Trust Issues

St. Francis

St. Francis

If I had a blog, today I would write about the reason I struggle with faith.

While I was doing chores this morning, it occurred to me that it might be useful to give you some insight into the reason I am just now getting on board with the concept of faith and the answer is, in some ways, simple: I have long-standing trust issues with God.

I grew up attending the Episcopal church and was exposed to all the basic tenets of Christianity from an early age. I was taught that God was all-seeing and all-powerful and that the basis of our worship was love for Him and for one another. I was comfortable with that for about seven years or, put more succinctly, until my mother started having migraines.

Mom didn’t just have daily headaches. She had crippling pain that came with nausea and vomiting. It incapacitated her for days at a time and frequently ended in a period of hospitalization, all of which terrified me. I was afraid Mom was going to die from the pain and that the center of my universe would collapse, leaving me alone in a life of unending grief.

A Light in Dark Places

A Light in Dark Places

During that time, I prayed for hours each night but the Mom’s headaches still came. It didn’t take long for my pleas to turn to anger and I raged against God. I challenged His existence, begged him for a sign that He was there, and even cursed His name. I expected lightning to strike me down, but even my fury brought no response.

Table in the Wilderness

Table in the Wilderness

As I matured, I began to look for other paths that might lead me to an understanding of The Divine and I found connections in the tenets of Buddhism, Native American spirituality, and eventually in the nature-based worship of pantheists. I didn’t find a solution to Mom’s pain, but I did find comfort in these other paths, in worship that came more naturally to my wilderness-loving soul.

As a young adult, I made several abortive attempts to return to the Christian faith, once going so far as to pursue a career in the priesthood. A disastrous confluence of events derailed that pursuit and left me feeling betrayed; as much by Christians as by their God, and so I left the church behind. This time, I thought, for good.

The Rose Window

The Rose Window

To say I was surprised when I started having synchronicities with a Christian tone (see my blog The Evidence of Things Not Seen), would be a vast understatement. This time I didn’t see it as a call to go rushing back to the church, but rather as The Divine speaking in one of its many voices; a voice that came just as I found myself in need of the gift of faith.

And so it goes. Each day I remind myself that I can put my worries in the care of The Divine and all will go according to plan. My desire is to integrate the concept of faith into my spirituality, which exists outside any one religion. Ironically, the challenge exists not because I am unfamiliar with Christianity, but because I know it well. It is harder to gain new a perspective on the familiar than it is to start anew. I will have to take to heart the words of Margaret Wheatly, in her work A Simpler Way:

Land Ho

Land Ho

“Healing waters will cover the land, giving birth to new life, burying forever the ancient, rusting machines of my past understandings. And on those waters I will set sail to places I now only imagine. There I will be blessed with new visions and new magic. I will feel once again like a creative contributor to this mysterious world. But for now, I wait. An act of faith. Land ho.”

 

The Divine

If I had a blog, today I would write about the reason I don’t refer to The Divine as “God.”

My Altar

My Altar

I am not an atheist. I believe more than ever that behind the thin veneer of our mortal lives exists a divine power; a creator of life and guiding light for those who choose a spiritual path. To Christians this is God, to Muslims it is Allah. Buddhists look to the wisdom of The Buddha and Hindus look to Brahman and his lesser deities. Native Americans worship The Great Spirit (who has different incarnations and names in different tribes) and Pagans worship an entire pantheon, reminiscent of ancient Greece and Rome, that is overseen by both God and Goddess. Who do I worship? That’s an excellent question.

Throughout my life, I have explored many of the world’s “Great Religions” and some smaller sects as well. I have given communion in the Episcopal church, spoken with Navajo Grandmothers, been brought to my knees by the holy drums of the Lakota pow-wow, called The Goddess to my forest altar, and meditated in the way of Buddhist monks. From each experience I have gleaned wisdom, solace, and perspective on my spiritual life and so, I cannot claim one path as the only one for me. When I pray, sometimes I hear the voice of Lakota holy man Black Elk, sometimes I feel the gentle touch of Mother Earth, and yes, sometimes I hear the voice of the Christian God, but I believe they are all different aspects of the same being, one which I can only describe as “The Divine,” “The Powers That Be,” or my “Higher Power.”

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis

This Being, the spirit that flung the galaxies into space,  planted the living seeds that became the inhabitants of planet Earth, and begat our spiritual yearning is one being. One being with many names, many faces, and many voices, each tuned to ring true in the hearts and minds of a thousands of different cultures. Call it what you will, but I believe that those of us who are seeking spiritual wisdom are all worshiping the same great power. In the end, the name by which we call our god is much less important than the belief in a great and benevolent power that watches over us day and night.

Past, Present, and Future

If I had a blog, today I would write about living in the present.

