Sharing our Experience of God
January 15, 2017
Three years ago when my husband and I first came to this church there was a study group reading Anthony B. Robinson’s book entitled, “Transforming Congregational Culture. “ I read the book then and have since read it again.
In Robinson’s chapter entitled, “From Fellowship to Hospitality,“ he writes, “…the centered church articulates and honors its center in the Lordship of Jesus Christ…Whoever is moving toward that center is welcome no matter how far from the center they may be coming from.”1 Robinson explores ways in which we can share our experience of God in order to be a more Christ centered Congregation. One way would be to invite members of the Congregation to share their faith journey in small discussion groups or at specific seasons of the year. Robinson suggests the best way to get the discussion started is to have someone share part of their faith journey from the pulpit. So here goes:
Thirty-five years ago I had a calling experience. It’s not something I usually talk about. It is hard to believe. In fact, whenever I’ve tried to talk about my calling, even to a minister, I barely get any further than that sentence. Unlike Jesus’ own disciples who were anxiously awaiting the word of God and prepared for the coming of the Messiah; now the Calling seems to be an old fashioned idea. At Hartford Seminary I thought the students would have an opportunity to discuss their experience of God, but no not there either. I asked a couple of classmates if they thought I should say something and they responded, “I wouldn’t if I were you.” I believed part of my calling was to share my experience; I didn’t know when or how but I felt I should try. Maybe if I wrote about my experience someone would at least hear me out. That didn’t work either. The professor I’d asked to read my paper suggested I see a psychiatrist. I had been seeing a psychiatrist. It was nice to be able to tell someone. This doctor helped me through a lot of ups and downs but after several years he said, “I’ve never been able to figure out what’s wrong with you.”
Last year, on Good Friday, I came into this Sanctuary to pray. Near the end of my prayer I said to God, “I don’t think we’re as close as we used to be” and God said “that’s not my fault.” As I left the Sanctuary I looked around for more inspiration and took the copy of the sermon from Palm Sunday. It was a sermon that Rev. Ken Landall had written entitled: What Needs Untying in You, “what keeps us from realizing our full potential and answering God’s call to us.”
I took the hint and made an appointment with our minister, Rev. Tom Leinbach. I was scared. I was afraid he wouldn’t believe that I’d had a calling experience and I was afraid he would believe. All I promised God was to try; the rest depended on Tom’s experience of God and on God. Whether you believe me depends on God too.
Tom said right away, “God is real” and that my calling experience was pretty much “textbook” the way it happens. He’d had his own experience and some of the deacons had been sharing their experiences of God. Maybe we all have these experiences but no one feels comfortable talking about them. I gave Tom my paper to read. In Sept. he asked if I’d like to do a sermon.
The paper I wrote and gave to that professor and to Tom is 130 pages long, so in the interest of lunch, I’ll just tell you something of the experience and not include every detail.
I’d graduated high school in 1974, the year they changed the voting and drinking age to 18. I’d led a fairly shelter life up to graduation but now I tried to catch up to my peers. I would call myself a “hanger on” trying to change myself and always hoping that the next school, or next group or next job I would fit in. I’d date some guy and try to change myself for him. In one relationship my therapist later said, “you were like two drowning people hanging onto each other.” That’s just how it felt; like I was in the ocean, out of my depth, swimming from one buoy to the next thinking all the time I can’t stay here.
At 25 I lived in New Hampshire and I felt lost. I had been confirmed in a Presbyterian Church in N.J. but had rarely been back to church since then. My lifestyle had distanced me from my parents. That September I had been trying to convince my father to approve of an investment idea I had. He was a successful investment counselor. While I was selling my plan to him, my mother said, “you can tell she’s her father’s daughter”. After they approved I realized what I’d really wanted more was to reconcile with my parents, to win back my father’s approval of me. I was thinking of this as I walked home and saying to myself, “I just wanted to be my father’s daughter” when God said, “I am your Father.’ I was shaken. I answered “well you’re everyone’s Father.” And God said, “I am YOUR Father.” I’m afraid I swore out loud “Oh_____, now I’m in trouble.”
