. But that change in wording is a minor thing compared to the order of the three sentences of the quotation. The quotation in The Friend speaks of the sun, of God, and of love, but all of the more recent versions of the quotation speak of the sun, of love, and of God.4 Changing the order of the three sentences in the quotation completely alters their meaning, because, rhetorically, the first two provide evidence or motivation to support the third. The quotation as commonly given today encourages us to believe in God, just as we believe in the sun and in love. The quotation from The Friend encourages us to believe in love, just as we believe in the sun and in God. We are asked to have faith in humanity, justified by our faith in God, instead of the other way around.

A second issue brought up by the the story in The Friend is the question of how Prisoner F. B. had heard of the story in the first place. How did the story get from the American soldiers in Cologne to a prisoner of war in England? There must have been several links in the chain, each offering an opportunity for garbling or embellishment. As we saw in Part I, retellings of this story have tended to add details that fit in with the teller’s preconceived notions and stereotypes.

Finally, we should ask ourselves what Prisoner F. B.’s motivations were for telling the story. He was a self-professed Christian. He says that the friends of his youth pushed against the tide of Nazism, and that many of them wound up in concentration camps. But he wound up in the German military, and spent five years as a soldier. Here, at the end of the war, with his country defeated and the horrors of the Nazi regime coming to light, what might he have thought about the friends whose religious beliefs had led them to resist, at great personal cost? Did he regret not having joined them? What might he have thought about his own contribution to the German war machine? Would it have been comforting to him to think of Jews escaping from Nazi persecution? Would it have been comforting to him to think of Jews being protected by Christians? Would it have been comforting to him to think of Jews maintaining faith in God and in love, despite all the harm done to them by the government that he had supported with his actions?

And what would the answers to those questions tell us about how Prisoner F. B. might have — consciously or unconsciously — modified the story?

Of course, there’s no way to know the answers to these questions. But I feel we have to ask them, and wrestle with them, if we want to use the “I believe in the sun” quotation and the story behind it.


If we believe the story as told by Prisoner F. B., and if we want to honor the memory of the anonymous Jew in the cellar who wrote the words, then I feel we are obligated to report the quotation as Prisoner F. B. gives it, with its conclusion not about God, but about love:

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.

If we take the history I have described as the origin of the quotation, we have no business changing the words.


But there is another source of the quotation, a source that gives the sentences with God at the end, rather than love. It comes more than a year after the story in The Friend, and in a Jewish context rather than a Christian one, but it introduces some further problems of interpretation. This source will be the subject of the next post in this series.


The posts in this series:
1. Look away
2. The Friend
3. The secrets of tigers
4. Conclusion


Cover image: “The Cologne cathedral stands tall amidst the ruins of the city after Allied bombings, 1944,” found here. I have been unable to find the original source for this photograph, and I do not know its copyright status.


  1. I don’t know the date of the broadcast, but (as we shall see) it must have been after the liberation of Cologne on March 5th and 6th, and before the publication of the show’s transcript on July 13th. 
  2. Issues of The Friend from the 1940s are not available online. I found the article that included the partial transcript of the BBC broadcast after spending an afternoon in the library of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, skimming through the 1945 issues of The Friend on microfilm. Citations given by the Gospel Messenger and the AFSERCO News, which I had found earlier in online searches, led me to believe that searching through back issues of The Friend would be fruitful. 
  3. Visible in these two snippets
  4. One oddball version, from the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association in 1951, speaks of God, love, and the sun, in that order. 

I Believe in the Sun, Part I: Look Away

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.

— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.


I first saw a version of this quotation, with its remarkable attribution, in the program notes accompanying a performance of a choral work that uses the words as its text: Mark Miller’s choir-plus-piano piece “I Believe.” Here’s a video of a good performance of it.

Miller’s piece is beautiful, a moving expression of the quotation’s powerful statement of faith proclaimed in a time of despair. And the story behind the words certainly strengthens the emotional effect of the music.

