The Rev. Jen Crow delivered this sermon to the First Unitarian Church of Rochester in July of 2005. I find her reclaiming of the word and very concept of “God” to be powerful and provocative.
Rev. Crow has also created a marvelous “Soul Deepening” program at her church called Wellspring. The website states, “Wellspring is based on the concept of a five spoke wheel that keeps spiritual seekers in balance and spinning with grounded principles. The five spokes are: spiritual practice, spiritual direction, covenant groups, UU history and theology and faith in action.” In addition to the full curriculum, there is also a blog at the site focused on spiritual practice. Good reading.
Her presentation at General Assembly in Portland with two lay-leader facilitators was extremely well attended, and I felt privileged to just sit on the floor at the front of the room. I’m already bugging that minister I know to get the program going in his church ASAP.
Anne Lamott, deepening, God, Jen Crow, prayer, process theology, Rebecca Parker, spiritual practice
Wholly, Holy, Holey
Rev. Jen Crow, Associate Minister, First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, July 17, 2005
Several years ago, during my ministerial internship at Unity Church — Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, I sat with one of my mentors in his study. For weeks, we had discussed my spiritual practice of prayer — how often did I pray, he asked, what did I pray for, how did the act of praying feel, why did I return to it day after day and night after night. Each week the questions got a little bit harder, and I began to both welcome and fear my time in that office.
On this particular morning, my mentor asked me to offer a sermon to the congregation on my spiritual practice and how it impacted my life. A seemingly reasonable request, you might think, but the butterflies began working in my stomach immediately. In that moment, I wanted to push my friend away, push the question away, push even my own life-saving experiences away — anything to save myself from the admission there before someone I respected that I did not know why prayer had worked in my life, that I did not know exactly whom I was praying to or if that entity - if it was indeed an entity — heard my prayers or had any power to impact my life.
You see I considered myself then and I consider myself now to be an educated person, a questioning, challenging person. I take our faith’s call to reason and the test of the individual conscience seriously, and I am grateful for our liberal religious tradition that expects me to use my mind — my intellect — in matters of faith. In that moment, I could think of nothing worse than admitting that when it came to understanding God, I was at a loss. And at the time I could in no way imagine myself standing before hundreds of people telling the truth about my spiritual life — telling the truth that while I had many theories about why prayer had changed my life — ultimately I had no definitive answers, no sure truths about why, since I had started praying regularly, I found myself able to do things I could not do before — why I had become more open to suggestions from others, more open to the feeling of deep connection with those around me and with the larger world, why I had re-oriented my life to service, why my heart had begun to soften in places that before had held only anger and disappointment. I did not know exactly whom I was praying to or why prayer was working for me, and admitting that unknown pushed me to the edge of safety and vulnerability.
But admit it, I did, first there in the quiet stillness of that study with Rob, and then, a month later, in the sanctuary of seekers who made up my church home. That admission, the truth that I found myself at a loss for words in the face of God, in the face of my own spiritual practice and experience — freed me, allowing me to move beyond debate and semantics, beyond the attempt to indisputably define God and into the experience of God.
The experience of God, for me, is an experience of interconnection. An awareness, as Anne Sexton wrote, of the pea-green house, the chapel of eggs, gratitude for the cup, plate, and silver placed on the table. This awareness, gratitude, and joy must be acknowledged and shared if it is to survive — for me, the experience of God exists only in relationship to others.
But this is just one idea about God, of course, and we humans beings believe so many different things — all the way from ideas about which socks are the lucky pair that will lead us to victory in our softball game to different ideas about who we are and what our place is in the world, to different ideas about who and what God is, if any such entity actually exists.
Our stories, our ideas about God and people and the world make a difference. It matters, of course, if we believe that we are on a mission from God. It matters, of course, if we believe that we are ultimately alone in this world or if we are inherently interconnected with all life. It matters if we believe that we will be judged and punished for our sins, if our children or our loved ones suffer because of our misdeeds. It matters if we believe that each person has value and is capable of change. It matters if we trust that deep within each person exists an innate core of goodness - a spark of the divine to be nurtured, a drive for the development of the common good.
