Spiritual Autobiography

or, How I Got Where I Am (Wherever That Is)

The "Monk" LookElementary School, my dear Emerson (and Maplewood Heights)

My family growing up (which for my first 10 years consisted of my mother and her mother and stepfather, “Grandma” and “Gramps” to me) was not a church-going family, but I learned many important spiritual qualities there — honesty, hard work, respect, love, kindness, loyalty, tolerance for people with differences, and many, many others. This is the bedrock that all my later “spiritual” discoveries, experiences, etc. are built upon. I can’t begin to thank them enough for all they contributed to who I am.

My first church experience came early but was brief. A friend from school (this was maybe third grade) asked me if I wanted to go to Sunday School with him. This was at the tiny Rainier Beach Methodist Church, less than 2 blocks from my home. I don’t remember much about this Sunday School, except it was held in a house two doors down from the church that had been divided up into classrooms, which struck me as odd. I remember learning a song about the foolish man building his house upon the sand but it was years later before I learned what the song was about. And I got my first Bible there, a red leather RSV, for good attendance. I still have that Bible. It will show up later on in the story.

last names footnoteI also remember walking to school with Jeff*, and when I went to pick him up (he lived one block closer to the school than I), he and his mother did a little prayer thing (I can’t for the life of me remember anything else about it). The first time, they asked if I cared to join them. I didn’t see any reason not to. Perhaps this gave me a sense that church was more than just what you did on Sunday? Maybe not, but the memory of this did stick with me, when so many other memories from that time have faded. For some reason I thought he went to the same Methodist Church I mentioned above; but whether that was because I saw them there, or because he merely lived on the same street as the church, I don’t remember.

My paternal grandparents (my parents were divorced when I was less than a year old, and I didn’t see my biological father at all between my 5th year and my 18th) were devout, church-going people, and at intervals during my minority took me to their church out in Renton (I lived in south Seattle until I was 10). I don’t remember anything positive about this experience at all. I remember feeling like a definite outsider in the Sunday School (whether this was because of how I was treated, or merely a subjective experience based entirely on my own thoughts and feelings, I honestly can’t say), and nothing at all about the worship services I must have attended. Mostly I remember my grandmother’s perfume and her (forgive me) less than pavarotic singing.

When my mom remarried, we moved with my new dad out to Renton. He also is not a church-goer, so nothing changed there. But he also taught me important lessons which have been key in my spiritual development (and also some less spiritual lessons, such as to turn off the gas on the lawn mower and let it run itself out, and how to wear your Levi’s on your hips and not around your waist!). The most important thing I learned from him is acceptance – when he adopted me as his own son not too many years after he and my mom married – and the meaning and importance of adoption.

My new Grandmother (Grandma Riggle) was an avid churchgoer, and I particularly remember one service I went to her with (I believe it was for Christmas), as being my first experience of the numinous (if that’s not too highfalutin’ a word for what happened). Most of you have probably seen something like it and will be nonplussed by my reaction, but for an impressionable 10-year-old it was very moving. The room started dark and everybody had unlit candles; then somebody in the front started with a single candle, and each person lit his candle from the people in front of or next to him, until every candle was lit. The slow but steady transformation from the utter darkness to blazing light made a lasting impression on me (obviously!). I still remember it with fondness and awe.

Middle School and Boy Scouts

For some reason in Middle School I started reading that red Bible. I would always start in Matthew, and get through that and a little into Mark, and then put it down. As a result I’m very familiar with Matthew and far less familiar with the other three gospels. At that time I tried to live out some of the lessons, as I interpreted them at the time — for instance trying not to get upset if one of the bullies stole my lunch money because Jesus said “if any one takes your cloak” etc. It was no doubt a very misguided effort, but nonetheless a sincere one.

Another “religious” person entered my life in Middle School, and that was John Mark. He was a very colorful person, and very manic, and I liked him a lot. His mom worked in the school library. I remember him reading a book about the Jesus Freaks; I also remember that he wrote a scripture verse reference in my yearbook: “Even a fool is thought wise when he keeps his mouth shut.” In high school he had a VW Beetle, which I thought extremely cool, and an electric guitar, which was even cooler. Definitely one of the more delightful characters in my early life. Certainly, of all the words somebody might use to describe him, “sedate” would not be one of them. After many years out of contact, we are now friends on Facebook.

Boy Scouts played a huge part in my Middle School life, and also in my spiritual path, both for good and for ill. I joined (at my new Dad’s insistence — he wanted me in some extracurricular activity, and I chose Boy Scouts from among the options) shortly after the move to Renton, and stayed in until my freshman year of high school, at which point I quit to join Sea Explorers (which had less of an influence on my spirituality, but a huge influence in many ways; but that comes later in the story).

