The God In-Between
or The Woman with the World in Her Eye

By 

Rev. Scott E. Taylor

His Candidating Sermon 

May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church

READINGS

Parkinson's Disease By Galway Kinnell

While spoon-feeding him with one hand
she holds his hand with her other hand,
or rather lets it rest on top of his,
which is permanently clenched shut.
When he turns his head away, she reaches
around and puts in the spoonful blind.
He will not accept the next morsel
until he has completely chewed this one.
His bright squint tells her he finds
the shrimp she has just put in delicious.
She strokes his head very slowly, as if
to cheer up each hair sticking up
from its root in his stricken brain.
Standing behind him, she presses
her cheek to his, kisses his jowl,
and
his eyes seem to stop seeing
and do nothing but emit light.
Could heaven be a time, after we are dead,
of remembering the knowledge
flesh had from flesh? The flesh
of his face is hard, perhaps
from years spent facing down others
until they fell back, and harder
from years of being himself faced down
and falling back, and harder still
from all the while frowning
and beaming and worrying and shouting
and probably letting go in rages.
His face softens into a kind
of quizzical wince, as if one
of the other animals were working at
getting the knack of the human smile.
When picking up a cookie he uses
Both thumb tips to grip it
and push it against an index finger
to secure it so that he can lift it.
She takes him to the bathroom,
and when they come out, she is facing him,
walking backwards in front of him
holding his hands, pulling him
when he stops, reminding him to step
when he forgets and starts to pitch forward.
She is leading her old father into the future
as far as they can go, and she is walking
him back into his childhood, where she stood
in bare feet on the toes of his shoes
and they fox trotted on this same rug.
I watch them closely: she could be teaching him
the last steps that one day she may teach me.
At this moment, he glints and shines,
as if it will be only a small dislocation
for him to pass from this paradise into the next.

 

From Becoming a Man, By Paul Monnette

I once heard someone say that gays are going to have to learn to love themselves if they are going to survive...and I know that some people say that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else...But I think it is the other way around -- I learned to love myself only because someone else finally loved me. Seeing myself whole in another's eyes...was what gave me the courage to face the secrets ...and gather together all the hidden pieces of my life. This was something I simply could not have done on my own. I give thanks every day for the people in my life that brought me back from the dead.

** ** **

The God In-Between
or The Woman with the World in Her Eye

SERMON

Speaking on the topic of autobiographical writing, Alice Walker, the wonderful writer and poet, has said that there are only three scenes from her childhood which she can remember vividly and in detail. Walker admits that it is relatively remarkable that she can recall only three memories vividly, but what is more remarkable to her is how these three memories have dominated and shaped her entire life.

The earliest scene Walker remembers is a bright summer day in 1947. She was around three, standing among her eight brothers and sisters, all of them waiting to see which their father would pick to take to the county fair. Walker describes her father as a fat, funny man with beautiful eyes and a subversive wit. He worked as the driver for a wealthy white widow who lived up the road, Miss Mey. On this particular day she had decided that she wanted to go to the county fair and had told Walker's father that he could bring one of his children along.

Alice was excited about riding in a car but mostly she just wanted to go everywhere her daddy went. She was her father's favorite and knew that he found her confidence and her big brown eyes irresistible. So it surprised no one when little Alice stepped forward and shamelessly said with her hands on her hips "Take me, Daddy. I'm the cutest." And it surprised everyone even less when Alice was the one who was chosen to go along.

The second scene that Alice Walker remembers is an Easter Sunday three years later. She is six, almost seven now and is wearing a bright green dress and brand new patent leather shoes. Walker was the most outgoing and confident of all the Sunday School kids and so she was the one chosen to memorize and give the longest Easter reading. Describing this moment, she writes, "When I got up to give the reading I did so on a great wave of love and pride and expectation. People in the church...seemed to hold their breath. I could tell they admired my dress, but it was my beauty and my spirit, bordering on sassiness, which they secretly applauded." Riding on that wave of admiration and attention, Walker did her reading without a stammer or pause, unlike all the other children who at best only stuttered and at worst forgot entire passages.

Commenting on these first two scenes and preparing us for the third, Walker says, "It was great fun being cute and confident but then one day it ended." In this third and pivotal memory, Walker is eight years old and pretty as ever, but also a tomboy of sorts. In this memory she is not wearing a dress but a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and a red checkered shirt. Of all her sisters only she was able to keep up with and earn the respect of her brothers, so only she was included in their play. Westerns were everyone's favorite movies at the time and so she and her brothers became Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, and Lash LaRue. For a long time their play involved chasing the dogs, pretending they were cattle or outlaws. On this day, their play was made much more exciting - her parents had bought her brothers BB guns. Alice, being a girl, did not get a gun.

Standing gunless on top of their garage, Alice heard something behind her. As she turned her head to see what it was, she suddenly felt an incredible blow to her right eye. She looked down just in time to see her brother lower his gun with a scared look on his face. Alice's memory of that day ends with a doctor explaining that eyes are sympathetic and so there is the possibility that if one is blind, the other may become blind also.

