Long before becoming UU, the question “Do you believe in God” was the worst anyone could ever ask me. You might feel similarly. It’s a binary question and I’m not a fan of binary. It’s a yes or no question to the nature of the universe. It’s like asking, “What is the meaning of life: yes or no?”
I have no intention of asking or answering that question today – not for you and not for me. It’s a bad question. It’s particularly bad when people are sure they know the answer and then judge other people if their answer is different. I won’t ask the question and I don’t have an answer. And I’m sure if ever anyone ever comes close to an answer to that question, it won’t be “yes” or “no”.
The universe as I understand it is far, far more complicated than that. It’s profound with mystery- complex, unknown, unknowable. It’s wild, and chaotic with life teeming in the minute and in the magnificent. It’s loving. It’s violent. It’s unpredictable, and I’m not willing to even consider that there’s a “yes” or “no” question that comes close to apprehending the depth or breadth of what it means to be alive or in what ways we are alone and in what ways we are not.
There are times, though, when I seek people who wrestle with these big questions. Not people who answer them, but who live into them. Some are scientists, poets, philosophers. A few of my favorites are mystics. Mysticism, in its formal and academic context, is the radical experience of the divine. My master’s degree is in Medieval Mysticism, a subject I found tremendous comfort in in graduate school where we otherwise spent our time diagnosing and dissecting god. Courses on reason and doctrine were tempered by poetry written a thousand years ago by women and men overcome by Love.
We have mystics closer to our time period who have had similar experiences. The 20th century writer and spiritual leader Thomas Merton wrote of a conversion experience in Kentucky. He said: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness. . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Merton’s conversion on 4th and Walnut, - now so famous an experience it’s memorialized on that very corner in that city with a big sign marking the spot – that kind of experience isn’t common, but it’s also not entirely unusual. Caryll Houselander, a lesser-known 20th century English mystic had a similar experience. She was riding in an underground train. She writes:
“Quite suddenly, I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more than that; not only was Christ in every one of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them – but because he was in them, and because they were here, the whole world was here in this underground train, not only the world as it was at that moment, not only in the people in the countries of the world, but all those yet to come. I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here, on every side, in every passerby – Christ.”
Language isn’t our friend today. The word “god” – with or without a capital “G” – can be cumbersome, depending on your own personal history. “Christ” maybe even more so. These words have history. They have politics. They might be connected with very specific images and understandings. They might be connected to personal trauma. To religious trauma. To deep, unnecessary rejection, pain, longing and loneliness. Unitarians in particular have been trying to break open our assumptions and connections around the word “god” from an individual male, white, conscious, all-powerful and present being since the 19th century, but somehow we still default to that, even unconsciously, probably because that image has so saturated our culture and language it requires more discipline than most of us have time for to break free of it. In response, so many of us say we don’t believe in god. We answer “no” to the binary question. What I think we mean is we don’t believe in that, particular god and we haven’t had time to give much thought to the other ones.
Sometimes we find it liberating to hold the same kind of image, but this time god is female. And Black. That gets easier. Warmer. Maybe equally ferocious but on our side. That god might even be sexual. And lesbian. Now She’s starting to get interesting.
Richard Rohr, the director of the Center for Contemplation and Action, poses the idea that God isn’t an individual being, but another name for Everything. Everything is connected to Everything. We aren’t saved alone, but in participation with everyone else, in community with people and with the planet. God is in all things, is all things. The world is both the hiding place and the revelation of God. There is no difference between the profane and the sacred. All life is communion, all life is coherent. Limiting God to a person, a single revelation, makes the world fragmented and small. But, the world, the universe is massive – and expanding. The Holy, the connection, the foundation for life, the platform for our living, is moving, stretching, expanding. And it is the body of God, another name for Everything.
A man who calls himself Wild Bill Balding goes even further. Breaking open the idea that God is the expanding universe, Balding tells us God is a Verb, not a noun. He writes:
'I am who I am,
I will be who I will be.'
dynamic, seething, active
web of love poured out,
given, received, exchanged,
one God in vibrant community
always on the move,
slipping through our fingers,
blowing through the nets we cast
to hold and name,
confine to nouns, to labels,
pinned like a butterfly,
solid, cold, controlled, lifeless.
'I am who I am,
I will be who I will be' -
not pinned down by names, labels,
or even by nails to wood:
I am: a verb, not a noun,
living, free, exuberant,
always on the move.
“I am who I am”. That’s what Moses was told. He saw a bush, engulfed in flame, but not burning and he tried to find out what was going on. Yahweh spoke to him and told him he was being called to liberate those who were enslaved by the Pharoah in Egypt. Moses, unsure about what was really happening here, asked who is sending him and the answer was “I am who I am”, sometimes translated as “I am who Is”.
I Am Who Is. An act of Being. And the conversation is an experience, not a belief. That conversation, often called prayer, comes up from our center, not always as words, but as laughter or kisses or sobbing. Prayer is primeval, it’s primordial, it’s our most ancient language, spoken long before we had words. We dance in joy and sorrow and fear. We make wishes, often secret, and howl, sometimes in pairs and every time we do, we are expressing our deepest desires, our longing for a world we once knew or never knew and can’t live without. Prayer is our most authentic expression when we allow it, especially if we don’t try to temper it with those pesky binary questions that end with “yes” or “no”. Once we move into our minds, seeking images or specifics, wondering to what or whom we are praying, we have moved from our hearts to our heads where Mystery is uncomfortable and usually unwelcome.
I remember long ago being told to kneel and pray daily, to say thank you and to ask for things like help and wisdom. I was told if there were specific things I wanted, I could mention those too, but to be aware that sometimes the answer is “no”. So, I did that. I got on my knees and talked. It was fine, and sometimes helped me get clear about things, or made me feel better about something. Sometimes I waited for answers – and I could wait a long time. Then I started feeling like this was a dysfunctional relationship with me doing all the talking and some guy out in the clouds with all the power. When I started studying religion, I asked a teacher how to pray and she genuinely didn’t understand my question. I wanted her to hand me a stack of papers with the right words on them so I’d be sure I was doing it right. Instead, she asked if I sing. Or walk in the woods. Or chant. She asked if I danced, which I did often. She asked if I loved people, which was also a big “yes”. So, she said, she doesn’t understand why I’m asking. It seems I know how to pray.
I thought I’d find the appropriate and accepted posture and start a conversation with the magic words and then I’d wait for an answer. What I didn’t know is that I didn’t need words and the conversation was going on all around me. All I needed to do was notice. I needed to breath. To see. To feel. To listen.
I don’t know the nature of the universe. I don’t know the meaning of life. I do know how it feels to stand in a summer rainstorm, drenched and laughing. I know how to take off my shoes and feel the grass beneath my feet. I know how to hold a door open for someone or how to thank them when they do that for me, how to live into each gift, how to offer gratitude.
Look around for yourself. Just outside this door, you will see giggling children and plumes of exhaust, regal buildings and people scrounging for food, warm winds and tropical storms – in awe and delight you will see all the things, dreadful and beautiful, more wonderful and terrible than is necessary. Let it strike you speechless with worship and fear. It is Everything.
And every once in a while, look around and see that everyone – no matter who they are or what they think or why they’re here,- everyone is walking around shining like the sun.