Many of us have stories about God.
A college student once told me how he asked questions about God in his childhood church and the leaders did not know how to answer. He decided that God must not be real.
A woman told me that all she knew about God was the passages that her mother would quote from Leviticus and Romans—passages meant to shame her for being a lesbian.
A friend from high school had a grandfather who was in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He could never fully answer: How could there be a God who would allow this to happen to my family and millions of others?
I feel confident that these or similar wounds are real for many of us in this room and I would never encourage someone to ignore such wounds.
Whether we have a direct understanding of God or not, we all have the right to a religious life. That is why I am a UU minister, because I know that religious life is bigger than any one scripture, any one culture and certainly religious life is bigger than any one word.
Today I am going to share with you my own spiritual biography which starts with a childhood understanding of God, goes to an adolescent, teen and young adult abhorrence of God, and how just in the past year, I have been surprised to have a life-changing experience of God.
What do I mean by God? For me, God is Love—all acts of Love are the stuff of God and all acts of bigotry and violence have nothing to do with God.
There is a movement in liberal religious circles to consider how God is a force that is ever-present, that evolves, grows, mourns and even suffers losses. How God can honor all that I know to be true about modern science, protecting the earth and the right to equality for people who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered. How God is not a force that controls the world like a puppet on a string, but rather God only has the power to call us toward Love.
That is it. Without our partnership, without our agreement, God is powerless. If we do not respond to the call and walk in the ways of Love, God is waiting and calling and waiting and calling.
When I was a child, I knew God to be a being that walked to school with me whenever I asked for company.
I knew God to be awake before anyone else in the earliest minutes of dawn.
I knew God to be a being that liked beautiful places. Every Sunday we went to God’s house, and it was very beautiful. The exalted ceiling, the echoing minor chords, the colors that seemed to project from a window and dance on my hand, the painted faces whose expression told the story of something that could somehow be wild and comforting all at once.
The mystical faith of my childhood ended rather abruptly during my adolescent years when a series of tragedies happened in my family. Within a couple of weeks, the innocent magic of my childhood seemed far away.
God was not in any houses. Wondering about God seemed like a luxury and a waste of time compared to the desperate needs of the moment, especially since my understanding of God had not matured beyond seeing God as a superpower who was in control of everything. I mean, if God was in control of everything, why was my life such a mess?
I was on my own, whether I wanted company or not.
As a young adult, I was drawn toward religious communities and religious practices—although they were almost always connected with Buddhism or Hinduism. I had a growing disdain for anyone who had superstitions about God’s power to control events and condemn certain people. Much of religion just seemed like a construction used to empower the worst of human nature: our self-righteous ignorance and childish xenophobia.
I found what I understood to be the best of religious life: Facing reality and finding a way to live gracefully. I found a home in Unitarian Universalism, went to seminary, started my family, started working as a minister and then, when I least expected it, it happened.
God showed up in my life like a stray dog, sweet and determined, begging for food every morning, noon and night until I finally put a bowl of food on the porch.
I did not call it God at first. Long before it was a word, it was just a powerful experience – an experience like I was being accompanied through every moment of every day, into my dreams and as sleep faded into awakening, it was still there. I was full to overflowing with elation and with fear of the power of this force sitting close to me, comforting me, watching me, and even holding me.
What I noticed over the months is that this presence was not passive. I noticed that it had (for lack of a better word) an intelligence, a direction. I sought understanding in ancient prayers and psalms. It seemed to me that the people who wrote these prayers must have had the same delightful and yet disorienting experience that I was having. I began to see a spiritual director who helped me to understand that while what I was experiencing was sacred, it was far from unique.
I did not just reconnect with the ancient psalmists but also with our religious ancestors and our founding documents—this from the Winchester Profession, the 1803 Universalist profession of faith:
We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
I also found comfort in the 1853 American Unitarian Association Statement of Beliefs:
We desire openly to declare our belief as a denomination, so far as it can be officially represented by the American Unitarian Association, that God, moved by his own love, did raise up Jesus to aid in our redemption from sin, did by him pour a fresh flood of purifying life through the withered veins of humanity and along the corrupted channels of the world, and is, by his religion, forever sweeping the nations with regenerating gales from heaven, and visiting the hearts of men with celestial solicitations.
I found a joy in re-claiming the word God. I know how empty and lonely the word is, how inadequate three letters are for the infinite expanse that it represents. But I feel a joy to be in conversation, in a strange harmony with those voices from long ago, those whom I imagine felt this same thing and called it God. I could feel how much effort I have put into resisting God and those who would profess faith in God. I could feel the weight of this baggage that I thought I had left behind.
