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Our reading this morning reflects some of how I came to my current beliefs. I hope you will indulge me as I relate to you some of my story…
Merriam Webster dictionary defines an epiphany to be a sudden perception of the essential meaning of something and an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure. I compare an epiphany to an “aha!” moment – a time when one understands a new truth. Most people have had at least one major epiphany in their lives. For better or worse, I’ve had three. Each of them revealed to me aspects about life and myself that did not fundamentally change who I am – but they significantly updated what I like to call my personal operating system.
Experts tell us that our beliefs largely determine our identity. We form our foundational beliefs when we are children. Throughout life we update them to fit new understandings and new situations. Most belief updates are minor. Some are big and are what I call epiphanies – they significantly alter what we previously believed. Our beliefs serve as maps for how we function, how we relate with others and how we think about self-worth. Hopefully, our beliefs are well chosen and spring from our inner selves – the part of us that I believe is good, loving and open.
My first epiphany came eighteen years ago. My youngest daughter had been invited to sing with a local church children’s choir. Naturally, I attended her performances which were a part of Sunday services. That was a new experience for me since I had grown up unchurched and with little understanding of anything spiritual. Life was about me, my family and my close friends. I had not engaged in thinking about issues of meaning, purpose and universal truths.
But the minister at this church spoke of a loving God who wants to forgive us for past wrongdoing and who seeks our love in return. As this Pastor said, people are born imperfect and prone to be selfish. They often want only what is good for themselves and thus will mostly disregard the needs of others. Evil in the world is caused by such selfishness. The answer he put forward was to believe in God, accept his forgiveness and thereby become a new and better person.
I had been living most of my life up to that time as a closeted gay man. I was married, had two daughters and wanted to be a supposedly normal, macho guy. I was not acting on my thoughts and I tried my best to deny them. Society and my parents had all convinced me that being homosexual was terrible and wrong. Ultimately, however, my inward thoughts and how I outwardly lived were dissonant. I accepted the idea that being gay was wrong and so I tried to live as a straight person even though my same sex thoughts did not go away.
And so this Pastor’s words about a loving God who would forgive me and change me were strongly attractive to me. While thinking that one can be saved from hell through belief in a supernatural god is simplistic – one that reason ought to reject, such is the emotional draw of religion for many otherwise intelligent people around the world. I had my first epiphany – I chose to believe in God.
I very quickly dove headfirst into this new belief system. I read all I could about it. I studied the Bible and Christian theologies, I attended church regularly and joined groups that promoted so-called Godly beliefs and behavior. I attended Seminary for a while and soon became something of a poster boy for how God supposedly changes people when they believe in him.
After several years of active involvement in church and learning about the Bible and God, I had my second epiphany. My personal operating system got updated. If God truly changes a person from thinking selfishly, then it followed for me that one should believe in serving others more than the self – particularly those who hurt, suffer and live on the margins. I decided to leave my previous career in healthcare administration and become a Pastor. I was determined to find a purpose for my life. I was determined to try and live not just for myself and my immediate family, but for others too.
While I fully knew then and know now that people serve others in many ways – that being a Pastor is nothing more special then being a teacher, nurse, attorney, social worker or any other career, I felt a calling to do what I think Pastors should do – encourage, listen, care for and serve people in ways that build belief in something greater than the self.
And so I was hired as an associate Pastor at a large, conservative church on the east side of this city. I was put in charge of all aspects of Pastoral Care for the congregation – listening to people and their struggles, comforting the sick and dying, visiting folks in hospitals and nursing homes, performing weddings and funerals, and organizing efforts to serve the poor, needy and hurting. I enjoyed meeting all kinds of people but I especially felt called to befriend and listen to the struggles and needs of people who were a bit different from the majority – those who were slightly odd, who were poor, sick, depressed, out of work, or eccentric. Some in that church teased me that I was a Pastor to the so called fruits and nuts. For me, that is what any caring person does. She or he does not reach out to those who already have money, power, or prestige. Those people already have their security blankets. My second epiphany revealed to me that the world can be a cruel one – that people do hurt – and that my purpose is to live in a way that helps make things better.
My third epiphany, and up until now my last one, came as I further evolved and updated my thinking. I had gradually come to see that God is not real unless there is tangible proof of her existence. After several years, God had not done as promised. I had not been changed. I had not been able to pray away the gay. While some Christians might say that I was not diligent enough or that I did not truly believe, they are wrong. I desperately wanted to change. I desperately wanted to be what I thought was normal. I desperately did not want to go to hell which is where the Bible says I will go.
I came to see that it was not God that was changing the world. It was not even his people who changed it. Generous, caring and selfless people, no matter what they believe – or do not believe – are the ones who help change the world for good. Gandhi, as one example and someone whom I studied, had not believed in a Jewish, Christian or Muslim God. And yet he taught more about charity, peace, social justice and goodness than perhaps any other person in history. His words and his deeds helped transform communities, his nation and the world. Crucially, I discovered that the wisdom and actions of history’s prophets – ones like the historical Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk – they are ones to study and from whom humanity can derive insight.
Where was a theistic god in speaking up for the desperately poor of India? Where was god in building a peaceful and non-violent world? Where was god in eradicating disease, poverty, hunger and discrimination? Just as he was absent in my life to change me from gay to straight, he was also absent in the world to change it for the better.
