This I Believe About God @UUP 10/23/16
What should I call you
He, she or it
Are you a person, a thing, an idea?
Where are you now
While I call out your name
Are you high on a cloud
Or under a bush
A fire in the daytime
Or warmth in the night?
Do you live in a mansion
Or outside in the woods
Should I tremble in fear
Or relax in your love?
Are you father or mother
Brother or child?
Do you dwell deep inside me
Or around the next bend
My questions are many
My answers are few
Oh God be my witness
I am doing my best
Come down from your heavens
To live in our souls
Bring peace to this planet
Comfort the lost
Care for the children
The hungry the hurting
Who cares what we call you
I know you don’t mind
Living and loving
We’ll just try and be kind
from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
“Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into this world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit. It? I ast.Yeah, it. God ain’t a he or a she, but a it.But what it look like? I ast. Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It aint something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it… Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t, but more than anything else, God love admiration. You saying God vain? I ast.Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. What it do when it pissed off? I ast.Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
“Autumn lies down to rest having shared all her best, comes a soul and comforter, autumn gives her hand to winter.”
That line from the anthem the choir just sang reminds me of the words of John Muir.
“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
The changing of the seasons can sometimes seem to mirror the changes in our lives. Very little in life stays the same for very long.
This morning I want to share with you some of the changes that have happened within me as I have tried to follow our 4th principle, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Some of this will be about what I have come to believe about God.
First, how many people here have dogs? Do you love your dog? There are a lot of jokes around the fact that God is Dog spelled backwards. That makes sense if you love dogs – and for some of you, loving a dog is much easier than loving God.
This 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 very 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 like 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. You don’t have to believe in God to do this. (pause)
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?
If we see God as all-knowing do we somehow get the idea that it is possible to know everything?
If we see God as all powerful, do we think that if we don’t have the power to change things in an absolutely Godlike way, then we can feel that it is not worth trying.
Several things happened to me that shattered my old image of the God I did not believe in. The first was shortly after I retired from Social Security.
I was in the hospital for several days, undergoing a number of tests. Everything turned out fine for me, but in the next bed was a woman who had just been told that her heart was giving out and she had only a month or so left to live. She was crying and worrying that she was going to hell because of how she had lived her life. I started channeling John Murray. I told her firmly that there was no hell, that a God that would send people to hell makes absolutely no sense at all. I still didn’t believe in God, but it was a different God whose existence I questioned.
Then I read Rebecca Parker’s Proverbs of Ashes. A lot of that book is about her being sexually molested as a child. While talking with her therapist, she comes to the realization that God was with her in those moments when she was being abused, holding her in love, and that even if she died, would continue to hold her. What most struck me while reading that was the God she was talking about wasn’t all powerful. That God could love her and hold her, but could not prevent what happened.
I still didn’t believe in God, but I stopped believing in a God I could blame for all the bad things in the world.
In seminary, I dove into theology and in particular I loved Charles Hartshorne, a UU theologian. In his book, Divine Relativity, he critiques the 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, another theologian, 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. That should, I think, be part of the definition.
I then started to 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.
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?
When it comes to love of other people it is usually their imperfections that draw us. Our best friends are often those who are willing to share some of their vulnerability, some of their fears. We can trust these friends with our own failures and also cheer their triumphs and successes with full and open hearts because we know something about their struggles. Can we learn love God in the way we love those friends?
After learning about different ways to imagine God, I decided to stop worrying about whether God existed or not. Once I did that I began to both remember and experience moments in my life where I felt the presence of something deeper and larger than just me. Those moments I would describe as transcendent and they have happened at relatively random times. Sometimes when I am writing or speaking from the heart I get the feeling that the words are coming from someplace else. I have also sometimes felt something powerful in hospital rooms where I sat people who were in the process of dying.
Call it the spirit of life, call the strength of the human spirit, call it magic, call it whatever you will, or call it nothing at all. I choose to name that awesome something, that mystery that cannot be fully described, I choose to call it God.
And perhaps, if God were really a dog, it wouldn’t be a purebred at all, but instead a shaggy, floppy eared mutt who loves freedom and is interested in the world. A street dog that knows the ways of the world. A dog who is not perfect, who is not all powerful and unchanging, and 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 unleash and let run free through our lives and through the world. Blessed be.