“Thinking About God: Theistic Beliefs and Practices”

Lay Speaker: Martha Pedersen

Good morning. My name is Martha Pedersen and I’ve been a member here for about six years.

True confessions. I started having doubts about this talk when I was listening to the speakers talk about atheism at the lay led service a few months ago and I thought, “Hmmmm… maybe I should be in that group.” The reason is that I definitely don’t believe in a God with a personality and specific intentions for people or power over the world. But I really do believe in a force that I feel intimately close to me, that helps me guide my life and make good decisions. Which isn’t to say I’ve made a life full of good decisions. On the contrary. But I have found that the more I am able to tune in to and trust this force, the better my decisions become. And if I ask myself, “Could you possibly say you don’t believe in god?” the answer from the deepest part of me is a resounding, “No.” I just do.

My relationship with this feeling of god began, of course, in childhood. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know at a deep level that there was something out there that cared about me. Like several of you, I was raised Lutheran. My parents grew up Lutheran and they brought me to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Woodland Hills, California every week, It was another home, a safe place to be myself and hear that I was loved and mattered to both God and my community.  The steady and predictable rituals of church were a time to feel that force and the connections it forged between me and other people and the world. Even after moving away from St. Luke’s, going to church was an integral part of my life, from St. Chad’s Anglican church in Australia to the social chapel services at my Lutheran college in Illinois, and, eventually, the graduate program I attended at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Ostensibly I was there to study the history of the reformation in order to improve my chances of getting into an art history PhD program with a focus on counter reformation art. Looking back, I can also see that I was there for the seminary’s affordable housing.

But somehow I wound up completely and utterly committed to it. Here was an opportunity to study and immerse myself in what had always seemed so hard to pin down. Suddenly there were words for what had seemed so hard to name: “numinous” which means, “having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity,”and “ineffable: which means, “Too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.” The Seminary had a concentration in Theology and Art and that was my specialty. I studied religious art like crazy, and went deep into the origins of the Bible. We dove into feminist theology, liberation theology, process theology and whole lot of other theologies that I honestly can’t remember. And, because it was graduate school, we also drank a lot of beer.

I really loved it. I even worked for the Lutheran Church national headquarters as an Assistant Director of Global Mission Education for a year and a half, I was so into it – until I realized that the body politic of the Lutheran church was too fractious and fractured for me. But even after I moved on to graduate school for landscape architecture, I attended the campus church there and when I moved to Watertown I attended a Lutheran church just down the road. There was just one problem burbling away in my subconscious. Jesus. Deep down, I couldn’t actually believe that Jesus was the resurrected son of god, savior of the world. So where did that leave me?

For a long time, it left me without church, but with all the theological constructs – the liberation theology, the feminist theology – all that perspective. But I couldn’t marry it to the church any longer. Several years later, Mae came to the rescue. One day, I came home from Sunday brunch with friends and Mae said, “I found us a church. We can go every Sunday.” And six years later, here we are.

It wasn’t long after we started coming here that Mark said something that changed my whole perspective on God. Basically, he said, Unitarian Universalists don’t haveto believe in Jesus and we are still part of the Jewish Christian tradition. It was the weirdest feeling, like a wave of “Yes.” It seems so obvious to me now but it was amazing because until then I had never considered that possibility. There could be a god without a person or a persona attached. God could, actually, be ineffable! And everything else could stay – the deep connection, the feminism and social justice and the force behind all of it was still intact. It was the BEST mish mash of feelings. And the feelings all sort of settled down to one feeling, which is: God is, actually, love. And for me, God is expressed in this world in all the millions of ways to express love – through kindness, helping others, sharing, giving, forgiving.

Now I feel very grounded in my own version of faith in god. I feel connected to but less entangled by the stories some people wrote a long time ago in their attempt to capture and convey their own feelings of the numinous and ineffable. I’ve learned my own ways to be in touch with god’s presence in my daily life. First and foremost, I try to be as loving as possible because for me, that’s a direct connection with god. I try to be quiet and listen as a way to feel that connection. I try to keep my values front and center when I make decisions. I try to forgive myself in a loving way when I screw up because I made a good decision based on my values without looking at my calendar and forgive others when they screw up, too. I try to take the long view of what really matters in the world and in my life and my family. All of these things help me live what I believe – that there is a force of love in the universe and the more we can bring that directly into the world through our actions the better off we’ll all be.  

