Thoughts About God and Prayer

This post is the third in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

I do not have very traditional beliefs about the existence, characteristics, and actions of God. They certainly do not coincide with the image of the God about whom I was taught in my early years. The things I’ve written in my previous posts about the development of my religious and spiritual life probably make that obvious. The ideas that make sense for me have come from many sources: philosophy, science, religion, valued and trusted teachers and other individuals, and ultimately my own personal experience of the world. Beliefs about God that are incompatible with those guides do not fit within my world view. I have no argument with beliefs held by other people; if those beliefs work for them in understanding and navigating through this world we share, that’s fine with me. But it’s not acceptable when others attempt to convince me of the correctness of their deeply-held beliefs.

People can believe what they choose. But it is important to recognize that there is a difference between a belief and a fact. It’s also important to recognize that there are differing views about the basis for knowing that something is a fact, but I won’t go into that discussion now. Some of the many definitions of ‘fact’ are: something known to have happened or to exist; a truth known by experience or observation; a thing known or proved to be true; a repeatable careful observation or measurement. I also found many definitions of ‘belief’ including: confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof; an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists; a feeling of certainty that something exists, is true, or is good; an idea one accepts as being true or real. To complicate things further, even within these definitions, there is the idea of Truth. The definition of ‘truth’ that I found most appropriate was this: a fact or belief that is accepted as true. The act of declaring something to be Truth also involves the act of accepting it to be true. I can accept something as true for me and you can accept something as true for you. Neither of us by our acceptance can make something true for someone else. So any beliefs I express are my beliefs, my truths.

Over twenty six years ago I delivered a message to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here in Boone, my first such presentation since I had left the seminary more than two decade earlier. My words touched on a wide variety of ideas and experiences, but, in looking back the main theme of the message was the importance of communication. By communication I didn’t mean just talking or writing. Instead I meant direct contact with someone or something on a much deeper level. I wrote about experiencing and knowing the incredible wonder of the existence of everything in this amazing world. And then I said the following about knowing and communicating with the people and other things that make up the reality of our world:

“To know something as it is right now you must be willing to be with it fully at this moment, and then again in the next and the next. Passing attention won’t do.

“This ‘knowing’, this ‘communication’ is at the heart of life’s meaning for me. Martin Buber wrote about what he called the I-Thou experience and used the term ‘meeting’ to refer to this deep level of knowing or communicating. This experience goes beyond the expression ‘a meeting of the minds’; it is a meeting of the total being of the ones involved. These times of ‘meeting’ are the times I feel most connected with the world around me. In these times I am able to look at all that is around me and experience the wonder and the interrelatedness of myself and the universe and feel that I am indeed a part of it, one with it.

“I want that feeling all the time, not just in scattered moments. It can come in the presence of other people, in moments of intense sharing with someone in an ongoing relationship, or it might even come in a brief encounter with a stranger passing in the store or a client at work. …We meet and we speak to each other, perhaps with words, perhaps with looks, perhaps with silence.”

My message included the idea of knowing and communicating with God. However, my understanding of God was not the traditional one of an all-powerful being who created and ruled over the universe from a heaven somewhere apart from this world. So I began with the following brief statement summarizing my view of God:

“I do not frequently use the word “God”; it is so subject to misuse and to different understandings. If I use the word “God”, I use it to refer to that which underlies all of reality as I perceive it, that which is. The source of existence. Existence itself. If I see God as being the source of all that exists, then I also see God as being part of all that exists and all that exists as being part of God. God is me, God is you, I am God, you are God, all things and all people are God.”

This image of God is not that of a being controlling the day-to-day operation of the universe and intervening to make adjustments and alterations moment by moment as deemed appropriate. My understanding is not that there is a supernatural being who is intimately involved in our lives and in the existence of everything within our world. My idea is that God is the totality of existence. In other words, God is the universe, since the universe is the entirety of existence insofar as humankind has been able to determine. And the universe certainly appears to operate according to a multitude of natural forces.

