By Mary Linda McKinney
Who I am can be answered through many lenses. I could give you facts about my life or about work I’ve done or roles I carry. In this instance, because I am sharing who I am as the person who created and will be facilitating Faithful Meetings, I will share stories about who I am in relation to God.
Story 1: Discovery
I was born to parents newly converted. Becoming Born Again Christians affirmed for my parents who they already were and provided a community that nurtured them and welcomed their gifts. Although there are many things I appreciate about my church of origin, I was a miserable failure as a Baptist. I was too open, too curious, too slow in Sword Drills and too fast with unfiltered questions…ultimately too me, which meant unable to present myself as a modest, serious, good Christian girl. I think the main problem, though, was that I believed what they said about God loving us. Because of this, I could not imagine that God would say “I love you and if you don’t believe in my love, I will allow you to be tortured forever.” I knew from experience that love didn’t work that way and I knew in my heart that God didn’t work that way.
In my church and at home, “Our Heavenly Father” was prayed to often. My concept of God in my youth was a divine, all-powerful being that was something like a school principal; He wanted everybody to succeed but it was generally better to fly under His radar because good rarely came of His attention. God was “up there”, aware but distant, and super passive aggressive. Loving, intimate connection with the Divine was not something modeled or taught. I had some mystical experiences that were powerful and mysterious during puberty and adolescence, but I had no language for them, no context, so didn’t think about them afterward and in fact forgot about them for decades until I encountered language that allowed me to remember.
I stopped churching at 18, floundered for more than a decade wanting to believe in God but having no indication that God, as I was taught to recognize Him, existed. I was hoping and looking for a burning bush or some biblical God-drama and found none of it. At the same time, it seemed that much of what I read during that period mentioned Quakers. Still casting about, I began to spend my Sunday mornings alone in nature. Eventually, a long trail of oatmeal cookie crumbs led me to Nashville Friends Meeting.
I never found a burning bush but in my second meeting for worship, I was given the clear understanding that the physical intuition I’d had my whole life, the sensation in my solar plexus that I was subtly guided by and completely took for granted (and often didn’t heed) had been God communicating with me the entire time. I had not been taught that God could work that way, so I hadn’t had “ears to hear”. Two things are significant about this for me: 1) During all the Sunday mornings I spent in nature in the time leading up to attending meeting for worship, I did not receive this epiphany; I only got it when I was in worship with others. 2) Once I received the awareness that God had been present with me the whole time, I did not have that felt sense of intuition again. I had to begin anew to learn how to “hear” God. Starting over with the tools of silent worship and a nurturing community to help me listen were foundational for me.
Story 2: Faith
In early 2011, the divorce from my children’s father had just been finalized. The plan was to share custody and for me to move my children and me into an apartment while my ex kept our family home. A month prior, though, I was unexpectedly laid off from my job. I was 45 and a single mom with no home, no job, and no insurance. I panicked, filed for unemployment, and began frantically applying for every job I could possibly be qualified for with a not unrealistic fear that I would wind up with a low-wage service job. After a stressful and fearful round of application and resume submissions, call backs, and an interview or two for jobs completely inadequate for my family’s needs, this happened:
Me: What?! God, you know that I’m now a single mom with a child who has severe anxiety and a teenager to support! What are you even talking about?
God: Just wait.
Me: How can I just wait? I’ll be homeless soon! My children need stability! I have a car payment! How in the world can I sit around and do nothing while everything is falling apart?!
God: Do you trust me? Just wait.
Me: Oh geez, I do trust you. This seems impossible. I have a lot of fear–a LOT of fear–but I do trust you. Ok, I will wait but please stay close so I know you are with me.
God: I am with you.
So I stopped willy-nilly applying for jobs. Unemployment insurance covered my car payment and food. My ex let me stay in his home until some Quaker friends invited me and our youngest to move into their spare bedroom. I was able to travel to Chicago to stay with a friend’s children as she underwent a mastectomy. I prayed a lot, and wrote. I took my youngest to visit his cousins. I took my dog for walks with friends. I did a lot of pastoral care and Quaker ministry. I spent time with people important to me.
And I fell in love.
Let me say here that I categorically do not believe in prosperity theology. I do not believe that God rewards us with wealth, health, and material success for following some externally defined idea of faithfulness. What I do believe is that God is always inviting us into deeper relationship and the more we say “yes”, the more our lives become sanctified (if you can pardon the church word) because more and more clearly we see every single thing around us as an intrinsic part of God’s World. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you.” “These things” being more Light–not, like, a hot spouse and big house in the suburbs but actually kind of the opposite. “These things” are opportunities to lay down our attachments to worldly desires so God can use who and what we are to do God’s work of loving and connecting. I wrote a lot about my process of aligning myself with God’s will for me on my blog all through the time I was preparing for the divorce. What I was called to felt like a stripping away of my sense of control so that I was forced to orient myself completely to the Light. Here’s what I said in January, 2011 as I was getting my bearings after the bottom dropped out:
God is encouraging me to sink down, to deepen, to follow my roots and connect with the Foundation. I have never been called in this way but I am clear that I am to wait and rest and turn my fear of the unknown over to God. I don’t believe that this means I am to be ir-responsible or un-prepared; on the contrary, I think the sinking and deepening and resting are the preparation. To what, I do not know.
