Preacher: Kathleen Hugh
Scripture: 1 Peter 3:13-17
We all know, or live in, eccentric families. (I am certain that they began the minute Adam and Eve had their first children.) I was raised in such a home. I had a very loving mother, and a father who was a well- known research psychologist. He was also a womanizer and a drunk. By the time I was 12, we had moved 8 times so he could teach at different universities. Those moves, plus the presence of highly religious and somewhat strange aunts in my life led me to become very wary of God and God’s religion. For me, most of that was the High Church Episcopal in the deep south: rigid and exclusionary.
And I was required to go to church. However, I spent most of my time being so disconnected from the service that I made up an adventure to help me stay awake. I would imagine a tiger coming into the sanctuary, and I would have to figure out how to escape each Sunday, and perhaps save a couple of others.
I saw other people who seemed happy in their religions. To me it looked like they fit in easily and felt safe; and I did want that. But after church I would come back home to the turmoil. I learned to read body language and tone so that I knew whether or not this was one of those days that it was safer to go hide in a closet behind boxes. Dad was not safe when he was drunk. I had heard God called “the father” in church. And what I saw at home was God, the father, lying drunk on the living room floor. And none of the women I loved so much who were so involved in their church seemed happy either.
There was not one time that I was ever allowed to question anything I had heard in church. And I had so many questions, because I did want to understand why all these people seemed so content in church.
Then there were my beloved aunts and grandmother. When I was 11, my father went on one of his many drunken flights and simply never returned. We were evicted and homeless. But unlike so many others, we had family take us in: my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s, and my mother’s very religious sisters. And this is when things really got eccentric in our two sides of the duplex! One aunt refused to have a Christmas Tree on her side of the duplex, since it came from a pagan rite. But she loved coming over to enjoy ours. Or she would be angry at the drier and kick it, cussing. When I caught her once, she told me, “But I did not take the Lord’s name in Vain!” There seemed to me to be such hypocrisy in those who were religious.
My other aunt, equally religious, had married my uncle who was paranoid schizophrenic; because, she said, God told her to. She spent the rest of her life in a house practically covered in aluminum foil so that no one would spy on him. And she went everywhere with scotch tape on her face to keep her wrinkles from spreading.
So this was my earliest introduction to religion. I was so disillusioned. Everyone pushed me to believe; but what good was this God of theirs? My aunts were only happy on Sundays, and frankly they were a bit odd. Mind you I loved them all, and I wanted to make them happy, but… So when I turned 15 I gave up trying for a while. I prayed to God, “Dear God, I know you will understand why I do not believe in you.
During the high points I had no need for God, but at the low points I was grasping desperately at anything that I thought would bring me into that joy I saw in others. Frankly there were times that a Hare Krishna could have thrown a robe at me, and I might still be selling flowers at an airport somewhere.
Three days out of college, I moved to Atlanta, I became a singer in a band, and married my bass player. Nine years later I got divorced and moved back to the family turmoil hotel in Columbia SC. My beloved ladies were happy to see me, and still openly praying that I might still find Jesus. But I had no real understanding of who this guy was, and was not motivated to look for him; and he didn’t seem like the kind of guy I would want to date. First, based on the pictures I had seen at church, my ex-husband kind of looked like him. You know: thin rock musicians with their long hair. My takeaway from Bible school was that Jesus was unemployed, and couldn’t even hold down a job as a carpenter, and he had so many enemies. Also, he talked a lot to someone invisible in the sky, and that sounded way too much like my uncle!
I did begin to try some different religions, because I was at another low point. Churches seemed to be a better place than bars to meet people, especially since I didn’t drink. So I wondered which one to try first. Episcopal, you might guess, was already out for me. There is an old southern joke about denominations: “Baptists believe you will go straight to hell, and Presbyterians already know you will go straight to hell, and Episcopalians, well, they just dress nice.” I tried many churches in my twenties and thirties. I tried the Unitarian Church, which my scotch tape aunt said, sad for my soul, “Kathy, they could believe in Porky Pig.” I tried Lutheran, Quaker, synagogue, and Bahai. I finally tried the Methodist Church, and eventually married my second husband Ray there, after I met him on what I liked to sarcastically refer to as the new church called American Online. My 25-year-old friend asked, “What church is that?” If you are under 30, check it out on Google!
When Ray and I met, we both saved each other, and were deeply in love. We adopted two girls from China, who remain to this day my pride and joy. Most of those years were wonderful and loving. We had a shared purpose: our little family of four.
But as time went on, our marriage began to have some difficulties. Our idea of communicating became me saying too much and Ray saying absolutely nothing. In fact, I heard my brother tell someone a few years ago that he had known Ray for over 20 years and had written down everything he had said, and he almost had a complete sentence. It was this difference that began to damage our marriage to the point that I remember thinking in the last few years: Is this it? I knew I would never leave him, but this was the loneliest of lonely. It was purgatory. At the same time, I was feeling lost in the rest of my life. I had been lucky to have had several careers: storyteller, educator, group facilitator, national disaster relief director, to name a few. And while I truly enjoyed each and every one of those experiences, I had spent years wondering why I felt no strong drive to pursue one of them more fully. I felt like a bit of a failure to have let all these opportunities slip away. And as my marriage was beginning to fail and my daughters were growing up and getting ready to go off to college, I began questioning everything I knew about myself.
Which brings me back to God. Everything always brought me back to my higher power, as much as I would protest that it did not. I remained an unhappy person with happy times, but I wanted to be a happy person with unhappy times. I so wanted to experience, even if for a brief moment, that elusive joy that I saw in my religious friends: that sense of belonging, of fitting in. At first, however, I didn’t think to turn to religion. But I have always been fascinated by science, and especially the science of the brain. So one day I sat on my couch and decided to reach the part of my brain that it was said we did not use, just to see what happened. Maybe that is where I would find my answers.
