People come in to Unitarian Universalism for many reasons, and sometimes for nothing more than basic human companionship. What one person finds within our communities may be completely different than another, and our reasons for staying are just as varied.
comfort, community, connection, hope, lessons, salvation, Suzanne Meyer
We Are All About Saving Souls
by the Rev. Suzanne Meyer
They say confession is good for the soul, and since I am talking about souls this morning, I’ll make a confession. Those cheap, paperback murder mystery novels are my guilty pleasure. I buy and read tons of them and know the names of all the authors. So one day when I was prowling around Border’s bookstore in the religion section, scanning the shelves in search of sermon fodder, I noticed a new book by a familiar author, a woman who calls herself Nevada Barr. She is the author of one series of those paperback mysteries to which I am addicted. What was that book doing over here in the religion section? I just assumed that another customer who shares my book browsing and buying habits had picked the book up in the mystery section, had walked over to peruse the religion section, and had absent-mindedly set the book down and forgotten it. So I picked up what I thought was another one of those murder mysteries with the intention of glancing at it and either buying it or returning it to its proper shelf.
The title of the book was Seeking Enlightenment . . . Hat by Hat. Odd title for a mystery, I thought. I turned to the table of contents, and much to my surprise, I discovered it had not been misshelved, after all. In fact, it is a book about the author’s search for spirituality. Oh, dear, I thought, not another one of those “I’ve found it” books. A mystery writer finds God, gets saved, turns her life around, becomes an evangelist . . . Nevada Barr, you disappointment me!
I’ll make another confession while I am in a confessing mood: those “I’ve seen the light and found ‘The Way’ books” bore me to tears. Okay, so I am cynical. Okay, so I am skeptical. I’m a bit jaded and a tad weary of those “I was lost and now I’m saved and now you can be saved too in ten quick and easy steps” titles. In fact, the fastest way to send me running in the opposite direction is to tell me that you have found the secret of the ages, the key to enlightenment, a shortcut to happiness, success, health, wealth and self-esteem, and that you are just dying to share it with me. There is just something about zealots and true believers that puts me off in a big way. And, if there is one thing I don’t believe in, it is the overnight conversion, the quick fix, and the one true way. Authentic spirituality is a discipline that takes hard work, and time, plus a large measure of humility. There are no quick fixes to be had.
So, book in hand, as I walked over to the cash register I decided I would just discreetly slip the little volume onto the bargain book table. I would let someone else have the pleasure of reading about how Ms. Barr got saved, or got enlightened, or got sober, in however many quick and easy steps. But then, on impulse, I flipped through the book once more, and something caught my attention. I quickly deduced that Nevada Barr is so cynical, skeptical, jaded and put off by organized religion that she makes me look, by contrast, like Little Mary Sunshine. Well now, here’s something different.
I did buy and read Nevada Barr’s book Seeking Enlightenment . . . Hat by Hat: A Skeptic’s Path to Religion (Berkley Books, 2003). While her book is not likely to make it to the New York Times Bestseller List, it served to remind me of something that I am always in danger of forgetting: why churches like this one exist. What are we doing here? What is our business? The answer is simple: we are in the business of saving souls. You heard me right: what we are about is saving souls.
Those of us who have had any brush with evangelical religion in our lives are apt to have an instantaneous negative reaction to that assertion. Soul-saving? Our business? No way! Not us!
I don’t blame you, because, as one who has had a brush or two with evangelical religion, I likewise automatically flinch when I hear that phrase. And, make no mistake about it, I make no claim that we are in the business of rescuing men and women from some afterlife spent in a literal place of torment called hell. I don’t believe in such a literal place of torment, populated for all eternity by devils, demons, and the tortured souls of the dead. In fact, I don’t make any claim to know what happens to us after the death of the body, or whether there is or is not something beyond this life.
But I do know that there are many kinds of private hells in which living men and women dwell every day. These are small personal hells of meaninglessness, banality, and loneliness. Hells of shame, hells of guilt, hells of loss, hells of failure. There are as many kinds of these small hells as there are people who live in them. And from some of those hells, we, as a church, can and do provide a kind of salvation, a release, or, at the very least, a respite. We are in the business of saving souls from those kinds of small, individual hells of despair and disappointment that drive people into exile and isolation, separated from community as well as from their own essential goodness.
