The first time I remember feeling moved by something greater than myself, I was collecting minnows in a bucket at Crystal Lake. The sun was warm and high and I was acutely aware of it warming my skin. I watched as those soft-hard edges of sunlight cut through the top of the water and slanted sideways, reaching all the way down into the sand where my feet were planted. I was four years old. Of course, I had no language at that age to tell anyone what I had discovered but the spiritual connection between the water, the sun, the sand, my own skin, my own simple action of dipping a bucket into the water to catch minnows that were always way too fast and the way that made me laugh every time – none of this needed language. It just existed in my body and all around me.
I know many of you will be skeptical that a very young child would have truly felt these things. Many of you will assume that this is a feeling I’ve imposed upon this moment as an adult looking back at the child I once was. But that isn’t completely true. The language is the language of an adult, it is the story I am able to tell myself now about that moment, but the visceral feeling of connectedness was there.
Many other things began happening to me at that same age that were not nearly as beautiful. Really bad things. Things that have taken me a great deal of my life to understand, accept and begin to conquer. If I were asked to do this same little talk ten years ago, I might have spent the largest portion of my time discussing these things but I’m done giving them that kind of power. They are only relevant now as explanation for why a four-year-old’s sensitivity and awareness might be heightened enough to have felt such a thing as “a spiritual awakening.”
What is most important about that age for me now is that moment with the minnows when I felt – in my gut – what I would later call god, what , for a time, I wouldn’t call at all and what I now usually refer to as the Universe.
I was hooked by the Universe then and I began seeking as many experiences as I could to have that feeling again. I searched for that spiritual connection to the Universe in many of the typically bad places that damaged children and teenagers will. But I also felt this connection most times when I was alone with my mother – especially in our Episcopalian church. It wasn’t the church, as it turned out. It was just the quiet closeness with my mother that created that connection. And I also discovered music and drawing and writing and poetry and hiking. And I have felt that connection to the Universe watching sunrises, sitting on trains and in bus stations, reading, giving birth. I can find it now when I’m cuddling with my children, running, biking and swimming, when I’m walking my dog, when I’m dancing, cooking, even teaching. In fact, I have found that if I am seeking and willing, I can find this connected spiritual awakeness to The Universe almost anywhere at any time. The key is: I have to be willing. I have to be seeking. I have to radically accept the Universe for what it is in that moment. As I understand it, “radical acceptance” is that kind of love that loves even what we want most to hate and shun. This is the ultimate compassion. And, it isn’t easy.
Luckily, I am, by nature AND through circumstance, a seeker. I think that’s why I’ve always loved stories. I have always read stories as a means of seeking, a means of finding answers and plugging into that experience of connecting to the Universe. For me, the story of Jesus, and all of the other biblical stories I was raised with, were just that, stories. But I’m not dismissing them because they are stories. In fact, to me stories are more important, more meaningful than reality. Stories are our interpretation of reality. As Stephen Sondheim, in the musical Into the Woods, tells us: Stories are the Spell we cast on the world. They are the meaning we give to the experiences we have.
And this is, in part, why I have never understood religions that separate themselves from all others. We all have stories. For each person on the planet there is a different story of the Universe. For each person there is a different kind of connectedness. Each person has to radically accept a completely different reality from anyone else’s.
When I was nineteen and newly married to my first husband (you see how well that worked out), I told my father-in-law, who was an “Advent Christian” minister, that I had signed up for a yoga class. He was extremely bothered. He told me to “be careful” because yoga practitioners worship Satan. We then had to have a long conversation about what it means to worship Satan and to be anti-Christian. This conversation evolved into a conversation about whether babies that were born into Buddhist families, for example, were going to hell if they died before they had accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. He told me that they probably were but he liked to believe that God had mercy on their souls. I didn’t think that made sense – that God would have to “forgive” a child for being born into a family of good, devout Buddhists. This opinion seemed ethnocentric and xenophobic -- to put it as mildly as I can, it just sounded stupid. (by the way, I’ve been practicing yoga for about 21 years now)
Here are some other stories I have been told -- that I have actually heard out loud, come from real people's mouths -- about god that have sounded really stupid to me over the years:
God hated the people of New Orleans so much that he sent a Hurricane to the Gulf of Mexico and forced the Katrina Massacre to happen.
God hates Muslims so much that he wanted us to declare war on Iraq and Afghanistan.
God hates homosexuality so much that he sent AIDS as a plague to destroy homosexuals [and I use this word intentionally because this is the word that people who employ this line of rhetoric use]. God wants young people who question their sexuality or are bullied about their sexuality to kill themselves. God wants others to bully and kill people for being “different.”
God hates women and girls who have abortions.
God hates people who drink or smoke.
God sends anyone who won’t admit they are a horrible sinner and in need of repentance to hell.
God hates feminists.
God loves white, straight, Christian (non-Catholic) folk over all others.
God hates women who have been raped or sexually abused because they have clearly brought this on themselves in some way.
God hates women who are not subservient to their husbands.
God is attempting to eradicate some evil from Africa with the Ebola virus.
God hates people who have sex before they get married.
God hates people who enjoy sex.
God hates divorce and people who get divorced.
God loves the United States above all other nations.
And, my personal favorite, God hates people who swear.
