My God: A Work in Progress

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

The road less travelled. Each of us, in one way or another, almost by definition, has taken the religious road less travelled, or else we wouldn’t be here, this morning. Those of us who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists, have taken a largely untraveled path – have chosen to become part of a religious minority – because we UU’s comprise far less than one percent of the population of this country. Those who are newer to Heritage Church, and to Unitarian Universalism – those of you who have taken that bold step, that leap of faith, to come to this sanctuary today, and be with people you don’t yet know well, and about whom you’re perhaps not so sure – you, most certainly, are taking the road less travelled. And even those few who were born and bred UU – perhaps, especially, those who were born and bred UU – have also taken a road less travelled, for the majority of folks raised Unitarian Universalist, do not stay Unitarian Universalist.

And that last, most sobering, piece of data, is where I want to begin my reflection, this morning. Yes, to be a UU – whatever way any one of us may have come to be here – is to take the road less travelled. And make no mistake – I believe, that our taking of that road, does make all the difference. I, myself, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else – I can’t imagine not being a Unitarian Universalist. But the thing is, a great many people can – including far too many people who were raised in our churches… or congregations… or fellowships… or societies – because UU churches are called all those things – and more – throughout the country. We go by a multiplicity of names that don’t so much reflect our diversity, as they belie our widespread discomfort, with anything religious.

Nowhere is this unfortunate Unitarian Universalist tendency more evident, than when it comes, to “God.” I have always been proud that Heritage UU Church – “where the Universalist comes first,” as I like to say – I am proud that our church not only calls itself a “church,” but more importantly that we are not afraid to use, as well as to discuss, the word “God.” Even that, puts us on the road less travelled, when it comes to Unitarian Universalist congregations. But I will say it again: that does make all the difference. It’s why I am here, as your minister. Many of you have told me it is also why you are here, too. Heritage is that rare Unitarian Universalist church in which God-language is not a source of conflict; that rare UU church where religious language, of various kinds, is a normal and accepted part, of community life.

Rev. Christine Robinson spoke to this point, as well as I’ve ever heard anyone do, in her Berry Street Lecture at our UUA General Assembly in 2008 in Fort Lauderdale. The Berry Street Lecture is a prestigious speech given by a Unitarian Universalist minister to his or her gathered colleagues, an annual reflection on what I, here at HUUC, might call “the state of the church” – though in this case, it is an examination of the state of our churches, and of our religious movement.

Robinson told us, and I quote, that it is high time for us UU’s to stop playing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when it comes to God. It was a moment of searing insight for me. In Unitarian Universalist churches – even strong, healthy churches like Heritage, where we are, for the most part, comfortable at least using the word “God” – we don’t really talk about God that often. No, we prefer to keep our spiritual life, our personal beliefs – particularly our beliefs about that biggest of all subjects – to keep our beliefs, in the closet, so to speak – a private matter, thank you very much. Best not discussed in polite company. Don’t ask, don’t tell. I won’t ask you what you believe, and I won’t tell you what I believe. It’s the Unitarian Universalist way, said Robinson.

What a loss. What rich conversations, we might have; what trusting, maybe even transformative, connections we might create, if we could only talk, openly about what we believe.

I realize, of course, that the world we live in has trained us to be uncomfortable talking about our religious beliefs. In many cases, remaining discreet about what you believe is something akin to social self-preservation. But in your church – especially in a church where differences are respected, where the prevailing attitude is one of live-and-let-live – more open disclosure of our own most deeply held and cherished beliefs might just open the door to deeper relationship. It is my hope that today’s service, and next week’s, will move us away from what Christine Robinson calls “religious don’t ask, don’t tell,” and toward a deeper, more profound level of sharing.

And the truth is – in ways both direct, and indirect – many of you have asked – so let me tell you, about my God. The first thing you will probably have noticed, is that, for me, there is something that I choose to call “God.” Thus, God is not a word, or a concept, that I have chosen to discard. Either stance, is appropriate, for a Unitarian Universalist. And either stance – whether we choose to engage with – or to dismiss – God – is definitely, a choice. We each choose what we are going to do with and about God, because in this life, “God” is a given – we are born into a world, and into a culture, where it is not possible to be free of either the word, or the idea.

