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I am on a spiritual journey in which I'm questioning everything I think I know.

Gratitude, Part 2

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my husband Pete and I went to North Carolina for a long-anticipated visit with some favorite cousins who live near Asheville. Two previous attempts to visit had been foiled – the first time by wildfires burning in the area, and the second time by illness. Maybe, we hoped, the third attempt would be the proverbial charm.

The photo above was taken just as we entered Tennessee. Yes, the sign below points to the “Rocky Top” of bluegrass and country music fame. The town of Rocky Top is just down the road a piece from Pete’s hometown of Norris in the eastern part of the state.

We stopped at a bluff overlooking Norris Dam, one of Pete’s favorite places. From this location, one can observe breathtaking scenery. On the day after Thanksgiving, the mountains were covered with trees still hanging onto their blazing multicolor fall leaves. I got to shoot several photos of the beloved Smokies. So far, so good. We were only a couple hours from our destination.

Then we ate supper at one of our favorite restaurants in the area, and dropped in at a Walgreens pharmacy to check my blood pressure. I had experienced a brief A-fib episode earlier in the day and was still feeling a little bit “off.” Among other things, a blood pressure monitor can detect an irregular heartbeat and I wanted to make sure my heart rate had stabilized. Alas, my blood pressure had skyrocketed and I was promptly sent to the emergency room.

I expected the ER folks would give me some medication to bring my blood pressure under control quickly, then release me. This was the treatment usually offered by my regular doctor at home. Instead, they admitted me to the hospital for an overnight stay and more tests. Needless to say, being in a hospital 500 miles from home was not part of our vacation plans and I began to feel downright surly, especially when there seemed to be no guarantee I would be released the following day either.

We relayed the news of our “detour” to Pete’s cousins. They immediately offered to come visit us at the hospital in Knoxville. Since this visit involved a two-hour drive for them, I resisted the offer at first. But Pete pointed out that a visit from the cousins might possibly set Murphy’s Law in reverse.

So John and Anne, Lise and Nate made the two-hour drive. And sure enough, Murphy’s Law-in-Reverse was activated. No sooner had we posed for the photo below (that’s me in the hospital gown worn over a pair of jeans), the doctor came in and announced that the tests were normal and I was free to leave.

So on we went to North Carolina, where we stayed in a hotel room at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a beautiful resort tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mission of the conference center, owned by the United Methodist Church, is “to be a place of Christian hospitality where lives are transformed through renewal of soul, mind and body.”

The folks at the conference center seemed to practice Christian charity as well as hospitality. Although we called after 7 p.m. to let them know we wouldn’t be coming the first night of our reservation (way past the deadline for a cancellation), when they heard my story, they didn’t charge us for that night. My husband and I have stayed at the conference center several times now, and love the place. Below is one breathtaking view, as seen from our hotel room.

In the end, we got to spend two days with our fabulous cousins after all. We enjoyed cousin Anne’s fine cooking on Saturday night. On Sunday, we all piled into their van to take Nate back to his college in Charlotte, where he is studying to be a chef (the school actually offers an entire course on chocolate). Along the way, we stopped at a restaurant and I enjoyed a meal of Cajun-style barbecued salmon. It was delicious and the company was delightful.

As an added treat, I got to visit the horses who live next door to our cousins. When I held out some apple cores, they walked right up to me. If anyone thinks cats and dogs are the only pets who beg for food, they haven’t interacted with horses. These two have begging down to a science.

So I ended up with plenty to be thankful for, after all. I’m especially grateful for our cousins’ visit while I was stuck in a hospital 500 miles from home. They certainly didn’t have to go out of their way like that, especially when they had another all-day trip to make the following day. But they did – and revived my faith that there are plenty of kind and generous people left on the planet.

My Gratitude List for 2018

    Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.            1 Chronicles 16:34

In what has become an annual tradition, I like to celebrate Thanksgiving by making a Gratitude List. And I have plenty to be grateful for this year:

My husband. As usual, my sweetie tops the list. After 33 years of marriage, I still consider him a gift from a loving God. He’s kind, generous, decent and caring, my best friend, the wind beneath my wings, proof positive that there ARE good men, and the best thing that ever happened to me. I love that man to the moon and back!

