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Circling Excerpt 1: The Introduction

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

With encouragement from friends and fellow writers, I am revising the book that was previously titled In God We Tryst: A Pilgrimage.  It will now be called Circling.  I’m not sure whether or not to add a subtitle, A Spiritual Odyssey.  (I welcome your thoughts.)  Also, I will be posting parts of it on this blog and hope that I’ll get lots of suggestions from you, my dear readers.

So here is the Introduction.  Enjoy — and respond with what works and doesn’t work for you.  Thanks so much!

 

Goober

Introduction

 

I live my life in ever-widening circles

That stretch out over the things of the world.

I may never reach the outermost orbit,

But that is what I strive for.

 

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,

And I’ve been circling for a thousand years

But I do not know yet: if I am a falcon,

A storm . . . or a great song.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke, A Book for the Hours of Prayer

 

To this day, I live all three: the falcon, the storm, and the song. There have been times when the storm raged so harshly that the falcon cowered and the song was stilled, but these, albeit violent, were infrequent. Mostly, the falcon flies high and the song is a love song.

But it’s hard work: circling God is not easy. There is no assurance that “things will be all right in the end,” either in this life or the next. Living a God-centered life is counter-cultural, and it becomes harder as the children grow and our bodies deteriorate. Often our hearts want to say “Yes” to God, while our heads protest “No way!” Many people question the legitimacy of God, craving certainty when none is possible. Others profess intimacy with the inner workings of the divine mind, alienating those with a humbler faith.

As a teenager, I careened between self-righteous certitude and hardened skepticism until an unlikely Trinity of cheap wine, dirty feet, and a fire-breathing Baptist preacher set me on a spiritual odyssey to find a loving God. Ashamed by a circuitous odyssey with too few signposts, I despaired of going public with the love story that supposedly happens when one finds God.

Earlier drafts were titled Searching for God: An Idiopathic Odyssey because I began it after the death of my infant daughter Caitlin, thirty-five years ago. One thing after another went wrong in her three-month lifetime and it was as perplexing to the doctors as it was to us. When the chief cardiovascular surgeon came to tell us of another bizarre twist in Caitlin’s medical plight, I probed to understand its cause. He shrugged his shoulders, raised his eyebrows, curled his lip, and said it was idiopathic.

When I asked what “idiopathic” meant, he sheepishly explained that it meant there was no clear medical cause. I laughed outright, “Oh, ‘idiopathic’ is the same as ‘I haven’t a clue!’”

When he acknowledged the truth of my equation,  the word evolved into a description of my spiritual journey quite as much as it did Caitlin’s medical trials. It’s an elegant term that experts – doctors, lawyers, or even theologians – can use when bereft of better explanations for why things happen the way they do. There is a respectful holiness about idiopathic confusion.

In time, I recognized that my yearning to understand God’s truth in the face of innocent suffering might some day result in a book. But being an optimist by nature, I thought the book could not be completed until there was a happy ending. There has to be a purpose in life, I thought, just as there has to be goodness in God – or why else are we born and why do we persist in believing in a loving deity?

So I waited for the happy ending. And waited. And waited. Some delightful blessings came my way, including a pair of magnificent children, delightful friends, and satisfying professional work…but the fairy-tale ending remained elusive. Every time I thought life was leveling out to a gentle and comfortable playing field, another gut-wrenching loss would find its way to my soul.

The clarity of my youth became the curse of my adulthood. Raised on the importance of rational thinking and hard work, I managed the first half of my life with a healthy combination of messiness and good fortune, emerging at thirty with a fine husband, excellent job, and upbeat attitude. Then things soured: our first child died at three hours, and Caitlin at three months. Of the two living children, one was born without an ear and another with a neurological birth injury. Twelve years later, the marriage was over and my foray into new life as an ordained minister boomeranged, hitting me broadside and leaving brutal scars.

Finally – finally! – I wised up. I heard God clearly for the first time, and what I heard made me realize that I’d been going about things all wrong. I had wanted my head to justify the yearnings of my heart. Sure, I was on the right path and walking in the right direction, but it was as though I had been walking backwards all the way.

When I turned myself around so that I was walking head- (or was it heart-?) first, I still tripped over the rocks and slipped in the mud, but discovered newfound pleasures in the trek. I realized that I had been looking for the wrong type of happy ending. I needed to focus on the journey not the destination – to enjoy the walk with all the pathos and bathos, the sublime and the ridiculous, that comes our way. I learned that there are times when we need to scout aggressively for blessings as a way of tempering the trials. Prayer and gratitude help in making the valleys less deep than they might be otherwise.

My quest took me from the East to the West and back to the East coast, from motherhood to ministry, and from skepticism to faith. After years of spiraling through a spiritual wilderness where the only choice was to dismiss or disdain God, I emerged shaken but open to new possibilities. The children are well, my health is good, my attitude is positive, and my awareness of the blessings of life is enhanced by the challenges of getting to this point.

But while I preach and believe the good news as written in the Bible, I am nonetheless beleaguered with questions; it is heady work to explain the value of being faithful without also being certain. And so I write this book for those of us who are “seekers”: those of us who want to believe in God but find it tough going. We can’t understand why religious faith comes more readily to other people: have they had an easier life, or are they smarter than we are, or are they dumber than we are? Somehow, our weary minds can’t quite muster the necessary energy to take the exhilarating bounce of faith that graces other lives. Instead, we torment ourselves with the big “why” questions that differentiate us from other species – the “why this?” and “why not that?” and – worst of all – the “why me?” questions that suggest we may be created in the image of God but are a long way from home.

