I have been reading poetry in the mornings – not something I commonly do in life. A collection of poetry and prose entitled While Still There is Light has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. As I wrestle with some fundamental questions of faith, I thought the book might provide me with some insights. And it has.
The author, a Unitarian minister and poet Nancy Shaffer, penned these words a few days after surgery to remove a large brain tumor:
Other Stuff I Know Now
It doesn’t matter what shirt you put on in the morning, Or where your body fat is or isn’t God cares not a whit about which shirt or how your body looks. The point is love, which shows Just as well in your white shirt as your blue one; Just as well, if not more clearly, out of a battered body as a coiffed one. Cleanliness matters, yes – but not how you thought. In the first place is love.
(from While Still There is Light: Writings From a Minister Facing Death, Shaffer,Skinner House, 2013)
I’ve been reading Nancy’s posthumously published memoir for just a few minutes each morning. Nancy was our minister at the Unitarian church at Glen Allen for a short time. I attended that church for my first decade in Richmond. Her memoir was published two years after she passed, and I recently added it to my morning ritual.
This is how I prepare for the day ahead: I sit on the front porch swing with my coffee. I listen to the world around me, I write in my journal, and I read. (For now, I’m reading poetry.) Sometimes, I have only a few minutes for this ritual, but I try not to skip it, even on the busiest days. It is a gentle way to start what will inevitably be a frenetic day.
Nancy’s post-surgery observation really spoke to me. God cares not one whit about which shirt – the point is love.
As I have dipped my toes into Presbyterian polity recently, learning the role of an elder, the same thought keeps returning to me: what have I gotten myself into? I read through the Book of Confessions, the Book of Order, and find myself getting stuck on language and theology, uncertain if I really fit with the phrases and theology of this denomination.
I struggle with the complex, ancient words of our creeds and confessions. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with oversimplication, either. I try to avoid a bumper sticker approach to religion — mysterious notions about our relationship with God boiled down to one-liner litmus tests. So I find myself torn between parsing the words in the ancient creeds, and shying away from easy explanation.
Yet there is one short, quick phrase that I return to, when religion starts to get too confusing for me. My own little bumper sticker-style simplification. When the polity and doctrines feel overwhelming, I return to this simple grounding of my faith:
God is love.
It is that simple and that complicated. God is love.
As Nancy Shaffer came to realize as she faced her death, the point is love. In the first place is love. If I can just remember that, then I will be ok.
Colleen Miller joined GPPC this spring, after a few years of hanging out as a visitor. She has been a United Methodist for most of her life, but has also dabbled in other protestant denominations along the way. She is the director of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, a nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of all Virginians with disabilities. She and her partner Arlene live in Bellevue. We are delighted she will be serving as a leader in our congregation for the next three years.