How hard it is to chip away
At stones so tightly held
Ancient hurt and anger
Wrapped around them
Like a glove.
Don’t hurt yourself
I want to say.
Lashing out at others
Only rips your gloves apart
The sharp edges of your pain
Will cut you deeper
Than you know.
Remove your gloves
Don’t try to fight
Let life’s waters flow
Free and warm and gentle
Erosion will do the work.
Call to worship (here)
Dreams. We all have dreams and we need to keep dreaming them. Langston Hughes, an African American poet who was part of the Harlem Renaissance and also a gay man, had this to say about dreams:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
We cannot let our dreams die, no matter how long or how hard we have to work to make them real. Faith can help, as in our reading, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
We have all known despair. Even after all these years, Martin Luther King’s dream is not yet realized. People still need to proclaim that black lives matter, because too often, it seems that they don’t.
The Rev. Dr. King was not a Unitarian Universalist, although he and his wife did attend one of our churches for a time.
It was not an accident, however, that there were more Unitarian Universalist ministers involved in the civil rights struggle movement than from any other predominantly white denomination. Some of them gave their lives, most notably the Rev. James Rheeb, who died after being beaten by a gang of white segregationists. Clark Olsen, who then served as your minister here at the Berkeley Fellowship, was with Rheeb in Alabama during the attack.
Our faith tradition is one that lives in this world and what we do in the world matters.
As Dr. King said from the Birmingham jail,
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men (and women) willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
The time is always right. And the time is always right to do our owning healing. To live our lives with compassion and forgiveness and with hope. Sometimes we need to turn inward at times to find the peace that can come from a recognition of just how precious life is and yes, just how precious each of us are. Dr. King must have prayed very hard that night in Birmingham before he agreed to let those children march. The prayer centered him and gave him strength.
Dr. King always tried to live his life guided by love. He was a visionary, an activist, but most of all; he was a man of faith that believed in love.
He stood tall and he walked proud. He faced dogs and fire hoses, and finally an assassin’s bullet, but he never lost sight of love. He reached out to both his enemies and to those that hung back on the sidelines.
Near the end of his life he also worked to end the Viet Nam war and he worked to end poverty. His life was not about a single issue.
Our faith gives us so much, a welcoming place, a place where we can all feel accepted, where we can be free to be who we are, where we can follow both our heads and our hearts, where we can find a place to be whole. But our faith also is a demanding one, one that asks us repeatedly to keep learning and growing, and doing. It isn’t easy to walk our talk. It isn’t easy to live according to our values.
Unitarian Universalists worked to abolish slavery in this country. We worked for child labor laws, and for women’s rights. Many of us marched with Dr. King. We have been in the front lines in the struggle for full equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
But action can be risky. James Reeb and Martin Luther King were both murdered. Vic has a song he will sing later about how King was killed. Many others have also lost their lives in similar ways. But what is most important is not how they died, but how they lived.
It is unlikely that any of us here today will ever be asked to risk death for living out our faith. Instead, we are called to risk life, to risk our lives by actually living them.
We might not be asked again to boycott a bus system; we might be asked to ride the bus instead of driving in order to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
We might not asked to sit at a lunch counter demonstrating for the right of all to be served; we might instead be asked to not go out to lunch at all and to instead spend our hard earned and shrinking dollars on something that will make a difference in the world. We might even be asked to give more to our religious faith, to support the work we need to do.
We don’t have to be a James Rheeb, or a Martin Luther King to follow in their footsteps, to keep their dreams alive. Not just their dreams, but also our own dreams, and the dreams of our children and all who will come after them.
I want tell you some of what MLK said in a speech he gave, at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1966. It wasn’t one of his most famous speeches and it isn’t quoted often, but it was addressed directly to Unitarian Universalists and can, I think, speak to us today.
He titled his talk, “Don’t sleep through the Revolution.” Do you know the story of Rip van Winkle? Dr King said,
“One thing that we usually remember about the story of Rip Van Winkle is that he slept twenty years.
But there is another point in that story which is almost always completely overlooked: it is the sign on the inn of the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountains for his long sleep.
When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States.
When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington he was amazed, he was completely lost. He knew not who he was. This incident reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that he slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountains a revolution was taking place in the world that would alter the face of human history. Yet Rip knew nothing about it; he was asleep. One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.”