A year or so later, I attended a workshop on designing effective worship. The workshop leader mentioned in passing that she had featured Mark Miller’s piece in one of her church’s Advent services. That’s when I first had a feeling that something was a little off. Here we have a story about a Jew’s faith while waiting out the Holocaust in a basement… Was it really appropriate to use this story during Advent, the time when Christians are waiting for the arrival of Christ? It felt to me that even though the identity of the author of those words is unknown, we should still respect their suffering, honor their story, and imagine what their wishes might be. Or is that being too scrupulous?


I’m a strong believer in attribution, and in understanding the context in which words were originally written or spoken. But with a story like this one — words found in the aftermath of war — it’s almost certain that there is no documentary evidence that can give us a better idea of the circumstances of the origin of the quotation.

Almost certain.

I decided to see what I could find.


This post is the first in a series of four, in which I will tell you what I have learned. In this first post, I will describe the carelessness with which people have treated the story behind the “I believe in the sun” quotation, and the uncomfortable place that that carelessness leads to.

Not surprisingly, the quotation is most often used in religious or inspirational material, so the second post in the series will discuss the Christian history of the words and the story behind them. I found what is likely the earliest printed source of the quotation, but this source points back even further in a tantalizing direction. Furthermore, this early Christian telling complicates matters, because the version of the words on the wall that it gives is different, in an important way, from the quotation as I gave it above.

The third post will focus on the amazing history of the first written telling of the story in a Jewish context: as an epigraph to a work of Holocaust fiction that first appeared in a Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires in 1946. This early Jewish telling also complicates matters, because the short story to which the quotation is attached completely undermines the apparent message of the quotation.

The fourth and final post will talk about how we might still use these words, given what we will have learned about them — and why it is important to care about how we use them.


Before we dive in, let me explain the subtitle of this post: “Look away.” This year, Netflix released an adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the book series by Lemony Snicket nominally written for children. The opening credits of each episode are accompanied by a song that encourages the viewer to look away, because the story will not be a happy one. I feel as though I should give a similar warning: If you like the words and music whose history I will be tracing, and if you would like to keep an uncomplicated view of them, look away. As Thomas Gray writes: where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.

But if you are willing to look, let’s begin.


When I began to search online for more information about the “I believe in the sun” quotation and the story behind it, I found something striking: There are several different versions of the story. The cellar in Cologne is sometimes the setting, but the details, and the city, and even the time period change from telling to telling.

The televangelist Robert H. Schuller, in his book The Be Happy Attitudes (1997)1, neglects to mention a city when writes that “[s]crawled in the basement of a German home was a Star of David next to these words […]”

Many sources speak of the wartime cellar in Cologne, but add that the Jews were being sheltered there by Roman Catholics. In some sources, the friendly shelter is transformed into something darker. For instance, David Adam, in the introduction to Clouds and Glory: Prayers for the Church Year, Year A (2001), writes: “It was a Jew, but I know it could only be a person of prayer, who wrote the following on the wall of a prison cell in Cologne as they awaited persecution or death […]” Michael Mayne, too, in the third sermon in God’s Consoling Love: Sermons and Addresses (2013), writes that the words were “written by a Jewish prisoner on a wall in a prison in Cologne.”

Once the cellar has turned into a prison, there is no need to keep it in Cologne. Tim Baker, in Jesus Is for Liars: A Hypocrite’s Guide to Authenticity (2009), writes of “the Jewish prisoner who wrote these words on the wall of his Auschwitz prison camp” (p. 146). Likewise, Monsignor William McCarthy, in The Conspiracy: An Innocent Priest (2010), writes that the words were “[on] one of the walls of the concentration camp of Auschwitz, Poland” (p. 267).

At some point, some tellers of the story must have thought it would be more effective to replace the anonymous writer of the quotation with someone that everyone has heard of. Lenya Heitzig and Penny Pierce Rose, the authors of Pathway to Living Faith (2002), go so far as to attribute the quotation to Anne Frank (p. 263).

Still others move the time period forward nearly half a century. Peter Sidebotham, in Growing Up to Be a Child (2014), notes that the words were “allegedly found somewhere in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall” (p. 65). The source Mr. Sidebotham cites for this is www.searchquotes.com.

