Madelyn Campbell

I am from the Rabbi of Białystok
I am from God
I am from New York City - where the Yankees play
I am from great loss and grief
I am from a father who told me that I was someone and
I should do something
I am from the Cuban Missile Crisis and duck-and-cover
I am from one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind
I am from white gloves and pirouette dresses, the ballet
      and the opera and Shirley Temples at Lincoln Center
I am from injustice in the first grade
I am from fighting back when the boys tried to hurt me
     for killing Jesus
I am from horses, from generations of horse people
I am from sewing clothes and baking bread
     and being the only girl in shop class
I am from oops and trial and error
I am from speaking up and speaking out
I am from my children
I am from the place I just left - from the footsteps
     just behind me
I am for the path ahead
     going where each next step takes me
     following where my God leads
I have left my impression where I’ve been
And I carry the dust of my journey all about me
  Becoming with each step
I am from
 and I am for
     and I am becoming

God: The Enigma

My sleep these days is distrubed by a nightmare. A grim-faced man sooner or later accosts me with a handgun. As he is about to pull the trigger I awake in a cold sweat. I think I know the reason for the nightmare: it results from remembering a time in my life when I was in mortal danger of being shot or burned to death.

During the 1980's I worked in Congress for the old Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. Its chairman, Rep. Morris K. Udall, assigned me to investigate gross violations of the federal strip mining reclamation law, at that time widespread in the Appalachian coalfields. I teamed up with a man from the General Accounting Office. For two years we roamed the mountains of West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia collecting evidence. It was a very hostile environment. The coalmine operators we interviewed clearly resented our intrusion. We were aware they carried handguns; and high mortality rates indicated that they were not shy about firing away, if sufficiently arroused.

Prudently, we rode with state police in their cars. We wore bullet-proof vests and my partner got permission to carry a gun for protection (I declined to do so). Sometimes at night a police car was stationed outside our motel rooms. We could easily imagine Molotov cocktails coming through our windows, trapping us inside. Despite all of our precautions, I have no doubt that we were in grave peril as we went about our work.

Fortunately, we survived this experience unscathed. It comes to mind because some of us at All Souls Church Unitarian are re-examining traditional religious concepts, chiefly the idea of God. Now I do believe that the vast majority of humankind, being religiously inclined, tend to draw up some kind of mental contract - whether explicit or not - with their personal deity, however they may visualize such an entity.

Their quid pro quo goes something like this: At the very least, when I am in mortal danger I can call on you, Yahweh, Allah, Brahma, etc., to provide succor and/or pull me through a tight spot, in exchange for which I provide burnt offerings, light votive candles, take a dip in the Ganges, travel to Mecca, or even butcher my first-born son - as Father Abraham was prepared to do - in order to placate you or accumulate spiritual credit toward a guaranteed improved after-life - in case you are unable to rescue me.

Now I am asking myself: To what, or whom, do I owe the generally satisfactory outcome of my risky venture into the minefields of Appalachia? I don't remember getting down on my knees to beg God's protection on those motel nights when I felt sure I was the likely target of a Molotov cocktail. No, I was scared stiff. I dragged my mattress onto the floor, on the dubious assumption that this manuever would imporve my chances of surviving. Did God protect me, even though I ignored him? Was God working his will through the state troopers, my bullet-proof vest, my partner's hidden gun, or the whole federal law enforcement panopoly that backed me up? Or was it just plain dumb luck?

I lean toward the latter theory. A supernatural being looking out for little ole me may be comforting at a gut level, but my mind, dear friends, stubbornly rejects the idea.

Personal Gods

The best explanation that I have ever heard for why we humans continue to turn to religion is that religion helps us to be more human. We come to religion with questions about ourselves. Am I alone in this world? What is the meaning of my life? The paradox is that the answer to these questions that begin with the self, lies in reaching outwards, away from ourselves, towards "the Other." We reach outwards toward the Other, and some of us choose to call this other "god."

There is the God at the beginning of Genesis, who made all of creation with the utterance of a few words, "Let there be light." The God that Hindus call Brahman, whom we can only understand by trisecting into parts. That Chinese call the Tao. The Ultimate Reality. Eternal, infinite, and defying description, this is the God of Jefferson and Einstein, a transcendent God who began and sustains the Universe. The God we catch in glimpses when we gaze in wonder at Nature - moments when we make a connection with all of Creation, and are awed and humbled, buoyed and made euphoric by Its vast grandeur. This is God with a big "G."

And for some of us, this is the only God that makes any sense. How can anything less be called "God"? But this is not a god that we can pray to when our day has gone badly. This god is busy making sure that the stars stay in place and that water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius. We cannot envision that this god cares about us on a personal level any more than we care about a single skin cell on our left big toe.

A god who would care would be a "personal god." Someone who took an interest in our daily lives, someone that we can talk to, question, blame, forgive and be forgiven. This is the god of Abraham, who chose to favor him above all others. This is the god of Jesus, with whom he pleaded in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the god that Jesus eventually became for millions of his followers, including Martin Luther King Jr. - the god to whom Dr King would pray for strength and courage when in doubt and need. This is Krishna. This is Kali Ma, Kwan Yin, or the Virgin Mary. A patron saint, a bodhisattva, a totem, a guardian angel, god with a little "g."

I've been grappling with this idea of a personal god for some time. For me, it was not a concept that I could easily accept, and I imagine this to be true for many UUs. Spirit of Life?, sure, no problem. But people actually praying to a god by name, to someone, whom they think is listening, having a conversation, a personal relationship. It's downright anthropomorphic. Perhaps occasionally I've even been arrogant enough to imagine that personal gods were for people who weren't sophisticated enough to grasp the concept of God with a big "G." But what I couldn't dismiss so easily was the spiritual strength that people seemed to be getting from this relationship. These people were better people as a result, more human. What were that getting that I wasn't? Then last week, it suddenly came to me. They are making a connection with "the Other."

We become more human by reaching away from ourselves, towards the Other... Instead of thinking about our own wants and needs, we learn to think about someone else. And any time we reach outward towards one other, it helps us to reach out to all others. All that helps us to make a connection with the other makes us better humans, including our personal gods.

So what does this mean for us as UUs? Whether we are Christians or Pagans or Atheists, one thing that ties all UUs together is that we are all humanists. Whether you believe in God or not, big G or little g, the standard by which we measure ourselves is the effect we have on other human beings in this world. For Unitarian-Universalists, whether or not we have other gods with whom we commune, humans are our personal gods. They are the other, with a little "o" - a small bit of Other with a big "O," but on a scale with which we can relate. Humanity is grand, awesome, humbling, and impersonal. Individual humans are the ones whom we can talk to, question, blame, forgive and be forgiven. We all need personal gods with whom to connect.

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