|This I Believe (Part I)
Barbara Chatterton - transcript not available
Erin Bosch - below
As many of you know, I grew up Catholic in Chicago. Enough said. I went to a Catholic grade school and an all-girl Catholic high school.
I would like to spend some of my allotted time addressing the idea of “comfort.” I am very aware that many people get a lot of comfort from their concept of God. My mother was one of those people. And I learned what her concept of God was through some of the poetry she wrote. I would like to read just a few lines from one of her poems. The title is “For They Shall Possess the Land” and it deals with the afterlife.
“Oh God I am not worthy to be here. You have been merciful, and I too weak!” You think I as humble? When you face that Throne, lies will no longer server, but truth alone. “Forgive me my trespasses, my God,” I pleaded, “as I tried to do to those who injured me.” The, though I stood below Him on His throne, e'en at His feet, and though I stood alone Still I felt His kindly fingers trace the lines the years have engraved upon my face; And came that voice, Beauty almost past bearing… patter for all the loveliest notes on Earth… Song of a cello, hymn from a violin, thrill of a child's voice when words first begin. “You knew then no fear,” He asked, “no loneliness? Nothing to weigh against your debt of sin?” And I replied, “Where there was grief, You gave me love to share it. Where there was pain, You gave me grace to bear it. Where there was fear, in time You bore me through it. All of my life I felt Your love and knew it.”
This is a pretty nice vision of her God and what she thought would happen after she died and it brought her much comfort. At the end, my mother was not at all afraid to die. And I think it is important to not diminish that aspect of religious belief. My mother did not have an easy life, yet she found the strength to raise 6 kids on her own. Of course there is an ominous flip side. I had an aunt who was terrified on her death bed because she thought she was going to hell. And that of course is very sad. Once at a Prairie service, Barbara Rames, a former Prairie member, shared this story. When she was a young mother and having difficulties with her husband, she found herself making the bed one day and was overwhelmed with her troubles. She sank down to the floor and said “Lord, help me.” She stayed there for awhile and she did feel help, comfort, that came from “somewhere.” When people feel very alone in the world, it is certainly a comfort to think there is a supreme being who loves them and will give them strength. In my own life, I tend to turn more to people when I am troubled. Or I talk to myself. But I can very much understand the appeal of a loving God who is always there for you.
I have taught the Church Across the Street class at Prairie four times over the years. That is a middle school class, now called Neighboring Faiths, where we take the students to visit other churches, then meet with the pastors or leaders afterward and ask questions about their religion. I wanted to give the students a thread to use throughout the visits, so I suggested they ask at each church, what is your concept of God, what do you believe about the afterlife, and the Bible. That was not suggested in the UUA curriculum, but I felt that those questions really get to the crux of what we consider to be religious beliefs. The other churches were able to fairly easily communicate their views, because they usually had a creed that pretty well spells things out. When we teach about UUism in an RE class, we discuss the 7 principles, but when it comes to the other kinds of questions, we have to say that UUs don't always believe the same thing, and we let people decide for themselves. That may leave the kids a little dissatisfied, but it's true, so the teachers really can't say anything more definitive.
The questions of God, the afterlife, and the Bible are not often talked about at a typical Prairie Sunday service. So this panel is going to take the plunge and address those topics, from our personal viewpoints. I am first. After I let go of most of what I was taught about God in all that Catholic schooling, which was surprisingly easy, I did feel a bit of a void. And when you have young children, they ask questions like “Mom, is there a God?” I found it difficult to say to them “No, absolutely not.” I felt it was almost cruel to deny them the comfort of a God, so I tried to come up with something that I could say to them and could live with myself. So I told them that there wasn't a God who was a guy sitting up in the clouds who you could pray to and he would intervene in your life, but that maybe there is some kind of force that binds people together, like in Star Wars. I'm not sure I really believed that, but I kind of liked the sound of it. And I also told my kids that no one really knows for sure, and that they should respect the views of other people.
A few years after I started attending Prairie, I took a class over at First Society called “Building Your Own Theology.” Carol Taylor, a former RE minister there, was teaching the class. She asked us to share our concept of God. People were very hesitant to speak. So I raised my hand and described my idea of a force. Another woman in the class burst out with “No, there's no force. There's nothing. No God at all. Nothing.” There was a short silence because people were a bit aghast at her vehemence. Then Carol Taylor looked at me and said, “There are many people who believe something similar to what you just said.” She did a great job of affirming my statement without publicly chastising the other person, who was definitely out of line to respond like that. That other woman was so sure she was right, when really, no one knows for sure. So we basically are all just “choosing” to believe something or other, for whatever reasons we have. And one of the big reasons, I think, is comfort. If it makes one feel good to believe a certain thing, and that belief is not hurting anyone else, then that belief should be respected.
