This I Believe: Sara Wolff (2014)

I answered the doorbell earlier this summer to a man I didn’t know.  I didn’t know him but maybe I recognized him.  I was a little bit bothered approaching the door, expecting that since I didn’t know him, it was likely a door-to-door fundraiser or someone wanting to mow my lawn.  An interruption in any case.

The young man asked if I remembered him.  He said that last fall he had come by and mowed my lawn.  He said that we had agreed on $15, and that all I had was a $20.  He said that he was going to bring back my change.

Except that on his way to the gas station to get change, he was arrested.  He had violated probation sometime before, arising out of an incident that had left him shot, and so was taken into custody.

He physically couldn’t bring back my change.  Until now.

He handed me a $5 bill.  He said he was sorry.

I was stunned.  I fumbled for words, wanting to inquire about his arm in the sling, wanting to tell him that I was touched, knowing that in every way he needed this $5 more than I did.

Except what he needed most, for himself and for me, was to make the situation from so many months ago right.

He needed to restore our relationship, however fleeting it was.

I took the $5.  I thanked him and tried to say something else of significance.  He didn’t ask about future lawn mowing.  He just politely left my porch and rejoined a group of people young and old in a car that had come to this destination for this singular purpose.

My heart was heavier and lighter all at the same time… and my faith in the human spirit renewed.

My mother was raised a Lutheran, my father a Catholic.  They married and started attending the Unitarian Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

My youngest years were spent in religious education classes of that UU church learning about dinosaurs and the Chinese New Year and running around coffee hour with UNICEF boxes.

I remember people like Ginger and Charles Steven—and warmth and love from that space, and having an innate understanding that I didn’t know the way the whole of the spiritual universe was constructed, and nobody did or could.

There was no castle built on sand for me.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t wonder about other ways of seeing the world.  After all, people spoke with such conviction about the passionate presence of God in their lives.  Lots of people seemed to have answers.

I remember the trip with my first-grade friend Shontelle’s family to a meeting at her church.  Her pastor told all the kids that we were dirty with sin but we couldn’t be cleaned up with laundry detergent or dishwashing soap.  Only Jesus could do that.

And there was a slumber party in 5th grade when I was informed by Cherry Peterson that the sky was going to open up and down would come a red horse and a white horse.  It was probably going to happen soon and understanding this was crucial to my survival.

I had trouble sleeping that night, but it didn’t haunt me for long.

Because the gift of being raised in a Unitarian Church is the gift of inoculation.  Not a protective coat, but a resilience inside.  I had been given a foundation from which I could explore and examine and theorize.  But I was always to be true to my own thoughts and heart.  As a result, I’ve been able to explore every religious idea without ever feeling a single twinge of embarrassment, shame or fear.  Religion has never harmed me.

My later childhood was spent in a Congregational Church, where I became more familiar with traditional Christian stories.  (Although my husband Doug has more than once called into question these credentials — like when I referred to Jesus’ last dinner with his disciples — apparently it was a supper, and this isn’t just a Minnesota thing.)

I attended Lutheran Summer Music Camp and went to St. Olaf College where I went to chapel everyday and took world religion classes.  I liked learning about religion and always felt I could take what I wanted from the spiritual buffet and leave what didn’t work for me.  Something was bound to connect with me at some point.

After college I tried to find a good church and was working to see whether I could be swept up in a deep personal relationship with God – like my roommates described.  All I needed was faith as small as a mustard seed, they said.

I tried a few Bible Studies (okay, not that many), I visited churches, I helped with youth groups, I remained open to the idea that I could be touched by God.

I even went to the Metrodome one blizzarding night to hear Billy Graham  — and at his invitation — descended down to the turf with throngs of others so I could feel the power of the Lord come over me.

It didn’t.  Not that night.

When Doug and I married, he understood that I wanted to find a place for God in our shared lives and be part of a church community.  So he supported my efforts to find one that was suitable.  I spent many Sundays visiting the congregations of Stillwater.  When I found one I liked, I brought him.

He was concerned about the procession of swinging things and the burning incense and all the pomp and the I said, “Just ignore those things.  These are nice people and the sermon was pretty good and it wasn’t overtly offensive to our values.”

He said he couldn’t.  He had been raised a dutiful Lutheran with no reason to question what he’d been taught, until his Freshman religion class at St. Olaf College.  That was the first time he’d really read the Bible and started thinking about the inconsistencies of text and interpretation – and his foundation crumbled.  Doug realized he couldn’t just ignore the things I could.

And then Doug said, “I don’t want to be counted among them.  When they claim to have six million members and believe that same sex relationships are a sin, I don’t want to be the person who makes it six million and one.”

Well, that was the game changer.  You can take what you like and ignore what you don’t, but in the end who do you want to be counted among?

“We need to go to the Unitarian church,” I said.   And here we are. About sixteen years later.

It isn’t a connection to God that keeps me coming back.

For many years on a church near our home in St Paul there was a banner with a picture of a man near a mountain asking, “Is this all there is?”

I don’t know and can’t know, but I worry that this kind of thinking may let us off the hook – that we lose accountability for the meaning of our lives here and now.

What happens when we say, “Yes, this is all there is.  And we are the ones who have to save ourselves.”

And, what if our souls are to be filled, not by an external God, but by each other?

In our actions, our smiles, our shared pain, our shared joy, our work, our passions, our sorrow.

If we are God in relation to each other, then the agency shifts, from something out there, to something in us.  We become responsible for each other, in very small ways (like offering a smile) and in very big ways (like figuring out how to reverse climate change).

We are each other’s hope and salvation.

Not with God-like hands that can part oceans in an instant, but with human hands, human hearts, human stories, human voices, human emotions.

That can heal and celebrate and grieve and mourn and surprise and solve really big problems.

I believe in the human inside each of us… in the human spirit and the capabilities we all have within us to heal and support and love one another.

Somewhere along the way, it wasn’t important anymore for me to seek a deeper personal relationship with God.

It became enough for me to seek a passionate presence with the world around me.  These are the human miracles that fill my soul:

  • The moment when — while sitting, 6-months pregnant on the floor in the back of the old sanctuary (we were late – it was crowded) – we were inspired by something Victoria said and decided on the name of our first born.


  • Crying with an 80-year-old man in a Jiffy Lube as he asked me why his wife couldn’t have lived just a few more years.


  • Listening to my son play Beautiful Savior on his cello and remembering every time I’ve heard it at a Christmas Festival.


  • Watching my brother wait for his bride as she came down the aisle.


The thing is, you don’t ever really know when these moments that fill your soul are going to happen.  They aren’t predictable.  They can’t be planned out.   They take you by surprise. They are an interruption.  A moment we could’ve easily missed or dismissed.

They happen because we go somewhere new, we take a risk, we open our heart, listen to a stranger, answer our door.

I didn’t feel what I was looking for that cold night at the Metrodome when God may have been showering the power of the Lord on those all around me.

But I have found it and felt it many times in my life, in ways big and small.  Here, in this place.  Out in the world.  And at my front door with a man who had come back to give me some change.