My family. I have sisters and cousins who double as friends, along with wonderful nieces and nephews. And I’m fortunate to be blessed with amazing parents. During Dad’s final illness a few years ago, I was awestruck to realize how many people love my parents and to hear story after story about their generosity in the community.

Good friends, past and present. These irreplaceable people – including one special angel now in heaven – know my quirks and flaws and love me anyway.

Our kitties. My life has been graced with some fine cats, dating back to earliest childhood. These sweet fur babies curl up next to me while I sleep, sit in my lap while I work at my desk, comfort me when I’m distressed, and love me unconditionally. 

Our church community. We belong to a congregation where people actually try to live out the values they profess. They agree to disagree about volatile political issues. (I’ve been in churches with an unofficial litmus test, where people could and did get ostracized for not taking the “right” stance on an issue.) They even still speak to each other after surviving the merger of three congregations. And … after a two-year search, we finally have a new pastor!!

Other supportive people. Those who mentored me over the years – from my grandparents to my favorite teachers to supervisors at work – helped me become the successful person I am. Now I have a patient and nonjudgmental spiritual director mentoring me as I approach Senior Citizenhood – the next phase of life.

My health. My relatively good health lets me stay active, a minor miracle considering the not-so-good things I did to my body earlier in life – the cigarettes, the junk food, the lack of proper exercise and my talent for burning the proverbial candle at both ends. After repeated bouts with flu and other viruses last winter that landed both my husband and my mother in the hospital, we’re all healthy for the holidays. Thanks be to God!!!!! 

Our home. Our beautiful dream house has a cozy fireplace I sit next to during my morning meditation, a sunroom, eat-in kitchen, piano, office space for each of us and plentiful storage and closet space. Our yard is filled with flower beds. We live in a lovely neighborhood with a bike path leading to a nearby park and botanical garden.

My writing ability. I’ve known since third grade that writing would play some role in my life’s purpose. From young adulthood on, this gift from God has assured me I’ll never starve, or get bored even after retiring.

Financial security. We have not had to worry (at least not too much) how we’re going to survive our retirement years. We can travel to places like Ireland, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Israel and Palestine. And being able to hire someone to clean our house and mow our grass has certainly made my life easier.

Mother Nature in all her majesty. This year I enjoyed one of the most gorgeous falls in recent memory – I swear the leaves were rioting! No matter which season we’re in, I love the wildlife that populates our backyard – the birds and squirrels that visit our feeders, the foxes that live under our deck, the butterflies and rabbits.

Little things. The first ripe tomato of the summer. Gentle rains at the right time. “Ordinary” days when broken appliances are all I need to fret about. Not to mention low-calorie food that actually tastes good.

Being alive. God has granted me another year. While many folks complain about aging (and I must admit I do this myself from time to time), today I choose to be grateful I’ve been able to grow old.

And last but not least  …  SPRING IS COMING in 120 days!!!

For all of this, God, I thank you.

Here’s hoping everyone has a happy Thanksgiving!

God’s fireworks

The frost sadly zapped my annual flowers early this year. But as the saying goes, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” And the fall leaves, which seem to need a good freeze to get really colorful, are making up for the lost flowers.

Here is the view from my kitchen window in the late afternoon.

Kitchen

The street outside my house.

Street Scene2a

And the nearby park, which I like to drive through on my way to everywhere, especially this time of year.

Pond

Gawking at trees is one of my favorite pastimes.

Red tree

Yellow tree

Orange tree

Park scene

Street scene1

The seeds and berries are pretty this time of year as well.

As are the leaves that have dropped to the ground.

Some flowers stay colorful and interesting even after the frost has zapped them.

A few perennial flowers have managed to survive the freeze. Love the ones that hang in there!

And here’s the cute kitty who followed me while I was snapping some of my photos. So of course, I need to include her here.

New Salem kitty

 

Carpe diem!

  “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” – Psalm 118:24

Our church’s adult Faith Formation class this fall assigned us to choose our favorite Bible verse/passage and explain why we find it meaningful.

