How the Light Gets In
About eighteen years ago I walked into my first AA meeting. And one of my first AA friendships was with a man who was a self-described atheist. When I expressed my doubt about whether I was up to the challenge of the 12 steps, he swore that I didn’t need to believe in God to get sober. “It could be the group. It could be that chair over there. You just need to put your faith in something other than yourself.”
At the time I identified as an agnostic. I wasn’t Catholic anymore, the way I was raised, but I wasn’t an atheist either. It felt like there was something going on. A few years later I started to take my sobriety seriously and as I worked the 12 steps, it became clear that I was going to have to take an honest look at what I meant by “the higher power of my understanding.”
For me, it has always been about community. I experience God most deeply not in a posture of worship to a God-king, but in relationship with others. Sometimes this is a relationship of service. Sometimes it is in covenanted community. Often it happens in a circle, whether it is a talking circle or worship circle. There is sacredness in being authentic with one another and being a witness to one another’s authenticity.
I also experienced it at the hospital during my work as a chaplain intern. Every time I walked into a patient’s room, it was the most intense day of their life. They’d experienced a life threatening traumatic event. They were dying. Their parent or child was dying. Someone was already dead. Every day I went to the hospital knowing I was going to face a lot painful truth.
One day as I lay in bed at home, after a particularly difficult shift, my mom sat down next to me. She lived with us over the summer, taking care of my eight-year-old son. “If it’s so hard,” she asked me, “why do you do it?”
I told her that every day I felt intimately connected to God. And that by showing up authentically and being a witness to the pain, I was making a difference. Something happened in those patient rooms that reminded me of what happened in AA meetings, in my early days in recovery. Something holy was happening. And most of the time we didn’t even pray.
I think for Unitarian Universalists, this is important to acknowledge. We don’t need to pray or use the word God. Something is happening. I thought a lot about that bible passage in Matthew, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” My experience in AA, my experience at Harborview, affirms this. It affirms that we are all broken and we are all enough. And never is that more meaningful, never is that more beautiful, than when we speak that truth in community.
Acknowledging this together--and alone in spiritual practice--develops our compassion, it develops our capacity to love, it opens us up to that which is greater than ourselves alone. And like Channing, I believe that we need both community and self-reflection. We also need that vision of the world we could be, and those moments of transcendence in which to rest.
The most difficult part is that pain and transcendence are often intertwined. It is the challenge of Unitarian Universalists to keep pushing past the pain, to acknowledge it as a means to growth. My understanding of our brokenness--the ways that we will forever fall short of our ideals—is that this is the key to our connection. We don’t experience the Holy in spite of our brokenness. We experience the Holy through our brokenness. This is actually how we connect deeply with one another.
And if God is relationship, and our imperfect humanity is what binds us together as community, than maybe God is the brokenness. And the connection. And the imperfect humanity. And all of it.
This is one of the reasons I love being a UU. Because this is where our work begins, in how we relate to one another. This is the real work. And for me, this is right where we experience the Holy. If we are authentic and honest and present for one another, we get to create the Holy together in community.
As Weiman says, “What is God? God is the integration process at work in the universe. The principle of integration at the human level is love.”