This is a sermon I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville on November 10, 2019.
Meditative Moment: Before we talk about my spiritual journey, I want to use our meditative moment to think about yours. So settle in, ground with your feet on the floor, and if it feels right let your eyes drift closed or soften your gaze. Picture a pool of water, the pool of your consciousness, and we’re going to think about a few questions. Imagine the questions as pebbles dropped into the pool, and see what comes up for you.
Imagine yourself as a child, thinking what God was like. Was God your friend? Did people encourage you to ask questions about God? Imagine yourself growing, and think about whether it was safe to believe what you believed as you grew.
Now, imagine yourself as a young adult. Think about the moment you started to separate “spiritual” from “religion”. Think about the times you realized how big the world was, how big the universe was, and started wondering about your place in it and what you were meant to do.
And now, think about your recent journey. What twists has the spiritual path put in front of you that surprised you? What crises of the heart led you to ask new questions? And where did those questions lead you?
(We did this in a short meditation, but I may turn it into a longer, recorded one… I do recommend you try it, and maybe write down what came up for you afterward)
I would not be surprised if every person in this room would give a little chuckle and say “oh, my spiritual journey’s been a twisty one.” We have a couple of people in here who were raised as UUs, I think, but even they would probably say the path has not been simple.
And mine isn’t either. Susie asked me to give a “get to know your minister” sermon. It’s been a little odd writing this, and thinking about how in the world I would cram nearly 50 years of journey into 20 minutes. Obviously, I’m going to need to hit the highlights and move on, but if you have any questions, most of my life is an open book to you. If there’s something that speaks to you about this journey, and it can help you somehow on yours, please feel free to ask me more about it. And before I start, I want to say that I am not condemning the religion of my youth… it’s just not the path for me.
So, I think that for almost as long as I can remember, I have been spiritually curious. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. My parents came from very different religious backgrounds, he Catholic, she Jehovah’s Witness, and neither of them were practicing any religion when I was born, although I was baptized Catholic as an infant. But my grandfather taught me about Catholicism and took me to church occasionally, and to his Our Lady of Consolation shrine in Carey, Ohio, where he went to do the stations of the cross every year, even when he was really ill. On my mom’s side, her sister, my Aunt Nancy, was the faithful one; my mom and my grandparents “fell away” as they say, meaning they stopped going to meetings. And I was full of questions for anyone who didn’t mind talking about religion.
I was also a studious child. At the shrine I’d get books about the saints, and my cousins rolled their eyes at me because in summers when I visited them in West Virginia, they would be outside playing and I would be inside reading the bound volumes. These are encyclopedic volumes containing past copies of the Watchtower and Awake magazines that they distribute door to door. My aunt had them going all the way back to the 40s, and to me it was a treasure trove of information. I was eight.
Aunt Nancy arranged for me to study the Bible with a family friend in Ohio, Alice, who was a pioneer. That’s what JWs call people who spend 90 hours or more in the ministry every month. By the time I was 12, I was begging mom to take me to the Kingdom Hall. Eventually, she did, and she and I and my brother went.
My parents had been split up since I was 8, but when I was 14 or so Dad got interested in “the Truth” – what JWs call their religion — and started studying the Bible as well. After ten years apart, they remarried, and they’re still married, and still Witnesses, 30 years later. I was baptized when I was 17, and the year after that, while I was still in my senior year of high school, I started serving as a pioneer, spending 90 hours a month preaching door to door. I was not, however, allowed to speak directly to the congregation, as a woman. For a time, I went to Kentucky to preach where the need was greater, which means that the Witnesses don’t get to the houses as often. My brother, on the other hand, was also baptized, but when he was 18, he left, and he was disfellowshipped. When you’re disfellowshipped, your family and Witness friends are not supposed to talk to you.
But I was in love with a fellow Witness, Len, and when we spoke to the elders about our wedding they specifically asked if we’d had sex. And since we had, there was a committee formed, and they sat with us for three hours asking very pointed questions about when and where and how often, and there were two possible results – disfellowshipping, or public reproof, depending on whether the elders determined we were repentant. Our fate was the latter, which meant we could not speak in the congregation but were allowed to continue to attend and our family could still speak to us. It was a bad way to start a marriage, in guilt and shame, and I think it had no chance. We divorced when my son was 2, and I was 25. Single parenting is a spiritual journey I could talk about for a whole hour, so I’ll leave that for another time, but Brandon and I are really close because of all of the time we spent together.
In some ways I was a really good Witness. I KNEW my Bible. I brought my study Bible in case you’re interested in looking at it and all my scribbled notes and highlights. I loved a deep dive into spiritual questions and I studied with complete zeal. But in other ways, I was a terrible Witness. I never converted anyone, despite being a pioneer, and I’d find myself chastising myself for nodding along fascinated as someone told me their religious views, when the point of my being at their door was to tell them about my religion, and convert them.
