This I Believe: Barb Parent (2004)

I am always impressed with the readings that Victoria finds and then weaves into her sermon.  I particularly liked the one from this spring where the author used crossing a swamp on lily pads as an analogy for her spiritual journey.  I tried to think of a suitably thought provoking analogy to describe how I had gotten to today spiritually and thus to what I believe.  Since I feel most comfortable close to water, I thought I would liken my journey to traveling on the river and moving from a small river to a bigger river to an even bigger river, but then I realized that if I was in the really big river I would have traveled into the main stream (pardon the pun) and I noticed that this analogy did not work; it was backward.  I was born into a Roman Catholic family.  I was not only in the main stream religiously speaking, but on a very big boat in a large flotilla of boats, yet from the very beginning, my place on that bit boat was unclear.  My mother had a solid berth on that big boat along with her mother, and my paternal grandmother had a cabin, but my father was on shore, for he never in my memory attended church, and I cannot recall if we children were ever given a reason.  I suspect that my father, who was an electrical engineer and did research in the space program, had a different view of religion.

I can appreciate the routine, pageantry, structure that this early religious upbringing brought into my life.  I loved the music, high mass music in particular.  I liked the Latin prayers and the whole ritual except for when Monsignor McDonald would stand and the pulpit and pound on it while giving his sermons.  I never did like the kneeling part, especially when I got caught leaning my seat back on the pew.  In a sense, I can, even today, appreciate Catholic guilt because along with it came a very clear foundation of underlying positive values (not to mention the fear of eternal damnation if I was to screw up).  With the idea of sin came also the forgiveness of sins, which then extended to the whole concept of forgiveness.

I always felt a little uncomfortable going to confession for I was not a very bad kid and yet I felt I had to say something when it was my turn.  You know, you are a bit on the spot right after you have said “Bless me father for I have sinned.”  You need to come up with something and you areally are not supposed to make things up, for then you have to tell the priest that you also committed the sin of lying.

Three significant events began to change the way I viewed the religion I was born into.  Two of those events happened around the same time.  One was the Catholic Church appeared to change a lot of the rules; the other was being a teenager.  Let me try to explain.  I have always been one of the rule followers, and so I have memories of glancing at my watch on a Friday night while sitting at a table in Lumbardino’s with my friends, waiting for midnight so I could eat the pepperoni on my pizza because one did not eat meat on Fridays.  Imagine my surprise when the rule changed and I found out it was not a rule handed down by God, but rather it was a rule made up long ago by the church for economic reasons.  All that agony and peer pressure due to the fact that Italy was a country that depended on fishing as part of its economy.

So what does being a teenager have to do with anything other than you now know I liked pepperoni pizza?  I have never been a rebel or a rabble rouser, but I have always been a questioner.  While the maternal part of my family were church-going people and insisted I come along, counterbalancing the structure and stricture of the Catholic Church and its teachings was my father not attending church and his quiet influence of always asking “I wonder” questions.  “I wonder why, I wonder how, I wonder if…”.  As a teen, I went from having Sunday school on Sunday to having Sunday school on Tuesday nights, and by then I was full of questions, mostly “I wonder why” questions.  I was not overly enthused about going to Sunday school on a school night in the first place, and then to have to sit in third grade desks at the school attached to our church and listen to a lay person trying to get us ready for confirmation (for the Bishop might call on any one of us you know).  It was, to say the least, a painful experience in and of itself.  I was harder for me I think because I was so full of questions.  I have not changed all that much for I am still full of questions.  But, I digress.  I would ask “why” questions like, “Why can’t girls be priests?” and “Why has St. Christopher been demoted?” and “Why…”, well, you get the idea.  The poor lay teachers must have prayed for me to get a long-term but not terminal illness so I would no longer be in their class.  Their standard answer to me was, “We’ll ask the priest when he comes.”  The priest rarely came to our class and when he did, it was not to spend time answering my questions about the theology and rulings of the Catholic Church.