I like Psalm 118:24 so much I have it stenciled above the door in our sunroom so I can see it when I go out to my backyard in the morning to feed the birds and squirrels. It reminds me that each day is a gift from God, full of promise and new opportunities.

Notice the verse says “this is THE day the Lord has made,” not “this is day.” Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Today is all we have. Yet, how many times have I said, “I’ll be glad when this day is over!” How many times have I fantasized that a future time exists when everything will fall into place and I will be able to start living my life in earnest?

Psalm 118:24 encourages me to practice mindfulness – to pay attention to each moment rather than operating on autopilot. When my days feel reduced to crossing items off the To-Do list I jokingly call “my conscience,” this verse inspires me to take a break from my often distracted, multitasking, overly-stressed schedule so I can be awake and alive instead of sleepwalking through life.

The verse also prompts me to set boundaries with my computer. Stop the mindless Internet surfing, resist “click bait” and avoid getting sucked into Facebook flame wars. How many articles do I need to read about our elected officials calling each other names? What do I gain by arguing about politics with total strangers on Facebook except for a bushel basket full of new resentments? Perhaps, the verse tells me, I should take a walk instead.

And while I’m out walking, the verse reminds me to let go of those joy-stealing resentments. I remember taking a twilight walk one beautiful October day surrounded by the most gorgeous sunset I’d seen in a while. Then I realized that, while God was putting on this amazing display, I had been staring at the sidewalk, my mind flitting from one surly thought to another. I even managed to reserve rent-free space in my head for the mean girls who made my life miserable in high school, the latter rumination triggered by an invitation to my 40th class reunion.

Finally, Psalm 118:24 teaches me to practice gratitude. I’m too often guilty of taking for granted common events in my life that should be cause for rejoicing: my marriage, my family, my kitties, my health, my home, good friends past and present, my church and other supportive people, the gifts and talents that helped me earn a living and will allow me to contribute something worthwhile during my retirement years.

So instead of groaning when the alarm clock goes off, I’d like to get in the habit of saying, “Carpe diem!” Time to wake up and seize the day …

 

Confessions of a spiritual mutt

My journey through the spiritual/religious kaleidoscope began early. The church my family attended on a given weekend sometimes depended on where we had Sunday dinner – one week we might attend the church we and several members of Dad’s family belonged to, while the next Sunday might find us at the church Mom’s side of the family attended.

Being of different denominations, the two churches presented contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (sprinkling or immersion?) to communion (wine or grape juice?) to how one gets “saved” (baptism or personal decision?). But Dad quickly assured us, “In the end, we all worship the same God.” And the extended-family feasts that followed church and Sunday School are among my favorite childhood memories.

In college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ, a nondenominational student organization whose main attraction for me was that these classmates didn’t pressure me to partake of the drug scene or the sexual revolution. (This was the early 1970s, and both proliferated on campus.) Some of the classmates invited me to attend services with them at the local evangelical free church, where members encouraged us to join them for Sunday dinner – a great evangelism tool for homesick students, I must say.

After college, I followed the trajectory of a growing number of today’s young adults and became a “None.” I didn’t stop believing in God altogether, but I was preoccupied with chasing professional brass rings and worshipping at the altar of career success. I referred to the endless round of political fund-raisers, Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties and after-hours gatherings with colleagues as “networking” and considered these alcohol-soaked events essential to my job … until I wound up in detox.

While embarking on my recovery journey in the early 1990s, I investigated possible spiritual paths that might work for me. Folks in the 12-Step programs advised me, “Take what you need and leave the rest.” My husband and I joined a Unitarian-Universalist congregation, where other women and I explored the Goddess movement and experimented with pagan/Wiccan traditions. I also delved into books on comparative religion and learned about Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Indigenous traditions and other belief systems outside Christianity, all with the blessing of my fellow U.U.s and 12-Steppers.

Following my 12-Step/U.U. phase, I took another hiatus from church. I decided that no human being – including me – could definitively answer the question of God’s existence. At that time, one could classify me as a “cheerful agnostic.”

In 2004, after a huge medical scare – during which I prayed fervently and made promises to a God I hoped existed – I started going to a mainline Protestant church with my husband and mother-in-law and periodically sneaking into a couple of evangelical/Pentecostal churches my parents, other family members and friends now attended.