I have a very distinct childhood memory of wondering whether god exists. Sitting on our back patio in the California sun, feeling warm and loved and part of the great web of life, I suddenly just knew that there has to be a god or there wouldn’t be anyone to say thank you to. I realize there’s a whole lot of privilege attached to that statement. But I also think I was on to something. Those feelings of love and connection and gratitude are what bring us together, and they have to come from somewhere. Some would say it’s biology, neurology, and hormones. But I think it’s god. And being able to connect with the world through that source of love in the universe is something to be grateful for. I try to focus on that every day.

Lay speaker: Jeri Bayer

The poet Christian Wiman wrote this:

I say God and mean more

Than the bright abyss that opens in that word

For me, God– the word, the concept, my preoccupation with it— has always been a “bright abyss” that has shaped my life journey and my development as a person.

Please note that I didn’t just say “a belief in God.” I really dislike the question, “Do you believe in God?” — as if God had a universally agreed upon definition or that it was something whose existence requires belief. Instead, I find thisalternativequestion so much more appropriate: “How do you think aboutGod, if you think about God at all?” My answer to that is yes, I do think about God – a lot, but for me it’s not a matter of belief. In fact, I’m not sure I’d call myself a theist, unless theists include people who find meaning in the word or concept of God but don’t attach that meaning to belief. I think about life, feel life, engage with life, and choose to call God what I see as life’s essential verbs: giving and taking, growing and diminishing, continual changing. For me God is not so much an entity as it is the dynamic at the root of all lives, it’s the way that life is. God can’t be something one believes in since no one can deny its existence. It’s something to acknowledge and if you’re so inclined, to worship.

I didn’t come to this understanding for a long while, however. While “God” language entranced me from the time I was a young child, I couldn’t relate to it in any kind of traditional, churchy way. It was a “bright abyss” without a particular landscape. I knew I had every permission to let it go. I grew up with parents for whom God seemed to have no significant place in their vocabulary, except for the occasional expletive sputtered in moments of frustration. My father was a non-observant Jew and my mother felt no attachment to her Episcopal heritage. I attended UU Sunday School from 1stgrade on and the clear message there was that God language was optional and that meaning in life wasn’t the sole provenance of traditional religion.  But I couldn’t let God go and that was because of my maternal grandmother.

Granny was a powerful figure in my childhood; a matriarch who took a deep interest in her 22 grandchildren and many other extended family members and friends. And she was devout, meaning not only did she attend church every Sunday but she also had what to me seemed an intimate relationship to something or someone she called God. Every day she read from Daily Strengths for Daily Needs, a small black book – still in print but no longer black –with brief selections in prose and verse, with accompanying texts of Scripture. Reading from this book every day is meant to – in the words of its publisher– “help to strengthen the reader to perform the duties and to bear the burdens of each day with cheerfulness and courage.”She also kneeled to pray by her bed every night. As a child, I was moved by these rituals. Somewhat timidly, I asked her about them. God, she told me, helped her to meet the challenges of life. (Challenge was a big word with her. Nothing was a problem; it was a challenge.) God. That was the word she used. She didn’t explain it and I got the feeling that I should just somehow know what she was referring to. I also got the feeling that this God was something more important than anything else.

When I learned more about my grandmother’s history, what she had said was even more charged. She descended from early English colonists, and was raised in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the late 19thand early 20thcentury; Puritanism ran deep in her blood. Her childhood was economically privileged, but her parents were both abusive alcoholics. It was the church (Episcopal) and her developing faith that enabled her to endure. Her God was her savior. When she married, she moved to Ohio and, aside from her abiding faith, never looked back. Her one request of my parents when they brought their family back to the East Coast was that they provide some form of spiritual education for my siblings and me, even if they didn’t care about it for themselves. It was thanks to her, then, that I came to be dropped off at the RE entrance of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church of Duxbury, Massachusetts on Sunday mornings. (My mother later became active, but that’s another story.)

