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Naming God

naming-god3

“Argue not about God.” —Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Once during silent worship at my meeting, several Friends spoke out of the silence about light and the nature of light. One Friend commented that light was neither a particle nor a wave but appeared to be both. Another spoke of the ability of light to illuminate spaces that are not visible in darkness. Finally, one Friend commented, in a somewhat exasperated manner, “You know, it’s the Light of God we are talking about!”

Personal concepts and opinions of the Light or of God are occasionally discussed during meeting for worship or in conversation among Friends, but rarely does anyone attempt a formal definition. Quakers are different from most Judeo‐Christian believers in this manner. My own childhood experience was with a church in which God was clearly defined in physical form and personality. As members of the church, we routinely reviewed the culturally shared attributes, directives, and expectations God had of us as part of the worship experience and as central to our religious community’s belief system. God’s rules for living made up a great portion of the content in the services. Exactly what God wanted of us and by what means God would judge our worth and decide our eternal futures was clarified in the Judeo‐Christian Bible, which was considered to be the direct Word of God.

 

I grew up attending the Southern Baptist Church in North Central Texas in the 1950s. Expectations held by this Protestant church of its members included abstinence from alcohol and from smoking. Dancing was also prohibited, as was wearing clothing that showed one’s legs (such as short pants or swimsuits) in gender‐mixed company.

My family was not particularly religious. No one prayed at home or read from the Bible. In fact, my mother was a closet atheist, although this trait was only revealed within her family. My father neither talked about religion, nor did he go to church with us. My mother took me to Sunday school, which she also attended, but that was it. The basic rules of the Baptist Church were partially observed in my household. No one drank alcohol at home and my mother’s extreme anti‐alcohol attitude was probably the reason for her choice of that denomination. When asked why she attended the Baptist church, she would say, “Baptists are just good people!” I agreed with that statement; Baptists were indeed nice to me. Most of the church directives, however, were widely ignored by my family.

During that time, I was deeply involved in both dancing and swimming. For about six months of the year, I wore nothing but shorts or swimsuits unless I was in school or Sunday school. We swam where we wanted and with whom we wanted. As long as the major private parts of the body were covered, nobody in my family thought about modesty very much at all.

My understanding of the God of the Baptists was typical: an old man with white hair who sat on a throne somewhere in the sky. Jesus was his blond son who sat beside him in heaven, wearing white robes and holding hands outstretched, just like the picture of him I had colored in Sunday school. Getting up to heaven and through the heavenly gates was the main aspiration among members in my church. This ultimate goal was mostly what they talked about and sang about. I was always an outsider.

I sang in the church choir, and I went to Sunday school every Sunday. I participated in “sword drills,” a Sunday‐school name for Bible drills in which the Bible represents a sword held at one’s side. These drills were speed contests to be the fastest person to locate a specific Bible verse. The winners were given new Bibles as prizes. Normally, my mother and I did not attend the weekly church services, leaving to go home right after Sunday school. At some point, I learned she didn’t want me to know what they were preaching about in there: fire and brimstone, carnage, pillage, and Armageddon. So I always had a slightly frightened, suspicious attitude about what happened in church, and I attended only when my choir sang on an occasional Sunday morning.

Through all the years I attended there, which was during my entire preadolescent childhood, I never made the long walk up the main aisle of the church to “be saved.” I never did it despite hearing the heart‐rending stories and the dramatic and soulful pleadings delivered by the minister who would come down from his pulpit during the crescendo portion of the service. He stood at the end of the main aisle with arms outstretched like Jesus in his pictures while the organ played and the choir sang a heart‐rending version of one particular hymn which went like this: “Just as I am … oh lamb of God I come, I come.”

My heart must have been cold, because I never felt God was speaking directly to me, taking me by the hand, saving my soul, or making the sun shine any brighter, as my Sunday school teachers had described they felt when God called them. My childhood friends, sitting beside me, rose and walked, some crying. Some of them did this more than once. The initial reward was baptism, which, in the Baptist church, meant being fully dunked in a deeper‐than‐normal bathtub while fully clothed in something like choir robes, only in white. The final reward was said to be life eternal. God never chose me—so I thought—so I stayed on the outside. I never got dunked, and the issue of life eternal remained questionable.