The stories that we build our lives upon matter. In our individual lives, these stories lend meaning to our experiences, guiding us as we make decisions, informing us as we understand whether we are good or bad, chosen or damned, capable of change or pre-destined to more of the same. We may find ourselves susceptible at times, of course, to creating stories and belief systems that conveniently benefit us above others — stories that call us out as the chosen ones, the smart ones, the ones who know the true way. At times we create ideas about God that mimic our own desires, but luckily there are good tests for this kind of thing. As writer Anne Lamott says, “You know you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.”
These ideas, these stories carry great power in both our individual lives and in their impact upon the world. Entire nations have fought and died over ideas about God. Scholars and prophets, many from our own heretical heritage, have been shunned, imprisoned, tortured, and killed — all for their attempt to offer a twist to the dominant understanding of God — cast out for their desire to share a new vision that ultimately challenges the foundational story that so many people had built their life upon.
Shifts in our foundational beliefs — in our stories — are not always welcome, and they are not always easy, but as we explore we inevitably come to understand ourselves more clearly, and there, with our assumptions and beliefs exposed to the light — we can make active choices about what kind of stories we want to lend meaning to our experiences, to guide us in our decisions, to inform our understanding of ourselves and of our potential in this world. As one of our Unitarian prophets, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A person will worship something — have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
We live in a nation and in a culture that worships God. Three weeks ago a survey in The Christian Century magazine announced that in our country, in the United States of America, over 70% of the population agrees with the statement — “I know God really exists, and I have no doubts about it.” Another 10% of those surveyed agreed that “While I have doubts, I feel I do believe in God.”, and another 11% still agreed with the statement, “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a higher power of some kind.” That means that 91% of those people surveyed believe in some kind of God or higher power, while only 2% agreed with the statement, “I don’t believe in God,” and the remaining 7% agreed with statements that suggested agnosticism. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay in our nation - and if we are to understand our neighbors and ourselves we are going to have to talk about this God.
So it is with deep recognition of the importance of the task that I invite you this morning into a reconceptualization of God. I invite you in, not in hopes of converting you to my understanding of God and the world, but rather with the hope that in sharing my own thoughts and understandings you might be challenged and inspired to thoughts of your own, to risks of your own. Our stories, our way of understanding God and the world create the foundational framework for our lives, and shifts in that foundation can cause ripple effects that in turn shift and change our understanding of the world and of our place in it.
I believe that if we are going to live in this world with any sense of meaning and purpose, we need a flexible, useful theology that makes sense in times of pain and suffering as well as in times of joy and serenity. We need an understanding of the world — and of a God if we choose — that helps us to recognize wonder, that makes sense of our suffering, that reduces our sense of loneliness and isolation, that calls us to realize our full potential and work for the greater good. And so I find myself in agreement with fellow minister and theologian, the Rev. Rebecca Parker. “If you are going to have a God,” she says, “I recommend a god of process theology rather than a god that fits the mold of classical theism.”
The god of classical theism is in some ways, a tragically ordinary kind of God. All-knowing, all-powerful, all-good. Unchanging, unfeeling, pure in spirit and ultimately unmoved by people or events — this kind of God is more like a rock than a tree, metaphorically speaking, and I’ve got to tell you that if I came across this kind of God in human form, I would be less than inclined to begin a relationship with her.
For many people, the God of classical theism breaks down when the going gets rough. Why would a God who is all good and all powerful allow war, allow natural disasters, allow us to hurt one another and be hurt by one another so deeply? All kinds of ideas spring up to fill this gap, some that make more sense than others, but all struggling with the fundamental dilemma — how could a God who is supposed to love and care for everyone let so much suffering come to the innocent? In the wake of this question, trapped within a confining, inherited set of assumptions about God, many people have walked away from and continue to walk away from the concept of God altogether.
