This I Believe: Bob Ganger (2020)

Good Morning, I’m Bob Gagner. I’ve been a member of White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church just enough years to have lost track of how many. I think about eight. And during those years I have had the opportunity to hear other members of our church give their This I Believe presentations. I remember thinking how wonderful they were, and thinking how brave they were to do that.

I also remember wondering, ‘What would I say if given the opportunity?’ What would I say I Believe?

We’ll the first two things came to mind pretty quickly. When thinking of spirituality, or religion, or god, I Believe: “No One Really Knows, So Pick A Story That Works For You, and Go With It” and the second thing was, “If You Find a Story That Works for You, I’m Happy for You!”

Now to go beyond those two, I want to share where I came from, and how I got to what I currently believe.

I was raised Catholic.

I know, I know, and I learned that the very first service I attended here. After the service was over, and I wiped away the tears running down my face (more on that later), I went out to the Welcome Counter and asked the very kind volunteers if they had some literature I could have. As they gathered some, they asked me where I was coming from. I told them I was raised Catholic. They paused, smiled, and said, “We have a lot of you here”.

Well, I was raised very Catholic. 8 years of Catholic grade school and 5 years as an altar boy (as an aside, I received an accommodation as an altar boy for saving the life of a fellow altar boy, when his hair caught on fire while lighting all those candles.) So if you’re ever worried about lighting the chalice, or candles on a tree, I’ll be there for you.

I was a very good Catholic. I knew all the church rules, protocols, and I could pronounce the Latin in the Mass flawlessly, even though I had no idea what we were saying. I believe the nuns were grooming me to be a priest. Unbeknownst to them, I had been kissed by a very nice red head at age 5. No amount of nunnery was going to erase that memory.

What started to happen as I got older is, I started to find things that just didn’t make sense to me. The first I remember was the whole thing about the devil. If the devil was an angel that got thrown out of heaven by god for doing something bad, why would they want to hurt the people that disobeyed god’s laws? I would think they’d want to gather them together and have a party. I never raised this question to the nuns because I knew questioning never got positively reinforced, and I knew they carried that ruler in that big sleeve.

And I felt terrible for the little children in Africa who hadn’t been found by Missionaries yet they wouldn’t be able to go to heaven. It just didn’t seem right.

There were many more things.

But the straw that finally broke my Catholic back was in 1970 when I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota. Jack Baker was running for Student Council President. He was a law school student, and brilliant. He had great ideas. I didn’t vote for him, because he was gay.

It wasn’t long after that, that I became aware that some on my dear friends that I truly respected were gay. And I learned from them about orientation rather than choice. And I learned a lot more.

I call it my “window shade moment”. When it hit me. That the things I had learned from my church, were wrong.

Once I had made that acknowledgement, the dominos started to fall. What else that I believed, was wrong? What else had I been taught not to question?

I married into the Methodist Church. I hoped that it might be a better fit for me. The people and ministers were all very nice, I was very happy for them and what they believed, but there were so many things that I just didn’t get. I stopped going to church.

So I embarked on what I called, “Being the pastor of the church of Bob”. I took a little bit of this and a little bit of that from various theologies that I knew (including some from the Catholic church). It was largely a, “Be a good guy and try and help others.” It worked for me.

The attendance at the church of Bob was never very good. And the social hour was, honestly, pretty lonely. I missed having others to talk to, and learn from.

Then I got a fortuitous phone call. I was working for the YMCA and ran a summer camp and conference and retreat center. It was on an island in a lake near Amery. It was beautiful! The person calling needed a site for an upcoming conference. They had held their event at Whitewater State Park for a number of years but this year the park flooded and they needed a new site quickly. They also shared that I was their thirteenth phone call. It wasn’t because the other sites didn’t have room, but because they were pagans. Well, the person calling didn’t know that they had just called the most progressive camp director in the region and a person who saw themselves as a “champion for the misunderstood”. Well, they held their conference at my camp. 80 people, for 8 days a year, for 10 years.

They were a very welcoming group, a very open-minded group, a very diverse group (that’s where I learned my gender-neutral language and became comfortable with the singular they and them), and a very willing-to-listen and share group. I felt a kindred spirit with them.

Our conversations were very wide-ranging and thought inspiring. I became familiar with Humanists and Pantheist, poly-deists and non-deists. I was attracted to the Humanist and Pantheist’s profession that, “nature is my god”. It felt very comforting to think of god in a nurturing Mother Nature kind of way.

