This I Believe: Sally Niemand (2021)

I was born into a Missouri Synod Lutheran family. The Bible was my first sacred text.  My memories of church as a young child are not of the stories I was being taught in Sunday school but mostly related to how I looked and how I behaved.

I spent grades 1-8 in a Lutheran parochial school with so much dogma and indoctrination. Every day. We were required to memorize much of Luther’s Small Catechism in 7th and 8th grades. Holy cow, Martin Luther. You can tell by the looks of my catechism that my mind was elsewhere.

In case you couldn’t read that, it said, “Do Not Touch! Fragile. Do Not Drop!” I had a sense of humor about my religion even as a 13-year-old.

Around that time I asked my grandmother, “How do we know there is a God?” Her stern response was, “We just believe. Don’t ever ask that question again.” And I never did.

That was the beginning of skepticism about my religion.

Near the end of 8th grade, I was confirmed. The Bible passage assigned to me was from 1st Corinthians [6:20], “For ye are bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit which are God’s.” I was disappointed. I wanted a beautiful passage I could take refuge in, like the “Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” I took no comfort in my confirmation verse. It simply reinforced my feeling of having no free will in my youth when it came to my religion.

As an independent, some would call challenging, child, I would have been better off constructing a personal system of belief. I would have loved being challenged by starting the process of figuring it out for myself instead of being confirmed. Now, as a freshly minted UU, at a ripe old age, this statement of what I believe is my “Coming of Age” credo.

But, back to my faith journey.

I continued to go through the motions for as long as I lived in my parent’s home. I went to church, I sang in the choir, I taught Sunday school. But as soon as I left for college, I left my religious tradition behind.

I felt anxious about how this would affect my relationship with my family, particularly my mother and grandparents. It turned out to be a high stakes decision fraught with social pressure and disapproval. Although it wasn’t my intention to leave my family behind, my choice indirectly resulted in certain family members being unavailable to me for a while.

During my Freshman year in college I was required to take a humanities course. It was like a veil had been lifted from my eyes. I learned to appreciate and put a high value on creativity and critical thinking, things that had been stifled and silenced in me as a child.  I started to hold the arts, history, music, and theater in high regard.

I learned reverence.

This was the real beginning of theological inquiry for me.

In the 70′s I came across a book that changed my mind and my life. Be Here Now by Ram Dass became my second sacred text and remains a mantra to this day. I went on to read about Buddhism, and the variety of traditions and spiritual practices it encompassed. I was able to view it as philosophy, not religion. That worked for me at the time. I resonated with many of the teachings and adopted some of the practices, some of which I still use today.

I continued to think about my religious upbringing and to reflect on how it affected my aversion to organized religion. As a young adult I wrote a poem about how religion felt to me as a child.

It’s called “In the God-fearing Days”

In the God-fearing days of childhood fantasies

and dark basements,

when nightmares recurred while I slept on my back

I prayed –

Dear God, please don’t let us have a nuclear war.

For I feared death by fire.

Too many stories

of brimstone and hellfire

made me feel that after-life

couldn’t possibly be worth the effort of dying.

My fear of God was far too great.

 

I was satisfied to spiritually drift through life with a few practices I could draw on as needed.
But I still had no spiritual direction.
No community.

Decades passed without much change in my spiritual life. Then, about 10 years ago, an event occurred that changed my life suddenly and dramatically, bringing me to my knees. I was left feeling aimless and despondent.

If not for Pema Chödrön’s teachings and a very special Tibetan Terrier, who spent endless hours in my lap, I may still be languishing alone. Her books became my sacred texts and my practice became staying in the moment. Eventually it became clear I needed a purpose and a community.

I thought back to my childhood and the church community I can only appreciate in hindsight. My parents were extremely involved in their church. Clearly, they derived deep satisfaction from being in a community of people with shared beliefs. I wanted that, but without dogma. I realized I wouldn’t find it by myself. I yearned for a lively, stimulating group of people with whom I could share a thoughtful and probing adventure. People who would ask and answer together the hard questions about spirit, life, and love. I was lonely without a community. I needed to find my people.

For many years I had been letting go of my former concepts of religion and church, concepts that hadn’t served me well. Although I still struggled with the word ‘religion,’ two years ago I decided to dip my toe in the water and attend a service at WBUUC.

I sat in that first service feeling very alone among many, all of whom I was certain, unlike me, knew why they were there. I was surprised by my reaction during the service.  Tears streamed down my cheeks and my voice disappeared. What the heck??? I know now, this was a peak spiritual experience for me, something I’d never felt sitting in a church among fellow worshippers. After a couple Sundays, when I heard others sniffling and saw tissues being passed, I realized I wasn’t alone. Peak spiritual experiences were all around me.

During the sermon, it seemed like Reverend Victoria was speaking directly to me. Never had I listened to a sermon with such rapt attention. I looked around during the offertory and thought, “Are these my people? Could this be my community?“ I left not knowing the answer, but knowing, as Arnold Schwartenegger would say, “I’d be back.“

It took about ten Sundays before I managed to mumble through the opening and closing words between the tears I was only partially able to hold back. By then I was ready for membership classes and signing the book.

And here I am…

So, where does my journey seem to be taking me?

I’ve been thinking a lot about theology. UU minister McKinley Sims defines theology as:

The study of the spirit through many sources

That which is beyond us and bigger than us

That which resonates most deeply with us

He says UU’s like to wrestle with these big questions. I guess that really does make me a UU.

But he also defines it as the smallest things. My current mission is to create my own personal version of everyday theology, including being in the moment, since it’s all we have, and staying present enough to find meaning in those moments… and in the smallest things.

Prayer is also back on my radar. While attending Reverend Victoria’s prayer group last summer, I re-defined the concept of prayer for myself. I learned how to pray again, or maybe for the first time. No creeds. Nothing memorized. Just from the heart and with my actions.

But the question remains, what do I believe?

Since joining WBUUC I have a new measure for what it means to believe. My beliefs are in flux more than ever.

I’ve come to understand the word “believe” differently, based on reason and experience, not on dogma and creed.

So, here’s what I believe.

I believe that religious life unfolds in community.

I believe in the essence of life even though I don’t know what to call it.

I also believe in science.

I believe in altruism and exISTentialism.

I believe that people are inherently good

…and if I look hard enough I’ll find good in almost everyone.

…and that there is never a good reason to be unkind.

I believe that taking people at their word requires scrutiny.

I believe that wondering is a healthy state of being.

I believe in the value of studying theology

…and also believe in defining it for myself

…and that every question is a good one, especially those that come from the heart.

I believe in the healing power of touch.

I believe in finding beauty in most things.

I believe in being silly.

I believe in being transparent.

…and in wearing my heart on my sleeve.

I believe that crying is good.

…and that laughter is good medicine.

I believe that warm chocolate chip cookies, especially with a strong cup of coffee, can lift the spirit.

I believe that humans are not meant to be alone.

…and that aging is one of the hardest things in life.

…and that the inevitability of death is an opportunity.

…and there is much yet to be discovered late in life.

I believe in truth.

…and in love.

…and in myself.

…and that I am the sum of my beliefs.

 

So, I ask myself now, “Do I still have no religion or am I ready to call this religion?”

I think I am, if I define religion broadly enough…

…As a system of worship that connects humanity to the spiritual

…As the Spirit of Life

…As the Spirit of Love

…As an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.

 

Yes, I think I am.
Oh, and I’ve found my people.