But it has always been impossible for me to believe any of these stories – even for a second. I don’t know why that is, but it is. Maybe it began with the bucket and the minnows on Crystal Lake. Maybe it was my mother’s gentle system of beliefs that told me above ALL else, “God is Love.” Maybe it was the way she consciously exposed me to experiences like volunteering in soup kitchens and encouraging me to understand many of my friends’ Jewish faith by attending temple with them. I don’t know why, exactly, I’ve always believed that religions are just part of the stories that we tell or why I’ve never been able to accept that God, that The Universe hates anyone or anything really – I just haven’t.
And this is the story I’m currently telling myself:
Look, Bad things happen to everyone. Life is hard for everyone – even for those of us for whom life doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. Bad things happen to us. We dislike, even hate, things about our lives. We grieve. We hate ourselves. We want to change. We want better. We want to be better.
The Universe is bigger than all of this, it is beyond all of this. It doesn’t have time for any of this. The Universe moves. The Universe is breathing. The Universe brings life into being, grows life in whatever way it sees fit and transitions life into death and all the while, the Universe sees and knows and does everything for us. We are inconsequential. We are little children standing at the edge of a lake, trying time and time again to catch minnows in our bucket and always failing because the minnows are too fast. Our births, our lives, our deaths – they are all part of something so big, we can’t ever know it completely.
The Universe doesn’t hate ANY of us or ANYTHING about us – but it doesn’t exactly love us either, in the way that we normally understand love. The Universe must do what the Universe must do. We will never understand it. Never. There is no place to put a holocaust, a rape, a child’s untimely death, war, homelessness, hunger, illness, or any number of “bad things” that will ever make any sense if we see the Universe as either a malevolent or benevolent force. The Universe is a force. That is all. What happens within it, happens because of the very nature of it. We are at its mercy – yet we know, in the end, it will show no mercy. But “Mercy” “Bad” “Good” “Malevolent” “Benevolent” these words are the stories we tell ourselves. The Universe doesn’t have words. The Universe is all action. The Universe doesn’t tell stories. We place the words onto the Universe. WE tell the stories.
The only thing we can do, for ourselves and for one another, is tell stories of love and radical acceptance. ALL so-called “evil” in this world is the result of telling stories about anything else. We tell stories about God hating this or that and only evil ensues. We tell stories about our own inadequacies and only depression and anger ensue. We tell stories about tragedy without the radical acceptance that tragedy is absolutely part of life and only hopelessness ensues.
This doesn’t mean we can’t feel rage, hurt, sadness, disbelief, jealousy, disappointment, indignation or any of those feelings that come from or lead to negative behaviors --- it only means that we must radically accept those feelings for what they are and then decide for ourselves how they fit into our stories. Without radical acceptance FIRST, a story of rage will only lead to more rage; a story of jealousy will only lead to more jealousy, a story of sadness will only lead to more sadness.
In the recent retelling of the Story of Sleeping Beauty, the fairy Maleficent is deeply wronged by the soon-to-be-king and Aurora’s (Sleeping Beauty’s) father. [spoiler alert] The moment when Maleficent wakes in the morning after the aspiring king, who has tricked Maleficent into loving him, has cut off her wings is the most effective metaphor for rape that I have ever heard or seen. (I don’t necessarily believe Disney wanted us to see it this way – but for me, it is impossible not to). In her intensely deep hurt that eventually turns to rage, Maleficent curses her attacker’s baby. Maleficent could not radically accept her hurt, her pain, her rage so the story she told, the web that she weaved was one filled with hurt and pain and anger. As she grows older and watches the child grow, Maleficent learns perspective and feels joy and love again. She grows into radical acceptance. The loss of her wings is still painful to her. But she sees, she accepts the movement of a Universe fraught with what we call both joy and pain. The second saddest moment in the film is when Maleficent tries to lift the curse off of the teenaged Aurora, and can’t. The damage she did in her pain, the story she told, was stronger than any of her magic – it took on a life of its own. And this is exactly what we do. We hurt. We tells stories – not necessarily just to others – often the stories we tell are only to ourselves – that become stronger than our ability to deny them. We cast spells when we tell those stories.
When I was a young teenager, looking back at the hurt that had been caused to me throughout my childhood, I cast a spell of deep rage and self-hatred that I am still seeing the repercussions of, that I am still working to revoke.
From the summer of 2009 to the summer of 2013, I lost my mother to a heart attack, my sister-in-law to some mysterious illness doctors were never able to name, my father to another heart attack, my brother Robert to a pulmonary embolism after a routine surgery and my brother Mitchell to ALS. When Mitchell was diagnosed with ALS, ten years before his death, we all assumed he would be the first person in our immediate family to die. We could not know that we would lose both of our parents, Mitchell’s wife and our brother Robert before that disease had finally finished doing its work. Along with a handful of other family members, I was with Mitchell for the last three weeks of his life. In those three weeks, I saw first-hand and up-close both the unnamable beauty and the incomprehensible horror of the Universe. I saw clearly that the Universe was just moving. Whether we called a day or a moment good or bad was just the story we were telling ourselves to make sense of it at the time. The spell we were casting. How I have moved through my grief and how I will continue to move through my grief is another story that I’m still working on.
But this is part of it. I come to this place, This Unitarian Universalist Church because it respects my right to tell my own story, to find this connection with what I call The Universe and because it encourages me to tell stories of love and continually and radically accept who I am, who you are, who we are and what the Universe is and does, regardless of the stories we tell.