Rev. Gerald Kennedy, formerly the United Methodist bishop of Los Angeles, is responsible for spreading a particularly irresponsible version of the story. On page 56 of the December 1970 issue of Pulpit Digest, he writes2:

A young Jewish girl in the Warsaw ghetto managed to escape over the wall and hide in a cave. She died there shortly before the Allied Army broke out the ghetto. Before she died, she had scratched on the wall three things. First: “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.” The second thing she wrote was: “I believe in love, even when feeling it not.” The third thing she wrote was: “I believe in God, even when he is silent.”

I hate to break it to Rev. Kennedy, because it makes his story slightly less poignant, but the Allied Army never liberated the Warsaw ghetto. Hundreds of thousands of Jews from the ghetto had already been shipped to the Treblinka death camp by the time the ghetto was completely destroyed by the Nazis in April and May of 1943. The final destruction was delayed by heroic resistance, but in the end more than 56 thousand Jews who were present at the final battle were either killed on the spot or sent to concentration camps.

The seed cast by Rev. Kennedy fell on fertile ground. Lightly modified, the Pulpit Digest version of the story appears on page 74 of Stephen W. Plunkett’s This We Believe: Eight Truths Presbyterians Affirm (2002); on page 279 of Holman Old Testament Commentary Volume 10 – Job (2004), written by Steven Lawson and edited by Max Anders; in chapter 33 of Maxie Dunnam’s3 The Grace-Filled Life: 52 Devotions to Warm Your Heart and Guide Your Path (2010); and in chapter 10 of Dr. David Jeremiah’s The Coming Economic Armageddon: What Bible Prophecy Warns about the New Global Economy (2010).

And at the beginning of Chapter 4 of E. Carver McGriff’s book Hope for Tomorrow: What Jesus Would Say Today (1999), we find the logical endpoint of this game of telephone:

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even when feeling it not.
I believe in God, even when he is silent.

— Words scratched on the wall of a cave, next to the body of a Jewish girl who had escaped the Warsaw ghetto.


In this relentless progression, we see an ugly aspect of the urge in Christians to retell this story. The words of faith start out as something written by a Jew who survives the war by hiding in a cellar. But apparently the story becomes stronger and the words more significant if we can say that the Jew who wrote the words died in the war — so the story is retold, and now we find the words in a prison cell, or in Auschwitz. But it’s not good enough to have the reader imagine who this Jew might be — after all, we might imagine someone who complicates the story — so next we find out that the author was a girl — an innocent young girl. (One version even specifies that she is 12.) But the story would tug at our hearts even more if the girl had died but had only just missed being rescued — “If only she could have held out a bit longer!” — so we ignore the historical fact of the hundreds of thousands from the Warsaw ghetto who actually died, in order to dramatize the death of our imaginary 12-year-old girl. And finally, finally, we reach the conclusion: the story won’t be good enough, the point won’t be made well enough, the statement of faith won’t move us enough — unless, right there next to the inspirational words on the wall, we see the body of a dead Jewish girl.

I don’t think that these changes happened purposefully, intentionally. The problem is more subtle than that. The problem is that many of the people spreading the story did not care about the actual facts. I’m sure if you were to ask them whether they cared about the truth, they would say that they did; but their actions show that they did not care about it enough to go through the trouble of giving a reference or finding a source.4 And sometimes, when they did not bother to check what they half-remembered about a story they had once heard, they changed a detail, or added a bit of color, in a way that made the account better match their unconscious prejudices. And so we end up with E. Carver McGriff’s vision of Jews as innocent; passive; able to flee and hide but not strong enough to fight; long-suffering; and dead.


“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.” When we tell the story of these words, when we think of the person who wrote them, do we think of an actual person? Do we think of a living, breathing human? A person with strengths and with flaws, someone who has done wrong to others and who has been wronged themself? Someone who has fallen in love, someone whose heart has been broken, someone who has broken the hearts of others? Someone who has sometimes stayed up too late drinking with friends, but who has also done mitzvahs for friends and strangers? Someone with thoughts, and hopes, and dreams? Someone whose life has been ripped apart, whose friends have been killed, whose property has been stolen, and who has been living in a cellar for months? Someone who may have fought on the way to the cellar? Someone who may have supported the resistance? Someone who might care about the words they were inspired to write, and who might care how we use them?

