Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 28, 2007
“Bringing God Home
Rev. Catherine Torpey
Just prior to Christmastime, I phoned my friend Stacy, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky. As we chatted about the holiday coming up, I learned that neither her husband, who is currently in Africa, nor her son, who is living with his dad, were going to be with her. I had been looking forward to taking a road trip down to see her and we both decided that the Christmas break would be the perfect time. She had just moved into her brand new house, and she said, “Knowing that you are coming will inspire me to finish my unpacking.” So, while she unpacked, I packed up my little Honda Civic and headed down south.
When I got to her house, she had done everything— the living room had the huge leather sectional, the home office had the bookshelves up, the bedroom had the fluffy comforter and the mass of pillows. But there was one room just at the entrance which was in a shambles—boxes and chairs and fabric were strewn in this part of the house, quite in contrast to every other nook and cranny.
“That,” Stacy announced to me, “will be my prayer room, and you are going to help me create it.” Stacy was bringing God home, quite literally. We spent all week finding just the right fabrics, just the right lamps, just the right paint to create a beautiful room, inviting to the soul, conducive to prayer.
I met Stacy at Manhattanville College, where I was the campus minister and she was the head of the Office for Multicultural Affairs. I was drawn to her right away, and one of the first things I noticed about Stacy was how present God is in her world and in her speech. The way Stacy talks about God is the way she talks about her son who lives with his dad. You might not see any photos of Stacy posing at the Eiffel Tower with her son, and you might not see her posing at the Eiffel Tower with God, but there’s a sense of the companionship and conversation of that other in her life, which she chats about now and then unself-consciously. No one doubts the existence of her son—no one would. In the same way, she doesn’t expect anyone to doubt the existence of God in her life.
I’m sure that the easiness with which she speaks of God in her life is due in part to her Baptist upbringing. In that environment, she was surrounded by people who shared many of her beliefs and experiences. Not long after I met her, her Christian faith led her to enter seminary. When she began to learn to read the New Testament from a scholar’s eye, her relationship with God did not change so much as her relationship with Jesus did. She did not finish seminary; instead, she converted to Islam. Although she changed religions, she never changed gods. She continues to experience and talk about God in the same basic way, but in a new and evolving context.
Stacy, like so many of us do, went to seminary expecting to deepen her faith, and instead found it shaken up.
In his book, Bringing God Home, Forrest Church describes how he began his life with a very simple and comforting notion of God, defined by the prayers that many of us grew up with. At night, his mom tucked him into bed, and led him in the simple prayer, “God bless Grandma and Grandpa, and my friend Jimmy and my dog Smokey,” and so on. He ended, of course, with “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” A strangely morbid prayer that has probably survived because it says everything we ask of a god—to keep us while we live and to keep us when we die. At mealtime, Forrest’s family recited the traditional, “God is great; God is good; Let us thank Him for our food.”
By the time he went to seminary, Forrest says that he had long since lost the omniscient and omnipresent god of his childhood. He attended seminary more out of a fascination with the idea of God than out of a desire to deepen a relationship with the divine. He says that he never desired, and still doesn’t desire, to recapture that infancy God. “Losing such a God,” he writes, “was no more tragic than losing a favorite toy that one has outgrown. Nonetheless, I longed for the sense of place I had known as a little boy, both within myself and within my world.”
For many of us, the longing for God in our lives, the need for God in our lives carries at least a tinge of the memory of a simpler time. Even if we had very difficult childhoods, the notion of a God who keeps me while I sleep and will whisk me away should I die, is a world that seems orderly—safe in some ultimate way, if not safe in an immediate way. I said those same prayers that Forrest said as a child, although for me, they never translated into an understanding of God as the big daddy in the sky. I enjoyed saying my nightly prayers with my mom because it was a very sweet moment. It was a time when she was teaching me to hold people in my heart and wish them well even though they were far away. I didn’t think much about whether there was any mystical meaning to my prayers. I just knew that praying for Nana and Grampa and Aunt Caroline and Cousin John and everyone else each night was the right thing to do. I still believe it’s the right thing to do.
On this morning, when we have had the joy and the privilege of presenting Noah Dzienius, I hope that if his mom and dad don’t use the same formula that my mom used and that Forrest Church’s mom used, that at least someone each night will invite him into that period, right before bed, when he takes stock of the people who bless his life, and maybe even takes stock in a child’s way of the fragility and the dependency that is our lot and is expressed by praying to the Lord our souls to take.
Forrest’s famous definition of religion is that it is the human response to being alive and having to die. Perhaps the seed for that simple formulation was planted by his bedside in Idaho night after night. Forrest confesses in this book that although, as a minister, he developed a more mature understanding of God throughout his career, and though he did genuinely believe the things he preached, he kept himself from going home spiritually by denying his inner conflicts and self-doubts, often deadening such feelings with alcohol.
