Saturday, July 26, 2008

On Faith, Luck and Four-Leaf Clovers

Yesterday on the golf course, I found a four-leaf clover. Walking along through the dewy grass (it was about 8:00 in the morning), I looked down and there it was, peeking up at me through the tangle of grass.

Every spring and summer, I look for four-leaf clovers and I find them. It’s simply a matter of looking - one of those “seek and ye shall find” things. And I always take it as a sign. Of what, I’m not sure. It certainly didn’t improve my golf swing yesterday. But it does remind me, in a funny sort of way, that I am not alone and for me, that’s the big thing.

After my mother died, I found several 4’s and even some 5’s. She is still with me, I concluded. On the golf course where my grandfather used to play, I frequently find them. He is there, I say to myself. And what’s so good about not being alone? Like faith, it reminds me that I’m part of a greater whole, connected to something beyond myself, even if it’s just a part of nature, that’s enough, too.

I have a neighbor and she believes in luck and God. She believes that God is overall and she believes she is held in His will. She also believes in the wheel of fortune – that sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. I told her how to find 4-leaf clovers and she found a patch of four and fives behind her house. Almost forty of them. Talk about luck and she is, in fact, one of the luckiest and most giving and most thankful people I know. Now she finds them everywhere.

Four-leaf clovers are everywhere if you just know how to spot them. Someone actually taught me how. “Just look for the anomaly,” she said and there they were. Four leaves sticking out from among the their three-leafed brothers and sisters. It’s not about luck really – luck is the meaning we attach to the exception or the coincidence. Perhaps faith is the meaning we attach to the ordinary, day-by-day stuff of living. It’s about meaning and that’s what I’m still looking for, on the golf course and everywhere else.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Confessions of a Fledgling Churchgoer

This is a sermon I am going to give at my little church next Sunday. My minister was kind enough to ask me to speak. Here's what I came up with. What do you think?

About three years ago, I was standing on a beach in Westerly, Rhode Island on a very windy, drizzly day. It’s good that there was a mist in the air because I was crying. The reason I was crying was because I was missing someone terribly. And the person I was missing was the Lord.

“Go to church,” said a voice in my head.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Go to church,” the voice grew louder.
“I can’t , I can’t,” I cried. The picture of a small white church with green shutters came to mind. It was St. Mark’s.
“Just try,” said the voice. “Just try.”

Well, here I am, standing before you all, amazed at both myself and God. The reason I am amazed is because many years before, I had sworn I would have nothing to do with God or churches ever again.

You see, I had been in a fundamentalist cult called The Way International from the time I was fourteen until I was twenty-nine. The leader of the group hated churches. He hated religion in general, except his own brand of Christianity which taught you could basically commit any sin you wanted so long as you prayed about it and quoted Scripture. That was his definition of grace – playing God for a fool.

Well, like the Scripture says “Be not deceived, God will not be mocked. For what a man soweth , that also shall he reap.” The leader of the cult, a man named Dr. Wierwille, (he wasn’t a real doctor), perverted the Word of God and taught us to do a lot of bad stuff – the usual stuff you hear about in cults – sex, fraud, mind control. We learned it all and the whole time, I thought, crazy as it seems, that we were doing the will of God.

So, I reaped what I sowed and the whole thing came crashing down on my head after fifteen years. Spiritually and physically abused, I had nowhere to turn. I was not allowed to leave. It wasn’t that they were holding a gun to my head. No, cults hold people captive by instilling complete and total dependence on the leader. The three D’s of cultic control are dependence, deception and dread. Cult leaders capture the minds of their followers, just as mine did, and I was helpless to act.

Now, the Doctor always taught that seminaries were the breeding ground of Satan so as soon as I left The Way, I hightailed it for the devil and went to divinity school. It’s as if I was on a great boat that got shipwrecked and I got washed up onto the shores of Yale Divinity School. I was a wreck. I tried to go to services there but every time someone opened a Bible, it was like shouting “incoming” to a war veteran. I felt like diving under the nearest pew. I skipped my classes on the Old and New Testament (since I was very familiar with each) and immersed myself in the classics. My mind woke up. I started to think for myself.

In The Way, we weren’t supposed to think for ourselves. Cults don’t allow followers to doubt but I am curious by nature. I’m a doubter. But the more I doubted, the worse I felt. I was told I was not doing the will of God. I was told I was possessed. I was hungering for truth but leaving The Way would be tantamount to giving my soul to the devil. I was terrified to leave. If it wasn’t for my mother, who faithfully hung in there with me all those years, even when I accused her of being a messenger of Satan, I would not be standing before you here today.

Fast forward to St. Mark’s. Once I summoned up the courage to walk through these doors, I heard the minister preach and one of the first things he said was “Don’t park your mind at the door.” That was a refreshing change. Maybe this would work, I thought. Of course, I stumbled through the liturgy, books and papers flying everywhere, not knowing when to stand or when to sit, and mostly doing it with tears streaming down my cheeks. I was crying again. But this time from joy, this time from the feeling that I was home.

For the last three years I have had the privilege of facilitating the woman’s meditation and journaling group. I guess old habits die hard and I was programmed in the cult that I had to be involved. But I didn’t want to be too involved. I desperately needed the fellowship of other women, spiritual women, who were on the journey, seeking and loving God as much as I did. You see, it was really a selfish thing. I have been the one who has benefited the most.

I went to Bible study and encountered for the first time people actually expressing doubts about the Scripture (they did that all the time in seminary but I paid no attention. I had shut off my heart to the Word at that point. It’s amazing that they let me stay, at all, isn’t it?) Anyway, at our little Bible studies, I heard individuals speak their own minds and express their own opinions and raise their own questions. And they did this in a loving way. They weren’t afraid that the wrath of God would come flying down on their heads.

It seems like a long time since that day on the beach and an even longer time since my time in the cult, over twenty years, actually. I have two children who were born into the cult who are now grown and pursuing their own dreams, one in film, the other in law. I have just completed a memoir about my experience called Losing the Way.

In closing, what I really want to say is thank you. Thank you to St. Mark’s for opening your hearts and arms to me and allowing me to question and doubt and do dishes and not do dishes, sell cheese and not sell cheese and not damn me to hell for any of the above. I have been most fortunate to have found such a treasure right down the street from where I live, a place where I can bring all of me to love God with all my heart, my soul, my strength AND my mind. Thank you so much.