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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Spiritual Autobiography – Year C

Thank you all for inviting me to speak, it is really an honor to be here. Formative to my spiritual autobiography has been by family, so I will begin by telling you about some of my family. I am the 3rd child of Karen and Eric Zimmerman. My father was native of West Point, Virginia. He loved all of his children immensely, with a gentle and warm love. He taught me humor and patience. He taught me to be comfortable outdoors while enjoying the mystery of nature. He loved the earth in a Franciscan way. He was a businessman, a sales executive for James River Paper Company, and died, suddenly, of Legionnaire’s disease in 1991 at the age of 53. My mother, Karen Zimmerman, was a native of Columbus, Ohio and was a physically beautiful woman. She modeled all her life. She was very creative, and a true artist in the garden and in floral design. She taught me style and grace. She, too, died suddenly, succumbing to heart disease in 2001 at the age 57.

I have two siblings. My brother, Erik Zimmerman, who is 39, is married, and soon to have his 2nd child. He is incredibly energetic and fun and you never know what you are going to get into when you’re hanging out with him, be it deep sea fishing or sky diving. My bother works in Virginia Beach in real estate, but, I suspect that, if he had his say, he would rather be casting a fishing line. My sister, Leigh Gilchrist, is 38, married, a mother of 2 and a professor in the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University. Leigh is my best friend, and a really sweet and loving wife and mother. She has a really cool musician for a husband, who will sings me Elvis songs whenever I ask.

Another important person in my spiritual formation has been my paternal grandmother, Frances B. Zimmerman. I went to live with her in West Point after my father’s death and she taught me so much of what it is to be a woman. I also have cousins in both the US and in Sweden with whom I am close. The Olsson family of West Point is three generations of cousins from the Swedish side of my family, and they have always been enormously important to me. Sadly, their family patriarch, Sture, died on Monday. My extended family of 40 big blonde Zimmermans in and around Stockholm are always wonderfully welcoming of me, reminding me of the rich roots of my family.

I also have a large and wonderful group of friends all over the world. I have had many of my closest friends in Richmond since childhood. We often go out to dinner, visit each other, and ride bikes, run and hike together. Along with cooking, reading and listening to music I love to fish on my family’s tree farm in West Point, Virginia, and was actually doing that this week after Sture’s funeral. With my collar on and legs dangling off of the dock and two darling teenage cousins (Sture’s granddaughters) at my side, it was real therapy.

My faith life began with my baptism and has been an amazing journey. God’s presence in my life is pure gift and it is hard to imagine living, or trying to live, without an awareness of God. Our lives are saturated with grace. It is a life well lived that has enjoyed that grace, even taking the chance to depend upon that grace. At an early age I experienced the great suffering associated with mourning, addiction and illness. As both of my parents struggled with alcohol addiction. As a child, suffering the losses that I did, I did not know how to seek God’s help, but thankfully grace did not wait for a formal request. Grace is what kept me on the right path while caring for my parents and loving them through the tears, pain, and loss. I lived the truth of Paul Claudel’s observation that “Jesus did not come to take away suffering or to remove it. He came to fill it with his presence.”

Soon after the burial of my father in 1991, I left my family’s home in Philadelphia to board at St. Catherine’s School, here in Richmond. It was an incredibly tough time as I was in the depths of mourning and I don’t think the school recognized the extent of my struggle. My mother, deeply depressed and consumed with alcohol behaved erratically. She even sued her children for our inheritance, taking all that our grandfather had intended for us. As one of many poignant examples of that time, I remember my sister and I tramping along in downtown Richmond trying to find a lawyer to represent us in my mother’s suit, not fully comprehending what was happening to us. Sadly, we did not feel supported, encouraged, or guided in our struggles. In my mourning, I did not know all that I needed for support or how to ask for help. My school work and my prayer life suffered. I spent several years of my youth in this place of emotional pain and sadness.