For the first half of my life, I made a different choice – I was, at times, an ardent agnostic, at other times simply a devout secularist. The predominant image of God in our culture – you know the one: a stern, judgmental, bearded old white man in the sky, filled with vengeance and wrath, damning some and saving others, choosing winners and losers – the God that Cindy Landrum dismisses in today’s first reading – was easy enough for me to dismiss as well. In fact, that God so disgusted to me that for many years, I closed myself off to the very idea of religion.

As I say, that was roughly the first half of my life. But then, as they often do, two paths diverged – and I made a choice, to take the one less travelled by – a choice that has made all the difference. Thirty years ago this Easter, I made the fateful decision to attend church, with a girlfriend – a girlfriend who wasn’t even a Unitarian Universalist, but who knew enough about me, to know that I wouldn’t be comfortable at her Presbyterian church on Easter. So she suggested that we try the local UU church instead. I agreed.

Here’s all that I remember about the morning that changed my life: There were folding, gray metal chairs, much like the ones we use in the Great Hall, lined up in rows, in the parlor of a large old, gray house. There were probably three dozen of us in attendance – my girlfriend and I, by far the youngest two. The minister was a kindly, older, gray-haired man.

What’s the common theme so far? Gray. But then, at the end of the service, each of us was handed a colorful, helium balloon. We went outside, to the front yard of this old house, and – after the minister said some words of some sort, words that I am sure did not include the word “God” – we all released our balloons, and they filled the gray – yes, gray – sky with vivid color, and beauty. Meanwhile, my heart, was filled with joy and wonder, hope and possibility.

I would go so far – now, at least – as to say what happened to me that Easter morning, was a religious experience. It was definitely a conversion experience. I became a Unitarian Universalist right then – and made it official by joining the church – without my girlfriend – soon thereafter. (It would be more precise to say that I joined the “fellowship” soon thereafter, because it was one of those UU churches where religious language, and God language, was not spoken; thus, perhaps, my immediate comfort level, sitting there in those uncomfortable metal chairs.) But whatever kind of UU church, or fellowship, it may have been – it started me on a road less travelled, a road that eventually led me to a UU church as different from my first congregation, as it is possible to be).

Nine years – two different churches, in two different cities – later, I was hired as the full-time Youth Director at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa – the largest UU church in the world. No folding metal chairs there – only stately white, wooden pews. Nothing gray about the place – everything was white – from the glossy white paint on the steeple and the outside walls that stretched a city block, to the picket fence around the playground – to the senior minister’s hair. The senior minister who wore a robe, and preached about God, all the time.

I want to say thank you, here and now – thank you, John Wolf, for preaching every Sunday, about God. Thank you, for teaching me, and your congregation, about God – teaching us that when we allow superstitious, narrow-minded, hate-filled people to define and take ownership of the most important word of all – we surrender the possibility of a rational, open-minded, compassionate religion – and in the process, we give away what might be our last, best chance at finding common ground, spiritually, and socially. So I am eternally grateful, to my first ministerial mentor, for gently allowing me – and for sometimes less than gently urging me – to wrestle with God, to use the Biblical metaphor. In Frost’s words, “that has made all the difference.”

But if it was All Souls that helped a religiously diffident, overgrown adolescent make peace with God, it was Heritage Church that helped a grown man, grow into a minister. I won’t say I picked Heritage solely because of your Covenant, but I can in all honesty tell you that the Covenant was one of the first things that told me I could find a home here. The Covenant said to me, “This is a church where religious language is spoken. This is a church where people are interested in building a spiritual community.” Love is the spirit of this church, you declare. No equivocations there – no don’t ask, don’t tell. Love is the spirit of this church. And there are also words like “quest” and “seek” – words that proclaim a congregation of seekers, a community of people who are on a path, who are walking, together, on a road less travelled.

And I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but the first, and the last words of the Covenant – “Love” and “God” – are, at least in the Universalist tradition from which this congregation comes, synonymous. They form a perfect circle. God is love.

And so begins, my definition, of my God. My God, is love.

But what kind of love? The kind that prefers one of us, over the other? Certainly not. What I’m talking about, is the kind of love that is literally limitless, a love that is overflowing and unquenchable – a love of life. My God is that universal urge toward life. My God is not only love, but life itself. Which is one reason I am so fond of the beautiful hymn “Spirit of Life” – because it offers us a phrase – a distinctly Unitarian Universalist phrase – that for me, and for many UU’s, can serve as a helpful synonym, for God.

