This I Believe: Kate Christopher (1999)

I was raised by religious cynics. My parents weren’t even atheists – that would have required a belief statement. They were good people – committed to community service and social justice issues – but not religious. I envied my friends and their connection to religious practice. I felt a call to the spiritual in life – the unseen, perhaps unfathomable call to another level of perception.

During early adolescence I began joining my friends to attend church or the synagogue. I really wanted to be Jewish. I admired the Jewish commitment to learning and the rigors of studying the Torah and Hebrew. I ended up most charmed by my local Episcopal church. It was a high church with lots of pageantry and Father Rufai loved me. I sometimes look back and wonder how he actually felt about this passionate twelve-year-old in search of God. He never patronized me and seemed to take my search for God as seriously as I did.

I was confirmed in the 8th grade – a tall, parentless blonde with a group of sixth graders. Actually, my parents did attend my confirmation, although my father walked out and waited outside. My first true act of rebellion – confirmation.

I remained devoted for three years. I never missed a Sunday. I felt particularly pious when the weather was bad. Walking through the snow or rainstorm to receive communion made it feel even holier. I went on a religious retreat twice to a nunnery in Racine, Wisconsin. Silent retreats at any age are a gift.

When I was fifteen, I vowed to read the works of the church for my Lenten rule. I did, and never attended Easter Sunday.

I discovered, although I didn’t have the label at that time, that I was a Universalist. U could not imagine that my family was condemned to hell because they weren’t Episcopalians.

I learned a lot from the sisters in Racine and from Father Rufai. They were very kind to me and I am grateful for the guidance and support that they gave to me. I don’t regret that time of religious exploration.

In my high school I was involved in a group called SPEAC (Students for Political Education and Action Committee). It was mostly made up of Jews and UUs. I decided to check out the Unitarian Universalists. My father did not approve of them either, for they were wacky liberals. The UU youth group at that time was called LRY for Liberal Religious Youth. I don’t think I ever attended a church service, but we had an incredible discussion group where we read books like Damien, Steppenwolf, and the Fountainhead, and thought we were very radical. We also did social action projects in the city of Chicago with other LRY groups. We used to gather, similarly to youth conferences now, but we would spend most of our time volunteering and the social activities followed the work. My church activities during high school were just a small part of growing up, but they provided me with an important grounding and a sense of belonging.

During college, I continued my religious quest through academics. I particularly liked Alan Watt’s Death of God theology. One of his books began with, “Whoever knows that he knows must be amazed.” The Death of God theology actually talked of the death of the limited God, the God constrained by particularly cultures and creeds. The philosophy called for a more inclusive God that would be more appropriate for the global society that he saw coming.

Later, Joseph Campbell’s books and lectures on world religions and mythologies were also a compelling argument for a more unified view of God. The similarities of the stories and values surrounding religious practice over the history of mankind and around the world are compelling. Campbell even suggested that the image of the Earth taken from outer space might be an image that man on the Earth could rally around.

I think of this inclusive God as the UU God. It is this God I believe in. When I am alone and quiet, I feel it. When I have been afraid and overwhelmed, I have found strength, guidance, and comfort. It is my higher power in Al-Anon. I have a definition of the Tao that I can use. “Look at it, it cannot be seen, it is beyond form. Listen, it cannot be heard, it is beyond sound. Grasp it, it cannot be held, it is intangible, indefinable and beyond imagination. Stand before it, there is no beginning, Follow it, there is no end.” I take comfort that life is unfolding as it should, and I do what I can to impact the quality of my days.

I do not expect personal intervention from my God. I don’t believe in an ego-specific eternal life. This is a poem by Phillip Booth called “The First Lesson” that I think speaks of my faith.