Granny Holly & Ava Isobella

Granny Holly & Ava Isobella

As a seeker of spiritual growth, I have spent a lot of time considering the value of living only in the present moment. A lot of energy has surrounded this idea lately and I admit it has its values, to be sure. If you stay in the present, you can’t worry about the future or get lost in regrets of the past; you drink deeply from the world around you in the present; and time itself seems to slow down when you are focused only on the moment in which you live. Living in the present is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism, a philosophy I greatly admire, but after careful consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only do we need an awareness of the past and the future to be whole, learning to balance life in three separate “time zones” is one of humanity’s great spiritual tasks, one of the reasons The Universe gave us knowledge of time.

Looking Ahead

Looking Ahead

Humans have a unique relationship with time compared to other species: Not only are we aware of the past and future, we can recall the past and imagine the future in great detail, then use them as springboards to aspire to better things. Humans were telling stories of their ancestors well before written language came into being and the preservation of such memoirs inspired us to develop a more permanent way to preserve our histories for generations to come. If no one thought about the past, the written word might not exist. Our sense of the future inspired our species to invent, create, and navigate towards what we believed were better lives. It is the motivation to make a better future that caused our ancestors to ask, “What lies beyond those mountains?” and the pull of the years ahead drew us from our African roots into every corner of the world.

Philosophers are right when they warn us of the dangers of yon and yore, but cutting ourselves off from our beginning and end is not the answer. The answer lies in learning to manage the pitfalls of remembering the past and knowing we have a future. It is like having a chronic illness (like my insulin-dependent diabetes): You can’t make it go away, but you can live well if you learn how to manage your condition. We must learn to let go of the regrets of the past and move forward, then resist the temptation of living only for an imaginary future. Finding the balance is the challenge laid before us when we were placed here at our birth.

Four Generations

Four Generations

Oddly enough, I have found the validation for my argument in a favorite Christmas tale. We may be months away from reindeer and sleigh bells, but Charles Dickens’ prose keeps coming to mind: At the end of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s night with the spirits, he makes a vow to “Honor Christmas in my heart and keep it throughout the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” Our challenge, then, is to live in all three realities, gleaning the best of past, present, and future as we move through our lives. When we make the most of the days that are past, the day we are now alive, and of all the days yet to be, we will have the resources we need to face whatever things may come.

Where No One Stands Alone

If I had a blog, today I would write about my journey towards faith.

The Rose Window

The Rose Window

Faith is not an easy get. People who as been part of any religion or spiritual path has been confronted by this five-letter word and it seems like a simple one, but throughout the ages, no one has offered a concise definition of the word. Our family is one part Episcopalian and one part Baptist, so growing up, I got a full range of Christian doctrine, all of which admonished me to have faith in God. As I matured, I wanted more that the Sunday-school version of Abraham and Issac to guide me. I wanted to know how I could have the kind of faith that would relieve my constant struggle with fear and give me confidence in the face of life’s uncertainty. I couldn’t find these answers in The Bible, so I widened my search to to include other religions and spiritual paths.

Table in the Wilderness

Table in the Wilderness

I found many uplifting, soul-healing perspectives in the spirituality of Buddhists, Native Americans, Druids, and Pantheists. I drank deeply from the nature-wisdom of Thoreau, Emerson, John Burroughs and Sigurd Olson and had powerful experiences in the wilderness, but I still couldn’t find the key to unlock the concept of faith. I prayed, meditated, journaled, and went on vision quests; joined churches, left churches, and very nearly entered seminary, but with middle-age fast-approaching, my quest seemed to be in vain. Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to crack the code of this mysterious concept. Maybe I was not to be a “person of faith.”

As often happens, I started to find a trail of breadcrumbs soon after my frantic searching ended. Once I decided to accept my “failure,” things began to happen. In July, I was running the farm for two weeks while Mom and Dad were on a horseback-riding trip out west. My first week alone was fantastic. I had energy, creativity, and tons of motivation. I cleaned and organized the storage room in our house, cleaned six months of bedding out of the chicken house and cleaned it stem to stern, and did a deep cleaning of the horse barn. I was on fire. In the midst of my power-surge, synchronicities abounded. The Universe was speaking directly to me, leaving me no doubt that whether you call it God, Yahweh, Allah, The Goddess, Nature, or The Great Spirit, there is a divine being out there somewhere and it knows us as individuals. I was on a spiritual high. Then I came the crash…

Over that first weekend, the Ego, the inner voice that gives rise to my doubts and fears, got the better of me. I can’t say exactly what triggered my fall, but by Saturday evening I had fallen back into my old, fear-laden mind-set and my body responded in kind. It was utter gastric rebellion for thirty-six hours. As soon as I was well enough to contemplate, I tried to uncover the source of my illness. I compared my thoughts and moods over the last week to those of the weekend. Somewhere along the way I lost something, something essential. Late Sunday evening the answer came: I had lost faith. I’d had seven days of trusting The Universe, conversing through signs and dreams in a way that told me, “Whatever happens, you will have the resources you need to meet the situation at hand,” and then I let the Ego take it away. If I could have gotten off the couch, I would have leaped up and shouted, “Eureka!” Not only did I start feeling better, but at last I had a clue to the meaning of faith. I had finally struck gold.

