Spiritual Autobiographies

This weekend, I participated in the Trinity Institute conference, Sacred Conversations for Racial Justice which left me with much to think about. One of the speakers made frequent references to Counter Memory and there was a lot of discussion about hearing different histories and herstories in an effort to undo racism, to change the narrative about race and the stereotypes around race.

I thought about where I am in my own personal narrative. This coming Thursday my discernment committee will meet. It is part of the process, potentially leading to ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. For this coming Thursday, we are supposed to discuss our spiritual autobiographies. I wrote a short version of this for my meeting with Bishop Ian and some of the members of the Commission on Ministry last fall.

Can I share it online? How does my spiritual story relate to using Counter Memory to undo racism? Can we, as individuals telling our stories shift the master narrative about race in America? What about shifting the narratives around class, mental illness, spirituality?

In the past, I’ve written about my discernment process and my hope to live out some of that process online.

The 2015 ECCT Discernment Manual has these instructions for this session.

“You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” - Psalm 139
Reflect on that verse. How has and is God calling you to use your gifts for the kingdom? How do you understand the priesthood of all believers?

Additional question for nominee: Why do you feel called to exercise your gifts as an ordained leader?

Spend time sharing each others spiritual autobiographies orally or in written form.

So, I’m sharing a short version of my spiritual autobiography here. I invite others to join in the discussion.

A Short Spiritual Biography

My earliest memory of church is drinking grape juice from a shot glass at the First Congregational Church of Williamstown, MA, and eating a small cube of my mother’s homemade bread that she had baked for communion. We would sing “Holy, Holy, Holy”, and I wasn’t sure what it meant but there was something beautifully mysterious in it all to me.

I was baptized and confirmed there, but when the church came out against the war in Vietnam, my father, who had a square peace sign on the back of his truck stopped going and became a Christian Scientist.

As the family stopped going, I visited other churches and youth groups. I attended the Baptist church and occasionally the Episcopalian church. I went to the Williams College fellowship and to bible studies. The first time I preached from a pulpit was when I was sixteen for Youth Sunday at the First Baptist church in Williamstown. It was well received and was when I first started wondering if God was calling me to the ministry. Like the Congregationalists, we rarely had communion and when we did, it was grape juice. After communion at the Baptist church, we always sang, “Blessed be the tie that binds”. By then, the ties that bound my biological family had mostly all unraveled, and the ties to my family of believes become all the more important.

I was socially awkward in school, but classes came easily and I didn’t have to study to get good grades. At home, things were more difficult. When my parents separated, I spent a lot of time caring for my mother as she grieved the loss of her marriage and tried to put her new life together. Friends from the college fellowship helped, but it was still more than I was prepared for.

I skipped my senior year of high school, seeking to a more challenging intellectual environment and to get away from what was going on at home. I headed off to College of Wooster in Ohio. I was planning on majoring in religion and becoming a preacher. Yet during my freshman year, I took an introduction to philosophy class which I loved so much that I decided to major in philosophy with a minor in religion.

I participated in the college fellowship there and visited many churches on Sundays in Wooster. Often attending services at five different churches on a given Sunday. I was drawn to the piety of the Mennonites, the exuberance of the Pentecostals, and the tradition and liturgy of the Episcopalians. St. James Episcopal Church in Wooster, Ohio became my church home where I was confirmed on March 27, 1977.

An early crisis of faith came my freshman year of college when one of my high school classmates disappeared. I had always been too awkward to ask a girl out in high school, but Rocky was a girl I had often flirted with at parties. She disappeared one evening walking home from the Williams College library. My mother mentioned it, in passing, in one of her rare letters from home. I called home in a panic to get more information. About a month later, they found her body in a ravine in a neighboring town. They never found the killer.

My mother sent me clippings from the newspaper articles. The day I read the final letter, I had a Hebrew quiz, and wrote, in my existential despair at the top of the quiz, “Lamah”, or “why”? My Hebrew professor, perhaps in a good Talmudic manner changed the last letter to “Lamad”, or “to learn”. I never knew if that was his response to existential despair, why we have quizzes, or both.

I became interested in reformed theology and spent a summer working at a reformed theology summer camp. I went a large reformed theology conference. I sang hymns about being prone to wander, and asking God to take my heart and seal it. I was drawn to the depth of their belief, yet put off by the dourness.

College of Wooster requires all seniors to write an independent thesis as a requirement of graduation. My favorite professor was on sabbatical, and I ended up with a professor I did not get along with as an advisor. I ended up failing my senior thesis, putting on hold any thoughts of seminary or ordination. I tried to convince myself that I could do what God was calling me to as a lay person.

I moved to New York City after dropping out of college to be a poet and took up a job as a computer programmer, a skill I had learned from my father. I started attending Grace Episcopal Church in Manhattan. The church was full of young people struggling with faith, art, and careers, and I fit right in. Besides Sunday morning services, I would attend Wednesday evening prayer groups, an important part of what kept me going through my twenties. We would go to church retreats at Camp Incarnation in Ivoryton or on weekend trips to the beach together at Ocean Grove, NJ. I loved singing “Amazing Grace” with my friends, even though my own brokenness felt fairly prosaic, and not especially wretched.

Many of my friends from Grace married one another. Many left to become priests or missionaries. Some contemplated the monastic life. One of my best friends from college was the nephew of a monk at Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky where Thomas Merton had been a monk.

I spent a weekend there, praying with the monks, and having a long discussion with the abbot while running 12 miles around a track in front of Merton’s hermitage. I spent a lot of time praying whether or not the monastic life was meant for me, but never felt a clear calling.

