Sunday, September 8, 2013

Spiritual Autobiography: What Are You Waiting For?

It was 3am, and I was sitting at the laptop with a simple prayer:

O God, please get me through another one of these spiritual autobiographies.

It is that time of year, at the start of Education for Ministry seminar groups, when we share with our fellow members the course our lives have taken and where we feel God's presence and absence as we muddle our way along in the world.  I don't know why it is that I never, in the many times that I have done this exercise, I never seem to be able to get myself to sit still long enough to pull my presentation together.  I have to let the assignment "cook" inside me before I can focus enough, settle down, and write. 

But 3am... six hours before I'm to gather with everyone?

It didn't help that I had had another bout of heat exhaustion, brought on by being out in the Florida sun and humidity.  Who knew that drinking iced tea on the deck of a coffee shop and running errands to banks was so strenuous that my body rebelled in a migraine headache and upset stomach.  Or maybe this was part of the plot to stymie my plan to work on the autobiography in the late afternoon, allowing me a chance to get plenty of rest before meeting with everyone.  Whatever it was, it definitely worked to put me in a place of vulnerability.  And I think that is one of the keys to working on a spiritual autobiography.

This exercise is one of the most important things an EfM group does together.  It is through sharing our stories of our lives and our experiences of the Spirit manifesting in our lives that we discover how much we are alike and how amazing the work of God can be in someone else.  It isn't too dissimilar, I think, to how we can sometimes see ourselves and the ones around us as being like some of the characters we run across in the stories in Scripture.  Because, again, while the Bible isn't an "autobiography", it ultimately does tell the story of us, humanity, as we relate to God and each other.  Even the Gospels, to me, seem to be like the experience of the spiritual autobiography; the central story stays the same, but the perspective differs from Gospel writer to Gospel writer, in the same way that our own autobiographies change from one year to the next as we take a look at the journey again.

For me, this year, it was important to not get lost in the details of my early many starts and stops in my journey with God (for those interested in some of those, I direct you HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).  I decided to focus, instead, on the period following my dad's death in 2007, which was the beginning of this latest, and longest leg of the journey. 

Following dad's death, I was haunted by hymns.  Lots, and lots, and lots of hymns.  The one that consistently kept coming back around in my head was "God is working his purpose out."  It got to a point where I said to my beloved, "I think I'm supposed to go back to 'that' church (meaning St. John's)."  The next morning, Sunday, November 11th, I woke up with a booming voice in my head that told me to "Show up!" 

I got dressed.  I went to 'that church'.  And, for the first time in my whole life as an Episcopalian, I heard all the words in the service, every hymn, every piece of Scripture, and the overwhelming message was: You are loved and always have been loved and I will never NOT love you.

It was mind-blowingly amazing!

The assistant priest, Mtr. Lee Shafer, saw me at the door.

"You came back," she said, "And you dressed up."

I hung my head, sheepishly, and acknowledged that I, who could have given a crap about the church, had returned.  "Can I come see you?"

"Sure!" and then, miraculously, she rattled off the days that she knew she was available.  I didn't even know my schedule that well.  I emailed her, and we set a date for me to come to her office.  I didn't know what exactly I was going to say, but I knew I needed to tell her what I had experienced, and that I had this jukebox of the Episcopal Hymnal playing constantly in my head.  After I had rambled on and on for probably an hour, she said, "What do you need from me?"

"Need?" I said, incredulously, "I don't need anything."   Then, I thought about what she'd asked.

"Y'know that part of Prayers of the People Form II where they say, 'I ask your prayers for those who seek God or a deeper knowledge of him.  Pray that they may find and be found by him.'  I think that's what I need."

As I told this part to my EfM group, I acknowledged that I did not know at the time what it was that I had just asked for, and what was going to come of this petition.  But gradually, steadily, I became cognizant that I was no longer being allowed to drive my own boat.  It seemed that a power greater than myself, God, had decided that it was time to take over the wheel because I wasn't steering this boat well enough and continuously drove it into the weeds.  I was pretty much relegated to passenger status.  Maybe I'd be allowed to put my hands on the wheel, but I was NOT going to drive the boat, and, no--we were not going to slow down, so I could jump out and swim to shore and run away to hide in the forest. 

God is working God's purpose out.  And as year succeeds to year, that purpose became clearer and clearer that I had been given much; hence much more would be expected of me.  I became a Eucharistic Minister.  I took over the job of recording the Sunday services (a task in which I was able to recruit some people to help).   I not only signed up for EfM; by my third year in the program, I became a co-mentor of the group.  And I have been made a verger.  But, in my heart and in my bones, I have felt there was still something more that was being expected of me.  And it terrified me.

I said to Mtr. Lee, as I felt myself in a constant never-ending theological loop with God that led me to write her voluminous emails dissecting every prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, "I think, maybe, I'm supposed to be a priest."