I’ll try to explain what I mean by sharing a few portions of Nevada Barr’s story. Following the breakup of her marriage she moved from the West, where she had grown up, to Mississippi, where she immediately experienced a kind of culture shock:
In Mississippi, where I now live, people still talk about God in everyday conversation. One of the getting-to-know-you questions asked at picnics and bar-b-ques is: ‘What church do you go to?’
People not only talk about God, they talk to him. And then they tell you about it. When I moved here, I was a godless heathen and proud of it. My upbringing provided no education on how to interact with the divine. My family attended no churches, read no spiritual books and, by unspoken decree, the discussion of sex, religion and politics was banned at our dinner table. Biblical terms were used exclusively for swearing. My parents not only did not go to church, they were pointedly antichurch. When the subject came up, Dad would say, ‘Why go to into a dark, airless building with a bunch of hypocrites on a beautiful Sunday morning, when you could be outside in God’s country?’
When Mississippians first started Jesusing and Godding right in front of me—and in broad daylight—I was most uncomfortable. It’s worse in the South. Not only do people talk to God on a regular basis, but also God talks to them. When I arrived [down there], I’d managed to screw up everything around me. My marriage had gone down in flames. I was clinically depressed, haunted by nightmares, broke, and at forty-one, embarking on my third career. In my post-divorce months, between drinking too much and playing with sharp objects, I had a brief go at God. Cursing him, screaming at Him, begging—the usual one-sided conversations of the very nearly terminally selfish person—but that was as far as my connection with a higher power had evolved. (Seeking Enlightenment, 2003, adapted)
Well, that’s Nevada Barr’s story. She was living in her own personal hell of loneliness, depression, failure, frustration, and uncertainty. Having been brought up to believe that religion was strictly for the simple-minded and weak-willed, seeking comfort in a church was not an option that she was willing to consider. And she experienced her Mississippi neighbor’s chatty familiarity with God and Jesus as just plain silly and embarrassing.
Nevada Barr was lonely, unemployed and bored out of her skull when she went out to take a walk one night. She stopped in front of a small, unremarkable-looking church located near her apartment. There were lights on inside. Curious, she tried the door; it was unlocked; she peeked in. A small group of women who were meeting there in the sanctuary saw her and invited her to come in. “It was just as churchy as hell,” she writes. “I felt self-conscious, superior, intrusive, unwanted and out of place.” But she did accept their invitation to step inside and even stayed for a while. The next Sunday, she got up in time to get dressed and go to church. “I had not seen the light,” she says.
I had not been saved. I had no job, no friends. Church was just something to do, a reason to get dressed. I didn’t come to worship. I came because I was lonely, frightened and desperately unhappy. I was invited to Wednesday Bible Study class. There was a free meal and people to eat it with. I began to go. I felt like a fake and a fraud, as if someone might leap up at any moment and denounce me as an unbeliever. But I was warm, fed, and with people. For that, I was grateful enough to hold my tongue and act civil.
Every Wednesday and Sunday I went. I listened and ate spaghetti off paper plates and wondered what I was doing there. The church seemed as good a place as any not to be alone till my life took a turn for the better. Had the Elks been meeting on the block that night and accidentally left the door ajar, I expect my life would have taken a very different direction. (Seeking Enlightenment, 2003, adapted)
What Ms. Barr found in church was not instant enlightenment or answers to all her problems. She was not born again; she did not see the light, or become convicted by her sins. She did not immediately turn her life over to her higher power. She did not surrender her doubts, or her skepticism, or discover ten easy steps for health, wealth and happiness. On Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights she just kept going back to church, not because of the preaching, not because of the ideas, or the doctrines, or the beliefs, or the hymns, or the Bible lessons. Not because she felt guilty if she missed a Sunday, not even because she found God in church. She chose that particular church for no other reason than it was close to her apartment. And on that winter night when she happened to walk by, the door was unlocked; and when she opened it, someone invited her to come in. Nevada Barr’s story of how she started going to church for the first time in her life is pretty mundane. Why, then, do I bother telling it?
