With or Without God

A sermon Given at the Birmingham Unitarian Church

Bloomfield Hills, MI

I want to tell you about Mycha. I met Mycha after serving two years as the

Chaplain in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and in addition serving as the Chaplain in the Hemotology/Oncology Unit for just a few months. Mycha was four years old and recently diagnosed with cancer. She was fortunate to have a type of childhood cancer that had a very high survival rate, in fact we called it one of the “good” pediatric cancers. During the course of Mycha’s surgery and treatments at the hospital we developed a special relationship. One that still informs my ministry and who I am as a person.

In the first real conversation Mycha and I had she told me about her kitten that died, the puppy who drowned in the creek behind her house and her grandfather who went “in the ground.” Obviously, Mycha had death on her mind. I assumed that the death she was most worried about was her own even though we all knew she had nothing about which to worry. That is where our relationship began. And that is when I found a flaw in my personal theology became clear. Particularly, a flaw in my limited thinking of my non-belief in God.

You see, I am a devout Agnostic. Although these days I sometimes use the label Religious Humanist. Like many of us Unitarian Universalists, I spent many years caught up in the tendency to explain my theology in terms of what I do not believe. In my training in pastoral care I was challenged to define my personal theology in positive terms. Much harder than explaining that in which I did not believe. At the time I met Mycha, I was learning to articulate my own beliefs in terms of what I did believe. My lack of belief in God was the one area where I could not find a positive language to use. How was I going to minister to Mycha and help her find the answers she so desperately needed if I was still struggling to understand and articulate what I believed?

Mycha was a rather spoiled little girl, as the youngest of three and the only daughter. When Mycha was bored she would demand that her parents get “boys and toys.” That meant she expected them to drive down to their home near the Ohio River and collect her brothers and some toys. She was also a special challenge to the nurses, both in Oncology and in Intensive Care. I would get these pages, “Chaplain Patricia, Mycha is talking about ‘in the ground’ again.” That meant she was talking about death and they wanted me to deal with that aspect of her care. I was, after all, her pastor when she was in the hospital. “In the ground” was all Mycha understood of death. That was where Grandpa went and all her pets. She was afraid that she might be next to go “in the ground.” No matter how many times her parents told her that she was getting better, she would not find comfort in their words.

Mycha’s mother had a deep faith in God and in her Christian faith. When Mycha talked about “in the ground” her mother would assure her that if Mycha ever died she would be in heaven with Jesus and Grandpa. Mycha had only seen pictures of Jesus and never met him personally, so she wasn’t convinced he was real. And, she knew where Grandpa was - he was in the ground. As a chaplain in an interfaith setting, more importantly, as a Unitarian Universalist who spoke about my tolerance and acceptance of each individual’s personal theological beliefs I could not contradict her mother’s faith. In fact, I needed to respect and honor it for her and to her. Yet, I could tell that what her mother was telling her, although immensely comforting to her mom, did not work for Mycha. She would scrunch up her face and look at me with doubt at her mother’s words. When her mother commanded, “Mycha, tell Chaplain Patricia what you will be if you ever die.” Mycha made a face and said, “I’ll be Mommy’s angel.” Then she whispered, “I’ll be your angel, too, Chaplain Patricia.”

The one day I did want to speak up was the day that out of her exhaustion and exasperation her mother used an image that was frightening to Mycha. Her mother said, “Honey, it’s like you’re a banana. When you eat the banana, you want the good part that is inside. And the good part of you that will be with God is your soul. Your soul is inside your body like the banana is in the peel. And, when you let the good part of the banana free, you can throw the peel in the trash, because the good part is free. Just like your soul that is inside goes to be with God when your body dies.” Mycha look horrified. In her four year old mind, her mother had just told her that her body would go in the trash when she died, just like the banana peel. That did not work. So, she gave me one of those looks that said we were going to talk when Mom left the room.

As a Unitarian Universalist who was trying to practice what we preach, I could not diminish her mother’s faith. However, I also needed to help Mycha find faith in something that would comfort her. And, in the midst of all of this, I needed to figure out what I believed.