It was then that she told me the prayer I had said is often one that is used for those seeking ordination. I'm surprised I didn't pass out.  This led to much denial, and refusal, and stubborn digging in of heels.  Finally, I thought I'd talk to the one person I thought I could trust on this matter: Bishop Gene Robinson.

I went to NH with my partner, and we drove directly from Manchester to Concord.  I ended up waiting for about an hour because +Gene had been called to the state Capitol building.  When he came back, he was somewhat disappointed because he had thought the state legislature was going to pass the marriage equality bill; however, typical of New Hampshire, somebody got his nose bent out of shape over another matter and so was clogging the wheels of forward motion on the bill until they could patch things up.  +Gene had hoped it would pass, so that Isabelle and I could have joined him over there.  That would have been sweet.  But that wasn't the reason for my visit.   I told him what was happening, some of my story, and that I was living in a diocese that doesn't ordain gay people.  He was forthright in telling me that if I were to seek ordination in New Hampshire, I would have to move home and be part of a parish for at least two years.  This wasn't possible.  So, he offered to call Bishop Howard to talk to him.  And he advised me to get a spiritual director.

I don't know if anything ever happened with the phone call.  I do know that I ignored the advice on the spiritual director for about a year.   And then, I was serving at the noon day service with Fr. Lee Graham.  The Gospel lesson was from the end of John. 

"Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.  But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."

I felt as if I was being pinned against the wall of the chapel.  The overwhelming message I was receiving from this was about being called.  Many think of that passage as about getting old and having people put a gait belt around you in a nursing home.  But that's not at all what I hear in that exchange between Jesus and Peter.  I hear Jesus telling Peter that he is a grown up now, and it is on his shoulders to "feed my sheep." And I heard the same thing being said to me.  To get better resolution, I went to the labyrinth at Florida School of Massage.  After my walk, I came out of the maze with a strong sense that now was the time to contact a spiritual director.

Mtr. Lee had given me the name of a priest in Thomasville, GA.  I wrote this priest an email, and figured she'd ignore me. 

On the contrary, she responded within a day, and we set up an appointment.  She worked with me until her health forced her to retire and leave Georgia, and she passed me off to another spiritual director in Valdosta.  And I have been meeting with Mtr. Galen Mirate for about 18 months. 

In February, Mtr. Galen invited me to attend the Diocesan Convention in Georgia.  Among the list of things on the agenda was a resolution to change the language in the diocesan canon concerning who could or could not seek ordination.  What was there was written as a response to the consecration of +Gene as a bishop because, in Georgia, they weren't gonna have no gay Yankees in the ranks of their priests.   The new proposal was a pretzel-like paragraph, intended to remove the blanket prohibition.  But even that proposal was causing angst among the faithful.  Then, after being allowed to sleep on making a decision, the assembled body heard a new proposal: why not simply follow the canons of the national Episcopal Church?   That achieved the end of the prohibition without having to come up with more words to replace the other words.  That passed overwhelmingly.

And it left my spiritual director with one question for me: "What are you waiting for?"

She asked questions and discovered that if I moved my membership to a church in Georgia, I could enter the process.

"What are you waiting for?"

She looked up the canon that says that, having been licensed in the Diocese of Florida to be a Eucharistic Minister, I am eligible, at the discretion of the local priest, to serve as a Eucharistic Minister elsewhere.

"What are you waiting for?"

Many tears shed over the loss of my St. John's community.  Acknowledgement of that hurt, gentle words of comfort, and a box of tissues provided.  But still...

"What are you waiting for?"

The fact is, I'm running out of room to keep running away.  I have pleaded to my patron prophet Jonah to please send a big fish to swallow me whole so I could avoid this.  But Jonah must be off sulking somewhere.  There is no cave where I can hide in hopes that the strong winds will pass by.  Every priest I have spoken to (and I have quizzed many at this point) have told me that if this is God's intent, I will not be able to avoid being taken where I do not wish to go.

I finished my autobiography by noting that after my last visit with my Mtr. Galen, I saw a huge rainbow in a field over South Georgia.  The song on the CD player was one by Sweet Honey in the Rock which sounded to me like a prayer.  I opened my hand on top of the steering wheel, and took in the words,

I be your shelter
I be your land
I be your everything
I be your friend
I be your water
when you're thirsty and dry...

As I entered Florida, I looked over to where the rainbow had been.  It was gone. 

And the question recurs..

"What are you waiting for?"



JenniferSH said...

Susan, It is always such a pleasure to read your thoughts, especially in a deeply personal post such as this one. I admire your journey and courage through the process of being called to ministry. Though we are now far from Tallahassee, I look forward to your posts and continue to read them prayerfully. God's peace, Jenn Hoesing

SCG said...

Thank you so much, Jenn! It's a bit daunting. Much love to you, Peter and Grant. I miss you guys.

Phoebe McFarlin said...

What have you been waiting for?
What ARE you waitin for.

Time to respond.