I tell Nevada Barr’s story because her story reminds me of why I am here, of why this church exists. We can get so caught up in the details of maintaining a building, raising money, doing service projects, balancing budgets, teaching children, making sandwiches, recruiting volunteers, forming committees, solving problems, endlessly meeting and debating and discussing issues, that we can easily start to imagine that any one of these things is the main thing that we are all about as a church. We can get filled up with a sense of our own self-importance. We can get distracted by these things for a while and forget that we are in the business of saving souls. There are many people who come through our doors every Sunday who are not here because they are looking for Unitarianism, who are not here because they are looking for another place to give their time or their money, who are not here because they are in the process of rejecting any other brand of religion. They are here because they feel lost, lonely and hurting inside, even though they may appear to all the world to be just fine and dandy otherwise. They have no particular interest in God, or religion—our brand or any other brand of religion, for that matter. They just know that they’ve already tried everything else: alcoholism, workaholism, drugs, therapy, self-help books, self-help groups. There’s nothing left for them to try and besides that, we don’t charge admission—even the coffee is free.
People come in here every week, not even knowing what it is that they are seeking. You don’t even have to know what it is you are looking for to feel the need to set off in search of something, something more to life. It is not the fear of dying that compels people to go looking for something more in their lives: it is the fear that they may not really be fully alive. You can have everything you want and need, and yet find little meaning in life. You need salvation.
Oh, that word “salvation.” If that word makes us flinch, it is because we’ve allowed other people to steal the original meaning away from us. We have forgotten what salvation originally meant. “Salvation is really a state of wholeness, of health. It occurs in this lifetime when we are at peace with ourselves, united with one another, and in harmony with nature” (F. Forrester Church).
According to poet Kathleen Norris:
The Hebrew word for salvation means literally ‘to make wide or to make sufficient’ . . . The Oxford Companion to the Bible [says] that ‘the primary meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words translated ’salvation’ is non-religious.’ The Hebrew words usually come from a military context, and refer to victory over evil or rescue from danger in this life. And in the gospels it is often physical healing that people seek from Jesus, relief from blindness, paralysis, leprosy. When he says to them that their faith has saved them, it is the Greek word for ‘made you well’ that is employed. It seems right to me that in so many instances in both the Hebrew scriptures and the gospels, salvation is described in physical terms. In terms of the here and now. (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Riverhead Books, 1998)
Our kind of spiritual salvation, the kind of soul-saving which concerns us, is not about providing a free ticket to paradise. Heaven and hell are not places: they are ways of being, ways of feeling, ways of orienting one’s soul or psyche in the world. The Hebrew word for soul is “nephesh”—which is also the word for pulse, the lifeblood, the feeling of being fully, vibrantly alive, pulsating with life. Feeling joy, feeling pain, just feeling. You might call soul the quality of one’s inner life or spirit. It is the center of the self, that internal wellspring from which the meaning of our life flows. When that wellspring has dried up, when our lives have no joy, no hope, no reason for being, that is a kind of hell indeed.
I believe two things passionately. First, the soul is not a spirit or ghost or ephemeral thing. Whatever it is, pulse or psyche, it is what makes us fully alive, fully animated, and fully human. And, second, salvation is not about life after death, but about life itself, full throttle, in all of its joy and agony. There is much in the world that has the potential to deaden us, to anesthetize our spirits; so many things can make us feel emotionally and spiritually dead, dull, and brittle. Too many things can create for each one of us a private, personal hell. And the thing about those personal hells is that they are very small, tiny, really only big enough for one person. And when we dwell all by ourselves in our own private little hells, our concerns, our sympathies, our awareness of the needs of others are squeezed out, until all that matters is the self. There is no room in these small hells for anyone else, or for any concerns other than selfish ones. If the Hebrew word for salvation means to make wide or make sufficient, then it is our role as a church to help widen and deepen the lives of those who live for themselves alone.
