Thoughts About God and Prayer

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

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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.”


My Spiritual Journey

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

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In my previous post I wrote mostly about my work history during the past fifty years. In the early part of that time I made a major change to what I had seen as my career path. Well into the process of securing my educational credentials in the field of religious education, I withdrew from seminary, ended my involvement with all religious institutions, and set off on a path of my own. This post provides some details regarding how that change came about and the path I have followed since then. Like the work history, it may not be what those who knew me all those years ago expected.

For the greater part of my life, I have been a very private person, not prone to readily express my opinions and beliefs, especially when I knew doing so would likely result in conflict. I held back from sharing many of my developing ideas because I knew they did not fit with the attitudes and beliefs of many of my friends, acquaintances, and family members. So, some people who are very important to me don’t really know me. That doesn’t feel right. One of my main reasons for writing blog posts is that I want others know who I am, the things which matter to me, and what I believe. I simply want to share these parts of myself, not attempt to persuade anyone to adopt my beliefs for themselves.

As I’ve said before, the world of ideas has always fascinated me. When I was young, Mother would drop me at the public library while she went shopping. I could happily comb the shelves for hours, finding books on every topic imaginable, paging through one which then led me to another and another. History, literature, art, religion—anything and everything was interesting to me. At home I browsed through our old set of encyclopedias, picking a random volume and flipping through until some subject caught my eye, following references to other volumes with even more information.

History, social studies, and English classes in school and Sunday evening Training Union classes at church provided more material for study and discussion and thought. I learned about cultures and religions of other times and places, but I wanted to know much more. I wanted to understand those other ideas and beliefs, compare them to my own, and use them to enable me to better understand the world and find meaning for myself within it. Universities, with the courses and libraries they offered, appeared the key to finding what I wanted. As soon as I could leave high school, I headed off to college, not to train for a job or career, but to prepare myself for the person I wanted to be.

During my years in college and later in seminary I encountered many other people, both students and professors, who were searching for answers and for meaningfulness in their lives. Religion and philosophy classes opened up a new universe of ideas for me. I came to understand that the Bible was not just a book to be read and taken at face value, but was a product of particular people at a given time and place in history and was a reflection of their culture, their world, and their understanding of it. In addition the Bible had been shaped and changed and translated by many other people over the centuries and influenced by their knowledge, beliefs, and understanding. The challenge was to interpret and understand those ideas from centuries ago and to determine how they fit within the framework of contemporary knowledge and culture. When seen in that light, new meanings and new interpretations became available if one was willing to see them.

The seminary offered even more knowledge to help understand the religious texts at the heart of Christianity. It also provided much more information about religion in general, the history of religions of the world, and historical information about the church’s development and the history and culture of the Baptist church in particular. Many leaders, scholars, and members of the wider Christian community, especially the more progressive parts of it, had long ago adopted a broader understanding of the religion they professed.

Many of my fellow students were unwilling to accept new ideas and insights. When confronted by new possibilities, they preferred to continue to espouse the same teachings that had been taught to them and generations before them. I remember one student at seminary saying something along the lines of, “It’s well and good for us to have this information and know these ideas, but I sure can’t preach this to my church at home. I’d be looking for a new job.” He would rather keep his job than attempt to help his congregation grow in their understanding. It wasn’t that the teachers in college and the seminary sought to dissuade me from sticking with the religious teachings I had grown up with. Instead they exposed me to new and different information and ideas that allowed me to examine my understanding and decide for myself what made sense for me.

In the process of my explorations I came to see that I did not agree with or accept as valid many of the teachings and practices of the religious institutions of the day and particularly those of the denomination and most of the churches I was familiar with. As that realization became ever clearer to me, I decided I was not interested in continuing my involvement with those institutions or the belief system they were promoting. That’s when I withdrew as a student at the seminary. If I was to continue in a church or some other religious institution, it would have to be much more compatible with my own ideas and spiritual interests as they had been developing. Among other characteristics it would have to be much more liberal and progressive in its teachings, more open to accepting individuals with widely differing beliefs or non-beliefs, more encouraging of searching for meaning in one’s own way, and more active in seeking greater social justice for all people.

