I grew up close to the land in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. My father would take me for walks across the prairies and call out the names of the grasses like blue grama and sand bluestem. He would lean down, pick a blade, and chew on it. We spent hours working in the family garden, planting and harvesting peas, radishes, strawberries, green beans and wax beans, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes. I remember picking the potato bugs off the potato plants. We hiked through the wild roses under the pines and oaks as we walked down to a little lake below our house, where we found pasqueflowers in the early spring, followed by wild asparagus and, later, the cattails and arrowhead rushes. The little lake was fed by the Minnechaduza Creek, which flowed into the Niobrara River. We canoed on the Niobrara, above where it flowed into the Missouri.
I always knew I was part of that natural world. The idea that human beings and nature were two separate things would have perplexed me. The world was filled with mystery, but a mystery of which I was a part. You couldn’t walk out of it, because you were in it and it in you.
There was great power for creation and destruction in the world I grew up in, but the power was not conscious, planning, or manipulating. This power invited exploration and discovery; it elicited awe as well as caution. And I was a part of it because I was a human being. Everyone else was a part of it, too.
In that amazing sense of place, I experienced love. It was the ethical basis for the life of the people in my family. I was unconditionally loved. You know our human hardwired trait of always reaching out to help someone if they are falling or tripping beside us? That’s the world I grew up in. If you slipped, someone helped you. If something was heavy, people helped you carry it. We were a part of the natural world, and we respected that world and valued each other. And if that weren’t so, as I looked out at the world, I knew it was because people were oblivious to their harmfulness or were hurt or afraid.
The love I experienced was created, given, and received by people. It shaped how I cared about people, helped them, yearned to learn more about those I had never known, and thought of those who came before me and would come after me. We were creating the best world we could, and our actions were motivated by our image of the world that might be. The world was in process, and our job was to participate the best way we could.
Years ago, I helped establish a Unitarian Universalist campus ministry at the University of Nebraska. The college students were amazingly motivated as they planned their entire program. Shortly after we began, a conservative Lutheran graduate student joined our group. I thought he was there to try to convert us, but as he kept coming, it seemed he was trying to figure us out. One day, he said to me, “I think I have figured it out. I think I understand you. You don’t control your actions because God told you to. You do it because it is what you think is right.” “You’ve got it,” I said. The reason I don’t kill is not that God told me not to kill. It’s because I don’t want a world in which people kill each other. I refrain from stealing, not because God told me not to but because I don’t want to live in a world where people steal. I reject hate, not because God told me not to hate but because I don’t want to live in a world filled with hatred. And I love and care for people, not because God told me to do so, but because that is the kind of world I want for myself and for those who come after me.
My mother was the choir director in a Presbyterian church. I had a pin with twelve bars attached for the twelve years of perfect attendance in the Presbyterian Sunday school. I believed that God is love. Often, I have said if people would just stop right there—that God is love—I would probably still call myself a theist, because to this day, I feel that the strongest power in this world is love. It brings me both great joy and, when it is absent or distorted, great pain. Love is what encourages creativity, empathy, beauty, peace, a sense of belonging, and comfort.
When my mother was ironing one day, she said to me, “I think heaven and hell are what we create here on this earth.” She doesn’t remember saying it, but I do so remember hearing it.
When the natural world is cruel or vicious, it is love—human love—that holds and comforts me and gives me solid ground on which to stand. I have never thought what the insurance companies call “acts of God” were ever really acts of God. Who wants a God that causes or allows tornadoes, floods, or other natural disasters?
When my brother died from cancer at age thirty-three, I remember driving down the highway thinking there must be lots of little gods—in that sunset, in that tree, in the snow on the ground. When my daughter died from cancer at thirty-four, I remember the incredible warmth from hundreds of people who sent their love, drew a picture, or said a prayer and whose hearts ached with mine. I know she lives to this day in me and in all those whose lives she touched. And that is everything.
When human cruelty or violence causes pain and death, I look to human love, which I am not uncomfortable calling divine love, for comfort. I often find this love in my Unitarian Universalist community. The love within this community directs me not to just sit and take it, but to do all I can to stop the cruelty and violence. So experiencing catastrophe often causes me to act as well as to grieve.
When I look at a sleeping baby or the wrinkled, arthritic hands of my mother; when I listen to Kiri te Kanawa singing the aria (cantilena) from Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos; and when my eleven-year-old grandson gives me a hug and says, “I love you, Grammie,” I am stopped in my tracks at the wonder of life. The miracle, the science of cells and bodies, the unlikelihood that all of this could come together and create life itself, causes me to pause with great awe. And I am thankful. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart was right: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” I pray it often. I sing it, in Bruce Findlow’s lyrics—“For all that is our life, we sing our thanks and praise.” I live by nurturing and then passing on much of what I have received from life itself. My religious Humanism is filled with gratitude.
When I pray in public, I begin, “In the name of all that is sacred and holy.” When I pray in private, I breathe and then I begin conversations in my head and heart with thanks for the giggle my granddaughter had as she tasted the cookies she just made and with thanks for the excited voice and running hug my grandson gave me as I walked into his house. I give thanks for the fragrant, pink and white blossoms of the magnolia blooming outside my window and for the voice of my 91-year-old mother, who says, “I love you,” as she hangs up the phone. My conversations continue into my longings to read more between the lines when my son-in-law talks to me about his mother; to use my resources, including money and time, more wisely; to better understand who I am and where I am going; to simply have fun—to live the joys of life; and, always, for less pain in the world.
Being a Humanist calls me to my better self. It holds me in blessed community during the good times and the hard times and allows me to continually search for more meaning and understanding in both the world of science and art. And my Humanism is shaped by love.
Participating in a religious community makes my Humanism whole because I don’t exist in the world as a lone entity. I am a part of that whole; I knew this even as a child. Being a Humanist is a religious act for me. May it always be so.
Adapted with permission from Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism, ed. by Kendyl L. R. Gibbons and William R. Murry (Skinner House, 2016).