When I began my process to explore the possibility of becoming a United Methodist Pastor, I heard many people refer to a “Faith Journey.” “Tell me about your faith journey” the interviewer would say. I do not know if other traditions both Christian and non- Christian use a similar phrase, or if it is particularly Methodist phrasing, but it is one that makes sense to me. Before I tell you why, please don’t stop reading until you read this disclaimer. My faith is as much a part of me and who I am, as my heart is to my body. Yet, I am not writing these stories to convert you to Christianity, or Methodism, any more than I am writing stories about alcohol and bar rooms, to convert you to Alcoholism. They are just stories of my life and humanity that I hope might touch you in some way. Perhaps they are things you can relate to, or better yet, that bring to mind your own stories that have been on the back burner of your life.
When I hear the phrase “Faith Journey,” I think of God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you I will make of you a great nation, and I will less you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So, Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” (Genesis 12: 1-4a) I also think of a twisting, winding trail, that darts in and out of thicket, near a lake or river and away from it. In other words, not a smooth, easy journey. What fun would that be?
GROWING UP CATHOLIC
I was raised Roman Catholic, and although I have chosen a different denomination to live out my life and faith practice, it was foundational for me. It was not an easy decision to leave that Church behind, but it was made easier by the fact that I was divorced but wanted to remarry. Some of the things I gained from my Catholic childhood and youth are a love and appreciation for the sacraments. I like liturgy (the formalized process of prayers and ritual in Sunday Church Services). There were three things that especially marked my life as a child growing up Catholic. Two of my mother’s sisters were Catholic nuns, members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. They were teachers and they wore habits, (What the dresses and head pieces were called) broad, starched head covers that were lined with white. (See picture). In addition to my two aunts, there were two cousins who were also nuns, members of different orders (organizations of Catholic sisters) and my mother’s brother was a Priest as well as one of her cousins and one of my cousins.
I am a baby boomer, so I was young when the Catholic Mass was still in Latin, and I remember when the Catholic Church was making the transition to dialogue Masses. We had cards that had the Latin printed on one side and the phonetic phrases printed on the other side, (transliteration), so that the people could respond to the priest’s statements in Latin. We could read them phonetically, even if we didn’t understand what the words meant.
One of the changes in the Catholic Mass that I especially appreciated in the 1960’s was the Folk Mass, the introduction of Guitars and more contemporary songs instead of hymns and by that time the Mass was said in the language of the people. There were things of course that I did not understand, and things that later in life I came to disagree with, but one thing my background as a Catholic helped me see is that I am a “denominational kind of chick.” What I mean by that is that I value the structure and accountability of denominational life. In addition, I suppose that part of that structure and accountability that is important to me is the inclusion, practice, and understanding of Communion and other sacraments.
It didn’t take my parents long to figure out that perhaps living at the Union Villa 24/7 wasn’t the best environment for a young girl, and so while I was visiting family that summer in Baltimore, mom got me registered for boarding school. I attended Sacred Heart School, in Kingston, Massachusetts, not far from Plymouth, from seventh grade through tenth grade. When you hear the phrase “Boarding School” you might think “Rich girl prep school” but you have to substitute the words “Catholic Boarding School”, in order to get a clearer, more accurate picture.”
There were lots of things I did not like, but one of the big benefits was that it was a life that was book-ended by prayer. Not only did we pray in classes, every Friday we got up early and went to Mass, we went to chapel for rosary after supper before going back to study hall and in the evening after we were ready to bed, we padded our way down the hallway to the choir loft of the chapel for evening prayers in our pajamas, robes and slippers. In addition to all of that, the whole school had Mass in the auditorium the first Friday of every month.
Looking back now I would say it was not so much the specifics of the services and the prayers, as much as it was the sense of a life of prayer that is my “take away.” One other important “take away” came from a visiting priest who told us in a retreat that at some point in our lives the faith we were given by our parents, had to become our own, but not without thinking it through, growing to a mature faith that was accepted as an individual choice, but not forced. Faith is chosen, not inherited.
I went to Sacred Heart from September of 1962 until May of 1966. We wore uniforms, black and white saddle shoes, Navy blue knee socks and Navy blue jumpers in 7th and 8th grade. We felt really grown up when we graduated to navy skirts and blazers in high school. Although it didn’t really happen often, I remember at least once when the nuns lined us up in the hallway and measured our hems. Some girls would roll the waistbands of their skirts to make them shorter.
