Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I've been everywhere, man

I've been putting together a new packet application for residencies for clinical pastoral experiences and rewriting some of the essays I'd done a year ago. This is actually a revision of both that one and one I'd written originally for my admission into seminary six years ago. I'm pleased with it.

I’m like the trucker in Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” only on a theological rather than a geographic level.  My parents were Seventh-Day Adventist—after my mother died my dad returned to his native Methodism—and I was raised that way.  They attended one of the German denominations, which is a pretty strict sect, although they weren’t as observant as they might have been—we ignored the ban on meat, for instance, and I don’t remember ever praying over a meal except when someone from the church was there.  My sister was baptized among them but I never was.

            When I was allowed to make my own choices regarding churches I opted not to attend one.  I’d read about Thomas Jefferson being an agnostic, and since that seemed to mean he didn’t attend church, that’s what I was.  Adventist churches can be a dismal affair, or at least they were in rural New York in the 1960s.  Agnosticism was attractive:  like most young adults, I was uncertain of a lot of things, and it seemed only right to question a divine presence along with everything else.

            My first wife was Lutheran.  We attended church a few times a year with her family.  When Barbara and I split I underwent a profound questioning of the meaning of my life, what I was intended for, how I was intended to live, and where I stood in relation to everyone else.  After a brief flirtation with nihilism and atheism, denying there was a purpose to any of it, I fell into radicality.  I’d been studying Jesuit education for a class, and the intense devotion to god suddenly made sense to me and seemed right.  The ritual and drama of the mass was comforting, as was the prescription that god had to accept me in return for confessing my sins.  Like Frost said of home, heaven was where, when you went there, they had to take you in. 

            Catholicism didn’t stick beyond two intense years.  Too many questions, too many strictures, too much solidity and order.  I’d had enough of order, I wanted chaos.  But in New York, where I was, even if you weren’t Jewish you were a Jew, and I became attracted to the controlled chaos of Jewish women. I was really attracted to the symbolism and mystery of Judaism.  I lived eventually with two Jews at different times, one Reformed and the other Orthodox and a sabra, and kept a kosher house with each.  That was an interesting experience, looking to the domestic to for the order daily worldly experience denied. 

            Eventually the desire for uncertainty moved me out of an apartment and into the streets.  I spent several months in New York City, alternating between people’s couches, some people’s beds, and the safe and relatively warm crawlspace beneath a fenced-in trailer on the Grand Central Overpass.  I visited the Hare Krishna kitchens downtown often and the Sri Chinmoy kitchens in Brooklyn, and listened to both while they filled my ears with chanting and my belly with rice.  I eventually wound up at the Krishna commune near the Newburgh airport for a month, sorting out what remained of my life and trying, unsuccessfully, to get sober.  My parents bought me a station wagon and I disappeared for three years into the US, visiting communes and churches, reservations and tiny communities.  I loved those years:  they were full of exploration, especially spiritual exploration.  I attended Rainbow Gatherings and Powwows, Festivals of Light, ashrams and intentional communities.  My consciousness expanded, as did my intake of drugs, which I saw as gatekeepers to the Absolute. Or something like that. 

            I read up on Buddhism all the time.  I tried peyote with a small Native Church congregation.  I dropped acid as often as possible, consulted Mescalito, took vision quests and Long Walks.  When I was camped for a month atop Wildcat Mountain in the Catskills I had a vision that involved Brother Blue, a storyteller I’d studied with.  I kept a milk crate in the back of the car full of books by Alan Watts, Stephen Diamond, Ram Dass, Carlos Castenada, Sun Bear, D.T. Suzuki, Krishnamurti, Robert Thurman, Robert Pirsig.  My copy of Gary Snyder’s The Old Ways is so well-thumbed I have to hold it together with a rubber band. 

            I never made my intended goal of Arcosanti in Cordes Lakes, Arizona.  Eventually, however, I found my way to sesshin at Dhammapada in Montreal where the abbot, a tiny wizened Japanese man, explained my deficiencies to me in terms even I could understand.  When I left there I was humbled, but no closer to finding some cogent spiritual sense.  I hung out with Santerians I knew back home, kept my head shaved, went to work in a health food store in Woodstock where I met up with cross-country skiing devotees of Ramtha and the community-sharing confrontational lovers of a man named Gavin who called himself Bayard Hora, and converted my upstairs two-room apartment into an electricity-less shrine to discipline.  I ran the four miles each day into work and back in the snow and cold, and eventually found my way back on the road, where I discovered I really belonged. 

            When my mother insisted I either join the Army or attend graduate school, I knew she was onto something. In Mankato, Minnesota I met my second, or as she puts it, my last wife.  Jayne was Methodist at that time, soon to return to Lutheranism and finally to settle among the UCC, and after we married and moved back to New York, she started carting me along to different churches, insisting that I ought to be grateful for the life I’d been given, even if it wasn’t everything I wanted.  I made contact with two delightful Dutch Reformed ministers who made me realize it was possible to be both clergy and relevant, and read Daniel Berrigan. 

            In 1996, returned to the Midwest, and getting a handle on both my drinking and my hitherto undiagnosed depression—I am a poster boy for the wonders of Prozac—I found the White Bear UU Church online.  I’d attended a few UU services back east in my wandering years and hadn’t been terribly impressed.  But something about the photos on the White Bear website suggested I should give this a try.  My first sermon by Christa Wolf, the interim minister, used the terms “Jungian” and “eschatological,” and hearing those I knew I was home.

            Years later I joined a different congregation in Menomonie, Wisconsin, smaller, in greater need of help, and trained as a Commissioned Lay Leader.  I became more and more involved in the ministerial aspect of the CLL position and had an affinity for it. Like Cash’s trucker intimates, Unitarian Universalism may not be where I stay.  I might continue to move on and find my journey takes me elsewhere.  The congregation I served housed Christian UUs, UU atheists, and UU devotees to Kryon, a channeled being. I came to love the difficulty of making current events relevant and comprehendible to their different sensibilities and found a calling among them. I’ve since left that congregation to serve another in the Twin Cities where the makeup is composed of secular and Christian humanists.


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