And then, slowly, the presence faded. It was not gone for good, but it did feel farther away. When I pray or meditate, I can still feel that presence, but instead of feeling immersed in the presence and even overwhelmed by it, I find that I need to remember to notice it. It is as if I was learning to ride a bike and it took me many months. During those months some force was behind me, holding on to the seat, running along with me, being sure that I did not fall. And then when I start to push the wheels and get my balance, God lets go and stops running along side me but is still watching from the corner.
God is a practice for me now. I think this is true for so many people. Occasionally God dumps awakening down upon us. But more often than not, knowing God is a daily practice of remembering—remembering the loving center within us, a daily practice of returning to our source armed with questions, reverence, praise, and yearning.
Unitarians and Universalists have always had a healthy skepticism of the humans who would use the word God to justify judgment of other people or use the word God to justify violence. Both Unitarian and Universalist traditions were created in the shadow of the oppressive Calvinist theology of the 18th century, which was so sure that God was hateful and ready to send most people into the eternal fires of hell.
We can be proud and inspired that in this oppressive climate, our religious ancestors were asking very brave questions about God.
Early Universalists wondered if God was far from a force of hate, but actually a force whose very nature is Love. Who has the power to eventually restore us, not just a few of us, but each and every one of us, with happiness and holiness.
Early Unitarians wondered if God can really be contained—whether in a church, or in a ritual like communion, or even in a singular religion. Maybe God transcends all of these man-made constructions, they wondered.
Over the decades and centuries, wondering about the nature of God has all but been lost in Unitarian Universalist pulpits. Why don’t we want to talk about God? I bet many of you saw the title for today’s sermon and thought, "Wow. She is going to talk about God." Some people probably saw the title and even stayed home saying, "Yeesh, I don’t want to hear about that!" Why is God such a big deal?
Well, there are some very good reasons why God is a big deal. Perhaps the wounds are really that bad and digging around just causes more trouble than it is worth. Perhaps rather than reinterpret the old theologies that once hurt us, we would rather just forget it altogether and move on. Perhaps we have so valued our sense reason that we have become suspicious of anything else.
It is a good question: Why even bother with God?
Certainly there is a compelling argument to be made that a religious life can look like many things and ultimately comes down to that we serve our neighbors and that we are saved by creating hell into heaven – right here and now.
Do we really need an understanding of a divine force to make sense of it all? Perhaps we just need to face reality and live as gracefully as possible. After all, it really is far more important to ease the suffering in the world and to preserve the planet than it is to ask heady questions about the nature of God.
But given that our view of God can affect how and why and if we are compelled to act for justice in the world, it seems a worthy of consideration - especially at church.
I yearn for a liberal religious understanding of a divine force to make sense of the world and my place in it mainly because of one simple conviction:
I am sure that I do not make my own goodness.
Love comes from a source that is certainly larger than my petty ego that is always getting in my way. Yes, there is love in my family, love in my congregation, but the Love that is present in all these places is much larger than I am. It had momentum before I was born and I have faith that it will reverberate in other directions long after I am gone. This Love is simultaneously beyond us and yet it cannot exist without us.
When I was going through this experience with God, I was really going through a crisis. During this most formative moment of my spiritual development, I was not sure if I could turn to my religious home, to Unitarian Universalism. As a tradition we have grown in such a defended way, so sure of what we are not, so committed to the search that we have become skeptical of those who have found.
As a minister I have the ability to work through these things and eventually bring them to the pulpit and talk about it. But I wonder how many people in our pews have had similar awakenings and felt that they needed to go elsewhere to really receive the encouragement they needed to fully integrate this experience into their life. So in their hour of greatest need and greatest spiritual insight, they have just silently faded away from our congregations to find a place where they can praise and call it by name and feel called by their name.
I want our congregations to be places where people can ask brave questions about faith, even if it means asking questions about God. I want our congregations to be places where people worship with the fullest expression of their being and never need to feel embarrassed by their faith, especially when it is grounded in Love.
And I am not stopping with the pews. After years of happily surrendering "God talk" to other pulpits in other traditions, I now see how the work of blessing the world with Love could be greatly served by Unitarian Universalists reclaiming our roots, reclaiming our place at the table, reclaiming our right and our responsibility to interpret sacred texts, to interpret today’s struggles for justice and give voice for the eternally loving ways of God.
Let’s not be just another voice in the American culture war to debate these ideas – there are plenty of people doing this perfectly well from a political and intellectual perspective.
We can go beyond being a faith of ideas to reclaim our own religious heritage, to reclaim our own hearts and listen for the God that is waiting and calling and waiting and calling—us—toward Love.