This I Belive: Louise Pardee (2011)


How did I get HERE? It does seem like a strange place for someone brought up as an evangelical Christian and who spent half of her life as a Presbyterian.

Last April, I signed the Membership Book. The ink was barely dry when an old friend, Laurie Kigner, called and asked if I would be a summer speaker. I happily accepted.

How DID I get here? There is no brief answer. It involves a process of change in thinking throughout my life, affected by family, church, friends, books, music, politics, and then a fateful fall, which hastened my decision. The poet, Muriel Rukeyser, said that the universe is not made of atoms; it is made of stories. I believe that is true, and so share some of my stories and thoughts with you.

First, a definition. “God” is a word that everyone knows. Most of us think we know what it means or describes. For most, however, God seems to be a supernatural being somewhere outside of earth that holds all the power. Some atheists describe it as “The Big Daddy in the Sky.” Some think that the Bible defines God precisely, but this is not the case. The Bible has many metaphors that include creator, shepherd, lawgiver, companion, lover, teacher and many more. Most of them are metaphors for some kind of “being.”

In the story of Moses encountering the burning bush in the desert, we find a different idea. Moses asks, “Who are you?” And the voice replies, “I am who I am.” Or, in another translation, “I will be who I will be.” This says to me that God is being itself, or as some have suggested, perhaps God is a verb. Gordon Kaufman, in a book entitled In the Beginning . . . Creativity, suggests that God is creativity itself.

I want to be clear that I do believe that something in the universe is larger than humans. I still choose to call it God. I will use the word in some of what follows and hope it does not get in the way. For me, religious faith or spirituality is not about explaining how the universe works. That is the task of science. For me, it is a way of life, one that is both personal and lived in community. I do not believe that there is one absolute Truth.


Which leads me to Process Theology. Process is the important word here. I know instinctively that life is a process. Just having children and watching them grow is evidence enough. But about fifteen years ago, as a widow with time on her hands, I signed up for some classes at United Theological Seminary and I was introduced to Process Theology. My first reaction was — Where has this been all my life?

The story “Partners” describes God and humans as partners in an ongoing process of creation. Neither can do it alone. We participate in the Creativity in the universe as life evolves toward greater complexity. In process thought God is an intimate part of the universe, not something outside and disinterested. Everything in the universe is related to and is affected by everything else. Our choices are strongly affected by past actions, but in every action, some possibilities are better than others. God wants us to make the better choice, but the urging is through persuasion, not coercion. How does this happen? Through our interactions with others and our own internal sense of what is best.

Process takes into account the knowledge acquired by science. As we now understand the universe, it is not possible to think of an omnipotent deity holding all the power and creating the universe all at once.

I am fascinated by the story of the Big Bang, as explained by Ian Barbour, an emeritus professor of science at Carlton College. He describes the moment as one in which the slightest difference in temperature and timing would have caused the whole thing to collapse or blow up. I am not a scientist, but this story intrigues me. Conditions had to be exactly right for the components to be formed that would allow the eventual emergence of life. The story is still unfolding.

Books are a large part of my journey. I have always been an avid reader with a thirst for knowledge, often reaching beyond what is easy to understand, wanting to stretch my mind.  Some of that comes from my father who always had time to explain things as we tagged along asking: What are you doing? What is that for? He was never too busy to answer questions, always encouraging our curiosity.

And I have always loved music, Sometimes music has comforted me, and sometimes it just fills me up with its beauty. That I am certain, comes from my mother, who sang to us and played the piano. Often we would sing together as we did dishes, mostly hymns and gospel songs. And sometimes when I have been standing in church singing one of her favorite hymns, suddenly I hear her voice beside me.


As I have said, one of the powerful influences on my life was my family. I was born on a farm during the Great Depression. Lacking money, we learned to take care of things and make do with what we had. Dad believed that if somebody put something together, you could take it apart and figure out how it worked. His only failure, he said, was when he was about 12 and took a clock apart. He did put it back together, but there were some pieces left over. He decided not to take up watch making. But he could fix almost anything else, including cars, tractors, and sick animals. And he loved to tell stories about his youth.

