I served some time ago on the discernment committee of a friend now engaged in seminary studies as a candidate for the Episcopal priesthood.
“Discernment” in this sense is the complicated process anyone who experiences a leading toward the Episcopal priesthood (or the diaconate) goes through to test depth and truth, to separate a “leading” from a “calling.” Discernment committees support the discerner, but also poke and prod, probe and test.
Part of that process is writing a spiritual autobiography in order to explore the path to that leading. Here’s a condensed and adapted version of mine, composed at about the same time just to see what would happen. It is, in a way, a testimony. I am not a candidate for anything and if such things bore or distress you, feel free to move along.
It begins this way, and I have written a number of times before about growing up for the most part outside the institutional church, raised by loving Christian parents who had no tolerance for the spiritual violence that the institution frequently engenders. I never queried them about their specific beliefs, nor did they query me. The only thing needful was their love which was unconditional. I learned from them the love of Christ.
At their behest, I memorized John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
They also pointed me toward a passage regarding false prophets in Matthew 7 that concludes, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”
And this, too, from the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ”
With that I was launched, neither “born again” nor baptized but with no sense of being lost.
When I enrolled as a freshman at the University of Iowa, having never gone to church regularly as a child, Iowa City became a religious smorgasbord.
I also began to explore and express the fact I was gay --- something known since age 4 but not understand and because of the way I was raised never an issue. It still wasn’t, but the repercussions became more clearly evident.
Among those repercussions was the fact I was welcome nowhere in the institutional church.
Except, and it's an important exception, among Unitarian Universalists, usually dismissed by Christians as “unchristian” (a judgment most UUs joyfully embrace although I know them by their works and beg to differ).
But I loved many of those other Iowa City churches, too, for various reasons, none doctrinal --- First Methodist for its stained glass, syrupy Victorian pipe organ and wonderful choir; St. Thomas More for its liturgical innovation and sense of joy in the Mass; Trinity Episcopal for its liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer; Gloria Dei Lutheran for its baroque pipe organ and the Lutheran expression of grace.
Love always was conditioned by the fact I could look in on occasional visits, but not come in.
Instead of the institutional church, the guerrilla church welcomed me. There it is possible, invited by God, to take what is needed without denying one’s createdness, making an end run around the gatekeepers. If you are a church-going Christian, there still are members of the guerrilla church among you.
Perhaps because I was not a part of it, the hateful things spoken then and still spoken in the church about people like me, allegedly in love, seem not to have been internalized. Spiritual wounds are especially difficult to heal and some find forgiveness impossible. I got off lightly.
Although I sometimes hate the institutional church it is part of an enduring love-hate relationship.
When I settled in a small north Iowa town called Thompson some years later, not long after returning from Vietnam, completing a second degree and getting to work, my leading was to be baptized as a Christian and confirmed a Lutheran.
I loved and still do the Lutheran commitment to grace as expressed in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
That little church was a wonderful place filled with wonderful people where it was possible to experience the love of God as expressed unreservedly in my time there at least within a Christian congregation.
Some years later, however, when career paths shifted and I moved elsewhere, it was time to leave. To live a compartmentalized life seemed increasingly pointless as well as damaging spiritually and physically.
By now the United Church of Christ would have extended an unreserved welcome, too, but I asked the Unitarian Universalists, again, to take me in.
Over the years, I had experienced occasionally the profound power of the silence in a gathered meeting of conservative Friends (Quakers) awaiting God, and began to explore that path more thoroughly. Doing that shaped my leading in a variety of ways, including:
1. Affirmation of the Quaker conviction that there is That of God in every person (extended in my leading some days to include every creature) and that it is imperative to acknowledge this in ourselves and in all others; that above all else, God is love. Any hateful expression is not of God.
2. Affirmation of the belief of many Quakers that the historic Jesus, who walked the earth, was crucified and rose again, is not remote --- abiding in heaven or packing his bags to come again. But that He is resurrected here with us, incorporated with the grace of God as the Inward Light that will guide us --- and save us --- if we attend to and allow it.
3. Affirmation of the conservative Quaker leading that the scriptures, Hebrew and Christian, are useful but secondary; that the ultimate authority is God expressed through His Word, who is Christ Jesus; and that revelation and understanding are not fixed, but continuing and evolving.
I am not a Quaker, however.
The substance of faith and practice often has confused and troubled me, but the form of the ancient church entwined with it never has. I have found and continued to find meaning and beauty and the real presence of Christ in liturgy and the visible and experienced sacraments.
And so when the time to leave the Unitarian Universalists came, the door of the Episcopal Church was open and those inside made me feel welcome and at home. Here I stand now, somewhat unexpectedly, affirming every Sunday the words of the Nicene Creed.
What else could I say?
That eschatology is an especially useless field. We tend to custom design hell as a destination for those we dislike or who disagree with us and create other versions as our own.
To speculate extensively about the nature of heaven and the hereafter and the formula for getting there involves a profound lack of faith. What’s to worry about?
That there is quite enough to do in the here and now and we are clearly instructed to do it --- feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, live in peace and consider the lilies.
That this path, however, leads to a rather narrow gate called discipleship. The broader road that can lead to damage if not destruction is paved with indifference, intolerance, violence, judgment and greed, but is tempting. I follow it too often.
Will everyone be saved? I’m not convinced anyone is lost. But living into redemption is quite a trick and I’m not especially good at it --- yet.
This little essay is a cobbled together expression of faith, as most are, developed by a heretic who although homosexual is joyfully heterodox. Many of my favorite people gay and straight are, too.
I do wish more people went to church, however. Theological illiteracy is a terrible thing.
Although liberal, there are no grudges against those who are genuinely conservative in outlook. I do wish the ultraconservative end of the church would stop shooting itself in the foot by demonizing others before considering the plank in its own eye, however. In an age when indifference is more of a threat than dissent, that damages us all.
And I wish that those damaged by the church, LGTB and otherwise, could know that those who inflicted it were using the name of God in vain and were not of God. I believe with all my heart that He has in his heart a special place for those wounded cruely in his name.
There is a caution for those like me who craft our own faiths rather than investing in already-built: Quakers to greater extent and Anglicans, to a lesser, are occasionally romanticized by seekers --- the former for their silence and the latter, for our noise. Both are, in fact, as divided as any other Christian denomination with expressions ranging from left to right, welcoming to less so. Trust the Light, not the denomination.
And always remember: Jesus is a Democrat and God has a sense of humor. In an age of uncertainty, some things are certain, including this.