As a child, I believed in a God who was all loving and all forgiving. My Catholicism was my haven on earth and the fact that God loved me no matter what, gave me comfort when I needed it. Once I realized that the God I loved was not the same God that the church was teaching, I began to doubt the church. When I left the church, I thought I had to throw God away, too. As an adult the childhood definition of God that comforted me, left me cold. If God was all loving why did so many suffer? If God was all forgiving, why did so many people have lives of torment and abject loneliness and poverty? I could define the God I did not believe in, but I never wondered if there was a God I could define.

In fact, many Unitarian Universalists are quick reject all images of God rather than wonder. The image of the God I was instructed to believe as a child stopped working for me the moment the nuns told me that my father would burn in hell for not being a Catholic. Not my Pop!!! So, I rejected all images of God believing that they all revolved around the same basic ideas and images. Boy, was I wrong!

When I was teaching the art of pastoral care to ministers and seminarians, I learned that Christians in the same denomination can have very different images of God. I learned that the image of God for a National Baptist is greatly different than the image of God for a Lutheran or a Methodist. And, when you throw in a pastor from the Church of God, you can really mix it up. So, why was I so locked into rejecting one image of God? Why did I hand over to the Catholic church the right to define God for me or the right to define the God in which I could not believe? It wasn’t as though I ever asked myself, “Well, if that image of God doesn’t work for me, is there any other image that might?” I decided and declared, “The image of God that I was taught will never be true for me - so, I will never believe in God.” Quite an example of Unitarian Universalist arrogance.

So, here I was with this beautiful four year old child, so frightened of death, of the cold, of the aloneness of being “in the ground.” I realized that Mycha had been clear that she could not believe in God the way her mother did. Why could I not reach inside myself and find a god that she could? Because I was too limited by what I did not believe to look for another answer. Thank goodness another one came.

For the nine years I was a chaplain, I was present for the deaths of 30 to 40 babies and children a year. When I wondered about God, I realized that not every parent and family member believed in the God about which I was taught. But all except those abjectly lonely few, believed in something. And, the somethings in which they believed gave them the strength to survive the horrible loss that all of us who are parents dread. In order to journey with those whose lives include great loss and pain, I needed to believe in something that grounded me and allowed me to find the strength to enter each new heartbreaking situation and keep my own heart open to feel and share the pain of others.

It was terrifying to stand with a woman who gave up for adoption the two babies she had as a teenager. Who had a third child of which she lost custody and was denied any visitation or contact. And who finally turned her life around, remarried and had a fourth child to love and raise in a loving, stable marriage - a four month old, beautiful boy - who just died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when I was asked to be with her. I needed to know what in my Unitarian Universalist faith would sustain and strengthen me in order to support her.

I wondered how we, who speak so proudly of our non-creedal, non-doctrinal religion find spiritual comfort when we most need it, with or without God. Whether we want to do the work or not, we each will encounter times in our lives when we need faith in something to hold us up and help us survive. All of us who lived long enough and who are honest, will remember times we thought our burdens or troubles were more than we could bear alone.

You see, it doesn’t matter if we believe in God or not. But we need to believe in something. Several years ago I was asked to speak to the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association. I chose as my topic, “Is Humanism Enough to Sustain You In a Crisis?” I was told that it turned out to be one of the best attended meeting this group ever had. I believe it is a question we who disbelieve in traditional theology need to wrestle with: “Is what I have, what I believe in, enough to sustain me in a crisis?”

The topic is especially compelling to me because I have seen the power of faith and I have gone through times when I have known that I needed faith in something in order to survive. I am NOT talking about the faith that limits, damages, chastises and controls. I am not talking about faith accepted uncritically or without question. Not the judgmental faith that has hurt so many and cast out so many. I mean that in which you have ultimate faith as a Unitarian Universalist.

I am in awe of the story from Elie Weisel from the Holocaust. It is almost inconceivable that in the midst of the most brutal and horrific treatment of humankind, that in the belly of evil itself, there remained a faith in a God that was culpable for the very hell these men were living. In the midst of all that is unspeakable and a God who was guilty for it, they had a relationship with God that sustained and strengthened. A relational belief in what had ultimate value to them.

