Sunday, November 05, 2017

A homework assignment: Write your spiritual autobiography

I go to too many meetings. Day and night. Here in Charlotte and in other places in North Carolina. Today I went to another meeting. Actually, a gathering of like-minded spiritual seekers. All of us, each of us, are hearing voices. Or a voice. A voice that is calling us closer, deeper, further in. We want more silence, more prayer, more contemplation, more community, more God. This is the second time we have gathered. From several faith communities. From several faith practices. Drawn together by one man's dream of a community that lives and breathes prayer and hope, faith and connection. We have no idea where it will go or what it will look like. It's not going to be another church. We don't need any more churches. But what we need... well, that's what we are trying to dream up together. What do we need? What would quench our thirst and assuage our hunger for more?

Anyway, we were each asked to write our spiritual autobiography. No more than three pages. We were given some questions to consider as we wrote. Here are a few of the questions we could respond to:

How has God been present in your life? 
How do you experience God’s presence?  
Where have you felt God’s absence?
How has your experience of God shaped your life and the choices you have made? 
Where is God at work in your life now?

Which ones would you answer?

The questions that I sought to answer in my autobiography were: What role did the church play in your life? How did it shape you?

Here is my answer -

I love the church. I love going to church. That has been true of me for most of my life. 

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and spent most of the first twelve years of my life attending Sixth Avenue Baptist Church. I distinctly remember sitting in church one Sunday, wishing that I could attend church five days a week and school only two. It’s not that I didn’t like going to school; I loved my elementary school, but being in the house of the Lord with the people of God, singing the old hymns of the church, listening to my Sunday school teachers tell impossible stories that they claimed had come from the Bible, watching people get dunked in the baptismal pool below the organ loft, and even attending Wednesday night prayer meetings - all of that is what I wanted to experience five days a week. When I was 12 years old, that church split over a question of Biblical interpretation that I didn’t fully understand. All  I knew for sure was that my family could no longer attend the church I loved. My twelve year old heart is still broken.

The church I spent my teenaged years attending with my family was another Baptist church, but Calvary Baptist Church was on 57th Street in Manhattan, a solid 45 - 60 minute drive from our home in Brooklyn. It was during those years that I was first exposed to the truth that it doesn’t matter how much I do or don’t like the music; it doesn’t matter how much I do or don’t like the youth leaders. Being in the community of faith is far broader and deeper than my personal taste or preferences. The preaching was okay. The choir was okay. The high school Sunday school class was less than okay. But somehow, together, in our okay ways, we worshiped the God who made it all make sense, who made something majestic out of our mediocrity. In the company of those faithful people, my faith grew. Somehow, God drew me closer. Perhaps it was the less than charismatic leadership and the less than inspiring preaching that taught me that it was all about God anyway. It wasn’t about me. It wasn't about catchy tunes or exceptional showmanship. I was in the presence of Almighty God - and that is what mattered most. 

After high school, I attended a small college in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts and attended the local Baptist church in that tiny town. For the first time in my life, church was my choice. I picked the church and I got myself there nearly every week for all four years of college - well, except for the semester I spent in Madrid, and I found a Baptist church there to attend as well. It didn’t matter to me if I had been out dancing until midnight on Saturday night/Sunday morning. I got up, got showered, got dressed, and walked to church. Once again, it wasn’t a flashy preacher or professional musicians that drew me in. It was simply the opportunity to be with the people of God in the house of God. 

The thing is, I did not have the vocabulary for what I was feeling at the time. I couldn’t have articulated any real evaluation of the preaching, the music, or the theology of that small town church church I attended. Or any of the churches I had ever attended, actually. I couldn’t even tell you what branch of the Baptist church our church was associated with. None of that mattered to me. I just couldn’t imagine NOT going to church. 

