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A Spiritual Autobiography – In Six Movements

September 15, 2013

I have decided to publish this in its entirety as one post, with advance apologies for the length (six pages).  Doing so provides for a better overall flow, and frees me to move on to other topics.  Thanks, as always, for your readership!

E Pluribus Unum

From the beginning my siblings and I understood that our parents had a “mixed marriage”: my mother, born and raised in New York City, the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants; and my father, born and raised in Wichita, KS, an Emersonian deist with Midwestern roots. They met in New York City during World War II, fell madly in love, corresponded over 30 months of separation, and married upon my father’s return. To marry in the Catholic Church, my father had to promise the Church that we would be raised Catholic. And so we were …

From my mother I learned of God as my unconditionally loving Creator, and of Jesus as the human incarnation of God’s will for us. From my father I learned to see the beauty and complexity of our natural world as evidence of God’s love for us and of the genius of God’s mind. Despite differences in theology and practice, they agreed on many important matters: that we exist to serve a purpose; that, having been granted much, much also is expected; and that foremost among those expectations are loving each other and working for peace and justice for all.

As a tween I had the great fortune to attend a camp in Colorado for three summers that was run by Benedictine monks. The monks reinforced the teachings of my parents, but also integrated the beliefs and practices of the Native Americans from that area, illuminating the universality of God’s ways and will for people across all cultures.

From the Catholic school and church back home, though, I learned mindless ritual and nonsensical rules, and of a God that was cold and arbitrary. In 8th grade I sought permission to leave the Catholic Church and, by extension, organized religion. My parents, from their different perspectives, both impressed upon me the importance of having beliefs of substance, so I began a series of “kitchen debates” with my mother regarding Catholic doctrine and Christian theology. She advised me to see my relationships with God and Jesus as being distinct from any church, and thus rescued Jesus from Catholicism for me. My parents became satisfied that I was thinking about these things seriously, and I was granted my freedom to roam spiritually.

I read widely in high school (from The Religions of Man to Siddhartha) and college (Greek classics, Augustine and Aquinas, Enlightenment and modern philosophers and theologians), but I kept returning to the words of Jesus, especially as I saw how his teachings harmonized with and enhanced – or shaped and influenced – the other teachings I admired most. In the story of the Good Shepherd, I saw Jesus’s ability – and desire – to embrace not only my diverse origins and influences, but the diversity of all humanity: “My own sheep … know my voice. But there are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold … they too will listen to my voice. There will then be one flock, one shepherd.” E pluribus unum.

Finding God in the Mountains

Despite my curiosity regarding spirituality, I did not consciously experience or explicitly acknowledge God’s existence or love for me until my mid-30s.  Prior to then, my approach had been intellectually oriented and very much third-person – I was interested in understanding the idea of God, how it had shaped cultures, and especially how it had shaped the lives and thinking of individuals who had experienced God directly.  But I had thought that experience was for others, not for me.

Later on, having moved to a first-person relationship with God, I have reflected on memories from my youth, looking for times or places where my experience was similar to what I experience today when I feel close to God.  What rises strongly for me, above all else, is being in the mountains.

My obsession with mountains began the summer I turned 7 when, growing up in Kansas City, I was old enough to join my siblings on the annual trip with my father to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It was love at first sight, and going to the mountains became the best part of my year every year.  My love of mountains led me to the Benedictine camp in Colorado, and later to a wilderness school in SW Colorado.  The opportunity to live near mountains was a primary factor in choosing to come to Oregon for college, and the absence of mountains was a key source of unhappiness during six years in Chicago in my twenties.  The pull of mountains is unexplainable and inexorable for me – just like the pull of God.

Olympus from Appleton Pass - Small

From a backpacking trip in July to a high pass in Olympic National Park (Washington)

I feel a pure flame of bliss when I gaze at mountains, even if only in a picture: my eye is intoxicated by the sight of gradient, of undulation, of the thrust of uplift into the sky, by the lure to follow the ridgeline to the summit (if only in my eye). It consumes me, and in doing so it creates peace, quiet, and space in my center. If I am blessed to actually be in the mountains, all of my other senses join in this experience, and my spirit is transported to a place of unceasing gratitude. It felt like this when I was 7, and feels this way today.