God is not floating on some ethereal cloud and shaping the world. Nor is he shaping all who believe in him to be more loving. Indeed, I quickly saw that many who profess a belief in a theistic god are decidedly unloving, hypocritical and selfish – in a way that no religion promotes. I further learned of the many flaws and inconsistencies in the Bible. If God loved humanity, why would he encourage the killing of thousands of men, women and children as he does in parts of the Old Testament? Where is there evidence of his creative power? Where is there proof of miracles, virgin births, and resurrection from the dead – except in Bible stories? Anyone may believe as they wish, and I strongly support that, but if beliefs are proven by actions, then where are the verifiable deeds of a theistic god? After many years of belief in God and praying for change, I was still gay. The world was still full of hurting people. Proof of miracles was nonexistent.
And so I had my third epiphany. I came out of the closet. I finally determined there was no possibility to change that small part of me. I had to live according to my inward truth. Ironically, it was something that Jesus is quoted as having taught that helped me. He said, “the truth will set you free.” And I had yearned to be free for so long. Finally, I understood that only my inner self and the choices I make about what I believe – only those will make me free. No god and no religious belief would do it. I had to carefully choose, from the depths of heart and soul, what is true and thus what to believe.
And if God was not true for me, as someone who had fervently tried to believe, who had dedicated his life to that belief, then God, as he is represented in a literal understanding of Scripture, is not true. I came out of the closet both as a gay man and as one who had peered behind the curtain of religious belief and found it wanting.
But as with many things in life, my freedom did not come without cost. After coming out, I was immediately rejected by the church I had served for almost seven years. I had soothed, cared for, married and buried many of its leaders and members. And yet I became “persona non grata” to most of them. I had not changed who I was. I had simply revealed some small aspect of my inner being. This almost total rejection by my church family only confirmed the reality that god could not exist. Where was he in the hour one of his hurting people needed mercy? Sadly, he was manifested in the judging, hurtful and unkind ones who told me that I was evil.
After a year of feeling angry at anyone who was even slightly religious, I was encouraged to attend a small downtown church that I was told would meet my changed beliefs. That church was the Gathering where I immediately felt welcomed, honored and accepted. After two years of membership at the Gathering, I submitted my name as candidate to be the sole Pastor of the congregation – after the founding Pastor announced he was moving. Since I had not previously served as a preaching Pastor, I was hired on a trial basis for one year. Five years later, almost to this day, I am still with the Gathering. It is a congregation I love and respect not for being in any way perfect, which it is not – as I am not. I love its people for trying their best to be a loving community both to each other and to the outside world.
Fortunately, my evolving beliefs and epiphanies about life and this world happened at a perfect time for my role as Pastor at the Gathering. We have come to see that God is not an outside Being working for our welfare. He or she is us – each and every person. It is people who are to feed the hungry, serve the poor, tend the sick, listen to the broken hearted, advocate for the oppressed and strive for a better world. It is people who consciously make the choices to be humble, giving, non-judgmental, kind-hearted, and loving. It is we who encourage and help one another to learn and grow – seeking the inner changes that help us go out into the world to do the work we are meant to do. We live for a purpose. It is not so that we can die with the satisfaction that we have made only our own lives better. It is not to honor a god that is either non-existent or impotent. It is to leave behind a legacy of service to all humanity and to the universe of all things.
In one brief sentence, my life and my statement of purpose echoes the famous one spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. “The arc of my pursuit for personal meaning is a long one, but it bends toward compassion for others…and for myself.”
Even so, my story is nothing more special than any of your life stories. In many ways, it is smaller – for it took me until mid-life to determine my core beliefs. Many of you likely arrived at such beliefs at much younger ages. I applaud you and am humbled when I hear your life stories.
Most of all, I hope my words about how beliefs and actions define who we are will resonate. Both the Gathering and Northern Hills find themselves at a crossroads – potential change is ahead and that is both scary and exciting. I have found in my life that when I was afraid to change, when I refused to honor my inner beliefs, I was caught in meaningless self-deception. The Buddha said that the only constant in life is impermanence – the fact that all things change. Instead of holding onto the past, instead of refusing to evolve, we must instead embrace the fact that moving forward, that finding new epiphanies, is good. Whether or not our two congregations decide to merge, we can know that by embracing the possibility of change, we will have already changed. Neither of our two congregations will again be the same after this undertaking.
The Gathering must confront its own tendencies to complacency and instead fully embrace it’s stated belief in progressive change. We cannot afford to stand still. We cannot wait for busloads of people to find us, volunteer with us and share our burdens. Remaining as we are will only breed a steady decline. We must go out into the world and be forces of change – not to serve our needs but to better enable our beliefs and our deeds. Change must likely come to us at some new location, in new ways of telling others what we are all about, in new ways of making a difference.
And, while I do not intimately know about issues within this Northern Hills congregation, I imagine some of them are the same as those that face the Gathering. I encourage us all to look around this room and see the power and goodness inherent in each person – to see the hunger for meaning, the hope each has in better lives for all people, the desire for purpose and lasting legacy. It is said that churches must never become dusty museums of old ways and supposedly saintly people. They must instead be vital and active centers of healing and growth for imperfect people – for their members, their Pastors and those outside their doors. We will foster no guilt, no shame, no burden born of a sense of obligation. Instead, as congregations who share many of the same values, we set ourselves the vision to make a difference, to choose our beliefs carefully and speak them with wisdom. We then pledge to go out and be the hands and feet of change in a world that desperately needs loving communities of servants. Long live Northern Hills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and long live the Gathering.