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.”

Clutter is a spiritual issue

Ecclesiastes 3:6 reminds us there is “a time to keep and a time to cast away.” With that in mind, I resolved to make clearing out clutter a priority during this year’s recently-completed Lenten season.

Using the “one baby step at a time” approach, I actually managed to make an initial dent in the mounds of clutter littering our house. I thoroughly cleaned the refrigerator/freezer and about half the pantry, got caught up with a month’s worth of ironing, repotted several plants in the sunroom and took down the Christmas tree (yep, the first week in March). I even sorted through a drawer full of paper and shocked our accountant by giving her everything she needed to file our tax return on time this year rather than file for an extension the way I usually do.

As I cleaned and sorted, however, I realized the clutter in my life consists of more than just endless piles of paper and other physical “stuff.” My spiritual director has challenged me to identify the “spiritual” clutter clogging up my life as well. For example:

  • Computer clutter. As I said in a previous article, I could spend hours at my computer playing solitaire, mindlessly surfing the Internet or actually getting sucked into “news” articles about Miley and Taylor and Selena and the Kardashians. I am particularly likely to do this when I’m anxious or avoiding a task on my to-do list.
  • Calendar clutter. Some of the commitments overwhelming my schedule are things I really want to do – a visit with family or friends, singing in the church choir, community volunteer work. But too many other commitments have landed on my calendar because I can’t say no to people.
  • Nutritional clutter. Big-box stores, supermarkets and even health food stores seek to sell me cereal with sugar as the first ingredient, highly processed trans-fat-laden “dinners” I can pop into the microwave and whole aisles of cookies and candy. Restaurant buffets, family gatherings and church potlucks feature entire tables of desserts.
  • Mental clutter. And finally there is the steady stream of anxieties and resentments that keep me pre-occupied during the day and awake at night.

Why is all this clutter a spiritual issue?

When I put junk food into my body – the temple of the Holy Spirit – it clogs my arteries as well as adding extra pounds to my hips. The mindless Internet-surfing and solitaire games suck hours and hours out of my day that could be better spent taking a walk, connecting with other people, or just about anything else. Endless ruminating about resentments interferes with my ability to love my neighbor as myself. Turning down excessive demands on my time would help me focus more energy on those commitments that are really important. When the physical clutter in my house is out of control, my whole life feels out of control.

Alas, I still have quite a way to go just to address the physical clutter. Piles of paper cover nearly every surface in my office. My closets bulge with clothes and shoes I haven’t worn in years. Boxes and boxes and boxes marked “miscellaneous” remain stashed in the basement, many unopened from our last move nearly 10 years ago. And I don’t even like to think about the mess in the garage.

But I did make a good start during Lent, enough to motivate me to keep going. As they say around the tables at 12-Step group meetings, “One day at a time!”

 

 

Baby steps

I began the Lenten season with our church’s Ash Wednesday service and a pledge to:

  • Give something up: Participate in the 40 Bags in 40 Days Decluttering Challenge, which involves decluttering one area of our home each day and letting go of “stuff.”
  • Add a positive habit: Include 3-5 daily servings of fruits/veggies in my diet.
  • Resume my Morning Meditation routine, which I had allowed to lapse over the winter.

How am I doing so far? Well, let’s just say my husband and I also began our Lenten discipline with “His” and “Hers” prescriptions for Tamiflu. Ugh! This has been the capstone of a L-O-N-G winter, which has included three separate bouts of illness for both of us. I’m still sniffling, in fact.

But I haven’t given up on my Lenten pledge.

I had embarked on the 40 Bags Challenge with an ambitious list: Clean the refrigerator on Day 1, the freezer on Day 2, the pantry on Day 3, and so on. I had also planned to try a batch of new veggie recipes.

Instead, the notorious fatigue that accompanies flu, coupled with a bit of nausea, meant I managed to finish one shelf of the refrigerator each day and I ended up drinking my fruits and veggies for several days running. (The good news is, an 8-ounce glass of V-8 juice equals two servings of vegetables and orange juice contains all kinds of Vitamin C.)

“Baby steps,” my spiritual director said, when I explained my modified plans. “That’s what matters.”

The baby steps seem to be working. After two weeks, I’ve finished cleaning the fridge (one shelf at a time), sorted through several weeks’ accumulation of junk mail, gotten caught up with a month’s backlog of ironing and am now halfway through the freezer (one shelf at a time).

Meanwhile, when I ventured outside to feed the birds – and squirrels – a few mornings ago, I spied a patch of snowdrops in our backyard. YES!!!!! Those little flowers make me so happy. Their appearance signals this L-O-N-G winter is finally coming to an end and spring is on its way … a baby step at a time.

Lent: Borrowing a tradition

Even though I grew up Protestant, from early childhood on, I’ve usually participated in the annual tradition of giving up something for Lent.

My Aunt Marie – Sunday School teacher extraordinaire and a great Christian role model – believed that while Protestants didn’t require people to make a Lenten sacrifice, there was no reason why we couldn’t borrow this idea from the Catholics. “It’s good discipline,” she explained.

One year, as my sisters and I sat around the kitchen table discussing what we would give up – cake, ice cream, chocolate – my father added his two cents to the conversation.

