I gave this sermon at UU Farmington on November 17, 2013.
Reading: Impassioned Clay, by Raph N Helverson (Singing the Living Tradition, #654)
Deep in ourselves reside the religious impulse
Out of the passions of our clay it rises.
We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.
We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.
We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the heart.
We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the hears.
We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.
We have religions when we look upon people with all their failings and sill find them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur of nature and the purpose in our own heart.
My memory begins with church. Specifically, it begins in 1970 in a Baptist church in Madison, Wisconsin. It goes like this: From the center of a braided rug in what seemed to be an immense space, I see my parents in the doorway. My father, in a dark coat and suit pants smiles while my mother, dressed for Sunday service, holds out her arms and beams. Decades ago, my parents deciphered that memory for me. In our Baptist church’s nursery, at ten months of age, I took my first steps across that rug towards my parents.
Millions of steps and countless of memories later, I have stepped into dozens of churches. I’ve called about ten of those my spiritual home, some for only months, most for at least a few years, and a few for over a decade. From Baptist to Methodist to Catholic to Episcopal, I toured a slice of Christianity. It was a generally liberal and entirely Midwest journey, and it ended in my late thirties when I left the theistic traditions.
I was born in the last months of the sixties to pacifist parents in Madison, Wisconsin,. The Baptist church of my birth, memorable to me only because of those first steps, did not baptize infants, so I began life unclaimed by any one denomination. I recall little more about my second spiritual home, the liberal and Catholic St. Paul’s Church associated with the University of Wisconsin. Aside from long legs, towering above me as I sat or sprawled on the pew, my main memory of this time is one exciting moment yelling, “But I want to go to church!” while being carried by my father into the vestibule. I doubt the veracity of that exclamation, and it says more about my tendency toward the dramatic than my spiritual yearnings.
More informative memories start later. When I was four, we moved to Michigan. We settled in Warren, where liberal Christianity meant the local Methodist church. For seven years, I spent most Sunday morning in a classroom, learning about the Golden Rule, Jesus’ compassion, and the Bible, earning my own copy of the latter after memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. Services, seldom attended by children, were dull to me, with their the long prayers and a longer sermon, interrupted by hymns and choral pieces accompanied by the organ.
During those same years, noontime found us at the University of Detroit’s chapel, liberally bent and Jesuit run. Yes. I went to church twice almost every Sunday. The chapel was in the university’s Commerce and Finance Building, a large classroom, really, with colored panes of glass where clear would have been. We sat in molded plastic chairs. There were no kneelers and no kneeling, and while I knew when to sit and stand, throughout the rest of my Catholicism, I couldn’t figure out when to kneel. As in other Catholic churches, children attended services with the adults. Sermons were shorter and more comprehensible than in the Methodist church, at least they were when I paid attention. Jesus’ love and messages of social justice and peace were perhaps just more accessible to my child-self than the more scripture-based preachings of my mornings. Folk tunes accompanied by acoustic guitar punctuated the shorter, livelier services. The song’s lyrics and tunes echoed the music in my home, with many being the same folk tunes my father sang, guitar hand, in the evenings at home with my mom and I. Themes of justice and love and peace filled this ordinary appearing space. This Land is Your Land. This Little Light of Mine. ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.
While aesthetically and experientially quite different, my Methodist and Catholic experiences professed similar messages about the love and compassion of Jesus and social justice while providing supportive community. Potlucks. Informal meetings in people’s homes. Accessible, human clergy whom my parents called by first name. Few rules and prohibitions. Plenty of community.
At home, Christianity whispered. We said grace at meals, put out the crèche and Advent wreath each December, and attended at least one religious institution each weekend. I don’t recall bedtime prayers, petitions to God for wants or needs, references to heaven or hell, or biblical bedtime stories. I do recall boycotts on lettuce and green grapes (and I mourned the loss of the latter) and intentionally being raised within the city of Detroit . I grew up with clergy in my home for meals. I saw women in the (Catholic) pulpit. I grew up without much sense of mystery in or fear of God. Without a sense that religion prohibited much of anything other than hate and discrimination. With a choice of what path to follow when I decided I wanted to choose. Free thinking started early and was encouraged often. Like my father says of his youth, I have nothing to unlearn from that time.