I return to Nevada Barr’s story:
Salvation? Salvation from what? . . . Since none of us knows anybody who was permanently saved from death, and anything that happens after that is pure speculation—or faith, if you like—maybe there is a more practical application of the concept of earthly salvation. Maybe the teachings of the prophets were given to save us from never having lived, from the little deaths that creep in and rob us of joy and strength and, in the end, cause us to pass our time here in a nightmare, asleep at the wheel, frittering away our precious moments of life.
When I joined a church, I never expected to be ’saved.’ I was painfully aware that I needed saving, but from what I wasn’t sure. From despair, I expect . . . Because I had nothing better to do and no other pathways happened to be open to me at the time, I learned to share, to be in community, to have faith—if not in [G]od, at least in some of his people, some of the time. I learned to have faith in myself. I learned gratitude, forgiveness, sacrifice, turning the other cheek—those annoying things much touted by grandmothers and nuns.
And I’ll be damned if I wasn’t eventually saved. Saved in the sense that I began to live my life instead of scripting it, trying to manipulate it, rewrite it, drown it, sleep through it, or abandon it altogether by attempting to live someone else’s life for them . . . Even when our lives are at their most fractured, our days pushed through a tangle of fears so thick that we can scarcely draw breath, most of us know with some tiny part of our hearts that there is something else. (Seeking Enlightenment, 2003)
What in fact saved Ms. Barr’s soul? Was it divine intervention? Was it something her minister said? Was it some brilliant insight from the pulpit? Was it all those Wednesday night Bible classes? Was it some kind of theology or philosophy of life that saved her? Was it something she read in a book? Was it a technique, or a trick, or a therapy? No. And here is what for me is the punch line of Nevada Barr’s story, of her unlikely spiritual search. It wasn’t the preaching or the theology that changed her life. It wasn’t her minister. It wasn’t religion. Or Bible verses. Or counseling. It was the congregation itself, an ordinary kind of place, full of ordinary people.
It is easy for me to forget that in this business of soul-saving, it is you, the congregation, that makes all the difference, not me. What saves us in the end might be called the extraordinary power and grace of ordinary people. That is love from heaven to earth come down. The holy incarnate, made flesh in the form of men and women, old and young, caring and cantankerous, imperfect, easily wounded, full of all the faults and gifts that this poor flesh is heir to. There’s a miracle for you. We are saved, at last, by the love and the fellowship of people no better or worse off than we are. What liberates us from those tiny hells in which we dwell all alone is as common as a handshake, as ordinary as hearing your name spoken by another, as simple as being asked to help serve coffee.
As Nevada Barr concludes:
So I went to church. I hid among the people. I donated to the craft fairs, gave to the rummage sale, met with the women’s group the first and third Wednesday of every month . . . Now after six years of faithful attendance I have finally come to know the answer to my father’s question: Why go into a dark, airless building with a bunch of hypocrites on a beautiful Sunday morning, when you could be outside in God’s country? Because God made us hypocrites, too . . . The mountain is for finding God in the wilderness. Church is for finding God in community: with others, through others, in spite of others. Only by finding this place of human interaction focused around the need for the spiritual was I able to recognize God in other people and so, in myself. Without community, how would I learn to share? Who would I help? How would I learn to accept help? And could I know how if I wasn’t taught? To what, would I, a human being, belong to if not to a group of human beings?
With the exception of the very strong and the very neurotic, most of us feel the need to belong, to be in community. Community is God rubbing elbows and passing the tuna casserole, a place we can snuggle down with the divine.
Though I’d never have suspected it when I began this spiritual journey, God is not separate from people. Sure we are hypocrites, liars, boasters, blasphemers and cheats, but we are God’s [own] hypocrites, liars, boasters, blasphemers and cheats. The spark is in each of us. When we work together . . . in the belief that we will touch God, sing together in the hope [God] hears our praises, the spark is fanned and God becomes as visible in us as He is in new snow or mornings on a mountain lake. (Seeking Enlightenment, 2003).