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Let Our Lives Speak

Michele Shields
On Alternatives (March 2022)
Inward Light

Within the circumstances of our lives, the Light meets us. As we recognize the Light’s presence in the events of our lives, we see the lived testimony of the Light in our experience.

Life seems to be a series of deaths and resurrections. There are losses, like “little deaths,” transitions, and new life in the aftermath. One of my first experiences of this was the death of my first marriage in my twenties. I could not understand what was happening to my husband, who was acting very strangely. I sought advice from a psychologist friend, who recognized that he had severe bipolar disease. He had a psychotic break from reality.

He clearly needed help, which he would not seek on his own. In agony, I went through the legal procedures to have him involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he refused treatment. While there, he told me that he no longer loved me and wanted a divorce. How painful that was to hear! With professional help, I realized that this marriage was over. It took a year for the divorce to become final. My parents, brother, and two friends were very supportive of me. All of this was traumatic because I was young and idealistic, having grown up in a stable family. This was completely beyond my previous experience. I thought that if one tried hard enough, one could make a marriage work. I thought marriage vows meant a lifetime of committed relationship. My belief system was shattered. I felt like a failure.

Being an ordained female United Methodist minister in a 2,000-member church in the South compounded the difficulty. To give my husband and me privacy, I had not told others what was happening. My circle of confidentiality consisted of my family and two friends. The United Methodist Church had a clergy “hearing” about my divorce, where I explained what had happened and the hierarchy granted that I would not have my ordination papers revoked for being divorced. There was still a stigma for divorced clergy. I was appointed to begin a new church from scratch with no training and only my salary for two years. It was an impossible task. The transition was long and difficult. However, I began healing with professional help and was led by the Light into education and training in hospital chaplaincy. I earned a Doctorate in Ministry. At the same time, I became certified in hospital chaplaincy and certified as a professional Clinical Pastoral Educator to train clergy and faith leaders in Spiritual Care. I found my new field of service to others very life-giving and satisfying. This was a resurrection and new life.

I have experienced many other deaths and resurrections: injury, surgery, getting remarried, change of employment, moving, deaths of close relatives, and retiring. Most of these “little deaths” entailed grieving, adjusting, and moving into a new life. Ultimately these experiences prepare us for our own death and resurrection when we all may transition into an afterlife in the Light.

New life does not necessarily mean that everything is restored. Life is quite different after significant loss. The story of Jacob at the Jabbok Ford illustrates the truth of this. Bringing his family and animals, Jacob set out for the land belonging to his brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of his birthright. In order to appease his brother, he sent ahead servants with his animals to greet and gift Esau before Jacob met his brother again. Throughout that night, Jacob wrestled with a man who he assumed to be an angel, a messenger from God. The angel dislocated Jacob’s hip as they struggled. Jacob would not let the angel go unless the angel blessed him. Then, the angel blessed Jacob by changing his name from Jacob, meaning “he deceives,” to Israel, which means “he struggles with God.” So it was that Jacob, now walking with a limp, was lamed and renamed.

We also are transformed by these struggles in life and given a new identity. Who we are is no longer the same. We “walk with a limp” or bear the life scars of our experiences. The Source of Hope would have us learn and gain perspective and wisdom upon reflection, perhaps even deepening our understanding and empathy toward others. We may become uniquely qualified to pastorally listen to others who also struggle. Henri Nouwen calls “wounded healers” those whose wounds have been bound up and are led to serve others as our brothers and sisters.

When I became a Quaker, the Clearness Committee asked me why I wanted to leave the Methodists and become a member of Honolulu Monthly Meeting. Partly in jest, I replied that I had heard too many bad sermons; it was
time for some silence. A deeper reason was that I had been led by the Light through different spiritual experiences and understandings over time. The Light had been forming and shaping my life from before I was even conscious. In fact, Grace constantly flows into our lives, even when we are vulnerable, helpless babies, long before we are even aware of it. It never stops. We are co-creators of our lives with the Source of All. This Source lovingly persuades and lures us into new possibilities, as we are open to them. The Light does not control us or pre-ordain what happens. At every moment we are free to attend to this Inner Guide and to choose what is good. If we are unsure of the Light’s guidance, we are invited to stand still in the Light until we gain clarity. This may entail waiting to hear “a still, small voice” (I Kings 19:12), investigation on our own part, and guidance from others individually or in a clearness committee.