From 2005-2009, I worked for a faith-based prison re-entry program that encouraged church congregations to “adopt” an incarcerated mother reintegrating into the community. Part of my job description involved recruiting teams of volunteers from these congregations, which in turn required me to attend services at a dazzling array of churches: from Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and Presbyterian to Pentecostal, Mennonite and African Methodist Episcopalian. Every month or two would find me in a new congregation’s church service.

In addition to sampling the denominational smorgasbord, I read the entire Bible from front to back for the first time in my life and discovered passages that prompted me to observe, “So that’s where the Pentecostals get their belief about speaking in tongues … where the Catholics get their belief about purgatory … where the Evangelicals get their belief about the Rapture.” And I found myself agreeing with Dad’s long-ago observation: “In the end, we all worship the same God.”

I’m now part of an ELCA Lutheran congregation – a successor to the Lutheran Church of America denomination my father’s side of the family belonged to when I was a child. One could say I’ve come back full circle.

I like this church’s concept of “the priesthood of all believers” – the idea that we don’t need an intercessor such as a minister or priest telling us how to understand God and interpret the Bible. I’ve never heard anyone preach that God “hates” whole groups of people (feminists, LGBTQ+ people, Muslims, etc.). I’ve also been able to ask questions in our adult Sunday School class that probably would have gotten me burned at the stake in a previous era, and I haven’t been excommunicated or struck by lightning. At least not yet.

About a year ago, I started seeing a spiritual director as well. It’s important to point out that I see my work with her as a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church. In his book Spiritual Direction, Henri Nouwen says, “Frequently, we are restlessly looking for answers, going from door to door, from book to book, or from church to church, without having really listened carefully to the questions within.” That’s where my spiritual director has come in for the past year – helping me explore “the questions within.”

This summer – over lunch with my husband, our pastor and a Catholic friend of ours – I joked, “I guess you could call me a spiritual mutt.”

Our Catholic friend said, “I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.”

I’m inclined to agree that experiencing a variety of traditions has had its advantages. I certainly don’t believe I have a corner on the truth about religious/spiritual matters, and I refuse to demonize people whose beliefs differ from mine. I’m less likely to get drawn into squabbles over the right way to do baptism, communion or other things Christians find to bicker about. I prefer, instead. to learn from others and to look for areas of agreement.

What I really care about these days is how well a church encourages its members to fulfill these commandments:

  • Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.

As far as I can see, the people at my current church do their best. So even though I’m still questioning a lot of things, this is where I’ve settled. But I still sneak into other churches from time to time when I’m visiting with family and friends. As far as I can see, these people also do their best. The good news is, my occasional church-hopping doesn’t bother the people in my own congregation.

Pointing to John 15:5 – “Jesus said, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’” – ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton recently had this to say about respecting different Christian denominations (link HERE): “We are not only connected to the same vine, but we have no life apart from that vine.” She adds, “We are scripturally, confessionally and even constitutionally wired to be an ecumenical church. … It is possible to be Lutheran and an ecumenist.” 

And I still trust my father’s advice: “Don’t worry. In the end, we all worship the same God.”

Feasting on God’s eye candy

When I’m tempted to doubt God’s existence, all I have to do is go outdoors to set my thinking straight. Our pastor’s monthly newsletter column served as a reminder this past week that I’ve been spending WAY too many hours glued to my computer screen. Time to pay a visit to our church’s rose garden, she said. 

 

 

The rose garden is one of my favorite places. Tucked in among the roses is a plaque quoting Martin Luther, who seemed to share my perception about God being immanent in all of creation.

 

15 Sign 2a

 

The roses are expertly and lovingly tended by two men in our congregation, who created the garden in memory of wives gone much too soon. A wonderful tribute!

 

 

With gorgeous fall weather approaching, I’ve also decided it’s time to start going on walks again. An amazing bike trail within a couple blocks of our house means there’s no excuse to stay inside on 70-degree days. Trees line both sides of the trail, and a creek runs alongside, making it almost possible to forget I’m in town.

