A Spiritual Autobiography

I wrote the below spiritual autobiography a dozen years ago as part of a servant leadership study group.  While it definitely needs updating, it serves well as a brief overview of my spiritual history and development over much of my life, particularly my early years.  Fortuitously, my humor remains righteously irreverent and my faith grows.

RUTTS
by Alex Haley
(that’s just my pun name)

The year was 1961. Preceded by John, a child was conceived, fathered by a closeted gay man, in Bethlehem, on the outskirts of the city of brotherly love. In my mother’s womb, I was transported to Haiti, where my parents, as doctor and nurse, were beginning their service as medical missionaries with the Mennonite Central Committee. A dozen (and a half) generations ago my ancestors had fled religious persecution and military conscription in Germany to settle in America. For a new beginning, they were gifted with land from William Penn. This land was some of the most fertile in the world; so fertile, in fact, that even gay men father children there! Though now in Haiti, they were soon to be counted again among the privileged of the world. I was born. And on this journey, Joseph followed. Continuing my heritage as a sojourner in a foreign land, I was born a true child of the 60s.

I have no specific memories of those first couple of years in Haiti. However, only in recent years have I realized my ideal vision of serenity as sleeping without a care late in the morning in a mountain cabin while the rain pounds on the tin roof likely came from memories as a baby (now, if only I can figure out why I have a pleasant association with the smell of skunk!). Also, I am told that I was scared of most white people. Strangely, I am still haunted by white people on occasion.

After a brief stint in Detroit, perhaps explaining my love of urban life, I grew up in a small town in Michigan. The town was Mennonite-free, so I was raised a United Methodist. My childhood was strikingly trauma-free (only striking in retrospect). I knew safety. I knew predictability and caring. Our family always ate meals together, beginning with a prayer too short not to recount here: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen.” A lot more theology in that prayer than I usually give credit. Our family participated in worship and church functions regularly. Worship was generally boring. One of my few memories was a teenager with a guitar, singing “Blowing in the wind.” I guess that would have been contemporary music, huh? And that was before Bob Dylan was a Christian. I attended Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and youth group. I only vaguely remember confirmation. I remember good times. Except for a desperately poor matching of gifts by placing me in a children’s choir – my first, and really only, experience with “playing hooky.” I loved summer camp. First there were church camps, then Boy Scout camps. My younger brother and I earned Eagle Scout ranking (the highest in Boy Scouts) in record time. Our scoutmaster was easygoing and playful. Perhaps paradoxically, it was easy to achieve in that environment. If “achievement” had been required of me, I probably wouldn’t have done it, or at least wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. When we later moved and joined another scout troop, which was probably better organized and certainly more rigid, we dropped out after a while.

My understanding of diversity was child-like. I knew that Catholic families were the ones with five or six kids. Good families to play with. My best friend’s dad was Cuban. He also had two older half-siblings. In retrospect, this was the only somewhat non-traditional family I recall; though I don’t recall giving it much thought.

I was baptized at age eleven. Apparently, I was out of the country at the time such events usually occur. Fortunately, my understanding of baptism was still pretty much that of an infant, so it worked out well. I was confirmed a year later. About this same time, I was in little league baseball. In an attempt to deal with performance anxiety, I kept a pocket-sized New Testament in my back pocket. This crude attempt at spiritual osmosis was discovered by my brothers who with little affection labeled me “Bible boy.” I didn’t like this. I remember that my parent rebuked them.

When we moved to Dearborn, Michigan, before my ninth grade, my parents looked for a church nearby, but had little success – “too suburban” I think. Not surprising, considering we lived in a nice home with a pool, only 100 feet from a golf course. They decided to return to their church from earlier years, Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit, 20 minutes away. Central is the oldest Protest-ant church in Michigan, and has been called “the conscience of the city.” Always a leader in social justice, their most widely known pastor preached pacifism before, during and after World War II. I was soon to be raised on 45+ minute sermons, truly epic sermons. A turning point happened to me sometime during my high school years when my mom took me to a peace conference at church. My eyes were opened and my heart would soon follow.

I went to Hope College, a small, private, liberal arts school. It was a Christian College, as were most of its staff and students, mostly Reformed and Christian Reformed. However, it was unlikely that I would ever be Reformed; conservatively speaking that is. My college years began with my father lightly warning me of these Calvinists. I didn’t know what he was talking about. My first roommate and I, who were boyhood friends, unknowingly were matched because we were both Methodists – apparently, a rare breed thereabouts. Early on, I must have been an easy target for an overabundance of evangelism. A friend invited me to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. I went to what turned out to be a practically diversity-free zone; even ALL of the other persons in my small group were named “Kathy” (though probably a diversity of spellings). Later, when I saw out my dorm room window the friend who invited me, I said, “hello.” She asked me what I thought of the meeting. I shouted from the second floor window something to the effect that it was “too religious.” I did like church, and I went willingly. I even went to chapel services three times a week – religiously. I was also on part-time staff of the campus ministry. Though a biology major, I was frequently mistaken for a political science or philosophy major. Apparently, I was succeeding at the liberal arts (or at least the art of being liberal).

