I was a spiritual seeker before I knew I was a seeker – so let me tell you the story of how I went from being a committed Christian to becoming a very committed Baha’i.
In small-town USA, most families went to Sunday school and church every week, without question. As a child, that tradition was as ingrained in me as my ABCs, and I loved every minute of it. My first church was part of the Evangelical & Reformed tradition. My fondest memory was of playing one of the animals in a Christmas play, reenacting the children’s song “The Friendly Beasts.”
In 1957 the E&R and Congregational denominations merged to become the United Church of Christ. I had a vibrant spiritual life at the UCC church we joined upon moving to a new town, good times filled with Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, Youth Fellowship, and church choir. The UCC was globally minded, progressive and fairly liberal in its stance on world affairs. This, and my parents’ teachings, provided me with a strong moral compass and an open mind.
You must endeavor to understand the mysteries of God, attain the ideal knowledge and arrive at the station of vision, acquiring directly from the Sun of Reality and receiving a destined portion from the ancient bestowal of God.
At my minister’s suggestion, I enrolled at a UCC-affiliated college, majoring in music. In my junior year, I took on a second major, religion, with a focus on Christian education. World religions class awakened me to the beauty and wonder of Faiths other than my own.
Knowing about other religions made me question the Christian belief that one must believe only in Jesus to enter heaven. That made no sense to me at all. What if people died who’d never heard of Jesus? Were their spirits denied an afterlife? Something was off.
I distinctly remember the first sign, my first inkling of other possibilities. Since learning about Krishna, Buddha, Muhammad, and others, I was now aware of them and their teachings. Out of the blue, I pondered, “If God sends a new messenger every thousand years or so, what if He is simply sending those prophets to give a bit more of His message throughout history and it’s really all the same religion?” Now that made sense, and I believed little ol’ me had just had an original thought. Little did I know God had planted a seed called progressive revelation. Later I would learn what Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, said in the mid-1800s: “We will surely show them Our signs in the world and within themselves, until it become plain to them that there is no God save Him.”
After graduation, I worked as a Christian education director and held that position in three different churches as my husband, son and I moved around the country. In 1982, I was seriously contemplating getting my masters in Christian education – or becoming an ordained minister. But then the sign #2 hit rather unexpectedly. Driving to classes on the first day of seminary while pregnant with our second child, I was overcome with morning sickness. I knew, as sick as I had been with the first baby, that I would never be able to focus on my studies, so I dropped out of school before I even began.
I didn’t see this as a sign then, but in hindsight I realized God was pointing me in a totally different direction.
As our children grew, an uneasiness began settling on our family. We were all still going to church and I loved singing in the choir, but our kids were getting nothing out of Sunday school and we increasingly found church services rote and meaningless. The last straw happened when the minister preached a good message, but could be heard swearing like a sailor in the parking lot after the service ended. We just couldn’t detect much spirituality in the place. Disappointed and disillusioned, we knew there had to be something better out there for us to fully embrace.
Sign #3 appeared in 1988, just before I found out about the Baha’i Faith. I was recovering from cancer and listening to a guided meditation by Dr. Bernie Siegel. At one point he asks the listener to imagine being on a path and seeing someone approach who is there to help you on the road to wellness. I so desperately wanted it to be my grandmother, who had passed away from breast cancer when I was a teenager. I needed it to be her; I missed her so much.
But in my mind’s eye, a man in a white robe and turban quietly walked toward me. No! Who was this? I wanted my grandmother! The man turned and walked away, and I will never forget that image. Years and years later, after we became Baha’is, I was thumbing through the book Mystery of God, which features wonderful photos of Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah. Suddenly I stopped at one image of his back, taken as he was walking away from the photographer. Tears welling, I instantly recognized him as the person I saw during that meditation!
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I felt overwhelmed with guilt that I had turned Abdu’l-Baha away all those years ago, and in my prayers I begged his forgiveness. Had I only known who he was! I really believe he came to me to offer solace during cancer recovery and I had adamantly refused him. But I took heart from these words of the Bab, Baha’u’llah’s herald and forerunner:
Verily in this Day all that dwell on earth are the servants of God. As to those who truly believe in God and are well assured in the signs revealed by Him, perchance He will graciously forgive them the things their hands have committed, and will grant them admission into the precincts of His mercy. He, in truth, is the Ever-Forgiving, the Compassionate.
These three signs took me in an entirely surprising and unexpected direction – which I’ll describe in the final essay in this two-part series, coming up next.