On the plus side of the balance sheet: summer camp. At summer camp each year (I went to three years of summer camp, twice at Brinkley and once at Parsons for those of you in the know about Seattle area camps), there was a “chaplain” (well, an older scout usually who had an interest in things religious) and one could go to “services” at a special place in the camp set aside for that purpose. I was drawn to this, and even tried to drag my patrol (I was leader of the Snoopy Patrol for most of my tenure in boy scouts) along with me, albeit without success. The last year, at Parsons, I remember being very smitten by the “chaplain” — I was the sort of kid who regularly picked out an older kid to idolize — and it was directly because of him that I first read Lord of the Rings. He poo-pooed the Chronicles of Narnia, which at the time I adored (still do, actually), and said that LotR was the Real McCoy as far as fantasy was concerned. Which is certainly true. My experiences at the religious “services” at camp probably had something to do with my quondam efforts at reading the gospels mentioned above. Or vice versa.

On the negative side: learning to make fun of people for their religious convictions. Danny, who was my assistant Patrol Leader for a time, always carried a Bible in his backpack, and received a lot of ribbing for it, not all of it good-natured. I’m afraid I joined in as often as not. Danny, if you’re reading this, I apologize.

Also, the scoutmaster Mr. R., something of an odd duck, deeply offended me one night by concluding a campfire service with an invocation of the “great scoutmaster in the sky.” The phrase stuck in my craw (it still does), although at the time I didn’t quite realize why. I asked him, “What if there is somebody in the troop who doesn’t believe in God?” and his answer was, “How could you not believe in God?” I’m sure he was expressing sincere bewilderment at the idea, but it really rubbed me the wrong way at the time. Shortly thereafter, in part using this as an excuse, I entered into my “atheist” phase. This was “mercifully brief” (to wrench Paul Simon out of context), but an important stepping stone nevertheless.

High School — or, The Force Was With Me

Which brings us to High School. One of the things that fed my atheism at the time was the Campus Crusade group, who all ate lunch together and didn’t much care to have unsaved persons sit with them, thank you very much. An unfortunate witness.

My first girlfriend, Liz, (whom I met through Sea Scouts) was a Roman Catholic, and bought me a poster of a sailboat that had the legend, “The wind blows where it will, but we do not see where it comes from or where it goes – John 3:8.” This was something of an in-joke because of a sailing day trip we took, during which there was almost no wind to be bought for love nor money. It was perhaps a chink in my atheist armor having a poster in my bedroom with a scripture verse on it. She also taught me to meditate, which I’ve never been any good at then or since, but it was yet another crack in the armor. We broke up amicably and kept in touch for many years.

My second girlfriend, Sue (whom I met through the Foreign Exchange Club), was also a Roman Catholic. By the time we started going out, I was coming down from my atheist arrogance, and imagined God as something of a “Force” (the first Star Wars movie came out about then – indeed it was our first date); but I still wasn’t at all committed to a Christian understanding of God. We dated for nearly 2 years, from sometime in our junior year at high school to our freshman year in college, when we broke up under confusing and unfortunate circumstances (which don’t really bear going into here). “College” was, for both of us, the University of Washington (Seattle campus, which at the time was the only campus). We are now Facebook friends so any hard feelings seem to have dissipated or at any rate tempered greatly.

Interlude: Sea Scouts

I definitely should say something about Sea Scouts at this point. I discovered Sea Scouts while boating with my folks – we were on the tiny island opposite Nanaimo, BC, and a boat full of teenagers came ashore and they all poured onto the island with sleeping bags. I asked and found out that they were Sea Scouts and knew that that’s what I wanted to be! I hit the phone books and found a local Sea Scout ship, and quickly joined. I was in Sea Scouts throughout my high school years. When I finally got my driver’s license I spent a great deal of time working on the old Argo (our “ship,” which was a 50′ WWI liberty boat that had been fitted with decking and a superstructure).

They say a dog teaches a boy loyalty, love, and to turn around three times before lying down. Sea Scouts taught me too many things to count, including how to work on stuff with my hands with confidence, the value of hard work, and more than anything else that I was an okay person.

One of the most important things I learned was how to be trustworthy. This I learned largely by being trusted. Mr. B, who was the adult leader of the organization, more than once gave me the keys to his pickup truck and his credit card and sent me to get hardware, or lunch for everybody. Being trusted like that is very heady stuff! I would have jumped off a cliff for Mr. B. I certainly would never have done anything to betray his trust in me. I can’t thank him enough for what he did for me with a beat-up old Chevy truck and a Mastercard.