Science has been able to discover many of these forces and to understand the principles of their operation. Many things are still not fully understood and possibly never will be. Much within the universe often appears random, chaotic, unpredictable, and even mysterious. Over eons of time people have sought to understand and explain the world around them. As we look back at some of those explanations, we may see them as simplistic, unbelievable, amusing. And in the distant future, if humans or other beings are still around, they may well consider our own understandings in the same way.

People always appear to be trying to make sense of the world, attempting to determine the meaning or purpose of our existence. Perhaps there is no sense to it. Perhaps it is a random world which does not have meaning or purpose within itself. Perhaps the only sense to it all is that which we impose upon it, the meaning and purpose we attach to our lives and the events within them. The process of seeking meaning and purpose in life is no doubt different for each of us depending on the experiences we bring to the task. My approach is to see the apparent randomness in the world and live with it—not good, not bad, just what is. I recognize joy and beauty where I see them, but also realize the harsh and painful and ugly are part of the whole and are to be acknowledged as a part of the reality in which we exist. I do not seek to impose an explanation for events primarily for the purpose of making myself feel better about what is happening in the world. The horrible things that happen don’t have to be explained as the result of innate evil in the world and the good things don’t have to be caused by a beneficent God. Perhaps they just are, even as we just are.

My message also included thoughts about communication with God as I understand that concept. Since my view of God is non-traditional, so is my view of prayer. The word ‘prayer’ seems to be the usual term used in our culture to indicate the act of communicating with God. Having been raised in a church-going family, I was in church several times each week from the time I was an infant. Prayers were plentiful, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of all services and classes. Family meals were usually preceded by a prayer as were many community and school events. Most prayers included a mixture of thanks for various positive things and requests for assistance from God in achieving some desired outcome in life. That approach to prayer fit with the traditional understanding of God as the hands-on power over life.

The practice of prayer which I am now exposed to most often (primarily on Facebook) is somewhat different. Many people speaking of their own prayers or requesting the prayers of others are asking for something quite specific. Much of the time they want an intervention by God to change something undesirable that has happened in their lives or to bring about something good for themselves or for people they know. It seems odd to me that the same people who are inclined to say, “not my will but thine, Lord,” often appear to believe repeating their own prayer requests over and over and asking others to join them in praying for some particular result will somehow sway their God to grant the prayers because of the sheer numbers of requests. It’s like a contest in which the person with the most friends and the most votes is expected to win. And this doesn’t appear to even recognize or care that the granting of one person’s prayer request might necessarily negate the outcome sought by the prayer of someone else.

When I was looking at some definitions of prayer, one (saying it was the “biblical” definition of prayer) referred to conversation with God and not just meditation or contemplation of God. The writer of that definition in effect excluded contemplation and meditation from the idea of prayer, but I would not. Recalling my understanding of God as being part of all that exists and all that exists as being part of God, then God is everywhere and everything. The communication I have described above and in other things I have written, the connectedness, the meeting, are all acts of prayer. Essentially all of life can be thought of as prayer, a conversation with all of reality, an openness to that which is, a meeting with all that is other than myself. Here in my place at the end of the road I frequently find myself engaged in prayer of this sort. Walking in the woods, looking at clouds or stars in the sky, gazing out over ranges of mountains, listening to the sound of water spilling over rocks in the creek, talking with the plants and animals around me, sitting and sharing with family or friends, all these things are moments of engagement with God as I understand God. There is no need to ask for more when in prayer of this sort. There is appreciation for all that is and gratitude for each moment of being part of it all.

In the act of prayer I see an effort to communicate through all of one’s life with all of existence. If I were to verbalize my communication into the more common form of ‘a prayer’, then it would be an expression of thankfulness for all that is, belief in the oneness of all that is, and my feelings of hopefulness for all that is. With this understanding I share a verbal prayer with you. I closed my message long ago by quoting the following combination of four prayers from the book The Prayer Tree by Michael Leunig. I continue to find it very meaningful.

