Rev. Tess Baumberger: Await the turning of the tide
Sunday, Dec. 20, will be the 25th anniversary of my father’s death. I was 21 years old when he died. It was a rich time. Academically, I was growing greatly during my junior year abroad. Emotionally, it was a time of tremendous grief. Spiritually it was a turning point, as I began to question the reality of my childhood God. You know, that old bearded white guy up in the clouds — the one that controls all things? That one.
Dad was an otherwise very healthy 61 year-old when he died of brain cancer. At his funeral service on Christmas Eve day, people told me his death was part of God’s plan. I wanted no part of a God who controlled things and who let my dad die as part of a Divine Plan. It was at that point that I began to lose my belief in that childhood god.
This belief died slowly and painfully. It died slowly because I have always had strong, direct experiences of connection to some power greater than myself. The only image my religion gave me to interpret those experiences was the bearded white guy in the clouds. When I stopped believing in him I therefore had to deny those experiences.
Closing down what had been such an essential part of me was tough, and painful. Fay Weldon once said, “All the best transformations are accompanied by pain. That’s the point of them.” At some point in our spiritual maturation, most of us must question and revise our childhood notions of the Divine. For me, this transformation was necessary – my old limited notions of the Sacred had to die in order to make way for new ones.
One night in the first weeks of 1985, I was looking in the mirror, putting on lotion, and thinking about God when it occurred to me that I could think of God as looking like me, as having a face like mine, as female. I remember tracing the outlines of my face, realizing that I could think of God as Mother. But I couldn’t really do much with that insight until I found the place where I could explore it more fully.
Fast forward to the fall of 1996, during my first months at my first Unitarian Universalist congregation in Sunnyvale California. I was taking an adult religious education class called “Rise Up and Call Her Name,” led by two laywomen. This course explores goddess traditions in non-European cultures. At last I was able to learn about the Divine Feminine! This gave me a new way to interpret those profound spiritual experiences I had since childhood – it helped me regain that part of myself.
Friends from the class invited me to earth-centered rituals celebrating the turnings of the wheel of the year – the winter and summer solstice and the spring and autumn equinox. These nature-based rituals always included devoking, which means ridding ourselves of that which did not serve us or the world around us – animosity, greed, cruelty, fear, prejudice, violence, over-consumption.
Because nature abhors a vacuum, after devoking in such rituals, we invoke or “call in” what would help us to turn our lives and the world in a more positive direction – love, generosity, kindness, courage, acceptance, gentleness, prudence. The rituals varied according to which turning we were celebrating – spring had themes of sprouting, summer was growth to fruition, autumn held the spirit of the harvest.
Probably the most compelling for me were the celebrations of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It is usually the 21st of December, very close to the time of year when my father died. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter solstice is nature’s nadir or lowest point, the sun’s most southern reach in the sky, the shortest day of the year.
Winter is a rich time. It can be a time of drawing inward, of reflection and insight. It can be a time of glorying in the beauties of snow and delighting in winter sports. It can be a time where we learn to sit with not knowing, to live with uncertainty. It can be a period of letting go of whatever within us needs to die, so that something new can be born. It can be a time of grief, sadness, and loss for many of us.
The poet William Wadsworth Longfellow said, “the lowest ebb is the turning of the tide.” This is what winter solstice is all about. It is the holiday’s greatest gift and lesson. The longest night of the year can be difficult to endure, but it also means the sun will be returning, as it always does. The days will grow longer from here on out, and gradually warmer. Spring will come with birth and new life, renewal and glory.
Sometimes it takes a long time for the turnings in our lives to bear fruit. The turning of my letting go of the God of my childhood was painful but now I have a new understanding of the power I have always sensed near me. For years, it was important for me to think of it as female. Now I just think of it as a comforting, creative, and nurturing Presence that does not control things but is with me in my times of sorrow and distress. Yes, even through the coldest, longest evenings of the year.
The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at the Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. You can reach her at 508-238-6373 or email@example.com. For more information about Unity Church, please visit our Web site, www.unity-church.com.