What God Means to Me

By Sethu Nair

Writing a piece on 'what god means to me', is like trying to find an answer I don't have, and don't even feel like I need to find. 

Here is an incomplete attempt.

Occasionally, on Sundays I accompany my signo* to the Redeemer Presbyterian church on the Upper East Side to listen to Tim Keller talk about faith, Jesus and God, and watch the audience move along with him. 

Last time I went, I heard a story about Jesus getting frustrated and being terse with a man who had come hoping to secure a miracle to save his dying son. That was the first time I ever heard of Jesus getting upset. That interested and relaxed me, so I listened more.

Jesus said to the man- Your child will be saved, have faith and go. The man stayed, pleading to Jesus to come along and ensure the miracle. After repeated attempts to put the man at ease and assuring him to trust and go home to be with his son, the man refused to leave, and stayed there pleading. Feeling annoyed, Jesus became terse with the man, and told him to go. Feeling dejected, the man finally turned away. He had decided to leave, and to trust as that was all he had left. He had tried every other way to save his son.

Of course as these stories go, the man’s son was saved, and the family became believers.

I could hear in Keller’s telling of this story that I was not being asked to believe in miracles or the great power of Jesus Christ. He was saying there is no miracle without faith, and that was Jesus’ frustration with this man was that he expected amazing things to happen, without ever believing that it was possible. 

That resonated. As it reflected my current evolving relationship with my signo.

After years of ups and downs, my signo and I began to shift into a relationship with less dissonance and struggle, and more empathy and compassion. Arriving to this however was quite a challenge. Through a lot of trial and error, we realized that in order to relate to each other better, we had to shift the ways we related to ourselves, others and the world itself. We started working together to cultivate faith in our togetherness.  For that what we first had to accept our own deepest insecurities, mightiest fears, and trust that this other person we chose would be there, in comfort, support, love. Just like that. Just trust.

What does all that have to do with god? I’m not sure I know how to say it any differently.

I call myself a Hindu, because it was my primary and the most consistent platform through which I lived, engaged in and understood my life. It is a reflection of who my parents are, where they come from. 

It breathed of the summer evenings in Kerala when I accompanied my sisters to the temple for the ‘Deeparadhana’ the evening pooja. It was standing inside the walls of the temple, and looking up to see the evening sky. It is the smell of sandalwood paste and incense, the light of the oil lamps in the dark of the inner sanctum, the temple bell, sitting on the floor listening to “keertanams” (songs), my grandmother sang in the dark of the daily power cut.

After coming to the America, being Hindu is what framed a large part of my immigrant experience. Like any other immigrant group, my Malayali Hindu community tried to replicate ‘back home’ in New York. This took the form of putting on India clothes and driving all the way to the Flushing temple where we could all meet as a group, sitting on the floor singing keertanams, ringing the temple bell, eating food together in the temple basement, taking turns hosting the reading of the Ramayana at each other’s homes, showing up in prayer and support for important life events like graduation, engagement, birthdays, sickness, death. 

Being Hindu has also been very difficult for me. As a person who was manipulated for years and then sexually abused by a prominent member of the same community that nurtured me, I grew up feeling deeply conflicted, isolated and scared. As children who are sexually abused usually do, I kept my secret. I felt it was what I needed to do to preserve my family’s place in this network that held and supported us. The rare moments when I felt that I could and should speak up, I had visions of destruction. I was afraid to destroy everything good about my family and my community. More than anything, I was afraid that I would lose the smells, the gatherings, the friends, the singing, the light, the bells, everything, I so treasured. 

I don’t know anything about god, so I try to understand what it is that at once captivates some people and causes an almost allergic reaction in others. At times, the term ‘god’ feels like the term ‘science’, deeply revealing and at once limited in its ability to shine light on some of our most profound questions, reflecting only so much of who we are and what all this means. How can god/religion/faith be so politically hijacked and at once, radically free? At once a noose and a rope; to throw down the window and climb out.

What does all this say about what god means to me? I don’t know exactly, and I can’t say it any differently.

During difficult times in my childhood, I spent hours sitting in front of our radio playing classical Malayalam songs, transcribing the words as I heard them, aligning them with what I knew of the language, listening, writing down, singing along, pressing rewind, stop, play, stop, rewind until I felt it, knew its magic.

As an adult now, I call it resonance. In the cadence, of the singer’s voice, and the other instruments that played, in the way the words layered meaning and sound, in all that was resonance.

Similarly, I discovered patterns in the ways people spoke to each other, the presence-inducing energy of dance, the great aliveness of trees, and the profound solace to be found in the light and quiet of the moon. 

Everyday, I light a lamp in my room and stand with my palms joined taking deep breaths, and centering my body and mind before I head off for the day. That feels really good.

What does all this have to do with god? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I want to explain any differently.

*signo is a gender-neutral term I created to reference “significant other”, romantic partner, spouse etc.