Elul Day 17
I glanced at my posting yesterday about teshuvah, and noticed that I inadvertently did not mention anything about God. Higher Power, the Holy One of Many Names, Jesus, Allah, Yah, Goddess, HaShem, MotherFatherGod. Whatever name you want to use, the topic of a divine presence of any sort is a sensitive issue. Many acts of kindness as well as hatred have been committed in the name of a Holy Other.
So many people have felt profoundly hurt or harmed by organized religion, which is really about human behavior, not about God; I am careful about how I write about and talk about God because it can be a bit of a land mine. Nonetheless, any discussion about teshuvah and spiritual practice would be incomplete without at least some cursory mention of HaShem.
About twenty years ago, during a time in my life when I was a stubborn, strident atheist, I had a conversation with a mentor who asked me,
If you did believe in a higher power, what would you want her/him/it to be like?
I still remember how profound this question was for me: the idea that I could actually have some say in what God could be like was a radical departure from what I had learned from my childhood religious education. Even liberal Judaism didn't offer this much leeway. There was something in the question itself that was surprisingly liberating. I loved the idea that no one would be able to impose their definition of God as the correct or only one, and that the Divine Presence was so transcendent, so incredibly beyond our small-minded human brains, that it had the capacity to be many things to many different people at any moment.
For a few years I only used gender-neutral words like Divine Presence, Oneness, Source, Spirit, but then I read an incredible book by Lucy Reid called She Changes Everything: Seeking the Divine on a Feminist Path, and I had a quintessential AHA moment: I had neutered God. My best intentions to use accessible, non-sexist language had resulted in some diluted, bland, deflated version of the One. So I started to change the words I was using, and even though I still flinch and object to the antiquated patriarchal language that is still rampant, I just substitute other words and pronouns whenever I feel like it.
Can't God embody masculine, feminine and gendervariant attributes? What's wrong with considering the idea that God can hold all the ideal qualities of mother, father, parent, friend, teacher, protector, comrade, sibling and more? The idea that we are not alone, that there is an endless wellspring of everything we need available to us in every moment, is quite comforting even when it feels out of reach.
I have been listening to a new gospel CD in my car called We Won't Be Silent Anymore by Bishop Dr. Yvette Flunder. Every time I listen to it I am drawn in by the lyrics as well as the music. The words reflect a theology which reassures people that whatever burdens we are carrying, God can hold them all. The mutuality of relationship, the infinite source of justice and love and comfort, it is all incredibly compelling. Although this particular quality of relationship with God exists in other religions as well, it is often overshadowed by the judgmental, critical God. Or the smiting angry God.
In Judaism we retell the Exodus story in abbreviated form every day in our liturgy–the source of liberation that reached out a mighty hand and freed the Israelites from slavery. Retelling the story is a a psycho-spiritual tool that is well documented even in the psychological literature about recovering from trauma. Psychiatrist Judith Herman wrote about this in her groundbreaking book, Trauma and Recovery.
Coming back around to the topic of teshuvah practice, our work is not only to be accountable to others for how we have behaved over the past year, but also to be spiritually accountable, to ourselves and to whatever we call that which is greater than ourselves. I love hearing all the words and images and ideas people use to describe All That Is.
Last January I was hired to lead a one-day spiritual direction retreat for a congregation, and the person who hired me wanted reassurance that the retreat would be "helping people to discern the movement of God in their lives." With some hesitation, I said yes, but that it was highly unlikely I would describe it quite like that!
Every one of us has our own experience of the sacred, and for many people it has absolutely nothing to do with anything called God. For others, it's all about God. Maybe you find it in nature, or in music, or with your pets, or your children. Maybe you find it in poetry, or your dreams, or in yoga. Maybe a long soak in a hot tub is where you pray and meditate. Or in cooking, gardening or writing. Maybe you even find it in your church, synagogue, coven, mosque, community meeting or temple.
May you find your way home.
stopped writing letters to God because she’s discovered that he is “trifling,
lowdown” like most of the other men she knows. But Shug has a whole different
sense of who God is—not a he or a she, but a feeling of being part of
everything. The first time she
experienced this, she says;]
laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it
was. In fact, when it happen, you
can’t miss it. It sort of like you
know what, she say grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh. Shug, I say. Oh, she say. God love all
them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God
loves ‘em you enjoys ‘em a whole lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and
praise God by liking what you like.
don’t think it dirty? I ast..
she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff
from The Color Purple, by Alice Walker