Maybe that’s too hard. Maybe it would be easier to erase that actual human, and replace them with an idealized, pure, 12-year-old girl, whose life was cut tragically short, whose faith in God was uncomplicated, and who certainly won’t complain if we use her words for our own purposes.


So what do we do, if we want to get closer to the truth of the story behind the “I believe in the sun” quotation? There are so many variations on the story — how can we tell which one to believe? Or indeed, how can we tell whether any of them is true?

The first step is to trace back, as best we can, the origin of the story. In the next post in this series, we will go back to London in 1945, and we will hear, surprisingly, the words of a German prisoner of war, as translated by a Quaker woman who was later honored as a British Hero of the Holocaust.


The posts in this series:
1. Look away
2. The Friend
3. The secrets of tigers
4. Conclusion


Image credit: Annular eclipse “ring of fire” by Kevin Baird. Original here. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.


  1. I found the example in Schuller’s book, and most of the examples cited in the next few paragraphs, by searching Google books; I do not have full copies of the books I cite. Where possible I have given page numbers, but for some sources I was only able to identify the chapter in which the quotation appears. 
  2. The Pulpit Digest is not available online. Beth Kumar, a reference librarian at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, went to the stacks and photographed Rev. Kennedy’s article for me while I was far away in San Diego. Thank you, Beth! 
  3. Maxie Dunnam was the only one of these authors to give any sort of reference for the story; she cites the Pulpit Digest (although she gives the wrong page number). It was through her citation that I found Gerald Kennedy’s article. 
  4. As I noted earlier, the one exception in the examples I gave above is Maxie Dunnam, whose citation of the Pulpit Digest I greatly appreciate. Peter Sidebotham’s citation of searchquotes.com does not count; it’s about as trustworthy as citing a Facebook meme. 

Good Fences?

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 6 November 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe. I had hoped that this sermon would lose its relevance after the presidential election. Oh well.)


If you have been particularly observant, perhaps you may have noticed — There’s an election coming up soon.

Something I have noticed this election season, as I travel back and forth between here in Pasadena and my home in San Diego, is that the election makes the borders and boundaries between cities and counties more apparent than usual. The yard signs you see in different places are for different Congressional races — and the billboards support and oppose different issues. Up here in Los Angeles County you have to decide on propositions involving homelessness and how the Department of Water and Power should be run; while in San Diego, we have to decide whether to build another stadium for the Chargers, and whether to require that races for some local offices always have runoffs in November. As you travel from one city to another, the color schemes of the campaign signs change ever so slightly — I guess it’s our Southern California version of fall colors.

Los Angeles County, your home, and San Diego County, my home: They are two communities, with different issues before them. But what happens in each county will affect what goes on in the other — because we’re neighbors.

This is reflected not just in election issues, of course. There are all kinds of cultural ways in which Los Angeles and San Diego behave like neighbors do: similar to one another, but different enough to notice. Like our burritos; you’re much more likely to get french fries in your burrito in San Diego than you are here, and yet we can all agree that those things they serve in San Francisco are a different dish entirely.

More seriously (perhaps): as someone familiar with the Unitarian Universalist community in San Diego, I’ve found it interesting to experience life in the UU community in Los Angeles. Different congregations, different people, different ministers, somewhat different cultures, but facing some of the same problems and opportunities. It’s been an important part of my learning as your intern minister.


So I’ve been thinking about the idea of being neighbors, and today I’d like to talk about some of the things that have come up for me around that idea. I’d like to start by reading you Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”1:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”


There are two ideas competing in the poem — on the one hand, the idea that “good fences make good neighbors,” the idea that the boundaries between us help define who we are, and that maintaining clear borders and clear boundaries helps us get along — and on the other hand, the idea that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the idea that creating walls and boundaries destroys our wholeness. As Frost writes,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

So let’s start with that second idea — that we should consider what it would be like to have fewer boundaries — what it would be like to consider more people to be our neighbors.