A few days later, on a Sunday morning I turned on the TV and there was a news story about refugees from Laos drowning in the ocean “Boat people” they were called. I thought, “that’s the way I feel, like I’m drowning!” I walked to the nearest church. It was a Congregational church. The sermon spoke to me so I went back the next day to talk with the minister.
I was excited and scared and didn’t know where to start so I kind of blurted out a confession of the life I’d been leading. I’m afraid I shocked the minister he said, “wouldn’t you be happier in a Presbyterian church?” I answered, “aren’t they about the same,“ but I thought, “where do you live that you don’t know my generation.” I told the minister about the calling experience and about the news program of the drowning refugees. I could tell then that something clicked for him. He recommended a pastoral councilor but instead of writing the name and phone# on his pad he looked through a pile of papers and wrote the information on the back of a flyer. When I left his office and turned the flyer over it was a bulletin insert looking for volunteers to help with a refugee family of “boat people” the church was beginning to sponsor. I took the hint and for the next 9 months I took in the refugee’s laundry and drove the mother and teenage son to English lessons. I also went to see the counselor. I was happy and excited, to me it felt as if God had sent me a life boat . I told the Councilor roughly the same story as I had told it to the minister. At my second appointment, once again I said something that clicked for him, something I said reminded him of a story in the Bible but I didn’t understand what. I went home and found the story in the Bible and it did remind me of me and then I believed.
The next week, though, when I went back to the Counselor he had another explanation. He told me I was schizoid but he would take on my case.
I continued to go to that church and that pastoral councilor but from then on I sank into the depths of depression which lasted more than a year. Once I tried to speak up for myself. I said to the counselor, “I thought you believed that I’d had the Calling and that God wanted me to do something.” He said, “You were called because you‘re a sinner. What did you expect?” I said, “ I guess I thought I’d do something like what you do.” He said, “you’re comparing yourself to me! I have a PHD!” “Well,” I countered, “Jesus didn’t. Maybe I could do something like your secretary, she’s nice.” He said, “You could be a secretary but not in a church.”
By Spring I was no better and my parents had me move to their home in Lyme, Ct., the same little town where Tom, later, served as ministered. Over the summer I improved a little. Right before Thanksgiving, God called again. “What”, I said, “can I get my father or my bother for you? You are a lot of trouble! Where have you been all year?” But suddenly I could see where God had been. Though the minister in that church had never spoken much, again, to me a woman in the Congregation once in my darkest time took my hand and said, “I know you can’t see us but we are all here.” And that Laotian teenager said, “you are not a bad person.” And I could even see where Christ had been with me. So this time when God called I didn’t ask anyone else, I listened and I answered.
What can I tell you-well that’s another chapter- but I will say that in a few days I was happy. God did have a plan for my life. I was not to become an ordained minister but I wasn’t a lost cause either. In fact there was nothing I had done in my 25 years that shocked God. At first I just needed to listen, stop being so gullible, start to think for myself, trust in the Lord and know that I was loved.
I began to turn my life around. I took a job as a companion for a woman who was recently widowed. She just wanted someone to live in the house, have dinner with and do a few chores. So I took another part- time job in a café. I went to the Congregational Church, I could walk to, in Old Lyme. Soon I was teaching Sunday school at the first service and attending the worship at the second. I joined 2 bible studies, listened to the entire Bible as a book on tape, and became like a little sister to most of the staff. The church had a partnership with a Native American church in South Dakota and I went there 5 times. Most importantly, I saw that the hospital in New London was giving a course to train hospice volunteers. This is the ministry I felt God wanted me to do. When it came time to volunteer, though, the director said they couldn’t use me; I was too young and inexperienced. I was relieved. I said to God, “See I tried but they can’t use me.” God said, well God didn’t say anything. He usually leaves me to figure it out for myself.
