“Longing for God” by Mark W. Harris
December 2, 2018 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Opening Words – from “What is God” by Etan Boritzer
So when we pray to God,
When people of all religions pray to God,
We are really praying for that feeling,
The feeling which connects all of us.
When we pray to God,
We are praying for that feeling of love
To come to us and to everybody we know,
Maybe even to all those people we don’t know,
So that we can all be happy together, or apart.
And if you really want to pray to God,
You can just close your eyes anywhere,
And think about that feeling of God,
That make you part of everything and everybody.
If you can feel that feeling of God,
And everybody else can feel that feeling of God,
Then we can all become friends together,
And we can really understand,
“What is God?”
Reading – “NOT SO, NOT SO (Look to Your Heart)” by Anne Sexton
(alternate “she” with “he” when reading)
I cannot walk an inch
without trying to walk to God. I cannot move a finger without trying to touch God.
Perhaps it is this way:
He is in the graves of the horses.
He is in the swarm, the frenzy of the bees. He is in the tailor mending my pantsuit.
He is in Boston, raised up by the skyscrapers. He is in the bird, that shameless flyer.
He is in the potter who makes clay into a kiss.
Heaven replies: Not so! Not so!
I say thus and thus
and heaven smashes my words.
Is not God in the hiss of the river? Not so! Not so!
Is not God in the ant heap,
stepping, clutching, dying, being born?
Not so! Not so!
I cannot move an inch.
Look to your heart
that flutters in and out like a moth. God is not indifferent to your need. You have a thousand prayers
but God has one.
Reading – “Thunder, Complete Mind” (from Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?)
I am the first and the last.
I am the one who is honored and the one scorned.
I am the whore and the holy one . . .
I am the incomprehensible silence,
and . . . the voices of many sounds, the word in many forms;
I am the utterance of my name . . .
Do not cast anyone out, or turn anyone away. . .
I am the one who remains, and the one who dissolves;
I am she who exists in all fear,
and strength in trembling.
I am she who cries out . . .
I am cast forth on the face of the earth. . .
I am the sister of my husband,
and he is my offspring . . .
but he is the one who gave birth to me . . .
I am the incomprehensible silence
and the thought often remembered. . .
I am the one who has been hated everywhere,
And who has been loved everywhere.
I am the one they call Life, and you have called Death.
I am the one whose image is great in Egypt,
And the one who has no image among the barbarians. . .
I prepare the bread and my mind within;
I am the knowing of my name.
When I was a newly minted minister, fresh out of seminary, I considered myself a Unitarian Universalist Christian. This is reflected in the congregations I served before coming to Watertown. Both Palmer and Milton had crosses on their altars, said the Lord’s Prayer every week, had Bible readings regularly, and even had periodic communion. Although we modfied some of these traditions in both places to include other multi-faith prayers, or a bread and juice celebration that was more like our Watertown Thanksgiving service rather than a commemoration of Jesus, and even complemented the cross with other symbols, I remained someone who was firmly committed to Christian traditions, which meant a belief in God. Recently our son Dana sent us a text which said, “Study shows that only 20% of seminary graduates believe they are God.” I think perhaps there is a bit of a misprint there because it probably should indicate that only 20% of seminary graduates believe in God, but perhaps it is indeed the more grandiose sense of themselves. Some ministers have large egos. What the study shows is that a large percentage of clergy are faking it. You may wonder why the transformation of my theology took place. How did I become a card-carrying humanist after being a more traditional Christian UU? The simple answer is that I got tired of faking it, too.
As many of you know, in November 1993, Andrea and I were visiting Maine to look at a piece of property, and went to Pemaquid Point to see the beautiful lighthouse there, and the unique rocky shore. We were both hit by a huge rogue wave, which carried me out to sea, and inflicted severe injuries, including a broken arm, and a shattered ankle, which required immediate reconstructive surgery. Being afloat in the freezing ocean also caused hypothermia. I was adrift in the water for a bit, but fortunately ended up on rocks, where EMT’s could come and rescue me. This was after I tried to walk away from safety, yelled at Andrea, and generally succumbed to shock. When Andrea called for help the dispatcher, lacking any tact at all, told her the last person this happened to didn’t make it. When all was said and done, I felt like I had a near death experience, and naturally used it as fodder for a sermon series in Milton, which the congregation dubbed “Mark on the Rocks.”
