so how would you write about a walk?
an autobiography… an anthology
Growing up in a church of conservative teachings and sweet spirits, at thirteen I decided to become a missionary, reasoning that was the most important thing you could do for people in life. I decided against medical missions, because souls, I figured, are more important than bodies in the vast scheme of things.
I learned I wasn’t the only one around thinking about “life, the universe, and everything.” That summer our extended family spent two weeks at the beach (all our aunts vowed, “Never again!!”). My 7-year-old cousin Anne and I loved to take long walks along the edge of the waves, and early in that first week she told me her habit was to take one question every week to think about – and that week her question was: If God is everywhere, is God in a garbage can? I was mightily impressed! Thirty years later we were making a salad at the beach, together again, and I asked if she remembered that. No, she didn’t. But I had thought about her question all those years and had been curious to know what she had decided, how she thought about it now. She paused a minute and said, “I think Yes.” I pontificated, “Yes – sustaining the universe.” Anne was deep and allusive as ever: “Keeping the garbage in the can!”
At college I became increasingly uncertain about the idea of spending eternity in hell if one did not think Jesus was God or that his death paid the penalty for one’s sin. Looking for help, I chose George Bernard Shaw as my Special Study because I was struck by his play “Saint Joan” – quite funny in retrospect, since his voluminous play prefaces delight in arguing the absurdities in just these beliefs… and as I read, I had to admit that I agreed with him.
As graduation neared, I anticipated finding help at seminary (Union in NY); but finances tightened and I ended up instead in a graduate program for teaching high school English. I had never wanted to teach, even though it’s been sort of the family profession: I heartily dislike telling people what to do — I’d rather discuss. However, if you don’t “tell” sophomores, chaos happens! But you have to earn a living, so when our neighbor, a school superintendent, told Mom about a “Fifth-year” grant program, I applied.
The education classes seemed to me mostly fluff, and my student teaching environment like a prison for young spirits. One day, as I was sitting in the high school library reading an assigned story about a man who just disappeared – I got up and walked out. I started waiting tables, and the group of young people in my boarding house explored – we climbed a water tower and read poetry by candlelight; climbed magnolias to watch the sun rise; sat up all night around a campfire on the Outer Banks. There, that next morning was Easter, and I walked along the beach at sunrise wondering whether I would ever again believe the gospel stories that Jesus was raised.
We planned a bicycle trip across America… but an older graduate student warned me I was taking risks, could be badly hurt; and taking her advice to heart, I went home. I wasn’t sure what to do.
At some point I jumped through the university’s hoops to withdraw, struck, incidentally, by the registrar’s question when I walked in: “What can I do for thee?” On the official form’s “Reason for Withdrawal” I wrote “Immense dissatisfaction with ‘professionalized’ education.” The registrar observed that he thought I was serious — which made me think that “seriousness” must be unusual… I suppose he had heard lots of stories!
A time of gloom just seemed to get deeper. Mother took me to a psychiatrist who pronounced after our visit that I was grieving a relationship that had ended – but I knew the problem was not a human relationship, but the loss of my worldview. It was so wonderful to leave the college library into the bright sunshine and say, “God, how beautiful!” Now I had no One to talk to.
Finally, as I sat in the back yard one night, I thought, “God, help.” And I felt better.
I had not been going to church. The Sunday I returned, my grandmother was teaching the Sunday School lesson – and the story was the “Prodigal Son.” She hugged me and said, “I knew you were coming back today!”
I contacted a (rather conservative) school of Christian education I knew of because they could help you finance your study. I determined that I was not going to think; I was just going to believe. Period. And that worked for about a year. By graduation the succeeding year, though, I had to admit that I still had deep questions, so applied to teach high school English in the North Carolina mountains. That year quickly affirmed my lifelong hesitance to try teaching – we had sophomore chaos! – so I was very happy to “retire” after a few years to help rear our family – two amazing individuals.