To my mind, the two terms are virtually interchangeable, two sides of the same coin, representing two aspects of the same, ultimate force. “Spirit of Life” is the softer, more nurturing expression, while “God” comes with both more baggage, and more power.

Let’s examine this proposition, for just a moment. Simply by virtue of its ability to evoke strong emotions, the word “God” has immense power. I am hardly the first to make the argument that there is no single, stronger word in the English language. And shouldn’t any word that seeks to sum up the most powerful force in the universe, be a strong word? I’ve often been intrigued by the tone and structure of the very word itself – one, forceful sounding syllable, composed of two hard consonants surrounding a round, all-encompassing vowel. How brilliant is that?

On the other hand, “Spirit of Life” has soft consonants, and explicitly includes what I consider to be the defining characteristic of God – life. And not just life, mind you, but Life, with a capital “L”. The larger life, as one of our older hymns says – the life that maketh all things new. The “Spirit of Life” is a vital, animating force – the kind of force that brings forth, from the seed, a plant; that brings forth from the egg and sperm, a human being – the kind of force that impels grasses to shoot up between cracks in concrete; the kind of force that cannot be stopped, by death – but rather transforms death into even more life. Life, with a capital “L”.

Twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich tackles the linguistic question of what to call this force, in the following passage from his most famous sermon:

“The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being, is ‘God.’ That depth is what the word ‘God’ means. [But] if the word has no such meaning for you, [then] translate it – and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern… Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional, that you have learned about God.”

Which is exactly what many of us, have done. In retrospect, it is certainly what I have done. It has been a slow process, an evolution, and my God remains and hopefully will always be, a work in progress. But it – note I said it, not he, or she – it has been well worth, the effort.

Still, we have only scratched the surface. So far, we have only discussed the name – or names – for what our UU Principles call “that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures.” I have said that I use “God” and “Spirit of Life” almost interchangeably, and have examined the differences in the two names. Tillich has offered us other names, such as the “ultimate,” and the “ground of all being.” One member of a recent chalice circle called it the “Great Mystery.” Hindus refer to Brahman. There are indeed, as hymnist Brian Wren reminds us, “many names” for God.

But how to describe my God? When you come to a church, and hear your minister use the word “God,” you have a right to know what he means by that word. I often make the point – because I believe it is one of the most important points of all – that in a Unitarian Universalist church, we don’t define God for you. There is, therefore, a clear distinction between what I mean by the word God, and what any one of you, may mean by that word. And, at least in a UU church, there is really no such thing as what we mean by the word God.

As for my God – let’s begin with a baseline reading. I took the liberty of printing it, in your order of service, so that you can take it home with you. While these are not my own words, they are the most accurate words I’ve yet found, to describe what I call “God.” With all due credit given to Joseph Campbell, my God is that “ubiquitous presence” – and, I would add, power “in the universe, which brings everything into being, sustains it in [all] its manifestations, and then dissolves it back into the universe.”

That is what I mean, when I say “God.” That is what I mean, when I say “Spirit of Life.” That is what I bow to – in you, and in me – when I say “Namaste.” There, in a couple dozen words, is the summation and the essence of what I have collected in my two-inch-thick three-ring binder about God, where I have gathered and am still gathering tens of thousands of mine and other people’s words, about God. Words which are just that – words, limited human tools, for the task of trying to pin down that which is limitless. But aside from meditative silence, they are what we have – so let’s look at some of those words, for a moment.

I said that I would add the word “power” to Campbell’s definition. I have described God as that force at work inside the seed, which transforms it into a flower. I remember well, because I wrote it down in my God-quote book, something a fellow minister said at a retreat back in 2003: “The older I get, the less I understand – and the more I like that fact. My experience,” he went on, “in 12-step programs has shown me, convinced me, that there is a power – that what happens inside, in one’s heart, is grace – a spiritual transformation.” If a seed can be transformed, why not us?

I believe God is a force, in the universe. But what of “presence” – God as being a presence in the world, in our lives? There is “a story from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s ‘Honey from the Rock,’ in which Kushner asks some grade school children how many of them believe in God, and to his dismay, not a single hand goes up. He eventually thinks to ask instead how many of them have ever been close to God. Showing no awareness of the contradiction, [nearly] every child raises a hand.

