This was written for, and shared with, the congregation of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church on May 5, 2013, as a part of our Coffee and Conversation series. The three pieces of art created during our conversation are featured at the end.
Act I: A Good Little Christian Girl
Sunday School began at 8:45, followed immediately by Sunday Morning Worship at 11 a.m. which extended well into early afternoon. We went home for dinner and were back out the door at 6 for evening service which began at 7 and extended until around 9 p.m., after which the altar call and prayer service lasted until the last tongues were spoken and the the organ could play no more. I rarely saw my bed before 11 p.m. Sunday nights, which was made up for by strictly enforced bedtimes during the week. Mid-week bible study and prayer meeting (later, youth group) met each Wednesday evening and Missionettes and Royal Rangers on Friday evenings. We had many sleepovers and service projects on Saturdays, along with bridal and baby showers, bake sales, revivals, and missionary visits. Strictly forbidden activities included not only drinking and smoking, but also dancing of any kind, card playing, and movies. All this made me a Good Little Christian Girl. This was religion in my childhood, for as far back as I can remember.
My early life was defined by being part of a charismatic, Pentecostal church into which I was born and devoutly raised. My mother was a convert to this faith tradition in her teenage years, and had met and converted the man who soon became her husband and my father. My Mom’s family was Lutheran, the country church variety, where God and community mingled in pragmatic sensibility in a small farming community. Who is to say why my Mother took such a different path than her parents or siblings…that is her journey. But, I was always quite happy when I had a chance to go to church with Gramma and the rest of my extended family. I was frequently reminded that while we loved them, they were not “saved.” It was clear from a young age that there was one and only one option for me: to be a born again Christian, a “good little Christian girl” who was filled with the spirit, overflowing in tongues of fire and embodying a prescriptive understanding of her godly biblical womanhood.
It didn’t take.
Truthfully friends, I tried hard. I tried very, very hard. I often responded to altar calls and prayed the sinners prayer on numerous occasions at my own church, or at revival meetings. I acted in kindness to others, trying to be like Jesus. I witnessed to my “worldly” friends (much to their discomfort) and my friend Kelly and I even tried to practice “falling out” or as we would say, “being slain by the spirit” and we made a vow to catch each other, knowing what was expected of us. I prayed. I begged. I cried. I attempted, as they did, to make utterances that seemed possibly like some divine inner voice was whispering them to me, but I ended up just coughing or sputtering or pretending to sneeze. One by one, my friends would have an experience deemed authentic when tongues was followed by interpretation. I asked people I knew…my Sunday School teacher, our pastor, my youth leader, why it was that I couldn’t seem to speak in tongues. I was told, repeatedly, the words that would scar my soul like a branding iron:
If the gifts of the spirit don’t come to you, it means you may not really be a child of God.
To me, this meant that when the Lord returned, the trumpet sounded and the dead rose along with the living saints of God, I would be one of the ones left behind. I began to have nightmares about having “the mark of the beast” branded onto my skin, to imagine all the saintly people I knew being swept up to heaven, hands raised and their voices speaking in tongues while I stood there in horror, knowing that I would then be living under the rule of the antichrist. This was my world, these were my early faith stories and experiences. I was 12 years old and terrified of the future.
These teachings burned inside me one night as I walked the circular driveway around the church while others were inside praying. I looked up into the stars and begged God to have mercy on me, to let me be a child of God, to show that to me through a real experience of the spirit. But it never happened. I started to withdraw in subtle ways. I volunteered for the nursery and avoided the service. I would have too much homework to finish in time for Wednesday evening services. I snuck out more often for walks by myself while my mother was praying in tongues in the building inside. I felt very, very alone and wondered why God didn’t want me. Singing “Jesus loves me” in Sunday School seemed to be a lie, too. But expressing doubt further condemned me, so I pressed on publicly as a Good Little Christian Girl while my inner spirituality began to fade away.
In high school, I experienced some renewed hope, a possible second chance. For a host of reasons that I won’t go into, my family began attending a still evangelical but not Pentecostal church in another town. This church had an active youth group and I didn’t feel the internal dread and pressure I once did. I leapt in with both feet, in the hopes that I could experience God, something I had longed for. I became a volunteer youth leader, a camp counselor, a fill in evening service musician, and a regular choir member. I had friends and felt comforted, although I still had unresolved questions. The main one had to do with salvation, and why there was such a focus on us discussing who was or was not saved, who was or was not worthy among this group of people. I was well regarded, so I came across as worthy. Then, as I transitioned off to college, I befriended someone who was a devout and faithful convert. He and I started up a local Christian youth theatre together. Our relationship was deep friendship, a soul connection and we loved each other deeply. And so it was that I was the first person he told when he learned he had AIDS. It was 1987. The prognosis was not good. Only one other person knew, this other person he trusted who was a pillar in our church. She immediately let the so-called prayer chain know his diagnosis and other life details. In this action, she incited such stigma and judgement and discrimination that he lost his job, his apartment, his community, and his trust. People told me that I had to walk away from him, too, because God had judged him by this illness and would judge me, too. Once again, I found myself informed that I was on the other side of love and acceptance by God.
One evening, in the midst of this tumultuous time, I went out walking in an attempt to sort through these chaotic emotions and attempt to find peace in the spiritual disconnect between what my heart experienced, and what my family and my community of faith were telling me. Standing alone, outside on a dark road on a hill overlooking the Christian College I had started attending that Fall, I looked up into the night sky, crying out to God. If this was the God of Christianity…judgement, hatred, fear, bigotry, hypocrisy…I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. “So Be It” I said out loud. I turned around and I kept walking, without looking back.
