Looking Back

Photo: Crow looking at her reflection in the pond

We finally have someone to clean our house today, after no one since COVID. (A true blessing for those of us allergic to dust.) So I am in the basement, where I have an office filled with old papers that I still haven’t cleaned out since I retired three years ago. I am allergic to old papers, too, (and old books, which is a real sadness). But it is hard to just throw them out or shred them, they are like messages from my earlier self. I thought maybe if I could capture some of them here, it would be easier to release these reflections of the preacher I used to be. (During the summers, I’d be pondering what to preach during the following year. I’d be trying to get grounded in what was most important.) It is grounding to read them now:

What is my message? What is my good news? God is love. You are loved. You are beloved, you are sacred, each one of you. (Especially to the ones who are on the edges, to women, to lesbians.)

Around to the question–who is my audience, who are my people? What is my message? Love is on the side of equality and we are all brothers, sisters, siblings. Every being is beloved and we are all one family. What is my message to the men and to those who are comfortable? Your privilege does not bring you closer to heaven. If you have privilege, share the wealth. I don’t like being “negative” or challenging. I like lifting up the lowly. Is that true? I like clear thinking–see what is going on and understand the times we are in. What are the big issues we face as a people?

What is my message? Look at the power dynamics that are hidden–Who benefits? Who lies? Organize yourselves–alone we can do something, but together we can really do something. Be smart about change. Hold up the vision of where we are going and also talk about the ways to get there. How to live sustainably? How to live in mutually beneficial relationship with each other and with the earth. The earth is us, we are the earth. We are children of the earth, this is our mother and our home, our only home. Stand with our relatives. What touches one, affects us all.

What gives me hope? The sense of being beloved. The witness of people before us who loved, who created change.

What are my questions? How do I preach about God? What is at the soul of my wanting to preach about God? Anger at the fundamentalists who put God into a box–an idol, who use it to go to war, to condemn other people, including me–who use God as a weapon of hate. Anger at the atheists who argue there is no God–but the only God they argue against is the fundamentalist God that I don’t believe in either.

I experience God–is “God” even the word?–but I want to claim that word “God.” They’ve stolen it, corrupted it, they’ve tried to use it to shut the true gates of heaven. Starhawk reminded us that it is not about belief, but knowledge.

What can I say about my own experience of God? How do I experience God? As the power to leave the church of my childhood, to find the experience of myself as woman, as a whole and equal person. Goddess. (Ntozake Shange “I found God in my self and I loved her fiercely.”) The power to take a leap of courage into the unknown, toward wholeness and strength and transformation. God is a power beyond institutions, uncontained. “The sound in the soul of a man becoming free.” [from the song “Mystery.”] The joy I see in a lesbian couple finding the strength to be proud of who they are and to become public spokespersons for equal marriage. God is the comforter of the lonely. The lover. God is everywhere in everything, imbues the world with beauty. God is the power of creativity. We say “Creator.”

What would be the greatest personal risk I could take? Can I be the minister I feel called to be? Why is it so hard to say I experience the presence of God? To challenge the atheists who ridicule those who experience God? God as personal, the old Universalist idea that God loves everyone so much that we’ll all get into heaven. Can I invite an atheist to go inside themselves to experience God for themselves? To pray?

It is okay to have an image for God, a doorway. We need pictures–as long as we remember they are just doorways into something beyond our ability to picture. The mystical. God isn’t just someone to make good things happen to us. God is a presence in the midst of the hard things. The cardinal who sang when I was lost and lonely. The grandmother who appeared when everything fell apart. Comfort and strength when loss comes. But what about those who don’t experience that. What feeds you? What is large enough to win your allegiance? Any other gods are too small.

Just random thoughts, like looking at my reflection in a still pool of water. After so many days of working in the garden and working on the pond, it is good to be quiet with these old pieces of paper.

Risky Talk

I have some of my own baggage attached to spirituality. From my earliest memories, I knew that it was risky to talk about spirituality. It was sure to mark you as strange or crazy, or get you into trouble. I don’t even know how or where I learned this—maybe at school among my classmates? There was something embarrassing, or dangerous, or profoundly broken with the idea of speaking about this realm.

But in my immediate family, it was just the opposite. Spirituality was an ever-present force. My father didn’t just believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God, and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart, too.

FlameI was hungry for this burning love. But I was also afraid of what other people would think of me. How often do we deny our own deep experience to gain social acceptance? It seemed to me that most people outside my family said they believed in God, but they didn’t really expect anything to come of it. So I learned to keep certain things hidden—especially the solitary and mysterious experiences of longing or feeling loved.

Because I was a child growing up Catholic, I fit my experience into the stories I learned, the beliefs that were given to me. It was safer to talk in the language of belief, rather than to reveal my feelings. Later, those beliefs were challenged by my experience, and my journey brought me into a very different place. My beliefs got turned upside down, in order for me to be true to my experience. But that fire of burning love kept re-igniting.

Today, when I venture inside my own heart, I still experience deep longings, these hungers that feel almost like pain, or sometimes like restlessness. It is difficult to feel this and I am tempted to read a book, or find something else that might fill up that empty place. But instead of escaping or fixing it, I invite myself to try to be present with it. I breathe into the longing and let myself experience the hunger. Is this what it means to become friends with my burning? I accept the feelings of my heart just as they are. I connect with the experience of my deeper self.

Perhaps that is all that happens. But sometimes, something else happens too. My heart opens up, the emptiness becomes a doorway, and I fall into a larger awareness. I feel the earth, the sky, the wind. I feel joined to everything. I find answers to questions and guidance when I face a crossroads. I feel held in the arms of tenderness. I feel that I have come home. Sometimes, as Rumi says,

Something opens our wings
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear
Someone fills the cup in front of us
We taste only sacredness.

This has been my experience of spiritual awakening. Hunger itself becomes a doorway into sacredness, into feeling connection beyond my aloneness. Does it matter, on any particular day, whether I feel longing or feel love? Whether I feel questions or feel answers? The Buddhist mystics would say no. What matters is that I am becoming conscious. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says,

“If we want to enter Heaven on Earth, we need only one conscious step and one conscious breath.”

Take some time to notice what is brewing in your heart. Do you feel a sense of emptiness? A sense of connection? Do you feel questions? Don’t try to change anything, just become aware of what you are carrying in your heart in this moment.

Quotes from: The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks p. 280.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living, p. 8.