He writes that even over the years, as he did well at All Souls Church in Manhattan, there was an emptiness inside. “Having outgrown my childhood God,” he writes, “I awakened to the realization that for years I had persisted in worshiping a string of much smaller gods, all of which failed me.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we have a variety of thoughts and feelings about God. Some of us are utterly annoyed at the very notion of God. Some folks believe that idea of God is almost silly. What God? Show me a God. Where was God on September 11, or on the day the waters began rising in New Orleans? Perhaps he was on vacation in a cooler clime. Some folks reject even at the notion of praying—praying to whom or to what? they want to know. Some see it as superstitious; it’s an intellectual or emotional crutch that they either don’t need or have outgrown. And that is OK.
When people tell Forrest that they don’t believe in God, he likes to tell them, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in, because I almost certainly don’t believe in that god either.”
The earliest humans, who dwelt in caves, who were hunters and gatherers, they recognized the power of natural forces and so understood thunder and lightning and fire as gods. As cultures shifted to farming, there tended to be a shift toward the worship of goddesses, who represented fertility. As cultures shifted to cities with strong rulers at the helm, the notion of god tended to shift to a ruler whose command we obeyed for our own good. There is evidence in the Hebrew Bible of the earlier notions of god, and even of the goddess, but the predominant view of God in the Jewish scriptures is that of God the mighty ruler. Jesus, very much a rabbi of his age, saw God as present in daily life—not a far-off ruler, but a loving father, urging us to live well and providing us our daily bread.
Many folks who reject the notion of God are rejecting a specific notion of God as sovereign ruler of the world—especially the one who is evident in the Old Testament as smiting Israel’s enemies at times that proved very convenient for the king. Or they reject the god seen in parts of the New Testament, the God who also smites enemies, but now it is not whole peoples God smites but unacceptable individuals. I say that a thinking theist doesn’t choose one of these gods to mindlessly believe in.
Forrest points out that truth in religion is like truth in poetry. As the famous Christian scholar Marcus Borg puts it, "The bible is true, and some of it actually happened." In the same way, Forrest reminds us that words like God, heaven, soul, angels, spirit are poetic language that point to a reality rather than capturing it. In Forrest’s word, to speak of God is to speak of a power beyond our own and yet mysteriously present within each of us. And this simple wording works well for me, too.
Like Forrest, much of my life has been characterized by a process of moving through various understandings of God—or the lack thereof. In my earliest years, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have that typical child’s understanding of some large and unseen man who directed the show from the sidelines. There was only a brief period in my adolescence when such a notion of God made sense to me, and I couldn’t sustain it for very long. But, of course, as a child, I was aware of the enormity and mystery of the vast world into which I had been born.
Once in a while, something would happen that didn’t have a clear explanation. For instance, a door would creak open, or something which no one had been standing near would fall. I knew they were simply the wind or other natural forces causing things to happen. When such things did happen, I would tell my mom, “Mr. Nobody is here.” Years later, my mom would say, “Remember how you used to call God Mr. Nobody? That was so cute.” In fact, my mom had read into what I was saying. I was really just sort of being silly. But there was something for her that captured the notion of God when I made reference to a “Mr. Nobody.” Throughout the years, she would periodically say how much she liked that way of referring to God. I think for her it captured the idea of presence and absence at the same time.
If someone were to demand from me that I explain exactly what I mean by God, it would be as if they were asking a poet exactly what is meant by the poem she wrote, or asking a parent, “Exactly what do you mean by this child?” or demanding that someone define exactly what they mean by “nature” or “love” or “friendship.” Fuzzy explanations must suffice because some things aren’t reducible—the word is not large enough to encompass the whole of the thing it describes. The word only points, it does not touch.
I just know that for me, conscious contact with God through prayer is what makes my life rich and fun and fruitful because it is what grounds me. When I am most crazed with all the tasks swirling around me; when I am most distracted by the demands that others make of me or that I make of myself; when I am totally unsure of what direction I am going in, I simply begin a prayer with the word, “God.” My body always feels the change. In my mind’s eye, I see the deepest part of me reaching up and out of my body to the sky. It is not that God is in the sky—but I certainly know that God is outside of me. Reality is outside of me; life is outside of me; hope is outside of me; joy is outside of me. A simple wordless prayer brings me back to that reality and away from the distraction of fretfulness, sadness, despair and the push and pull of the battling wills inside me.
I don’t need any fancy explanation of who or what that God is that I am connecting with. If you tell me that for you, a non-theistic meditation practice does the same thing for you, then I would never ask you to insert my God into your life. If you tell me that for you, simply choosing to face the reality of the world gets you out of your own tendencies to self-indulgence, and that you don’t need to pray to do it, then I say, more power to you.
It’s like that room in Stacy’s house in Louisville. Because Stacy is Muslim, her prayer room could have no images of living creatures, and because of her personal tastes, the room, when finished, gave me the feel of walking in Morocco—deep reds splashed with beaded fabrics with soft round lines. If someday I have my own prayer room, the colors and the fabrics and the furniture may be completely different. For another person, a library full of books that feed the mind might be in its own way the equivalent of Stacy’s prayer room, because it is another quiet place to feel transported out of the smallness of oneself.
“When we are at home within ourselves,” Forrest writes, “we are at home everywhere. Yet to be at home within myself, I found I needed God’s company.” Stacy brought God home. Forrest brought God home. If your home is on the market, God’s packed up and ready to move in.