Sermon: The God I’m Looking For
Many of you know that I served a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Kingston, NY for eighteen years. I left in 2010 to move to Long Island and go into hospital chaplaincy. Currently I work on Long Island as a chaplain and as an educator of chaplains. My setting is a multi-faith one. The patients I see are all faiths and no faith and the students I teach are predominantly Christian and Jewish.
A couple of weeks ago I appeared before a certification committee in order to be granted candidacy, which is a step in the chaplaincy education process I’m in. Prior to meeting the committee I had to submit a lot of written material, including a paper describing my theology. The committee had some feedback for me on that. Do more with God, they said. Do more with God.
That is a challenge. God. Who or what is God? What does God mean to a Unitarian Universalist with a Buddhist practice? What does God mean to anyone? What does God mean to you? I realize that “God” can be a touchy word among Unitarian Universalists, so another way to say that is to ask you what are the deep down truths about life and about yourself that you have learned through your living experience?
I know that my theology, my faith, and my life experience are related and influence one another in a continuously moving process. They filter through my mind and heart, fed by my tradition and my cultural heritage, and tested in my communities.
I grew up, an only child, with parents whom I felt sure loved me and who gave me my love of education and learning, a sense of fun, and a great enthusiasm for the New York Yankees. (Go Yankees!) Yet they were unable to provide a stable home. My father was unpredictable in his anger, which at times turned violent in that he would yell loudly, throw things around the house, and then stomp out muttering and cursing. It frightened me as a child and I grew to fear him. My mother, who enabled him through her silence about this behavior, left the family for two years when I was five, because she contracted tuberculosis and had to go to a hospital. The effects and the scars of that most traumatic time in my life I know as abandonment, loss, powerlessness, disconnection, betrayal. The feelings that come with them are fear, shame, sadness, anger.
This experience has had an impact on my theology. I was raised in the Episcopal Church. I didn’t like or trust God, though, because according to the stories I learned in Sunday School, God acted too much like my father: vindictive, punishing, violent. Killing people who disobeyed, destroying the world. Scary. I identified with Jesus as a sibling with the same kind of frightening parent. The chaos of my family caused there to be an emotional barrier between me and that childhood God, who seemed just as chaotic. I wanted nothing to do with it. My Episcopal roots were shallow and I stopped attending church in college.
When, about ten years later, I came upon Unitarian Universalism, its founding principles, that the nature of God is a unity rather than a trinity (Unitarian), and that because God loves us, there will be universal salvation for everyone (Universalist), drew me in. Over the centuries we as a denomination have moved in our emphasis and understandings, but these are the beliefs we were founded upon. Unitarian Universalism holds a critical, rather than literal, understanding of scripture. It doesn’t take those old bible stories literally or as unquestioned truth. I particularly responded to the God who loved me and through that Universalist principle I was able to uncouple God from my father and know other possibilities for a belief in some force greater than me. Unitarian Universalism understands interconnection among all beings and the earth to be foundational and all persons to have inherent worth and dignity. Upon this rests an ethical structure. The integrity of Unitarian Universalism has its basis in congruence between belief and action. All of this was a balm to my sense of disconnection and abandonment.
The Unitarian Universalist framework lives for me, not only because it helps to heal some of my woundedness, but also because it offers me a structure of faith and ethics that allows me to live intentionally, purposefully, and with meaning. Its way of understanding life is congruent with the experiential knowing of my life experience. It offers me a possibility for finding God, or spirit, or higher power, or universal law, however you name that which is more than any of us individually. UUism strengthens me and holds me in hope.
Process Theology, while not exclusively Unitarian Universalist, is a prevalent theology in our faith tradition and that is the theology that I claim as mine. In Process Theology interdependence and interconnection are fundamental, which means that there is nothing that is not in relationship with something else. Catherine Keller, a Process Theologian, writes, “. . . We do not exist outside of our relationships. We become who we are only in relation . . .” These relationships flow in dynamic and changing processes in which cause and effect interplay and there is freedom of choice and action. Because there is freedom, all possibilities exist.
Think of a tennis game. You don’t play tennis by yourself. The players are in relationship through the balls they encounter coming to and fro over the net. Each is free to choose her or his shot, and the choice is also influenced by the shot he or she has received from the other. Cause brings on effect, effect brings on cause. Anything might happen in the game, and if you have ever watched Serena Williams play, you know what I mean. Reality, just like the tennis ball, doesn’t stand still. Reality is a being-becoming rather than a static being. I am here, now in this moment. But even as I say this, the moment is passing and I am becoming into the next moment.
So who or what is God in this shifting scheme of things? Well, I think of God as the life force. Because everything moves and changes, is and becomes, my belief is “. . . not settled belief but living process. It is the very edge and opening of life in process. To live is to step with trust into the next moment: into the unpredictable . . . The spirit in which we journey is a spirit in process. And so divinity itself — that which we can name or conceive as God — will be discerned in process.” (Keller, p.XII)
God is in the processes, holding and sustaining them and carrying all the possibilities. The processes are not chaotic because God is the order, the way, (the dharma), in them. Alfred North Whitehead suggested that God is what preserves order amid change, and preserves change amid order. God is the life force. In Exodus 3:14 when Moses asks God what God’s name is, God answers I am who I am, which can also be translated as I am what I am, or I will be what I will be. (RSV)
God, for me, is not an all powerful, all knowing creator. God has not planned out everything in advance. Because God contains all possibilities, as the processes become and change, so does God become and change. Human beings have freedom of choice and action, and our relationship with God is one of co-creativity. God is always with us but does not control the outcome or preordain the choices we make. God is immanent, right here with us, and God is the whole which is bigger than the sum of its parts.