 

 

I also have access to a park just a few more blocks from my house. One of the most attractive features is a carillon (below right), which provides background music while visitors walk or ride their bikes.

 

 

This park has an amazing number of paths where I can stroll, meditate and feast my eyes on a huge variety of flowers, shrubs, decorative grasses and native plants of all kinds.

 

 

 I like to think of the numerous flower beds and native plant displays as God’s eye candy.

 

07 Eye Candy 2a

 

Of course, no park is complete without the critters. Park visitors constantly feed bread crumbs to the ducks and geese, which means some are tame enough to let me snap close-up photos and one even walked right up to my camera while I was photographing him.

 

12 Goose 1a

 

What I know for sure is that I must tear myself away from my computer and TV screens and spend more time outside this fall!

 

Images of God

During my participation in 12-Step groups over the years, I’ve often been encouraged to evaluate different images of God. As they like to say around the tables at these meetings, we may need to fire the God of our childhood understanding and get in touch with the real one. 

Here are just some of the competing images I’ve encountered – whether in church, in 12-Step groups or in my reading:

The angry God.  “The God I was taught to fear was an angry, capricious bastard with a killer surveillance system who is constantly disappointed in me for being human,” said ELCA Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber in a recent interview. (Link HERE.) I could relate. The God of my own childhood was a short-tempered bully who really kind of hated people, especially kids who asked “Why?” when told by an adult to do something.

God as loving parent.  While the stern, authoritarian God who always seems angry at us about something appears often in the Old Testament, the Bible – especially in the New Testament – also offers the image of God as benevolent parent. This God loves us, takes care of us and wants us to love and care for each other. This is the image I like the most, but I must admit I struggle constantly with the question of why a God like this would allow so much evil in the world.

The distant and uninvolved God.  According to this concept, God created everything that exists but has a big, wide universe to oversee and isn’t particularly interested in the day-to-day affairs of humans. God created people and other living creatures, gave us all the ability to reproduce and perpetuate our species, and then went on to other things. I’m most tempted to believe this theory when it seems that God is not answering my prayers.

The God immanent in all creation.  God is not a totally separate entity “out there” somewhere, but dwells in each of us as well as in animals, trees, all other living things and all of nature. At this point in my life, the immanent God is the image that resonates with me the most, at least when I’m taking walks outside.

I HAVE TO ADMIT I find it easier to articulate what I don’t believe than to decide what I do believe. Despite the confusion I’ve felt over who or what God is, here are a few concepts and images of God I have pretty confidently rejected.

The God who plays favorites.  I have an innate suspicion of any belief system that claims God favors one group of people over another, and – by some stroke of luck or fate or coincidence – the group God favors just happens to be the group we belong to or identify with. I get especially suspicious when God “intends” for us to have something that belongs to someone else (land, for example). If Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 are correct, God does not favor any one group of people over any others. “In God, there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.”

The God who mustn’t be questioned.  I also tend to be innately suspicious when any person (or religious denomination) does not want me to ask questions. Especially when the main reason we have so many Christian denominations is that we have so many different interpretations of Biblical truth. When people say we mustn’t question God’s will, I suspect what some of them are really saying is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.” I haven’t yet decided whether it’s worth the effort to question God’s will, but I can sure question another human being’s interpretation of it.

 The God who hates “those” people.  A former pastor at my church observed that some people take as much comfort in the idea that certain other people will face eternal damnation as they do in the idea of their own salvation. Personally, when I see lists of “People God Hates,” I just laugh.

The God who founded the One True Religion.  No matter which denomination I’ve been part of, and no matter how many other religions I’ve read about, the argument often boils down to the same thing. “We’re right. They’re wrong. Stick with Us. Stay away from Them.” When I was a teenager, I was sure the Bible verse warning us “do not be conformed to the world” meant I should beware of peer pressure. (This was probably not a bad interpretation for a teenager to make.) But then I learned that, to the Amish, it meant don’t drive cars or use electricity. So how do I know that one sect or denomination has all the right answers to all the theological questions and that no one else does? The answer for me is, I don’t.