Now, if you ask someone in seminary to say something about the idea of “neighbors,” and about expanding our idea of who should count as a neighbor, nine times out of ten the seminarian will start talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, from the Christian scriptures. Even the humanist seminarians. And that’s exactly what I will do — because one of the six sources we claim for Unitarian Universalism is, and I quote, “Jewish and Christian teachings that call on us to love our neighbors as ourselves” — and that is exactly what the Good Samaritan story is about.


I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan before, but let me review it, so the details will be fresh in your mind.

It’s a story from the gospel of Luke.

A lawyer — that is, an expert on the Torah — asks Jesus what he has to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer, and asks him, what does the Torah say, and how do you interpret it. The lawyer answers that the Torah says that you should, first, love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind — and second, you should love your neighbor as yourself. This is actually an answer that is historically appropriate; it mirrors Torah commentary from the first century. In the book of Luke, Jesus hears this answer and says: Exactly, that’s just what you should do.

But the lawyer presses on, as lawyers sometimes do. He asks Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

So Jesus starts his parable, and tells of a man who was walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, which is a very long day’s journey on a road that passes through a valley that was know to be a dangerous place. The man was overtaken by robbers, who beat him, robbed him, and left him half-dead by the side of the road. A Jewish priest walks by and sees the injured man, but crosses to the other side of the road in order to pass by. Then a Levite — a functionary at the temple — comes by, and also crosses to the other side of the road in order to pass by. Now, if you were a Jew in the first century listening to this story, you would would know what should come next: If someone is telling a story, and first a priest does something, and then a Levite does something, there is a third person you would always expect to be next. It’s kind of like a rabbi, a priest, and a minister walking into a bar; they always appear together. And for a first-century Jew, after having a priest — representing the center of the temple — and then a Levite, a less-central functionary — the next person should be an Israelite, representing the general population of Jews. But Jesus’s parable goes in a different direction: The next person to come by is not an Israelite, but a Samaritan. There was no love lost between the Israelites and the Samaritans. But in the parable, the Samaritan is moved by pity, and helps the traveler, tending to his wounds and taking him to an inn, where he gives the innkeeper enough money to house the injured traveler for two months.

Jesus asks the lawyer, “which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers “The one who showed him mercy.”

He can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan,” but he does acknowledge the point of the story.


It makes a lot of sense that this story is in the gospel of Luke, because it is very much in line with the perspective expressed throughout that book. Luke is full of examples where people at the margins of society are held up. For example, since we’re getting close to December, compare the story of Jesus’s birth given in Luke with the one given in Matthew. In the gospel of Matthew, the birth story is told so that an angel comes to Joseph to tell him about Mary’s upcoming pregnancy. But in Luke, the angel comes to Mary, the woman, rather than to Joseph, the man — and this is notable, in a patriarchal society. In the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is born, wise men from the East come to give expensive presents to the baby; but in Luke’s version of the story, there are no wise men, and no expensive presents… instead, it is shepherds — itinerant field workers — it is shepherds who are visited by angels and told of the birth.

So the parable of the Good Samaritan fits into the larger perspective of the gospel of Luke. It’s a strong story that encourages us, in Robert Frost’s words, to not love a wall; it encourages us to break down barriers. In Unitarian Universalist terms, it is a story that emphasizes the inherent worth and dignity of all people, especially of people we may think of as different from us, or as dangerous.


But how does this work in practice?

Let me tell you a true story of something that happened to me several years ago, something almost straight out of a parable.

I had just parked my car in a small strip mall, and was walking over to a shop, when I heard a commotion in the small alleyway leading from the parking lot to the street. There was a woman in a motionless SUV who was honking her horn. I looked to see what the trouble was, and I saw that there was a man, who looked like he probably lived on the street, who had fallen in the alley and was having trouble getting up. He was blocking the alleyway, and the woman in the car couldn’t pass by. She looked nervous and anxious to be in this situation.

My first instinct was to help the man get up. But I have to admit, I paused. I took a moment to evaluate the situation: Was there danger? What personal boundaries of my own would I be crossing if I went to help him up? Did crossing those boundaries make me uncomfortable? Why? Should I cross them anyway?