Where is God in this? First, the mountains confront me with the genius of our natural world, and the concept of a Creator always made as much sense to me as any explanation for this. More importantly, though, I can think of no scientific or evolutionary reason why mountains should move me so deeply. But they do, and the best explanation I have for this is that my Creator wants to show me how much I am loved. I think I believed this intuitively by my teens, even if it took twenty more years before I could acknowledge it explicitly.

The Devout Agnostic

I met my wife on my first day at Reed College, forty years ago this September, as we lived in the same dormitory.  More importantly, we had also signed up for the same mountain climbing class for P.E., and by our second or third outing we had become an item.  Diane and I have many shared perspectives and beliefs that have seen us through hard times, but spirituality is not among them.  As I once summarized during our college years, “We are both agnostics, but I’m a devout agnostic and you are an apathetic agnostic:  I don’t know what I believe about God but I am working hard to figure it out, whereas you don’t know and don’t care.”  She did not disagree then, though she is listening and seeking more actively today.

My own thoughts about God were put to the test during the summer I turned 20, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  She lasted only two months between diagnosis and death, but we used the time for another round of religious discussions.  After all, it is one thing to opine about “What happens when you die?” when 49 and healthy, as she was during our earlier debates, and quite another when she had only months to live. And yet her faith was unwavering – in fact, it became more tangible than ever.

I remember standing by her bedside just a couple of hours before she died, thinking to myself: “It is astounding to see how complete her faith is, and how comforted by that she is. I could never do that.”  All of my studies notwithstanding, I viewed myself as too intellectual to embrace Kierkegaard’s call to make a “leap of faith.”  I admired her faith, I longed for it, but I didn’t feel it and couldn’t believe it.

A few years later, having moved to Chicago for graduate school, my wife and I attended a performance of “The Gospel According to St. Mark” at a major theater downtown.  We had been attracted by the positive reviews it had received, with little consideration for content.  It was a one-man play, with just a table, chair, and water pitcher as props, and the script was nothing more or less than the Gospel of Mark, in its entirety.  Diane was captivated by the performance, as was I, but what grabbed me most strongly was the story and, especially, the sayings of Jesus.

It had been years since I had been in a Christian setting, which this was not intended to be – except that, stripped of all the distracting ornamentation of churches and their rituals, it became for me the ultimate setting for Christian experience – just me, Jesus, and his story.  I couldn’t say that on that day I began to believe, but I knew I was deeply moved, and that more attention needed to be paid.  It would be another decade before that came to pass …

Born Again

Despite the spiritual highlights discussed previously, my family of origin also included elements I later understood to be traumatic, including alcoholism, violence, drugs, incarceration, institutionalization, and, for me personally, shame, neglect, and more drugs.  In choosing a college 2000 miles from home, I was pursuing a vision of who I wanted to become, but I was also seeking to escape a world I didn’t want to be a part of, and to start over again.  But such a personal history is not easily left behind …

As the fifth child in this family, one of my greatest emotional challenges was a sense of insignificance.  Accordingly, in the fifteen years after leaving home I set out to remedy this by building a record of accomplishment in academics, professional work, and family life.  There were painful stumbles along the way (such as twice failing an oral exam that was critical for my Ph.D.), but I always found a way to move forward (in this case, by changing careers and landing a job with a prestigious consulting firm).

Over time, I built a “successful life,” but on the inside I increasingly felt like an imposter.  In seeking to enhance my own sense of significance, my behavior grew more destructive, especially toward my wife, fueling (and being fueled by) a growing sense of being irredeemable.  This came to a head when it became clear I might lose my marriage, and with it the family I had dreamed of all my life.

The night this came crashing down, I cried to God out of raw instinct, saying that I wanted to turn my life around but didn’t know how.  Expecting my cry to echo in the void, I instead received a clear response:  “I am here, and have always been here.  I love you, and want you to be healed.  If you follow me, I will lead you to a better place.”

My inner intellectual agnostic was overwhelmed by this mystical experience and could find no terms to explain it.  Indeed, I have never been able to describe my experience any better than this expression in Psalm 40:

“He bent down to me and listened to my cry.

He raised me out of the miry pit, out of the mud and clay;

He set my feet on rock and gave me a firm footing.

On my lips he put a new song, a song of praise to our God.”

My leading has always been equally clear that the “he” who bent down to me that night was the Spirit of Jesus, the same one who spoke to me through the gospels.  As in the story of the Good Shepherd, I recognized his voice that night, and knew then that I am significant and redeemable in God’s eyes.  Much remains a mystery to me about this experience, but I have tried to follow God’s leadings ever since, and he has always kept the promise made to me that night.