Things like going steady, teasing one’s hair and the wearing of paten leather shoes were not allowed. Going steady could get one thrown off of student council, should the infraction be discovered. And then, there was this rumor that during school dances, the nuns would gather and watch the dance from the mezzanine of the gym and if they saw couples dancing to close, they would point it out to the sister on the gym floor, who would tap the couple and the shoulder and remind them to leave a foot of space between them for the Holy Ghost. “Foot, foot for the Holy Ghost,” we would say to each other and smirk.
LESSONS FROM MY MOTHER
My mother did not get her driver’s license until she was about 43, maybe a little older. All those trips that we left on, to take dad to work in Hoboken, New Jersey, to go on to Baltimore, Maryland to visit with family, were nerve wracking for her. I learned how to be a white knuckled driver from her. Truly! There are some times after a long trip when I wonder why my hands are so sore. my first thought is arthritis, but the reality is “White knuckled driver!” There were times when mom was driving and she would second guess herself, think she had missed an exit or got anxious about something that I would shake my head.
Because of all that nervousness though, she prayed. As we left home, she would pray and as we crossed from one state line to another she would pray. Now, because we were Catholic, the prayers that she prayed were The Our Father (The Lord’s Prayer to us Protestants), the Hail Mary and maybe the Glory Be. But at the end of those prayers she would say, “Thank you dear Jesus for bringing us safely through Rhode Island, please bring us safely through Connecticut.” I have adopted that prayer in my own fashion and love it when I am traveling with a friend, even for a shopping trip, or to a seminar or conference when we begin that journey with prayer.
The other two major faith lessons my mom taught me were in her example. She had open heart surgery at the age of 82 to have a valve replacement. I was able to be with her in her room before they took her to surgery and accompanied her to the outside of the OR. When the attendant stopped her gurney so we could say good bye, she sat up and said, “What can I say but, Lord, Into your hands I commend my Spirit.” (Luke 23:46a). She did not remember saying that, but I have never forgotten that she did. Then two years later, the day before she died, I visited her, she told me to take her birthday flowers, she didn’t need them. She handed me her pocket book, and then most profoundly, handed me her prayer booklet that she used and said, “I don’t even have to pray anymore, I just have to wait.” Life lessons for me, for sure.
While I claim a love of liturgy, as a Protestant Pastor I also appreciate the potential for informality that exists in worship in my denomination. For instance there are some prayers and traditions that qualify as liturgy, because within a given Sunday Service, there can be some back and forth conversation between the pastor/worship leader and the congregation; laughter, joking and tears are all acceptable interactions. Yet there is an order, or ritual, to the service that includes prayers, readings from the Bible, singing of hymns or choruses, sharing of joys and concerns with the congregation and reading of written prayers but also spontaneous prayers. Because of all of that, the order of worship, with the potential for conversations, laughter, tears and other spontaneous happenings, I self-identify as “semi-liturgical”. I do not want to trade formality for the Spirit. Sometimes people even shake one another’s hands or greet each other with a hug. And the use of reason!
“Reason” maybe one of the reasons that I am United Methodist. Not that Methodists, or even John Wesley, the founder of Methodism invented reason. But Wesley held, and we still teach that there are four main ways we learn about God: Scripture, Tradition (the teachings of the apostles and early Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith), Reason and Experience. The fact that I can apply reason, question, doubt and understanding and question again to the teachings of my faith are priceless to me.
I have posters on every door in the church (including the bathrooms) with the church’s mission statement, and signs on the doors going out of the church that say, “You are Now Entering the Mission Field” The signs I should also put on the doors going into the sanctuary though, would say, “Please do not check your brain at the door.” Being able to question faith, preaching and the Bible are important. It is how we learn. There is a “song” that I “sing” often. I know many people will say that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you do believe. For me personally, that is way too generic. My song is, “It is important to know what you believe, why you believe it and where it came from.”
If you have gotten to the end of this blog post, I hope in some way it has inspired you to give some thought to your own faith journey, the ups and downs, joys and frustrations, the times you have felt near to God or a higher Power and times that God has seemed far away. I hope that it has inspired you to think about what you believe, where it came from and why you believe it. And thanks for sticking with me to the end. Since I first wrote this post, the COVID-19 has become a pandemic, and each of us are trying to find our way through uncharted territory. Can there be a better time to think about what you believe, why you believe and where it comes from? Might this situation we find ourselves in be an invitation to do just that?
Not holding back the tide,