Sunday, June 22, 2008

What I believe...

From my horoscope today:
Regardless of your religious affiliation, today can be a profound day of spiritual renewal for you. But this may not involve church or even a formal service. The magic of creation speaks directly to you now through the beauty of nature, the contemplation of silence and the appreciation of the abundance in your life.

Oddly enough, today I had planned to wake up early to go to church. I haven't been going regularly lately and I have never been a Churchy McChurcherson. In fact, I've had some really bad experiences with religion (like the time a seminary student informed me when my father died that it was a shame that I wasn't saved, because instead of a reunion with him in heaven, I could look forward to an afterlife of eternal hellfire and damnation). Sorry, but that is not my God and if I wanted to join the Church of the Quivering Brethren ("There'll be no butter in hell!"), I'd catch a ride in Amos Starkadder's Ford van.

The church I go to, Bridgeport UCC is a special place. It is open, socially conscious and politically progressive. I find it comfortable, because it is a place that offers a warm welcome to anyone - die hard believer, spiritual wayfarer, gay, lesbian, straight, transgender, black, white, green, you name it. You don't need to be able to speak English, only kindness and love. While the denomination is decidedly Christian, it (or at least the church I go to) tolerates the notion that there are various paths and that they have validity. This goes a long way in dispelling some of my long held prejudices about organized religion and "how churches (and church people) are".

Truth be known, I always feel somewhat ambivalent about religion as an organized body. Evangelists will disagree, but to me faith is a very personal thing. I'm not even sure that I have faith - at least not in the way that I am "supposed" to. The overarching messages of kindness and goodness that span through most religions speak to me - dogma and perscriptivism not so much. I am still ambivalent about calling myself a Christian, but I am not ambivalent about seeking for greater meaning or doing it via various auspices.

I found Bridgeport one Christmas Eve when I was longing for some ritual, something to add a specialness to a holiday that was seeming kind of meaningless. As much as I enjoy my Santa mythology and a good gift, there has to be something more out there. I had wanted to go to the big, old UCC downtown (despite my ambivalence about religion, I've always enjoyed the architecture of a nice, old church), but was diverted to a smaller outpost in SE Portland when I started having second thoughts about the potential parking situation. (Yes, that's how devout I am. I can be put off by inconvenient parking.) So, instead, I found myself spending Christmas Eve in the smaller, more intimate setting of Bridgeport.

A few years later, I still remember my first impression of it as a place permeated with warmth. It was in the honeygold color of the wood fixtures, the friendliness of the reverend and the feeling that washed over me as I sang Dona nobis pacem with a bunch of strangers by candlelight. That is what made it feel like home. It is still my favorite part of the Christmas service there. Although the reverend there delivers a lovely (deep yet accessible) and well composed sermon, it is the music that makes even the regular services come alive for me. It is in it that sound community that I find something approaching God, joy.

When I first started going to Bridgeport, I felt like a bit of a fraud. When I looked around I naively assumed that the others were all so sure in their faith. And then there was me, the girl who is not even sure of what her faith is.

Do I believe in the Divine? Check.

Do I think S/He is necessarily what we think of as God? No. As near as I can figure, God is like the blaue Blume of Romantic literature - something we seek to find, but never completely know or understand. The Ding an sich that is commonly called God can't be known completely. It can only be known via our limited human perspective. If I'm looking at God's front, I can't see her back and vice versa. There is always going to be some "angle" that I can't see from my vantage point, some angle that I have to take on faith. The best I can do is keep searching for pieces until I can put the puzzle together. As a result, I think the most we can do is try to be the best we can be and know that if in making a good faith effort we fail, the Universe will forgive us.

Do I believe in The Bible? If I'm going to be honest, not literally. I believe the "red letter" parts about kindness and doing unto others, but I can find those in other religious systems and even just my own value system as well.

In contrast to my early days at Bridgeport, I now realize that we are all on our own journeys. We might sometimes walk together and share community, but our individual paths are our own. There is more than one way to get to the apex of a mountain. The only thing that I am really sure about is that my relationship to God is experiential. I don't want someone telling me how to how to think and that is one thing I love about Bridgeport. There, I can enjoy walking with a community of travellers without feeling pressured by them. Like a stubborn toddler, I don't want to be carried. I want to feel the Divine for myself. I want to learn for myself even if doing it means that I might sometimes fall and scratch my knee.

It is funny, but in writing this post, I now better understand what I meant when the following poured out in response to one of Wendy's lovely writing prompts. Maybe I am not so ambivalent after all.

Do not tell me what to think about God.
When you talk so much,
I cannot hear her breath
caress the strings of the universe.
Don't tell me who she is, but let me feel her in the quiet.
I don't want your books or your sermons
and, please, no shrill proclamations.
Her symphony echos not in the dry crackling pages
of dusty voiced prophets and old men.
It whispers through the soft rustle of the leaves,
the silent shimmer of blossoms
beneath the glow of a new spring moon.
I hear her as I breathe - quietly, deeply
hoping to match the cadence of her breath
as I listen for the song beneath the silence.

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