“At the Heart of Creation”
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Carol Rosine
October 25, 2015
Music: “Every Grain of Sand” by Bob Dylan and sung by Michele Kelly
Perhaps you have heard it said that you will never find an atheist in a foxhole? The implication being that at times of great danger, when you’re looking death in the eye, even the most staunch non-believer will pray for help. It seems that this may be true for so many of us who have questioned or dismissed the existence of something that exists beyond our selves: when we are in the midst of a particularly tough time, in a “bitter dance of loneliness, in an hour of deepest need,” as Dylan says, “There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere, toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.” Those are the times when we long for help.
I remember so clearly something that happened many years ago when I was in a time of despair in my own life. I was listening to a lecture at one of our annual meetings for UU ministers. The speaker, the Rev. Carl Scovel who was the minister at King’s Chapel in Boston, was talking about the tension that exists within UUism between the openness that we have toward the religious and at the same time, our great resistance to all matters religious. He was walking a fine line in his critique because as a Unitarian Christian, it was clear to him that at the center of his faith is the love of God. He didn’t want those of us who were not Christian to think that he was attacking us, but at the same time he wanted us to think about our resistance to God. He wanted us to forget for a while that we were ministers and to consider our personal quests and the faith that was the source of our personal strength.
He was thoughtful, careful in his critique, but it was these words that made me sit up and take notice: “The Great Surmise says simply this: at the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return. This is the supreme reality of our lives. This goodness is ultimate—not fate, not freedom, not mystery, energy, order nor finitude, but this good intent in creation is our source, our center and our destiny… Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness.”
When I heard these words, that at “the heart of creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which live, and to which we shall at last return”– to my surprise and my embarrassment, I burst into tears. I didn’t know why these words had touched me so deeply, but I did know that I wanted to spend time with the man who had spoken them. I knew Carl by reputation only and assumed that he didn’t know me. But when I got home, I gathered up enough courage to call. I started out by explaining that I was the minister out in Franklin and that although he didn’t know me and was probably booked solid, I was hoping to talk with him. In response he laughed and said that of course he knew who I was and he’d be happy to spend some time talking. “I may not have much money,” he said, “but I always have time.” Thus began a relationship in which we met on a regular basis until his retirement.
As time went by, Carl began to embody for me that goodness of which he had spoken during the lecture at that meeting of ministers. I grew to trust him enough that I was able to speak of secrets I had carried since childhood. I was able to admit the depth of my anger and release tears that had been choking me for decades. The other thing that happened to me as the months and years went by was that I was able to let God back into my life.
I had grown up in the Methodist church singing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Each night as a child I’d pray “if I should die before I wake, I pray, O God, my soul to take” and I’d slip into a gentle sleep. And then God disappeared. I became an atheist. A dyed-in-the-wool secular humanist. And that’s where I remained for a long time before things started happening in my life. Mysterious things that I couldn’t explain away through logic.
It is true that there is a lot of ambivalence about God within Unitarian Universalism. Some of us are staunch secular humanists, others of us are Christians with a belief in a personal God, and others are somewhere in between, puzzling perhaps over the meaning of life, wondering where we fit in, confused about this Mystery that some call God.
You may recall that following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 14 years ago, a lot of people were questioning how God could let something like that happen. Others who had been believers began questioning the very existence of God. During this time when so many found that their faith had been shaken, the satirical magazine The Onion published a piece with the headline, “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule” In this article God has appeared at a press conference in order to clarify his longtime stance against humans killing each other. “Look, I don’t know, maybe I haven’t made myself completely clear, so for the record, here it is again…. Somehow, people keep coming up with the idea that I want them to kill their neighbor. Well, I don’t…. I tried to put it in the simplest possible terms for you people, so you’d get it straight, because I thought it was pretty important… I guess I figured I’d left no real room for confusion after putting it in a four-word sentence with one-syllable words, on the tablets I gave to Moses…” As the press conference progresses, God gets angry and shouts, “Do you hear me? I don’t want you to kill anybody….” The article in the Onion concludes with these words: “Upon completing His outburst, God fell silent, standing quietly at the podium for several moments. Then, witnesses reported, God’s shoulders began to shake, and he wept.”
This image of God, this image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine chapel ceiling, this God with long flowing hair and beard and robe, a God who can talk, who can command, who gets angry, who weeps is not how most of us Unitarian Universalists understand God to be. We don’t have a faith stance on what God is or isn’t. We don’t have a creed or dogma to define this for us. However there are at least two ways in which many of us approach this question of Where God is, of Who God is… or isn’t.
For many of us the concept of God isn’t useful at all. We seriously doubt whether there is a supernatural god and say, instead, that we are the ones who are responsible for ourselves and for the world. That there isn’t a God who intervenes or who comforts but that instead we have resources within that we can draw from during times of crisis. That we can look for support from caring communities and that these resources (within ourselves and in our communities) are considerable and sufficient to sustain ourselves when life gets tough.