I kept going to church, in North Carolina and then in Minnesota after our move, reasoning that if Christianity were true, church would be the most likely place to suddenly “see the light.” But as I turned fifty, rather than a flash of illumination it began to slowly dawn on me: “Maybe I am not going to have an epiphany – maybe I am one of those who is never going to believe after all.”
One Minnesota winter an odd thing happened… I was out cross-country skiing by myself in a little park (“Purgatory Creek” — named by early White explorers after a mosquito-filled night), and it was so beautiful that – even though I was agnostic as ever – I suddenly exclaimed out loud, “God! I love your world!” I was surprised by a voice in/at my left ear saying, “And I love you, _______” – the name was indistinct. Startling — and puzzling. I mused how I have never totally bonded with the nickname I’m known by. Later I was intrigued to notice, in the book of Revelation, God’s saying, “I will give the one who overcomes a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” [2:17]. Probably this refers to a new name for God, not the recipient, but at the time I reflected how it makes sense that if we are all God’s children, God wouldn’t name a bunch of us exactly the same! Years later when I told this story to the seminary’s guidance psychiatrist, he at once probed for schizophrenia, pointing out how high my score was on the MMPI abstract scales, just below the numbers warranting concern. Was there schizophrenia in my family? he wanted to know. In the end, he seemed satisfied that I was ok enough, but I found that interesting. A disappointment to me was that the voice I “heard” definitely sounded like a male voice – deep. I had rather it sounded like tower bells!
My trajectory changed when my mother-in-law died — a big surprise. There was only a short severe illness. We’d known she hadn’t been feeling well, but I never imagined its being anything more than possibly low blood pressure. She regularly ate Sunday dinner with us, so I rarely visited her apartment; but one day I decided to take some photos over to show her. She opened the door for me, knelt down by her couch, laid her head on its arm, and began to tremble. She was not responsive; I called 911; and that was the last time she was in her apartment. I pondered greatly. What made me go at just that time? What set off her seizure at just the time I arrived?
Her death a few months later, of a brain tumor, was a great grief. But when the minister visited to plan the service, he said as he was leaving that he would like for my husband and me to be part of the two-year Bethel Bible Program that he would begin teaching that Fall. I had greatly wanted to, but it was for people who upon completion would teach a group themselves and I didn’t see how that would be possible. But he kept the invitation open, and I ventured in. We inherited many of my mother-in-law’s books, which were a great boon. I had a sense of her influence on my life.
Studying the Bible with our minister from start to finish was a joy – if a challenge for an agnostic. But I was doing fairly well with keeping my mind open – until we came to the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Reading my lesson at home, when I came to God telling Abraham to take his son, his only son Isaac, and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah, my mind yelled, “God! I don’t believe you ever said that!!” And that was the end of the possibility of a totally God-inspired book, for me. People have said to me, “I don’t think God ever intended for Abraham to have to go through with it” – but that does not help in the least. It is horrendous to think that God would ever cause Abraham to think that God would even entertain such a thought. Not long after, at a synagogue bat mizpah I searched for the prayer book’s commentary on Genesis 22, and I gathered that this might indeed have been the story’s purpose – the people of Israel could say, “YHWH does not want child sacrifice. We are just as devoted to YHWH as you are to your gods, and we would do anything for YHWH – but YHWH does not want us to.”
This story was the occasion for my one act of censorship ever. Around that time I was chair of the church’s Library Selection Committee (I got to play in the books! even as a non-member!); and opening a shipment I was horrified to see on the cover of a children’s audiotape a drawing of Abraham, knife raised over bound Isaac, who was lying on the altar under the words “Abraham: Friend of God.” I could not believe it. If I were a kid, I would think, Sheesh. I sincerely hope I never meet any “friends of God.” I tucked away that cover and substituted plain library vanilla. Now I realize I should have listened to the tape. I wonder what it said, and if any children did listen to it. If the situation was described clearly, they should have been forewarned …or at least have seen an age restriction or parental guidance notice! I am mystified to imagine what the producers could possibly have been thinking. Maybe it’s a mindset similar to al Qaeda’s suicide bombers – you suspend your ordinary moral judgments because of the power of the religious construct.