I also discovered that I was considered to have “leadership qualities” (these have all long since evaporated of course). This came to light at a retreat weekend we took, with scouts from all the “ships” in the Seattle area, at Scouter’s Mountain near Portland, Oregon. The campers were divided into four groups, each of which had to select a leader. For a rather odd reason (the two chief contenders had strong followers and divided up a good chunk of the electorate, leaving me with the plurality of the vote), I was selected leader of the “green” squad, which then went on to christen itself the “Green Beans” (each group was encouraged to pick a monicker to go with their color). And that’s how I became King Bean. Years later more than once I was introduced to people and they said, “Hey, I know you – you’re King Bean!” I must have made a pretty good king because I was later asked to be Fleet Boatswain, which I declined (in good part out of loyalty to Mr. B., who didn’t get on with the “Fleet” leaders). But I served as one of the crew bos’ns for the Argo for at least a year.

If I can fix a fuse, wire a switchbox, stitch heavy canvas with a triangular needle and a “palm” (a skill which, alas, I have since not been called upon to use), or volunteer without grumbling for a work crew (say at church) today, it’s because of Sea Scouts.

College (Undergrad) and Conversion

My first roommate in college was of all things a Roman Catholic. We had worked together at Farrell’s and were both in the Navy ROTC, so he invited me to come live with him at the Baptist Student Center (why he had decided to live at the Baptist Student Center, I have no earthly idea). I was interviewed by the campus minister (I forget his name totally) before they let me live there, and he asked me if I was a Christian and I said that I wasn’t, but I figured I would like to marry one. I have no idea where that idea came from but at the time it was quite sincere.

It was at the BSC that I evangelized myself, so to speak. Ken and I were the only two non-Protestants in the bunch at BSC (or Beta Sigma Chi, as we liked to call it – we were located at the edge of “Greek Row,” the fraternity and sorority belt just north of campus). One day he was across the hall from our room, arguing with the guys there about whether or not he was a Christian. Predictably he was defending himself and they were saying he wasn’t. It bugged me a great deal (he was my roommate after all, and a nice guy) so I wandered over there and said to one of the Baptists, “Okay, wise guy, what’s a Christian?” He said something roughly equivalent to, it was someone who had accepted Christ as their savior and had the Holy Spirit living inside them (this was the first time I’d ever heard this — which is why I say I “evangelized myself”). I turned to Ken and said, “Does that describe you?” He averred that it did. “Okay, then,” I nearly shouted, “You’re a Christian, dammit!” – and stormed out of the room.

Shortly after that I went to live in the dorms. My first dormie roommate was a Methodist named Brian, who was also in the Navy ROTC.

One of my buddies from High School and I were in the honors physics class together, and did homework and labs together. His name was Kurt, and he was a (ta-da!) Roman Catholic. He lived two dorms over, but used to go to a midweek evening service at the University Presbyterian Church with a guy that lived in our dorm, whose name was John but for some reason I’ve never been able to fathom was called “Lumpy.” One night Kurt came over and asked me if I’d seen “Lumpy.” I said I hadn’t, and he insisted that I go to the “Inn” with him, as he didn’t want to walk down there (about 1/2 a mile) alone. The Hound of Heaven had me in his sharp, pointy teeth. I thrashed around for an excuse not to, but the best I could come up with was a lame, “What if I don’t like it?” The wily Kurt replied, “Then you don’t have to go back.”

So I went. And went again. And went yet again still. There was something there that I wanted although at first I couldn’t say what it was. But I kept going back.

Then the school year ended. Will, my very good (indeed “best”) friend at the time (and Sue’s little brother), asked me what I thought about Christianity. I told him that I thought I might end up becoming one. And that very summer, I did. On August 8, 1980, I knelt and prayed and asked Jesus to come into my heart, forgive me, etc. The very traditional “sinner’s prayer.” I’m not even sure where I learned the sinner’s prayer, or how or why to use it. But use it I did.

After that I decided I should probably go to church. I didn’t go to my grandparents’ church, although it would have been very easy (I was now living in Renton, and it was only a mile or two from home), perhaps because of the (real or imagined) cold shoulder I remembered from my agemates there before. This was near the end of the summer so once school started again I went to the University Presbyterian Church, and was baptized by their youth pastor (who went on to become the president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, although I’m not a name-dropper so I won’t say it was Steve Hayner) on March 1, 1981, in Green Lake (a tiny urban lake in Seattle), by triple immersion. That morning, at least, you couldn’t say I was neither hot nor cold.

Shortly after that I started attending Seattle First Baptist, a large downtown church that a girl I was sweet on (whom I met – where else? – in Sea Scouts) was attending. We broke up, but I kept going there until I graduated from the U, and my first “Certificate of Church Membership” comes from that church. It was a pretty liberal place, the clergy (as is so often the case) more so than the people in the pews. The pastor was an early proponent of the Christian arm of the “New Age” movement. In a “small world” coincidence, Danny’s parents went there (Danny being the Boy Scout mentioned above).

My Grandma (mom’s mom) died in the summer of 1981, which was a terrible blow to the whole family. We still miss her dearly. May her memory be eternal.

