March 24, 2015
Faith Journey - My Mother In Law #6
My parents weren't particularly religious. As I have already mentioned, they sent my sister and me to Sunday school when I was about 4 or 5. But they didn't go themselves. My father once claimed to be a lapsed Methodist, but I think he never forgave his parents for insisting that he move from Iowa to California after high school to help support the family when he just wanted to go to college. I don't know whether or not that muddied the religious waters for him. My mother considered herself to be a faithful Anglican. She was baptized, confirmed, married, and buried in the Episcopal Church. She didn't consider herself lapsed just because she didn't attend weekly services.
All of us cousins were christened in afternoon ceremonies with only a priest and extended family present. These baptisms never occurred during a church service with a congregation in attendance. Both my parents attended Don's ordination. My father said later that my mom complained about the passing of the offering plate until he reminded her that the funds might help to put food on her daughter's table. My mother and father seemed to think that the church was an institution that wished to rule your life and take your money. My father actually was a very generous man. He had a good job as a sales manager for a company that sold glass bottles and donated to several causes over the years. His social realm was his work and colleagues. My mother's was her extended family and a few neighbors.
Don's parents had many friends and acquaintances in Carlsbad including their church community. Don's father's business was land development and insurance. The town was small and the inhabitants were often his clients - as well as his constituents after he became the first mayor of the newly incorporated city. I would estimate that both sets of parents were equal in financial resources. But, Don's family spent money in different ways than my family. When Don's father retired, he commented to his wife that he didn't know why they still had to tithe on their retirement since the church already had the first ten percent of whatever he had made over the years.
My family went out to dinner in fine restaurants and took month-long vacations during the summer to beach resorts. My father and one brother were the only two of seven siblings that completely supported their parents. We lived in a very tiny mortgage-free house inherited from my grandmother. Don's parents lived in larger and newer homes, were fairly frugal, saved up several years for a long trips, and gave generously to their church - a fact that has lead to this entry. It was my mother-in-law who taught me about the concept of stewardship.
My lessons began the first time I was invited to Carlsbad for Thanksgiving with Don's family. As a guest, I visited with the nieces and nephews while enjoying the wonderful aromas of a meal being prepared. When the dinner was finally ready, Don's mom called her sons into the kitchen and gave them plates of hot food to take to all the "aunties" in town. I was flabbergasted. The much-anticipated meal seemed to be headed straight out the front door. However, in fifteen minutes or so, the guys were back, and we lined up and amply filled our plates with a delicious feast. There was plenty for everyone. The point was, Don's mom didn't send the "leftovers" to the people she fed. Instead, they got the first servings off the top before her family was invited to eat.
Once we were married, Don's mom told us that if we took the first ten percent off of our income and gave it to the church (or a charity), we would never ever miss it. I thought that was a crazy idea on our meager budget. We decided to try it out. The thing that blew me away was that she was right. We didn't have a lot of money, but we began giving away the first ten percent. I can shockingly say that we never missed it. We often had unmet needs, but uncannily something or someone would come along and provide for us. If we were short of funds, we'd get an unexpected birthday check or gift or be invited someplace for dinner. When our rugs were beginning to shred, Don's aunt gifted us with money for a new carpet. This happened over and over again. Pretty soon you begin to wonder about those recurring coincidences.
The cultural image of God as some vague presence out in the universe that I (sort of) believed existed was now called into question. Don's mom insisted that all we had came from God's Grace, and we had an obligation to return a portion to further God's work. Was there something in the universe that gave back to those who gave unselfishly to others? Were these gifts we received coming from God?
I rejected the notion of a God doling out gifts only to those who have given generously to others. I didn't think it worked if you gave just so you could receive. What about the stories of Jesus feeding the poor and caring for the disenfranchised? But, I still had to work out how I would define God. Any God I believed in would have to be benevolent to all and not to a select few.
I decided that giving to others was a path you can choose to follow and incorporate into your lifestyle. It's like you put something into existence that reverberates like sound waves and creates harmony. As Don's mom believed, it's sort of like partnering with God and being on God's team.