Some options I found around me at the time showed initial promise, but they were all still part of institutional, organized religion. When I investigated the possibility of pursuing my career interests within those communities, I found they had their own institutional strictures and requirements that would make it difficult or impossible for me to pursue the religious and spiritual goals I envisioned for myself. I decided I would have to follow my own path and forget about the career possibilities I had anticipated. Fortunately Carole and I have developed and grown together along similar lines over the years, so the departure from our ‘raising’ was comfortable for both of us. We were off on our own. We left the church, left organized religion, and have never returned.

I don’t intend to deny the important influence churches have had in my life and in my spiritual development. I’m forever grateful for my experiences in various churches and for the many wonderful people with whom I shared my time in them. It was in the church that I first learned many of the values that I continue to hold dear. And the sense of community and the feeling of support I found there were significant, as I’m sure they are for many others. Even after involvement in churches ceased being a regular part of life for Carole and me, there was one period about fourteen years after coming to Boone when we participated in the services and activities of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. I even presented ten or so programs there, some which I will reference in my blog posts. I’m not opposed to churches. They just no longer are a significant part of our lives.

Did I totally abandon all my religious beliefs when I rejected the religious structure and teachings of my first twenty three years? I know some people who knew me thought that was the case. In reality, for years I had been moving away from the teachings and beliefs of my youth which most people assumed I shared with them. I didn’t abandon my religious beliefs; they simply changed and grew and matured as I did. If someone thought they knew what I believed because they thought it would, of course, be the same as what they believed, they might very well have been completely wrong.

If my experience in recent years is an accurate indicator, many people tend to think everyone around them thinks and believes exactly the same things they do. This seems especially true in churches and other groups which appear on the surface to be homogeneous and which expect all members to share an institutional doctrine. Many church members think they believe whatever their church is supposed to believe, but may not even know exactly what that is. Individuals within the group or community may think they all believe the same things, but, if those beliefs were ever openly discussed, they might learn there was no real agreement at all. And anyone not in agreement with the group might certainly feel pressure to conform.

Perhaps some people don’t even consider the possibility of developing their own belief system. They may not be interested in thinking about their own personal philosophy or religion and coming to decisions for themselves about their own truths. They may believe it is their spiritual duty to rely on the recognized experts, the chosen leaders, the institutions, or the sacred texts to tell them what they should believe. I always thought my relationship to the world and my understanding of it through philosophy, science, religion, and ultimately my personal experience was much too important for me to leave it to others to define Truth for me.

Although I rejected organized, institutional religion and churches as a means for finding the understanding I sought, I have never doubted the importance of seeking a more meaningful connection with all aspects of life. I was always very interested in the religious and spiritual aspects of my life and was always desirous of finding deeper meaning within all of reality. I have explored ideas and thoughts from an eclectic mix of individuals from throughout the world, but not in any organized fashion. Just as I said I loved browsing through encyclopedias, I browse through life, discovering a thought here, an image there, an astonishing revelation somewhere else, frequently when those insights are least expected. I find inspiration in the words and lives of religious and secular thinkers, philosophers, poets, mystics, monks, hermits, songwriters, and many others who share their observations regarding our world. I never thought ‘Truth’ was to be found only within the teachings officially considered ‘sacred’ or in the pronouncements of recognized authorities. Indeed I have felt that truth for me had to be discovered by me, either in the world around me or in the world within me. Ultimately I think it has to be that way for everyone.

I don’t question the beliefs of others which may be different from my own or declare that they are wrong. Everyone’s personal beliefs are their own. I do often wonder whether the beliefs of another are based on accurate information, knowledge, or facts. I choose not to accept beliefs which do not fit my experience and understanding of reality. My beliefs are right for me and I hope the beliefs of others are right for them. Problems arise when people disagree over whose beliefs are “correct.” The ideas I express are mine. I’m not trying to convert anyone to my way of thinking or convince anyone that I am right and they are not. I don’t write to start a debate or disagreement. I’m simply sharing my thoughts about my life to this point in time in case they might be meaningful to someone else who reads them.

