Some people are born into a Christian life, raised on it as well as the bread on their table. At some point they are asked to claim a deeper commitment to it, as a formal stage in their life journey.
Some people wander around for decades without any religion. In some cases, their lives become unmanageable, they hit rock bottom, and in the depths of brokenness they reach out to God as a last resort, and thus are led to give their lives to Christ.
It's plain to anyone that my life hasn't followed the first plan. So it's perfectly reasonable to think that there must have been some awful crisis that prompted my conversion. And it's probably human nature to look at my definitely non-bible-approved sexual/relational history, and come to the conclusion that the crippling burden of my carnal sins drove me to cry out to God for relief.
In fact, this doesn't seem to have been the case. In not one crisis did I ever think God would be any help whatsoever. I might have cried and screamed and thrown temper tantrums, but I certainly wasn't going to ASK for help from something that didn't exist, anyway.
God had to be sneakier with me. God courted me patiently during all those years I didn't even believe He existed. And when I finally started noticing Him, He wooed me. All that time, He was protecting me, fitting me for the work he had for me through the diverse experiences of my life, preparing me to be his servant. Whenever I decided to make that commitment.
The not-so-straight-and-narrow sexual history was (in hindsight) clearly part of that preparation.
For the occasion of Baptism at Peace Mennonite Church, it was the custom for the one being baptized and admitted to membership in the church to give a brief statement of their faith as part of the service. On February 25, 2001, I read these words to the congregation:
What I'm about to read won't make much sense. That's OK. It doesn't have to. I'm rummaging through a backpack I've been wearing all my life: some stuff I don't even remember, or know how it got there. Some of you will recognize bits and pieces and see that they are out of context or broken or inside out. That's ok, too--just how it is in a bag you've carried a long time. The cough drops come unwrapped and stick to the Kleenex and grocery store receipts, and there's some pennies, and magic beans a little kid gave me, some rocks, a dirty sock, some nuts and bolts and raisins and birdseed--well, YOU KNOW!
A parable: A child watches a parade in a foreign city, surrounded by strangers whose ways make no sense. Her parents stand over her, hovering, keeping her safe from alien influences. The Emperor of that world walks by, wearing nothing. Her parents bend to whisper, "He's got nothing on." She is puzzled, then listens to the crowd around her describe the rare beauty of his garments to one another. "but He HAS GOT NOTHING ON!" she cries aloud. The foreign children throw sticks and stones at her. She clings to her parents.
Childhood values: family values. Homemade dresses, saddle shoes. No cartoons, no bubble gum, no soda pop, no Barbie dolls, no paint-by-numbers, no movies, no social groups or activities, no church. No explanations that made sense. Everything scientific and educational.
In grade school, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, hymns. Tis a gift to be simple. Hiking the wonders of nature, identifying birds and flowers, rocks and fossils. Living in tents in Canada for a month every summer. Sailing; watching fish in their strange watery world under the docks. Tidepools; turning over rocks in the streams. Searching for living mysteries to unfold.
In high school, In Manhattan, Kansas, seeking to unfold mysteries of the spirit. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Tao Teh Ching; for the first time in my life, the Bible. Unitarian Fellowship: taped classical music, lectures on social issues. It's all about coffee, which I never drink. The youth group, which hides itself from me, does drugs. A few wise elders inspire me to a long life of service.
Tentative friendships with peers in the foreign city: pot-smoking Hippies, vicious Born-Agains, treacherous Charismatics, suicidal Lesbian Feminists, crazy Artists, shy Poets, condemning Baptists, hypocritical Preacher's Kids. Where to I fit? How CAN I fit when I still can't make sense of their ways, and can't articulate my own? I have a dream.
Independence hits like a brick wall. an unplanned child, a brutal marriage, divorce, homelessness. No work or living skills. A few friends hold hands through the storm of early adulthood, each similarly desperate for unique reasons. The dream, unattainable, is abandoned.