My mother read to us and often quoted poetry. She grew up in a time when students were required to memorize a lot. One of her favorites was “Thanatopsis,” by William Cullen Bryant, a long poem about death. Her mother had died when she was ten, and that poem had a comforting message. She could quote it in its entirety, almost to her dying day.

We belonged to an evangelical church with pretty strict rules and a narrow definition of faith. Believe in Jesus so that your sins will be forgiven and don’t do worldly things like going to the movies or dances. I occasionally broke those rules, and usually got away with it. I’ve always had an independent streak, and felt that if a rule didn’t make sense to me, I didn’t have to obey it.  However, in spite of questions about religion that were mostly unasked, I remained an active member of the church through my first two years of college. Then I transferred to the University of Minnesota and decided to quit going to church. Sunday morning was for sleeping.

By the mid 1960s, I had finished college, married, moved to suburbia and was raising four daughters. In those years, home and family were touted as the way for a woman to be fulfilled and happy. Many of us found that it wasn’t enough.

About that time, Betty Friedan published the Feminist Mystique. It blew me away. Here was someone who put into words what I hardly dared think. She challenged the notion that biology is destiny and detailed the way that major media participated in a campaign to send women back to the kitchen so that the men returning from World War II could take back their jobs

Something was lacking in my life and I found my way back to church. There I met new friends. We read and talked about theology, especially feminists like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Mary Daly. Here were women who challenged the patriarchy of the church. Who decided that God was male? But we also read Paul Tillich, Harvey Cox, and others, and I was learning entire new ways of thinking about faith.

The great social upheaval of the 1960s was in full swing. It began with the Civil Rights movement in the South. Women were beginning to demand equality, decrying patriarchy with its demoralizing effect. The war in Vietnam was escalating and young people, who saw it as senseless, were protesting at college campuses everywhere.

Social upheaval turned into violence. In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and riots erupted throughout the country. A few months later Robert Kennedy was also assassinated as he campaigned for the Presidential nomination.  Anti-war protests were escalating. My children were coming home from school with protest music of the time, some of which we have heard here today.

That year the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. A large group of anti-war protesters, mostly students, were met with a police force that outnumbered them three to one. Mayor Daly was determined to prove that he was in charge. Tear gas was used against protesters and it was shown on TV for the whole world to see.

Where does a forty-something suburban wife and mother go with all the conflicting emotions of this time? Back to school. I enrolled at the University of Minnesota to obtain a degree in elementary education. Students were demonstrating peacefully and I was in sympathy with them. On May 4, 1970, I was crossing the footbridge over Washington Avenue listening to a young man speaking to a crowd in front of Coffman Union. He paused, read a note someone handed him, then turned to the microphone, “We have just received word that the National Guard has fired on students at Kent State University in Ohio. There is an unconfirmed report of fatalities.” His words hung in the air and I held my breath. Then someone stepped up with a guitar and began to sing. As everyone joined him, I stood with tears running down my cheeks, thinking, “My God, they’re killing our kids!”  Then the awful irony hit me. That is exactly what we were doing in sending our kids to Vietnam. It was one of those moments when you understand something so deeply that it stays with you forever.

In the summer of 1971, we moved to White Bear Lake. I began to go to the Presbyterian Church. It was a good place for me then. It was an open, inviting, socially active congregation.  A professor of Old Testament from Macalester College led an adult education class, an indication of the Presbyterian tradition of scholarship. And in the sanctuary and worship there was a sense of respect and dignity.

Here I began a deeper questioning of my faith. Patriarchal language was a big issue and we found ways to be more inclusive. I was reading Sojourners magazine and going to meetings where leaders called the Christian church to be true to its founder, meaning to oppose war and actively promote social justice, not just charity, at which most churches are quite good, but to work to change the systemic causes of injustice.

As mentioned earlier, a few years after my husband died, I embarked on a new adventure. I enrolled at United Theological Seminary. In spite of some apprehension, I was excited. I found a welcoming community, new friends, and a world of new ideas. I began to know the Bible differently, as a compilation of legends, history, poems, prayers, love letters and prophetic warnings written over thousands of years. It is a very human story of people trying to understand their place in the world and their relationship to God. It resonated powerfully with me. I felt like my questions were being answered at last.