What happened once I returned to Milton was a significant outward change in the way I conducted worship. There were fewer prayers to God, and less Bible readings. Something was amiss. I suppose you might think that I stopped believing in God because God didn’t rescue me from this terrible accident, or prevent it from happening in the first place. I think many of us who reject God do so because we feel the God of our childhood that we were taught to believe in, that loving, protective and rewarding God, didn’t act in a personal or historical crisis. We believed if we were morally upright and responsible, God would take care of us at all times and grant us a fulfilling life filled with health, happiness and success. If one or more terrible things afflicted us then it was cause to say God does not exist. The rewards and punishment God is a terrible way to try to conceive of the holy, but we know it persists in our culture, and even in our individual lives. If we are stricken with an illness, the immediate response is invariably what did I do to make this happen? This then may become why is God punishing or rewarding me, as seen in the people who say God rescued me from the plane crash, or God was watching over me. But what about the perfectly nice person who was killed? We want to give reason and meaning to things that just may not have any meaning. They just happened. Some people react to an affliction by trying to bargain with God. I have heard from more than one person who said if God lets Grampa or Gramma live, I will go to church every Sunday. They are desperate to not be afflicted.
By the time I became a minister, I had rejected this all-powerful protective God, but I still longed for something to give meaning to life. In seminary I had become familiar with something called Process Theology, which says that God or a unifying spirit of creativity or ground of being is in the natural processes of the universe, and I wanted with all my heart to believe in that because it seemed like it was a pretty, empty, cold habitat without it. I was desperate to say, I believe. But after the wave encounter, I realized that the use of the word God, the prayers, and the Bible was all a façade to give me a stable, familiar religious context. I was pretending, and I needed to strip away the fake, and discover what really gave meaning to my life. Was it this God concept I thought I was supposed to believe in, or was it something else? Martin Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon — that is your God.” Centuries later, theologian Paul Tillich said virtually the same thing using the term “ultimate concern.” Maybe God was the wrong word, because it connoted a false construct for the world. But the nagging question was, where did I place ultimate meaning or value? After all, no one can say if there is a God or not. There is no proof. As one hymn writer said, “A God comprehended is no God.” Only the experience of something holy or mystical or magical is real. And you best discover that by forgetting everything traditional you learned about God, even the name.
At the beginning of the twentieth century a group of Unitarian ministers began to preach a new gospel called Humanism. Realizing that God was not active in the world, nor making a noticeable difference in preventing war, famine or natural disasters, the new faith was dependent upon a realization of human responsibility for the direction of life on the planet. Humanists say that all religion is an expression of human longing for meaning, connection, and hope, to make life and memory “sacred” or meaningful. The goal of religion was the fullest development of human personality, and not a response to a creator God who controlled things and meted out rewards and punishments, who Woody Allen, once described, as a terrible underachiever. Yet like the God that was grounded in human success, humanism was overly optimistic about human abilities to overcome war, genocide and ultimately environmental disaster and the human inclination to selfishness. At times humanism gave people the impression that they had the scientific answer to all problems, and were in control of a situation that sometimes seemed desperate. While, humanism was a discernible path to confronting the human dilemma of creating meaning in life, it was not always satisfying because it was very person centered, while sometimes neglecting our relationship with all of nature, and was overly prideful about human ability. It did not help humanity realizing a deep spiritual connectedness to all of life. Plus, if we are to be a religion, not to talk about God seems like a sure way to make yourself irrelevant.
What I felt like was that there was something innately within my soul that wanted, no, desired to feel a sense of wholeness and peace while neither believing there was a God nor believing that humans had all the answers. I was reminded of why I once believed in God. I wanted the world to make sense and have meaning, but knew that while I was free to love others, and work to better human life for all, I was also aware that we hurt one another, and that terrible tragedies befall us, some of our own making, and some not.