Somewhere along the way, my parents made it clear that I was to choose my own faith when ready. I spent my elementary school years gathering a scorecard of sorts, noting the differences and similarities between the two places, unaware that neither were the only version of Methodist or Catholic life. Grape juice instead of wine for communion? Check for the Methodists. Shorter services with better music? Check for the Catholics. But junior high found me in a Catholic school, unable to participate in communion because of my non-Catholic status. The sense of being outside of fold was subtle but present. The mystery of ritual and faith of my Catholic school –and a desire to be like my friends –swayed me to, by twelve, become sacramentally and spiritually Catholic.
Or at least to become a liberal, 1980’s Catholic. That’s the only version of Catholic I knew until eleventh grade. Tumbling and reeling from my parents’ divorce and searching to define myself as myself, I stumbled upon group of charismatic high school and college-aged Catholics. I was intrigued at this more tangible spirituality, far more alive and life-permeating than my previous church experience. For three years, as youth and then adult leader, I explored Catholicism from a more intimate, energetic, personal angle. The mystical end of the faith spoke to me, bringing energy to my spiritual life and relief from my angst. But by twenty, the mismatch between that conservative and close-minded bent of that arm of the church and my less emotive but more accepting and socially active upbringing led me to leave, returning my focus to the Jesuit Catholicism I’d been raised with. Attending the University of Detroit for undergrad and grad school allowed me to remain in that church of my youth, albeit at the student version. I was active in Campus Ministry and sang with the guitar group for weekly Mass. I left school a practicing Catholic looking for a good fit.
Catholicism outside those Jesuit institution walls and in the ever-more conservative larger world was a disappointment. My then-husband and I attended a handful of churches over the next dozen years, some for several years. My boys were baptized Catholic, each in a different church. Shifting buildings failed to ease the increasing discomfort I felt with the walls of Catholicism with its patriarchy, tightening rules, and increasing conservatism. God wasn’t the question yet. Catholicism itself was.
What transpired in my heart and mind over the next several years was informed by the fluidity of faith taught by the example of my parents. First, we moved to an Episcopal church in an attempt to find a more welcoming, liberal spiritual home. ( I simply asked my Episcopal friend what the most liberal Episcopal church around here was. She pointed me in towards the one headed by an openly lesbian minister, which seemed like as good an indicator as any. ) That held us for a few years, but during that holding period, I went through an intense time of change in spiritual thought. First, my mother converted from Catholicism to Reform Judaism. This played no small influence on my decision to leave Christianity. Her fluidity modeled what religious choice should be — personal searches made freely and with great thought. Second, and definitely a story for another day, my belief in God was rapidly dropping away. I started to allow the questions that had, like a leaking faucet, become the background of my thoughts. Prayer, God, rules, religion. With sadness and relief and absolutely no idea what would come next, I left church.
A few years later, my boys and I found a Unitarian Universalist community. It asked for no commitment to God or creed; it preached love and acceptance, spoke cautiously about Jesus, resonated with messages of justice and equality, and encouraged reason and pondering. It became home.
Soon after we found our Sunday morning spot, life heaved unexpectedly the way life does. As my marriage exploded, my new-found community held me tight. Pondering the divine, questioning the nature of love, and wandering into a new life with my two children and without my spouse, I had found a place to work out and through the difficulties of life out in a religious community which embraced free thought, spiritual search, and human dignity. I found a home.
Today, I identify as an agnostic Unitarian Universalist. I don’t believe in a god or divine force. I hold to laws of science and trust science to continue to unravel the mysteries of the universe but am comfortable with them unexplained. I am content with an understanding of my existence as temporal, bound by my birth and death, and I don’t find myself worried about the purpose of our existence. Instead, I focus on the world in front of me, seeking unity, compassion, love, peace, and acceptance.