It looked like the man might have been having trouble getting up because he was drunk or otherwise impaired, and I wasn’t sure how he might respond to a stranger approaching him while this SUV was looming over him. He was big and fairly stocky, and probably stronger than me. But it was daytime, and there were people not too far away — including the driver of the SUV, although she looked kind of spooked, and I wasn’t sure she would be able to help if anything happened…

After this brief moment of hesitation, I decided that the danger was probably small, and I was prepared to cross my internal boundaries. I approached the man, and talked with him. I helped him up; we walked together to the side of the alley, and I retrieved his bag of possessions, which were still where he dropped them in the middle of the alley. The woman in the car drove off, and the man and I talked for a while. He seemed OK, and did not want any medical care.


What’s the difference between my story and the parable? The parable doesn’t say what the Good Samaritan thought before he helped the man on the side of the road. Do you think the Good Samaritan hesitated? What would you do if you were in the parable? What would you do if you were in an alley with a man who had fallen down, who may have been impaired by drugs or alcohol?


It’s important to have personal boundaries. And it’s important to know when you want to cross them.

This church has a covenant of good relations that all members are expected to follow. You can find it on our web site, and it makes clear some of our expectations of behavior. This covenant helps us understand that while we all have inherent worth and dignity, that doesn’t give us an excuse to behave however we want. There are boundaries between us, borders that define what we can expect in interactions with one another.

But boundaries can be crossed, with permission. We let loved ones do things that we don’t let strangers do. The important thing is to be aware of what our boundaries are, and to know when they are being crossed.

In terms of the poem, we should know where our property line is, even if we choose not to build a wall there — walls come with a cost, and it’s not always a cost that is worth paying.


I think that the spiritual cost of walls is something we, as Southern Californians, are particularly aware of. We live on the border with Mexico. It’s important to have borders, because in democratic societies we need to know who is representing us, in what legislature. We need to know whose laws we live with, whose elections we vote in. But how hard should it be to cross these borders?

We in Southern California can see the costs that come with borders. The economic cost — like the time wasted in the hours-long lines to cross the border. The emotional cost, paid by the families that are separated by it. The spiritual cost: All the political fights about the border, and all of the detention centers we fill because of it.

In this election year, there has been talk of building a wall on the border, larger than what we have already. But we need to keep in mind the price — not just the cost of materials and labor, but the spiritual price.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.


May we be aware of all the prices we pay for all of the borders in our lives; may we recognize the neighbors across our borders; and may we know when it is good to invite them to our homes, and for us to visit theirs.

Blessed be. Amen.


Image credit: Public domain image by Pixabay user harborlight. Original here.


  1. From The Poetry of Robert Frost by Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright 1916, 1923, 1928, 1930, 1934, 1939, 1947, 1949, 1967 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright 1936, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962 by Robert Frost. Copyright 1964, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1973, 1975 by Leslie Frost Ballantine. Reproduced here in accordance with the Sixth Principle (“Poetry Online”) of the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry

Finding Grace

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 22 May 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


The worship theme here at Throop Church for the month of May is grace. At the beginning of the month we heard Lynn Sexton speak of grace as “ease, help, kindness, and thoughtfulness,” and as a treasure we must learn to accept, and to bestow. Two weeks ago, Reverend Tera asked us to reflect on how well we are able to receive gifts with gratitude and grace; and last week she spoke of grace-filled leadership, grounded in relationship, covenant, and accountability. Just a moment ago we saw a live demonstration of one form of grace!1

Today I also will speak of grace — but I would like to use this exploration of grace as an example of an evolution of ideas. Unitarian Universalism today is a faith tradition that includes people with many different beliefs. We say that our faith draws on a number of sources: direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder; words and deeds of prophetic people throughout history; wisdom from the world’s religions; Jewish and Christian teachings that call on us to love our neighbors as ourselves; humanist teachings that counsel us to trust also in reason and science; and Earth-centered traditions that celebrate the circle of life and the rhythms of nature.

The religious meaning of grace is centered in a very Christian tradition. But I, as a humanist, have found meaning in the concept.

Is this a paradox? Well, this congregation was founded in 1886 by Universalists — Christians who believed in a loving God who finds worth in every person. They built this sanctuary in 1923, and thought it fitting to place images of Jesus and Mary and John the Evangelist and two archangels above the chancel. And yet now, today, here we are gathered — people with many beliefs; with a humanist at the pulpit; in front of these images that represent one strand of our spiritual history.