I very soon got involved with a small group of students known as the World Hunger Committee. Being a United Methodist, I must have known that there would be a committee for that! This formally launched my work in social justice, and my personal interest in stewardship, vegetarianism and nutrition. That first year, God brought together this son of a Mennonite with a Hope graduate who was a Mennonite (perhaps the only one). I told him that I was concerned about President Carter re-instituting draft registration. He said, “Why don’t you start a peace group?” I said, “Yes.” Fortunately, I didn’t now what I was doing. So, I helped found “Hope for Peace.”

For my own concerns, I hooked up with a Viet Nam war-era draft counselor. To make a long story short, when President Reagan broke his campaign promise to end draft registration, I was identified in the Detroit News as a non-registrant. Being the only publicly-identified non-registrant in Michigan, I garnered much media attention. Eventually, the Reagan ‘get the government off your back’ regime and his Attorney General, Edwin ‘people are only hungry by choice’ Meese III, saw that out of millions of non-registrants, I was number 13 to be prosecuted. In the end, six years later, after heroically losing half a dozen pre-trial motions (with the help of a volunteer team of legal experts), my older brother dying, graduating from college, getting married, having a son, graduating from graduate school, and getting a job, I defended myself before a jury of my peers (though none of them were subject to the law I was defending myself from). I lost. But what did I win? (that is, beside three months room and board at the taxpayers’ expense) I learned to live in good conscience. I learned to refine my beliefs, even amidst great public scrutiny. I learned about civil disobedience, or as A.J. Muste, a great American pacifist and Hope College graduate would have said, “holy obedience” (in my write mind I say, “wholly obedience). I learned that the U.S. government has the absolute authority to draft any citizen regardless of conscientious objection. Any exception to this is due only to “legislative grace.” I learned to live by God’s grace even when it exceeds the grace of my government. Actually, I presented my case at the Detroit Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, in conjunction with a resolution to support young men’s consciences who were subject to draft registration laws, whether their conscience led them to register or not. The resolution failed. So, I learned to live by God’s grace even when it exceeds the grace of my denomination.

During college, after guest preaching at my home church in Detroit, someone came up afterwards and said, “I didn’t know that you were in seminary.” Nonetheless, I consider myself a theological mutt. I have drawn from many Christian traditions. I have studied Asian religions, and I am drawn to Buddhism. I am an amateur philosopher (that is, until someone pays me) and I am intrigued by the angst of existentialism. I have experienced a spiritual re-awakening in Alanon, which has given me things that my church could not. I believe that “religionism” may be the ultimate “-ism,” preventing us from experiencing the oneness of God. I may be a leading candidate to be voted, “most likely to be heretical,” by the powers that be. This is my orthodoxy. I believe that paradox lives in the neighbor of truth; and we should love our neighbors. In true Zen-like fashion, I find that irreverence is often the highest form of reverence. Among my heresies is my unabashed appreciation of “The Simpsons” (but, as the Hindus would say, “Don’t have a cow.”).

After an intense summer working for Bread for the World as an organizer, and days before my senior year began, my brother John was killed in an avalanche in Western Canada; but only after dropping out of college while on foreign study, wandering, rock-climbing and working (pretty much in that order) for a couple of years in Africa and the Western U.S. His death has given me a much greater sense of mortality and the preciousness of life each day. I actually find funerals as fruitful opportunities for reflection and renewing my sense of “living in the moment.” I have undervalued such opportunities. One of the few regrets in my life was missing three of four funerals of my grandparents.

My paternal grandparents were particularly religious. Only upon the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary (and doing the math) did I realize that my father was a near-bastard child to a teen mom. Years later, when my sister was pregnant and out-of-wedlock at age 19, my grandfather said, “The sins of the grandfather are being visited upon the granddaughter.” My thought: get over it! Well, at least, I can now understand why my gay father was closeted until his parents were either dead or demented. While I didn’t see healing in my grandparents, I saw that having an understanding of God under construction is a good thing, and sometimes demolition work is required.

That brings me to my marriage. To make a long, and usually happy, story short, my marriage of 11+ years ended 10 years ago. Nonetheless, we were blessed with two wonderful children, Joshua and Kathryn. I love being a parent. It may be the closest I’ve been able to experience what God must feel in His/Her unconditional love for us. Kate’s life is an ongoing miracle since she was born with multiple heart defects. She underwent two heart surgeries, and at one point with surgical complications, a doctor, trying to be optimistic, said, she has at least a 50/50 chance of living. A brush with death. There’s that mortality thing again. Not unlike death, I thought I had no problem with divorce – as long as it was happening to other people. Accepting our divorce was the most difficult thing I have ever dealt with.