“Dear God,

“We rejoice and give thanks for earthworms, bees, ladybirds, and broody hens; for humans tending their gardens, talking to animals, cleaning their homes and singing to themselves; for the rising of the sap, the fragrance of growth, the invention of the wheelbarrow and the existence of the teapot, we give thanks. We celebrate and give thanks.

“We give thanks for our friends.
Our dear friends.
We anger each other.
We fail each other.
We share this sad earth, this tender life, this precious time.
Such richness. Such wildness.
Together we are blown about.
Together we are dragged along.
All this delight.
All this suffering.
All this forgiving life. We hold it together.

“God help us
If our world should grow dark,
And there is no way of seeing or knowing.
Grant us courage and trust
To touch and be touched
To find our way onwards
By feeling.

“We pray for another way of being: another way of knowing. Across the difficult terrain of our existence we have attempted to build a highway and in so doing have lost our footpath. God lead us to our footpath. Lead us there where in simplicity we may move at the speed of natural creatures and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet. Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel the movement of creation in our hearts. And lead us there where side-by-side we may feel the embrace of the common soul. Nothing can be loved at speed. God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being.”

Amen

The Garden—Planted and Unplanted

I’ve described the evolution of our gardening activities in an earlier blog entitled The Garden. In its current incarnation our vegetable and fruit garden encompasses a ninety- by sixty-foot area enclosed by a seven-foot-high deer fence installed to prevent our deer, raccoon, possum, rabbit, and other animal neighbors from helping themselves to our produce. We still have provided some food to the animals, but have placed it outside the fence. Most of the planted space is now within wooden raised garden beds of various sizes. We’ve raised a wide variety of vegetables and berries over the years—over twelve hundred pounds worth in the one year we actually measured the crops produced.

The contents of the garden have changed from year to year. We decided within the past couple of years to be more selective in our plantings, limiting them to the crops we especially want to grow for ourselves and eliminating the plants that require more space or energy than we choose to devote for the returns received. We will rely on the local farmers’ markets and the generosity of neighbors for the items we do not produce ourselves. We also have begun planting more berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, honey berries, and high bush cranberries) and fruits (grapes, plums, pears, apples, apricots, Asian persimmons, figs, and hardy kiwis so far) which hopefully will produce their fruits without the same effort required by annual crops. And we do have thriving beds of asparagus and rhubarb that keep us well supplied with minimal continuing effort on our part.

The garden space last year, ready for planting

This year, however, we decided that our garden would be different, very different. We wanted to spend major amounts of our time on some other important activities we’ve had on hold for too long: more writing, planning and preparing for an addition to our house, various landscaping and building projects, some additional travels we’ve talked about, art and photography projects, and spur-of-the-moment fun time spent together. So we decided not to plant a garden this year. After clearing out the garden remnants from the growing season last year, we intended to put the garden to bed and let it rest for a year.

However, nature had other ideas. Nature never rests. Over the course of the winter when nothing appears to be happening in the garden, much is in preparation for the coming spring. Spring comes to us late here on the mountain. Our last average frost date is about May 25 and we’ve seen three inches of snow here on Memorial Day weekend. But, even though spring may be delayed, it comes finally with great enthusiasm. Seeds and roots that have been waiting patiently for warmer weather burst forth when those warm sunny days arrive. Patches of ground that had seemed empty a few days ago now are covered with the green of new growth.

The edge of the garden is no more than thirty feet from our deck, so we can see it easily from the house. We’ve been harvesting asparagus for weeks now, so we have been into the garden at least every other day. But when I made a more thorough survey of the entire garden a few days ago, I was overwhelmed. Most of the beds, which we had really intended to cover with black plastic last fall, were now covered instead with masses of chickweed, wild sorrel, dandelions, burdock, curly dock, various grasses, wild asters, daisies, and dozens of other kinds of plants. It has always been difficult to control the vegetation in the pathways and border areas because of the sloping, confined area, not to mention the problems I have keeping mowers and weed eaters functioning. The pathways now were were knee-deep in plants of every sort and much of the border area had grass that was shoulder-high. It was a depressing sight and one that called out for some immediate attention.