I attended a 3-session orientation to learn about the Humanists. I liked their nature-based approach but I didn’t fit well with, what I believe to be their philosophy, that when you die – it’s the end. Nothing more. I wanted there to be more; I wanted a continuation.

I then went to the Annual Twin Cities Pagan Conference. Yes, there’s an annual pagan conference, at the Double Tree in St. Louis Park, with 400 people. The actual definition of a pagan is someone holding religious beliefs other than Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. So that can be a big group. I attended the workshops on Pantheism and was excited to learn about Dual Pantheism, which combined the Humanist reverence for the natural world, with the acknowledgement of a separate energy, not connected to the physical. This was sounding much like what I was talking to myself about during my sermons at the church of Bob. I was disappointed, though, to learn that Pantheism is a philosophy and not a group of people that get together, at least here.

And then, another fortunate moment. One year, during the pagan retreat at my camp, a participant I had gotten to know well and who knew of my “searching” for a church, said, “You ought to check out the Unitarians”. Well, the only thing I knew about Unitarians was that Garrison Keillor made jokes about them on his Prairie Home Companion radio show. They also told me that “Each Unitarian Church in the Twin Cities has a little different personality. I think you would like the one in White Bear.”

So the next available Sunday I drove the 27 miles from Coon Rapids to Mahtomedi. I was welcomed by a very nice man in a really cool sweater. I sat toward the back in the middle. The people on each side of me said hello. I was first impressed with the beautiful wood wall in front and the big windows looking out at the woods. Then came the giant crystal singing bowl. I use a singing bowl for my meditations at home so this was very different in a really good way. And then, “Come in, Come in to this place …” You know the rest. And before it was done my eyes started to well up. Then pile on readings from Whitman, Thoreau, and I think Dr. Seuss. And a sermon that didn’t tell me how to think but gave me thoughts and ideas that would bounce around in my head for the next week, and make we want to come back for more. And I have.

So that’s how I got here, but let me try and summarize what I’ve come to believe from that journey.

I believe that the world, and universe, exists and operates within a set of “laws of nature”. Photosynthesis, chemical reactions, DNA, the relationship between bees and flowers, the reproduction of living things, and a million other things, are all following consistent systems and processes. And it’s all connected and works together like one entity. The natural world is amazing! How the little tendrils on my grape vines keep waving around until they find something to grab onto and wrap around, how a seed knows which way is up, and how that butterfly knows where Mexico is. I’m always in awe of its beauty and how it functions. It’s an awe that sparks reverence, a reverence that conjures up the feelings in me of what I want god to be. A provider. A supporter. A nurturer.

There’s also understanding that nature has its mutations. Little changes that can make something different. Mutations that drove, and drive evolution, or the mutations that can cause a disease or trigger a healing process. And that these mutations are part of nature’s process. I like that it’s random, without intention. I don’t want to believe that those things are controlled, or directed.

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t like the idea of death being the end. I had a wonderful opportunity on a mountaineering trek to Everest Base Camp to visit Buddhist temples and monasteries, and hear from the monks about their beliefs. What resonated with me was their happiness, and certainty, in reincarnation. It planted the seed of possibility in me, which has grown to be what I want to believe. I like the idea of my energy, after my physical body has ended, to continue on to something else. Again, and again.

And that’s the real beauty in my first belief, “That no one really knows, so pick (or create) a story that works for you.” It’s changeable! It’s kind of a statement that dogma is over-rated. I’ve expanded that first belief to include, “We may never know”, and “We don’t have to know.” It’s the mystery that keeps us curious and learning.

At times, I wish I did know how reincarnation worked. I would love to come back as a cat. To just stretch out in the sunbeam, play with a ball of yarn, and nap a lot. I think everyone who lives a hectic life should get one as a cat, to rest up.

Now I won’t often identify myself as a pagan. It creates too many misguided stereotypes. I’ll proudly identify myself as a Unitarian, because we welcome, respect, and nurture all our varied beliefs.

And I Believe, it really doesn’t matter what we call ourself, it’s what we DO with what we believe that matters.

I Believe that we are all connected as this natural world. And that bestows upon us the role and responsibility to take care of US. All the plants, all the animals, and all the people, especially those needing help. Do as much as we can in this life, and then again in the next life, again, and again, and again.

One of my friends I met in a Theme Circle here once said to me, “I’ve never met a pagan before!” So if you’re like them, now you have!

Thank You!