What of the human relationship with God, with this life force? Life longs for living. All living beings and species want to survive and keep on living. The poet Kahlil Gibran calls this “Life’s longing for itself.” This is in us. And because our human race wants to survive we do somehow know the better ways to do that: physical, material, spiritual, emotional. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many religions teach some form of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Writer Karen Armstrong notes this and names compassion as the common denominator among religions in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. We know the better ways to live. A Mohandas Ghandi inspires most people while an Adolf Hitler repels most people.
Process Theology asserts that the religious drive of humanity is to be in contact and harmony with these better ways. When we are in harmony with them, we call our experience goodness, or love, or justice, or happiness, or truth, or beauty. Our suffering is less and we experience more peace. I long for that. Something in me wants to actualize the best inside me, even though I do not always act upon that impulse. I do want to act upon it. I do feel better, more powerful, more connected when I am living in ways that honor my life and the lives of others. Like a lamp, when I plug myself into the life socket, I light up. Mindfulness These are the times when I know, feel, sense, intuit, that I am in touch with God. I am connected to something larger than me that is nevertheless in me.
How does this show in the living? What’s the embodiment of this? Love. Love is relational, dynamic, and fluid. When we love someone we can feel a deep connection with them, a connection that is between us and also greater than us. It can be physical, like making love. It can be emotional, like crying with another in sorrow. It can be artistic, like singing together. It can be intellectual, like the synergy that grows when idea stimulates idea. It can be spiritual, like looking around your dinner table and experiencing gratitude for the people there. When I have felt such connections I have had the sense of a larger presence in attendance.
There have been times that I’ve been with patients and the circumstances have been such that I really had no idea what to say. I was in the emergency room with a woman whose husband had been brought in with cardiac arrest. When I walked into the room she stood up to greet me, a look of terror on her face. She was, literally, holding her breath. She came toward me and we touched hands and I said to her “Breathe.” She did and we stood there, her hands in mine, breathing together. Just breathing. And for that moment it was enough. I witnessed and companioned her in that fearful time.
To tell the truth, when I walked into that room I had no idea what to say. I still don’t know why I said and did what I did. It wasn’t a conscious choice on my part. It felt like something else, something larger, working with me and through me. In a similar way artists say that they feel something larger working through them when their creative process is alive. People say they’re in the zone when their words and deeds are greater than they ever thought themselves capable of. It happens with groups also. Those of us who are teachers might have experienced times of learning and growth with our classes that felt as though we co-created something very powerful. Those of us who are performers might have experienced the presence of an audience as part of and influencing the creative performance. Right now I experience you and I as co-creating this moment we are having together. I hear you listening. I see you.
This is what it means to me to be in contact and harmony with ways of living that embody love. These are the times when I feel the presence of what I call God most strongly. Are these the kind of relational processes that enable us to touch and embody the divinity within the processes themselves? That larger presence is always there, I believe. I get in touch with it most often when I get out of my own way and trust the relational process.
What of evil? What of suffering, pain, destruction, and damage? I don’t believe that I can define the nature of God. Is God good because goodness exists? Is God evil because evil exists? God is. God is and becomes. God contains all possibilities. The vindictive God in some bible stories, the loving God in other stories are both metaphors of a God holding all the possibilities. When violence and destruction fill our lives, some of us identify that violence and destruction with God. That’s what I did as a child. Others of us look to a God of love and justice to counterbalance the violence. My picture of God has grown more complex. Just as I learned to hold my father’s complexity and see the parts of him that weren’t full of anger as well as the ones that were, I believe that God is more than the pictures presented in biblical stories.
Suffering is a part of life, though not a divine punishment or plan. I do not know why suffering is a part of life; I just know it is. God is with us in suffering. We have free will and make our choices. Sometimes they add to the suffering. The potential is always with us to make choices that we call evil, and have experiences that are harmful, or destructive. Evil can exist in the intentions and/or the consequences of our choices, especially when they prevent actualization of good. Restoration is also an ever present possibility, a part of our ongoing processes. “Theology as process remains . . . open-ended. . . . But this does not mean anything goes. . . . many things go, and some better than others. Discernment between ways better and worse . . . never ceases. Theology cannot escape its own edge of judgment, not in the sense of an ultimate retribution but of a critical and self-critical truth process. . . . The truth process does not eliminate uncertainty or its chaos. It makes it visible, in order to release a livelier, more redemptive order.” (Keller, pp.10 and 14)
We feel better and accomplish more goodness when we make choices that bring us closer to love. Our life work is to recognize and make the choices that allow us to more powerfully live and know the connections between us. To live and know the connections between us and the life force that is God. It’s a journey. It’s a process of possibilities.
As Catherine Keller says, “The way of this mystery, the wonder of its process, is not justified by its endpoint. It wanders ahead in time and space by no terribly linear path.” (Keller, p.IX) Therefore the words of the poet Rilke hold great meaning for me: “I want to beg you, as much as I can . . . . to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (from Letters to a Young Poet, chapter 4) May it be so.
Sermon: The God I’m Looking For