Because the weekly classes were so meaningful, as I walked past the state nursing home nearby I would think how people living there might enjoy something like Bethel. And I thought about Mother’s words, shaking her finger my way: “I am telling you this while I am still in my right mind. If I ever need help, I want you to put me in a nursing home!” I reasoned, if Mom might some day be in a nursing home, I want them to be as good as they can possibly be. So I began volunteering there, gradually beginning to help the chaplain and therapeutic recreation director. I was surprised that the chaplain didn’t seem to feel I was a baleful influence, and I enjoyed helping.
During this time, an aunt-in-law undertook to help me with my beliefs and my lack of housekeeping. It is very embarrassing now to admit how deeply disturbed I became in these exchanges. She had a wonderful relationship with God, according to her, and in her morning quiet time she would understand messages for me which I seemed constitutionally unable to carry through. At last I began to talk to the nursing home chaplain about my dilemma. Being a saint, he listened to me every week for probably a year until finally at the end of one hour he asked me, “What is the will of God?” and suddenly it hit me: I answered, “The will of God is grace.” He said, “Yes!” and turned decisively to walk on his way. It took a long time for this insight to sink in. Maybe a year later I was fuming to myself, “She always does everything perfectly, and I have nothing to stand on…” when suddenly I realized: Bingo! “…nothing to stand on – except the grace of God! – That’s all I should be standing on.”
At the nursing home, during devotions and bible study I saw peace settle on the residents, many of whom suffered mental illness or developmental delays. I knew that at school of Christian education there were educational materials developed for every conceivable configuration of people, from birth to old age – except… I could not find anything for our residents. I contacted their Center on Aging, but the Director said he didn’t know of anything, “But,” he said, “ – you may have the best resources in the country there in Minnesota – you all develop something!” So we did – an incredible interdisciplinary and inter-denominational project group of dedicated chaplains, activity directors, music therapists, administrators, social workers, etc., plus residents themselves, working under the auspices of the metropolitan ecumenical church commission.
Mary Jo, the activity director with flashing brown eyes, who was the heart of the program, conceived the acronym: BLESS: Bringing Life Experience to Scripture Study — a meld of life review and the bible, that could be used in groups that included both the brilliant and those with dementias.
A mainline publisher risked publishing a pioneering work, and long-term care facilities were enthusiastic, asking for more. Sadly, however, curriculum is marketed to parishes rather than eldercare programs, so sales did not warrant continuing, and I needed to move from volunteer into paycheck territory. But we were happy that now there’s a foundation laid for the next group to move ahead on the challenge.
BLESS is four booklets of twelve studies each, a Leader’s Guide that explains theory and practice in each booklet, plus singalong hymn tapes. We did have two disappointments: some lessons were edited to be less theologically inclusive of residents than our purpose had been (we didn’t have final say since the publisher related to us as curriculum writers, not authors), and the handouts were not the useful ones we requested. But the most important thing: we were so happy to be able to share the core ideas and hear long-term care facilities’ enthusiasm! and we profoundly appreciated the publisher’s pioneering spirit!
Encountering people in this task force who considered themselves Christian yet who thought more like I did was a surprise, and deeply meaningful. To learn more about what I was already doing I enrolled in the pioneering Center on Aging at a nearby seminary, and it was odd – while maybe the majority of seminary students suffer from being challenged about their earlier beliefs, my experience was exactly the opposite. Thoughts that I had believed excluded me from Christianity were the ones being affirmed. (My conservative friends will be thinking, Ah-HAH! Proof positive how seminaries destroy true faith!)
I began to think how residents might be more likely to believe me when I said “God loves you” ; “God forgives you” if I were ordained (especially being female and thus less “authoritative”). I asked the state nursing home chaplain what red flags he saw if I should pursue ordination. His view was I’d likely find it hard to relate to religious conservatives, since I had strong feelings against many of those perspectives — thinking them unhelpful or detrimental, and not true. My own concern, though, had been whether or not I fell within Christian parameters, so when neither he nor others I consulted saw that as an issue, I began to search for a theological home.