Life’s Work as Ministry

In the aftermath of the Spirit’s visit I made many changes in my life, but two stand out as having enduring impact: I began attending a Quaker meeting, finding others for whom chairs and a Bible constitute a well-equipped place of worship; and I developed a personal mission statement:

I will use the talents God has given me to learn things of importance and value,
and I will share the things that I have learned to enrich the lives of others.

Once written, I felt certain this would lead me to leave my consulting career. However, I also learned from my new Quaker friends that we are all ministers, and that our ministries can take many forms –one’s work does matter, but how one goes about it can matter even more. The following story was pivotal to understanding my work as ministry:

In 1993 the state of Washington passed legislation that included many Clinton-era healthcare reforms. The state issued several RFPs related to implementation, and I led my firm’s successful proposal on one. I quickly found myself in front of panels of business, legislative, and policy leaders, and felt completely over my head.

I had recently joined a small group at my meeting, and I brought my concern to the group. A friend asked “How can we support you in prayer?” I answered “I am excited by this opportunity, but I feel under-qualified to lead this project. I need clarity regarding whether this is a leading from God or a product of my own ambition. And if it is God’s leading, I need to know what I am to bring to it.”

After some silence a friend asked “What makes you think this might be a leading from God?” I answered “This legislation seeks to improve access to affordable health care, which is a cause I have long felt a calling toward.” Another friend asked “You were selected over several other firms to do this work?” I affirmed.

After additional silence, one friend said “I can’t speak for the group, and I know nothing of your world, but how you were selected means you are likely qualified. I do see access to affordable care as a concern God holds, and I would rather see this work led by someone with your heart for God’s concern than by someone for whom it is just another project.” Other friends murmured their assent, and I felt utterly convicted. Uncomfortable or not, I felt clarity that God had indeed led me to this place, and I had a fresh perspective on how to lead it forward.

This was the first time I experienced the power of a spiritual community to provide clarity and strength in walking a difficult path, but it has not been the last. With such insight, support, and inspiration from my Quaker community, and with the clarity provided by my mission statement, I continued my consulting career for twenty additional fulfilling years.

Ministry as Life’s Work

Much of my consulting career involved building and mobilizing teams of (mostly) young adults around a shared goal: solving a client’s problem, building new software, etc. The most fulfilling part, for me, was the opportunity this provided to help my teams and my clients to define and pursue their dreams and aspirations. For better or worse, most of these people already had a lot going in their favor: they had attended good schools, and had basic family and economic security. I felt satisfaction that my clients – hospitals and human services agencies – served the disadvantaged, but I always wanted to do more.

Fifteen years ago a pro bono project led me into youth mentoring, working directly with disadvantaged youth as well as strengthening the providers that serve them. I was matched with a fifth grader named Andrew, and served as his mentor for several years. I know I helped him through some tough times, but he also inspired me to give more, as illustrated in this encounter:

In sixth grade Andrew was living in a modest foster home after being removed from an unsafe and impoverished family setting. We had done a group activity that provided the children with simple prizes; Andrew chose a bumper sticker and said “Let’s put this on your car!” I said “OK, but you have to read it to me first.” He was then reading at the third grade level, so this was a challenge but also a learning opportunity.

Bumper Sticker

Having sounded his way through the word “poverty,” he said “What’s that mean?” I said it meant you didn’t have enough money for life’s most basic needs of food, clothing, and housing. We also talked about “1 in 5” – “so, if there are 25 kids in my class at school, 5 of them live in poverty?” I said “Yes, and at your school probably more than 5.” He replied “Wow, then we really need to help them.” I could only think “Yes, we do, Andrew. Yes, we do.”

Having fulfilled many commitments I had made to my family, I now feel released for full-time ministry, and this conversation has never been far from my mind. As I discern what comes next, my thoughts include: consulting with or working for non-profits; working in youth mentoring or at a school serving disadvantaged families; dedicating myself more fully to spiritual writing and speaking; providing spiritual mentorship to those seeking more authentic faith; and providing comfort to those facing end of life.

I have enough life experience with each of these to feel I have talents and leadings worth exploring, but my skills are largely self-taught or instinctive. My hopes for seminary are to bring more substance to my skill base in these areas, and to help me discern which among these I may be most strongly called to, or in what priority I should pursue them.

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