Lie back, daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man’s float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on your long thrash
to your island, like up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

When my first-born was an infant, I felt isolated and overwhelmed by motherhood. Again, I reached out for a church and found Unity Unitarian in Saint Paul. There I found a community of seekers and was rejuvenated by the sermons, conversations, and friendships. It was at Unity Church that I became an evangelical Unitarian Universalist. I believe that we have the accepting and ecumenical environment within the UU movement to offer many people a spiritual home. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist teacher, talks of the hungry ghosts to describe a wandering soul in search of something to believe in and be committed to. We can offer the opportunity of religious community to many people who are still seeking. We can serve people who are not comfortable with belief statements that limit their freedom to continue learning, growing, and changing. We believe in the divine seed dwelling within each of us and leave space for personal revelation. We create a safe Harbor for many who have felt out of step with mainstream religion but desire the purposeful community that a church can provide. Many people I speak with are looking for a healing place to celebrate life. I am evangelical because I want to spread the word. I don’t want my children to be accused of believing in the devil because they do not worship Christ. I don’t want 666 painted on the back of this church as it has been in this very community. I don’t want to be excluded from the Council of Churches because we’re not Christ focused. This kind of ignorance and intolerance frightens me. I want our churches to be strong enough that our ideals can become a large part of the general conversation about what constitutes a religious life.

From the book, Our Chosen Faith, which I recommend to new UUs, I quote: “Unitarian Universalism is cooperation with the universe that created us. It is a celebration of life. It is being in love with goodness and justice. It is a sense of humor about absolutes.” We UUs have to stay vigilant in our openness. We must not just tolerate diversity of religious thinking; we need to accept and respect it. We are all on a journey and it is impossible to judge which path is the right one. I do believe in the power of collective worship as an expression of reverence for things we find worthy of honor. We need to offer people a place to honor the quest and set aside a space in their lives for reflection. I think we UUs could do a better job acknowledging the sacred in our lives and the lessons of all the great prophets.

This brings me to a belief that I structure my days around. I believe THIS IS IT. Thich Nhat Hanh says we need to practice “I have arrived” thinking to find peace and joy in our lives. THIS IS IT thinking applies to everything. Today is it. My husband is it. This is my church, etc. I know so many people who are still waiting to fully participate and create their lives because this many not be it. He may not be the one. Or this job isn’t it. As a fundraiser for this church, it has always surprised me the number of members who are still not sure this is the right church. After 10 years.  I contend that if you are here, this is it.

My daughter Sarah once told me a wonderful story about leaving your life to chance. At the high school there are several pop machines. Sarah would gather her change but be unable to decide which kind of pop she wanted. So she’d approach the machine, put her coins in, and she would push two buttons at the same time and let the machine decide. But she was always disappointed with the outcome.

How do I live my life on purpose? How do I choose to impact the quality of my days? I am a planner. When one plan fails I make another plan. I know there’s chaos out there, but I’m trying to control it. In our family, we have a mission statement. We have had family meetings and discussed what kind of family we want to be and what it takes to create that family. We created our mission statement in thoughtful moments, so we can use it in the midst of upset or conflict to remind us that we choose moment to moment how we want to live. Our lives in the end are just these moments stacked one upon another. Life’s problems create challenges that we get to solve. What fun!

I realize what a good job of indoctrination I have done with my children. We were on vacation and young Chris spoke up, “Without problems, what would be the point?” In the movie, “Antz,” the character read by Woody Allen sums up the movie by saying, “I finally feel I found my place. You know what? It’s right back where I started. The only difference is, this time, I chose it.” That ant understands THIS IS IT thinking.

I should say just a couple words about being a sculptor and how that fits in. It’s always been difficult to be an artist, because it’s difficult to make any money at it. So I’ve woven sculpture in and out of social work jobs and my three children. I made my first metal sculpture in high school; it was a welded figure being crucified on a dollar sign. I have always been drawn to working with my hands. I like problem solving and working with tools. Most of the time in the studio, I am just a working stiff trying to bring an idea to fruition.

There are moments in the studio however, when I am concentrating so deeply that part of my mind is free. I go someplace that is so peaceful, yet intense. I imagine others can get there through meditation or prayer. But for me, the work I do is my access to that place. So it’s pure joy that brings me back to work again and again. I feel very lucky to have a studio and more time to be in it than I have ever had in my life. I practice gratitude everyday and take time to be thankful for my blessings.

I am a huge fan of Annie Dillard, and I want to share a final reading that I think applies to my approach to life.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find only ashes.

So I say, don’t wait for a better time in your life. Create it now, be thankful now, be generous now. A foreign leader once said she wanted her tombstone to read “Used Up.” Me too. I don’t want to be waiting for my life to begin, to be better. I want to meet it full force and have faith that the sea will hold me.