Centering Thought: “The tears I shed yesterday have become rain” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Call to Worship and Chalice Lighting
Octavia Butler writes,
When apparent stability disintegrates,
All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change Changes you.
The only lasting truth is Change.
God is Change.”
We gather this morning to celebrate change, to honor the value of changing times. While we find comfort in stability, we know that things much always be changing, or they will face death in stagnation. We know that no matter how good things may seem to the many, there are always some who Know the pain of suffering.
Together, we seek to be a force for good in the world and to live into the only lasting truth: that everything is always changing.
This morning we light this chalice,
This symbol of the covenant of the community gathered here
To bring forth the light of those who have gone before us,
The giants upon whose shoulders we stand
The meek from whose labor we benefit
To bring forth the warmth of the lives we live
The celebrations of success
The heartbreaks of loss
To bring for the essence of our faith
The witness in solidarity of oppression
The dreams shared of justice and compassion
This flame is the symbol of the love we celebrate this blessed day.
Over the last few years I’ve had the honor of serving a lot of different congregations in a lot of different ways. I’ve been an affiliated community minister, a consulting minister, a minister of religious education and even a developmental minister a couple different times. I love being the spouse of a minister, and in that role, I got facilitating a small group ministry that met for one year to discusses the theme of worship for the month. It was an interesting group, in which I was by far the youngest among crusty humanists…free thinkers…the atheists who had founded the fellowship sixty years years earlier with a mind to creating something that didn’t look like church at all. They were atheists who hates religious language, words like grace. Salvation. Sin. Forgiveness.
One time, our topic was nothing less than God, and I have to tell you I expected to encounter folded arms, silence maybe even hostility. Instead, it was the best conversation we ever had. It was lively and challenging and respectful even though there was a lot of disagreement. It was the most engaged I’d ever seen the group.
So, I want to talk to you today about God in that same spirit. I want you to understand what it is that I mean when I use the word God.
Much of my theology – my understanding of what is of ultimate importance – is based on the writing of, and commentary on, Alfred North Whitehead. He was a professor of mathematics at Trinity College, in Cambridge England at the turn of the last century. What made him unusual as a mathematician was that he was concerned with how and why we use math.
He became interested in physics, the science of understanding what things are, what they are made up of and how they work.
So, upon his retirement at age 63, Whitehead was invited to teach philosophy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He spent the 13 years developing a philosophy – an understanding of the Universe he called Process. He wrote a book called Process and Reality, which was the foundation for other great thinkers to develop something that came to be known as Process Theology.
Whitehead’s studies drew students who wanted to understand the predictability and the chaos of the universe, how it could be both perfect and imperfect at the same time, all of it constantly changing yet staying exactly the same.
Bernard Loomer, one of those students, summed up Process Theology this way: God is a Verb. Now, the idea that god is a verb is not radically different from the philosophy that is often called New Thought, wherein we think of things not as collections of parts, but as systems. A tree is not a tree because it has roots and a trunk and branches and leaves and bark. A tree is a tree because it germinates from a seed or from a rhizome of a parent tree, is fed nutrients by the earth, which is full of the decomposing plants and animals, absorbs light through its chlorophyll and converts carbon dioxide into oxygen. It’s a tree because it provides shade. It’s a tree because it provides homes for birds and rodents.
I took a seminary class on Process Theology knowing a tiny bit about Loomer and even less about New Thought. The class was so complicated and so full of new words and new definitions of old words, that our first reading of only 23 pages came with a 44 page glossary written by Donald Sherburne.
I’ve learned that trying to describe or explain Whitehead’s Theology can’t happen in a one hour service.
That’s why I came up with the exercise we did this morning, creating together the God I understand through the lens of Process.
This morning’s Reading, the poem by Mary Oliver, explains how God works. The fish smells like the ocean and the ocean smells like fish. The fish looks like the ocean and the ocean looks like the fish, all silvery and scaly.
After she eats it, the fish is in the narrator, glittering, risen, tangled. The narrator and the fish are one.
God is in the doing: not only the eating, but also in the catching and gutting.
It’s not easy, this image of unity. It’s messy. Gory. There’s no sugar coating. And that’s the way God works. God is not just sweetness and light and love. God is every moment of every life, including death, because really, when it comes right down to it, in order for any sentient being to live, something else must die.
Even when we don’t eat fish or foul or other flesh, we have to subsist on vegetation. And a plant grows, alive, until that moment when it is picked – or falls of its own weight to the pull of gravity. In that instant, death begins the constant downward spiral of decomposition until that vegetation makes its way into our bodies to nourish us, to become us.
In Process Theology, moments are important. In fact, one could say that the only real thing is a moment. A moment is smaller than a second. In the second that it takes to say “one one thousand,” there are 4 syllables, 10 sounds, 14 letters, and countless moments, imperceptibly tiny. They are so tiny that they die as they are born, so that life and death are one and the same.
A single moment can be uneventful, say, sitting in a chair alone in an empty room. Or, that moment can be life changing, say, a spark that ignites an explosion in that same room.
Imagine one moment of your life, any moment in which you are seeing someone you love, creating a picture of God, or eating a persimmon. And at the same time, more than seven billion other people on the planet are also each having a moment. And that’s only the people. Add to that all the other living things, like algae, insects, housepets, wildlife and every species of bird, out into space to the edges of the everexpanding universe.
More moments are happening at once than any of us is even capable of imagining! And no living thing exists in perfect solitude, so we are all related to everyone else, directly or indirectly. Put the experiences, the actions, of every single living thing together, and that is the experience of God.
That means that something so tiny, so short-lived that its birth and death are the same thing is also so expansive that it encompasses the entire universe. That’s God.
