This I Believe: Beth Irish (2006)

Like many of you, I was not raised Unitarian. I was baptized by a friend of my father –  a Congregationalist – and, not counting my brother’s baptism, I did not set foot in a church again until I was eight years old. My parents decided they wanted my brother Michael and me to be exposed to church, so they picked a local Lutheran church with a good youth program.

I enjoyed the church and Sunday school. I loved books, so learning Bible stories about heroes who survived lion’s dens or took out giants with slingshots was a lot of fun for me. I also had a great memory for Bible verses, and I earned about 40 pounds of candy for my recitation of different verses in class. The very first one I learned was the one I chose for the reading today: “Beloved, let us love one another.” We also had a great pastor. The first time Michael saw him in church, he sat up in the pew and said, “Mommy! God came! There he is!” All these years later, when I think of God, he still looks and acts like Pastor Hyllengren. About sixty years old, with grey hair, glasses, thin and slight, available for questions, never flustered, and always kind.

By the time I started confirmation in 7th grade, however, Pastor Hyllengren had retired. The new pastor didn’t connect with me very well, or actually anyone in my family. My brother and I were confirmed, and the whole family left the church. I had a great technical knowledge of the Lutheran faith; I knew the dogma; I had read most of the Bible. But I had very little idea what any of it meant to me, and frankly didn’t see the importance in devoting a lot of time to figuring it out.

I did not really do much thinking about my faith until I went to college at Gustavus Adolphus, a good Lutheran school. I, like most college students, was feeling a little rebellious. One of my friends joined the Marines; I decided to find a church. I tried going to the church on campus twice and never went again. I did not like the “my way or the highway” attitude of the pastor. I did, however get to take a Bible history class in my first semester with one of the world’s most incredible professors, Jack Clark. With 30+ masters degrees, mostly in dead languages, so he could read various versions of the Bible, Jack was a scholar’s scholar. When I first went to class, another student told me Jack could make lightening crash down from the sky. I believe it. He started the class saying that we were going to tear the Bible apart, use scholarship and our brains to get at its meaning. Nothing was to be taken on faith. If you had trouble with that, leave the class now. As a practicing Christian, Jack believed it was our duty to apply ourselves, heart and soul, to this task. God, he said, demanded nothing less than every ounce of the brains you had.

Ever feel like your brain is being turned inside out? That class was an incredible mental gymnastic exercise. If you said, “But it doesn’t mean that,” you earned a scathing glare and a, “You obviously haven’t read that in its original Hebrew,” or “Look at the social context, if you please.” Turn the other cheek was turned on it head, and we got to discuss when various stories (such as Eve being made from Adam’s rib) were added to the Bible and what was going on in society at that time. We looked through the Dead Sea scrolls, and for our final had to invite three major Biblical writers to dinner and write about what they would tell you between courses. It was fascinating and fun.

So, 19-years-old, arrogantly proud of factual understanding of the Bible, I was still looking for a church. But I had no car, and the church on campus was not an option. Then a dorm mate suggested I try the Catholic church in town.

I reacted with profound bigotry. Catholics? Are you serious? They believe in magic, they throw around incense, plopping on their knees. Living in the 16th century, how whacked was that? In my confirmation class at church I had learned how Catholics subverted the Bible and were flat wrong in their interpretations. They tried to hide Biblical truth from regular people and just made up ceremonies. But I had had an even more biased account of Catholicism in my history classes at the public high school — the Catholic church frequently, exclusively, referred to as a corrupt institution, with weak, decadent Popes holding back the advance of civilization. The Protestant Reformation was a golden movement, which led to wealth and industrialization, while Catholic countries were poor, backward, and ignorant. All this went through my brain, and then out my mouth. Then I put my foot in my mouth!

I told my friend I was not going to any Catholic church. However, I gave in when told that the services were on Saturday night and that the college church goers always had a good party afterwards.

Going to the Catholic church was one of the most humbling experiences in my life. I sat, my first Saturday, determined to resist any attempt made to have me kneel or cross myself. To my dismay, no one noticed. The sermon was great, the priest wonderful. I had never before been in a church which put such emphasis on DOING something. Drives for Habitat for Humanity, filling sandbags each time St. Peter flooded, knitting mittens, Meals on Wheels, sponsoring big brothers and sisters, adopting a grandparent, tutoring . . . the relentless pursuit of actually doing something to help people. I loved being a part of that.

Over the time I went there I got to know the priest a little. Once he asked why I didn’t take communion. I responded that I wasn’t sure what I believed, but I was not Catholic. He asked if I saw someone who needed help, changing a flat tire, crossing the street, calling an ambulance, would I help? I said sure. Then, said he, you are doing all Christ asked of you, to help one another. So take communion, if you want. You are a member of our community, here to try to help one another, and that is what it is all about. So I took communion . . . and it felt good. It felt good to be a part of a community working to help one another.