I’d been an active visitor in a large church for maybe fifteen years – especially enjoying helping to set up the church library — and the ministers there said they would certainly welcome me as a member, explaining, “We have everything in this congregation, from fundamentalists to Unitarians!” But I felt that to say, as you do when you join a congregation, that I “accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior” while meaning something different from what you hear preached every week, would not be honest. So I began visiting churches.
Figuring that I would fit best in the United Church of Christ, I visited the UCC denominational office and then congregations in the area, but none was really appealing. Arriving eventually at a church near home, as I listened to the minister’s sermon I began to think that this seemed a real possibility and was eager to talk with him after the service — but his expression saddened as he told me how this congregation was in the process of splitting after his associate had come out as gay; how he had been deeply disappointed by this and soon he was leaving too – and how he did not know what the future would be for the congregation. “But,” he said, “whenever I have a chance to go to church myself, I go to St. Luke,” and recommended I visit there.
I was sorely disappointed. I was tired of visiting churches; and besides, one thing I thought I had learned for sure in my life was that I was not the denomination I’d grown up in. At the same time I thought, “But I am too much that way not to do everything ‘decently and in order’; so if there is one more church that I ought to visit, I will visit it.” And I did.
When I walked into the sanctuary, I thought immediately, “This is one of the ways a church ought to look.” Funds were obviously not going into their buildings. There was a simple, large activity room; chairs were arranged in a wide circle, open at the area of the pulpit. Floor to ceiling windows looked out one wall onto a little woods. The bulletin stated that all members were welcome to worship and lead, without regard to race, gender, or sexual orientation, which thrilled me to see in those days of blanket discrimination. The preaching tackled theological questions from perspectives I shared. And the worship was deep and joyous, with members sharing concerns during the prayer time. I was delighted, and shocked that it was part of my childhood denomination – I had never known a non-conservative congregation to be part of it.
As I spoke with the ministers over the next months, I told them that what I understood by “Jesus is my Lord and Savior” was that Jesus is a Freedom Lord. I had learned that from my struggle with our aunt. Jesus saves us from being under anything but God.
My first “official” steps toward ordination signaled that the process was not going to be smooth. A member of the church where I had been so long a visitor, called to ask if I had accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. Hearing my Yes, she said in relieved tones that she was very glad – when she’d learned I was applying to become an “Inquirer” into ordination she’d worried that maybe I hadn’t. (Trust was not rampant amongst the denomination’s congregations during those years.) As it turned out, she was part of a regional committee that was recommending a reproof to St. Luke because of the bulletin statement that I had found so inspiring. A nearby sister congregation had complained to the regional office that the statement did not follow current denominational policy forbidding ordination to those whose life partner was the same gender. So — at the same meeting at which I was accepted as an Inquirer, St. Luke was officially found to be “Irregular.” Debate raged that evening. Ministers and commissioners lined up at the two microphones in the aisles, passionately arguing in turn why St. Luke could, or could not, affirm their bulletin statement. The most heartening moment for me was a minister exclaiming in exasperation, “Thank God for St. Luke’s blessed ‘irregularity’!”
I felt like one of those little humans in the dinosaur movies, hunched down in a trench while the great titans, locked in battle, rolled over them! In the end, St. Luke had to modify its statement to indicate its belief, but not its official ability, to ordain without regard for the sex of one’s life partner. And I began a ten-year process of seminary classes and part-time jobs until I was ordained for service as chaplain at a denominational continuum of care campus in 1998.
At my semi-final meeting with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, I told the Committee that because the denomination’s polity had become more restrictive of our members who were gay since I first began the process, I could foresee that if ordained, I might at some point be ecclesiastically disobedient. I did not specify, but I was thinking about marrying a gay couple if asked. I was expecting the Committee to refer me to the United Church of Christ… but after private deliberation they called me back into the room and said: “We decided we had rather you were ‘ecclesiastically disobedient’ in this denomination than ‘ecclesiastically obedient’ in another denomination.” So I continued in the community into which I was born.