This is a paradox. And it is who we are.


So what is the Christian conception of grace? For most Christians, grace is God’s gift to humanity of love, mercy, and salvation; it’s a magnanimous gift, given to us despite our flaws.

Catholics believe that God’s grace was granted to people through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and that people are free to accept or decline this gift of grace. The Calvinist conception of grace is different: it is a gift one cannot refuse. At the beginning of time, God granted grace to a select group — the elect — and no matter what they do while they are on this Earth, the elect will go to heaven. And, likewise, no matter what the non-elect do — no matter whether they devote their lives to good works, no matter how fervent their faith — they will not go to heaven.

Other versions of Protestantism have other variations of this belief. But the one common thread throughout them all is that grace is a gift that humans do not deserve. Whether because of original sin or because of humanity’s total depravity, we do not deserve God’s gift of salvation.

So that’s the definition we’re starting from:

Grace is the gift from God of salvation, which we do not deserve.

How might that definition be adapted to be more meaningful to more of us?


Before we continue to explore this, I’d like to say something about an interesting twist to the “we are undeserving” aspect of grace, relating to the history of Universalism in America.

Most of the early American Universalists were Calvinists; they did believe that God had divided people up into the elect and the non-elect. But the Universalists differed from most Calvinists, because they believed that nobody belonged to the group of non-elect people… they believed that everyone is elect.

And for some Universalists, this idea came from their own sense of feeling undeserving of grace. This was the case, for example, for George de Benneville, a Universalist of French descent who came to America in 1741, after facing religious persecution in Europe. When he was young, de Benneville had a vision of himself burning in hell, because of what he perceived to be his sins, sins he described as “too many and too great to be forgiven.” But later on in life he had another vision, of Christ praying for his soul, and he became convinced that he was saved by grace. He wrote:

[…] having myself been the chief of sinners, and God […] had granted me mercy and the pardon of all my sins, and plucked me as a brand out of Hell, I could not have a doubt but the whole world would be saved by the same power.

In other words: “I was a really rotten guy, and if God has saved me, he must have saved everyone!”

The Universalists took the idea that “we are not worthy”, and viewed it as “we are all equally worthy”, and then deduced that “if some of us are saved, we all are.”


So. Back to grace. Our first definition is that

Grace is the gift from God of salvation, which we do not deserve.

Now, my personal humanistic theology doesn’t include the ideas of God, or of salvation in this sense. So the first step in my personal evolution of the idea of grace changes this definition to be

Grace is a life-changing gift that we do not deserve.

While we sit and ponder whether that might be a good definition, let me ask another question:


Do people ever get what they deserve?

It’s a very compelling idea to believe that they do. And most societies are structured so that people who break the rules will get a comeuppance. But sometimes people do seem to get away with things, and that can be very frustrating.

Our desire for justice can fit into our religious beliefs. For example, in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, there is the idea of karma. The specific beliefs about karma vary among these faiths, but the general idea is that consequences flow from actions. It’s not that some god is sitting in judgement of your actions and dealing out rewards and punishments; it’s that the actions themselves lead to positive or negative outcomes. So, for example, if you constantly lie to other people, you may lose your ability to trust others, or even to trust yourself. I have heard this expressed as “you are not punished for your sins, you are punished by them.”2

Of course, sometimes the outcomes of your actions do not become apparent in your present lifetime; and, likewise, sometimes outcomes in your present lifetime are due to actions from previous lives, according to this philosophy.

This is in contrast to Judaism and Christianity, where an all-seeing God judges, and inflicts consequences, either in this life, or — in Christianity — in an afterlife.

These ideas fit in well with our innate desire for justice. But there is a darker side to thinking that people get what they deserve. When you hear of something bad happening to someone — a car accident, or an illness — do you ever find yourself thinking of reasons why the same thing won’t happen to you? “Oh, they must have been texting while driving.” Or, “I would never walk in a neighborhood like that at night.” Or, “Of course he got cancer; have you seen what he eats?”

