This I Believe: Claire Gilbert (2021)

When I was four years old, I became a criminal. When my mom wouldn’t buy me a bag of skittles at the grocery store, I stole them. My mom knew something was up when she saw me grab a pair of scissors and dart into my bedroom. I thought I had locked the door, but she came around the other way through a bathroom. I had cut open the bag and spread them on the floor. “Claire!” she said, “Don’t you know the Bible says stealing is wrong.” “But Mom,” I told her, “I can’t read!”

My mom and I laugh about this story today, but it also makes me sad. It’s sad because I vividly remember kneeling in front of a child’s rocking chair after that, praying and praying to God to forgive me for my sin. Even then, I’d been taught that sinners go to hell. And the saddest part? That rocking chair, still in the same room at my parents’ house– it’s tiny.

I didn’t want the story of what I believe to be the story of what I don’t believe. But it is. In so many ways it is. I have so much pain in my heart from the way I was raised. I define myself as an exvangelical. I can’t help but define my beliefs in opposition. Proverbs says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Well, I have departed. And I’m not going back. I recently found a tract I’d made as a child, like a brochure. It was an assignment for the Christian middle school I attended. It broke my heart to read the earnest message that I had written, believing that some stranger might read my words and turn to Jesus. Can you imagine what a burden it was for a child to believe that it was her responsibility to save non-believing friends, family, and even strangers from hell? From an eternity of suffering?

When I came home from my first semester at The University of Chicago, I told my mom that I wasn’t a Christian anymore. I will never forget where we were standing and the look on her face. She said, “My only wish in life is that my children join me in heaven when I die!” It pained her, but there was nothing I could do. She was going to have to ride out eternity without me. I’ve spent my entire adult years deprogramming myself, trying to heal. I’ve come a long way, though the bitterness is still there.

Sometimes I have trouble singing songs about God in the choir. I’ve discovered a trick, though. I shared it once at practice. “Hey, if you have trouble with the G-word, you can say Cod instead, like the fish. I believe in Cod. It works!” I remember that got a big laugh from Thaxter. Of course, Unitarian Universalists have some great songs, too. My husband Mark and I love Peter Mayer’s “Holy Now.” We connect to his story of growing up going to Christian churches. Mark says these are his favorite lines, and I love them, too:

When I was in Sunday school

we would learn about the time

Moses split the sea in two

and Jesus made the water wine

And I remember feeling sad

that miracles don’t happen still

but now I can’t keep track

‘cause everything’s a miracle

Songs like this and ones that Carol and Thaxter wrote themselves inspired me to write a hymn for our church, “I want to Write Songs My Children Will Sing.” I really do. I want to write songs that match my new beliefs, songs where I don’t have to swap “Cod” for “God.” I will never forget when we sang this together as a congregation, the first and only time in person. Looking out at your faces as Carol and I led the song filled me with three feelings all humans need: joy, purpose and belonging. But that was March 1st, 2020.

My daughter was born twelve days later, Friday the 13th. She’s the reason I know exactly how old this pandemic is, for most of our country and much of the world. It’s 21 months old tomorrow. Thank goodness that the church staff has been able to keep us together digitally all this time.

Shortly after the first online service, I had a dream that I was sitting in the sanctuary just right of the center aisle toward the back. I could see you sitting there with me in the dark, silhouetted, all of us facing forward, watching the service. I couldn’t see your faces, but I felt comforted to know we were there together.

You see, when I stopped being a Christian, I stopped going to church. I didn’t realize just how much I needed a spiritual community until my brother, a Disciples of Christ minister, gave me an assignment. I wanted him to perform the marriage ceremony for Mark and me. He said he would only do it if we attended three religious services at the place of our choosing. At first I was miffed. I thought he was trying to control me, to trick me back into Christianity. But then I found a loophole: “Could it be a Unitarian Universalist church?” I asked him. “Sure! It could be a mosque, a synagogue, whatever you want!” See, some Christians are cool.

My husband and I first tried Unity Unitarian. We liked it so much that we went there for all three of our required services. But then my friend Kaari Rodriguez invited me to WBUUC. I didn’t hear a single reference to the Bible, the Christian God, or Heaven. In place of a Bible reading, I heard modern poetry. And then I heard Victoria preach on that poetry. Here I knew was a teacher whose feet I would sit at for as long as I could.

I think about Victoria often. I wish I had taken notes on more of her sermons, but I did write one teaching down: she said that spiritual journey is a process of forgetting and remembering. She said, “We routinely forget what we have learned.”

That’s definitely true for me. At many points I’ve been closer to being enlightened than I am now. Now, I’m in the trenches of parenting a one and five-year-old. Sleep deprivation and stepping over toys all day interfere with my would-be spiritual practices. They won’t even let me sing! Each time I start, my youngest says, “Mom, mom, mom– no.”

So I’m grateful for the invitation to give a “This I Believe” talk. This invitation has inspired me to really think about what I believe deeply, more deeply than ever before. I’m motivated by the fact that someone wants to listen, and not just any someone: a community of free thinkers I greatly admire. See, you and I share a genuine curiosity about life and the nature of the universe. That makes this series of talks a conversation between friends. At our church, we’re always digging into the big questions:

What even is this life?

What are we here for?

Did someone put us here?

What happens when we die?

Is any part of us eternal?

What else is out there on all those other planets in all those other galaxies? Who else is out there?

What is the right way to live?

How can we make our corner of the universe just a little brighter– more just, more beautiful?

How do we survive as a species, as a global network of species?

Why are we so uncomfortable with unknowing?

It takes humility to say “I don’t know.” Humility and courage. Courage to say, “I don’t have it all figured out.” And I say I can’t ever know. The limitations of time, technology, the human brain, and biological imperatives like feeding my children mean that there’s only so far I as a single iteration of this species can go.

Sometimes it makes me sad. I think, “Well, I could die tomorrow, and this is how far I’ll have gotten to understanding the nature of the universe and our place within it. I used to think, well, that’s ok. Humanity will persist. Someone will find out more, someone may know someday what it all means, where it all came from.

Now though . . . I never thought I’d live to see the planet in its death throes. But maybe this is our last-minute chance– our last chance to figure out as much as we can; to learn what the astrophysicists, and neurologists and anthropologists and poets and town weirdos all know. To take it and make one big ball of it and stand back and just– wonder.