So what if, in our system of belief, instead of deciding that we are wrong — that we are bad or flawed or mistaken — what if we shifted our understanding of God in the equation instead. What if we entertained ideas about a kind of God who was not all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good. What if God could change over time? What if God could be impacted by the events of the world, by chaos, by coincidence, by feelings? What if we considered a God who existed not to fill the holes of theological quagmires, not as an entity invoked to save the collapse of faulty proofs, but rather as a chief exemplification of, rather than an exception to metaphysical principles? What if we imagined a God whose sole purpose was not to stand in judgment, but rather a God who existed as a lure, as a possibility, as a draw to our innate potential toward the highest common good?
This kind of God would be the god of process thought — a philosophical and ultimately theological way of thinking that arose early in the 20th century, took root in Unitarian Universalism, and continues on today. “The God that process theology believes in,” theologian Rebecca Parker tells us, “is a creator among creators, not different in kind from every other being…God is not all-knowing, because God cannot know how each moment…will self-determine itself, until the moment has crystallized. God is not all-powerful, because each moment is the agent of its own final crystallization. God is supreme, not in knowing everything but in receiving everything; not in controlling everything but in imagining everything. God is supreme in feeling, supreme in responsiveness. God is the subjective moment that holds the whole together with the greatest love…God is the cosmic embrace that tenderly welcomes all, the being most moved by the world, ‘the fellow sufferer who understands.”
This kind of god preserves free will and acts in the world through relationships and interconnection. The god of process theology that Parker describes is a changing God, a God that exists as an actuality, as a process, incarnate in each of us, in the world, and in the possibility, the experience of creativity, of relationship and interconnection. This kind of God is difficult to understand and it is impossible to predict. By its very nature it is changeable — moved by the events and experiences of the world and its inhabitants. This kind of God shies away from domestication and from description. The god of process theology is, indeed, the kind of God that St. Paul referred to as “that in which we live and move and have our being.”
This kind of god may challenge our ideas that reason and intellect reign supreme — that we can understand all of the world and its workings in time and with effort. Can we lean in to a God whose existence comes in the shape of wonder, of creativity, of possibility? Does the God of process thinker, Alfred North Whitehead, the God he describes as “the poet of the world,’ whose power is the power of an artist to inspire, persuade, lure,” call to us? Might we believe in a God, who like Anne Sexton describes, exists in the moments and interactions of our everyday lives — in our pea-green house, in the chapel of eggs we cook each day, in the placement and appreciation of cup, plate, and silver — a kind of God who lives only through the sharing of joy? Might we, as Kabir implores, let go of our arrogance, of our need to understand — allowing in the possibility, that when considering the experience of God “those who hope to be reasonable about it fail”?
Our religious tradition values reason, values intellect and values study. We come from a long line of thinkers who, by daring to think differently about God, risked their lives and their livelihoods — allowing their own experiences and their individual conscience to be the ultimate test of faith. May there always be room in our religious community for doubt, for faith, for understanding and exploration. May there always be room for discovery, for mystery, for intellect and reason. May we, in our common quest for truth and meaning, welcome the unknown, the unexplainable, the gift of awe and wonder. And may we lean in to the stories that provide the foundational framework of our lives, the stories that lend meaning to our experiences, that guide us in our decision making and inform our understanding of ourselves and our place in this world — and may these stories be examined, chosen, and life-giving - calling us to the experience of deep interconnection with one another, and leading us to lives of joy and service. May it be so, and Amen.
- Anne Lamott, “God’s in the Struggle With Us.” www.beliefnet.com
- The Christian Century. June 28, 2005, 7.
- Rev. Rebecca Parker, Lecture: “Remembering Process Theologian Charles Hartshorne,” General Assembly, June 27, 2005.
- Rev. Rebecca Parker, Lecture: “Choose to Bless the World: The Gifts of Process Theology for Contemporary Religion in America,” 1997, 17.
- Rev. Rebecca Parker, Lecture: “Choose to Bless the World: The Gifts of Process Theology for Contemporary Religion in America,” 1997, 17.