Don’t get me wrong; during my early church experience back in Brooklyn, there was a whole lot of fear mongering going on. “Accept Jesus into your heart or be left behind when the rapture happens.” “Are you sure you are saved?” “If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure that you would be in heaven?” Nothing made me more fearful than the thought that I could be “left behind.” But by the time I got to college, those fears were less central to my experience of the church. Thanks be to God! 

At some point during my college career, I had the opportunity to give the children’s sermon at church - a brief Bible lesson for the kids before they left the main worship service for junior church. Not long after that first children’s lesson, I was asked to do it every week. Who me? I did as I was asked - and I loved it. As a result, I had even more reason to love going to church. Suddenly, finally, I had something to contribute. 

Six years after graduating from college, I found myself married, pregnant, and living in southern Connecticut. My husband and I began to attend Hope Church, a congregation whose pastor I had met with I was a teenager at Calvary Baptist in Manhattan. This one was an Evangelical Free church - once again, a denomination I knew nothing about. All I knew was that they welcomed me and my husband without any apparent prejudice against the fact that ours is an interracial marriage. Our daughter was born four months after we arrived at the church. Just under three years later, our son was born. Both of our children were so well loved and their births were so perfectly timed that they were both cast as baby Jesus in the Christmas play. Both son and daughter were held aloft by Simeon’s strong hands and prayed over as their lives began.

On a more personal note, Hope Church ushered me into a phase of spiritual growth that completely altered my perspective on Scripture and prayer and faith. Through the Women of Hope Wednesday morning Bible studies, I learned how to read and study the Bible for myself in previously unimagined depth. I would get up an hour or two before anyone else in the house and pour over and through the Word of God, with curiosity and questions, with hope and joy. Frankly, I miss those early morning quiet times - and I’m not exactly sure why I let them go. 

In a similar way to what happened when I was invited to do the children’s sermons during college, one of the leaders of the Women of Hope asked me to speak at the Christmas luncheon one year. Our usual Wednesday morning gathering of 40 women more than doubled for the Christmas luncheon - one hundred women came together to eat a hearty meal and hear a good word. For some reason, the director of Women of Hope thought I could bring a good word that December. Within months, I was the weekly teacher for Women of Hope. What I didn’t see was that God had begun to do a work in my life, a preparatory work that was beyond anything I could have imagined when we moved to Charlotte in 2002. 

Before having our two children, I had spent four years as a middle school and high school Spanish teacher. Although I was no longer teaching, I certainly hadn’t forgotten my Spanish, so it was with great joy that I began to attend the Spanish speaking congregation at Calvary Church here in Charlotte. Within weeks, I had fallen in love with the energy and exuberance, the joy and the vulnerability of those beautiful, hopeful people who hailed from more than ten Latin American countries. I taught Bible classes, led women’s gatherings, and introduced them to journaling as a spiritual discipline - all in Spanish. I am certain that I learned more from those generous, kind, loving women than they learned from me. I also learned that I had to stay in my place as a woman - that there was no place for me in church leadership there, unless there were only women in the room. 

At the end of one of the spiritual journaling classes I taught, this one in English, a woman approached me and said, “You belong in the pulpit. You’re not teaching in here; you are preaching.” At the time, her statement sounded like heresy to me. Less than five years later, we left Calvary, began attending First Presbyterian Church here in Charlotte, and I had heard that same message several more times at our new church. 

I believe that when I hear the same message several different times from several different people, I need to pay attention. So I did. Currently, I’m in my third year of a five year seminary program here in Charlotte that I hope and pray will lead to my ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA. It looks like my early childhood wish of attending church five days a week might finally come true. 

Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God indeed. 


The most eye-opening part to me of writing this spiritual autobiography is that I hadn't made the connection between my childhood dream of being at church five days a week and my current seminary journey until I completed this homework assignment. I know that almost everyone who is a "full time pastor" spends more than five days in the church, so I may end up getting more than I hoped for, than I wished for, than I bargained for. But still, dreams sometimes do come true. 

As I wrote that final sentence, I burst into tears.
Tears of gratitude. Tears of joy. Tears of hope. 
Grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful. 

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