These words do not really capture the essence of the matter for me. The greatest part of my spiritual life is experiential, bound closely to the events and experiences of my daily life. Over twenty six years ago I wrote the following words as part of a message I was delivering to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Boone:

“There are moments of intensity in life which focus one’s attention fully on the present—birth, love, danger, and death to name a few. Perhaps you have had the experience of:

“Walking through the meadow in the fog as I did yesterday, with no sound around you except your own steps in the wet grass, with all the world sealed off by the fog so that you walked in a tiny, timeless world of your own;

“Touching the one you love tenderly for the first time, feeling the joyous excitement of the love you share, talking quietly together in a world for just the two of you;

“Holding your new-born child for the first time, feeling that fragile life entrusted to you, looking deeply into those trusting dark eyes and sensing the union of your lives;

“Holding in your arms one who is dying, seeing in those anxious eyes the love which cannot be spoken, feeling in the quivering flesh the pain that you both know too well, and rejoicing in the final breath with its peaceful release.

“If you’ve been there, you know that these are moments in life which last forever, both in the sense that the passage of time seems suspended and in the sense that the impact of that moment endures throughout life.

“These are moments of meaning. These are moments of meeting which call out to us with the message, ‘This is something that matters. Pay attention—Now!’”

Potential moments of meaning and meeting happen frequently if we are aware of them. Some, such as those mentioned above are obviously profound; others might be such everyday occurrences that they could easily be overlooked. As I was writing this post, a deer came into my sight in front of our house and walked around to several spots where I had spread some corn several days ago. Then it came closer, about ten feet outside the window, maybe fifteen feet away from me. For the next several minutes my attention was riveted on that beautiful creature, one of the many which share our homeplace.

My spiritual life for many years now has consisted of moment after moment of connections like this. Our homeplace here on the mountain has become a sacred place for us. I have experienced more profound spiritual moments and a greater sense of the meaningfulness of life here than I ever have in a church. I am seeking to be more fully present in the here and now, aware of all the world of which I am a part, involved in a deeper two-way communion with this world and all that is within it. I have a quote on my wall upstairs that reads, “Give me a woods to walk in and I will give to the world a person at peace with God and man.” I have the woods and I do walk there.


Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing

I can sit quietly and observe what is there in front of me for a long time and be very happy. I can sit and think of many things; don’t ever imagine that I must be bored or want to be doing something else; I don’t understand how people can be bored when there is so much around us and within us to occupy our minds. Doing something doesn’t have to mean being physically active or always being engaged in some visibly apparent endeavor. I am very much doing something when I am sitting, looking, thinking, remembering, planning, imagining, hearing–all those activities and more are part of being and being fully present and engaged with life and the world around me. That engagement, that appreciation of all that is around me, that being fully within it and a part of it is what brings me joy. When I am quiet, when I am still, when I may appear to be doing nothing, that is what I am most often doing–I am being here and now in this moment, fully experiencing it. That is what I want to do in every moment, whether there is physical activity happening or not.

A Place To Be

I longed for a place away from the city, away from crowds of people rushing about, away from traffic, away from noise and pollution, just away. It wasn’t that I didn’t like cities and people. I just wanted to be able to interact with them on my own terms, how and when I wanted to be with them. I wanted time apart from them, time to be on my own, time to interact with myself.

I’ve always loved being out in the woods by myself. During my pre-teen years, back in the time when kids were allowed go out and play, finding their own entertainment and activities, I would spend hours wandering in the wooded areas near our home that had not yet been replaced by subdivisions. I could explore and think and observe and create. It was wonderful.

So when we decided to make our big move, to leave the city and jobs and friends and family, we moved to the country, to a place set apart from the things we wanted to leave, to a place with open spaces and woods, a quiet place at the end of a yet-to-be-built road. We listened often to the lyrics of the song sung by Helen Reddy with their special meaning just for us:

What would they say
If we up and ran away
From the roaring crowds
And the worn out city faces
Would they carry on and on
When they found out we were gone
Or would they let us go
Would they tag along
Or would they know to

Leave us alone
We’d live in the country
Leave us alone
We’d make it just fine
Happy in a one room shack
And we’d not look back
Now would we

To some family and friends it was a strange and unexpected move. Their questions reflected their puzzlement. What was there that we were going to? As far as they could see there was not much to draw us to this piece of land seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Why go there? What will you do with 9+ acres of land with nothing on it except fields and woods? Some of them eventually came to understand what we saw here. Some unfortunately never realized why we came. But we knew all along. It was and is a place to live simply but well, a place to learn and grow, a place to be the people we wanted to be.