The afterlife. Boy, that's a tough one. I have always liked the notion of our energy going somewhere after we die. Maybe flowing into a stream of energy of other things and just going onward. Do I really believe that? I dunno. But I like the sound of it. What I do definitely believe is that there is no hell. I believe we are at peace after we die. And maybe that's enough. We live on in the memories of those who have loved us. That can be comfort enough. But years ago I read an article in the Wisconsin State Journal written by Ron Seely, whose daughter had died. I want to read a few excerpts. I'll be skipping a lot.
“This is Katie's birthday and these words are for her. She would have been 12; it seems hard to believe that she fell from the horse more than five months ago and left us here, gasping at the frailty of life and the impossibility of what had happened.
But she did. And now I'm writing this for her. I've always believed in the power and mystery of words. Words can leave the written page and leap into our lives and change us. Words can transcend the physical world. Maybe - I believe this much in the magic of words - these lines will reach Katie and she will know better how we feel, that we miss her deeply and that she made a difference in our lives and the lives of many others. Maybe, too, these words will comfort others who miss Katie or who mourn for their own losses. We all have our losses. (skipping down)
We wondered where Katie had gone. Having no formal religious beliefs we struggled with her fate. We talked to her. We asked her for a sign that she was safe. We looked for her at night in the darkened hall outside her room. We talked about the afterlife, about Christianity, Buddhism, and Native American spirituality, all the beliefs from which we have drawn our way of looking at life and death. We felt certain that Katie was in another world and that, if only we were intuitive enough, or intelligent enough, or spiritual enough, we could pull aside the curtain that separated us from her and know that she was there and that she was happy. (skipping down)
It happened again a few weeks later. Again it was night and I was sitting on the screen porch with my good friend, Mike. It was a warm night and it was raining and, through the screen, we could smell the rain and the wet, fallen leaves. Listening to the rain and thinking about Katie, I was filled not with sadness but with a deep certainty about the essential rightness of the natural world, about the dependable cycles of death and rebirth of which we are surely a part. It seemed to me that this rain, falling and soaking into the earth where it would be stored to nurture life again, was as good a sign as any that Katie survived in a way that we simple couldn't fathom.”
Seely's way of viewing death appeals to me. I, too, believe in the magic of words, and I'd like to believe that our loved ones go on in some way. Do I really believe that's the truth? Probably not. The UU principle says: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. But we often don't really know what the “truth” is. I'd like to propose that it's possible to find “meaning” without finding “truth.” I find Seely's words to be very meaningful and very comforting. Since I certainly don't plan to go to war to force these thoughts on anyone, I feel like it's perfectly okay for me to entertain this notion. It feels good to me and it doesn't hurt anyone else.
The Bible. From what I have just said, you will not be surprised to learn that I do not believe that the Bible is the divine word of God. I recognize that the Bible is a set of stories. The writers were trying to make sense of life as best they could with their limited experience. Some of the Old Testament stories are terrible, but some of the stories attributed to Jesus are really good. He was a good guy. Going around talking about loving your neighbor and being peaceful… that's very good. Here are some of my favorites: The Good Samaritan, the workers in the vineyard, Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary. If you don't recognize these, I'd be happy to tell them to you after the service. Maybe you will want to mention some of your favorite Bible stories during the discussion period.
Okay… I have shared my thoughts about these topics with you. But I have to admit that I would not characterize myself as a very spiritual person. I do not really think about these things on a daily basis. I am much more focused on trying to live a worthwhile life here and now than in what happens after I die, for example. I think that is more important. I believe in the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. That makes so much sense to me. I believe that we should be kind to one another. Those are the kinds of things that I “do” try to think about daily. I was forced to do more thinking about these more “religious” topics recently because Anne asked me to be on this panel. Like many of you, I am not sure how to define the word “spiritual.” Awhile ago, George Calden suggested substituting the word “inspirational” for “spiritual” and I really liked that. I like to be “inspired” and since I do believe in the magic of words, I find words inspiring. When someone I know dies, I often return to Ron Seely's article, because I find his words inspiring and comforting. I think that is probably as close to “spirituality” as I get.