They tell Kushner about their closeness to God when helping their parents, when lighting candles, when angry and sad at a grandparent’s death. “Too often,” Kushner writes, “we get hung up on the question of ‘believing in’ – when what we really want is ‘closeness to.’ ”

“In choosing to live close to God,” writes UU essayist Phillip Simmons, “I’ve decided I no longer have the luxury of waiting until I’ve figured out, intellectually, once and for all, exactly what God is.”

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For me, I feel close to God – I feel, and thus believe in, this presence – each Sunday, when we join hands around the sanctuary and speak about the Spirit of Life, flowing, from one to the other. I feel it coursing in and through my body, when I am on the yoga mat. I feel it stirring in my heart, when I am alone in the woods. I feel it when I go to bed each night, and when I wake up each morning.

This presence, I believe, is everywhere, at all times – it is ubiquitous. It is “abiding.” Perhaps you’ve noticed my fondness for that particular word, over the years, because it is a word that goes a long way, toward describing my God – “abiding.” It is a presence that is always here, with each of us, as near as our breath; as much a part of our essence, as our DNA.

But the remarkable thing about this abiding presence – even more remarkable than its ubiquity – is the idea that, somehow, it brings everything into being. It is what Sophia Fahs called “The Life Giver.” It is what I have described as that which impels the seed, to become the flower. This attribute, above all else, is what makes me, a believer. The idea that the universe is mere happenstance, that all we see and taste and touch arose from nothing, is one that simply does not resonate with me. As I understand it, even the unimaginably tiny speck that exploded in the Big Bang, held within it all the potential of the known universe. Maybe, after all, that’s another good way to describe my God – potentiality.

Think of it! We are each an utterly unique manifestation of the potential of the universe. Our hymnal is filled with readings that speak of the atoms and the molecules and the elements from the Big Bang, which now comprise, our bodies. What’s more, those bodies – those manifestations of the creative moment – are somehow (and not of our own doing) – sustained. It takes no conscious effort – no effort at all – for us to live. The Life Giver has taken care of that. You don’t have think, to breathe; you don’t have to tell your heart, to beat. In fact – and I can say you this from experience, as someone who has had medical issues with his heart – the more you think about it, the more you can actually screw up your heartbeat!

And so, we are sustained, as manifestations of this abiding presence and power. Sustained – for a time. But experience tells us that everything that lives – including us – must someday die. No exceptions. It was, perhaps, this inconvenient truth that spawned religion itself. Without the knowledge of our own impending mortality, we might not even be having this conversation today, about God. But because of this reality, each religion, each religious person – whether through prayer or meditation, scientific research or simple speculation – must eventually come to some kind of conclusion, about the conclusion of life.

For me – try as I might – I have never been able to believe that after I am dead, I will continue to exist, in some personal, individual, self-aware way. Thus, I never could find comfort in, or a comfortable fit within, any of the more well-travelled religious paths. But in Unitarian Universalism, I found a religion that not only didn’t tell me what I had to believe about God – it also didn’t tell me what I had to believe about life after death – if indeed there is such a thing.

As a Unitarian Universalist, therefore, I am free to find my own religious truth in any and all scripture, any and all writing – and it was Joseph Campbell’s simple but beautiful description of death that resonated perfectly with me, the first time I read it – because I, too, believe that, as he says, when I die, I will dissolve, back into the universe. The picture I have always had is that of a drop of water, in the ocean. It only becomes a drop, when it is flung onto a rock by the crash of a powerful wave. In time, under the heat of the sun, the drop evaporates, turns to water vapor, and rises through the sky to become absorbed into a cloud. Eventually, in the fullness of time, the cloud itself becomes full, and it rains. The drop falls, and lands back in the ocean.

God, to me, is like that ocean. Just where I am, in the cycle of that drop, and in my own life cycle, I cannot know, but I fully believe that there is a cycle – a glorious cycle, of which I am a part. It is that cycle, which I celebrate. It is that cycle, which I call God.

I will close this reflection, this theological work in progress, with the words of Maria Mitchell, the 19th century Unitarian scientist who many consider the first woman astronomer. It is safe to say that Mitchell studied the universe, and pondered its meaning – and was well ahead of her time…

“Small as our whole system is, compared with the infinitude of creation,” she said – “Brief as is our life, compared with the cycles of time – we are [yet] so tethered to all [that is], by the beautiful dependencies of law that not only the sparrow’s fall is felt, to the utmost bound [of the universe] – but the vibrations set in motion by the words that we utter, reach through all space, and the[ir] tremor is felt through all time.”

I believe it is so. Amen!

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