What ultimate belief would sustain you if you were in Auschwitz? In what do you believe that would be your source of comfort and strength should you be condemned to what appears to be unbearable loss and grief? That is where the work of uncovering your ultimate beliefs begins. That belief that can be with or without God. But it should be realized critically and honestly. Many of my colleagues call that in which they individually hold ultimate faith, that which is their most steadfast belief, “God.” I do not.

I understand that some of my colleagues believe God is an experience and not a being - and I can even agree with that. I understand that some of them use the word “God” to challenge their congregations in order for the members to think critically about the image of God they hold. And, I feel sympathy for the colleagues who believe in a God they feel they cannot name in their sermons or services for fear of the reaction they well get. Many of my colleagues have helped their congregations learn that “God” is sometimes used mytho-poetically.

Yet, every once in a while....I hear the word “God” and can immediately interpret that into that in which I hold ultimate faith. That which grounds me. And, every so often I will allow myself to use readings, as I did this morning, that contain the word “God” because, to tell the truth, if I am trying to be accepting and tolerant of individual belief because if I practice what our principles say, I should honor different beliefs than my own and acknowledge that regardless of those who are vocal about their beliefs, there are those of us who keep our beliefs silent so we will not be judged and excluded by other Unitarian Universalists. The days of Unitarian Universalist congregations having only Humanists in our congregations are long gone. And, we limit the recognition of our diverse beliefs when we relentlessly insist on limiting the use of language that does not honor our own, individual, specific beliefs. Have we thought about the fact that certain language and metaphors may honor the person sitting next to you who needs to hear their language used as well?

We, as Unitarian Universalists, claim many and diverse belief systems, both with and without God, as part of the diversity of our membership. It is from this smorgasbord of theology that we begin our individual work. And, if you do yours well, you will uncover and articulate that in which you have ultimate beliefs and faith - your individual theology.

Choose well. For if you choose from a reaction against an image or idea - instead of choosing something that is drawing you towards what is right inside of you, your foundation will shake beneath you. I have no preference whether your belief is with or without God. That is a private matter. Yet, I do care that you believe in something.

How could I have survived all those deaths, all those grieving parents, all those tears and wails and silences - if I did not know in what I had ultimate faith? I would never have. How did I find in what I had ultimate belief? Mycha taught me.

Mycha, this precocious, lovable, irritable, beautiful little girl was afraid of her own death and she needed a belief, a faith, that would ease her fear. And, I, as her pastor, was called upon to do what Unitarian Universalist pastors do at their best - bless an individual in their work to sort out their own theology - with or without God.

Late one on-call night, I was called to Mycha’s room. A very frustrated nurse said on the phone, “Chaplain Patricia, Mycha is talking about ‘in the ground’ again. Can you come to her room?” Of course I would. I always did. So I sat down on the bed next to Mycha, held the basin near her mouth and when she could talk, I finally understood that Mycha and I had faith in the same thing.

“Mycha, when you send Mommy and Daddy to go get Boys and Toys, do you still feel how much they love you?” She pondered for a moment and said, “Yea.” “Well, when you go downstairs to Radiology and Mommy and Daddy stay up here in your room, do they still feel how much you love them?” That took longer. “Yep. They do.” “Well, Mycha, that’s what I think happens when you die. All the love that Mommy and Daddy feel and give you is yours forever. You will never be without that. And, all the love that you give and feel for Mommy and Daddy is theirs forever. That will never go away. Love doesn’t change just because we die.” Mycha never talked about “in the ground” again and she died a few weeks later.

When she did, her Chaplain stayed with her parents until they left the hospital. Then she helped bathe Mycha’s body, rubbed lotion into her skin, put her in clean pajamas and before she helped wrap her in the shroud she would wear to the morgue, kissed her forehead and let her tears fall on Mycha’s cheek.

Mycha helped me learn that I have ultimate belief in something - my ultimate belief is in love. And, to be even more clear, I have ultimate faith that if we can share and accept love that is offered - we can survive anything. With or without God.

- So be it. Amen.

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