My third college roommate was (this is getting to be a pattern, isn’t it?) a Roman Catholic named Brian. I can’t even begin to list the things I owe Brian. But I have to mention one in particular: he introduced me to the Jesus Prayer and The Way of a Pilgrim. I believe he gave me one of his rosaries, even, to use to count repetitions of the Jesus Prayer. I kept it in my jacket pocket and would toll off beads as I silently said the Jesus Prayer, walking across campus between classes.

While at the University of Washington, I got a little involved in Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. I was in a small group bible study, although I never went to any of the large-group things. I used to like to stand by the student group “booths” (where, if you had a registered student group, you could sit or stand and try to influence passers-by to join your group, or donate to your cause, or whatever it was you wanted them to do), and one of them was the IVCF booth. From that I got into the bible study. I didn’t make any friends there that stuck. But I remember it fondly.

In the summer I think before my Junior year my aforementioned buddy Will introduced me to his then-girlfriend, Robin. Then he went away to college at the University of Chicago, and kept a spotty correspondence with Robin. For which reason she turned to me, ostensibly Will’s best friend, looking for an explanation of why he had stopped writing. I wasn’t able to explain, but we did become friends.

Grad School and Marriage – or, How to Become an Evangelical Without Really Trying

It was in good part because Will was in Chicago that I applied to grad school (in philosophy) at the University of Chicago, and at the University of Illinois, Chicago Campus (UIC, formerly called “Circle”). I also applied to two schools at opposite ends of Pennsylvania. I didn’t apply to any California schools, out of a deep-seated prejudice against California and Californians that many native Washingtonians grew up with. I was accepted at U Penn and UIC, but only UIC offered me a convincing financial aid package, so that’s where I went. I graduated from the UW in June of 1983, went in August to find an apartment (staying with Will’s eldest sister for about a week), and then in September loaded a bed, a desk, some clothes, and a bunch of books in a small U-Haul truck, and drove to Chicago with Will as co-pilot.

Moving away from home for the first time – I mean really moving away, not just going to a University in the next town over – was a very gruelling experience, at least at first. Will was at the other end of town and had his own circle of friends (although he tried valiantly to include me in a lot of things he did, bless his heart!). For most of the time, I was really on my own, and that for the first time in my life.

But right across the street from my first apartment was a United Methodist church, so I started going there. The people there were largely Japanese-Americans who had themselves, or whose parents had, been released from internment camps near Chicago after WW2. There was nobody my own age there except the organist, who already had a boyfriend and wasn’t terribly interested in entertaining me, so it was something of a lonely place for me from that point of view, although the older people were extremely friendly and very welcoming. Another fond memory.

Not too long after starting at UIC I discovered where the student-group booths were, and in short order found the Inter-Varsity group. This I clung to like a demented barnacle, it being (as it seemed) my only source of contemporary friendship in the whole lonely city of Chicago. By the end of my first year I was asked to become the large group activity coordinator for the following year (for reasons that still elude me, unless it was that I had a guitar and knew how to play a few chords). This involved a rather difficult decision for me, for in order to be on the membership team at IVCF, I would have to sign the “Statement of Faith.” At the time I didn’t believe in all the points of the Statement of Faith; I was still something of a liberal. But I very much wanted to be on the membership team (or as I put it to myself then, quite sincerely, that “God was calling me” to be on said team), so I decided that I would believe the Statement of Faith. And I did. And from that moment on, I was an evangelical. And not even a reluctant one, at least at first. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves (again).

Through IVCF I discovered Howard Snyder’s church (Irving Park Free Methodist) on the North Side (near Pulaski and Irving, for those of you who are familiar with Chicago streets) and started going there.

Also through IVCF I met John, who was the best prayer partner a guy could ever have. He ended up dying in a plane crash (which comes into the story later on), and I miss him very much.

My second year in Chicago I roomed with Rich, now a Presbyterian minister in Oregon but then a lowly grad student like myself. I had known him from the dorms back at the UW in Seattle and we had kept in touch.

Meanwhile, Robin and I had gotten engaged over the phone (in early 1984) and were intent on marrying one another after she graduated from college (in the summer of 1985). Which we did (in September, 1985), and we moved into the church apartments next door to the Irving Park church. But as soon as we moved in, we somehow became personae non gratae, or so it seemed to us. We couldn’t get people to come over and have dinner with us, for example, and found ourselves left out of certain activities. So after a year there, we moved to Evanston. We split our duties this way: Robin would find us an apartment (which she did, and a fine one it was), and I would find us a church.

The former was the much easier job. I didn’t like any of the churches I visited at first; most seemed far too liberal. At last I discovered the Evangelical Covenant Church of Evanston (or “ECCE”) and we really were welcomed there (especially after our daughter was born — she had a whole church full of little old Swedish grandmothers!)