So I thought, How will I reach that part or the brain? Meditation? I would fall asleep. Heavy cathartic exercise? Are you kidding me!? Drugs? No way. I saw enough of that when I was four and Dad, teaching at Harvard, had gotten involved in the early days of experimenting with LSD. Great professor parties at our home.
That left only one thing I could think of: go back to my shaky southern church routes. But where would I start? And I knew that if I went this route yet again, I knew that I had to go ALL IN. No tigers in the sanctuary this time. I had no idea what ALL IN meant, but I suspected it had something to do with Jesus. But how could I rally around him when I had spent most of my life rallying against him? But here I was about to go to a Presbyterian church.
But it is never too late, I learned, for God to find you. I did start going to church with my daughter. But the Pastor wouldn’t let me take communion, even though I had been baptized and confirmed. He said, “Kathy, you have to fully accept Jesus in your life first.” Otherwise, I was to come up with my arms crossed and they would pray for me to find Jesus, instead of giving me sacrament. Talk about publicly outing a person as a heathen! I was just beginning to think about God, and Jesus was still a long way off for me. But, luckily, I did learn to pray with real honesty for the very first time.
Six months later, Ray was transferred from NY to Denver. And there I tried another Presbyterian Church. I was trying hard to not give up, but I did not feel I belonged. Only four months later, in our 24th year of marriage, at the age of 56, Ray died suddenly of a heart attack. I was devastated. At the same time I remember thinking (somewhat guiltily), “God has given me a second chance”, because I was no longer trapped in marriage purgatory.
I continue to wish, to this day, that Ray was still here on earth, because he was a wonderful man and an amazing father. But back then, I no longer wished to be in Denver. My sister came out to get me. She told me that she was taking me back east so that I could be closer to her and to my girls in NY. And she moved me to Arlington, Virginia two blocks from her, and four blocks from Arlington Temple United Methodist Church.
The first time I came to this church, I had no expectations. I had visited other churches in the area and was underwhelmed. But I had promised myself that I would go ALL IN, and that meant not giving up. Plus, I knew I had to change how I did and saw things. But I was surprised, because everyone here was welcoming. And not just the first time, but every time after that. What really blew me away was that it was communion Sunday. Pastor’s sermon moved me, as it always does; and when Pastor said that all were welcome to God’s table, I almost cried. I could not believe what I was hearing. And I took communion that day for the first time in decades, and no one could tell that I was still a heathen.
I was still confused about the God connection, though. I felt that I was getting closer to understanding. Back in my apartment one day, I said a prayer I had made up on the drive from Denver with my sister, desperate for answers:
“Dear God, please clear my path and show me the way.”
On this day, unlike the other times I prayed this, I heard/felt..a God whisper: “Kathy, God was always there, but God wanted you to have those experiences and learn from them so that you could one day help others.” The moment was surreal. But I saw my life clearly for the first time, and I saw that the path ahead was much clearer than the path behind me. I felt the presence of God with me for the first time ever, and I understood that God had been with me, though I did not know it. And that if there were any roadblocks ahead, I did not need to be afraid, for God would still be with me. But it would be something I needed to learn from.
As I became more involved in the church and community, I began to see how all my experiences, good and bad and Dad, were gifts from God. I didn’t have to pick just one experience to pursue anymore, but I could now use them all. I cannot say that I would choose those particular gifts for my girls. But I am now happier than I have ever been. I am finally a happy person with some unhappy times; and I am no longer afraid and no longer feeling alone or scared.
I have learned many things since I came here. I have learned that a building does not a church make. When I came here, I found what I had missed for those 64 years: a community, a community of faith. All of us together with a common purpose to go out into the world to be God’s people. I love when we say that together at the end of each service. It invigorates me. This church is a very special place; and what makes it so special to me is because we are all tuning in to God together at whatever belief stage we are each in. I also learned that this church does things the way I believe God would want us humans to do them.
Here I was able to come and be exactly my authentic self. I realized it was never about fitting in just to fit in. Here I realized it was about finding a loving community in which it is safe to be oneself. And to be oneself no matter where you are on your faith journey. Here I feel allowed to question, to make mistakes without being judged, and to be open about my faith journey. I believe that’s what God does too: God takes us where we are, and is always there for us. I just had to learn to pray and listen.
And I could not have learned that anywhere else but here, in this time and in this place. Only God knows when and where we will land in God’s world, and I will never ever judge someone else’s journey like mine was judged for all those years, because God doesn’t judge us for that either. I also have learned that I have no right to judge those who have always known God. That early arrival is just as valid as my slow and plodding one.
I have no idea where this new journey will take me, but I know with a certainty I have never felt before: that it is the right journey with new purpose for me now. I have even been attending the Methodist Neighborhood Seminary, a two year program to train people as lay leaders, to help us to better reach out into the community and work together to give our neighbors what they want, not just what we want for them; and to discern God’s path individually. I also love being part of our work with our community of unhoused and poor. There is so much to do right here in our neighborhood, and here we can do it together with the love and kindness that Jesus preached. Through all of these new experiences I am feeling as if I belong and am safe, and have purpose.
Being in this faith community with all of you is a true blessing. I have a friend who told me her first Rabbi said, “Sarah, go to 1000 different synagogues if that is what it takes for you to find YOUR faith home.” And I have finally found mine here with all of you. With all my experiences here, I have been able to do something I never thought possible: say YES to God.