As I grew older and experienced my own difficult times — a sister’s serious illness, being bullied, a friend’s sudden death, depression – I yearned for Granny’s God: something certain, something in which I could find comfort, something which could get me through. Isn’t it in dark times that the answers religions offer beckon so enticingly? However, the idea of a creator being, a person-type God, or a universe of two stories (heaven and earth) or the Christian salvation promise that many of my peers accepted and celebrated – none of these held up for me when I considered them closely.

Still, though, I couldn’t give God up. It mysteriously resonated for me even as it eluded me. I was looking for a meaning that corresponded with what I was experiencing as real. Then, finally, in my early twenties, just a few months after my grandmother’s death, I realized that that was it. Reality. The deepest aspects of reality that we all experience: joy, loss, profound yearning and equally profound disappointment. That was God, clear and simple. What was the more complex issue as I came to see it was how I, how any of us, choose to live in relationship to that reality. Do we envelop ourselves in illusion or denial, or do we say “yes, this is how it is?” Yes, we do, and “Yes”, again.

Important in helping me to reach this understanding was my reading of 20th century theologians like Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Their work provided translations of religious language into secular language, while at the same time making it clear that a secular life could also be religious in its broadest sense. For several years I was part of an ecumenical religious community committed to studying and practicing how such understanding could guide and structure a life of compassion and service. This experience provided me with a vision and vocabulary for my previously vague, hungry and ungrounded soul. I could look at life without sentimentality or illusion, acknowledge its generosity and cruelty, its essential paradoxes, and fully embrace it.

I’ve been asked why it isn’t enough for me to just call Reality, Reality and describe its dynamics just as I have here, without recourse to “sacred speak.” Do I really need to call it God? Well, yes. As a poet and reader of poetry, I’m intensely attuned to language, its subtleties, its complexities and its power. So what I want for that which is, to quote Paul Tillich, of “ultimate concern”, is a word that evokes that bright abyss, that is different and bigger than any other word and it seems to me that “God” is the best option.

Lay Speaker: John Chamberlain

This talk is about my theistic journey. Theois Greek for God. I say confidently that God is all Greek to me. Not knowingis what I think God is ultimately all about. We definitely should learn all we can, but not knowingis a great release. It gets us out of our egos. I feel much more alive and creative in that space. Creativity keeps us in the now. Being Creator-in-Chief is one of the main job descriptions of God. It’s also the first thing gods have to do, day one on the job. Creation can be done in seven days or billions of years. I like the billions of years approach and how amazingly patient that shows God to be. I mean, if God isn’t patient, there’s not a lot of hope for us.

Krishnamurti, an Indian mystic, said life is “creation, destruction, and love.” He even said “Creation and destruction are one.” I don’t know what that means, but it sounds pretty cool. Anything that says this and that “are one” makes you sound like Yoda and that’s hip. Then again, Haley and Katie tell me that any sentence I utter with the word “hip” in it is definitely not cool.

Paul Klee, a Swiss painter, for his epitaph, wrote: “I have lived closer than most to the heart of creation, but still too far away.” Creativity captures the essence of the divine. Creativity comes from “what if” and “let’s see where this takes us” thinking.

T. S. Eliot wrote, “in my end is our beginning.” He also wrote, “In my beginning is my end.” That’s so cool it leaves being hip in the dust. So I’ll go back to my beginnings.

My mother was born Jewish. Because her first husband was Russian, she converted to the Russian Orthodox church. Even after he died, my mom would take me there sometimes. The church had an onion-shaped gold dome. As the priest spoke the mass in Russian, my eyes roved about, looking at the gorgeous icons. But my eyes stubbornly became fixed on an all-seeing eye above me. It’s unblinking intensity was not unlikeSauron’s roving eye. It made Santa’s supposedly year-round, all-knowing awareness seem pretty hypothetical. The priest swung his incense ball and walked around the altar, sending up clouds of eye-wincing smoke. I hoped the incense would close up that all-seeing eye.