Another important influence on my life during my grad school days was the staff at the Agape House, the Protestant campus ministry located in an old church just two blocks west of campus. This was where the IVCF had its meetings, and was a wonderful place to hang out. I remember with particular fondness two Presbyterian ministers Dave and Marilyn, and the Episcopalian priest Catharine. This was my first “taste” of Episcopal worship, and I was really drawn to it. One of the places I visited in Evanston in my church-shopping excursion was the local Episcopal church, but the people there (with the exception of the priest and his wife, who were wonderful) were shall we say less than totally welcoming.

Also while at UIC I went for some time to enquirer’s classes at the Catholic student center – not a big surprise for people who have been paying attention to the story thus far – although I never did join the RCC.

Back to Seattle — or, The Confused Years

After an unsuccessful and bitter attempt to form a dissertation committee (departmental politics – I became persona non grata by dropping one class with a very influential instructor, and allowing my would-be dissertation advisor to move to California), I took an extended leave of absence and went to work for Arthur Andersen as a graphics artist -cum- desktop publisher. This was in about June of 1988. I had been working summers for Kelly Temporary Services (and once won the coveted “Kelly Girl of the Month” award, which actually had the word “Girl” crossed out and the word “Employee” scribbled above it!) doing word processing, so this wasn’t much of a leap. But once I was away from school, and couldn’t really see it as possible to go back and complete my PhD, there didn’t seem to be any reason to be in Chicago. One day Robin asked me if I really wanted to stay in Chicago, or should we just move back to Seattle. We decided to move back to Seattle.

So in August of 1988 we packed up a U-Haul truck, one of the cats (the other we gave to our pastor), and the kid (who had just turned one), said goodbye to our dear Chicago friends, and drove back home. We lived for a brief time with R’s parents, then got an apartment in nearby Tukwila. Robin talked me into a job at Boeing (the superintendent of the apartment complex, Pat, was a Boeing supervisor) as a systems analyst – meaning that she convinced Pat that I was just what his little group of computer programmer-analysts needed. I applied, got the job, and have been doing database programming of one sort or another ever since (until I was fired in September, 2009; I have now given up on programming and am working on a certificate to teach secondary math at the University of Washington at Tacoma; stay tuned).

That job lasted 2 years, during which we moved twice (Robin seemed to have very itchy feet the whole time I was married to her). Again it was Robin’s job to find the apartments and mine to find the church. After the Boeing job, I went to work at the Seattle-King County Health Department, where I was to stay just over 4 years (during which we moved another two times), after which I went back to Boeing. During that time we went to an Episcopal church in Tacoma, a Methodist church in Tacoma, an Evangelical Covenant church in Des Moines, an Evangelical Covenant church in Bellevue, an Episcopal church in Burien, a former-Presbyterian church in Boulevard Park (in fact the very same one I had had my “numinous” experience in all those years ago), and finally an Episcopal Church in Kent, where I (but not Robin) was confirmed and our daughter baptised.

In 1989, I wrote to Charles C., one of my professors at UIC, and asked if he could manage to get me awarded an M.A. on the basis of my coursework and my prelim tests (which were meant to take the place of a Master’s on the straight-to-PhD program). And he did! The same year, John, my dear friend from my UIC days, was killed in the infamous “Cornfield Crash” while flying back to Chicago after having come out to visit us in Seattle. May his memory be eternal.

It was a very bitter time. We flew back to Chicago for the funeral, and had one last get-together with the old IVCF gang there, albeit under most unfortunate circumstances. I have not seen or heard from any but one or two of them since.

Divorce — or, I Wouldn’t Wish It on a Dog

While we were at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Des Moines, Robin conceived twins, who in January of 1991 arrived stillborn at about 6 months’ gestation. Sadly, this had a terrible effect on our marriage, and probably had a great deal to do with our ultimate divorce. We handled the tragedy in completely different ways, and it was quite a strain.

Not too long after that I started to learn about my Attention Deficit Disorder and to attend support groups, take meds, etc. for that condition. I think this whole process, in which I changed not a small bit from who I had been, also had a negative effect on our marriage.

We were in counselling on and off from shortly after we lost the twins until the end. Finally Robin told me flatly, in May of 1995, that she no longer wished to be married to me. I moved out the first of July, and our divorce was made final by the State of Washington on November 30.

Needless to say, although things had been rocky for some time, I was both shocked and devastated. I immediately moved from St. James (the Episcopal church in Kent) over across the valley to St. Columba (the church we had been going to earlier, which had in the intervening time moved into a different facility), as it was too hard to go to the church that “the two of us” had gone to together. The people at St. Columba were wonderfully supportive, and I owe them an eternal debt of gratitude for how kindly they treated me in the time I went there.