Dr King went on to say that the church needs to stay awake and be responsive to what is going on in the world.
“Certainly the church has a great responsibility because when the church is true to its nature, it stands as a moral guardian of the community and of society.
It has always been the role of the church to broaden horizons, to challenge the status quo, and to question and break mores if necessary. “
Dr King said, that “First, we are challenged to instill within the people of our congregations a world perspective. The world in which we live is geographically one. “
“We must live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. This is a fact of life. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone.”
“All I’m saying is this: that all life is inter-related, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
“It is not enough for the church to work in the ideological realm, and to clear up misguided ideas. To remain awake through this social revolution, the church must engage in strong action programs”
MLK changed hearts and minds. He changed the world. But he didn’t do it alone. Thousands marched with him, thousands went to jail, and many were killed, as he was, by violence.
Martin Luther King did the eulogy for James Rheeb, and in that eulogy he spoke of hope, saying he was not discouraged by the future, despite the heartache, despite the tragedy that was all around him.
He faced despair, a whole mountain of it. A system of segregation that many believed would never really change. But in his dream he climbed that mountain of despair and saw a vision of the other side. He carved a stone of hope from that mountain, one that kept his dream alive.
Many of us are in despair today. We are in despair over the state of the world, the wars, the impending environmental disasters, the racism; the massive scale of human suffering that exists on the streets in this city and all around the world. Some of us may also be in despair over something that is going on in our own individual lives, a relationship gone bad, a health crises, a job loss, a need for housing, or for even a little bit of financial security. As a congregation, many of you have been in despair for a number of years over the future of this fellowship. Will it thrive; will it even survive?
We need to keep dreaming. We need to keep doing, to keep on working, making the effort, taking the risks. The largest problem can be tackled, step-by-step and piece-by-piece. Work for justice. Do your part to help heal the planet. Ask for help when you need it. Dare to keep on dreaming. I am still dreaming. If we keep dreaming together we can make those dreams, those visions of a better world, of a better life, of a rocking religious community; we can make those dreams come true.
I will end with these words by Rev. Wayne Arnason
Take courage friends,
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
And the stakes are very high.
For deep down , there is another truth:
You are not alone.
Amen and blessed be.
After last week, with all the Dog and God jokes after the service, the line in the reading about the minister of a pastoral-sized church being a spiritual bartender, made me wonder what sort of jokes we would come up with this week.
What kind of spiritual cocktail are you looking for? Is it pure humanism, with maybe just a dash of the mystical? Do you want a pagan chaser or how about some wisdom from the Bible as the olive in your martini? Some of you like wine, and some of you prefer beer. Some just want the seven-up of social justice or the pure clear water of the spirit. We serve up all sorts of theologies here, but we try to serve all of them from the perspective of Unitarian Universalism. It is the container that holds us together and reminds us that reason and science are equal partners with mystery and spirit.
Being a minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not an easy thing. Everyone wants something different, and crafting a worship service where at least some of every individual’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs will be met is nearly an impossible task. It is nice if folks can try to remember that they aren’t the only person that this congregation is trying to serve. You might prefer coffee, but we need to offer tea as well.
It is also possible that we may not have everyone’s preferred brand of spirit here and some people will need to find what they want at another bar – er – church.
Enough with the bar metaphor! I want to talk about our family church.
This congregation has been what is called a family church for most of its existence. The easiest definition is an average of not much more than 50 people attending the Sunday services. You were much larger at one time, however, and I have heard you even had a very large religious education program with many children enrolled.
Congregations, particularly small ones, are called family churches because they tend to function in very similar ways to real families. Some of this functioning is very emotionally satisfying. Pretty much everyone knows everyone else. When an issue comes up, people just talk about whatever it is. They have “town hall meetings” where decisions are made. The board has very little actual power in a family church. Family churches can be wonderful. Everyone knows everyone else, and love and trust can be built over time. A few trusted individuals can usually be depended upon to offer wise counsel to the group and to get the important things done.
Those folks are the ones that usually welcome new people, bringing them into the circle and introducing them around. Joining a small family church is kind of like being adopted. It can feel great! You have a new family, people that will love and accept you no matter what! How we yearn for that, especially those of us who may have grown up in families that were less than accepting.