Several days of torrential rain in our area had finally come to an end, so Carole and I started on the task of reclaiming the garden from the profusion of growth that spring had brought. She really needed to be busy with the finishing touches of the book she has been working on for the past two years, but recognizing my distress at seeing this unexpected garden project, she put her project aside for a time. I settled down to work at clearing the weeds from the asparagus beds, since the still emerging asparagus spears were about to be overrun. Carole tackled several of the beds that supposedly held nothing but weeds, though we did discover some cilantro, dill, potato, and tomato plants that had managed to find themselves a spot here and there—volunteers or self-seeders as they are called. We probably worked for five or six hours before a late-afternoon shower ended our efforts for the day. At least we were able to get a few of the beds cleared out.

The following day I resumed the garden activity while Carole returned to the more pressing matters of the book and some other tasks, including pressure washing part of our deck and siding in preparation for painting later in the summer. The planting beds on which I was working are either three or four feet wide and about twenty-four feet long. I would work the length of each bed on hands and knees or sometimes sitting down, reaching halfway across the bed, then returning along the other side of the bed to get the other half. For most of the beds the weeds had to be pulled individually, being sure to get the roots to avoid re-sprouting. Each of the larger weeds that was pulled revealed several dozen minute pairs of leaves marking another weed seed that had sprouted, waiting for its place in the sun to start growing. The soil then had to be stirred to dislodge and bury each of these tiny plants, hopefully not to re-emerge. Occasionally there were burdock or curly dock plants to be removed; their long tap roots extended a foot or more into the ground and had to be dug out—pulling was not an option.

Six or seven hours of work found all the beds on one side of the garden cleared of weeds, probably a fourth of the overall area that needed to be dealt with, and not necessarily the most difficult part of this project. Yet it was very satisfying to see the results of our two days of labor. It wasn’t just the end result that was rewarding. The process of working in the garden, like many repetitive tasks that might be considered tedious and meaningless, is filled with opportunities. The work requires that I get up close and personal with the plants; it can’t be done at a distance. The physical acts require focus, removing tiny plants that are unwanted (at least in the spot where they are growing), re-locating garden spiders and worms to continue their activity away from my digging, replacing and smoothing the soil disturbed by my weeding. The process allows for quiet meditation as I am quite literally absorbed in being just one part of this natural world.

What a marvel is the abundance of nature, filling every available space with a profusion of plants, small animals, insects, and life forms beyond our ability to see. All around me the life of our meadow goes on. A thrush flies through the garden and stops to sit on the fence, perhaps wondering what I am doing in this place. Two fritillary butterflies sip nectar from the blossoms of red clover plants a few feet away. A catbird carefully examines the areas I have just cleared, comes close to see if I’ve uncovered anything of interest, then hurries off with a new morsel of food for the young ones in the nest nearby. The breeze sings quietly through the grasses and trees as clouds drift across the sky. Probably new clouds will bring rain again tomorrow, but not today. Mindful of all that has surrounded me, I have had another good day.

When we first came to this place, it was a beautiful misty meadow. We were amazed then at the daisies, black-eyed Susans, wild strawberries, flame azaleas, wild geraniums, mountain laurel, wild asters, tall coneflowers, and numerous other plants that filled the meadow and the woods. All those plants are still here, an unplanted garden that we enjoy throughout the year. We have simply placed our fenced fruit and vegetable garden in the midst of this natural garden that was here long before we came. Seeing how quickly the native plants have spread throughout our garden area during the brief time we have left it unplanted this year, we realize it would not take long for our garden to revert to its natural state. A few markers would remain to show our impact upon the land: a patch of rhubarb, some clusters of asparagus stalks, thornless blackberries, Concord grapes, and non-native fruit trees. But for the most part the unplanted garden would return after a bit more time and our meadow would again be a field full of daisies. A garden, planted or unplanted, will likely be here for a long time to come.

Fritillary butterfly

Tall coneflowers

An abundance of daisies

A House Open to the World

The kitchen window makes a perfect frame for this winter scene.