 

Once I began to explore other religions, as a teenager and later as an adult, I spent time trying out different denominations. The Methodists could drink and smoke. Many of my friends’ families drank alcohol and some smoked, and it was nice to know they could. No one at the Methodist Church mentioned dancing or swimming or wearing shorts. Episcopalians gave you wine and bread to sample during services. I enjoyed that, and it seemed to me that this group of people enjoyed life more than the Baptists. Whatever God was, I still didn’t have a clear idea, but it was easier for me to accept religion in this context and spend time with my friends.

Whatever group I was in, I still had several unspoken but important questions. If all the miracles of the Bible stories actually happened, then why did they stop and exactly when did they stop? Apparently, they continued after Jesus’s death and resurrection. So why not now? The physical description of God didn’t make sense to me either. We were made in God’s image? Woman was made from Adam’s rib? God was a father? Where was the mother? If God did look human, what did he do with all those human parts? Why would he possess reproductive organs, for instance? I was a doubter for sure, and I didn’t think about being ashamed of it.

 

I was attending a very friendly and progressive Episcopal church in Woodstock, Vermont, when my interest in Quakers was sparked. Through a common friend, I learned of a young man who was attending and living at a Quaker family camp down the road from me. He dropped by once, and we had a short conversation. Around the time of that meeting, I heard Quakers mentioned several times, involving work in the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, and the peace movement. Every time I heard the name “Quaker,” it was connected with work that seemed right, compassionate, and sincere. I developed a desire to know more about this tradition and history and to meet these Quakers.

I attended a couple of First‐day worships at Princeton (N.J.) Meeting, and became deeply engaged in the silence of worship. I also developed a profound connection with the other worshipers I met there, who I immediately came to describe as clear‐eyed people. When I moved back to Texas in the late 1970s, eight months pregnant with my first child, I began to look for a Quaker meeting to attend. I placed an ad in Friends Journal, seeking persons near my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, who were interested in meeting for worship. I got responses from several people, and we became a worship group, meeting first in my home, and later in more centralized areas under the care of Dallas (Tex.) Meeting. Eventually, we became a monthly meeting ourselves.

That was when I truly began my spiritual journey as a Quaker. My husband and I raised two children within this religious framework, and they are now adults. We are now on our second round of parenting and are raising our young children within our monthly meeting, Inland Valley Meeting in Riverside, California, where we have been members for more than 20 years.

Describing or defining God is a mercurial endeavor for me. As a child, my mother would pick up mercury from the floor when a thermometer broke, put it into a bowl, and bring it over for me to play with. I wince when I consider how much of this dangerous substance we may have unwittingly welcomed into our bodies. My mother, of course, was not aware of the danger. What she sought to show me was a phenomenon in which metal took on liquid properties and behaviors. Playing with the substance involved seeing how quickly and how completely it could be divided or shaken into small, even minute pearl‐like silver beads. Shaking it again, it would then appear as a single bubble, with surface tension rounding its morphing, undulating edges. Another shake and it became a miniature lake of shimmering lava, gliding and following gravity’s pull without leaving a drop or a trace of itself on the surface it traveled.

In my life, the Light, or that of God, appears and disappears. It dramatically reveals its presence and then alternately retreats into a shroud. It becomes diffuse and universal, then appears as individual and personal. I receive grace and miracles, and soon I doubt my own experiences. I am a believer, and I am a doubter. Believing, as I do, that truth is a characteristic of God, I must admit to my contradictory and fickle attitudes and experiences. I realize it’s likely that my attention and focus may actually be what is appearing and disappearing from the Light, rather than the other way around. What I believe, however, is what I experience. The best I can do to walk in the Light is to remain open, focused, gentle, truthful, and willing to regard my fellow travelers in this life as divine.

 

I have a multi‐disciplined spiritual practice. It consists of yoga asanas, chanting, praying, reading various scripture from many cultural heritages, singing, and meditation. Sometimes my practice also involves walking; writing; painting; dancing; swimming; hiking; making music; gardening; playing with my husband and my children, my dog or my cat; laughing with friends; watching a sunset; staring into the night sky; or attending Quaker meeting for worship.