In our day, the Spirit who guides us is maybe not as obvious as the signs which came to the Israelites when they were traveling in the wilderness – a pillar of fire by night and a column of cloud by day. Today, we do not look for a message emblazoned in skywriting or written on a movie marquee or found in a note inside a bottle washed up on the shore. Author Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Our leadings give us a sense of traveling to the place just right and of peace. Leadings that belong to us may be challenging, and yet satisfying. In the middle of difficulties and complexities, we may seek God’s voice and discover that we are not alone. Our Companion is more intimate to us than we are to our own selves.

Being led to serve others in faith communities and hospitals gave me enthusiasm. At times, it made me feel that I was in the right place at the right time. However, it was not easy to be led to serve in places where I was not welcome as a female in the South. I was once going to be sent to serve in two little country communities of faith. A death threat from a misguided member of one of those communities triggered wiser people to send me elsewhere. Way opens or it doesn’t, and that is also a means by which the Light guides, opening some doors and closing others. Sometimes following a leading can be discouraging and difficult, as it was for me. Yet, my sense of being led, as guided and affirmed in community, was foundational.

When we were attenders at Honolulu Monthly Meeting, my husband and I went to a week-long retreat at Silver Wattle Quaker Centre in Australia. This environmentally green retreat center was surrounded by wilderness, mobs of kangaroos, and a huge, dried-up lakebed, which was an effect of climate change. The retreat was called “Becoming a Fuller Quaker,” led by author David Johnson.

The teaching, worship sharing, Quaker Speak videos, and discussions were about Early Quakerism in Britain. There were daily Meetings for Worship, as well as a period of silence for twenty-four hours. About fourteen Friends were involved, mostly active members of Australia Yearly Meeting. We studied Friends’ early understandings and practices of peace, equality, community, simplicity, integrity, and stewardship, and how these were modeled upon Early Christianity.

It was exciting because it reminded me of what I originally thought as a thirteen-year-old reading the New Testament for the first time. How far the institutional Church had gotten away from these practices by cultural appropriation over time! I remembered what theologian Roberta Hestenes said, “When the Church marries the spirit of the age, she becomes a widow in the next generation.” (Today, Christian Nationalism exemplifies how one part of Christianity has blended with militarism, hyper patriotism, and American exceptionalism.)

On the retreat, I felt drawn to Quakerism with a new enthusiasm for following this way of life. My spirit was refreshed and a rekindled thirst to learn and grow was born within me. For a long time before this retreat, my prayer life had already moved toward silence, listening to the Inward Christ, solitary worship, lectio divina, centering prayer, and dwelling in nature. Here I found serious people, seeking spiritual growth in the Religious Society of Friends.

However, I grieved deeply as I envisioned leaving the United Methodist Church after fifty years, forty of those years as an ordained minister. David Johnson encouraged me to journal and write a goodbye. I wrote about what I would miss, what I would not miss, and what I would take with me (i.e., certain friendships I would continue, the good I experienced in Methodist-shaped Christianity and ministry, etc.) For the first time, I said aloud to the group of Friends on retreat, “I am a Quaker.” I had a new spiritual home.

In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, God sometimes speaks to people through dreams, which may be mystical experiences. Once I dreamed that I was on the balcony of a high-rise building overlooking a beach and the ocean. Suddenly, a giant wave of a tsunami washed over me. In its retreat, the ocean current carried me out miles from shore. After the ocean calmed and I took in what had happened, I realized that I would have to swim back to shore, which I could not see. I sensed the direction to go in and began to swim. In real life, I have done many ocean swim races. In my dream, it seemed to be an impossibly long distance to get back to shore. I thought I should try. I swam at a pace I could sustain and eventually, grew tired. The water was warm and salty, as it is where I live now in Hawai’i. I feared that I would not make it back because I could not see the shore. I turned over to backstroke and had a moment of clarity. I did not have to swim continuously; I could effortlessly float and rest. I did not have to try so hard. The warm, womb-like water would hold, embrace, and buoy me. I was in the water and the Light was in the water. And the Light was the water.

In my dream, I was enveloped with Light. Upon hearing this, my Spiritual Director pointed me toward a poem, “The Avowal” by Denise Levertov:

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
. . . float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Please go to www.allpoetry.com/The-Avowal for the entire poem.  ~~~

Michele Shields is Director of Spiritual Care Services Emerita and Research Scholar at University of California San Francisco Medical Center. She is a member of Honolulu Friends Meeting (PacYM).


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