I can feel this urge in myself. It’s an urge of denial. It’s not wanting to face the fact that sometimes completely random events beyond our control can completely upset our lives. It’s too frightening to consider the drunk driver crossing over the median and heading right towards us; too frightening to consider the randomness of illness. This is one reason why people think that it is safer to drive than to fly, even though by many measures it is not; with driving, there is an illusion that you have complete control; you’re holding onto the steering wheel, aren’t you?

So I distrust the idea of people “getting what they deserve” in some cosmic sense. And it’s for that reason that in my own mind, I modify the definition of grace. Instead of

Grace is a life-changing gift that we do not deserve,

how about

Grace is a life-changing gift that we were not guaranteed.


Now that brings in the concept of contingency — the idea that things could be otherwise than they are.

Jane Kenyon wrote a poem called Otherwise3:

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.


Grace is a life-changing gift that we were not guaranteed.

That feels like a definition that resonates with me.

Grace is a life-changing gift that could have been otherwise.

I think of good things in my life — of loved ones, of friends — and even though I work to make those relationships strong, there are so many random elements, so many ways that things could have been otherwise, despite all my efforts. If you’re willing, think for a moment of your own life, of a friend, of a partner, of a job you love, of a community that supports you. And think of how your life need not have included that friend, that partner, that job, that community, if things had been different. Grace.


Just over a year ago, Reverend Tera messaged me on Facebook, and asked me — out of the blue — what my plans for a ministerial internship were. I hadn’t even started thinking of internships; I had expected that I would have to wait at least a year, and maybe two, before figuring out how to fit one into my life. But Tera said that Throop was ready for a part-time two-year intern.

I talked with my wife, and we weighed the pros and cons. It was not a slam-dunk decision. We had to figure whether a crazy commute from San Diego would be sustainable. I had to arrange things with my employer. Even after my employer agreed to let me work at 60% time for two years, we had to deal with the indisputable mathematical fact that 60% time at my job and 50% time at an internship adds up to more time than there is. There are so many reasons why this internship might not have come about.

But it did come about. And now, in my life, I have this congregation, and all the people in it. Grace.

This is the last sermon I preach before taking the summer off. I will be here on Thursday for my usual weekday in the office, and I will be here next Sunday assisting with the service, but that’s it until September. I will miss you all, but during the summer I will rest, and do math, and take courses at seminary, and perform a wedding, and I will come back in the fall ready for a second, and even better, year with you.


I’d like to close with a story. The musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson tells of a time she was visiting her brother, an anthropologist, in a Tzotzil village in Mexico. She lived with the women of the village, and helped as best she could with their daily work. She says that the name they gave her — “Loscha” — means, roughly, “the ugly one with the jewels.”

Anderson says4:

Now ugly, OK, I was awfully tall by local standards. But what did they mean by the jewels? I didn’t find out what this meant until one night, when I was taking my contact lenses out, and — since I’d lost the case — I was carefully placing them on the sleeping shelf [in the yurt where everyone slept]; suddenly I noticed that everyone was staring at me and I realized that none of the Tzotzil had ever seen glasses, much less contacts, and that these were the jewels, the transparent, perfectly round, jewels that I carefully hid on the shelf at night and then put for safekeeping into my eyes every morning.

So I may have been ugly but so what? I had the Jewels.

Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.


May we all see with fresh eyes the grace that is in our lives, the jewels we may take for granted, that in some other universe we might not have.


Image credit: Detail of Botticelli’s Primavera, ca. 1482. Via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. In the form of dancers from the Lineage Dance Company, with whom we were sharing that day’s collection plate. 
  2. See the Fake Buddha Quote web site for a discussion of the provenance of this phrasing. Spoiler: It was not said by Buddha. 
  3. From Jane Kenyon, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1996. Copyright 1996 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon. All rights reserved. Reproduced here by permission of Graywolf Press. For further permissions information, contact Permissions Department, Graywolf Press, 2402 University Ave., Ste. 203, St Paul, MN 55114. This poem also appears in Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems, and was one of the poems selected for the Library of Congress’s Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools
  4. Transcribed by the author from “The Ugly One with the Jewels”, from The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories