Spiritual Autobiography

This Spiritual Autobiography was shared with Honolulu Friends Meeting in December 2020.

Meaning and Direction

I was around thirteen years old when I read a simple explanation of the Christian Faith and signed the page in the little booklet. It instructed me to tell someone that I was a Christian. So, I left my bedroom and went into the living room, where my mother was lying down on the coach reading a murder mystery. Excitedly, I declared, “Mom, I am a Christian!” She looked up, said, “That’s nice, honey,” and went back to her reading. Little did she or I know how that would become such a meaningful understanding for me.

I began reading the Bible in earnest and asked my Mom to teach me some hymns. My Mom and Dad were nominally Methodist, but my Mom found it too difficult to take my older brother and me to Sunday School. We were only 1 year apart and quite a handful. I joined the Methodist-Congregational United Church in town and a young Associate Minister became my go-to person to discuss my many questions about this faith. Then I really disrupted the family dynamics when I insisted upon going to Church on Christmas Eve, when our family traditionally celebrated by opening the gifts. After several years, they all got over it, although my Dad still thought I was a fanatic. Jesus’ life and teachings provided me with a set of values and a purpose for my life. While I was just as egocentric as the next teenager, I also absorbed that I was meant to love and serve other people, as idealistic as that sounds now.

When I went to college at McGill University in Montreal, I joined the very lively McGill Christian Fellowship, which was a British intellectual group. It was exciting to me to talk about faith and vocation, listen to top notch speakers, and belong to a small fellowship of Christian college students. I was listening to the Spirit, reading the Bible, having a Daily Quiet Time, and trying to figure out what I should do with my life. I began reading Frederick Buechner’s books and he spoke to my condition.

“To Isaiah, the voice said, “Go,” and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey with our lives, which of the voices that call is to be the one that we answer. No one can say, of course, except each for himself, but I believe that it is possible to say at least this in general to all of us: we should go with our lives where we most need to go and where we are most needed.
Where we most need to go. Maybe that means that the voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness. What can we do that makes us gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness is? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint on canvas? Or is it making something we hope like truth out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses their spirits? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.
And also, where we are most needed. In a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain, our gladness in our work is as much needed as we ourselves need to be glad. If we keep our eyes and ears open, our hearts open, we will find the place surely. The phone will ring and we will jump not so much out of our skin as into our skin. If we keep our lives open, the right place will find us.” (The Hungering Dark)

To love and serve people was my calling from Jesus. How was I to do that? The voice of my own gladness was to pursue Psychology and Religious Studies. So, I majored in these areas, along with English Literature and French. This was a major called Humanistic Studies at McGill. I might have pursued a vocation in Psychology, but psychological statistics was my downfall. I hated that course and did not want to study rats in a maze as a behavioral scientist. I was disappointed in Psychology 101, which featured a scientific explanation for biological pain. I headed into Religious Studies for my graduate degree, not with the idea to become a minister. I had never met a woman minister. Perhaps I could be a pastoral counselor.

The Master of Divinity degree was what I pursued at Boston University School of Theology, where I could major in Pastoral Psychology. It is a United Methodist School with a strong bent toward Social Justice. It was where Martin Luther King, Jr. did his doctorate. My advisor was a Professor and Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor. (I will explain Clinical Pastoral Education later.) I was glad in my studies, because I could focus on what I really wanted to learn. I worshipped on campus at Marsh Chapel, where Howard Thurman had been Dean. I loved Howard Thurman’s books. From undergraduate school onward, I became an avid reader of Christian Spirituality, the History of Christian thought, Faith Development and Pastoral Counseling. I journaled, prayed, practiced contemplation and studied the Bible every day. This gave me the meaning and direction that I so desired.

An inward leading needs outward confirmation in community. In the process of following this leading, I followed the process of discernment in the United Methodist Church through my home church, the district committee, and the geographically-based Board of Ordained Ministry. My leading was confirmed all along the way. After three years, I graduated from Boston University School of Theology (BUST is the acronym!) and was offered positions in several different geographic locations, called Conferences. I felt led to North Carolina. I was pretty naive about ordained ministry as a female in the South. I had not yet experienced the level of sexism, which I found there. I was in the first ten ordained women. I found that it was a process of winning people over to having a female pastor. There was once a death threat before I was appointed to a rural church, but the Bishop wisely decided not to send me there. I can identify with those people today who have experienced threatening vitriol from other angry Americans, who do not see eye to eye. My experience in North Carolina led me to think that sexism, racism and homophobia all go together. They are all systemic and cultural, sometimes quite overt and other times more covert.

As I continued my leading to love and serve people, I discovered that visiting people in the midst of a crisis was more important to me than any other part of ministry. People in crisis were more open to God and I felt most needed there. After serving churches for ten years, I spent a year being trained as a hospital chaplain in Clinical Pastoral Education. CPE is a post-graduate course of education, where one serves “hands-on” as a hospital chaplain to several hospital units of patients. One learns pastoral skills and develops self-awareness in a small group. Personal transformation is the point in order to be of better service to others. After that year, I followed a leading to spend two-and-a-half more years of training to become a Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, moving to San Francisco to do so. During this time, I also pursued a Doctor of Ministry degree remotely and on campus at Drew University in New Jersey.

Self Worth and Belonging to Community

Were all these titles, certifications and degrees purely in service to become a better minister? There were two other reasons beside following a leading. One, as a female, I felt that I needed to be twice as good as any male, just to be considered equal. I had experienced a lot of discrimination. Two, I had discovered that achievements bolstered my self-worth; others esteemed me more. That’s the way my family of origin worked. My parents were children of the Depression, who had managed to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley. My Dad became a chemical engineer and my Mom became a teacher and librarian. They expected big things from my brother and me. Ordination, degrees and certifications were my ticket to jobs in my field. People treated me with respect. I belonged in greater spheres of influence at better and better medical centers and eventually, at medical and nursing schools in a top ten academic medical center.

The spiritual need for self-worth and belonging to community resides within everyone. It is expressed in belonging to a faith community or a musical group or a sports team or a gardening group or a professional group. That spiritual need is as much a part of every human being as the spiritual need for meaning and direction. And I will turn now to the third spiritual need, which I have found in everyone as well. That is the need to love and be loved. When we miss the mark in that area of loving and being loved, we find estrangement and brokenness in relationships. We need reconciliation.

To Love and Be Loved/Reconciliation

If I have portrayed myself as saintly at all, it is a mistake. I use humor inappropriately sometimes and cause offense. Most compassion that I have for others has come from my own experience of downfalls, failings, and brokenness. I am pretty well aware of my limitations and shortcomings, because 30 years worth of CPE students have critiqued me every semester. This adds up to 720 evaluations of me from my self-aware students! There are very few faults of mine which have not been called to my attention.

And in terms of loving and being loved, let’s just say that I have been around the block a few times and parked in the wrong place. It is my great fortune that “in the fullness of time” I met Jim. We prove “birds of a feather flock together,” rather than “opposites attract.” We both have had a proclivity toward education and accomplishment, but have acquired anonymity in retirement. We are no longer as good athletes as we were and age has brought greater humility, albeit involuntarily. I now laugh when I say, “The older I get, the better I was.”

It is our great fortune that we were led to the Religious Society of Friends here in Hawai’i several years ago. The testimonies and aspirations of our community here speak to our hearts, as the way to practice life. Belonging to this community has become so important to us and you Friends have become our friends. We are yours and you are ours. In all our strengths and fallibility, we belong to this community.