The third event that influenced me at that time was taking a course in comparative religion early in my undergraduate career.  I had left four years of Tuesday school not getting the answers to questions I had asked.  I had spent my life to that point being part of a religion that did not even allow you to attend another religious service without permission, and then stepped into a classroom where many of the world religions were discussed and compared.  Oh my!  This was like forbidden fruit.

At this point I was set adrift.  I no longer felt comfortable in my own religion, but I did not feel comfortable anywhere else, so for the next thirty years I did not attend church.  Last spring I took Victoria’s course called “Build your own theology.”  One assignment was to either write a personal creed or write a letter to a friend about your beliefs.  Somewhat like writing a “This I Believe” talk.  I discovered then, as I have this summer, that it is easier to express what I do not believe than to clarify what I do believe.  However, in answer to the assignment, this is what I wrote:

June 1, 2003

Dear Friend,

I really enjoyed hearing from you and got a chuckle over the part in your letter when you exclaimed, “Good God woman, I can’t believe you are attending a church.  What gives?”  I can understand why you might ask that question since I have not attended a church service (other than Christmas with Mother and funerals) for over 30 years.  I am sure this must seem very out of character since I have been telling the story about the old Indian chief for years.  You remember the story about the Jesuit priests who had the natives build a small log structure that had no windows, just a door, and had very hard benches.  Once this small church was built, the priests told the Indian chief that this was the house of God, and God dwelled within, so the Indians needed to enter and worship him there.  The old Indian chief said to the priest, “But did you not say God was everywhere?” and the priest answered “Yes.”  The old Indian chief said “If that is true, then I will worship him in the forest, in the meadows, along the river”, and turned and walked away.  I think I probably followed him right out the door.

As you know I have not been what others might consider an organized religion person, but I have always felt deeply spiritual.  I just have never felt comfortable or felt I fit within the traditional Christian religions, for all too often the theology or teachings or preachings asked me to negate who I am, change who I am, hide who I am, or condemned who I am.  I could go on and on about other theological issues I have with the religion of my birth (Catholic) and other Christian religions, but that will not answer your original question.  Why now, and why the Unitarian Universalist church?

I am not sure I have a non-rambling, clear answer, but I will try.  Perhaps the most simplistic answer is because at first I was attracted by the particular church community because it was welcoming, accepting, and friendly, but that would certainly not be enough to keep me, a staunch Sunday morning member of the St. Reclines attendees, coming back week after week.  As I continued to attend the UU church, I began to really try to learn what this liberal religion was all about, and quite frankly after nearly four years, I am still not sure, but I am getting a glimmer.  This is a place where acceptance happens and where real religious freedom is possible and diversity is the norm.  This is a spiritual community that has more “thou shalts” than “thou shalt nots”, that encourages questioning and does not have a specific boilerplate for belief.  It is a place where it is not only ok to adhere to a different and very personal belief system, but it is encouraged and nurtured.

I find that the services give me something to think about, to mull over, and often the words of the readings or the sermons touch my soul.  I find the tradition of a long line of nontraditional people I have admired in history were Unitarians or Universalists, people who stood up for what they believed, who made a difference in many big and small ways, and the people here continue in that tradition.  What is refreshing, however, is that there is also a tradition of agreeing to disagree, to have differing opinions, to think outside the box and yet be able to not only express those ideas, but to coexist fairly comfortably.

Here on Sunday, conversations that swirl around this gathering of people, this community, awakens in me a need to look beyond myself and the narrow world I live in, while at the same time allows me to grow at my own speed, follow my own spiritual path, and supports that growth and that path.

Tomorrow is another school day, so I had best close.  Write again soon.

So, that letter tells you a bit about what got me in the door here, but not necessarily what I believe.  While I was adrift in a very small canoe (to continue the river analogy) over those thirty years of not attending church, I wandered down various byways, creeks, and back eddies.  In a sense I have been a solitary and eclectic practitioner spiritually along the way.  I find I am most grounded when in a natural setting and almost need the woods and lake to balance my life.  Within nature I have found balance, not only for myself but a knowing that within nature when there is balance, when the world around is in harmony, then things are well.  Chief Dan George suggests that “We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive.”  I believe when nature gets out of balance, trouble happens.  This is true for the world at large, and our world appears to be very out of balance, not only environmentally, but between the have and the have nots, males and females, liberals and fundamentalists, environmentalists versus commercial endeavors, light vs. dark, etc…  I believe that the world will remain in chaos until balance is once again achieved.  I also believe that balance and change needs to start within, that a great deal of spiritual growth is growing into who you think you should be ethically.

