This I Believe: Charlotte Preston (2005)

You may be familiar with a creation story from the Bible.

On the sixth day of creation, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

It is not whether or how God shaped clay which calls me. What calls me is that God, in the midst of creative activity, breathed life into the human form. The story describes us as made in God’s image. I think we are formed, enlivened by the breath of God, created in the image of the Creator, in order to create.

Narratives and poetic imagery from both the Old and New Testaments, like this creation story, have always resonated with me.

There is another Biblical story about creation that comes from the New Testament Book of John. I’ll tell this story as it is told in the King James edition, though that version follows the old method of using male gender referents for both God and humans:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

I believe in the Word as a creator, shaper, and inspirer. I think of the light in a human as the inspiration to create in our own ways, in connections, in relationships, in intellectual and soul-felt pursuits. I was created to be a life-partner and parent, a singer, a wordsmith. My big questions have been about creative inspiration, about what breathes life into a human no matter their human circumstance, whom to thank by name when I see beauty, to whom to direct my voice when I sing, who hears me when I wail out with affliction or grief.

My big questions are almost never about the thing created, the physics of the hug, the chemistry of pain or tears, the math of all the symmetries reflected in the human body. I value you scientists, health care people, mathematicians (though I sometimes puzzle on having landed in a church so peopled by 3M), and I believe that you such folk ask your questions rightly and well, important, big questions. But “what, when, where, how” questions are not my usual questions.

I think God is unknowable by us humans while we are limited by our humanness, living in these shapes in a specific time. I approach the “who” and “why” of God in the way I understand myself and others, through word-based art, poetic imagery, and stories. I have come to believe that what God inspires, within and outside of Christian traditions, is true in a way that bypasses questions of factual accuracy.

As a former teacher of English literature, I’ve always considered fiction truer than fact. Well-written stories are crucibles that hold liquid metal while the dross is burned away, purifying deep-seated truths which may not be susceptible to articulation but which can still be molded in our hearts.

I no longer identify myself as a fundamentalist Christian, which is how I was raised, but even here at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church where I have been a member since 1993, I do identify as being rooted in Christianity. Many who call themselves Christian would not recognize me as kindred, but I believe God knows my name.

What my big religious questions have always been set the parameters for what I believe.

I do not ask about the biology of Jesus’ birth. I believe in the miracle of every birth. I do not ask how someone can be the son of God. I believe each one of us is the child of God, born to the one who breathes life into humankind. I do not ask about whether a dead body might rise, though I accept the miracle that the resurrected Jesus was seen by the women and men who loved him. I believe that every human soul lives past the body it wears for now. These questions of history do not touch the core questions for me.

I ask about WHO is revealed is in the life and teachings of Jesus that inspire me. I ask about WHY, when I cry out with a silent or sung prayer, I know I am heard. I ask about to whom it is my heart goes when I look out my office window and see time caught in a moment, white winter snow falling on still-summer green grass, birds morphing to suit the season. I name my heart’s destination “God” and the path I learned to travel there is a Christian path. I believe there are many paths.

There are stories in the Bible which speak to me as a child of God about who God is, though the Bible includes other stories which don’t. I know the old story of the smears of lamb’s blood rubbed on the lintels of the doors to protect the first-born boys of the Israelites, slaves in Egypt, from the Angel of Death, signaling that their homes should be passed over in the slaughter. It is imagery I understand, but blood sacrifice does not speak to me of God.

Jesus’ life, which he lived creatively and tumultuously as a catalyst and transformer in his world, does inspire me to risk being a creative force in mine.

I am drawn to the child Jesus, who is so focused on teaching the teachers in the temple that he misses going home with his parents, to the young man with friends at a wedding party who uses his special talent, creating wine out of water, to take a personal part in the celebration because his mamma asks him to.

I am challenged by the story of the adult Jesus as a center of calm on stormy seas who calls his friend Peter out of the relatively safe place in a boat to risk a walk on the water.

I delight in the story of Jesus asking for a merciful drink from the woman at the well – an adulterous woman – and facing down her self-appointed judges, naming the truth that each accuser is unable – unworthy – to cast the first stone.

I love that Jesus wept when he learned his good friend Lazarus died and that he called Lazarus back to live life fully.

I find in all these stories God revealed as inviting us to be creative change agents, risk takers, connected to and challenging our community to live fully.

I abhor a lot of what so-called Christendom has done in the name of Jesus over the centuries. I reject what is being done now, by this oil-hungry country guised in Christian camouflage, to wreak havoc in the world. Yet I still claim the name “Christian.”

When I asked my teen-aged son what he thinks I believe, he told me he thinks I believe everybody is good, that I believe in a Supreme Being, and that I don’t think everybody has to believe what I believe. I don’t really think everybody is good, but I do think each of us has the potential to do great good and to do great harm and that most of us slog along in the middle.

It matters very much to me to be here occupying multiple points where science and art are just two points on a continuous circle, each of us making sense of the world and our lives in it with our own ways of understanding, so that we sometimes have mutually exclusive co-existing paradigms.

Our collective questions help establish what it means to be who we each are and who we are called to be, forming this particular faith community of creators. Wanting this community to thrive in rich diversity makes me an Evangelical UU.

I believe every one of us has a ministry and that we can call each other to recognize our particular ministries. This church called me into what I understand as “eldering.” I was asked to serve this congregation as its Board President for 1998-1999. I don’t think the Nominations Committee knew that if I am called, I must answer. But those were the rules for me, even though I didn’t feel all that ready or willing.

The night I received that phone call, I dreamed that I was at the front of a long line of people, others I know and love also scattered through the line with many I didn’t know, going far beyond what I could see. It was my turn to step into a fairly disorderly circle of folding chairs, where sat several of the archetypes who are really potent to me. I was surprised to see a few of them: the young man in a white t-shirt just stepped away from his Harley, the disembodied buffalo head with a teary eye.

In my dream, it was the buffalo who welcomed me into the circle, telling me firmly not to sit on any of these laps but to take my own chair. There were so many elders because of the multiple ministries to which we are called.

Besides being called to use Board leadership skills for this church, the one other calling I have had here is the calling to write press releases about what we do together as a community. This is a specifically evangelical charge, to spread the good news that UUs offer a spiritual community such as this creative congregation which is alive,   vibrant, and in touch and in pain with this world.

I also sing. I think music has its own ministry. I experience communal singing as God’s present of shared creation, where many voices, literally and metaphorically, blend in fertile song. I am glad that some of this singing takes place within this church.

I am evangelical about WBUUC because I believe we can together:

  • Arrest what is evil
  • Nurture our children
  • Buffer broken hearts
  • Save this world