Agnostic as I am — unbeliever I am — I remain informed by the faith of my first thirty-some years of life. While God has dropped away, I still find the language of my religious upbringing useful for my agnostic living. Reverence. Ritual. Sacrament. Even Jesus. These religiously rooted concepts anchor my agnosticism and Unitarian Universalism..
Reverence. Reverence, according to Paul Woodruff, a humanities professor at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, states that “reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations (and) from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside of our control — God, truth, justice, nature, even death.” Reverence is one of those words that is hard to define but easy to identify. Reverence can generate respect, but it is not respect alone. Reverence certainly contains awe and wonder as well, although it is still something more.
The reverence of my youth was wrapped up with God’s role in the natural world. Every summer, I attended an Episcopal summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan. For a week or two, this urban child lived a bit closer to nature, with woods and water, fields and flowers surrounding me. The chapel we used for services, choir practice, and movies held a wall of windows behind the altar, granting a view of nature’s grandeur. At ten or so, I connected the two, awestruck by the nature outside the window framed by the building created for the worship of God. Reverence was born.
It is certainly within the purview of the rational person to be reverent. Reverence requires no god. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of oneself in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence. The accompanying catch in my throat is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless, certain we’ll figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my partner’s eyes and am reminded that love and joy are not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear, but rather something fully available even when we hurt and fear the most.
It is reverence I feel when I sit here on Sunday morning in a room of people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather for something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not to believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same. Reverence remains.
Ritual. I was a child drawn to routine, the mundane cousin of ritual. I thrived on a regular bedtime, a predictable breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the rhythm of school. Routine comforted me. Ritual fed me, offering focus and meaning and a sense of purpose. The Catholic church provided plenty of ritual, what between the sign of the cross, the prayers and responses during Mass, and the sacraments.. These were soothing elements of my Catholicism, sometimes the nidus of my reflection of sense of purpose and meaning and sometimes simply mindful and mantra-like. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its most basic level, provided solace during those times where “going through the motions” was all I could manage. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its peak, allowed transcendence of self and ego, raising awareness of truth beyond my mind.
Leaving Catholicism meant leaving those rituals. The hole was vast, with no go-to prayers to quiet the chaos in my head and no communion to remind me that I belonged to a larger body of believers as well as to a god. I tried prayer beads without the prayers, meditation with mantra, chant, and other rituals that shadowed those that had comforted me in my theistic days. Mindful meditation and mantra in time of stress provided the greatest comfort, allowing an anchor when I needed one most.
As a family, we’d long performed the ritual of grace before dinner, a practice carried from my family of origin to family of choice. While I was theistic, we’d used the same stock prayers of my youth:
Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blest.
God is great; God is good. Let us thank him for our food.
Seeking anchors for myself and my boys, I worked to take a ritual that was quickly losing meaning (and seeing hypocritical, given all of our agnostic/atheist views) and form it into something meaningful. We cast aside the theistic prayers, made a chalice with a candle, and bought a book of prayers and words of wisdom from the world’s many traditions. And so we gathered, the three of us, all needing some tethering, each evening to light the chalice and find a reading. I know I found — and find — solace in the ritual, small as it is. Ritual remains.
Soul. Throughout my Christian upbringing, my ideas of what happened after death were fuzzy. When my grandfather died, I can’t recall anyone saying anything about where he went. Heaven seemed vague and frankly boring. Eternity with God held no allure, and Hell was never a concept that made any sense in the context of a loving God. With no afterlife idea firmly in mind, the soul wasn’t ever about existence beyond the boundaries of my body. It was a piece of language without firm definition until I started thinking about just what I did and didn’t believe.