Those same trusted individuals, in a family church pretty much run everything. They decide what newcomers get adopted. They usually have veto power over anything new that that they don’t think is a particularly good idea. They have this power because they are loved and trusted, because everyone knows them well and listens to them. In the literature on church governance, they are referred to as the matriarchs and patriarchs. There can be one or two, but usually not more than four. Usually they are elders, but not always.
A matriarch or patriarch can be anyone who has a lot of personal power and influence, regardless of whether or not they have an official role as a board member or committee chair.
All of you who have been around for a while can probably name several people who have had this kind of personal power here over the years.
The individuals with the power can change over time, lay leaders can be driven out if the congregation feels they have exceeded their authority – or worse, made a bad decision. I suspect this has happened more than once here.
People who challenge the authority of the church leaders can also be driven out. I also suspect that has happened here.
There is an emotional component to all of this too.
Most of the matriarchs and patriarchs do a lot of the work, or give a lot of the money, and as a result feel like their opinion really should count for more. In a family style church, that is exactly what happens. They insist, and no one really wants to offend them so they get what they want most of the time. If they don’t get what they want, sometimes they leave in a huff, taking their money and their time and energy elsewhere. Almost all of these folks sincerely believe that they have the best interests of the congregation at heart. But it is not really democratic, at least not in the sense of “one person one vote. “
Family churches are just like real families in other ways. Some are healthy and others are, well, pretty dysfunctional. Some of you probably gathered with some difficult family members over the holidays. Healthy families and churches establish good boundaries for their more troubled members. All of us have some issues; all of us have been damaged in some way by our life experiences. No one is perfect and we all have a need for both healing and growth. But sometimes it is more than that. All families and all churches have members whose issues are so serious that clear boundaries on their behavior need to be established for the protection of the other members and the family or church as a whole.
A real family might invite the cousin who has a conviction for child pornography to dinner, but they don’t let him hang out after dinner playing computer games with the kids.
The uncle who can’t seem to help making sexual and sexist comments, might be tolerated by his family. But he is also told to be quiet when he gets really offensive. No one ever asks him to say grace.
We all also have different skill levels. Someone who can’t cook isn’t asked to bake the pies for a family dinner, at least not without some serious supervision.
Boundaries are important in families and in churches. Everyone can be accepted and loved, but not just any one should be on the board of trustees or chair a committee.
As I said earlier, this fellowship has been a family church for years, sometimes growing toward health and sometimes struggling.
You have worked hard on improving how you are with each other, and you have tried to grow. It has worked for a time, but in reality, things have stayed pretty much the same over the long term: 50 members, a few more of less. There have been periods of good boundaries and improved communication styles and times where dysfunction has ruled and people were even known to disrupt the Sunday service.
There is nothing wrong with being a congregation with 50 or so members, functioning as a family church.
It is important to understand, however, that in order to grow beyond that number and to become financially sustainable, continuing to function as a family church just won’t work.
The reason is simple. The maximum number of people who can all know each other is roughly 50. If you want to be larger than that, and frankly you need to be larger to be able to afford both a minister and a building, then your organizational structure needs to change to accommodate growth.
In the meetings you held with your interim minister, the Rev. Joy Atkinson it was clear that most of you wanted to change. An overall goal was described by the phrase.
“Catalyzing the transformation of BFUU into a sustainable and vibrant congregation, capable of thriving in a challenging future.”
This is what your board of trustees and I have been trying to achieve.
The only way to do that is to move into being a pastoral church. This type of church was described in our reading as well.
The Pastoral Church averages 50 to 150 people on Sundays. In this size of church, the role of both the minister and the board shifts toward the center of the system. The board’s responsibility for making decisions on behalf of the church increases.
The individual power of the matriarchs and the patriarchs decreases. Town hall meetings are no longer where most decisions are made. The board gets input from the congregation when needed, but they establish almost all the policies during their meetings. They hold the vision and work to fulfill the mission. The minister in a pastoral church is also granted full authority over the worship services so that there is some consistency in quality and grounding in our faith tradition. People in a pastoral sized church tend to connect with the minister first, rather than being “adopted” by one of the church lay leaders. Everyone no longer knows everyone else, but the minister can know almost everyone. One person can easily know 100-150 people. 150 people can also know the minister and all of the board members.