"This comment of the doctor's terrified me," Walker explains, "but it was really how I looked that bothered me most. Where the BB pellet struck, there was left a glob of whitish scar tissue, a hideous cataract, on my eye. From then on, if I would stare at people - a favorite pastime of mine up to that point - they would stare back...not at the 'cute' and confident little girl, but at my scar. For six years I did not stare at anyone anymore, because I did not raise my head."

Her life literally changed overnight. After the accident not only her grades but her confidence dropped dramatically. Kids fell into their normal pattern of teasing her because of her difference, and she seemed to lose that special place as her daddy's favorite. "I consider the day of the accident the last time that my father chose me," she says, "and I suffered and raged inside because of this. Almost every night after that for a very long time, I would abuse my eye. I would rant and rave at it, in front of the mirror. I would plead with it to clear up before morning. I would tell it I hate it and despise it. And I wouldn't pray for sight. I would pray for beauty...I wanted more than anything to somehow stop feeling like I was broken."

At the end of her essay, Walker shares one final memory. It is a memory from her adult life, when she was twenty-seven, and caring for her daughter, Rebecca, who was three at the time. Even at twenty-seven, she still found herself preoccupied with the white scar across her eye. Since the birth of her child, she had worried about what would happen when Rebecca discovered that her mother's eye was different from other people's. I want to recount this memory in Walker's own words:

Rebecca's favorite television program was called "The Big Blue Marble." It began with a picture of the earth as it appears from the moon. After the show, as I was putting Rebecca down for a nap, she suddenly focused on my eye. Something inside me cringed and got ready to protect itself. All children are cruel about physical differences, and the fact that they don't always mean to be cruel doesn't always seem to matter. I assumed my Rebecca would be the same. Rebecca then studied my face intently. She even held my face maternally between her dimpled little hands. And then, looking every bit as serious and lawyer-like as her father, she said - as if it may just possibly have slipped my attention - "Mommy, there's a world in your eye." And then gently, but with great interest she said, "Mommy, where did you get that world in your eye?"

Walker says that, for the most part, the pain she had been carrying with her left then. She says that, crying and laughing, she went to look in the mirror and thought, "Yeah. Yeah, there is a world in my eye. And it is possible for me to love it. And in fact, for all it has taught me of shame and anger and inner vision, I do love it."

I have a friend who says that God speaks through human voices and wipes our tears through human hands. God enters the world, he says, through each and every one of us. Now, whether we are a theist like my friend or a non-theist like me, all of us, I think, recognize that there is something to this. Certain moments of human contact and connection are so moving and powerful that it indeed feels as though something transcendent is breaking through. In other words, when we are open to it, we learn pretty quickly that there is nothing commonplace about kindness and love. To witness, give or receive such acts of human tenderness is indeed to be in the presence of that which is holy. It is even, in a sense, to help the holy - even God if you will - come into being.

And yet it's puzzling, because when you turn to the explicit theological faith statements we human beings construct, or look at the spiritual practices we pursue, this affirmation of divinity arising from human tenderness is not always easily found. Over the last few weeks, I've read numerous books and articles that explore the latest spiritual trends in our culture. The results are jarring-at least to me. The most jarring was what one author said about kindness. Kindness, he said, is no longer "sexy enough" to capture the attention of today's spiritual imagination. Having tried or watched their parents try to achieve world peace and fail, folks now seem to have set their eyes on a new prize: personal internal spiritual fireworks. Doing God's work is out; feeling, mingling and merging with God's presence is in. Now this doesn't mean that that kindness and loving relationships are no longer important to the new modern spiritual mentality. It's just that kindness and loving relationships with others are no longer seen as part of what it means to pursue God.

The statistics help demonstrate this. According to one study about how people pursue God, interpersonal relationships, ranging from feeding the homeless to holding your newborn child to caring for your ailing parents, were mentioned by only 6% of the sample. The remaining 94% - and the sample included religious people of all types-the remaining 94% said that for them, a felt connection with the sacred comes only through solitary spiritual practices such as prayer, silent retreats, spiritual journaling, chants and meditative practice. "Apparently, it no longer takes a village to raise a spiritual person," one author said in her conclusion. "Finding God is quickly becoming a solo act that takes place not through the world of human interaction but through a private search of one's own heart."

Reading that quote reminded me of a friend from Syracuse, my barber actually - or hairstylist as he preferred to be called. He respected and was always interested in what I did, but also always made sure to let me know that he personally didn't have a need for church, for religious community. "My God is wherever I am," he'd say. "I don't need anyone to help me find him. I'm a quite content church of one."