A few years after my divorce, some things happened that resulted in a legal battle with my ex, and it was a trial so difficult that I got very depressed (for the second time in my life), and stopped attending meetings. My parents got alarmed, and they paid for me to visit a psychologist. And as I sat there explaining to him about how JWs believe that all the people except JWs will be killed at Armageddon and then they will live forever in paradise on earth, I thought… this is messed up. Someone who believes this is not who I want to be anymore. Someone who judges how spiritual people are based on the smallest things like what TV shows they watch, is not who I want to be anymore. So, the psychology kind of backfired for its intended purpose.
I stopped going to meetings, but I still believed in the things I’d been taught for so long as “the Truth.” And that means, I believed that God was going to kill ME at Armageddon, for probably about two years after I left. And that is a very heavy burden to carry.
But I wanted to be a writer, and I had a friend who recommended a book called The Artist’s Way, which is for blocked creative people. The book recommended journaling as a practice, so I started doing Morning Pages, 3 pages of freehand, stream-of-consciousness writing first thing after getting up every morning. And, there were exercises in there talking about the creative process. Many artists, it said, say that when they are creating, they’re pulling forth the divine, and that’s what enables the creative process. The book asked, how do you feel about that process? Does the god you worship support you in your creativity, or do you serve an adversarial god? As I worked though these questions, I realized that if I was going to choose not to be a witness, then I had to choose more than what not to be. If I didn’t want to be the person that believing in Jehovah made me, then I needed to think about what sort of Divine would I need to believe in, to be the sort of person I wanted to be? The terrifying answer was, I didn’t know. I wasn’t allowed to believe that any other gods existed.
But I started to play with these ideas of the divine in my journal, and I started to let myself look at other kinds of spirituality. There was a scripture that I often used when I was speaking to people door-to-door, that you could recognize religion by the kind of people it produced.
“Be on the watch for the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s covering, but inside they are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will recognize them. Never do people gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles, do they? Likewise, every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit. A good tree cannot bear worthless fruit, nor can a rotten tree produce fine fruit. Every tree not producing fine fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Really, then, by their fruits you will recognize those men.” (Matthew 7:15-20, New World Translation
I’d read that scripture and substitute the word “Organization” (you could also use “church”) for “tree”, and “people” for “fruit. So, Every good church produces fine people, but every rotten church produces worthless people. The teachings of the church are reflected in the lives of its members.
And once I was outside this organization, I started to see without a filter, and it seemed to me that those teachings produced people who were judgmental and narrow-minded.
And I started to read, everything, like a kid in the candy store of the whole of human thought. Nothing was forbidden to me anymore. I wrote a poem about trying on ideas like a little kid trying on clothes in the goddess’s closet. I explored eastern religions, yoga, philosophy, New Age ideas, shamanism. I wrote this in my journal at the time:
“I am evolving. I feel myself in a constant state of flux. I’m like a child in a toy store, moving from one aisle to the next, unsure what to play with, sampling something and leaving it. There are so many ideas in the world! I want to wrap my mind around them, taste, assimilate or reject. I used to think I had eternity for all of this. Now, I seize the day, more or less. I am a gin player, picking a card (idea), seeing what it does with what is in my hand, discarding or keeping, waiting for the complete gin rummy. It’ll never come — I don’t want it to. I want to keep sampling philosophies, ideas, lifestyles, cultures.”
At first I was really scared of paganism because I had been taught that paganism is Satanism, and to entertain those ideas is to invite the devil into your mind. But nature is a huge part of my spirituality, and it had been even as a Witness. So I started to walk in the forest and get quiet in my mind, and to observe the cycles of the year, and I meditated with different traditions. I stayed afraid of pagan labels for 10 years, so I would never have called myself a witch until I met Dharma, who had the shop across the street there, where I worked, and for the first time I experienced Pagan community, and, as we Pagans say, I came out of the broom closet. My pagan practice is different than a lot of other pagans, if you can find two who practice alike. I don’t do a lot of spellwork, but I observe the wheel of the year and the movement of the moon, and I do a little tarot and a little candle magic, but mostly, I really enjoy ritual and marking significant events in my life with ritual. Concurrently, I took ideas from other religions that appealed to me, especially Buddhism. I call myself a Buddho-pagan Unitarian Universalist. My husband calls it “salad bar religion,” where you take what you like from the smorgasbord of the world’s spirituality.
When I was a Witness I loved singing the songs. They’re not called hymns, JWs call them “kingdom songs.” Sometimes, when I hit a particular note, my kingdom songbook would vibrate in my hand. I played the viola in high school, and with that too I experienced this resonance, when I’d find that sweet spot and the wooden body of my instrument would sing along, and I could feel it all the way through it and sometimes, all the way through me. And when I started exploring ideas, sometimes it seemed that way. I’d hit upon an idea and it would just sort of hum through me — resonance. YES, that fits right, that feels right. Have you ever experienced that?
