My Faith Journey

by Terry Schraeder

When the Reverend Rebecca Spencer kindly asked me to talk about my faith journey during Lent, I was honored, humbled, and nervous. What I did not know initially was how much this exercise would strengthen my faith through rigorous and honest self-reflection.

How and when did I find my faith?  How has my faith changed especially during the last two years?  And as I get older and “wiser,” how has my relationship to God changed?

After two years of the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine, we know that these are difficult times. We are in a storm. Many people around the world are hanging on to their physical security and mental stability by a thread.  To watch the news is an exercise filled with daily shock and horror. No matter what our individual situation, many of us are being tested in little and big ways.

Have I turned to my faith during these tough times? Unfortunately, not always. While I never question God’s existence, I admittedly sometimes forget to acknowledge, respect, and feel the presence of God. I forget to stop and ask for God’s help and listen for guidance and direction.

I know we often get on our knees when the “boat is sinking” in our lives, but with a relentless stressor like a pandemic, or a new and not-so-distant war, or even the skeptical glasses we tend to don as we get older, we may begin to ignore God. We think we are wise enough and strong enough to figure it all out for ourselves. Until it seems we cannot. Something is wrong. Everything is not okay. We are lost, confused, and in a dark place. And the world seems to be getting darker.

I don’t have to tell anyone that mental health in this country is at an all-time low. We know we need to make sure we get enough sleep and exercise, to spend more time outdoors and avoid addiction to our electronic screens. We need to be with others, eat healthfully, and reduce caffeine and alcohol. These things really can help you feel better, but where is God on that list?

Without faith in God, it is as if we are packing our supplies for a hiking trip, and we forget our backpack. We certainly need all of our supplies, but God is our backpack, our map and our guide. It is our responsibility to pack the necessities and make sure we are healthy enough for the trip, but we cannot make any journey without God.

Why do I have faith? Because I know it represents all that is good and necessary in life. My faith has not only helped me during difficult times, it also has reminded me of the reverence, respect, and deep gratitude I have for everything in life. Most scientists fall into two camps: those who believe in God and those who don’t. As a child, I likely worshiped whatever illustration I was presented as the picture of God. But as an older adult, I pray to and feel the presence of God in all aspects of our living world. I know that biologic reductionism cannot explain a metaphysical existence, but our faith provides the meaning and connection between all life from the beginning of time. God to me represents meaning, purpose, goodness, truth, love, and all that we should strive to be and understand while we are here. I see the hand of God in a mathematical equation as much as in a cellular structure under a microscope. I sense God in a musical sonata as much as when reading about ancient civilizations or the history of the world.

The three Ps of my faith have always been people, places, and projects (or passions). These are the where, when, and how I was introduced to God and continue to feel the presence of God in my life.

People: My father was as strong in his faith as he was gentle in his spirit. He was kind, loving and understanding. I was blessed to have him as a father and best friend. He attended church every Sunday and prayed before each meal. He lived an honorable life as a successful person and often in service to others. If anyone knocked at our front door, be it the Fuller Brush Man or Mormon missionaries, they were soon sitting on our couch with something to eat and drink from our kitchen. My father – with his warm hands and great belly laugh – had a smile, joke, and helping hand for everyone. His mind was rigorous in math and engineering, he had an uncanny ability to put anyone at ease, and he always found time to help. It was not uncommon for him to pull the car over to see if someone needed a ride, to help someone carry a heavy package, or to smile and wave to a small child. When I was a teenager and filled with angst, he would reassuringly place the palm of his large hand on the back of my head and simply say, “calm down.” And I would. My parents divorced when I was very young, and during high school, my father and I would spend Sundays going to church, going out for brunch, grocery shopping, folding laundry, and accomplishing whatever chores necessary for the week. Sunday was our special day together. I would notice that my father always pushed the shopping cart all the way back to the store – not like other parents who would leave the cart in the middle of the parking lot somewhere. He was always friendly with clerks and waitresses and seemed to know their names and often something about their lives. Before bedtime, I could hear my father getting on his knees on our wood floors to pray before bedtime.

I still feel the presence of his hand on the back of my head sometimes and always cherish Sundays.

My father was a guiding force in my faith and my life. Unfortunately, he died when I was in my 20s. I was the only one in the room when he died in his hospital bed and was blessed to exchange the last words with him. I dedicated my medical degree to him and wrote in my yearbook, “In memory of my father who taught me love, honesty, humor, integrity, and faith in God.”

Places: The beauty of nature from the mountains of Colorado (where I was born) to the beaches of Hawaii (where I lived in high school) give me awe and inspiration. How can one not see God’s hand in the luminescence of snow on a mountain ridge or sunlight in the morning waves? Of course, places of faith also include houses of worship. How can one not feel God while worshiping in Central Congregational Church with beams of sunlight cascading through the windows, organ melodies filling the sanctuary and the inspiration of a wonderful sermon?

Projects or Passions: Becoming a doctor was a lifelong dream for me. Attending medical school and residency training gave me many opportunities to restore my faith. Helping with the birth of a baby or caring for patients in vulnerable times, I often witnessed God’s presence. I continually rely on my faith to help patients and teach medical students. I am also lucky to have passions such as playing the piano and singing that help restore my faith through the glory of music.

Reverend Rebecca Spencer has helped me feel the presence of God. Each time I am lucky enough to hear one of her sermons and chat with her for a few minutes after church, I am touched with a renewed faith. Each time I benefit from the wonderful community she has fostered at Central, I know God is here. Thank you, Reverend Spencer.

A few years ago, I interviewed Rebecca for a book I was writing, “Physician Communication: Connecting with Patients, Peers, and the Public” (Oxford, 2019). I asked her about the importance of communication skills as a member of the clergy and the leader of our church. She talked about the importance of listening to members of the congregation. She stressed that people overwhelmingly just need to be listened to – and explained the intricacies of how to listen. I knew immediately what she called the “Ministry of Presence” could help physicians listen to their patients.

I think of her Ministry of Presence not only when listening to other people, but also when listening to God. I know if I am truly present (and calm) then I can listen, and my faith will remain strong.

I have kept diaries since fifth grade and still have them! I have one diary that I wrote from 2008 to 2011 entitled “Spiritual Messages for my Life.”  Here is an excerpt:

“Life sometimes comes at us with the charge of a thousand horses and a thunderstorm on the horizon. We are thrust onto a fast-moving stage and begin running, juggling, and jumping to stay ahead and sometimes just to stay alive – at least I felt this at times whether as a very young child in a dysfunctional home or as an adult in a frenetic world trying to achieve success.

“But now I finally realize that it is so important to create and allow for calmness, invite a peacefulness with a simple exhale, to feel the body relax and the spirit come alive in prayer and meditation. Whether walking in nature or worshiping in church, I need to find a healthy peaceful place to be mindful of this moment of my life and all its glory. To be grateful. To be quiet. To honor oneself. To honor God. To feel and to listen. To have faith. It is then I will hear God and the Truth and Wisdom that can guide me.

“I want to respect and honor myself for all that I have done and achieved. To move in a mindful way and an honorable intellectual and spiritual way. To gather the strength and wisdom I have accumulated and move forward in an intentional direction toward a meaningful life, purposeful work, and loving relationships.”

May we all continue to look, listen, and feel God in our lives in good and bad times. And whenever possible, remember to push the shopping cart back to where it belongs.

I pray you always feel a guiding hand of reassurance, calmness, and peace. Thank you, God. Thank you, Reverend Spencer and Central Congregational Church. And thank you, Dad.

March 18, 2022

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