A life of fragments, pieces from different puzzles, ends that don't meet. Waling the void's edg, three years of celibacy, lesbian lovers, drunken old men, two-timing young ones. Women of the Heartlands, Women's Festival, the I Ching, the Wander Game, The Manhattan Mercury, in slipstream time, cycles into a dark night, spiraling down a twisted tortured mile. None of this is sustainable. Who tempts me to walk away?
Only years later, I realize that over those troubled waters there came a quiet bridge, a bridge to gently lead me to a new way of thinking, living, loving. It came so ordinarily that it's taken 20 years to see it: the More With Less Cookbook. Not another issue of the Watchtower, not a visit from the Sister Missionaries, not people on the street corner selling roses. I bought it at the local food Co-op. i knew I had "less", I wanted to know what to do with it. The stains document its centrality to my life: a toddler's scribbles, Whole Wheat Orange Bread, Fruit Crumble, Mini Pizzas, Tangerine Peels. Gather up the fragments.
I walk away from the castle: a retreat into the wilderness. No child now; she's in my parents' care. Vision quest. Sitting zazen twice a week. Chopping wood, carrying water. Walking to the mailbox. meeting my self for the first time. A wise woman guides me through dark nights, helping me learn to heal and love myself. How can we meet the gods face to face till we have faces? I remember that once I had a dream.
A voice emerges from the wilderness. A new life, a new job, another marriage. Still in a foreign country, but learning the language. K-State, then Friends University; Vegetable Crop Production, then Business Ethics.
Time and again I realize I've strayed from the path. I boldly abandon each wayward trail and strike out cross-country in the right direction. I don't know what the path is or where it's going; I only know it exists because I am learning to know when I am not on it. I remember fragments of a dream. I buy a house from a Mennonite family; and old hippy friend turned Mennonite repairs the stair rail.
A divorce, a job loss, another job, another marriage. Lawrence. The Episcopal Church calls me a child of God but denies me bread at His table--even the crumbs. Hundred dollar floral arrangements with South American flowers, while we pray for the poor. An old lady I've never seen before, with too much perfume, tell me to move from HER family's pew on Easter sunday. Does the Emperor have clothes?
I retreat again: church in the garden. I consider the lilies. A friend comes to gather wildflowers for his church; the third time I follow them. Here! The upper room is full of windows and sky, faces I danced with on Saturday, friends I'll dine with on Sunday. Sunday school discusses stewardship: sustainable agriculture, not a pledge drive.
Thanks to a dog, a farm falls in my lap, I lose the job. The dream! The path! God calls me to follow. He sends a flock of Quaker sheep--I listen--a flock of Mennonite sheep--I act. Mennonite hay. One good dog leads to another. A llama. I don't need a sailboat any more, I'm in charge of an ark! I begin to know how Noah felt.
Who tempts me to walk away? I spend one Lent in silent retreat, being the Lord's shepherd through lambing time. At midnight, by moonlight, I walk to the flock pastured by a stream, I move silently among them, I rest on the ground where they lie chewing their cuds. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. It is good. I consider the lilies.
Who tempts me to walk away? We spend another Lent studying TREK. Puzzle peices begin to fit. Tis a gift to be simple. Everything that is not of the farm and church fall away from me like an old skin: pieces from some other puzzle. Some are people I love; I have been transformed into something new that I have always already been, and they don't know how to follow. I'm sad, but without self-doubt. Chop water, carry wood. Tis a gift to be free. At church, each service holds some special, surprising message for me. Mandy's dad preached on teh Kingdom of God. Imagination caps! I come to the little children; I'm a child. There's room for me at the table, whenever I'm hungry. Weren't we supposed to remember Him EVERY time we shared bread with one another? Dream becomes vision. Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.
Who tempts me to walk away? Separation and sin, a season of stress and strife. Misunderstanding, regrouping. For others, great good fortune far, far away. For me, eventually, the prodigal daughter returns. What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good--need we anyone to tell us?
The Emperor has no clothes; He's given them all away. He tempts me to walk away, and welcomes me to His table. Actions speak louder than words. I wash my face with tears, time and again. This water will be fresh and sweet!
Congregational response: And when we find ourselves in the place just right we will be in the valley of love and delight.