I trust that readers will enjoy the roller-coaster stories of my adventure while also exploring the workings of God in their lives. I hope that these nourishing, if perhaps bittersweet, appetizers might open readers to a divine banquet where, I believe, all are welcome.

We each experience the divine in personalized ways based on our culture and upbringing. In this light, some readers may object that my occasional use of colorful language is sacrilegious, or that it trivializes what is a genuinely profound and perplexing struggle to explain Holy Mystery. To such complaints, I have two responses.

First, as Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam,” and perhaps class just ain’t my strong suit. I sometimes use graphic language, and so the book just wrote itself that way. Second, I believe that God yearns to connect with all of us – old and young, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor – and will happily use any and all methods of discourse to open our ears, our hearts, and our minds. In my case, it sometimes takes gutter speak to get through the earwax.

Finally, I end this introduction by explaining that the God I now love has different faces and voices and appears through a robust tapestry of images, terms, and languages. God is beyond being male, female, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and everything else we can imagine. I believe that, just as God created so many varieties of flowers to bring beauty into our lives and just as there are varieties of birds to give us music, so also are there many different religions so that all people can find a way to Her. Too often we argue over the pros and cons of the different lamps, forgetting to honor the universal light that is God.

Because of my cultural and personal heritage, God speaks to me through the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, but I hope that non-Christians will be able to relate to the substance of this faith journey, if not the specific images and terms. Most importantly, I hope this “travelogue” will encourage readers to honor their own search for God. It may be that the roller-coaster of disordered chaos is actually a God-centered Ferris wheel: we still go up, down, and around, and some of us may get horribly nauseous.

But the view at the top is celestial.

 

If only for a second. Then the circle begins anew: our lives are an interwoven trinity of falcon, storm, and song swirling up, down, and around that ancient tower that we call God.

 

 

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North to Alaska, Part 3: Spirit Strikes Thrice

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

If you haven’t read the two previous posts on “North to Alaska,” I recommend that you do so before reading this.  Thanks.

They say that good news – like bad news – comes in threes. It reportedly is folk wisdom, but I surmise Trinitarian underpinnings. Could it be that the Holy One is like a stool needing three legs to provide support, and that the Creator, Christ, and Spirit are merely differing varieties of the same life-giving substance much like ice, water, and steam…?

… Or perhaps the magic-three rule exists for no other reason than to keep us hopeful of more blessings or to find comfort in the assurance that misfortune is finite? Who knows?

What I do know is that I was the happy recipient of three distinct blessings during Thanksgiving week.

It all began in mid-October, when I received an email from Lisa Young, who had heard from Amy Greene that I was looking for freelance work while going through the tedious process of finding another pastorate. Amy is a dear friend and former colleague from RWD Technologies, where I worked before ordained ministry.  Lisa also worked at RWD but in a different department; she left to become a Vice-President with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) and eventually enjoined Amy to join her team.  The email was brief: “Amy told me you were available for freelancing; call me if you are willing to work with the native population in northern Alaska.”

My heart raced as I called her back, ecstatic with memories of Mt. Edgecumbe.  The ASRC project was still in its planning stages, Lisa said, but she was happy to hear of my availability and enthusiasm.  Over the next few weeks, the three of us brainstormed possibilities, and Lisa discussed options with her supervisors.  She then asked her associate Sheila Boyd to design a contract for me to spend six months helping to develop a cultural awareness program. The contract was finalized the day before Thanksgiving.

But this wasn’t just any ol’ job – this was going back to the place and people that had formed me.  I would be doing ministry (albeit not parish ministry) in ways and for people that I treasured.  So many times since April 1966 had I dreamed of returning to the 49th state, but kept putting it off because the costs were outside my budget and a routine tourist trip would not reconnect me with the places and people of Alaska that I had come to love.  But now here it was – dropped like manna from heaven!  Considering the state of my and the country’s economy, it appeared that the Holy Spirit had been working overtime on my behalf. Thanksgiving was personal and intense

But that was just the first part. It happens that Debbie Brown, one of the other three Bennington College interns, had recently moved from the East Coast to the East Bay.  Even more to the point, she had returned to Alaska in 1967 and 1968 to work in a native high school just outside of Nome.  Best of all, she would loan her senior thesis on teaching Alaskan natives as well as source materials for her research.  We spent the Tuesday after Thanksgiving poring over the Mt. Edgecumbe High School yearbook, Volcanic Vibrations (a literary journal we helped with) and Tundra Times, the irregular newspaper for Alaskan Natives. Contract + reconnecting with a dear friend = Spirit strikes twice.

The final blessing of the week came in the mail when I returned home, specifically the winter sale catalog from REI. Knowing that I would be going to Barrow, Alaska (the northernmost point of the United States) in a few weeks, I spent Wednesday scarping up huge discounts on boots, parkas, long underwear, balaclavas and other requisites for surviving temperatures of minus 40.  I gleefully produced a 20% off coupon while purchasing $189 mittens designed to prevent frostbite in the Himalayas, Antarctica, and Alaska, and gave three-fold thanks for toasty fingers and a Trinity of blessings.

Next time – more on ASRC, the Inupiat (Eskimo) people, and Barrow, Alaska.  In the meanwhile, you might want to check out a recent television show on life in Barrow.  (Note that this was filmed several months ago, while there was still light. When I head there next week, it will be pitch black.  The sun won’t rise again until mid-February.)

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