In 1983, I spent eight months hitch hiking across the United States and Europe, working on my writing, and hoping to find myself. Afterwards, I came back to New York and returned to my life before traveling as a computer programmer.

At a wedding at Grace church of two of my friends, a woman I knew from church sat down next to me. At one point during the service, she took my hand and I did not take it away. I had a sense that this was the woman I was supposed to marry and about a year later, we got married at Grace Church.

We had two children, moved out of New York and settled in Stamford, CT, where we started attending St. Francis church. I served on the vestry and as treasurer. I led the youth group. My wife sang in the choir and was involved in the Sunday School. I was on the vestry when our Rector’s partner died of AIDS, surprising members of the parish who didn’t even know he was gay or had a partner.

Then came another crisis of faith for me. My wife told me she didn’t love me, didn’t think she ever really loved me, and certainly didn’t want to work on it. Between the divorce and a highly stressful job as an IT executive for a leading hedge fund, I had a major depression, was suicidal and hospitalized.

As I put my life back together, I met my currently wife, Kim, through an online dating site. She was also divorced and her mother was dying of cancer. On Kim’s birthday, we had dinner together along with Kim’s father, brother, and sister-in-law. At the end of dinner, Kim’s father received a beep to call the hospital. Kim’s mother had died.

It was a Friday night. I remember going to Kim’s father’s house. The Rev. Peter Stebinger paid a visit that evening and on Sunday, Kim and I went together to Christ Church Bethany. Peter introduced the new Seminarian, Kate Heichler, whom I had known back at Grace Church.

I helped Kim’s family through the funeral and felt that this was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to her. We were married a little over a year later at St. Andrew’s church in Stamford on Kim’s mother’s birthday. The following year, about a month after September 11th, Kim gave birth to Fiona and a month after that, we baptized her on All Saint’s Sunday, our first anniversary, and the birthday of Kim’s mother.

The following years were difficult. I lost my job at the hedge fund and took various consulting jobs in technology and politics. We attended various churches, including Christ Church Bethany and Christ the Healer, Stamford. We lost our house in foreclosure and went through bankruptcy. Our church attendance fell off.

I found a new job as social media manager at a Federally Qualified Health Center. We started attending Grace and St. Peter’s in Hamden because Kim was friends with a family at the church, whom she had met in an online community. It quickly became our church home. I joined the vestry and became clerk. I sing with the choir and started participating with the Arden House ministry.

I have twice run for State Representative, and in my second run, as I thought of my speeches, the words of Psalm 19:14 came to mind, “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” It struck me that this is something that should be prayed before any political speech, or for that matter, before any post on social media.

While Amanda was on maternity leave, I had the opportunity to preach one Sunday from the pulpit of Grace and St. Peter’s. My sermon was well received and that was pleasing. Between the Arden House ministry, and my work, I’ve met several people that I especially pray for, a homeless man who has recently gotten a job and a home, a Muslim woman who suffered domestic abuse and lost her son to brain cancer, a man in the nursing home who asks for prayers, but doesn’t tell me his story, and young woman whom I believe is a pregnant heroin addicted prostitute. She used to ask me for change for cigarettes, once asked for help getting into an in-patient recovery program. I haven’t seen her recently, so I am hoping she is in recovery. These are the people God has been putting in my path. I wonder if these are people God is using to remind me who my neighbors are and who I am being called to serve.

In an email from the Diocese, I found out about the Diocesan poet and the various poetry gatherings. For Lent, I took on a discipline of writing a poem a day, going back to my early love of poetry. One event I learned about was the conference, “Love bade me welcome”: Bringing Poetry into the Life of Your Church at Yale Divinity School. I signed up for the conference. On the registration form, all of the occupations were various church leadership positions. I chose, “Other” and embraced my otherness.

I arrived early and sat in the commons room under the gaze of portraits of dead white men in their clerical robes. I felt strangely out of place, yet also that I was where I was supposed to be. On Thursday of the conference, May 13, 2015, during a guided meditation, I was overwhelmed by an immediate awareness of God’s deep and incomprehensible love for me, for all of God’s people, and a need for me to proclaim that love.

Over the following months, I have sought to discern more clearly what God is calling me to. I have spoken with friends and trusted advisors asking for their prayers and guidance. I have listened for the still quiet voice and looked for signs. I now believe that God is calling me to the priesthood and am starting to explore the path for me to get there.

On Trinity Sunday, the person who was supposed to read the Old Testament reading was out of town and asked if I could read it. I thought about how what I am reading is The Word of The Lord, and it shouldn’t be read like a bedtime story or poetry reading. It needs to be read like a proclamation and a prayer. So, when I read the final verse, where Isaiah says, “Here I am Lord, send me”, I lifted my eyes towards heaven, or at least a little higher than the choir loft, and prayed it as a public, but still hidden prayer to God.

When it came time for announcements, we were asked if there were any birthdays or anniversaries and then asked to open our prayer books to page 830 for a prayer. I’m not a big fan of biblical roulette, much less of Book of Common Prayer roulette, but I opened the prayer book to a random page to then flip to page 830. I opened to page 525, The Ordination of a Priest. I had a sense that God was sending me a message to the effect, “Am I making myself clear enough now?”

God is calling me to something, something I’ve run from for forty years, or perhaps wandered in the desert for forty years to find. I ask your help and guidance in helping me better hear, understand, and respond to God’s calling.

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