The in-our-own-image God.  We human beings do seem to have a gift for creating God in our own image. In so many of the religions or denominations I’ve experienced personally or read about, we anthropomorphize God – that is, give God human characteristics. But given the combination of our human limitations and our human egos, is there a way for us NOT to do that, at least to some extent? And how do I know when I’m doing this?

I like an observation shared around the tables at 12-Step meetings: One clue that we might be creating God in our own image is when God agrees with us on every single controversial issue and disapproves of all the same people we do. Of course, I’m never guilty of this sort of thing. Right??

 

My priorities this year

In what has become an annual birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year? Or does something need to change?

For several years now, this little exercise has helped me stay focused so various kinds of extraneous clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters in my life.

As always, I begin by identifying what is most important to me right now:

  • Developing a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be and live accordingly.
  • Staying healthy for as long as possible and helping my husband do the same.
  • Keeping in contact with family and friends and nurturing good relationships with them.
  • Maintaining our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and friends.
  • Writing – articles, essays, blog entries and, yes, at least one book.
  • Using a portion of my time, money and talent in a way that helps others and creates positive change in the world.
  • Eliminating the backlog tasks and clutter that drain my energy and keep my life more chaotic than it needs to be.
  • Achieving serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for.

For the most part, my priorities for the coming year will remain the same as they were last year – my relationship with God; attention to self-care, family and friends, our home and my writing; service to others; elimination of needless stress and clutter; and serenity.

My efforts to stick to my priorities over the past year met with varying degrees of success. On the one hand, I allowed stress to derail my healthy eating plan too many times, with the result that I’m about 5 pounds heavier than I was at this time last year. On the other hand, this past year has seen three major achievements:

  • Committing to a journey with my spiritual director, something I’d thought about doing for several years.
  • Finally making a decision, just a few days ago, to walk away from an abusive volunteer work situation that has been poisoning my soul for way too long.
  • Persuading my husband to embark on a healthy eating plan with me, beginning the day after my birthday. Let me tell you, this last one is a major, MAJOR accomplishment.

This means I will be starting my 64th year with a bit more time on my hands, which I can spend experimenting with recipes delicious enough to convince both my sweetie pie and myself that healthy eating can be fun rather than torture! Wish me luck …

 

“We should just SEE Him”

“God is everywhere and in all creation,” my friend Sara said in response to my last blog post when I shared it on Facebook. “We seek Him when we should just SEE Him.”

Nothing like a stroll in my backyard on a summer morning to confirm what she says. I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels), then feasting my eyes on some flowers. This time of year, all kinds of lovelies are blooming:

astilbe

bee balm

begonias

lillies

chives

coreopsis

02 petunia

whitetail

05 multicolor

pinks

03 black eyed susans

01 Rose of sharon

06 blanket flower

rose

04 African violets

And last but not least …

dandelion

 

I want that blinding light

For most of my life, I’ve leaned toward the idea that there probably is a God – some kind of Ultimate Reality or Intelligence. Yet, despite all the evidence I wrote about in my last couple of blog entries, those pesky doubts have creeped in from time to time.

When I acknowledged to my spiritual director that I’ve sometimes questioned God’s existence, she gave me a writing exercise: How would my life be different if I knew for sure there was a God? How would my life be different if I knew for sure there wasn’t?

During my morning meditation, I pulled out a fresh legal pad and wrote down the question, “What would I be doing if there were no God and this could be proven to me?”

The first thought that popped into my head was, I might try getting away with more mischief like fibbing to the IRS or making snarky remarks about people who irritate me. (I’m only half joking.) But in reality, I realized I would feel depressed because the lack of a God would mean for sure I would never again see loved ones who have died. And what about my own life? Without a God, would it be true that life is absurd, as Albert Camus argued?

As I continued with the exercise, I also realized it wasn’t the existence of a God, per se, that I questioned from time to time, so much as some ideas about God portrayed by Christianity. The question in my mind was not so much, “Does God exist?” It was, “Who, or what, is this Entity I choose to call God? What does it mean to order my life as if God exists? What, if anything, does this Being want from me?”

In other words, my decision to be a de facto theist and order my life as if God exists has only raised more questions for me.