The next day, though, one of my waitress friends said “why don’t you volunteer at Uncas?” Uncas on Thames is a Ct. State hospital for the treatment of the terminally ill. It was about a ½ hour drive away. They took me right away as a volunteer “friendly visitor.” The patient floor had about 30 rooms and it was very quiet. The first patient I saw helped me. She said, “you’ve made it into the room, you’re doing fine.” In another room, an older man said, “what the hell would you and I talk about.” I sat down anyway, “let’s find out.” After he’d told me all about being in a submarine in WWII and he concluded , “I wish you could meet my son.” I would tip-toed by the room where someone was sleeping. In the 6 years I volunteered at Uncas only one visit went badly. I was asked to look in on a man from my church. I recognized him and his wife but I had no idea that they were going through this struggle with cancer. Our church didn’t take the time for “joys and concerns” in the service. My offer to visit was seen as an intrusion and the wife vented her feeling for a church which had not been there for them.
I was asked to visit with one man, especially, because he had no visitors. His name was David Hopkins, a black man about 10 years older than I was. He was usually up and dressed, sitting in a chair, and watching TV when we first met. He’d had a stroke but I imagined he was going home soon. He was cheerful and polite and when we talked it would be about childhood memories: school, or summer vacations, or pets we had. I started to save my visit with David till last because he cheered me up. I’m afraid I started using him as a sounding board for my worries. I don’t think David remembered my name but he had a special greeting for me and called it out before I got to his room. He didn’t know my name but he knew my footstep.
At a volunteer luncheon the Chaplain told me that David was our first AIDS patient. I was very upset. Instead of going home David was going to take a long time to die. I promised God I would stick it out with David. He lived, dying, in that hospital for 5 years until he had another stroke and the hospital transferred him to a nursing home. By this time, in my life, it was hard to get up to Uncas once a week. I had bought a small chocolate shop and was attending classes at Hartford Seminary which was ½ hour drive in another direction. Then , thank God, I found out David had been moved to a nursing home in East Hartford, two blocks from where I picked up my chocolate orders and on my way to school. David lived another year. I saw him 3 days before he died. The nursing home called me. I asked, “is there money for his burial?” “Oh,” they said, “his family arranged all that a long time ago.”
Meanwhile back at church most of the staff had changed. The minister had started an additional partnership with a church in South Africa. He also decided to give a “doubters” course: to share his doubts about God. I asked if I could attend even if I didn’t doubt. The minister described a Creator who had left us on our own to solve the world’s problems and seemed to see Christ mostly as a prophet. He felt through prayer and meditation one could become Christ- like even out do Christ. I was shaken. This didn’t sound like Christianity to me. What about the second coming I asked? What about a God beyond yourself, what about the Calling? The Calling he explained was just a delusion some people had under stress.
The minister was getting a group together to visit the church in South Africa- we were going to help end Apartheid. I asked, “how can we solve the situation by visiting for a week? Can’t we trust that God has the people there already? If 10 of us go it will cost $20,000 dollars. Think what that money would mean to the soup kitchen in New London!” I had just invited myself out of the in-group.
On a late October afternoon I went into the Sanctuary to pray. I said to God, “I’m sorry, I don’t seem to be making much progress. I haven’t even made a dent in this little town and now there talking of going to Africa. I can’t. I’m so tired. I can’t take care of the world!.” And God said, “why don’t you let me?” I said, “would you, oh thanks, really, would you?” Then I remembered who I was talking to. I started to laugh and cry at the same time. As I started to leave the Sanctuary I remembered my father had asked me to look something up for him in the hymnal the next time I was in Church. He was working on a crossword puzzle and the clue was Hymn 91. But it was too dark now to see. Just then the church floodlights came on and fell on the page. Hymn 91 is based on Psalm 91 one of the few Psalms I knew from childhood because part of it is read in our favorite version The Christmas Carol we watch every Christmas Eve:
(From Psalm 91:1-2 and 14-16)
He who dwells in the Shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust…
“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him: I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.”
He will call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Geraldine E. B. Nolin