If I’m going to be talking about my time in seminary, it might be a good idea to talk a bit about how I got to the point of deciding to apply to seminary. Serving as a Worship Associate at my congregation (the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland) has been a huge part of my life for the past two years, and was a major contributing factor to my decision to pursue ministry. This piece was written for the first lay lead service I participated in, in December of 2011. The service’s title was” Love is the every only god” after the e.e. cummings poem of the same name. I suggested this theme at a meeting, expecting everyone else to consider it too silly or not well thought out enough, and was happily overwhelmed when my fellow Worship Associates responded positively. We put together a whole service, complete with colorful scarves to represent my synesthetic experience, and to this day building that very first service with the worship team is one of my favorite and most powerful memories.
e.e. cummings is probably my favorite poet. I love the way words that aren’t commonly put together look and sound together. I’m a sucker for an interesting sounding string of words – regardless of it it appears to mean much of anything. As such, I occasionally browse though his poems. One day as I was doing this I happened upon a poem that began “Love is the every only god”. What it said after that is unimportant, what matters is that that phrase stuck with me, it rattled around in my brain for days, maybe weeks. Actually, it’s still rattling around in there. Every time it shows up in my thoughts I can’t help but say to myself , “that’s so true.”
It’s been a little weird. I’m not used to or particularly comfortable talking about something called god. My family for the most part never talks about god, and my friends certainly don’t. But there I was, with that phrase and those words rattling around in my head. I kept thinking of when I was younger and briefly a member of a Mennonite church. They liked to say “god is love” quite a lot. This was basically just the same words backwards, I thought, but it felt different. Also, I believed these words, and it felt very strange to me to believe any sentence that claims to be about the nature of god. Eventually, in a characteristically over dramatic moment, I told a friend that I’d had these words stuck in my head for a while and that I was a little unsettled by the fact that I believed them. We talked for a bit and then he asked “so, what do you mean by ‘love is the every only god’?” This is the best explanation I have.
We all have walls. Some of these walls are basic and necessary, they say “this over here, is me and that over there, is you.” other walls can be less benign and are based on our ideas about “us” and “them”. Regardless of why the walls are there, they are in fact there. Behind these walls each of us exists, all of our hopes, dreams, emotions, past experiences and everything. It can get very lonely behind these walls. It’s easy to feel isolated. Sometimes however, we open ourselves up to one another and manage to push the walls aside. In these moments where we connect, where we see our common humanity, I experience the only thing I’ve ever really thought could be called god.
This moment is illustrated very clearly in my mind. I’m synesthetic and for me part of that is that everyone I meet has a color. I, for example, am bright blue while Amy is a kind of warm pink. When we interact, those colors swirl together and modify each other. Whenever I have a positive interaction with someone, colors get brighter. When I have a really intense connection with someone, the colors get more saturated, and on and on.
However I also have interactions, positive and otherwise, where each person’s respective color stays very close to them. Though not everyone experiences interpersonal relationships how I do, I think most people have this sort of interaction at least sometimes.
I’ve found that one of the best ways to facilitate this sort of interaction is to show other people love. In the book “Kitchen Table Wisdom”, Rachel Remen writes “Of course love is never earned. It is a grace we give one another. Anything we need to earn is only approval.” When I talk about loving people, I don’t mean it in the sense of “like a whole lot” or in the sense that is meant when we talk about romantic love. To show someone love in this sense of the word is to look at them and actually see them; To push aside whatever judgments we reflexively make, to ignore our biases, and to say “hey, I see you there. You have a whole life, a whole history, a body of experiences that I can never really know. There you are, existing, and I see that.” When we love people, we accept their lived experiences as valid and become more able to see in them the basic human-ness that we see in ourselves. Treating people in accordance with loving them in turn allows them to open up to you, to feel safe and accepted, and to see the basic human-ness in you that they see in themselves. Love is how we put down the walls and it is what we find beyond them, when we let ourselves. It can be scary to put down the walls, especially when we aren’t used to receiving love when we make ourselves vulnerable but in putting down those walls we find the ability to help others who are scared to be themselves, and a truly divine experience.
For me, places that are filled with love are places without judgment, where individuals are accepting and welcoming, these places are very brightly colored. I love the moment in a counseling session when my patient realizes or decides that it’s okay to actually open up to me. Suddenly everything is much brighter and the whole tone of the conversation changes.
When I first came here I was overwhelmed and confused by how bright the colors were and how much I felt able to actually just be myself. I remember wondering when people were going to stop being nice, or when I was going to learn what it was about me that was unacceptable here. Gradually I came to realize and believe that that wasn’t going to happen. My ability to believe that really came from the experiences I had, of people interacting with me in a way that showed me that it wasn’t necessary to keep my walls up, and experiences where I let my walls down and was received warmly and with love. I count myself as lucky, maybe even blessed, to have in my life a religious community, group of friends, and workplace where I have these sorts of experiences. Love and acceptance abound in these parts of my life, and that gives me an incredible amount of joy.
Unfortunately, not all places we exist in contain this kind of love. In these places everything becomes very gray for me. People’s individual colors are dulled, and they generally stay very close to the individual. There is not a lot of real connection going on in these places. Public places, or in my case, when I am with my own family, tend to take on this characteristic. When I’m in a space where I’m able to be myself and able to connect with other people who accept me, some of the hurt that is caused by this lack of acceptance is healed. When I show that same kind of love to others I can help heal them, and also heal myself. When the walls are down and we are able to truly connect with one another, we are showing and receiving love. This feeling, of acceptance and unconditional love is the single most holy thing I have ever felt.
(I need to remember to tell Erin Jeffreys Hodges about this)