The last thing I did in connection with St. James was go to Cursillo. When we first started going to St. James, we were asked if we wanted to go to Cursillo, but were suspicious of the whole thing. After we divorced and I started attending St. Columba, one of the people back at St. James looked me up and again asked me if I wanted to go to Cursillo. At that time I agreed. Cursillo is a wonderful weekend retreat (yes, I know it has its detractors, but it was wonderful for me) that was originally invented by Catholics in Spain, and has been adopted by the Episcopalians in the US among other denominations. It’s a 4-day weekend full of fellowship and prayer and many wonderful surprises. But more than any of these, for me, was the feeling of being loved and welcomed. I’m very glad I went, although as it turns out, it was to play directly into my decision to leave the Episcopal Church. More anent that anon.

The divorce was devastating to me. I went into a major depression which lasted nearly a year. It was hard to get into anything, although I somehow managed to drag myself to church every week and (more amazingly still) to work every day. My folks and Gramps were very supportive during this extremely hard time. I don’t know how I would have made it through without them.

Online Religion — or, Divine Grace at 9600 Baud

While at the Health Department, I discovered the dial-up BBS world at a “technology faire” put on by the IS department. The King County government had a BBS which we were encouraged to check out. I did, and discovered that among the many interesting things there (great DOS utilities to download, for example), they also carried discussion “rooms” from the RIME network. This was in the fall of 1994, before the World Wide Web had changed the Internet from an arcane association of universities and government agencies to the global communications network we all know and love/hate.

Those of you who are old and geeky enough will remember but the rest may need to be told that the BBS networks were loose affiliations of BBSs across North America which called each other up in the dead of night and passed back and forth all the messages, files, etc. that had been uploaded during the day. In this way, you could have “discussions” with people all over the country about all the various topics in the “rooms” on your network. (The other large BBS network (other than RIME) was FIDO.)

I quickly found the RIME Religion room and became a regular. This was a wonderful time of discovery for me, learning as I did many things about many different religions and denominations (I learned a good bit about Baha’i, for instance, from some very friendly and kind Baha’is on the list). There I held forth as an embattled Anglican, exchanging opinions and ideas with people from all over the religious spectrum, winning and (mostly) losing arguments about various theological positions and arcana. There too I met Marty and Charli, two (unrelated) Orthodox Christians from Memphis.

Now I had always had a low-level interest in Orthodoxy, from the time I read The Way of the Pilgrim back in college. Through the years little bits of Orthodoxy crept into my vision, such as buying the Faber&Faber edition of the Philokalia, going to Greek festivals at St. Demetrios in Seattle, and “watching” long-distance as fellow ex-IVCF leaders Tim (now the Deacon Timothy) and Sherry (now Presvytera Anna) converted to Orthodoxy. So once I had access to real, live Orthodox, I picked their brains to learn more about Orthodoxy, and they with patience and charity taught me what they knew.

When the divorce shook my world, I stopped participating in RIME Religion for a good while. But as the black clouds began to lift in early 1996, I logged back into RIME and left a, “How is everybody, do you remember me?” message. Marty wrote me a friendly email. He suggested that Charli might like to hear from me as well, and gave me her email address. So I dropped her an email.

Charli had just been through a divorce as well (the dates were almost identical to mine), and proved thus a sympathetic ear, as well as a very faithful correspondent. And as soon as we had got through the niceties of hello and how’s your mom and such, we started talking about religion. In particular I was interested in continuing to learn about Orthodoxy. She patiently put up with all my rattling on about Anglicanism, and we exchanged helpful parenting hints as well.

There were many other things about Orthodoxy that I found attractive, one especially important one being the emphasis on a sickness/healing rather than a wrath/punishment view of the atonement. Another important one is its pedigree: I had always been uncomfortable with denominationalism and felt like the splintering of the Church wasn’t right. In Orthodoxy I believed (and still believe) I had found the original rock all those splinters broke off from.

Another is Orthodoxy’s focus on the practical, day-to-day, living-it-out-in-the-world aspect of Christianity. After leaving college and getting out into the so-called real world, I found the “tools” for practical Christianity I had picked up along the way strangely lacking. In Orthodoxy I found a toolkit (if you will), honed with nearly 2,000 years of practical experience, which one could use to “be” Christian in more than a merely cerebral sense. In particular, I liked the physicality of it.

Conversion to Orthodoxy — or, Making the Big Jump

It was right about this time that I went to Cursillo. Not long after, I visited an Orthodox worship service for the first time, a daily “hours” service at St. Paul in Brier (I had a weekday off work for reasons I don’t remember). I was very impressed that although there was nobody else there, the priest, Fr. James Bernstein, was nevertheless standing there, reading the prayers. Something about that seemed very right to me, that the prayers should go on even if the priest is the only person present, because they’re meant to be prayed at that time and aren’t just a “show” for worshippers. He didn’t hear me come in and was surprised to find me there when he finished the service and turned to go. We had a great talk, and he loaded me up with books to read.