When we go into town or travel to cities around the country, we are struck by how different our daily environment is. The close proximity of other people and houses and streets necessitates different living conditions for city dwellers and even those living in closer rural communities. Obviously different people like different things. Many people would not care to live at the end of the road here on our mountainside, but this is just what we were looking for. I can understand the many reasons why people choose to live in cities, but I’m always glad when we get back here to our homeplace. One of the main reasons is that I love the openness of our house compared to the much more closed nature of many houses and other buildings, shut off from natural world, isolated from the occupants’ surroundings.

Our house has lots of windows. With the exception of cold wintry days or blowing rainstorms the windows are usually open. We have shades on most of our windows, but they are hardly ever pulled down. Living where we do at the end of our driveway at the end of our road, we have no reason to block the outside world. We can only see one other house from our location and we can barely see that when the trees are leafed out. We have no traffic passing by; the rare vehicle that appears is either for a delivery or someone who has taken a wrong turn.

The openness of the windows allows us better to see and experience the natural world in which we live. We are open to the sounds and scents that surround us. We hear the winds blowing over the ridges and through the trees. Dogs and coyotes bark and howl in the distance, cows moo in the pastures, and owls call in the night. The birds, squirrels, raccoons, and other animals come onto our deck or pass through the yard. The deer and turkeys move through the edge of the woods or walk down our drive. The clouds move across the sky and their shadows play across the mountains. We are aware of these things because our windows are uncovered. We delight in these experiences. They bring joy to our daily lives. We are so glad to be here.

Here are a few views from within our home.

Rhododendron in full bloom viewed through our living room window

Some visitors watching another visitor and vice versa.

It’s best to stay indoors to look out at this picnic table on our deck.

Rabbit and chipmunk enjoying lunch on the deck.

Eastern phoebe babies viewed through our porch door. Adult phoebes have used this nest for several years.

We look out at the snow because we can’t open the door.

Even our dear cat enjoys observing the outside world through the door.

One of our skunk friends. Some visitors are best viewed from inside the house.

We look out the window while this deer looks in.

So Much To See

Our quiet place here at the end of the road first greeted us with a meadow covered in a profusion of daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, and wild strawberries. But it had not always been that way. Not many years before we came here the land had been cleared and farmed. The son of a nearby neighbor whose family had once owned this land told us of helping his family clear the land and then grow cabbage, a common crop throughout the area even for some years after we arrived. The decaying remnants of split rail fences they had built bordered part of the property and locust posts remained where barbed wire fences had been placed. The woods still covering two-thirds of our homeplace even now contain stumps and moss-covered logs of the chestnut trees killed by blight in the early part of last century. Since chestnut trees made up an estimated one-fourth of all hardwood trees in the Appalachians before the blight, no doubt this mountainside was once covered with chestnuts.

The land continues to change. Obviously our presence here has had a large impact on the land closest around the house and garden, but that is a small part of our homeplace. The woods have retaken naturally part of the meadow that we were not using otherwise. An abandoned project of ours to raise Christmas trees in part of the meadow now gives us a sizable patch of 50-75 foot tall trees, mainly Norway Spruce, loved by deer and birds and who knows which of our other animal friends. Were we to stop maintaining the yard and garden areas, this would all quickly revert to woodland through the natural progression of an Appalachian hardwood forest.

We came here wanting to be in a place in the mountains, surrounded by nature, and we certainly are. To name a few of the things we have found here:

Trees: oaks, maples, cherries, black birches, hickories, elms, beeches, black locusts, tulip poplars, mountain magnolias (cucumber tree), ashes, hemlocks, cedars, white pines, sourwoods, serviceberries, hawthorns

Flowering plants: rhododendrons, flame azaleas, mountain laurels, dog hobbles, daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, wild strawberries, blueberries

Birds: chickadees, house finches, purple finches, tufted titmice, nuthatches, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern phoebes, evening grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bluejays, crows, barred owls, screech owls, barn owls, starlings, barn swallows, Carolina wrens, red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks

