Children have a way of going right to the heart of the matter. When she was a pre-adolescent, one day our now adult daughter asked me, "Mom, between you and me, do you believe in God?"
Now, I had always sought to present positive religious views to her, so off I went: "Well, I believe in an ultimate divine love and. . . " "No, no," my sixth generation Unitarian and Universalist offspring interrupted. "I mean God out there. A real person. I don't," she quickly added, "I guess I'm just a girl who needs evidence." That led to a discussion of which gods we do and don't believe in and the evidence of love. By the time the conversation quickly stalled, it left me thinking my husband and I weren't doing all that great, for two ministers, at teaching our child theology.
How easily children ask these questions. By the time we are adults, we have accumulated more history and anxiety around them. In all of our recent Transition workshops, the issue of God-talk came up, with some people expressing a longing to be able to consider the questions more freely and openly together and others feeling quite the opposite. Without doubt, the full spectrum of responses is going on in this room right now.
So, for today, please take a deep breath and relax. No one here will tell you that you should believe what you cannot or, for that matter, that you should not believe what you do. Unitarian Universalism, at its best, frees us to embrace what we are compelled to by our reason, our experience, and our intuition. Indeed, arguments do not much affect the way that people perceive "God." Instead, at this time of Advent, when the Christian world, in which we have our roots, awaits the ritual birth of the divine child, let us consider that the most enlightening question we can ask ourselves theologically is not, "Do you believe literally in a God?" but, rather, "To what do you give yourself heart and soul?"
It might help to consider the work of Paul Tillich, one of the great Western theologians of the twentieth century. Tillich taught that the word "God" is a symbol that points to another reality. God, he wrote, symbolizes what is ultimate to people, their ultimate concern. It is what grasps a person, what a person lives for and will sacrifice for, what gives a person meaning, what is greater and deeper than we can actually define.
The problem comes when people get stuck literally on the symbol. Those of you who live with cats can see this demonstrated graphically. Hold your hand next to a cat and point your finger at something you want the cat to see, such as a toy. Most cats will only look at your finger and not at the thing you are pointing to. The cat cannot grasp the finger as a sign. Similarly, people evolve an image of God in a time and place, and then for centuries people keep looking at the finger, staring at it, arguing about what color it is, how long it is, forgetting that there is something deep and transforming to which it points. When asked if the gods and goddesses are real, Buddha had a wonderful response: "The question does not tend to edification."
It's always dangerous to interpret Buddha, but I take him to mean we will not learn much about the nature of existence, or how to live in peace, from answering literal questions. The more revealing questions open us up to understanding our own our own decisions and values. It's an important distinction in this season of celebrating an ancient story of a baby born to a peasant Jewish family in Judea, site of intense economic oppression of the Jewish people by the Roman empire. The story, which we will tell in a no-rehearsal form here next Sunday, is layered with centuries of interpretation, with magic and miracle. But at its heart and soul, it is about presence in this world – the way we wait in trying times for messages of hope and love and acceptance and find them in surprising places.
I served a congregation once with a big stained glass window depicting Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The window is at the back of the sanctuary, behind the people sitting in the pews. From the pulpit, one faces the image of the Jewish rabbi, who wasn't supposed to speak to a strange woman of an outcast ethnic group, especially a woman of ill repute who lived outside of marriage with a succession of men. He was not supposed to ask her to give him water in his moment of need, nor was he supposed to tell her that she was worthy of "living waters," meaning the same unconditional love as anyone else. For me, if God is in this story, God is not in doctrine, but in the unconditional acceptance present between those two people. To what do we give our lives? We could do worse than to give it to radical acceptance of the worth and dignity of every human being on this planet.
I confess. There are days when God language excites me, and also days when it irritates me, days when I want to do theology and days when I just want to read novels. I surely cannot tell you what God is or is not for you. But most Unitarian Universalists I know of who embrace the language of reverence, who speak of God or the holy, find the symbols pointing to the presence of the acceptance and love we can embrace in in spite of our circumstance, our histories, and our defenses. In today's reading, Nancy McDonald Ladd expresses it beautifully when she describes being stuffed and stuck in subway car with way too many other people. After the car finally begins to move, "first we all fell to the right, then the left. Forward and backward we fell, always into one another. And right there, through some bizarre grace, in a hot and none-too-fragrant subway car, I felt my lonely self held up, buoyed by an unbidden force. . . I felt the presence of the holy." To what do we give our lives? Ladd seems to me to say that she gives hers to human communion. The child in Judea grew into a man who gave his to love and radical acceptance. To what do you give yours? Whatever it is, whether you call it God or not is not ultimately important. What is important is whether you ask the question, whether you experience the wonder and the grace, whether you can honor that and hold it in something akin to reverence.
For me that discovery came while studying for ministry, not in the classroom, not in a text or a doctrine, but in the all too real life of an urban hospital, where I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education, or student chaplaincy. To my chagrin, I had pulled the much-dreaded Fourth of July duty, when for twenty four hours I was the only chaplain on call in a downtown Atlanta hospital. In addition, just before I started my shift I had a root canal treatment.
Early in the shift my beeper went off, and it kept sounding all day. By evening it seemed as if everyone in the hospital was going to die or be in crisis. Between you and me, at the end of that period, I was tired of illness and death, tired of chaplaincy, just tired. As I drove home that morning, I passed a turtle inching its way out into the middle of the road. Enough! I had had enough! I pulled over so that I could move the turtle out of harm's way.
The next day, I was called to a patient's room to find a 106 year old woman sleeping peacefully but close to the end of life. The room was filled with four generations of family. The youngest played with a toy. The eldest daughter bathed her mother's face. Laughing and crying, a young man told stories of his great grandmother. Grief was cried, love was smiled. I'd never seen such a natural mingling of life and death, such a holy family.
Someone finally asked for a prayer from the chaplain. Keep in mind that as a chaplain, you are called to serve everyone in need; there is not much room for doctrinal purity. You do the best you can without being dishonest. On this day I started in on my usual mumbling Unitarian Universalist abstractions. But prayer, this family knew, was everybody's doing. Soon they were chiming in, saying what needed to be said, throwing "Amen's" to make my halting words work, bringing me into their circle. In that room I found a presence I'd been reaching for my whole life. The answer to this brief time on earth is treating every bit of life as precious and worthy and taking the risk to love completely. And at that moment, I learned that e that each one of us is born to a family of kin, but also to the holy human family.
Yes, the word passed through my mind, for the first time filled with meaning. I don't have to say it. You may not even use it. But between you and me, we know, all of us, deep down, where it points.
Copyright 2016 Susan Milnor
Tillich, Paul. The Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row: 1958.