Increasingly, I felt uncomfortable with creeds and liturgies. I did not believe in God, as the Father Almighty, and I had trouble with the idea of the death of Jesus as atonement for our sins. Instead, I believe that the purpose of his life was to show us a different way. He was killed by the authorities because his ideas were a threat to their power.

While I was becoming more liberal, the Presbyterian Church was becoming more conservative and sadly, there seemed to be little room for dialogue.

A few years ago I began coming here more regularly to this beautiful space. I was inspired by Victoria’s sermons, but also by the ideas of other speakers. But it was so much more. The welcoming and respectful atmosphere made me feel at home. For a long time, I sat near the back just taking everything in and loving all the different kinds of music. I was thinking very hard about where I truly belonged.

Then came the fateful fall. My house was being remodeled in the summer of 2008. A stairway had been removed and a temporary one with no handrail was installed.  I was coming up the stairs from the lower level.  More than halfway up I fell off the side and landed under the stairway.

A carpenter was there and quickly called 911. The rescue squad arrived in minutes. My right femur was badly broken, my right wrist had a clean break and I had a cut on my head. Amazingly, there were no internal injuries. I was fortunate because my injuries could have been so much worse.

I will never forget that evening in Intensive care with my family standing around, worried looks on their faces and enough love in their eyes to carry me through more than four hours of surgery the next day and the weeks of therapy that followed. Slowly my bones healed and after three months, I was able to put full weight on my leg.

Adversity has its lessons. I learned to be patient when I was totally helpless; my right leg immobilized from ankle to hip, and my right wrist in a cast. I could do nothing for myself. This is very difficult for someone who has always been fiercely independent. But it also served me well because I was determined to regain my strength and mobility.

I am so grateful for all the excellent medical care I received and I am grateful to my family for their help, love and support.  Most of all, I have a profound sense of gratitude for life itself.

When I was able to drive again, I went back to my church, but the atmosphere had changed. There was more emphasis on personal piety and less concern for social justice. I had changed and my injuries were part of that change. I no longer had the energy to struggle against the status quo. I had worked long and hard with others at the Presbyterian Church on social justice issues and we had some success. I still have many friends there and it was difficult to realize that I could no longer stay in the church that had been my home for so long.

For the past few years, I have attended services here regularly and I began to participate in study groups, community conversations and sharing groups. I knew I had found a new home, but I had to be honest about leaving the old one. I couldn’t just drift away. It didn’t feel right and my integrity demanded that I be open and honest about my decision. So I wrote a letter to the pastor and the Session stating that my spiritual journey was taking me to another place. I also sent an email to a number of friends telling them of my decision. Responses from my friends were positive and I was relieved.

The following Sunday, I signed the Membership Book. It felt so RIGHT. It’s wonderful to be part of this active, caring congregation.

Several years ago in a writing class, I wrote my own obituary summing up how I wanted to be remembered. It ends with the last part of the poem “Thanatopsis.,” one of my mother’s favorites.

Louise Marilyn Anderson Johnson Pardee

So many books, so little time, or
You’ve come a long way, baby!

Poor scrawny little farm kid
Born in the middle of the Great Depression
Traveled a long way from there.
How can a long life,
Be reduced to a few lines?
Love, joy, adventure, mystery,
Passion, pain, grief, and struggle.
Now, I have left for new adventures.

Remember how much I loved you –
Children and grandchildren, family and friends.
Remember my hugs and smiles,
Oatmeal cookies and birthday cakes.
Remember my work and hope
For peace and justice in this world.

Remember my love of books and ideas,
and my lifelong quest for knowledge.
Remember that without music
Life would be a mistake.

Forgive me for all the times I failed
To live up to my ideals.

Remember that I am certain that I belong to God
And that I am part of some great creative enterprise
Whose outcome is as yet unknown.
Find those things that nourish your soul
For God loves you more than I do
Always remember who and whose you are
And be faithful to the best that you know.

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

May it be so.