Soul, or the essence of one’s being as I call it now, informs my relationships with myself and others. It’s the “me” under me, what’s left when I strip off my ego defenses, upbringing, wants, desires, and all that I’ve always identified as me. My soul’s been with me since my start and will continue to accompany me on this journey of life. It’s not the part of me that’s UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, homeschooling mom, divorced, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, or introverted-yet-sociable. It is what is both before and beyond all that. It’s the part of me capable of great compassion and love for those my egoic-self finds hard to love and feel compassion for, a list of people who often includes myself. It’s the part that yearns for peace for all, not because I want it to be so but because it’s what humans should have. It’s unselfish, kind, patient, undemanding, unassuming, endlessly loving, and deeply in touch with humanity. It’s me with all the “me” left behind.
Soul, or essence, is not immortal or otherworldly. It can be buried under all the stuff that we identify as self — UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, divorced, homeschooling, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, and introverted-yet-social. It’s a risky thing to expose. The more I work to let my soul lead, the more tender I become: the more I risk in this world. It’s a vulnerable way to live, soul exposed, and I know I’m only living there a small fraction of my life, although I’m working on increasing that time. It’s living with the soul that leaves me most fulfilled as human, most compassionate and loving of life around me. And that’s worth some pain. Soul — or essence –gains definition.
Jesus. I was raised a Christian. My memories of kindergarten Sunday School include an episode of soggy tights due to hesitancy to use the church restroom and songs about Jesus:
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, we are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.
The song mystified me, much as heaven did. Jesus, a long-haired white guy, according to the picture on the classroom wall, was dead, but not. Human, but God. He loved me but had never met me. As years of Sunday School passed, I developed more sense of the man Jesus — the compassionate, generally patient, loving, and forgiving man said to be the son of God. And he seemed like a good guy. My Jesuit Catholic experience added a social justice component to the man — Jesus cared for the poor, the lost, the imprisoned, the hungry. He was unimpressed by money and power. He loved people. Yes, he seems like a good guy. And, at that point, filled with faith that this whole triune God thing worked somehow, he was real — human and divine.
When the divinity of Jesus fell away — when my faith left leaving reason as my main way of seeing the world — I started to like Jesus even more. How much of the life of Jesus portrayed in the Christian New Testament is real isn’t important to me. Whether the stories of Jesus’ compassion, acceptance, and activism are created to make a historical figure more appealing or to simply spread a way of thinking is immaterial to me. I like the guy. He’s a fine role model for how to move in the world and human enough to relate to (Recall the tantrum in the temple when he turned over the tables of the sellers and money changers? A man who struggles with anger and disappointment. I can relate to that.). He loved deeply. He acted boldly. Myth or man, the ideals professed in the Gospels carry with me today. If we lived in a world where those values were practiced, I can only imagine the difference in the lives of all of us. Jesus man or myth, remains.
Jesus. Soul or essence. Ritual. Reverence. I walk with these today. These are the remnants of the religions of my first (almost) four decades. I have followed in my parents’ footsteps, choosing a path that speaks to the truth to me at the time, changing paths when needed. I’ve come to forks in the path, wandered down one for a bit, then turned back. I’ve stood at forks and looked backward and from side to side, awaiting the inspiration or courage to choose a way. As I’ve walked, I’ve picked up God and love and compassion. Justice and peace. Jesus and awe and reverence. Hope and humility. Divinity and everlasting life. Rules and prohibition. Joy and community. Requirements and reconciliation.
But at my last fork, I stared long and hard into the unknown. I set down prayer and God and promises of everlasting life. I set down rules more complicated than Jesus’ exhortation to love one another. I set down restrictions on gender in religion. And I took my first step on the wide path that is Unitarian Universalism, where I was free to carry what I chose to carry. I remain informed by the religions of my youth as I step forward with what remains: reverence, ritual, compassion, community, love, justice, equity, soul, Jesus (and a host of others), reason, and free thought. It is these I carry as I walk down this path and wander toward the next inevitable fork in the road. When I get there, I’ll stop and again set down what no longer serves me, consider what still does, and take the next step.