"Limitless undying love that shines upon me like a million suns and calls me on and on across the universe…" (John Lennon, "Across the Universe")
All ministers are required to do a ten-week intensive training known as CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) to get our first, supervised experiences doing pastoral care with people in crisis situations. I did my CPE training in the summer of 1997 with Merrimack Valley Hospice as a chaplain. I was part of a care team who made visits to terminally ill patients who had chosen to die at home, and it was scary and awkward work, but incredibly valuable training. One very hot afternoon I was talking with my supervising chaplain, who seemed uncharacteristically frazzled. I asked her what was wrong and she confessed that she had been very insensitive with one of our patients. "Oh, no," I protested. "Not you." Judy was such a kind and considerate pastor, the very soul of patience. I thought she must have been hard on herself for something no one else would begin to consider insensitive.
Looking at me with great skepticism, my supervisor told me that she had just returned from a visit to one of our patients, a very elderly woman with cancer who had greeted Judy in a delighted mood. "Pastor!" she said. "I have to share with you the most amazingly wonderful thing! I had misplaced my favorite comfy slippers and prayed to God to help me find them, and He answered my prayers! I found my slippers!" To which Judy replied, "He must be having a slow day." My jaw dropped. But I liked her so much more after that.
This kind of response is what we would call in the ministry "empathic failure." Believe me, Judy was wracked with guilt that she had allowed such a callous response to slip past her impatient tongue. For after all, who would begrudge a sick woman the comfort of believing that God takes a personal interest in her missing slippers? I was reminded of this episode when, on the anniversary of 9/11 a few years ago, I watched a marvelous television show called "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero." This "Frontline" special took a comprehensive look at the American religious response to the events of 9/11, interviewing a wide scope of those affected by the terrorist attacks: firemen and policemen, rescue workers, religious leaders who reflected on God's absence or presence in such events, and family members of the victims. The ones that I found the most compelling and upsetting were the men and women who railed at God, who felt their faith was betrayed; that they had been literally God-forsaken in their loss and suffering.
One interview showed a man walking in a contemplative mood by the ocean's edge. "I'm angry at God," he said. He has reason to be angry. His sons, both firefighters, are dead and this grieving father feels that God has failed him. My heart aches for this man's sense of personal betrayal. His agony is sobering and reaffirms for me the importance of constructing theologies that make sense for us in times of suffering as well as in times of tranquility and joy. While I grieve for this man's alienation from his God, I am glad that he is staying in the conversation and in the fight with his God-concept. I hope that he will stay engaged with his faith so that it can eventually contain both his grief and rage - and his love of life.
The show also featured reflections from some people who escaped the World Trade Center alive, and who feel today a tremendous sense of survivor guilt along with gratitude for their lives. Again, we heard about God. In one case, we see a man musing in a manner that I have heard many people do who have had the good fortune to escape dangerous situations intact: "God must have a plan for me," he says. This is similar to that other comment we often hear under similar circumstances: "Someone up there was looking out for me."
From the ridiculous to the sublime, or perhaps the other way around. A woman in the last stages of cancer finds her slippers and believes God has put them in her sight to comfort her. A man credits God for saving his life during a day of terror that left hundreds of his colleagues dead but spared him. What's wrong with this picture, and what is right with it? And what in the world are we to make of that kind of God?
The day that my colleague Judy confessed to me that she had made such a thoughtless crack to the lady who found her slippers, I reassured her that she probably didn't do permanent damage to the woman's optimistic faith, and admitted that I would have found the comment equally frustrating, because while I think it a bad theology to credit God with personal favors, whether they be as tiny as finding my slippers or as great as winning a battle in war. The God of my understanding and faith doesn't work that way. My sense of God is that it is a name, or a shorthand term, for that I might also refer to as the world's soul. St. Paul referred to God as "that in which we live and move and have our being," and I appreciate the cosmic scope of that description. Much more recently, UU minister Barbara Pescan provided me another poetic term for God when she spoke of it as "unnameable magnificent intensity."
The unnameable magnificent intensity I refer to as God does not, in my opinion, get me an "A" on my paper at school or even bring my child home safely from the battlefield. Asking for these things may comfort me in times of anxiety, but as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, "Prayer doesn't change God, it changes the one who prays." When I am praying for my cat to survive upper respiratory failure, I know deep down that I am really praying for the strength to deal with whatever comes. My prayer is the cry of a human being who is not in control, seeking a peaceful center in the storm, that ultimate place of "And All Shall Be Well."
