Sunday, January 05, 2014

A sermon I delivered this morning...

Delivered to Bull Run Unitarian Universalists Church, Manassas, VA.  Much gratitude to Rev. Greg Ward for helping me hone my thoughts.

I grew up Catholic. Not just Catholic, but uber Catholic, attending multiple masses on Sundays, singing in the choir, taking part in religious education, saying the rosary daily, more often than not on my knees.  

I grew up in the wake of my parents’ spiritual experiments, everything from the charismatic renewal—the Catholic form of Pentecostalism that included speaking in tongues and sleeping in the spirit—to the Third Order of Franciscans, complete with robes and chanting.  It was confusion sprinkled with an unhealthy dose of guilt. 

I was never good enough because it seemed I was always sinning and had something to confess.  I was told I was argumentative.  I was told I was disobedient.  I was told if I had inappropriate thoughts—for example, considering anything sexual—I was a sinner.  I was told I wasn’t making enough effort to be the best I could be, even when I felt I really was striving to follow rules.  The problem was, the rules were stacked against me.  They were unrealistic and unnatural.  Who, for example, could avoid a “venial” sin, those little things that we believed kept us ways from God?  Was I to be perfect as defined by someone else?  I couldn’t be, and that was a blow to my developing self- esteem. 

What’s worse, my sins always seemed to be consistent.  I never got any better in spite of my weekly penance.  I still argued with my mother and father, argued with my brother and had “impure thoughts” no matter how hard I tried.  As I got older, the sins became more serious (at least as seen through the lens of Catholicism), and I eventually broke away from the church completely.  There was damage done. 

But there was also beauty, and I managed to take an appreciation with me.  Along the way, I learned to forgive enough to love things like ceremony, the smell of lit candles and incense, parables from the Bible, chanting, robes, mysticism, statues, cloisters and stained glass.  Even now, I often return to that spiritual place as a source of comfort, a place where I can access a personal God whom I talk to in my mind.  And I reminisce. 


Sometimes a storm strips my mind
down to a puff, a bird’s
cry for mercy and worms.

And I, in my now naked head,
wander back to the monastery,
the grotto, the place my parents brought me

when I was young. God was always a cloud,
beams streaming through gray,
like my most brilliant self.

As the poem says, to me, “God was always a cloud.”  Why?  Are you familiar with those pictures in which sunrays stream through clouds, illuminating the face of Jesus or representing God as a father figure?  They stayed with me, not necessarily because I see a traditional God in a sunny breakthrough, but because I recall the clouds.  It makes sense to me that light and beauty represent God, the guardian of souls.  Even now, when I see sunrays, I say to my family, “Look!  It’s God!”  It took a long time to get there, though, a long time of searching my soul for a truth that resonates with me. 

During part of that long time, a revolution took place in my early twenties when I discovered world religions in college, a course my parents viewed as heresy, a method higher education used to tear believers away from the church.  Then, an evangelical church tried to adopt me and convince me the Bible was the absolute word of God and that denying it led to hell.  But I was young, rebellious, open-minded and excited.  I was bedazzled by the beauty of different beliefs, took on the parts that resonated with me.  For example, I could accept reincarnation.  If matter can be neither created nor destroyed, if energy can be neither created nor destroyed, then how could the body and soul be destroyed?  A soul to me was (and still is) spiritual energy, the part of us that changes form as we change form from lifetime to lifetime.

Accessing God in nature made even more sense.  I had learned about Transcendentalism in high school and college.  The unity of all things, the oneness of nature, God and the self, attracted me.  There was no disconnect between the natural and spiritual worlds, an attractive, unique belief that incorporated Pantheism.  These ideas were in conflict with what I had been taught as a child, but they were what I needed to develop my soul. 

It was during this time I decided if I was anything, I was Unitarian, not only because of the close connection between Unitarians and Transcendentalists, but because Unitarians were inherently interfaith, a term I started using when I had to describe what I “was.”  Unitarianism meant no matter where I was in my search for truth, it was okay.  I didn’t have to believe everything a religion told me to. I didn’t have to accept every nuance, but most importantly, perhaps, I didn’t need to take on the guilt of being a non-believer.

Still, I often felt alone and scared because I was no longer connected with the religion of my childhood and could not adhere to all of the practices of any other particular religion.  I was not part of a church or community.  It was just me and the major spiritual players.  There was no priest or minister to help define the things I was feeling.  There was no third party or middleman I had been taught was necessary.  There were no longer saints to act as intermediaries.  I was afraid my soul would never survive the journey that had led me away from what I’d known as home. 


Allah, I am a fragile path of artifacts:
a lead Buddha facing Mecca,
an iron cast Vishnu, four arms
reaching towards the Middle East,
a Christ, eyes closed. Steeped in deepness,
these are the figures of journeys.

They are more than décor.
They are trees lining a road as ambiguous
as history, silent guides sunk in soil.
How I love each, inviting
them to root themselves—which they have.
It is painful. 
The ground is grass and tender. 

Step lightly, oh Lord.
Leave no holes,
but leave me not alone. 

In my thirties, I began to hike a lot, a practice that led to self-evaluation and a quest to find a deeper connection with my version of God.  Twice, I witnessed something I’d never seen before: a white deer.  To me, a wandering human, the deer represented something I’d been searching for, that sunbeam through the clouds, an apparition.  I sobbed upon seeing it, this thing that assured me my soul was not alone. 

