God’s Love is Not Utilitarian

About a year after I was ordained, I accepted a call to serve my present congregation in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.  In all honesty, I had no idea what I was doing.  To be fair, I thought I did.  Texas was a “red” state and I was from a “blue” state.  Texas was behind the curve on GLBT rights and equality and I had just spent a bunch of time working with MassEquality.  Texas still had and has capital punishment and I was an experienced death penalty abolition advocate who had worked at Amnesty International.  Texas was full of fundamentalist, Evangelical Christians and I was a newly minted liberal minister who spoke fluent Christian. I’d be a stealth weapon in combating the ignorance.  I think somehow my brain was convinced that I would be coming to Texas to “save” Texas.  What has ended up happening is that Texas is saving me.

I have had some success in my ministry, but I have also fumbled and bumbled and screwed some things up.  Texas has taught me a lot about being a pastor, mostly the hard way, but sometimes that’s the only way to learn.  I’ve also learned a lot about my relationship to God, justice, myself and others.  I thought I got ordained to save and heal the world around me.  As it turns out, my ordination wasn’t for the healing of the community, God used my ordination to heal me.

This may fly in the face of a sense of calling that some of us have.  I’ve heard it said in Unitarian Universalist circles that one of the problems we have is our congregations are not places of spiritual deepening and thus those who are drawn to a life of or in the spirit or those of who crave more spiritual deepening seek such opportunities outside the congregation and many of them go to seminary as the only recourse.  Seminary being the only perceived source or wellspring where such deepening can be found.  I think that’s an over-simplification and neglects the profound power of what the spirit may be up to in individual lives.  It is true we need more opportunities for adult spiritual formation in our congregations, but this true across the mainline spectrum of churches (and probably true of churches in general) – I’ve been involved in ecumenical spirituality programs enough to know that lack of spiritual deepening is not a problem unique to Unitarian Universalists (there goes our terminal uniqueness again), nor is it an issue that individuals who seek greater depths often end up going to seminary, this also true across denominations. Perhaps this is part of how the spirit works and part of the way God calls different people for different reasons.

I used to think that my calling was solely about a way to combine a prayer life, a way to study, a way to teach, a way to be a prophetic witness, and a way to be a community organizer. I already had a degree in ministry and a career as a religious educator.  Then I went back to seminary in a new denomination for ordination. Only after I was ordained and my journey continued did I learn enough of God and the ways of the spirit to understand that maybe, just maybe, the journey to ordination and through ministry was God’s way of healing me and the way that my life would be most complete, wholistic and happy.

William A. Barry, SJ speaks of this in his article, “God’s Love is not Utilitarian” from the Nov.-Dec. 1987  issue of Review for Religious.  He says, “God does not love me or anyone primarily in order to achieve some other goals.”  Barry speaks about many of the reasons given to justify religious life (living as a vowed member of a religious order such as the Jesuits) including what a great sacrifice religious life is, but he says “I did not feel that my life entailed any more sacrifice than anyone else’s.”

A God lacking utilitarian motives is a very Unitarian and Universalist God.  There is no “will of God” that needs to be fulfilled in each and every individual life, there is no need to fear letting God down, and there is nothing that we can do or choose that can separate us from the divine love that is God. That love is unconditional. It is the love and acceptance we need to have for ourselves and others.  God doesn’t punish us or send us to hell for failing to satisfy some utilitarian divine plan.  We may, and I can attest to this personally, screw up magnificently at times, in ways that justice requires we make amends, apologies to others, and repair relationships, but the love that is God never stops wanting anything but peace and contentment for us, and never stops loving us.

All this Utilitarian God stuff comes out of contemplating the writing of a Jesuit, a religious order known as “active” contemplatives. I’m wondering this morning if contemplation isn’t missing in large part from the spiritual training and experience of people in general and those preparing for ministry in particular.  I know that my own seminary experience and preparation for ministry was just about completely lacking in any contemplative exploration.  The contemplative experiences I had during those times were ones I rather stumbled into, not ones that were built into the seminary or preparation process.  There were no required courses in listening for the sacred, no training in the contemplative disciplines.  There was some reading and talk about them, but no required experience of the contemplative way.   I had to learn to bring out my contemplative nature and use it in my life and work after my ordination.  I know that having gone through the contemplative process, I am as happy and confident now as I ever remember being with my life.  I feel divinely accepted and appreciated.

Barry quotes theologian and poet Sebastian Moore who says “God desires us into being.”  That is a bit how I feel.  I feel wanted by God into being what I am today, with all my imperfections.

I can stand (sit, write) today and share Barry’s claim “I’m a [minister] today because God wants me to be happy and productive. God’s love for me led me to choose this life, just as God’s love for others leads them to choose their way of life.”  May you have light, love and blessings on your way.

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4 thoughts on “God’s Love is Not Utilitarian

  1. I do think that there is a growing focus on spiritual deepening in our congregations; last year, we started our own Wellspring program (see Jen Crow’s amazing work at First Unitarian, Rochester – http://www.uuwellspring.org/wellspring-program-information.html). And interestingly, it was participating in that course that led me to say Yes to seminary (I start in two weeks…eek!).

    What I know already is that I don’t WANT to do without my contemplative practice…whatever my ministry becomes… because it feeds me and gives me space to listen…and it changes me. And like any good wellspring, it is an oasis where I can be healed so that I can cross another long patch of desert and help heal others.

    Thanks for naming this for our denomination.

  2. To Tony:
    Be assured, you are valued by this one Red State resident. The fact that you are still questioning the details of your faith, that you say you don’t believe in a god who is the traditional personalized old white man in the clouds playing the universe like a computer game, but that you do yearn to be a Universalist Christian, whatever that means, shows that you wonder about many of the same things I have struggled with most of my life. I identify with your journey.
    The fact that you are actively struggling over your personal theology is encouraging to this skeptic/humanist/atheist. If you were completely settled in your Christian theology, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with your leadership. But, the fact that you are still questioning, seeking, and thinking seriously about these big issues, makes me believe that you are a very good fit with my church.
    One of the things revealed in our membership survey before we began our ministerial search was that we overwhelmingly wished that our new minister would be intellectually challenging. You are the model of a minister who challenges us to consider skeptically our own theological beliefs. You have educated us about the history of the Unitarian Universalist church and its roots. You have made us think. You have challenged us to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty about the universe and what it means.
    Your perspective about what is important: justice, love, mercy, and human welfare, reflect the values traditionally attributed to Jesus. I agree with you on that. But I am not a Christian. I am not a mystic. I don’t believe in supernatural stuff. I don’t believe in reiki or other alternative healing arts. That said, I think that there is room in our Unitarian Universalist church for Christians, Jews, Muslims, and skeptical atheists like me. The breadth of our umbrella is one of our strengths, not our weakness.
    With love and admiration,
    Gene Stockton

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