Not to say it was easy. I don’t think I ever told my parents I was going to a Catholic church; I was fairly sure they would not take it well. Friends back home, hearing I was going to the Catholic church, responded with varying horror. I was asked if I had joined a cult – as Unitarians, you may be able to relate to this question – and one friend seriously told me that I was only one small step from Scientology. Get out while I still could.

At this point in my life, I could not have articulated what I believed. But I never stopped looking for answers. That was one thing Jack taught me. Never to stop looking. The Catholic church taught me to lay aside my preconceptions of what any group was

. . . and the importance of belonging to a community.

Then came my chance to study in Scotland. I left for the University of Aberdeen, and promptly started going to the Scottish National Church, which was Presbyterian, mostly for the free coffee afterwards. You have no idea how expensive coffee was in the UK at that time. But it was there that I heard the sermon that gave me the words to describe my faith. A Quaker came to give a guest sermon, and he preached on the story of the prodigal son.

For those who do not know or have forgotten, the story of the prodigal son is a parable told by Jesus and is the story of a wealthy, important man. One day his youngest son came to him and demanded to have his share of his inheritance given to him now. In modern terms, he said, “Dad, give me my money now, or I’m going to pull a stunt worthy of the Menendez brothers.” He threatened to murder his father, so his father gave him half of all he owned. The son ran away and squandered the money on loose living – the Bible says harlots and the like. Finally, having spent all the money, the son was left starving in the streets. Desperate, he decided to go back to his father, say he is sorry he threatened to kill him, and ask for a job. It is interesting to note that the son says he is sorry only to get the job. He is not actually sorry for threatening his father, but he’ll say it to avoid starving to death. So he creeps back to his father’s town.

According to Hebrew law at the time, the fact that the son threatened his father makes the son’s life forfeit. If anyone in the town sees the son before his father publicly forgives him, they have the right to instantly execute the son. So the son has to sneak to his father without being seen by anyone and hope he’s forgiven.

His father sees his son from his window. In Palestine at this time, the more important a man was, the slower he moved. But when he sees his son, not knowing yet if his son was there to murder him, not knowing if his son repents of what he had done, but knowing his son is in mortal danger, the father runs to embrace his son. In today’s equivalent, it would be as if you saw your child in danger while stepping out of the shower, and then ran into the street, in front of all your co-workers and all your friends, all your enemies, everyone you knew, without stopping for a tenth of a second to pick up a robe. The father embraces his son and declares, “Here is my son, whom I love.” And, at that point, the son finally realizes what an awful thing he had done and says, “Father, I have sinned against you, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.” No reference to the job he wants, no asking for anything. Because at that moment, he realized how precious his father’s love was.

The preacher, whose name I have forgotten, said that if the rest of the Bible disappeared, this story would tell us all we need to know. Anthropomorphized or not, God is love. He, she, it, the Force in Star Wars, is a love that is given freely, selflessly, and regardless of whether a person deserves it.

The two commandments Jesus gave to those who would follow him were to love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love they neighbor as yourself. Loving God means honoring love in all its forms . . . heterosexual or homosexual, parent and child, friends, love for the planet, a pet, the world. That the act of loving freely and selflessly is in of itself is what is holy and precious. And loving thy neighbor meant trying to find something to love and respect in everyone . . . which is hard to do sometimes. But necessary, remembering that no one is all good or bad, and that having an open mind to different ideas can lead to learning all sorts of truths.

I am a Christian, which is a hard thing to say in this room. I believe in the two commandments given by Jesus, but I think the argument over Christ’s divinity is irrelevant, which makes me a bit of a heretic. Who thinks someone can be a good Christian without ever referencing Christ, so long as they can hold true to the idea that we need to love and help one another?

This left me in a bit of a bind, in trying to find a church. After graduating college, I had no idea how to find a church I could accept and that would accept me. Finally a friend told me how she had found her church. She had looked up a reconciling churches website, which helped you find churches in your area that accept homosexuals. Figuring that would be a good place to start, I checked out the website.  And the first church I found was WBUUC. I didn’t know much about Unitarians, so I looked them up on the Internet. Finding it was a pluralistic community, dedicated to the search for truth, I thought it seemed like it would be a good fit.

So I came to WBUUC. I met my future husband on that first day and have since married here and dedicated my children here. I still consider myself a Christian and work hard to love my neighbor and respect love of all kinds. My husband is a Jewish-Wiccan, and we have a happy, mixed-faith marriage. We come here to find a place where we can both be accepted in our faith. We come in the hope that our children can have a safe place to talk about both faiths, about growing up celebrating Samhain, Hanukkah, Christmas, Solstice, Passover, and Easter, and not be ostracized for it. I come here with my family to have a place where we can work together with our WBUUC community to try to make this world a better place for everyone.