I will end this entry with another Dee McClellan story. When we were moving to Woodland Hills from Santa Barbara, we looked at dozens of homes and were getting discouraged. We visited Carlsbad and reported our lack of success to his mother. She never wavered. "You haven't found it yet. But, you will because it is waiting for you." Before we drove home, we called our realtor. "A house has just gone on the market." We told him that we were going through Woodland Hills in about two hours and could stop. We stopped. We saw the home. We loved it, but it was more than we could afford. We made an offer and went to a restaurant to await an answer. Our realtor called and said, "They accepted your offer." Since we expected them to counter, we asked what happened. "I told them that a pastor and his wife were interested in their home. They asked 'which church?' and I told them Woodland Hills Community Church. They said, 'that is our church and our new pastor. We will absolutely accept their offer.' We had our house. And Bob and Sara LeBien, the previous owners, became good friends as well as parishioners. I said to Don, "How does your mother do this?"
March 10, 2015
Faith Journey - Seminary Years #5
My agnostic husband chose to go to Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley instead of the Unitarian seminary, Starr King, because he believed that he would have more interesting dialogues in a school where students represented a wide diversity of denominations and beliefs. His fellow students ranged from Episcopalians to Methodists, Congregationalists to Presbyterians, with a few others thrown in for good measure. Three different experiences had a huge impact on us as a couple during seminary.
The first arose out of our living situation - a triplex at 1717 Arch Street. Bob and Carol Olmstead came from the East Coast and moved across the hall from us in the other first floor studio apartment. Upstairs, Doug and Pat White, and their two preschool children, were in the two-bedroom flat. We quickly became very close friends. During the day, while the guys were in classes, Carol and I worked, and Pat was busy being a mom.
I didn't have to go to seminary for a taste of the theological education that came from the hours we three couples spent either sharing meals or hanging out on the stairwell between our apartments. All of us joined freely in the discussion of ideas that our husbands brought back from their classes. After that first precious year together, the guys were hired at local churches and we moved into different living situations. We continued to see each other socially, and we dined together every Sunday afternoon for the next three years. The first year of seminary, there were eight McWhitesteads, a name we coined from McClellan, White, and Olmstead. By graduation, we were twelve since Carol and I had each given birth to two daughters. The friendship and support from these two families greatly enhanced our seminary years giving us an instant forum for ideas ranging from theology to childbirth.
For us, the most significant events during those seminary years were the births of Danielle Christine and Jennifer Anne at Herrick Hospital in Oakland. Birth was a common occurrence during those Berkeley years since most couples were in the early years of marriage. My labor with Dani was very long, causing several friends to call the hospital to check on my progress. My doctors kept coming in to laughingly say, "Another one of your pastors has called." Don was allowed in the delivery room. I'm sure that we would both say that all three of our children's births were a marvelous experience for us. Giving birth was truly a miracle that was deeply spiritual.
The third important occurrence was especially life changing for Don. As an agnostic, his intention was to become a minister to higher education and work in college ministry after graduation. That was before he became the Minister to Youth at Plymouth Church in Oakland where I conducted a children's choir, and we both began a young couples' group. Don's job was to work with Walter Mueller, the pastor, and preach from time to time. We became a solid part of the church community, and it was that community that changed his life's direction.
You might say that it was the act of putting old wine into new wineskins. Suddenly the kinds of Christian activities that he had rejected from his conservative childhood (words such as evangelism, discipleship, and mission) took on a new and fresh meaning in this more liberal congregation. Don saw how these things were truly lived out in a loving church community whose mission was not to look inward with an exclusive faith, but to build a community that would reach beyond the church walls to serve the world. My previously agnostic husband began to put together a new belief system based upon God's Word becoming embodied in a company of believers. From that time on, he wanted to serve a congregation because that is where he saw that Word acted out in the world.
Theologicallyl, in those days it always seemed that I just toddled along after him, enjoying the ride and taking it all in. I had not been brought up in a congregation that thought their ideas were sacrosanct and that you were either out or in depending upon what you believed. That was one of my beefs with the Mormon Church. And, I truly believed that education, as opposed to indoctrination, would enhance my belief system and help me grow. But, most important during this time, I could agree with Don that it was amazing to be a part of a loving congregation who accepted all people who wished to journey together and who lived their beliefs to the best of their ability. That community had a huge impact on both our lives.