I first posted this 2 years ago… it was a sermon I gave at Neshoba UU Church and was one of my first blog posts. A comment on another blogger’s site made me think of it. I have added a bit of information and tweaked a few other details, but I thought I would share it again for those who are new visitors to The Spirit Within.
I have a Jewish friend who forwards emails to me on a regular basis. Occasionally, her emails make reference to God, and I have noticed that she spells His name G – d. From what I have read, observant Jews follow this practice out of reverence for the Almighty. One reason it is done is to avoid desecrating His name by crumpling, tearing, or otherwise destroying the paper on which it is written. The other reason has to do with the belief that we as humans are not able to fully understand Him, and so we should not use his full name. In this interpretation, the dash represents all that they don’t know, can’t know, about their god. Think of all the various names that different faiths and different people use for God. Yahweh, Allah, Father, Almighty, Spirit… the list is too long to name. To me, the dash represents the fact that we all have different understandings, different interpretations of who or what God is. The differences between us – the important distinctions – are all in the dash.
Even within each of us, there can be different, sometimes conflicting understandings of the idea of God. There can be the God of our childhood – the one that our parents believed in and taught us to believe in. For some, that was a vengeful god, keeping a tally of our sins for the day when we would be judged. For others, it was a God of forgiveness, full of love for His children.
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And yet others might remember a God that was 3 in one – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I grew up being instilled with the concept of a trinity and with an image of God, the Father, as an old man sitting in the sky. Even as a young person, I just couldn’t accept that as plausible. It seemed too far-fetched to be real, so for a long time, I was very uncomfortable with the whole idea.
Whether or not we were raised with a concept of God, as an adult, we might have a whole different understanding of the Holy. Individually, we may each have different names for the Divine. One may profess faith in a living, loving God, another in a Holy Being that transcends life; still others, in the Spirit of Life that we sing about each Sunday, or even in a Goddess of the earth… Some may disavow the idea of God all together. However we conceptualize God, if we do at all, it is our own understanding that is important. As Thomas Jefferson said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
I still have some hesitation over the term God. It seems to carry a connotation that I am uneasy with. On the other hand, I have come to appreciate the concept, borrowed from many 12-step programs, of a “Higher Power” or a “god of my own understanding”. I like the phrase “Higher Power” – it provides another perception of the Holy, the idea that the word G – d doesn’t have to refer to a being at all – it can mean the power of love in a community, the life force that joins us together, or – if you think of the dash as standing for “OO” – the GOOD in each other.
So for me, the dash in the word G – d represents the divine, the spirit, the spark that resides within me – within all of us. I do believe that there is something holy in all of us that only gets bigger when we give it away. Your spark, your love, your spirit only grows stronger when you share it with others. So how to we recognize the divine in ourselves? In each other?
Consider this poem by Linda Ellis.
I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning…to the end.
He noted that first came the date of her birth
And spoke of the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth…
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own;
The cars….the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard…
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
That can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real,
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.
And be less quick to anger,
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect,
And more often wear a smile…
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.
So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash…
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spend your dash?
Examining how we spend our dash can help us find that spark. Do we fill it with things? With people? With money? With service? Is it about whom we love, or what we have, or even how we worship? Forrest Church, a UU minister who is widely quoted, says, “Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die.” So is religion how we should fill our dash? Personally, I tend to resist the word “Religion” – much as I used to resist the word God. It brings back memories of childhood and the hypocrisy I felt when attending church. A better word for me is Spirituality, so perhaps I can paraphrase Reverend Church by saying that Spirituality is the human response to life and death. Spirituality is what should fill our dash.
But what exactly is Spirituality? For some, it is about a belief in a supreme being – in G – d. For others, it is less about “god” and more about the Spirit within themselves. Spirituality, our dash, is a path we are all on, a journey towards truth. Each path is a personal one and as truth evolves, the path can change. This spiritual journey is a search for one’s core beliefs and for ways to demostrate those beliefs through actions. It is also a recognition of those moments that speak to us on a level sometimes beyond description.
Spirituality is about noticing the small things – the soft skin of a newborn baby, the smell of the salt air by the beach, the colors of a sunset flooding the horizon. It is also about noticing the big things.
When I was in high school, I spent many weekend hours with my dad on the farm he owned about an hour outside of town. One Saturday, the work that needed to be done took longer than he expected and we were still there after dark. As my dad continued to work in the barn, I climbed up onto the roof of our station wagon and laid back, staring up at the sky. As the light faded away, stars began to emerge, first the biggest and brightest, then the smaller and fainter. Out there in the country, far from the lights of the city, the sky was darker than I had ever seen. I tried to count the stars and quickly realized there were many more than I could even begin to number. When it seemed as if the sky couldn’t get any darker and the stars any more numerous, a cloud of dust emerged across the sky – the Milky Way! I had heard of it, but being a city girl had never actually seen it. I think that was my first, and possibly most vivid, spiritual moment.
I realized then that there was something out there, larger than each of us, larger than all of us. I feel that we are like the stars scattered across the sky. Some are bigger and brighter, some smaller and fainter, but each one adds to the beauty and together we create moments beyond description. These moments are the stepping stones on our journey, but we still have to fill the space in between.
For me, filling my dash is about finding who I am and examining how I live my life – it is about finding the spirit within myself, and how I share that spirit with others. Lois W., co-founder of Al-Anon, defines Spirituality as “living a life that has deeper meaning than the search for daily necessities.” I strive to live a spiritual life, a life that has meaning – that will leave an imprint on those whose lives I touch.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending a celebration for a woman who was retiring from my school after 40 years of work. It coincided with her 75th birthday, so the event was truly a celebration of her life. Current and former colleagues, students and administrators spoke fondly of the dedication she had shown the school and the love they felt for her. They told funny stories about things that had happened over the years. They spoke of her faith and her spunk, of her laughter and her hugs. We were surprised to learn that she had taken up the piano in her 60’s. And that she planned to travel now that she was retired. And you might be surprised to learn that she was not a teacher, not an administrator, not even an office staff member. She was on the housekeeping staff – she spent 40 years helping to set up for receptions, cleaning up afterwards, keeping the halls and the classrooms neat and tidy, and generally taking care of all those who passed through them. But through it all, her life – her dash – touched many people. And how wonderful it was for her to hear that celebrated while she was still there to receive that gift.
I have been teaching for 26 years, and can only hope that I have touched a few students and colleagues along the way. I counted up the other day – give or take a few dozen, I have taught almost 1600 students. One of those former students was at the celebration for this woman, and how heartwarming it was to have her come over to me to give me a hug and let me know she had fond memories of my class. If there is someone in your life whose dash has touched you in some way, I hope you can find a way to say thank you, to let them know that their life had an impact on you. And perhaps one day, someone will come up to you and say thanks. Thanks for being an inspiration. Thanks for being a role model. Thanks for helping me through a tough time. Thanks for being there when I needed a friend. Thanks for being you.