I don’t want to be a zealot who proclaims they’ve been given the secrets of the universe, but I think I have a small piece of the cosmic puzzle: To be a person of faith, you must believe that there is a divine being that knows you as an individual and wants to communicate with you and it is saying, “I’ve got your back.” It doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen, or that you’ll get everything you want, but it is an assurance that when the hard times come, you’ll be given what you need, not only to survive, but to find peace, comfort, and joy in the days that follow.

No One Stands Alone

No One Stands Alone

The synchronicity that finally pulled this together for me was a gospel song that kept coming up on my Pandora radio station. For three days, every time I was in the car, I heard the song Where No One Stands Alone. I was familiar with the song, but had never really listened to the words. When I did, I knew I was on the right path at last.

Once I stood in the night with my head bowed low
In the darkness, as black as could be
And my heart felt alone
And I cried oh Lord
Don’t hide your face from me

Hold my hand all the way
Every hour every day
From here to the grave
I know
Take my hand
Let me stand
Where no one stands alone.

 

All Day Singin’ and Dinner on the Ground

My Grandad's Homeplace

My Granddad’s Homeplace

If I had a blog, today, Independence Day, I would write about the gift the Founding Fathers gave me when they made Freedom of Religion my inalienable right. I am a religious anomaly: I draw strength from Buddhism, Native American Spirituality, pantheism, my own mystical experiences, and, yes, Southern Gospel Music. People who know my pagan tendencies simply can’t believe my Gospel Favorites have a playlist of their own, next to Celtic Women, Carlos Nakai, and Jimmy Buffet, but they are there – in great abundance. I have the The Blackwood Brothers, the Statler Brothers, The Statesmen, The Cathedrals, The Happy Goodmans, and more than a hundred other singers who have inspired me over the years. I know group personnel the way some people know players on sports teams and I if you give me a subject, I can think of a gospel song to match.

Sunday Morning Meeting-Time

Sunday Morning Meeting-Time

This morning, July 4th, I woke up with “I’m Free Again,” by Reverend Vesphew (Vep) Ellis, and it occurred to me that , more often than not, I have a Southern Gospel song on my mind. Why would a liberal, tree-hugging, neo-pagan know the songs in the Broadman Hymnal front-to-back and listen to Pandora’s Bill & Gloria Gaither gospel station? Well, first of all, how can you feel anything but love for a craft whose artists have names like: Vesphew Ellis, Denver Crumpler, Hovie Lister, and Vestal Goodman? Those are names that demand attention and pique one’s curiosity and they don’t disappoint. The artists who were called to sing this music are good, and true, and full of a kind of  faith rarely found in our cynical world. A kind of faith I desperately need. These songs were originally sung in the little country churches that formed the nucleus of most communities in the early 20th century. The tradition of Southern Gospel music developed as performance music, tailored  to quartet singing, and as “convention songs” that were popular at revivals and singing schools across the South. Often these songs would be the entertainment for an entire day of music and homemade pot-luck, called an, “All Day Singin’ With Dinner on the Ground.”  The music was an eclectic blend of traditional hymns, negro spirituals, country, bluegrass, and a cappella traditions. From the 1920s through the 1950s Southern Gospel music grew to new heights of popularity. Artists toured with full bands, drawing crowds of all denominations and faiths. In the 1990’s, Southern Gospel had a resurgence of popularity thanks to Gospel magnate Bill Gaither, who gave many of the original stars of Southern Gospel a second round of popularity as they reached their golden years.

My Grandmother Ruby as a high-school senior

My Grandmother Ruby as a high-school senior

But why do I love these songs? They speak to my need for comfort and safety in an increasingly unsafe world. Even though I find courage in the drum-beats of a Native American pow-wow, solace in the celebration of Longest Night, and The Divine in the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, there is something familiar about these songs. They are the songs my family has sung since they first settled in the Ozarks. They are the lullabies my mother and grandmother sang to me at bedtime, and the first thing that comes to mind when I’ve lost my way.  Hold me fast, let me stand, In the hollow of Thy hand; Keep me safe ’til the storm passes by. 1     Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home. 2   Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies; Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me. 3

Mom (left) and her Southern Gospel Trio (1990)

Mom (left) and her Southern Gospel Trio (1990)

I am proud to know these songs. In a way, they are the “songs of my people,” a part of my heritage and a part of my spiritual DNA. They live within me and keep alive the pillars of faith who gave them to me as a birthright. I will never be a church-goer or a Bible-pounding fundamentalist, but how lucky am I to live in a country that lets me have it all. I can love my Southern Gospel music, be uplifted by the faith of women like Vestal Goodman, and also revere the words of Lakota Sioux shaman, Black-Elk, search for enlightenment on the Buddhist path, and touch the hand of The Divine beneath the aurora on a lake in the North Woods. Thank you Founding Fathers for giving me Freedom to worship as I choose. You have given me the greatest gift a country can give. Happy Independence Day!