This I Believe: Joan McIntosh (2021)

Thank you for the opportunity to explore more deeply my closely held spiritual beliefs and the experiences that shaped them. These remarks come from a long overdue examination of days long past, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share them with you today.

The story I am about to tell is one familiar to us all: who am I, really? Why are we here? What does it all mean and where is that darn owner’s manual explaining how to be a good person? My husband John and I joined WBUUC in 2016 with the hope that even at this time of life, we could finally get answers to those questions.

I believe that the foundation for a spiritual life begins within one’s family and childhood experiences, as Maslow suggests in his hierarchy of needs. On one of our first Sunday services, I noticed a family arriving just as the service was about to begin. Mom, Dad and Son eased their way into the pew, while Daughter danced down the aisle to the front row. With her arms spread out like wings across the pew, she settled into her perfect place to see and be seen – front row, middle seat. “Wow,” I thought. What kind of a church would instill the freedom for a young girl to choose her place, and with great flair, go there? That’s not how I grew up.

Picture instead, Sunday mornings at Holy Family Catholic Church in Southern California. Six ducklings waddling closely behind Mother and Father, down the aisle to the 5th row, left side pew, as Mass began. We were packed in side-by-side, close enough to hear: “Sit up straight. “Where’s your missal? Go to communion.”

This was our family system in the 1950’s. We followed the traditional form of worship. Parents could park their large families in Catholic schools, under the ever-watchful eyes of nuns and brothers. Catechism explained the Apostles Creed. Priests heard my sins and dispensed penance to keep me on the “straight and narrow.” The church made it easy to provide a religious education and a safe social life.

We had no relatives nearby to guide us. My parents were not religious people. Dad worked long hours. Mom did her best to be a mom. And, as the oldest child, my job was to keep the younger ducklings in line. 24/7.

I believe that the deep spiritual longing we often feel opens us to something we cannot name. It leads us to the mystery of being human, in this life, on this earth, and that we are powerless to understand it.

Despite my role in the family, I followed the rules, kept my uniform clean, and waited through 16 years of all-girls catholic schools for a future of my design. Yet, during those many church hours, I would notice a warm stirring from deep within my body. Singing in the choir, hearing the Easter stories, and breathing in the intoxicating waves of incense: these carried me back to early days, the stories of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Jesus was a humble and holy man. His parables taught me a kindness and mercy I could aspire to. But I could not accept the Trinity and the church as the ultimate source of wisdom. I heard “you are a Catholic, and this is what you will believe.” As I approached the threshold of adulthood, I did not see those values and behaviors come alive in Catholicism. I saw instead original sin, guilt, papal superiority, diocesan control, clergy molestation, women and children not valued, and so many rules.

Huston Smith writes in The World’s Religions, that “Religion calls the soul to the highest adventure it can undertake, a journey … jungles, peaks, and deserts of the human spirit.” I heard this call during my summers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, climbing and fishing or just sitting to take it all in, I found wonder and the source of spirit in the natural world. As a soon-to-be college graduate, I was a private, sensitive young woman with dreams, a love of words and something important to say. I was ready to begin that journey, backpack and all.

I believe that a spiritual life requires us to travel the treacherous path of the heart, growing stronger from each brush with the hard truths of responsibility.

I graduated in June 1965. In September, the doors to my life blew open as I sat for a job interview with the Dean of Students at the University of California Berkeley Law School. The 1964 “Free Speech Movement” had led to a higher education breakdown. Students and faculty were rising up across the country to protest the need for change: Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s liberation. I was mesmerized just thinking about the impact we could have on the world we were about to inherit. After ten years of learning – and playing – with my peers, to a soundtrack like no other, I left academia with a blueprint for my future under my arm. I was on my way, dancing down the aisle to a front-row seat.

I had been a so-so student. I hadn’t learned how to learn as a youngster. My university job experiences changed all that. Organizational Development became my field of practice for the next 35 years. I know you’re curious, so just quickly … “OD” work is a process to identify and address problems, focus on human, social, relational, and structural changes; and have a planned, proactive change in an organization.” I was teaching exchange groups in Uzbekistan. Trying out first world management techniques in Cuba. Leading corporate visioning meetings in expensive retreat centers.

Gradually, I realized that in any context, professional or personal, the situation to be changed, or the problem to be solved, resides first inside oneself, one’s internal experience of external events and people. Everything that we experience starts as an internal perception of meaning. I came to believe that as Huston Smith wrote, “The call of the soul is to confront reality, to master the self.”

Years slid by and I trusted the stability of my successful business. And yet, something inside was changing. I began to worry, to feel vulnerable and empty. The travel was exhausting, relationships drifted away; a fire took down my house while I was out of the country. The work was not enough anymore. What did that mean? What could I do about it? Nothing …without help. In retrospect, this was when my journey of faith crashed and my life’s turning point.

My transition to adulthood was not the thrill ride I’ve described. The trauma of childhood issues lay dormant until I needed to find a purpose beyond work. Love and belongingness were missing. There was only fear. As Carl Jung noted, “We meet our destiny in the road we take to avoid it.” I had work to do.

And so, I returned to Buddhism and meditation practice, first discovered at the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1970’s. Buddhism is not a religion but rather a means to transform our suffering through mindfulness, compassion, and wise living. I found that sitting quietly with others, to focus on calming a busy mind, to be a healing refuge. And most importantly, slowly and with practice, I found a way to heal my Self. The hardest part was learning how to love others and myself.

With help, I grew stronger, in body, mind, and spirit. In 1997, I was ready to leave the West Coast and with a new life partner, build a house and get my hands in some Minnesota dirt. When we both retired a few years ago, we began to search for our tribe for our life’s next adventure. That’s when we walked in on that Sunday morning, I told you about.

First experiences were like yours. Beautiful building, friendly people, coffee in the pews, and sermons that challenged my thinking and stirred my soul. However, I knew nothing about Unitarian Universalism or about what it meant to “sign the Book.” We learned and had fun doing it.

I believe now that the spider-silk-strong and interdependent web UU Principles hold us – you, me and our Beloved Community – together.

My journey of faith continues, and this (anonymous) poem says it all.

Give up the world; give up self; finally, give up God.
Find god in rhododendrons and rocks,
Passers-by, your cat.
Pare your beliefs, your absolutes.
Make it simple; make it clean.
No carry-on luggage allowed.
Examine all you have
With a loving and critical eye, then
Throw away some more.
Repeat. Repeat.
Keep this and only this:
What your heart beats loudly for
What feels heavy and full in your gut.
There will only be one or two
Things you will keep,
And they will fit lightly
In your pocket.