During communion, everyone in church was supposed to kiss the image of cruxified Christ. His image was in a frame under glass. My sense of hygiene was offended. I sought ways to minimize any lip contact with the glass. I wonder if they still do that. My mother was a dance teacher and very progressive. Her appeal for this church must have been on an emotional level — I don’t think she understood the mass either, but it was a beautiful church.

My dad was a Congregationalist, of the Christmas- and Easter-church going variety. He had a relaxed view of God, and was content to say, “It’s all a mystery.” Then again, that’s what he said of the modern dishwasher. Somehow that conveniently made it so he only had to unload it. His other aphorism was “one world at a time.” He had a calmness to him, but his IQ was much more developed than his EQ.

My brother Ben, ten years older than me, (he had the Russian father) became Baptist when his father died. Somehow if I became a Born Again Christian, his mission would be fulfilled. He hounded me and as a little kid, it was confusing. Years later, I finally had to say, “Ben, I guess I’m just going to fry forever. I’ll be like a French fry that slips through the basket.” Once he could see he didn’t have any fear-inducing leverage over me, he relented.

On the positive side, one experience at Vacation Bible camp infused me with spirit. I was running down an ocean beach. Maybe it was a “second wind” from running, but the word “life” had this grand rippling effect in me. It made me slow down. Time folded like a wave and I recognized that I was one with the wriggling, shrimp-like creatures on the sands. In that moment, my loneliness became aloneness and even gathered to an… [dramatic pause] all oneness. Second winds, I came to realize, are akin to being born again. Being born again happens in the moment, and those moments are definitely hip.

I read a lot of Eastern Philosophy and explored Transcendental Medication, or Meditation. I also immersed myself in the lyrics and music of The Grateful Deadand Yesfor guidance. To address my anxiety and shyness, therapy would have been faster.

As an English major, one of my favorite Shakespeare’s plays was King Lear. My professor at Saint Michael’s, Dr. Nick Clary, shared the idea that his three daughters allegorically represented King Lear’s “head, heart, and horn” or his mind, heart, and body. I thought that was cool and spent an all-nighter writing a paper on that theory. Unity of mind and body became a theme for me. I explored bioenergetics and how the body’s involuntary movements and respiration waves of charging and discharging could be deepened through exercises and deep breathing.

Until midway through college, I thought eating at places like McDonalds was dandy. Then, I cleaned up my act. I tried to use sprouts to eat my way to heaven. I became super thin and recall my mother pleading with me to eat ice cream. But I was militant about what I ate; people would say, “That looks like something John Chamberlain would eat.”

(I once fed myself and my mother and a dancer friend of hers a salad with pokeweed in it. Pokeweed, a leafy green used in Southern recipes, needs to be cooked to remove nasty toxins. I figured why cook it? — you kill all the enzymes. So we ate a big salad with pokeweed instead of lettuce and spent the afternoon throwing up in the New Haven hospital. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face when I joined her in the ER. This is an example of where knowing is a benefit.) I don’t eat pokeweed at all or even sprouts much now, but I do think raw foods have increased my sensitivity to foods and that is a rudder for guidance. Our bodies are our temples.

I studied Ken Wilber and other Transpersonal Psychologists — it’s great stuff. I still like Yoga and breathwork and Bioenergetics for mind-body awareness. The body is our anchor, and God or love is the flow and flux. These different disciplines all left impressions on me and helped me see that different religions or ways of life have their values.

There are many ways up the mountain and the view from the top or crown chakra is magnificent. Wish we could stay there. Being a Unitarian Universalist is a good way to keep blending and mending these various parts of yourself. Being an English teacher for almost 35 years, I really like the poetry and the music that is part of our experience here. I know Sarah appreciates this in our UU lives, too. Being Katie and Haley’s dad has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It’s meaningful to share them at church with you. The inclusivness and ownership of voice at our church is something to be treasured. Thanks for the opportunity to speak here this morning.

— John Chamberlain