Recently, I was asked to discuss my background as an Episcopalian and how my faith has helped me throughout life.
Let’s start with the Episcopalian part.
First, let me explain what I mean, personally, when I say I’m an Episcopalian. From my perspective, I’m a member of the “Jesus Movement”. The Episcopal part is a component of that movement.
Let me comment here on such conventions as “being” an Episcopalian. Although I have been a member of that faith community my entire adult life, I am a follower of Jesus and his teachings. Living out those teachings has been a lifelong journey. When you undertake such a journey, it really helps to have “companions along the way”. If you are in a right relationship with other people, everyone can learn and benefit from each other’s experience. You can walk the walk with less pain, for yourself as well as others if you walk in this way. Having a church home is one way to do this.
Having said this, let me emphasize what I learned from my experience. Religion is an abstract thing. It is built upon and feeds upon, human experience with the non-visible side of existence. That non-visible side that is the heritage of every human being. Encountering that non-visible side of our human heritage is what I term spirituality. In these terms, religion is an abstraction of human spirituality. Religion talks about God but “God doesn’t always live there”. Churches do not own “God”. They only represent the revelation of God when they are authentic. To me, authenticity is the difference between religion and human spirituality in its purest form. Even so, good (but not perfect) religion seems better than no religion.
I learned this on my own. As a young person, I became interested in developing the spiritual side of my human nature. I did do most of this with people who had more or less involvement with religion. I learned so many good things from so many good people. Some Eastern Orthodox friends taught me how to “be still” so I could listen, spiritually, for God’s guidance. Some Episcopal friends introduced me to the poetry of the English writer T.S. Eliot, and the powerful human spirituality that poetry alludes to. Some Benedictine monks and nuns taught me great stuff about humans and the spiritual side of our nature.
Some of my family also helped. As an example, my own dear Aunt Madeleine taught me about non-visible reality when I went to church with her as a small child. We went to a communion service. At that service there is a preface that begins, “Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’”, which is the ancient introductory anthem to the core of the communion service. When we got to that point, everybody became very quiet and still. I asked her, “Why is everybody so quiet?” She said, “Hush child! All those that have ever lived and will ever live in the future and the angels of heaven are joining us in the worship of God. If you’re very quiet, maybe you can hear the beat of the angel’s wings.” As it was, there were pigeons on the top of the church, so I said, “I can, I can hear their wings beat”.
The impact of that teaching of hers has remained with me all my life, as I learned to sense the spiritual reality behind that teaching. Even today, I can’t go to a mass or the divine liturgy or a communion service without thinking about her at that moment in the liturgy. By the way, my aunt Madeleine was one of the most loving people I have ever known.
All this training really paid off. As I digested my “lessons” from the real world, more and more I began to realize that what I was learning was also at the core of the teachings of Jesus, preserved (but not perfectly transmitted) in scripture, teaching and tradition because the church is staffed by fallible, limited human beings.
I also learned that my friends from other religions often knew a lot about human spirituality. This helped me understand the core of spirituality that is the common heritage of all people.
I know the things I have said can be considered controversial by some Christians but that experience gives me great comfort and hope that humans might, at some point, understand enough of their common heritage to stop hurting one another, especially in the name of God.
This is a major motivation for my book. I, like Paul, learned the gospel of Christ by encounters with the living, risen Christ in my life. Thus, you don’t need to be a member of a particular religious organization to benefit from the spiritual development process I’m describing. Its authority is based on trying those teachings out and seeing what happens. Your human experience is the authority and validation that there is truth in them, not because some prelate told you what truth was. Otherwise, it makes no sense to try and proclaim them to people who have not grown up within a particular religion or church.
So, how did all this work out in my life?
I had, once, also worked in parish ministry having attended a wonderful seminary in the Los Angeles area, where I excelled in my studies. I then became, under license from the bishop, the lay vicar and pastoral care assistant of a working-class Episcopal parish in Baltimore, Maryland, but just couldn’t get ordained. Even so, my five years in that parish were incredibly joyful and fulfilling.
Evangelism was my other specialty. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s the way things worked out in my faith. I learned so much from the school of “hard knocks” beyond my excellent seminary education. My faith kept me going through thick and thin. I saw so much misery in the world that I felt could be eased by good spirituality. I wanted to pass on what I learned to those who were hurting–thus, the focus on evangelism.
It is not a goal of mine to “make” people into good Episcopalians or even good Christians. There are things that can be learned and applied at the human level that are not dependent on what “spirituality label” you wear. Labels can really get in the way of growth. In my perspective, what a person “makes” of themselves is a personal matter between them and their God.
In this context, I’ve boiled down a lifetime of personal experience to work out a strategy of presenting spirituality in a structured context. That strategy acquaints people with their basic human spirituality and how to grow that spirituality in a systematic way. It is based on using the human capacity to feel joy as the “guiding light” to lead you by your own experience into a life of love and fulfillment.
Understand that this was no invention of mine. Use of my Greek language skills learned in seminary confirmed to me that this approach was totally consistent with sometimes unappreciated teachings of scripture or parts of those scriptures whose meanings can be “muddy” in the conventional English translations.
In this way, any person can learn (or be reminded) of their basic spirituality and how fostering and growing that spirituality leads to a more fulfilled life, with more and more joy as you learn how to grow your human potential to love and handle your human limitations.
So, how has this faith affected and influenced my life? First, it gave me the strength to hope, in the midst of adversity, that things could get better.
The very word for faith in the Greek original scriptures is “pistis”, which can be translated as “knowing what will happen”. It is the lifelong practice of asking and receiving good gifts from God that gives you the experience of faith. Faith is not blind; it is knowledge and trust of God that you have built up from your life experience.
Let me recoup some of those gifts in the face of life challenges from my own life, with examples.
First, just growing up and breaking free of the limits my life situation tried to impose on me. enabled me to get an education and become fulfilled by discovering and exercising talents I would have not even known about had I not broken free of my culturally-imposed limitations.
Becoming divorced after 20 years of marriage was another such challenge. Not for me, but the challenge of dealing with my concerns about the adverse impact that might have on my children.
Also, my spirituality developed by experience enabled me to engage difficult (or seemingly, impossible) challenges at work in science and engineering. It gave me access to the creative part of my nature, the part all humans have, as their heritage. In my experience, all things good, beautiful and true ultimately come from the same source – God – regardless of what a person may call that source.
There were also major health challenges, including a severe heart attack. By God’s grace (expressed both directly as well as though the skilled efforts of doctors) I survived and now thrive. We humans don’t do well at forecasting the future so, without hope and discipline (based on faith experience), I would never has passed through from suffering to recovery. My book has the details.
I also was challenged in my attempts to share what I had learned with others. This was especially difficult within the Episcopal Church, because of the problems of prejudice in some cases or, in others, just simply the limitations of imperfect humans functioning within a bureaucracy. I tried to gain ordination but was unsuccessful. In spite of having an excellent record in seminary and years of demonstrated pastoral capability at a parish, under license, the church was unable to allow me a path within it to exercise those skills.
Instead, I kept the faith, was true to my calling and practiced a life of pastoral care and nurturing of others. I was also able to do this without breaking away from my Episcopal heritage. I still try to help it become more authentic to its divine foundation as I try to do the same thing for myself, in my own life.
In summary, I am a product of this process. My life of joy and fulfillment in spite of significant adversity is a testament that the process works.