If attendance increases, but the style of functioning doesn’t change, some people will inevitably become marginalized. There just isn’t room in the family-style system for more that 50 people. Marginalized people leave.
Alice Mann, in her GA workshop on navigating size transitions in congregations, said this,
“When a church is changing sizes, it has to dismantle one way of doing things, and construct a new way…that’s called transition, and it is always uncomfortable. It can be stimulating and life giving, but it is always uncomfortable. Sizes can go upward and downward…but it is hard to be in a growing church that doesn’t want to let go of the old way of doing things.
People need to sociologically ‘rearrange the chairs’ to accommodate the change.”
Transformation, a fancy word for deep substantive change, is not easy. All change involves some loss. Even leaving a bad relationship involves some grief over what might have been. This congregation is undergoing deep change. It is undergoing fairly rapid change. We are rearranging the chairs, sometimes literally.
Some think we are going to fast, but slow and very incremental change usually fails, as the desire to retain what is comfortable and safe is strong. Sometimes you just have to go cold turkey. We need to make the changes that need to be made and get on with what we need to do. Has anyone ever successfully quit smoking by just “cutting back” on a few cigarettes a day?
The board has been stepping up to their role of being a real governing body. As your minister, I have changed the Sunday service format and content so that the services are hopefully more focused and more spiritual. Some elements that were popular with some have been eliminated. Joys and sorrows is the big one and having a variety of different people making their own announcements is another. The restriction on announcements is simply to limit the “business aspects” of our gatherings so that is clearer that we are a religious gathering and not just a social club. That we have stopped passing a microphone around for people to express their own joys and sorrows is very hard for some people. I understand that.
We all remember times when something particularly moving was shared. Sometimes speaking of a deep pain in front of a congregation of friends is been truly healing. Something very special and precious was lost when we stopped passing the microphone around. It is OK to grieve that loss.
But we have lost other things too. Things most of you likely don’t miss very much. Because always, there will be someone in any room, if given a microphone, who will take the floor and just ramble on. People will share trivial things just to have a chance to speak. Sometimes what they say can be deeply offensive. In a small family church, inappropriate behavior is often excused. Oh, that’s just Joe, he always talks about the same thing. We know him and love him anyway. Mary always sounds like she is angry with the whole congregation, maybe the whole world, but we know her and know she is doing it from a place of love.
If you have experienced joys and sorrows in this or other Unitarian Universalist congregations, you likely have your own examples of things that most likely should have been better left unsaid.
My sense of this congregation is that while some people would like to return to that practice, there are others who are quite relieved that we aren’t doing it anymore. Anyone?
But the truth is, even if most people like it, it is a practice that tends to keep a congregation small.
It can work OK when “everyone knows everyone” and excuses can be made when individuals get carried away, but if you have more that 50 people in the room, there will be some people who have no idea who the speaker is and it can be a real turn off and embarrassing – especially for an introverted newcomer who is looking for a safe and meaningful Sunday morning experience.
The shift from family church to pastoral church, trying to break the 50 member maximum is what the board and I have been working on as a way of “Catalyzing the transformation of BFUU into a sustainable and vibrant congregation, capable of thriving in a challenging future.”
Even if we can accomplish this change, and the jury is still out although I believe much progress has been made, it doesn’t mean we can’t keep the feeling of being a family. We can be warm and welcoming to everyone who enters this space, whoever they are. We can love each other. We can forgive each other. We can honor our past and move boldly into the future. May it be so!
Call to worship (here)
I like bumper stickers. One that I used to see a lot said, “Dog is my copilot.” You may have seen that one too. It was a play on the phrase, “God is my copilot.” Dog is God spelled backwards after all. The dog one was much more popular for a time though. People do love their dogs, and most dogs just love riding in cars. Some folks may also have wanted to poke a bit of fun at the idea that God is standing around waiting to help us find our way home, through traffic.
This all leads me to wonder that if God were in fact a dog, what kind of dog would God be? A stately Great Dane perhaps, high above it all? A St Bernard, coming to the rescue? A practical Collie like Lassie or maybe a Golden Retriever who just wiggles with love? Some people may see God as a Pit Bull waiting to snarl everyone into hell in short order if they don’t shape up. When I look at a Pug, I sometimes wonder if God might often have a similar expression.