Elaine Pagels is a scholar whose writing I have followed throughout my ministry. Many years ago, she introduced us to the Gnostic Gospels, ancient texts kept in a monastery that were contemporaneous to the early Christian scriptures, but offered alternative ways to understanding God, the role of women and the spiritual life to those that were being promulgated by the early church. In her own life Pagels endured the terrible deaths of her six-year-old son of a lung illness, and then her husband 12months later in a climbing accident. She writes that even after these tragedies she wanted to believe in a morally ordered universe in which someone, God or nature, is keeping track of what’s fair. Was this our need to moralize history? In her effort to stay steady she found that she was heaping guilt upon her grief, especially when the church or friends told her that her loved ones were in a better place. She ultimately realized that she didn’t deserve what happened to her. No one was punishing her. Her world view changed, and she came to explore her grief fully, and she suddenly realized that sometimes children die young for no reason. The question she really needed to ask was, why was she hurting so much, and what did she need to do to heal. Pagels decided to speak out against the facile comfort of the church and God.
She recalled that one way she responded was to look at the Gospel of Mark, the earliest, and the one without an infancy narrative. Mark’s gospel originally ended with Jesus death on the cross, followed by women fleeing from his empty tomb. It was desolation and fear that were depicted, but later writers added resurrection appearances, so that the story had a happy ending. Was Mark just writing bad news to depress us? Pagels says this vision helps us see that evil is more powerful than we have imagined, and we must marshal the forces of divine compassion to battle it. She is not sure that things will turn out well, but that is not what hope is about, but rather that we will turn our hearts toward a deeper conflict where we will work for something because it is good and right, and not because we know we will win. During her years exploring ancient texts, Pagels saw that the monks at Nag Hammadi learned from other sources like the Thunder, Complete Mind poem, that I shared today. Pagels learned from her own life, and from this poem that divine energy is found everywhere, and we cannot gloss it over with only the positive, like wisdom and joy, but is also present in trembling and fear. This is the feeling we must get through, and express and not avoid with platitudes that God will take care of you, or you’ll be fine. We do learn, as I said last week of the blessing of curses, but that does not preclude feeling the curse in all its affliction, and letting ourselves cry out, No! I am forsaken! Help me!
The final thing Pagels tells us is that the poem reveals divine energy in multiple ways. Two weeks ago the topic in my UU history class at BU was the humanist/theist controversy. One of the readings for the day was a sermon by John Dietrich on Humanism and Unitarianism, where he calls humanism a fundamental expression of Unitarianism. Dietrich reminds us that in his book on slavery, Channing said “every human being has in him (or her) the germ of the idea of God, and to unfold that is the end of our existence. Slaves, Channing believed, were being prevented by others from the opportunity to unfold the divine within their very being. The multiplicity of God is not that God rewards each of us, or that God has abandoned us, or never existed anyway, but that God or some innate appreciation or feeling for the immensity and unity of the creation can be felt and revered in each of us, and that becomes the germ of our principle of the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and the interdependence of life. God will be unfolded in our lives through the intensity of our feeling and learning from our life experiences. Encountering the wave was a wake-up call that life had to be lived with integrity, and not platitudes.
The painter Vincent Van Gogh once said that the best way to know God is to love many things. The mythic nature of this holiday season can become eclipsed if the holiday becomes a festival of gluttony beginning with Black Friday. We ignore our divine nature if the purpose of life becomes material accumulation. Yet love for the many things of life may begin to be recalled in the passion we felt for a Christmas gift which reflected the many things we love like my passion for learning as reflected in a book about the Civil War I received when I was ten. But that feeling was tempered by the realization of the horror of prisoner of war camps, like Libbey Prison in Richmond, where a relative of mine, Benjamin Poor died. My passion for learning was reflected in the life of Erasmus, the key figure in fomenting the Renaissance. He endured his own personal pain when both of his parents died early. Moreover, he was the illegitimate son of a physician’s daughter and a priest. His pain caused him to rename himself Desiderius, meaning “longed for.” In other words, he longed to be loved and wanted. He was not impassioned by life in a monastery, but by the inspiration of a love for classical wisdom. He found the divine within by seeking truth and wisdom, and questioning the power structure of the church.
