This I Believe: Mary Duncan (2012)

I was born the first child of a young Lutheran minister and his 20 year old wife on a country parish in northern Iowa. I was grounded in Lutheran theology from the time of my baptism, through the early years of bedtime bible stories, followed by Christian day school beginning in kindergarten and not ending until I left the Lutheran junior college I was attending after my freshman year to attend the University of Minnesota. Even my first and long-time piano teacher was Lutheran.

This training gave me a great deal of stability. By hearing Bible passages over and over, I let many of them sink in and stick, and they are part of me today. When Jesus urged his disciples not to condemn anyone or judge lest they be judged; when he said to pray in private, not make a show in public; or when he said to give to the needy, he said to do it in private, so that your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing. I seem to identify the most with Jesus when he preaches pithy proverbs of common sense, calling us away from materialism and spiritual arrogance.

And then there were the fruits of the spirit described by the apostle Paul, who said in the letter to the Galatians: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control. Against such things there is no law. ” The apostle Paul further admonishes us to live as children of light: I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received; Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

But there were many other darker messages from the Bible that were embraced by our little Lutheran church body.

We were taught that we were the only group that really interpreted Scripture correctly. Because of this we needed to keep ourselves unspotted from the world, and this included other churches. Women were subservient to men, of course. I wasn’t allowed to pray or fellowship with any other Christians or Lutherans of other synods. And women weren’t allowed to even vote in the meetings, much less hold office or be clergy. I was told once by my college religion teacher that it was too bad I wasn’t male, because I would have made a good minister.

In my twenties I became a Lutheran church musician. The next 15 years or so I heard two sermons every Sunday, conducted the choir, played the organ, and so on. Tried to find joy in my religion. Tried to be grateful that God had saved me, even though I was mad at God for setting up a system in which I was damned before I even had a chance to rebel. Tried to pray, tried to take communion. Eventually I stopped taking communion. I stopped praying, because if God knew everything i needed already, why talk to him about it?

I had by that time joined the faculty of a conservative Christian college in the Twin Cities and was faced with the Evangelical perspective. Both the Lutherans and the Evangelicals read the same Bible, but mistrusted each other’s interpretations. Both harbored a strong streak of legalism. They preached a salvation that couldn’t be earned. Faith was the only requirement. I went along with it thinking I had faith, but doubting that I had enough of it, or that it wasn’t the right one. Or wondered if I had really given my heart to Jesus, since I wasn’t very enthusiastic about sharing my faith.

I married a man who had dabbled in Eastern religion and wasn’t an orthodox Christian, and so I was even challenged at home. Then I was blessed to become a mother. This was to prove instructive! My first son didn’t develop normally. By age 2 we had him in school and a few years later heard the first diagnosis of autism and mental retardation. So now I had a son who not only couldn’t call me Mommy, he couldn’t be a good Christian and “ask Jesus into his life”–one of the pre-requisites of salvation in the Christian church. Others tried to comfort me by saying that my son didn’t need to make a confession because God’s love included him without it. That got me thinking: if Arthur didn’t need to “believe” the correct way, why did I?

Eventually 9/11 happened. I was still numbly “believing” in my Christian salvation, smug in my intellectual acceptance that there was a Triune God and you had to believe in “Him” or you could’t be saved. I was still believing all that, in spite of all the suffering and injustice in the world, God somehow knew and approved of how things were going and had it all in control. WHAT WAS I THINKING?

When I read about the El Qaeda members who put themselves on planes and sacrificed themselves to their beliefs, confident in the rightness of their faith, it didn’t take me long to realize we couldn’t ALL be right about our inherited theologies. My framework crumbled very rapidly. I began reading Jon Spong’s works including “Why Christianity must change or die”.

My faith disintegrated so rapidly that one night I remember lying down to go to sleep. My normal habit was to start a one-sided conversation with God. But that night I was aware that there was no God, and the universe was empty of a controlling benign force who was within my calling distance. The loneliness hurt. My eyes seemed very open and my heart sank. I was now an official dark Lutheran, on the road to Unitarianism. I came to this church in 2007 when my second son went to college. I really felt my life was closing in. When I came here and heard the opening words, I got choked up. I don’t have to pretend or hide? I rejoiced that the scripture readings were NEVER from the Bible. That this place honored poets as prophets. That nature was akin to the divine.

Victoria’s sermons were a marvel, comforting beyond what my words could express. And the choir took me right in! At the same time I began to learn to meditate. I received several weekends of training in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition and found it immensely helpful in taming my depressive thoughts. It seemed like I was doing something to save myself.

Sometime during that first year I embraced the notion that I didn’t need a savior because I wasn’t a sinner. I am now interpreting Christianity through a Buddhist lens. It’s fascinating because I see so many parallels. But that’s the topic for another sermon. So, do I believe in God? What experiences have I had of the divine? Well there is one I’d like to tell you about. As a child I was obedient. I wanted to be right, so I could be safe. I didn’t want to go to hell. But I didn’t really want to go to heaven either. Heaven scared me a little, until I had an amazing experience. I was about 14 years old lying in bed one night thinking about going to heaven. My mind brought forth images of wearing wings, playing harps, sitting around singing hymns, and it would never end, never end, go on and on and never end, over and over and over…….. I thought, “Everything I know about ends. How can it be that in heaven it goes on forever? ” And I got very frightened and my heart started to pound. Feeling that I should’t be feeling this way to be a good Christian, I cried out silently, “Help me! ” And in an instant I heard in my head these words,

“DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT”, as I felt my heart suddenly stop pounding and returned to normal.

As a Buddhist I am learning that impermanence is the essence of life, and that the cyclic nature of all things can be a source of joy rather than sorrow. I know that my fears will pass, as will my joys. Knowing that sustains me through tough times.

I have learned that only when I reach out and connect can I truly be happy. I used to enjoy being by myself, thinking myself pretty good company. But now too much of loneliness seems wrongheaded, promotes and solidifies the falsehood that we are separate from each other. And it blinds us to the truth that only in engagement can we find fulfillment and joy.

I am learning to appreciate the Buddhist notion that we need to see things for what they really are. To see that grasping causes suffering. To see that we shouldn’t believe anything unless it makes sense to us. To see

That generosity is the highest virtue, followed by loving kindness, patience, compassion, wisdom and meditation. My daily life is governed by some simple guides:

• I’d rather listen than talk, because I think people need to be heard.
• I teach and perform music because I believe my purpose in life is to help other people sound better.
• I believe we all need each other.
• I believe God happens when people are together helping each other.

What are my struggles? I struggle with knowing how to connect to people. I struggle with maintaining a joyful attitude. I struggle with lingering sadness and guilt about leaving a marriage in which I was unhappy. I’m afraid I’m narcissistic.

What are my joys? I feel the most alive when I’m working with a student who is engaged. I feel the most joy when I’m playing music with other people, and we are experiencing something bigger than ourselves. I am profoundly touched by the beauty, complexity and abundance of the natural world. And I am reminded daily that for some inexplicable reason, I am loved and appreciated.

Because of this I want to teach more, play more, appreciate more, and love more. I am so grateful to be a part of this church. Here I have been accepted, loved, appreciated and given opportunities to grow. And I have been opened to share with you, to love you, to accept you, and to appreciate you.

May it ever continue to be so.