When I first heard that phrase - a church of one - it didn't really strike me one way or the other. But the more I've thought about it, the sadder it seems to me. And while I see nothing intrinsically problematic with this modern turn toward solitary spiritual practices and looking inward for God, I'm not sure all the reasons behind this shift are to be celebrated. A church of one seems like an awfully lonely place even if you do get to hang out with the divine all day. For me, at least, I wouldn't choose that route to the holy - that is, unless I'd been really let down by or scared off by the relationships around me and "churches of many people."

A phrase from my favorite psychological and sociological thinker, Steven Mitchell, keeps running through my head. "Depression," he says, "is not the greatest ailment of our modern times; loneliness is." Relationships in modern society are often just plain complicated and hard, he says. Overwork, losing work, moving because of work, worry about losing work, over-scheduled kids, isolated parents, abandoned grandparents, overwhelming bills, rushed meals, missed meals, missed sleep - it's all just too much. Connection is a long-shot under such circumstances, Mitchell argues. Modern life has people running so fast, worrying about so many things and moving so often that when people do finally intersect, it usually takes the form of a crash rather than a connection-a crash in which we don't share our pain and worry with each other, but instead dump our pain and worry on each other, leaving messes between us that are sometimes so big and complicated that it's often easier to give up and retreat to shallow, polite and thin relationships rather than try to clean up the mess and meaningfully connect. And yet, shallowness and loneliness don't suit any of us-especially with our being so full of wounds and worries. So what are we to do? Well it seems to me that compared to these messy human relationships we just walked away from, the option of being able to connect directly to a personal God waiting inside us is incredibly appealing.

I don't want to create misunderstanding here. Please hear this loud and clear: I'm not putting down the path of personal, solitary, spiritual disciplines. The picture I am trying to paint is NOT that of a bunch of people pursuing problematic or false spiritual paths, but of a bunch of people-including us at times, I'm sure-mistakenly turning their backs on a flawed and fragile, but fundamentally life-saving path. It's not that I don't think the divine can be found inside of us; it's just that I don't want us or anyone else to stop believing that the divine can also be found in-between us.

The great existentialist Jean Paul Sartre became famous for declaring that "people are hell." It seems to me that the spiritual endeavor - or at least the liberal spiritual endeavor - involves not arguing against that fact, but acknowledging it and then going on to be able to say "but they are also heaven!" Sure, human relationships are fragile, flawed and easily messed up. They are complicated, confusing, and often the cause of significant hurt. Sure, sometimes they seem just too darn hard. But somehow in the midst of all that messiness, beauty, transformation, wholeness and holiness arise-arise, I believe, in a way that is just not possible in isolation.

This is why I think Alice Walker's story is so profound and important. She is not in any way denying that we have within us sacred sources of transformation and wholeness. Instead, she is simply asking us to never forget that to the degree that individuals do have the ability to tap into those sacred sources of strength and healing, it is most often an ability that is deeply indebted to the love and kindness received from others.

In other words, Walker's story is not as sweet and simple as it first appears. There is a strong warning here, a warning that says be careful about trying to find wholeness or God on your own. Be careful about letting the pain and fickleness of human relationships turn you into a cynic. Be careful about protecting yourself from the vulnerability of human relationship. Because more often it is precisely those simple, even messy moments of human exchange that give us the power to turn inward and find the divine that lies inside. I want to read again that quote by Paul Monnette that Kaaren read earlier. I think it gets at this idea better than I ever could:

I once heard someone say that gays are going to have to learn to love themselves if they are going to survive...and I know that some people say that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else...But I think that [we need to begin to realize] that it is the other way around - I learned to love myself only because someone else finally loved me. Seeing myself whole in another's eyes...was what gave me the courage to face the secrets...and gather together all the hidden pieces of my life. This was something I simply could not have done on my own. I give thanks every day for the people in my life that brought me back from the dead.

At first blush, I suppose it may seem odd to end a sermon on God with a quote that talks only about people. But of course, that is my point. Along with Alice Walker's story, I believe that connecting with the divine is never really separate from the effort to connect with people. For it is precisely our stumbling attempts at tenderness with each other that enable us to notice and trust the sacred source waiting inside.

And so with that, I'm thinking the best question to leave us with this morning is not, "Do you believe there exists a divine power willing and able to save us?" but instead, "Are you willing and able to save and be saved by others?"

What are the human relationships you need to return to, reinvest faith and trust and effort in? The father that disappointed you? The spouse that lately seems somewhere else? The friend you don't understand anymore? The son that seems so full of resentment? The co-worker you just can't bring yourself to trust? Messy as they are, is there a way for you to halt your retreat, risk a return, and keep yourself open to the possibility that from these flawed and fragile connections, divinity can arise?

And not just what relationships do you need to open yourself to, but what relationships do you need to give yourself to? Where have you been holding back, out of resentment, or jealousy, or a refusal to forgive? Where are you currently the one preventing the holy from entering the world?

It is an awesome, frightening and marvelous thing: We, friends, have the ability to help the holy enter this world. Let us Begin!

Amen.

_________________________

 

Prepared for web page display on April 1, 2006