I started going to vespers at St. Paul on Saturday nights, while still going to Sunday services at St. Columba’s. I also started going to the “inquirer’s class” which met weekly in Fr. James’s home. St. Paul was a lengthy drive north of my home at the time, a wonderful two-storey apartment in downtown Kent that I called “St. Ninian’s” after a church in the book Redwall by Brian Jacques. I discovered there was another Orthodox church a good deal closer to St. Ninian’s, Holy Trinity in tiny Wilkeson up in the mountains, so I decided to go there for my first Sunday morning Orthodox service. That Saturday night, I told Fr. James what my plan was, and he looked at me with an unreadable look and said, “You may just find a home there.” I’m not sure what he meant (I’m sure he wasn’t trying to give me the brush-off!), but it turned out to be prophetic. I did find a home at Holy Trinity.

That Sunday (it was the first Sunday after Pentecost, 1996), the priest at Holy Trinity, Father John Pierce, had to leave immediately after the service to drive over the mountains to co-officiate at a wedding in Yakima. After the service I introduced myself to a few people, and Matushka introduced me to Father as he went flying out the door to his car. I said, “Hello, my name is Alex and I want to become Orthodox!” “I’m sorry I can’t stop to talk, call me on Monday!” he said breathlessly. So I called him on Monday.

One of the follow-ups that Cursillistas (people who have been to Cursillo) generally do is to meet once a week in small groups for prayer, and one of the protocols of these groups is for each person to answer the question, “When during the past week did you feel closest to God?” At first my answers varied widely, but once I was going to Orthodox services regularly my answer came to be, “When I was worshipping with the Orthodox,” every single time. I took this as a pretty strong indicator of where I belonged.

It was while walking to my apartment from the bus stop one afternoon not long after that, reading The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware (one of the books Fr. James had given me) that I read the sentence, “Only God could be the perfect Man.” Something in my head went “click” and I knew at that point I was going to become Orthodox.

To this day I have nothing but good to say about the years I spent in the Episcopal Church (both before and after I was confirmed). The people I met there were wonderful, the fellowship was warm and positive, and the worship was beautiful.

Another thing I want to get out of the way is the possible misconception that I left the Episcopal Church because of the ordination of women. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was a woman priest, you will recall, that got me interested in Anglicanism in the first place! Indeed, the hurdle went the other way – I had to come to grips with the Orthodox church not ordaining women, and at first it was a major stumbling block. Indeed, when Tim and Sherry were converting, I had told them (Tim remembered it years later when I myself finally became Orthodox!) that if it weren’t for the question of the ordination of women, I would have become Orthodox myself. At that time Tim says he remembered thinking that I would never become Orthodox. Which serves to illustrate the dictum (first expounded, I believe, by amateur philosopher Fats Waller) that “one never know, do one?” Ultimately I made peace with the Orthodox Church’s lack of women priests, in large part through discussions with Orthodox women.

Sometime in the summer of 1996 I entered the catechumenate at Holy Trinity. I was thus in the inquirer’s class (as ‘catechumenate’ is translated into contemporary English), doing a lot of reading about Orthodoxy on my own, and continuing to pick Charli’s brain as often as I had the chance. I even started singing with the choir, something I had always enjoyed doing from my days back in Evanston and continued to do in most of the churches I had attended since then. This actually is another great story about feeling wanted. During the Divine Liturgy one Sunday I was singing along with the choir, trying to match the bass line by ear (as you do). After the service, George came up to me and said, “Choir practice. Thursday, 7:00. Fr. John’s house. Be there.” I was there.

Finally, on January 5, 1997, the eve of Theophany (aka Epiphany, which falls on January 6, as the astute mathematicians among my readers will easily be able to calculate), I was chrismated by Fr. John and became a real Orthodox boy.

Courtship-at-a-Distance — or, The Rest of the Romantic Story

Well, those of you who know us know that Charli and I finally got married, so I guess I’d better follow up that side of the equation as well. At the time we started our email acquaintance in January of 1996, she was a single mom of four kids, living in Memphis, working for Federal Express. As our online relationship progressed, we realized we were becoming very fond of one another, but we each had already had one unsuccessful marriage, and were fearful of making the same mistake twice. So we were taking it slow, and each maintaining “reality checks” at each step of the way with our closest friends.

In June of 1996 she had the opportunity to come to Seattle for training. As part of her training she had to ride along for one day with a Fed Ex delivery person to see how things worked “in the field” for the people she was writing manuals for (she’s a tech writer). She could have gone anywhere in the country but decided to go to Olympia, Washington, in part so she could meet me, and in part so she could catch up with her aunt in Chehalis and her cousin in Seattle.