Now, I know, and you know, that God is not really a dog, except of course in the sense that there is a spark of the divine in all living creatures. But I think sometimes we humans can treat God like a dog. Not badly, I don’t mean that. But I think sometimes we tend to treat God as our own personal pet. We keep God on a leash, in a box, under our control. I think this is true even for folks that don’t believe in God. They usually have a quite definite image of the God they don’t believe in.
When I was young, I thought of God as an old bearded white man who sat on a golden throne, high in the sky, amidst fluffy clouds, with sweet-faced plump cherubs fluttering about him. A child, if they have courage, might want to climb up into the lap of that sort of God, the view alone would be worth it I think. If that God became angry, however, the clouds went gray and lightening flashed. Any sensible child would run for cover. Which is exactly what I did, and I stopped believing in God for a long time. Those childhood images of God stayed with me, though. I didn’t believe in that old man in the sky, but it was him that I didn’t believe in if anyone asked me about God.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, in Genesis 1, it says, “So God created humankind in God’s image.”
Some sociologists say that the process is just the reverse, that humans create God in their own image, or an image that signifies an ideal in the common culture. Old white men were the ones with all the power while I was growing up. No wonder that is what God looked liked to me.
Earlier, I told a story about playing hide and seek with God. It is easier to find something if you know what you are looking for. Think for a moment if you will, think about how you picture God. (pause)
Talking about God in a Unitarian Universalist church can be a tricky business at times.
Some Unitarian Universalists, when the idea of God is even mentioned, bring out the metaphorical garlic. Usually these are folks who, like me, were raised with a fairly traditional idea of God.
All of us, whether we are believers or unbelievers, tend to carry around with us images of what God is and is not. We need to pay attention to those images, to what we think about even the God we may not believe in. Because God is a cultural symbol of what is ideal, what is the most valued; our image of God can affect how we are with ourselves and with each other.
If we see God as perfect and unchanging, how do we see our own need for change? Do we remain stubborn in our own Divine right to stay the way we are, hanging on to maybe some bad habits just because they are our own? Or do we maybe feel bad, because we aren’t perfect, and feel we should be? Are we too harsh with our friends and family, seeking perfection in them too, and becoming angry and disappointed when they inevitably fall short? Do we let others change and grow, even if we are afraid that if they change that they will somehow leave us behind?
If we see God as all knowing do we somehow get the idea that it is possible to know everything? What does it say about the need for lifelong learning, about humility even in our strong opinions? Do we feel stupid because we don’t know everything, or do we tend to act like “know it alls?
It plays out at the societal level, our image of God. If we imagine a judgmental God, we might believe that only the so-called “deserving poor” should be helped by society. We can be impatient with those who don’t agree with us, judging them stupid and ill-informed. If we see God as all powerful, we may be tempted to sit back and let some divine force do all the work for justice that is in fact our work to do. Even if we don’t put that on God, we can put it on others. We get the idea that if we don’t have the power to change things in a very powerful, in an absolute Godlike way, then we can sometimes feel that it is not worth trying. We relinquish what power we do have and yearn for the “government”, the “democrats”, the board of trustees, the minister, the committee chair to see the light and take the appropriate action.
Most important, though, on a spiritual level, how we image God can affect our own sense of well being, our sense of our purpose in life. A limited image can narrow our sense of possibility, of who we are, and who we can become.
It is also deeply insulting to the Divine Spirit of creative force that is within us all. If we put God on a pedestal, way up in the clouds, it is harder to feel the spirit fully as it moves in our daily lives. God becomes an abstract concept, disembodied, something that has no relevance for us at work, in our homes, or even in our churches.
Charles Hartshorne, a UU theologian, in his book, Divine Relativity, critiques this traditional image of God.
A wholly absolute God can provide no lasting good inclusive of human achievement….
A wholly absolute God is power divorced from responsiveness or sensitivity;
and power which is not responsive is irresponsible and, if held to settle all issues, enslaving. (Hartshorne148-149)
Hartshorne also said, “In trying to conceive God, are we to forget everything we know about values?”