Let me return for a moment to the man who survived the collapse of the World Trade Center and therefore believes that God has a plan for him. While that might be an inspiring notion to the survivor, should we then say that it was also God's plan that so many others died? What kind of theology is this, and do we accept it? I don't, but one mother interviewed for "Frontline" special does. "God knows what He is doing," she said about her daughter's death that day. "Maybe my daughter was in more pain in her life than I knew, and now she's in a better place."
I hope this mother is comforted by that trust in God. I do not share her sense of God as a distant being who arranges for or allows for the death of certain individuals while protecting others, but I do believe that the daughter has become part of the Eternal and is blessedly beyond the pain of the human experience. As a kid raised in the UU church, I am a Universalist who believes this woman's daughter has become somehow united with that holy energy that I refer to as God. But you will never hear me say that a tragedy is somehow God's secret plan or pre-ordained traffic pattern. I will say, and have said, that human bodies and fragile and that they break and can't be fixed, and that's our nature. I have said that we are free creatures and that our free will leads in some cases to destructive acts. Our inflicting pain on one another is not God's plan, it is our human free will in action. With Ann Fields I do not see God as the Stage Manager or the one penning our dialogue in the cosmic play, but the energy between us that impels us toward creativity, wholeness, synergy, harmony, beauty, and love.
Notions of God as being intimately involved in our human lives is a central concept of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Thousands of years ago a new God showed up in human history - first to Abraham and then to Moses - a God who called itself "I AM THAT I AM" and who intervened in history for His people (and in the ancient monotheism that is our heritage, it was always a "he"). This God made personal appearances and granted personal favors. This God did miracles for his favorites. Later, a Jewish reformer named Jesus taught his followers to pray directly to this God, reminded them that this was a God of love and justice (he himself called this God Abba, or Daddy) and unintentionally started a new world religion based on his reforms, ministries and teachings. What I am pointing out here is that those who look for God to intervene in their own personal histories are part of a long, long line of human beings who have seen - or wanted to see - the divine acting in their lives and in history.
Along with this sense of the personal divine, of course, come images of the divine. Some of the images provided by the Bible are words we either don't like or have to work through to make acceptable for our own usage: God, Lord, Sovereign and thrones, scepters, rods and staff. But there are also other images for God in the Bible that don't get a lot of air play: there is God as shepherd, maker of peace, mother lioness protecting her cubs, God as a woman groaning with labor pains at the creation of the world. God as a housewife searching for her lost coin. God as a mustard seed, as a fruit tree. God as the divine waiter who sets a banquet before me, even in the presence of my enemies.
Even monotheists, believers in one God, have always made a creative effort to express the reality of their Holy One in many ways, knowing that the task was inevitably futile but ultimately important. Muslims and Jews have thousands of names for the One God of their tradition. Buddhism, a non-theistic tradition, has thousands of Boddhisattvas and deities in its various traditions. Goddesses are worshiped the world over by indigenous peoples and more covertly by modern Westerners. She is hugely important to Latino Catholicism in the form of Mother Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe – all different manifestations of the Great Goddess. By ourselves, in our private thoughts and devotions, there is no real need to describe the Holy Presence we may sense beating at the heart of the world. With others, however, we are compelled to use language to share my experience. And so we keep trying.
As I said, I grew up a UU and was a staunch atheist until I became involved in paganism and Wicca in my late teens and 20's. I did not like the word "God" - I associated it too much with the old bearded king on the throne concept to not bristle when I heard it used. But as the conservative religious movement that began in the 1980's evolved and strengthened, I saw that fundamentalists were using the ancient power of "God" to claim moral superiority over me, and more scary, to gain political power and set policy in this country. I knew that I cared a lot about spirituality, ethics and morality and religious community, so I battled my way back into the conversation and struggled long and hard to find a way to say God in such a way that it would have meaning for me. I didn't want to invoke "God" on Pat Robertson's terms. It was hard work. I had to get over a lot of anger and resentment. But it was work well worth doing, and brought me into company with a battalion of other creative thinkers who were also cracking open the God-egg to see what fresh creature might emerge.
