“How did you get into this?” people ask as they sense my passion while leading a retreat or after reading one of my books. I’ll say (winking), “Do you want the short answer? “Two words: through pain.” Here’s an in-between version of how I discovered my life mission: I am here on this earth to be a link between the Word and the world—between active and contemplative life, ancient words and present meanings, rich and poor, secular and spiritual. I enjoy playing piano and native flute—playing with light in photography, food in cooking, words in poetry.
At age five, I asked my mother, “What should I be when I grow up, a minister, a carpenter, or a farmer?” She answered in reverse order, “You work with your daddy on the farm and you’ll know if you want to be a farmer, you work with the carpenters when they come and you’ll know if you want to be a carpenter, and you listen to Pastor Thompson and watch what he does and you’ll know if you want to be a minister.” Later in my teens, I checked off a tablet each day of the summer to see which of several vocations I liked best, folded it accordion-style till I opened it to get surprised. Ministry came out on top.
Square Church with Square Pulpit to Round Church with a Round Pulpit
In my youthful psyche, I could only imagine a square church with a square pulpit. But since 1988 I serve a round church with a round pulpit—the world is my church. I never planned the way it came out. My first twenty years, I did serve Presbyterian congregations, one in New York, three in Pennsylvania. Things happened by a combination of circumstances, naïve risk-takings on my part and God’s grace through the back door—or grace around the next turn when I took the road less traveled.
A turn occurred one summer in the 1960s when a Penn State a classmate called to tell me of a conference in New Hampshire. It was free, a farm kid’s ideal vacation. But it turned out to be led by Christian right, anti-communists. I felt my soul gripped in a vice of fear. What saved me from hate that felt like hell was telling myself a verse in the first letter of John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Ironically, the next week, an ecumenical charismatic service opened the doorway into Christianity concerned for peace and justice.
Fast forward to the 1970s; I was now in ministry. A whimsical turn occurred during vacation on Cape Cod. I bought my two-and-a-half year-old daughter a kite, something I never had as a child. The kite, an Egyptian ankh, flew beautifully! Then it got hopelessly snarled in a tree. After considering getting a ladder—an idea my wife vetoed—I got in the car to leave. Then I stopped, went back, tugged the kite gently, and miraculously it flew free. I took that kite home and flew it in church, preaching on a text from Habakkuk on gaining perspective.
When life gets tangled in an impasse, walk away for a bit, retreat. When it comes back, you receive it as a gift. This image later came to me in the 1980s after I walked away from a historic church where painful conflict emerged, only to receive my ministry back in another form.
Out of My Soul’s Dark Night: A New Vocation
During that conflict, I could not draw on a single course in prayer or the spiritual life in five years of seminary at Princeton or Chicago—the mystics were deemed irrelevant in the 1960s. But I had copied a recorded sermon by Princeton’s president, titled “The Dark Night of the Soul,” about St. John of the Cross. I listened spellbound. I began to read John of the Cross, bit by bit, on my stationery bike.
I knew nothing about contemplative prayer. All I knew was saying words to God, but mine were empty. I didn’t know about this thing called spiritual direction. I now quip, “All I knew was seeing a shrink or having a beer with your buddy.” After leaving that church, I discovered something in between: spiritual direction. I began meeting monthly with a Jesuit priest.
That dark night was birthing a new ministry. While serving as a chaplain at Hershey’s Penn State University Hospital, I began training in spiritual formation with the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC. www.Shalem.org. In 1988, still in Shalem’s program with Tilden Edwards, Gerald May and Rose Mary Daugherty, I took the risk to found Oasis Ministries for Spiritual Development in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. A bit naïve, I knew enough to recruit a board and incorporate as a 501(c)(3) organization. Oasis still offers life-giving water. www.OasisMin.org
Grace through the Back Door
Grace came through the back door when I led my first retreat at Princeton Seminary in 1989; it gave our fledgling Oasis Ministries free worldwide publicity for 18 years. Grace came through the back door when the dean of Lancaster Seminary called to ask if I would take over teaching courses for my first and beloved spiritual director after he became ill; my adjunct teaching lasted 16 years. Grace came through the back door when a resident of Presbyterian Homes where I was chaplain took my manuscript for Active Spirituality to the board meeting of The Alban Institute; my first book was born in 1993. I continue to write my way home, even now for this website. Writing grounds my soul and dovetails with my retreat work and spiritual companioning.
Fast forward to 2006. I moved, with my wife Fredrika, to Denver, Colorado, to be near two daughters and three grandboys. A minister asked me in public, “What do you do?” I surprised myself answering, “I listen to people’s stories and give them back to them.” LinkYourSpirituality.com provides an interactive forum for exchanging stories. I hope these resources connect with your story journey to bear the fruits of love, joy and peace.
PS: Christ and Inter-Faith Spirituality
I want to speak of the Christ dimension of my story. Transforming brokenness into blessing is central to my theology and spirituality. For me, Jesus Christ is the heart of this transformation. It’s about resiliency, the mystery that whenever we descend to the hell of despair and rise again with compassion and gratitude, we experience Christ. Wherever I see this transforming mystery at work in nature, nations or human nature—in Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or even atheist people—for me it’s the Christ experience, though I don’t force my language on others.
I link the Christian mystery with the Buddhist sutra that says the beautiful lotus grows out of the garbage; so Jesus was crucified on the town garbage heap at Golgotha and rises, beautiful. In regard to Christ as the “only” way (John 14:6), I maintain my unique faith in Christ, relating it to universal spiritual meanings. The “only way” is the Way of dying to what is fake and rising to what is real, by whatever name.
(See “A Postscript for Once or Maybe Christians” in What Would I Believe If I Didn’t Believe Anything?)