Loving many things means all those things we desire that make us the person we become, like the collection of dinosaurs that reflected my passion to know what the earth’s history was, and how it all fit together. The passion to understand how people treat one another, learning about Robin Hood, and how the rich might rob the poor, and this mythic figure turned the world upside down by robbing the rich to give to the poor. It was a way to understand the unfairness of the world. The passion to love another to see one in pain, and the inclination to say I’m sorry, or how can I help. I know that I feel more alive, the more things I love, and the more I do. And I know somehow that that aliveness is the spirit of the divine awakening in me, so that I can touch my inmost being, and also begin to touch others. Elaine Pagels found that female images of the divine help to complete her, and to discover her inmost passions, and for centuries those had been eclipsed in most women. Pagels learned two lessons in rediscovering the meaning of her life. Know your pain, and don’t cover it with religious platitudes about God or meaning, while pretending you are fine, or you’ll never discover the divine in creation. And second, know many things, so that you can touch many parts of the world, and see the divine, as Anne Sexton suggests, in the swarm of the bees, and in the tailor mending your pants.
Can we love the many things of this world in our continuous striving to discover them, and give them back to the creation, which we did not create, but comes to us as a gift. Let us indeed make it a gift of this season, to resolve to passionately dig in to loving something or someone more deeply in this world. Soon we learn that the more we are connected to the world, the more we find the love that will seam us together with the world as we knit our lives in a deeper mesh with this creation, this mystery, this creativity, then we will know a greater number of moments when we feel we touch the ineffable.
Christmas is a season of myths. Myths are stories that are true in a psychic or spiritual way, but probably not in a factual way. Myth tells us that fact and truth are not the same. Now I don’t want to be thought of in the same breath as those who would shout out fake news because a story does not suit their political purposes, and they convince their followers to reject accurate journalism. Yet I also don’t want to be the literal rationalist, who grumbles that the stories of Jesus’ birth were all made up. Of course they were, but it doesn’t matter, they are still true. They help open our eyes to the conflicted reality of our lived existence, and help us see the enduring promise of life that lies at the heart of the creation. The babe is born in hope, but the setting is squalid, not a royal palace. The family is warned in a dream of a murderous king, and innocents are slaughtered.
There is no reward for right living. There is evil out there. But there is still love, as new life is given, a flower comes up from the pavement, and a stranger will make a pathway for us. This happened in my life ten years before the wave encounter. When I was minister in Palmer, four members of my parish were killed on Christmas Eve by a sixteen year old drunk driver. The congregation was devastated. I felt confused and as if life was devoid of meaning. Where was God? A few days later I had to conduct a service for all four family members, a husband and wife, their year old baby, and the husband’s father. The morning of the funeral I awoke to the sound of scrape, scrape, scrape. It was snowing outside and fiercely cold. I looked out the window, and saw the snow was accumulating on the block that surrounded the church and parsonage. The scraping was the sound of a snow shovel. A stranger was making a path all around the church, so that we could walk to the funeral service. Tragedy had visited us, and he was giving us an insight into the possibility that we could still express our love and care for each other, for the earth, and one day, begin again. Was it God? An expression of the divine? I never learned who it was that made a pathway for us that day. But as Andrea once said to me a few years back, you may say you don’t believe in God anymore, but I know, you’re still a believer.
Closing Words – anonymous
I have seen a mother at a crib,
So I know what love is.
I have looked into the eyes of a child,
So I know what faith is.
I have seen a rainbow,
So I know what beauty is.
I have felt the pounding of the sea,
So I know what power is.
I have planted a tree,
So I know what hope is.
I have heard a wild bird sing,
So I know what freedom is.
I have seen a chrysalis burst into life,
So I know what a mystery is.
I have lost a friend,
So I know what hell is.
I have seen a star-decked sky,
So I know what the infinite is.
I have seen and felt all these things,
So I know what God is.