Being out of a “relationship” for a number of years helped my re-develop my relationship with myself and with God. This came more through Alanon than church. Now, being in a relationship for eight years with a wise and beautiful woman has taught me to appreciate life as it comes, one day at a time – with both of us half single, half single parent; no longer with in-laws but ex’s. I’ve learned that God makes all things new, and often faster than I want. God never gives me what I want; God always gives me something better!

My career. God brought me to a career in public health, as I savored its roots in social justice. God brought me out of public health, re-naming me “Top Pun,” and appointing me as a jester for peace, where the pun is mightier than the sword, and justice is no yoke. My canvasses are buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and the World Wide Web. My business, by definition, is good – that is, maximizing prophets. My business is exactly on schedule; though I don’t know what the schedule is.

God brought me to Central’s neighborhood, and a few hours later, to Central. Centralites were my kind of people. Some happened to be Christians who were gay. Through my social justice work, not my public health work, God brought me to work in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This opened further opportunities to work with persons who happened to be gay. My dad “came out.” My parents divorced. God had prepared me.

I have issues with money. I aspire to live simply, gracefully facilitated by my recent poverty-level earnings. Living with less financial security has inspired me to give today because I may not be able to give later. Whatever old car I’m driving facilitates my prayer life (of course, no “auto”-biography would be complete without a mention of my car).

I am a mystic at heart, journeying as a gifted rationalist, Caucasian, male, father, lover, businessman, American, etc., etc., yada, yada, yada. While embracing the enigmatic, I hope these few words will offer you a clue as to who I am. Hopefully, these few words will offer you a clue as to who we are. One of my favorite poems is from Muhammad Ali: “Me. We.”

In all, God has never left me; except for an instant in 1981, but that’s another story…

POEM: Tracing Humanity

Tracing Humanity

They say that
You can tell
A lot
About a person
By what they do
This, of course, is on track
Still, there is a better weigh
The difference between animals and humans
That which earthly scales can’t fathom
Consider what someone won’t do
To trace their humanity
The difference between can’t and won’t
That sacred space
Where freedom occupies
And character reins
Cryptic secrets contain
Not in the telling
By lyings in the sand
But outlined simply in chalk
After words fly
And beings are grounded
You can judge one’s humanity
By where they stand
And where they won’t

Many folks assert that you are what you do.  This may be correct, but it is not the complete story of who we are.  All ethics and morality implies some restraint of power, refusing to do something that we have the power to do.  If we have no choice in the matter, no power to choose anything differently, then you are no more bound by ethics than a billiard ball.  Certainly there are aspects of our lives that are out of our control and these aspects define us to a certain extent.  In addition, our lives are defined by the choices we make, sculpting a positive manifestation of who we are, an example to others.  However, to fully trace our humanity beyond the motion of molecular physics and merely measuring external behaviors, we need to ascertain that which we will not do.  This will more fully complete the outline of our integrity and character, defining our humanity.  Because ethics and morality imply restraint, there is an irreducible type of rebellion at the heart of spirituality — the refusal to do something simply because one can.  In popular psychology, such limits are called boundaries, and boundaries are considered essential to our well being.  These boundaries, the outlines of our humanity, are marked not by words, but by our very selves, whatever skin we have in the game.  What we are willing to die for fleshes out what we are willing to live for.

Nevertheless, many “heady” folks get lost in the puzzling reality that we must voluntarily limit our freedom, in the face of questionable authority, in defining ourselves.  While capturing the rebellion at the heart of spirituality, many are extremely uncomfortable claiming any authority.  They get lost in a related conundrum: by what authority do we question authority?  I believe that the truth that is contained in this conundrum is that an irreducible amount of faith is present in skepticism.  Faith is unavoidable!  What we choose, and refuse to choose, manifests our faith to the world.  I believe that the uncertainty, or tentativeness, that pervades the human condition, is evidence that remaining open is a fundamental way of of being congruent with reality.  Of course, an irreducible amount of tentativeness need not result in perpetual indecisiveness, just openness.  This openness also speaks to a dynamism in life where we adapt and grow in response to changing conditions — may we not settle for less!

Every great spiritual tradition is aimed at openly moving beyond our self, nurturing that irreducible amount of faith present even in skepticism, and not settling for a “self” contained logic or worldview.  This process can lead to greater harmony within our own experience and within the world we live in.