“I’ve never really believed in the idea of sacrifice just for the sake of sacrifice,” he said. “Not when life gives us so many opportunities to make real sacrifices. If you’re going to give up something for Lent, I think you should make a sacrifice that actually means something.”

We all looked at him quizzically.

Dad grinned from ear to ear. “Instead of cake and ice cream, why don’t you kids give up fighting for Lent?”

“That sounds wonderful,” Mom chimed in. “No fighting for six whole weeks!”

I think my sisters and I may have actually accomplished this feat for a week or two.

In recent years, some of my Christian friends – including Catholics – have added a new tradition to their Lenten discipline. Instead of (or in addition to) giving something up, they approach Lent as a time to “take something on” and acquire a new positive habit. This could include anything from healthy eating and exercise to daily prayer and meditation or a new charitable commitment.

Since Ephesians 4:22-24 tells us to put off the “old self” and put on a “new self,” I’m thinking it would make sense to include both a sacrifice and an “add-on” this year.

In Dad’s honor, I’ve decided to make a sacrifice that would really mean something – letting go of a significant portion of the “stuff” that clutters every nook and cranny of our house. Toward that end, I’ve decided to accept the 40 Bags in 40 Days Decluttering Challenge.

The 40 Bags in 40 Days Challenge coincides with the 40 days of Lent, and involves decluttering one area of our home each day. The Challenge was started in 2011 by Ann Marie Heasley, author of the blog White House Black Shutters. It has become an annual event and the blog’s companion Facebook group now boasts 67,000 members. The 2018 Challenge starts February 14 and goes until March 31. (Click HERE to read more about The Challenge.)

For the “add-on” part, I’d like to acquire the habit of eating 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day as recommended by nutrition experts. I’m lucky if I get in one or two servings on most days – some might say my eating habits resemble those of a rebellious 10-year-old – so this will be a challenge! Fortunately, psychologists say it takes 30 days for a new behavior to become a habit, so Lent would give me a bonus of 10 extra days to make this new habit my own.

Meanwhile, I also plan to get back in the habit of morning meditation. My meditation ritual, which I’ve practiced for several years, involves starting my day in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee at my side and a cat in my lap while I journal about everything from the meaning of life to my plans for the day. Some days my husband joins me and serenades me with folk tunes played on his dulcimer.

Alas, looking through my journal entries this morning, I realized I haven’t partaken of this lovely ritual for several weeks. I’ve allowed a combination of illness and other people’s drama to crowd out a habit that helps me feel centered – no wonder I’ve been a tad bit crabby lately. I definitely want my morning meditation ritual to be a keeper!

 

 

Feeling like the Apostle Paul

It’s not that I haven’t tried to address the issues detailed in my late-night laundry list, I told my spiritual advisor at our second meeting.

My bookshelves literally overflow with self-help books: First Things First, Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, Take Back Your Time and Stop Screaming at the Microwave! My husband and I like to joke that we’re powerless over self-help books and that our bookshelves have become unmanageable. However, I don’t need a self-help book or a therapist to tell me I should practice self-care and set better boundaries.

I know intellectually what I need to do to get my life in order: eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, stay away from toxic people or environments, pay more attention to my relationships and practice self-discipline. The challenge lies in translating that intellectual knowledge into action. I’m usually so immersed in all the dramas of my life that I ignore problems until they become a crisis that can’t be ignored any longer. My life seems to be in crisis mode about half the time.

Periodically I grab myself up by the scruff of the neck and resolve to do better – on New Year’s Day, the first day of Lent, my birthday, the first day of spring or summer or fall, or any month in which the first day falls on a Sunday or Monday. I vow I’m going to turn over a new leaf, get my priorities straight and start doing things differently. My reform efforts may work for a week or two, or if I really buckle down, for a month. But then my life returns to the same chaotic reality that has become the new normal for me in recent years.

Sometimes it seems as if my life has been reduced to crossing items off endless To-Do lists: my To-Do List for volunteer work, my To-Do List for household chores, my To-Do List of personal self-care routines, my To-Do List of urgent matters, even a Master List to keep track of all the To-Do Lists. This elaborate system of lists was suggested by the day-planner I carry around constantly and jokingly call “my conscience.” I’m constantly juggling so many balls in the air, I’m convinced I have to keep these multiple To-Do Lists or I won’t remember to do simple things like brush my teeth. Despite all the To-Do lists designed to help me hold myself accountable for how I spend my time, I can’t seem to keep up with all the demands.

Repeated efforts to get my life under better control often leave me feeling more frustrated than ever, I told my spiritual advisor. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul, when he says in Romans 7: “I don’t understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. … I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” Yep. That’s me, all right.

The good news is, I’m nowhere near the state of spiritual bankruptcy I was in 25 years ago, when the combination of psychic pain and fear for my future led me to put down the booze and start attending 12-Step meetings. Nor does my life feel quite as out of control as it did prior to my retirement, when I was juggling the 24/7 demands of running a social service agency, caring for an aging parent and trying to have a life at the same time. My current state feels more like a case of spiritual sleepwalking alternating with existential questioning.

But I also know I need to make some changes if I want the next chapter of my life to amount to more than eating, sleeping, dodging other people’s dramas and crossing items off To-Do lists.