My daily worship usually consists of practicing mindfulness meditation; yoga asana and breath; and a gradual emptying out of my thoughts, plans, preoccupations, and judgments until I reach a still and vibrant place. There, I may pray, or address needs and concerns for myself and others, or hold my thoughts and actions in the light of the stillness and consider the principles I seek to follow on my spiritual journey. I remain there, in a deep state of peace, contentment, and radiant presence: beyond words, images, or thoughts. When I reluctantly return, I am refreshed, awake, and often carrying insights I had not previously considered. In describing this part of my practice, the following phrase comes to mind: “He restoreth my soul.”

I once had a supervisor who was steeped in a deeply fundamentalist variety of religion. Her beliefs were commonly broadcast at work, and she usually listened to right‐wing radio stations throughout the day, which played loudly whenever you entered her office. She told me a story about having a co‐worker under her supervision who was Muslim. This woman had converted to Christianity, and, as my boss put it, “She began to worship THE LORD!” At some later time, my supervisor was addressed by her supervisors for her religiosity.

I have a rich and evolving spiritual life. Never have I felt comfortable with packaging my spiritual experiences and describing them in one word, such as God, or in the many and varied names for a primary deity and singular focus of worship. Having said that, I commonly use the word God to express what I think I share with people across time and from around the planet. I don’t feel adequate to define God; I may not even think it’s possible, but I can describe what I recognize as characteristics of God. In short, God is love, compassion, patience, and commitment. God intervenes in life, when requested or not. God imparts wisdom and direction. God is always present, continues to perform miracles, and works within the laws of nature. When I expect otherwise, I miss what God is doing at that very moment. It matters not to me if we speak of the source of this amazing grace as masculine or feminine, nor if we call it Yahweh, Great Spirit, Shiva, or Allah. When my daughter wants to pray and speak to God, she goes to the beach and talks to the ocean and the moon. I can’t think of a better form of communion than that.

 

Several years ago, I practiced walking meditation five or more times per week. I experienced many spiritual wonders then, including the natural, emergent impulse toward thankfulness that occurred when I, bent and immersed in my circular walks around a beautiful, mountain‐ringed neighborhood track, came to the point where I left thought and worry several paces behind me. I became aware that I was breathing a word formed from a collection of sounds that arose from my inhalations and exhalations as I walked my endless, circular path. Having sadly left that practice behind, at least for the present, I no longer breathe those syllables that had come to represent the highest of spiritual presence to me. I no longer recall what those syllables were, but I recall being overwhelmed by an outpouring of gratitude in their presence, arising without guilt, and without external expectation. Gratitude found and released my heart spontaneously, joyously, repeatedly, and each time, as a new discovery.

I now often walk on a treadmill as part of my spiritual life. I chant, sing, pray, and meditate there. Some days when life is its most challenging, I find comfort in singing and revising old hymns and spirituals as I take endless, measured steps, close my eyes, feel the air moving from my ceiling fan across my skin and drift into a reverie of deep comfort and solace. I have several books of hymns and spiritual music that I sing from. Interestingly, one hymn I choose again and again, when life is its most unsettling, or frightful, is the old Baptist hymn I recall from my childhood, the one that never moved me to leave my seat in the choir and join the outstretched arms of the minister who stood and called us with similar words to those I now sing: “Just as I am, without a prayer where God’s own light surrounds me here, just as I am, my heart to share … Oh light of God, … I come, I come.”

Jane O'Shields-Hayner is a writer and visual artist. She has a history teaching art, and she currently practices occupational therapy with a specialty in home healthcare. Jane and her husband are longtime members of Inland Valley (Calif.) Meeting and are lifelong social activists. They have two young children and two adult daughters.


Posted in: Features, June/July 2014: Concepts of God

2 Responses to Naming God

  1. Barbara Moore July 2, 2014 at 11:09 pm #

    Thank you for this lovely, thoughtful story which has such a ring of truth to it. I’m sure I’ll often think of it.

  2. Susan and Don Jeffers July 11, 2014 at 9:03 am #

    thanks so much for posting this article as a podcast. I’ve just recently discovered the FJ podcasts and am eagerly listening to them. I hope FJ posts many more articles in podcast format — I’m sure many Friends (and interested others) would benefit.

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