When I see people caught up in recursive conundrums, cursing over and over in frustration, I find this perfectly captured by the French word “oubliette,” which is a little place of forgetting, a small, windowless room where someone is locked away, forgotten, left to go mad.  May you not forget to nurture that irreducible amount of faith present even in skepticism.  Denying that you have any faith is maddening, and the surest route to a room without a view.  Faith is unavoidable; enjoy the view.

Sometimes believing is seeing.  Changing our perspective allows to see more of reality.  Plus, how we view a situation helps form that situation.  Like I used to say to my kids, with the not uncommon reluctance to go to school, “You don’t have to go to school, you get to go to school.”  The same situation with a different attitude changes that situation.  May you find that glorious balance of serenely accepting that which you have no choice about, wholeheartedly jumping into that which you may, and stubbornly resisting that which you cannot take with serenity and a whole heart.

 

POEM: Traveling North Still

I was traveling on a journey
And it was definitely not south
I watched the mile markers grow in number
Until I found myself in a different state
Noticing that
The mile markers restarted
And lo, it was different
Though northern still
Through and through

No matter what direction you are journeying, something will change.  What a joy to travel on a journey that is good (“definitely not south”) for a long enough time to see the proverbial mile markers rack up!  Nonetheless, at some point, things will transition to another state.  In this new state, the markers of progress along your journey will change.  This typically requires a recalibration of our thinking, a new start.  While most of us hope and pray for new starts, at least somewhere along the journey, new starts, even those viewed positively, require effort and some re-orientation to new conditions.  This poem addresses the issue of integrating new states and experiences into a coherent and positive larger journey, such is our life.  Faced with constant change, we can still keep our eye on the prize.  There are things in life that can be counted on.  Natural laws can be uncovered through science and meditation on the existential realities of humanity’s place in the world (that is, through physics and metaphysics).  There is a true north that transcends any human timeframe or temporal set of conditions (“states”).  Regardless, of if or how we think of true north it is still.  Perhaps most comforting, it can provide reliable beacons in which to frame and map our life in a coherent way, “through and through.”  Seeing our various journeys as a coherent AND positive story is somewhat trickier.  Given that most of reality is outside our control, that is, we can’t change it, can we view this “helplessness” as a positive thing?  I, for one, regard a persistent order to the world as a magnificently beneficial state of affairs.  On the other hand, that persistently elusive free will and subjectivity at the center of our being carves out a space as delicious as it is bewildering in which we get to reign ourselves into this world.  This is that space that is irreducibly ours.  We are free to act within it and act out into the world.  We have soul responsibility for these free acts, that is, that of which we have control, namely, ourselves (or at least that “part” of ourselves).  Since, this freedom seems to define what it means to be humans, many focus most of their attention to this aspect of our being.  These are the “way existential” people.  Many others just have a way overblown sense of what they are in control of!  Unfortunately, if one does not balance out their focus on freedom with an adequate understanding of the larger part of the universe, then their freedom will be running blindly, ignorantly into the rest of reality (that which we cannot change) with painful results.  By simply making note of those thing which stay the same regardless of what we do, we can avoid a lot of hurt.  Of course, teasing out the sometimes subtle differences between what we can change and what we cannot change is the stuff of wisdom.  This all rather succinctly captured in the serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

May you have the wisdom to make a difference, in your own life, and in the world around you.

POEM: Subconscious Not What You Think

Don’t bother pondering the subconscious
It’s not what you think

This funny poem is a reminder that much of what is life is not directly accessible by us.  Most of what goes on in our bodies is outside of our consciousness and cannot be put under direct control of our will.  This is a good thing!  Otherwise, we would have to spend all of our time trying to digest our food along with a million other bodily processes that happen without the benefit of our puny consciousnesses.  Further, even the state of our mind is largely outside the realm of consciousness.  It takes a lifetime of attention and reflection to get a decent grasp on our own mind , and how it is affected by our own emotions and external conditions and situations.  Western civilization is obsessed with control.  The idea that we are not in control of all the things let alone most of the things in our life can be maddening for many people.  Reflecting on this lack of control is not an exercise in futility, but gets to the heart of wisdom, that there are larger forces at work in our lives, and even in our life force or spirit itself.  Learning to recognize those areas of our life that we don’t have any control over is just as important as recognizing those areas of our life that we do have control over.  Courage applied to beating your head against the wall is foolishness.  Not being grateful for all the good things in our life that we didn’t bring about, well, seems ungrateful.  We stand on the shoulders of others, and we are steeped in a good creation that God gave us.  Back to consciousness!  It is commonplace to reduce consciousness to intellect.  This is a mistake of the highest order.  For instance, the reality that we need to muster courage in order to deal with the things that we can totally transcends the mere concept and workings of intellect.  Wherever courage comes from, it strikes me that it is a much deeper place than just logic or mental analysis.  Much of these above sentiments are captured in the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Amen!