I have been a Unitarian Universalist for 25 years. It wasn’t the faith I was born into–that was Catholicism–but it was the faith I chose. If you asked me why I chose it and why I have stayed with it, you would need to prepare yourself for a very long answer. That said, I will speak briefly to the congregation today as part of an informal series we have had, modeled along the This I Believe public dialogue about faith.
This I Believe
At the very end of my mother’s life, I went to see her in the nursing home. It was a Saturday and my brother called to say to say I should get there as soon as I could. I sat at her bedside, held her hand, and prayed. It was the only thing to do.
I hadn’t been a Catholic for 30 years but my mother still was, so I reached deep in my memory and prayed what I could remember of the rosary. I could only produce the children’s version—an “Our Father” followed by three “Hail Mary’s.” I repeated this a few times, trying for the depth of faith I once possessed.
It wasn’t quite there.
At some point I tuned into the sounds of the nursing home. Aides were stopping by rooms, small conversations were happening, and in the big room down the hall they were playing bingo. A woman called out “G-55” and then “O-70.” I studied my mother’s face, stared out the window for a while.
Then I heard the woman again, “B-13. B-13.” There was a long pause and then a sigh, “I’ve called all the B’s and all the G’s. Someone has to have won.”
It’s OK to laugh a little. My mother would have. While she was always the quietest in a room of mixed company, she possessed an Irish wit that could be biting—and she hated bingo.
I sat for a while more and then decided to leave in time for the Saturday evening Catholic mass. I would come back the next day.
Except for weddings and funerals I hadn’t been to a Catholic mass since I was 14. Still, 30 years later, I remembered every word of it, even the Nicene creed. This Unitarian-Universalist chimed right in, “I believe in one God // the Father almighty // maker of heaven and earth..”
But it was reflex. This wasn’t my church; it was my mother’s, and I was there for her.
I drove home. My brother had called again. My mother had passed away while I had prayed in her church.
The Christian idea of Grace, as my mother explained to me, is God’s love and forgiveness, given to us in moments we need it most. I hope it came to my mom while I sat in her church that afternoon. My mother believed but had her doubts, so I hope she **knew** she was entering the Kingdom of Heaven as she slipped away.
I do know grace came to me during that bingo game. I needed that reminder of my mother, of her wit, of what she had been like before that illness took her body and mind. I don’t know if God herself is there to grant me grace, but I know grace is there. I waver between hopeful agnostic and minor-league Christian, but those moments of love come to me.
I find moments of grace here, in this church. They are there for me lately in coffee hour with a warm handshake from an old friend I haven’t seen much in my sabbatical from church. They are there for me when I see a teenager in coffee hour and see the four-year old version of them from our preschool classroom. They are there for me when Reverend Anita ends each service by urging us to go into the week with “fresh courage.”
When I was a boy and I would go to church with my mother, I would listen to her sing the hymns. She wasn’t much of a singer in the same way she wasn’t much of a talker but she had a pretty soprano voice and she made even the most dismal Catholic hymn sound good. My mother didn’t have an easy life. She was a single mom, working and raising four children on her own. Church was probably the only respite in her week and those hymns were probably her only refuge.
Which leads me to another thing I believe. I believe in beauty. I believe that even though bad things happen—in the world, in our lives, to the people we lost, to my mother—our lives are interrupted by moments of beauty. We all find it at times, don’t we? Maybe it’s in poetry. In something we read or watch. In something we’ve made. In nature.
For me it’s the choir and my small part in it. I took a five-year sabbatical from church but I took a 20-year sabbatical from the choir. So I am back in it, groping my way through. I sing baritone so I put myself strategically between Jeff Morrison and John Pustell, two stalwarts with fine voices who know what they are doing. I am at my best when I quiet myself, listen, and put myself in tune with them. When I told Jeff how much I rely on them he quipped, “It’s like bowling with bumpers.”
I am going to let you in on something even though it embarrasses me. There are times when I am so full of emotion up there I can hardly sing. If you look closely, I am sometimes crying. This usually happens at a point in the song when I am soldiering through my baritone part and those beautiful soprano voices around me take flight.
I grew up in a massive Catholic church, easily five times the size of this sanctuary, with stained glass and holy water, confessionals and kneelers and incense–and Christ on the Cross, in bold relief, towering almost 30 feet above the altar.
We have no such ornamentation here. We don’t, as the Catholics do, consider our sanctuary a doorway to the Kingdom of Heaven. But this place fills my heart more than that massive church ever did. This is the place where I find those moments of grace and beauty.
This I believe.