In every human life I think some of the most spiritual moments are the moments of absolute crisis. That’s when we experience our paradigm shifts. It happened for me when I was experiencing that court battle and the injustice, and it made me question everything. From the time I left JWs, the only spiritual community I had was when I was working at Solstice Winds for a couple of years. But then, in September 2016, my only brother committed suicide, and two months later Donald Trump was elected president. My response to the trauma of those two events was threefold:
1) I got involved in activism. I attended the women’s march. At the time, there was a controversy with our school board in White County about some people claiming that our schools were indoctrinating the children in Islam, and I got involved with fighting the ultra conservative forces that were pushing that narrative in our community. I helped found the Indivisible chapter that is still active here in Cookeville. I went to nonviolent protest training, and that was enlightening and life-changing.
2) I went to therapy. . Side story about therapy, while I was there, I said, “My biggest regret is that I did not go to college.” My therapist said, “It sounds like you need to go to college.” Yeah, I said, but it’s so expensive, and I don’t even know what I want to be when I grow up, and I’m 45… Just take a few classes, she said. The next week, TN announced their Reconnect program to pay for adults to get an associates’ degree, and I said, well, I’m out of excuses.
3) One day while I was journaling, which I continued pretty consistently since I started in 2001, I heard a voice in my head that said: You need community. Go to UU.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal the next day:
“I’m going to church today at the Unitarian Universalist congregation. I just thought, yesterday, that it was something I needed. Tolerance is my preaching now, nature is my cathedral, animals are my clergy, and art is my prayer. Why, exactly, do I suddenly feel the need for religion? I can’t really say. There is a need to be of service, and they may help with that. I have gifts to give anyone recovering from religion, and that is where those people go. If I can promote love, tolerance, and hope in this confused and divided country, I will do it.”
And here I wrote the 7 principles of Unitarian Universalist, and their sources of wisdom and inspiration. And I wrote, “It does rather sound like it’s where I belong, doesn’t it? Acceptance is a keynote for me. We welcome you no matter who you are, and not (as with JWs) with the intention of changing you, “fixing” you. You are not broken, you are whole. You are a child of the Divine.”
The day I walked in the door, Ivan invited me to stay for the Social Justice meeting, and there, in that moment, was resonance. This feels right. This was my community. Where I had been part of a judgmental, narrow-minded religious community, I came here and found an accepting, broad-minded community that didn’t mind which religion I had cherry picked my truth from. Mark’s sermon on the third Sunday I came used a story from a pagan tradition. I looked at that in my journal and was shocked that that was only my third service, because at that point I already felt like a member of this community.
I’ve always been someone who loves a study of spiritual concepts. I love that UUism draws its spirituality from honestly, anything. You can find it in the direct experience of nature. You can find inspiration in a poem that isn’t meant to be spiritual at all. It’s easy to find inspiration in someone like Rumi, who is a spiritual poet, but you can find inspiration in Beat poetry. You can find inspiration in pop culture, or philosophy, or a snippet of scientific fact, or an ancient story, or even … in the Bible. I had loved making a study of the Bible so much, but now, the whole of human thought and the entirety of nature and science and the universe were open to me and part of the sources of wisdom.
I think I was a UU long before I walked in these doors. My grandmother was raised Lutheran and changed her religion to Catholic for love of my grandfather, and she would always say to me, “Honey dear, it doesn’t matter what religion or how you get to god. All paths lead to god.” I, because I was a JW and I knew everything, would nod and smile and internally disagree, and I would LOVE to tell her now how right she was. She used to say, “I believe in living your religion.” I wish that I could tell her how much her spirituality inspires me now. And I would love to go back and tell that young witness that I was, beating herself up about not monopolizing a religious conversation with “the Truth,” that she was actually doing exactly what was right for her soul.
So, once I found my community, starting last year I started kicking around the idea of being a minister myself. Some things seem impossible when you first dream them. First of all, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be minister of some unknown congregation, THIS is my community, but it already had a minister. Secondly, I did some research, and in order to be fellowshipped as a minister you need a bachelor’s, and a Master of Divinity, and I’m attending school part time, about ¾ of the way to my associates. There’s a lot of space between me and a fellowship. When Mark told us he was leaving the congregation, he said, there may be another way. I’m still a little shocked, to be honest, that that idea that tickled at the back of my mind last year has turned into reality so rapidly. And in some ways I feel like I’m not ready, but I’m buoyed by your belief in me and in love with the idea of growing as a minister as this little church grows as a congregation. When it comes to resonances, this just might be my biggest one yet. I thank you all for being my community, and for being my yes.
Benediction (Jalal ad’din Rumi):