Catholic theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen, author of Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith, believes this is normal. “The quest for meaning can be extremely frustrating and at times even excruciating, precisely because it does not lead to ready answers but to new questions,” he writes. He continues:

The main questions for spiritual direction – Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going? What is prayer? Who is God for me? Where do I belong? How can I be of service? – are not questions with simple answers, but questions that lead us deeper into the unspeakable mystery of existence. What needs affirmation is the validity of the questions. What needs to be said is: “Yes, yes indeed, these are the questions. Don’t hesitate to raise them.”

Doing this exercise brought back memories of our recent trip to the Holy Land. In 2012, my husband and I went to Israel and Palestine with a church group. The trip had been on my bucket list for decades. At the time I was in one of my “questioning the existence of God” phases and I secretly hoped something about the trip might clarify the issue for me.

We visited places with names that felt intimately familiar from my reading them in the Bible and hearing them in church – Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Jericho, Cana. We toured the Church of the Nativity built on the site thought to be the birthplace of Jesus, the Church of the Multiplication commemorating Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and even the house where St. Peter’s mother-in-law is thought to have lived.

While the overall trip was amazing, I must confess the “holy sites” themselves were somewhat of a letdown. While others in our tour group talked of being “on sacred ground,” many of the sites seemed to me more like tourist traps than shrines – vendors, vendors, vendors, everywhere. The image of Jesus chasing the money changers from the Temple often came to mind.

But then we participated in a communion service in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, in a replica of a boat Jesus and his disciples are thought to have used. During the service, I decided maybe I should just do what Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson did when he was first trying to achieve sobriety and simply demand that the Diety show Itself.

Since the service was in progress, I couldn’t shout – at least not without being terribly rude. Instead, I called out silently, “God, if you exist, show me a sign!”

Right before my eyes, a rainbow appeared. It was a beautiful clear day. No rain, A cloudless sky. Nothing that would normally cause a rainbow to form. To make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, I quietly nudged my husband and pointed to the rainbow.

“Cool!” he whispered.

In Genesis 9:12, a rainbow was seen as a message from God: “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.’”

Was this rainbow a response from God to my rather imperious demand that this Entity show Itself? Maybe even a sign God wanted some kind of covenant with me? Or was it a coincidence, as my skeptical mind was already suggesting?

A couple of days after my experience in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, our tour group visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray. Visitors of other religions are allowed to pray there as well if they wish to.

Visitors often participate in a long-time tradition of writing prayers on slips of paper and inserting them into the crevices of the Wall. According to Wikipedia, more than a million of these notes are placed in the Wall each year. It has even become customary for visiting dignitaries to participate in this ritual.

I wrote my own prayer on a slip of paper:

Dear God,

Please answer these questions:

Who are you?

What do you want from me?

I inserted the note into a crevice in the Wall and, a couple of days later, returned to my home in central Illinois. Shortly thereafter, I began journaling about my spiritual questions. So … was the rainbow a coincidence? Did God want some sort of covenant with me? If so, what?

Alas, my daily life with its million and one distractions intervened and my journaling about God ended up on hold. Some of the distractions were legitimate – my father’s final illness, followed closely by the death of my best friend Patti, then hospitalizations for my mother, my husband and myself. However, most of the distractions were of the mundane variety I’ve been blogging about for the past year – the endless clutter of all kinds, from the material to the spiritual.

It’s been almost a year now since I engaged a spiritual director to hold my feet to the fire and help me explore the questions on the note I placed in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

I’m actually pretty convinced there is a God, I told her. What I really want is to figure out who or what this entity is, because believing in the existence of God still doesn’t answer questions like what, if anything, God wants from me, or what God considers to be right and wrong.

1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see through a glass darkly but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” The problem, I told my spiritual director, is that I want answers now, in this lifetime.

What I really want is that “blinding light” experience the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus, or the burning bush Moses encountered. I want to be like those people who see the blinding light or the burning bush, just know what they know about God, and have their mission in life spelled out for them.

My spiritual director, thankfully, has been patient and nonjudgmental as I continue to grapple with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. And she gave me another assignment: Some morning, while I’m sitting in my recliner in front of the fireplace watching the birds and squirrels, be still and listen for God to speak.

Perhaps I’m finally ready.