I believe that one’s effect on oneself and the world around them begins with one act at a time.  If you were to boil down the essence of most of the world religions, one of the basic tenets is the Golden Rule.  The Golden Rule, as endorsed by all the great world religions, is best interpreted as saying:  “Treat others only in ways that you’re willing to be treated in the same exact situation.”  To apply it, you’d imagine yourself in the exact palce of the other person on the receiving end of the action.  If you act in a given way toward another, and yet are unwilling to be treated that way in the same circumstances, then you violate the rule.

The Golden Rule, with roots in a wide range of world cultures, is well suited to be a standard to which different cultures could appeal in resolving conflicts.  As the world becomes more and more a single interacting global community, the need for such a common standard is becoming more urgent.

            (Gensler, Blackwell Dictionary of Business Ethics)

One Unitarian principle states, “We affirm and promote respect for the interdependence of all existence of which we are a part.”  The early pagan religions suggested that you should do as thou will, but harm none.  This is easy to say, but much harder to live; to try and live a life in which through thought, word, and deed I truly try to harm none.  Ever try to have a grouse free day, one in which you did not buy into the negative talk around you, or create it yourself?  I believe we need to be mindful in our everyday conversations and actions toward others.  Like the dropping of a pebble into a still pond, each word or deed sends out ripples and we never see where they end, and who or what they eventually touch.  A quote by anonymous (who has written many profound words) suggested that “The man who offers an insult writes it in sand, but for the man who receives it, it’s chiseled in stone.”  Mother Teresa, on the other hand, suggested that “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”

I had heard the story of the starfish where the boy was going along the shore and throwing stranded starfish back.  A gentleman who happened upon the boy suggested that this effort was futile and in the long run would not make a difference, to which the young man answered, “It made a difference to that one.”  I had not heard the story beyond that last line, but found a version which continued the story with the following paragraph:

The older man shook his head at the impossible optimism of the young man, and turned away and walked home.  That night he sat for a long time thinking of the young man, and determined that the young man was really affecting the world and taking action to make a difference, something that the older man would like to do.  That night he slept fitfully.  In the morning, he awoke, went down to the beach and found the young man again.  Then together, they went along the beach shore, tossing starfish back into the ocean.

I believe it is possible to change the world, one small act at a time, and if each of us concentrated each day doing just that, change beyond measure would happen.  Author unknown (another of the great writers) says, “The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness.”  Mohandas Gandhi stated we should, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I believe in a higher power or powers, but I do not have a name for her, him, or them, which makes addressing her, him, or them in thanks or prayer a bit difficult.  I do believe that this higher power is benevolent.  I have trouble believing gods or goddesses have told humankind to go on crusades, jihads, or war in their name, nor do I feel comfortable in religions that suggest the same.

I believe there is something beyond this life, but not necessarily the heaven from my early religious teaching, and I do not believe in the devil or hell.  I have found that this takes away some colorful language such as “The world is going to hell in a hand basket”, or “Oh, for heaven’s sake!”  I am more inclined to believe in the recycling of the soul.  Perhaps there are only so many souls and as each lifetime passes, we are recycled back; that some of us have relatively new souls and others are old souls.

I believe in the possibility that good people do not always finish last, and that while bad things can happen to good people, that good deeds, good thoughts, good and ethical actions do, besides reaping their own rewards, create positive karma.

To end, I would like to get back to the analogy I started out with, where my spiritual journey has been one of traveling down a river in a single-person craft in search of spiritual understanding and enlightenment, and while it will always be a very personal and solitary journey, it is comforting to find myself with company on this stage of the journey.  Thank you for listening.