Others of us are more open to the mystery of life, to that which we believe transcends our intellects. Bill Murray, who at one time was the president of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, has a big term for describing this openness to the mystery in life. He says that it is a naturalistic theism. Those of us who are naturalistic theists share the humanistic belief that human beings are free and therefore responsible for our own actions. The God of a naturalistic theist is neither a Calvinistic God who foreordains and predestines everything nor is it the God of the pietist who regards whatever occurs as God’s will. Instead the belief is that we humans are responsible for the world as well as for our own individual lives. The belief is that God does not violate human freedom to save us from our own mistakes or evil deeds.
“For the naturalistic theist,” Bill Murray says, “God’s role is somewhat like that of a magnetic field. It draws us toward the good, the true and the beautiful, or it inspires and empowers us to do the good. God’s power is the attracting, persuading power of love, not the power of force or compulsion.” Which brings us back to Carl Scovel’s Great Surmise: that “at the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return.”
It was this Goodness that I realized had always been present in my life, even during my confusing, complicated childhood years. Especially during those years when God was the Daddy God that Jesus spoke of. The Good God that watched over me while I slept. God had never really disappeared from my life. It’s just that for way too long I had shut myself off from the presence of this Goodness.
I’ve told the story before of something else that happened on that day when Carl delivered his lecture. There are usually one or two responders who will critique what has just been offered at these big lectures. One of the responders to Carl’s lecture was Deanne Starr, a friend of Carl’s for over 30 years, an agnostic and an iconoclast. Later on Carl paraphrased what Deanne had to say in response to his lecture:
“Carl says that he sees goodness at the heart of the universe. I don’t see that at all. I look into the universe and all I see is conflict, conflict and indifference, a sublime indifference, to our human species, or any other species for that matter,”
“Deane went on with the grand eloquence of Robert Ingersoll and other great naysayers. At one point he described going to Florida for his son’s funeral and after the service going for an evening cruise. Dean said, ‘I didn’t find peace in a church or in prayer. I looked into the sunset, and I found peace there.’
Then Deane took a tack which none of us expected. He said: ‘I am now going to lead you in singing a hymn. It’s a hymn I learned as a child in the Nazarene church and you don’t have to believe the words, but I’ll bet you know it.’ And then Deane in his lovely baritone began to sing:
I come to the garden alone
When the dew was still on the roses;
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
He walks with me and he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.”
As we sang, I looked around the room and saw that many of my colleagues, like me, had tears streaming down our cheeks. What I later learned was that neither Deane nor Carl understood why so many of us were crying. You see they had both been working in their rooms all morning, finishing their papers, while the rest of us had listened to our keynote speaker, Tex Samples, a UCC minister, who talked about the power of stories and urged us to tell stories as well. One of the stories he told was about this hymn, In the Garden, a story that neither Deane nor Carl had heard before presenting their papers.
Tex Samples had told us that morning that he used to hate fundamentalists and that he used to hate that hymn, In the Garden. “It seemed so sentimental, so self-indulgent, so sticky, bad music, you know. And once I was speaking to a fundamentalist group, and I sang that hymn in a high forced falsetto. I really stuck it to them.
“Then after the talk when people came up to speak to me, I noticed that one woman was waiting some distance from the others and only after everyone else had left did she come up to me. She said, ‘You know that hymn you sang,’ Tex Samples said ‘Yes,.” She said, ‘I want to tell you something about that hymn. From the time I was about ten years old until I was about fourteen my father raped me almost every day of my life. And after he was finished, I’d put my clothes on, and I’d go out into the backyard, and I’d walk slowly about the yard, and I’d sing that hymn. It was the only thing that kept me sane, the only thing that kept me from killing myself. Because when I sang that hymn I knew I was somebody. I hope you’ll remember that the next time you sing it.”
It was about a week later that Carl finally heard this story and he says that when he did he finally realized why his lecture had seemed so incomplete to him, why he had not been satisfied with what he’d said. It was incomplete, Carl said. “Alone the lecture could not make the point. God had used all of us—me, Deanne Starr, Tex Samples, hundreds of UU ministers and their spouses, and a woman whom I will never know—to point to the goodness at the heart of life and to remind us that nothing in heaven or on earth, not death, not life, not powers, not principalities, nor even a drunken father who raped his daughter, can separate us from the love of God.”
Perhaps there are some among us this morning for whom the humanist message is not enough. Perhaps there are some among us for whom finding the Holy in nature is not enough either. Perhaps there are some among us who are longing to hear that they are not walking in the garden alone, that they are worthy enough to be loved. Perhaps there are some among us who want to believe that there is a power in the Universe that is pulling them toward the Good. And that perhaps even, it is this Goodness that is at the Heart of Creation.
© Carol Rosine, 2015