God is not the being that makes the universe, but the simultaneous experience of everything.
Most people think of God as a noun…a person. Often, especially here in the Western hemisphere, God is thought of as being a man, a kind of grandfather with a long white beard, somebody who, if you play your cards right, you’ll be able to see, hear, and even touch someday.
So they talk to God, asking for help in times of suffering, expressing gratitude for blessings, or simply marveling in the awe and wonder of the universe. One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, describes three different kinds of prayers she summarizes Help, Thanks, and Wow.
Prayers of intercession, gratitude and awe are most common forms of prayer and perhaps the most effective. But the way I see it, they are effective not because some being out there is listening and changing our the world to accommodate us and our needs, but because we are changed in the process of prayer. The way I see it, God isn’t a person addressed in the prayer. God is the act of praying, the act of taking the time to see joy and suffering in the world.
God when we hear the cries of babies and the wisdom of the ancestors.
God is when we reach out to touch something we find in front of us, and allow it to change us into something new, as we affect its future also.
So what we did this morning when we drew images of God in order to turn them into something else, weren’t just symbols of God, or metaphors for a creative process outside of our control. The act of drawing and transforming were God and it bound us together in a way that can’t be undone, the way a bell can’t be un-rung. Even if you walk away from this time together today and never think about it again, you are changed by it, the way your presence affected it. You are God and God is you. You create God as much as God creates you. Perhaps more.
Ancient Jews, I think, understood this. In the book of Genesis, when Abraham asked God God’s name, God responded by saying Yahweh.
The best translation of the Hebrew word YHWH is “I am what I am.” Only, the word is without subject, the “I” merely understood. That means it’s just a verb. It’s sort of “am” only – like all other Hebrew Verbs of the time – without tense. It could mean was, is, will be, or will have been. YHWH is a complex, multifaceted verb.
Yahweh is a verb. God is a verb. And the ancient Jews understood that.
So, what I am saying when I invoke the name of god is not that I want some super being to come and intervene on my behalf, or on our behalf, because we are somehow incapable of doing something ourselves.
What I am saying is that I want energy to be present, the energy of creativity and compassion … an embodiment of what we believe and how we love one another. When I pray in worship, I am calling upon the force of our being that can bear the weight of our pain and create life. The force of out being is the sum of all the ancestors who have come before us, and prayer serves as a reminder that none of us has created ourselves out of nothing. Prayer serves as a reminder that we all stand on the shoulders of everyone who has come before us, that we live our lives amidst a great cloud of witnesses who, though they be dead, continue to affect our lives in ways we can’t even begin to understand.
It‘s difficult for people in our congregations to talk about God. Many of us – including myself – have been hurt in the past by churches who created a God that meets their own needs, a God that uses violence as a form of vengeance. The words of scriptures have been preserved not for what they were intended: as a collection of stories and songs that help us make meaning of our lives and see our own narratives as timeless. Scriptures have been chosen, from the vastness of all human writing as the justification for oppression. But their ill use or their lack of quantifiable fact doesn’t make them any less true.
Just look at the Christian Bible. Two thousand years ago brothers resented each other to the point of murder. Husbands abused wives. Wives sold their husbands out to the enemy. Grown offspring struggled to find autonomy. People were killed for their beliefs, or for leaving lands of famine for lands of plenty, even as they created a miracle by sharing the bit they had to feed others. Poor people learned how to help one another. Babies were born…all of them miracles.
So, why is any of this important to me?
This image I have of God is completely different from the image portrayed by the religious right. And my reading of Christian scripture is so liberal it would make Jesse Helms’s head explode if he weren’t already dead.
This image of God I have is important partly because I want to believe there is something greater than me that holds us together, that gives my life meaning not just now but in the arc of history. I want to believe that there is something binding us together beyond our common decision to leave The New York Times Crossword at home, to miss Charles Osgood and have coffee together.
This image of God I have is important because when a religious conservative publicly says something like “God doesn’t want those people to marry,” or “God doesn’t want them live among us,” or “God wants us to act out violently in his name,” we can stand up and say, “No! You’re wrong. God is creative. God is inclusive. God is beauty, diversity and wholeness. There is no hell.”
We could own that discourse the way Hosea Ballou and Theodore Parker did.
I’m not an idiot. I know we will never be able to change the minds of those whose ideas are at the other end of the spectrum from our own. But we can change the public discourse by standing up and saying “you don’t have exclusive rights to God.”
In being so bold, we’ll find others like us, those who are seeking truth and meaning but don’t buy into the idea of the angry guy with the white beard playing us like puppets. We can show the world that there is a faith out there that has room for them in their wholeness. We can show the world that there is a faith that is inclusive, creative and loving. That, after all, is the saving grace of Unitarian Universalism.
But it’s important that we engage in this dialog together, using this language full of hot button words, because if we don’t talk about what we believe to be sacred and holy and transcendent, and important, amongst each other, then how can we ever have this conversation with those who would use this vocabulary against us?
I’d like to end with a prayer.
Spirit of Life,
Source of Love and Compassion,
Eternal force of creation,
Force that we create each time we gather,
And each time we reflect in silence and solitude:
We know that you are here,
With us and in us this morning.
When we stop to pay attention to the vibrations of the universe,
And the vibrations our own bodies,
We feel your presence.
May we open our hearts and our minds
To your ceaseless existence
And boundless potential:
The potential that exists within each us
Individually and collectively.
May we open our hearts and minds
To what you call us to do,
And to break down the invisible barriers we build,
The myth of separateness that we hold onto
As a false sense of security and independence.
May we open our hearts and minds
To the hurts of the world,
And to find in that pain the strength to change;
The strength to accept that which cannot be changed,
And to live into the silence.
(a minute of silence)