And then in December, 2011, I wrote this:
A year ago, I couldn’t imagine entering into a new relationship and yet God brought this amazing man into my life who supports and facilitates all those things I feel God is calling me to do. Besides the fact that I’m heels-over-head crazy in love with him, Mark seems the mate God created for me. He shares my desire to make our homelife an extension of our spiritual community. The home we now own, which we are calling The Burrow due to its abundance of space, is perfect for offering hospitality and living in community. It is in a neighborhood which will allow us to be much less car-dependent. We are hoping to rent the front third of The Burrow to a single parent to build community and to allow us to have an amount of financial flexibility. I most likely could not have bought this home without Mark and I am grateful beyond my ability to express that God put Mark in my life to be my mate, this man who loves me purely and truly, who accepts my love like a priceless gift and who shares with me the yearning to live in God.
The meaning I take from this period of my life is to trust God even when God’s directions make zero sense, trust that faithfully following each segment of the Divine GPS will lead to a place I could never imagine on my own. The life God guided me into has so many more opportunities for living into God’s World than I ever could have created if I’d been trying to piece together a life on my own. For instance, Mark is also a grad of School of the Spirit’s Spiritual Nurturer program. One of our first conversations, long before we would encounter each other as unmarried people, was about the program. For many years my life’s circumstances made it impossible for me to attend but shortly after we were married, he gently suggested that if I wanted to, I now could. That offer put me on a fairly direct path to creating the Faithful Meetings program. I am humbled and grateful when I think about God’s willingness to invite, introduce, patiently teach, and use me.
Story 3: Expansion
This story is challenging to write because I don’t yet know how it ends and therefore don’t yet know what it means.
From 2012 until 2018, Quakering was a full-time calling for me. I loved doing pastoral care. I loved clerking and serving on committees. I loved engaging with Quaker teens. I was busy joyfully doing work with, for, and on behalf of Friends when <record scratch> seemingly out of nowhere I received a pretty clear announcement from God that I was to lay down all my local and regional Quaker responsibilities because I needed to expand my awareness of the Divine. My Holy Advisor said, “You worship in silence and stillness as well as you can at this point in your life. I want you to learn to connect with me in new ways.” I was being sent on a sojourn.
Since that time, I have participated in various forms of worship with a very small Sufi community, a Buddhist/Episcopalian Dharma group, a Hebrew grammar study group, LGBTQIA+ affirming Baptists, a Black Disciples of Christ congregation, and a large Hindu temple. As a newcomer, I’ve been welcomed, ignored, invited, overlooked, embraced, and approached with open curiosity. At various times my questions have been answered, handed off, dropped completely, met with curiosity and then dropped, caused flustration and/or confusion, and welcomed. I have chanted, prayed, partaken, sung, listened, meditated, slow motion whirled, learned, pondered, studied, discussed, eaten, and recited. I have sought and often found a connection with the Divine in each community and with each activity. I learned things about myself each time I became a newcomer and, as a fairly shy person, have often had to give myself over to God in order to be open to new experiences.
What I’ve discovered is connections and similarities. Chanting can take me to the same sense of the Eternal that meeting for worship sometimes does. When I recite “tomaso maa jyotir gamaya” I think of George Fox writing about the ocean of darkness and the ocean of light. The study of the Hebrew aleph-bet led me to consider how every moment we have the potential to co-create with Spirit the perfection of Gospel Order through our thoughts, words and actions. When I sing praises to the 99 names of Allah or any of the Hindu deities, I ponder if my understanding of God includes or intentionally denies these attributes and sometimes my relationship with God expands because I have a new point of contact. In Christian worship I am reminded over and over again that we are called to live as generously and self-sacrificially as Jesus with awareness that together we are the Body of Christ. And being the Body of Christ leads me to an understanding of advaita/non-duality/unity that is a core belief–expressed in many different ways–of so many spiritual traditions: Everything is in God and God is in Everything.
Curiously, all of these wonderful, profound, sometimes satisfying and sometimes mundane experiences have made me feel more Quaker than ever before. In spite of the fact that I do believe we need to be in community with Friends to be fully realized Quakers and for whatever reason God does not want that for me right now, the way Friends practice our faith feels most true for me. At this point in time, I am a Universalist Friend who really loves Jesus and gets a lot out of the Bhagavad Gita. I’ve no idea what is next nor when or where this sojourn is to end but I trust that God is guiding me to what I need. I assume that one day I will understand the purpose of my sojourn. Until then, I will continue to trust.