Act II: Spiritual but not Religious
I realize this term gets bantered about these days and has even taken some heat with people I love and respect. But, what happened during the 15 year stand-off between the Christian Church and I is actually, in retrospect, nothing short of miraculous. Every minute of this time was vital to my journey. My vocation turned to Social Justice and I threw myself into a career in Social Work where I worked first with cognitively and memory impaired older adults in residential care, then in both in-patient and in-home Hospice. I became a grief counselor specializing in complex and challenging loss events, many of which were socially stigmatized. I worked daily with those in emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain and walked beside them to facilitate their healing. Dignity, worth, and compassion were the virtues I regarded. I read Rumi, the Qu’aran, Paulo Coelho, Joan Borsenko, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Thomas Moore, Sogyal Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama, and countless other spiritual writers. I learned to be still, and to meditate. I sometimes used Tarot cards, not to foretell the future, but to tap into the collective unconscious that binds humans together as spiritual beings. I visited a spiritualist retreat center with some frequency, and meditation and reiki helped me work through my own pain and move toward healing. I did art, sang, and nourished my soul through the music of the spheres, particularly in classical symphonies. I took undergraduate and graduate classes in World Religions, and immersed myself intellectually in understanding the role of religion and spirituality in human history. One particularly memorable course was a seminar with an Islamic Studies scholar where we studied the philosophical understandings of Soul, Self, and Person across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I was enrolled in that class in Fall 2001, so the spiritual poignancy of the tragic events of September 11 have taken on a deep meaning for me in that context. In so many ways, my spiritual journey continued richly for me, opening my eyes to the many paths toward the divine. My heart and spirit grew more open.
But, I was not religious.
It’s not that I never stepped foot in a Christian church during these years. I was a paid chorister for several years in a lovely and welcoming Episcopal church and I occasionally filled in for a musician or did some solo singing for Presbyterian and United Church of Christ (UCC) clergy members whom I had befriended over the years. But, I attended as an observer, someone who was only passing through. The spiritual pain of my youth allowed me to intellectually understand many religious traditions, including Christianity, and to see beauty in the writings, prayers, and practices of a wide range of believers. But spiritually, I considered myself an outsider to religion. I contributed to the fabric of this life as positively as I could and believed that a life lived with purpose and intentionality could actually make a difference in the world. But, I didn’t believe…I couldn’t believe…that I had a place at God’s table. I couldn’t believe that I could be authentically included in religious community with all my baggage, and all my doubts. It was just lovely and reassuring to me that other people were able to have that experience.
Act III: The Journey in Community
After finishing my PhD, I moved to Richmond in 2006 with my spouse Michael and our daughter, Cassie. We were actually joking when, after living here for about a year, we said we might as well go to a church since nothing else was open Sunday mornings in the south. But, one Sunday, I actually did. My prior knowledge of the Episcopal church as welcoming, coupled with people saying great things about the parish in our neighborhood, made it easier to take that first step. I stepped foot into St. Thomas skeptically. I have described my slow process of sticking my toe in the water of this faith community as slowly allowing myself to step through doors that open, leading me from a solitary spiritual path and into community. Each step that I have taken into this community has been a gift. I have learned to trust, to open a bit more, to become more vulnerable, to be able to give a bit more deeply. This journey of living my faith in community…in this community…has continued my process of spiritual healing. Eventually, I began to feel a sense of belonging.
It took a full four years of active participation in St. Thomas’ until I was willing and ready to take a Faith Exploration class. I thought my questions and my experiences would be so different than most. That first class, where we wrote our questions on post-it notes, I put my questions out there, hoping no one would know to whom those questions belonged. To my amazement, many people had similar questions, voiced many doubts, and were travelling familiar journeys. I was welcome, exactly as I was.
It was actually in the midst of a quiet Compline at the close of one Sunday evening with my community of the journeying faithful that I felt something shift in me. I realized in the quiet, contemplative stillness that God was with me, and that God had always been with me. I realized that even at my darkest moments when I had been spiritually wounded, or when I was angry and walked away that God was still with me. God was present in music. God was present in my pursuit for social justice. When peace emerged between people and the dignity of stigmatized persons was restored, God was there. In my questioning and search of meaning in mystery and myth across spiritual traditions, God was there. I was not then, nor now, nor would I ever be alone. And, I was sharing this journey with amazing and diverse people who were and are a part of this faith community. What amazing gifts: presence, acceptance, community.
What I have realized is that while this journey is unique for every single person of God, and we are, all of us, people of God. There is something to be learned in every encounter. Doors open, and we step through…or we walk around that opportunity and other doors will open at other times. The journey of the faithful is full of authentic moments of laughter, tears, singing, listening, doubting, embracing, learning, and understanding. It has become a joyful and hopeful adventure, the dance between our human spirits and divine love and grace. Recently, I have started publicly blogging about encountering the spirit in everyday life…or as I have named it “small points of light”…and this has opened the doors to many meaningful conversations about faith and spirituality with friends, family, and strangers that I never imagined I would be having.
So, here in community, I want to take the rest of this time to field your questions and comments as I ask you to do something for me. These three water colors that I made a few weeks ago represent the three ways I have come to know the presence of God in my daily life over the course of my spiritual journey: music, myth and mystery, and the quest for justice and peace on the earth. I want to pass them around and ask you to add to them….through a word, a phrase, a scribble, a name, a song, a quote…whatever comes to mind. It adds so much when we share the journey with others, which is what my lesson is on this particular time in my journey. I am grateful for the ways that each of you embellish my journey in your own unique and personal ways…