Hartshorne’s question about values is a good one. Our conception of God should be composed of the highest human values. It leads to the question of what kind of God would be most valuable; what kind of God does the world need? Bernard Loomer says that
“value is greater than truth… the problem with being addicted to truth is that it can throw you off from many of the deeper dimensions of life.” (Religious Experience and Process Theology pg 71)
Maybe God is like that, a value deeper than truth, or what we can conceivably know as factual, provable truth. Maybe it even doesn’t matter so much what God really is, what the “truth is,” but instead it may be more important to believe – or even not believe – in the sort of God we need. If God is truly God, then God will be the God the world needs. Shouldn’t that be part of the definition?
Power and perfection are two of the traditional attributes of God that I think most need reconstruction. If God is all powerful, then God is responsible for all the horrors in the world as well as all the goodness and beauty. Do we want to honor and worship power in this way? Doesn’t worshiping power lead to unjust wars, to imperialism? Does it serve our local communities when the powerful are more honored than the weak and vulnerable? A God who shares power with us, who helps us develop our own strengths, is more the kind of God I believe we need. Not a tyrant or a dictator. If we worship a dictator God, it is too easy to search for that in our human leadership as well.
Martin Luther King said that “power without love is abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” He said that “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and that justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” That old image of God hurling thunderbolts and hurricanes from the sky is an abusive and limited one.
I think we can honor God and still ask the question. “What kind of God would serve us well, here, today, in the twenty-first century?” What God could be more inclusive of diversity, more responsive to oppression, better able to help us get along with others in peaceful and loving ways? What kind of God could help us face and do what is before us now to face and do?
What could it mean to us if we began to see God not as absolute and unchanging, but as relational? What if God was a sensitive, changeable presence, one that interacted with the world rather than ruled it? What if we took God out of the box, off leash so to speak? Maybe we could start imagining God as the best of what humans have the potential to be.
Maybe we could begin to see change as something good, that growth in ourselves and in other people is a natural thing. Maybe we could also stop beating ourselves up for who we are now and stop worrying so much about who we aren’t yet, what dreams are still out of our reach. Maybe we will even stop being embarrassed about who we used to be. We might learn to accept and love ourselves and each other in our actually quite glorious imperfections.
If we carried the ideal of relationality into the world, if we identified the divine nature as one who is supremely sensitive to others, maybe we would learn to listen to one another better. Maybe we could begin to understand those with different life experiences from ours, those with different views, different politics. Maybe we could find some common ground if we aren’t all stuck in the paradigm of always being perfectly and absolutely correct.
On a spiritual level, if we understand God as a presence that truly interacts with us, that changes when we change, a tremendous power could be released into the world and into our own souls. We could work with the God force, not simply for it or against it.
We could be major players on the Divine team, in partnership, in community. Unlike the image of the old man in the sky, this relational image of God can inspire love and compassion rather than awe and fear. The following poem by WEB Du Bois, an African American born shortly after slavery, expresses this well I think.
Help! I sense that low and awful cry — Who cries? Who weeps? With silent sob that rends and tears — Can God sob? Who prays? I hear strong prayers throng by, Like mighty winds on dusky moors — Can God pray? Prayest Thou, Lord, and to me? Thou needest me? Thou needest me? Thou needest me? Poor, wounded soul! Of this I never dreamed. I thought — Courage, God, I come!
Du Bois’ poem is somewhat startling. It portrays a God who is not all powerful, who needs our help in fact. Can we imagine God that way?
How different than that judgmental lordly figure – a God that is wounded, that weeps, that is vulnerable.
I have never been able to really wrap my brain around the orthodox version of the Christian trinity, and I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was fully human, but I can see the appeal of a God who suffers with us, one who really knows our pain, because that God feels pain too. What draws us closer to other people? Do we really like best those who seem perfect? Don’t we instead appreciate more someone who is trying?
When it comes to love of other people it is usually their imperfections that draw us. We want to help a friend in pain. Our best friends are often those who are willing to share some of their vulnerability, some of their fears. The ones that are patient with us, that listen. We can trust them with our failures and also cheer their triumphs and successes with full and open hearts because we know something about their struggles. Can we love God in the way we love those friends?
Perhaps, if God were really a dog, it wouldn’t be a purebred at all, but a shaggy, floppy eared mutt who loves freedom and is interested in the world. A God who is not perfect, who is not all powerful and unchanging, who like us, needs both courage and compassion.
May we all find courage. May we all find compassion. May we all find an image of God that we can let run free through our lives and through the world. Blessed be.