Mammals: red squirrels, grey squirrels, fox squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, possums, rabbits, grey foxes, red foxes, black bears, coyotes, mice, voles, bats

Reptiles: black snakes, corn snakes, garter snakes, ring-neck snakes

Amphibians: red-spotted newts, black salamanders, spade-foot toads, wood frogs, spring peepers

Grasses, “weeds”, and other small/low-growing plants: too numerous to begin listing

There are so many fascinating things to be observed even in this small patch of the world where we live. I get the feeling that many people never even see some of the most obvious things around them, too busy with the affairs of their everyday lives or perhaps thinking the natural world not important or not interesting enough to merit their attention. Many don’t know the names of the most common birds, trees, or flowers that surround them every day and are amazed when we recognize a wildflower from a distance or identify a bird by its flight pattern or call. So much is there to be seen by merely taking the time to notice. So much delight is there to be missed when we don’t pay attention to our natural surroundings.

The Harvest Before the Cold

[Written in October, 2017]

The temperature is supposed to drop into the 20s several nights during the next week and then only rise into the 30s in daytime. That’s not unusual weather for us. We had our first killing frosts of this year a week or so ago; that’s later than usual since the average first frost comes during the last week of September. Our weather has been generally warmer lately, but now the time to shift into cold weather mode is upon us. So today was a good time for us to harvest those few goodies still lingering in our garden.

Beans were first on the list. We got a late start on planting many things this year, so scarlet runner beans and Christmas limas were still hanging on our wonderful bean arch. The heavy wire cattle fencing panels arched across two raised beds and the walkway between gives us an arched trellis about six and a half feet high, eight feet wide, and twenty four feet long.

We can walk through the shady tunnel picking beans on each side and over our heads. Our delayed planting meant the plants did not reach full production this year, but we still got a good picking and enjoyed some for supper tonight.

Carrots, beets, and chard were also ready for this pre-cold weather harvesting. We were impressed and delighted with both the carrots and beets. We had thought neither crop was going to amount to much, so we were quite surprised when they were pulled from their hiding place beneath the soil to reveal some of our best looking roots ever. More good eating to look forward to on the coming winter nights.

There was also corn to be picked. This was not sweet corn; that had already been harvested and enjoyed earlier in the garden season. No this was what many people consider ornamental corn, used purely for decoration; however we harvest it dry to be ground with our small hand mill. We first tried this several years ago and discovered it makes the most delicious cornbread ever, with a wonderful chewy texture like no other. We had almost decided not to bother saving this corn crop. The late start coupled with some severe windstorms had left most of the stalks looking quite unpromising. The stalks were tall, but most had been blown over at a forty-five-degree angle and were twisted; the ears also seemed smaller and much less developed than in previous years. But since it was there, I picked it. It wouldn’t hurt to at least see what we had.

What a delight when I started pulling back the shucks. The ears were small and they were not very fully developed. But they were beautiful! Every ear was different, gorgeous mosaics in incredible shades of blues, burgandies, reds, yellows, pinks, whites, greys, and greens. I could hardly wait for the revelations of each new ear. And even the silks were a marvelous golden honey color, shining like silken strands of hair in the brilliant autumn sunlight. We hang the dried ears by their pulled-back shucks from a line stretched between two posts in our house, perfect decorations while awaiting their use in the cornbread.

As I was working with the corn (not really work, but pure pleasure), I was thinking how good it would be if everyone had at least a small garden, growing some of their own food, and participating in the cycle of planting and tending and then harvesting their crops. In this time when apparently many young people and even adults have no idea where many of our fruits and vegetables come from and what is involved in producing the food we eat, wouldn’t it good to have that link to the earth, the source of our sustenance.

I also thought with gratitude of those ancient ancestors back when our predecessors were hunter-gatherers. Over the course of untold ages those people closely observed the world around them and learned from the processes of the natural world. Those people saw how plants produced the food they consumed and realized they could use those processes to feed themselves. They developed the basics of agriculture, expanded it, improved it. How good it is to continue along that path they began.

I was just picking corn. But it was really so much more than that to me.