The White Deer

Twice blessed, I have been,
with this wordless beauty, an
only Deer, here, white

with eyes that defend
meaning more than rutting and
eating, here despite

the ways of the woods.
Wisdom leaks from its pale eyes,
and paralyzed, on

this rough trail, I stood,
waiting for some other sign,
burnt bush or a song:

"Do not fear, my child,"
I felt it would say.  "You are
still held by old earth—

there is nothing wild
here that can ever claim you,
so long as you search."

Humbled as human,
bathed in the scent of the wise,
faith towers like Birch:

Twice blessed, I have been,
with this Deer, these trees and skies,
this haven, my church.

This new and natural church nurtured my soul, my spirit, the force within me that gave me a sense of connection and self-worth as opposed to guilt and fear.  But it was transient.  The deer disappeared, and with it came, once more, that sense of loneliness, desolation even.  I considered giving up looking for it, but instead, found myself returning woods and fields again and again looking for the deer, seeking that connection, longing to be in the presence of something that nurtured my soul.  Sometimes I felt the connection, but I did not see the deer again.  Even now, I still look for it when I hike, this embodiment of a God.  It’s almost as if my version of God is telling me I no longer need the white deer to nurture my soul—find another way, keep seeking. 


Seeking the White Deer

I searched for you this morning,
but all the gates were barred,
time passing in its usual migration
across acres of trackless snow.

I searched for you this morning
and it was not an easy search—
there were traps I had to sidestep
before I could get myself there,
to the place that comes before the search,
the mere making myself look for you.

I searched for you this morning,
hailing your face in my mind,
remembering the last time I saw you,
how hard I cried while you just stared,
using that hold you have that says,
"I know you know.  And I know why it is
you seek me.” Your eyes are unforgettable.

You with your sleek, white forehead, thin
limbs evolved through the colors of ages,
live because there are still shielded lands
under a
surveillant herd that protects you.

I hope I will be able to see you again.
You have become something heavy for me,
a pack I never can leave, one I wear with my
human back, always prepared for those inevitable
seconds in which I believe.

I loathe that you are elusive. 

I hate that I need you this much. 

But I love what you've done to my spirit. 

And for this, I call you God.


As I have aged, I have thought about the soul more, the spirit within that is indeed what I call God.  But I argue with myself.  Is my idea of soul enough?  Do I really accept the traditional idea that we are made in a God’s image, which therefore means we are spiritual entities with energy that survives death?  My beliefs were tested last year when my much loved mother-in-law passed away from cancer.  I was there when she died. She believed in a soul, that it went somewhere after death, that death was not final.  Her faith in something not so definitive yet something hopeful invigorated my current search for reconnection with the spiritual, this soul we both believed in.


In my forties, I’ve considered God in both traditional and non-traditional ways as I’ve further explored nature, my relationships and BRUU.  I am accepting that my version of God is once again morphing, and I have to learn to accept that I like the idea of God as a somehow tangible, spiritual being, a real thing.  When I was a child, I used to talk to God in my head.  But somehow I came to believe that was silly, that it negated all the work I had done spiritually, even that Unitarians would disapprove.  But Unitarianism, at its heart, encourages the search for meaning, and so I am free to think about things like the soul and various versions of God. 


How could I do this?  One thing I tried was to see things through the eyes of my version of God, this more accessible being I could actually talk to.  Writing this next poem was an interesting exercise. 


My God Rides the Metro

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant? Henry David Thoreau

My God rides the Metro.
He watches tunnels blur by
like ages prodded en windowed route,
sudden stops of thought.

He smiles at soft-fingered children
kneeling on orange benches,
eyes and noses conceiving steam
on this miraculous glass.

My God rides the Metro.
He holds his breath as it climbs,
skips in its tracks into sunlight,
plods over passing waters,
those unknowing rowers below.

God smells hard work and damp papers,
notices holes in briefcases and bags,
watches for auras most of us miss
as we wish for the stop at our station.

My God rides the Metro,
but no one ever looks up.
He sighs alongside travelers,
crowds with perspiring eyes.

God sees himself in passengers,
hopes we might seat ourselves near him, 
or nod in his general direction,
assure him he’s still alive.

This poem made me start to see God as something that doesn’t exist unless we believe.  Meaning is made by our search, and the spiritual is something developed as God looks over his shoulder and hopes we find him.  God has our best interests in mind, ironically defining himself in our terms—the worker, the tired commuter.  We are all tired, and as such, can start to feel alone once again, defeated by the soul-sucking requirements of daily life, activities that thwart our search for the spirit within us. 

Throughout the journey, even as a Unitarian, there have been times I’ve come up empty, feeling I’d failed, wondering if I’d come to any conclusions or if my soul would survive.  But I have learned that God, no matter how we perceive that notion or not perceive it, even if we don’t feel it all the time, is a renewable resource of love, strength and connection, a mark of abundance, a concept I’d not understood fully until I hear Star Muir talk about it one day at a service. 

About Abundance

Unbury the life you once had,
the one you'd long forgotten,
the one before the stars were born.

Unbury the life you wish to live,
the marvel of superb minnows,
of ivy and turtles and silence,
and the surprise that released you
the first time you recognized

you were never made
of manure and mud,
but of sun and rain and angels,

feeding you with fingers
of abundance.

I am grateful for being reminded of who we are and what power we have access to.  I am grateful for my search, which has far from ended.  My soul continues to expand, to develop, as does my sense of it.  I see my soul as fuel to continue to live according to my principals.  But I must take the time to get in touch with my soul and not limit my definition of it.  It’s still a sometimes scary agreement I’ve made with myself, to let my search go where it may lead, to let my soul lead me through this mystery we call life.

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