Let us not be so naïve as to claim that God is not just "a word." We know that "God" has been a weapon in the hands of the hateful. It has been a tool in the crafting of works of breathtaking beauty and a prayer intoned by the good and the compassionate and the true. "God" has been a whip used to slash the bodies of innocent men and women, and the fire used to burn heretics and their books, as it was used by Calvin to reduce to cinders our forebear Michael Servetus. "God" has been employed as the cruelest of slave masters and the most sadistic of parents. "God" has both been used to justify atrocities and also invoked to bring these atrocities to light and the perpetrators to justice. "God" has been credited by some as the one who made them rich and kept others poor, but others have found in their God reason to divest from material possessions and give all they have to others. It is not just a word. It is perhaps the ultimate word, a powerful invocation of all that variety of human instinct and experience I have just named. Whether or not we choose to use this word God ourselves, we ought to know what we mean when we do use it, and we ought to have a sense of what it means to us when we hear it. Because one thing is sure: God isn't going away any time soon.
And so after we send our old, outworn God concepts packing, we may choose to seek a God that can speak more truly to our understanding and experience. We listen for phrases that evoke the magnificent intensity that fills us with reverence, and we look for images that lift the veil of human illusion and alienation and reveal to us our ultimate unity: a divine thing, indeed. We glimpse the divine in acts of kindness and extravagant love, we catch intimations of what Jews call Ha Shem - the Name - in the quality of the silence we create when we are together in prayer or quiet contemplation. We see this godly thing in the warm eyes of a friend. Part of staying alive in our hearts as well as in our bodies is to trust that something worth revering in the universe is real - this instinct toward the eternal is real - and it knows our names whether or not we know what to call It.
There was a time that I privately referred to God as "Pearl Bailey." Why not? The god I felt most keenly at that time was a round, dark, deep-voiced, swinging-hipped, fabulous Goddess. I never told anybody about this name… until today. Whose business was it? A colleague of mine, a woman who was a survivor of incest, told me once that she called God "Gladys" - the kind of approachable, homey name that helped her draw nearer the lap of the magnificent intensity to receive healing and a vision that could make her life more whole. And a 4-year old girl named Katie walked in the woods with her father one afternoon and informed him that her private name for God was "Honkamiller." To this day he has no idea where she could have possibly come up with that one. Let's get bumper stickers made up: "Honk if you love Honkamiller."
Some years ago, I was driving down to our district conference on the Cape Cod and passing by bright red and orange trees as sunlight streamed in through the car windows, feeling the intense joy of a beautiful New England autumn. I was thinking of the ee cummings poem that begins "i thank you god for most this amazing day" but I could not get past that first line. "I thank you god for most this amazing day" and humming along to some music I have played many times before, one of those old classic songs that I have known forever but whose lyrics I have never been able to hear clearly to understand. But in the midst of my spontaneous driving devotions I heard for the first time this phrase:
"Limitless undying love
which shines around me
like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe." ("Across the Universe")
Bingo. There it was. The best description of the God of my understanding I had ever heard. I rewound the song, again and again to that one phrase. Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns and calls me on and on across the universe. Breathtaking words by our friend John Lennon, who apparently got up in the middle of the night to pen these lyrics, which he said were almost channeled through him rather than composed by him. A sure sign that a higher consciousness is at play, and I am glad that John got out of bed to bring that lovely image to us.
Unnameable magnificent intensity. Spirit of Life. Maker of Peace. Limitless undying love calling us on and on across the universe. This holiness that we're trying to name isn't a thing, isn't a noun. And it isn't nameable, yet we have given it this meager, so easily misunderstood nickname, "God" - a name so abused it has caused many of us to discard not only the word but the whole idea. But what a timeless and keen source of insight and wisdom a newly-discerned and reclaimed God could and can be! It is the ghost of an idea, the impression of eternity made on every soul that we're born with and that remains our companion until we die. God, as Abraham Heschel said, is the question asked of us to which we live our lives as an answer. It is a process making itself known through us in our acts of love, justice and compassion. Such a small word for such immensity. May we never forget the vast magnificence of what we mean to express when we use that one inadequate but still redeemable name.
I will conclude these reflections with the words of Richard Kellaway, "Would that we might pass beyond the word into the experience." And I pray that this be so, in the spirit of limitless, undying love.