For her safety, we arranged that she would know what I looked like, but I would not know what she looked like. Thus, if she got off the plane and decided I looked creepy, she could walk right on past with all the other passengers.

Thus I was at the airport dressed in a suit and with a dozen roses, and apparently I didn’t look too terribly creepy. I took her to dinner at a nice restaurant (Salty’s at Redondo), then drove her to her aunt’s house in Chehalis. The next day she was busy at work, but the day after that we had a picnic together on Mt. Rainier. I also got to meet her cousin in Seattle (and her family).

Now begins our bizarre long-distance courtship. Federal Express allows employees to fly with the packages (there are two or more “jump seats” on every cargo plane), a practice known as “jumping” (for obvious reasons). Pretty regularly throughout the remainder of our developing friendship and eventually courtship, Charli would “jump” out to Seattle (or Portland (twice) or Vancouver (once)) and I would pick her up in the morning at the cargo terminal. We would then spend the day visiting and doing touristy things, and drive back to the cargo terminal late in the evening so she could “jump” back to Memphis with the day’s Memphis-bound packages.

As our relationship progressed we very much wanted to “make it work,” but for a long time weren’t sure it would. When we came to a certain point along that path, Charli wanted me to undergo one last “test” before committing. Since she had chosen badly in her first marriage, she wanted to make sure she wasn’t making a bad choice for a second. She wanted her priest in Memphis (Fr. John né Troy Mashburn) to “look me over.”

This became possible in the fall of 1996, when I was asked to come to Memphis to testify in her custody proceedings with her ex. Her ex was among other things saying I was an unfit potential stepfather because I owned a pet rat at the time. It would be uncharitable of me to say, “Better to own a rat than to be one,” so I won’t. As it turned out, though, they managed to get the whole thing worked out while I was in the air, so I never got to testify in court, although I had made a deposition by phone earlier. But this put me in Memphis, and thus allowed me to meet (and be vetted by) her “people,” and in particular, Fr. John. It sounds like a very old-fashioned thing, and it really was. Fr. John asked something along the lines of the very traditional, “What are your intentions toward our Miss Charli here?” I told him who I was, what I did and believed, and what sort of life I could make for Charli and her kids (he is Godfather to Charli and her three oldest children) out in Washington. I had bought and brought an engagement ring, but told Fr. John that if he told me to, I would keep it in my suitcase and take it back to Seattle and that would be that. To our lasting joy, however, he consented to our marriage. He did marital counseling at-a-distance with us, and presided at our wedding in July, 1997.

Epilogue — or, Happily Married Is Not an Oxymoron

And, well, we’ve been married ever since. In the couple of days before the wedding we loaded all her and her kids’ stuff into a Ryder truck with lousy suspension, and for our honeymoon drove it across the country with her youngest, not quite yet two years old. The other kids flew out later.

In 2000 my grandfather “Gramps” died, and I still miss him greatly. Many a time I have seen or thought of things he’d be the perfect person to share with, and was pained to remember I could no longer do so. We had an icon of St. Joseph painted (his name was Joseph) and donated it to Holy Resurrection. May his memory be eternal.

In 2005 I adopted Charli’s two youngest sons (the older two kids were already adults). The younger two still live with us; the older two have both graduated from college. One lives in Memphis; the other got married this past summer and moved to Chicago. Robin’s and my daughter lives in nearby Renton.

Charli and I are still involved in online religious discussion, being regulars at the Ship of Fools, “the website for Christian unrest,” and of course on Facebook.

And that’s the story! Thanks to those of you who have struggled thus far for taking the time to read it.

First written 8/2003. Updated 3/2006, 7/2011, 2/2012, 10/2012, 6/2013.

Copyright © 2003-2014 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.

10 comments on “Spiritual Autobiography

  1. God bless you and your family. I was blessed by your story.

  2. Your spiritual bio made for compelling reading; indeed, we share a number of similar experiences. At least, there appears to be a certain “ambience” common to several formative episodes of our respective mortal coils. I wonder if such trajectories produce lovably sardonic persons … or if it’s the other way ’round. At all events, God has blessed you and your family. May He continue to do so in abundance.

  3. That’s an amazing story. Your gratitude and humilty are wonderful. But then so are you and Charli. It’s a privilege to know you, Alex.

  4. Wonderful story. Glad I read the whole thing.

  5. I truly enjoyed reading your blog and The Onion Dome (by ?accident?) through the website of St. John the Evangelist Orthodox Church in Orinda, CA. As I was reading, I chuckled a lot and was then amazed that you know Fr. James Bernstein. I am happy that he had a part in your Orthodox growth.

    Because Christ is in our midst, Happy Holy Days!

  6. Thank you, your intrepidness. But first Evangelical-Liberal-Protestant you were. And Anglican, well known for transpiritual coming out of closet. Is outrage!

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