One of the darkest aspects of this time was my misperception that there was less love in my life and the world around me as a result of my loss of my parents to death and drink. I had believed that love is created through affections between people and when those relationships cease to exist, so does love. Losing relationship with the most important people in my life meant losing a sense of love. A lot of difficulty was born out of my belief that love was of human origin, rather than divine. My deep sadness and feelings of loss tainted my view of the world. So much appeared to be false and lacking. I was so affected by this dark belief that when I finally emerged into clearer understanding I was forever changed. This emergence was not sudden, it took several years, and the impetus was God, not me. God worked on me, I suppose you could say, and I was simply not strong enough to fight him. Relenting to God’s affections, I met God anew, a God willing to carry the burden of mourning, the pain, the love-loss, the sense of betrayal that I felt. I learned to trust that God would carry all that for me and replace the weight of that struggle with the weight of divine love. I credit grace with that healing in my understanding and perspective. Grace came in and transformed me.

An exchange program to New Zealand with the American Field Service at the age of 16 marked the beginning of a life-long passion for travel and mission. While living and working on a sheep farm, I lived with a really healthy and loving Anglican family who gave me a sense of normalcy in the midst of tumultuous teenage years. We lived in the midst of a wonderful community of faithful people who had a great reverence for the earth and their role as stewards of it.

It was in New Zealand that I was taught how to meditate and it is a practice which has proven invaluable in strengthening my relationship with God. Meditation’s emphasis on discipline and calm invoked within me a level of personal introspection which helped me to confront the contours of my sadness, removing the mystery of it, which eventually facilitated healing. I was able to discern the complex truth that people are not wholly defined by their background, their families, or even their mistakes. We are something much greater. We are a physical reminder of God’s grace in its varied forms and singular truth.

Since then, meditative practice and the wonderful benefits it offers has attracted me to monasteries of Buddhist, Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions. I have spent many holidays and vacations in abbey’s all over the world, and the brothers at SSJE, the Episcopal monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts have become an extended faith family to me.

Also while in New Zealand, I was exposed to people and culture of the indigenous Maori and this encounter ignited in me a life-long passion for mission. Since that experience 14 years ago I have traveled extensively in the US, Middle East, Europe, India and the Caribbean, and have facilitated mission to India, Central America and several Caribbean countries.

Many question my interest in other traditions in my studies, teaching and practice of meditation. Although I do not practice other world faiths, I believe it is a Christian’s responsibility to learn all that she can of different world views and traditions in order to act as a bridge between peoples. We help to create a world pleasing to God through peace. Peace is only possible through overcoming ignorance and building understanding with cross-cultural education acting as a wonderful tool in this effort.

There is also much wisdom cultivated and maintained by adherents of other world traditions. Visiting with Buddhist monks who have lived in mountain caves for decades, sitting with Hindu practitioners who have given up their homes and possessions intentionally, to grow in their understanding of poverty, Bishops of other Christian traditions who have overseen radical applications of the social gospel in missions abroad and domestically…all of these people have something to teach. In my learning from them, I encounter new ways to know Christ. Life lived in the Christian embrace lacks for nothing. Yet, there is so much to learn in other people. For example, the deep humility which I have learned from my teachers and friends has left a strong impression on me. I have tried to practice humility in my life and work, and have found, as they promised, that patience, compassion and love are often byproducts of humble living. I serve others in a spirit with which I hope to be served; knowing that I might gain a greater understanding of the mysteriously beautiful nature of God’s love inherent in all of humanity.

For my undergraduate studies, I attended the University of Pennsylvania, as it has an excellent Religious Studies and Anthropology departments, in which I double majored. My mother lived in Philadelphia at the time, and while studying, I also worked hard to heal our relationship, though she still suffered from alcoholism. I sought counseling with a therapist and was able to establish a supportive relationship with my mother while not enabling her behaviors. I recall that meditation on the book of Job brought me much solace during that time. Job had many of the material gifts of this life and he was a good and honest believer. Like Job, I was forced to reassess my understanding of what it is to be truly fortunate after having lost my father, my mother was ill and a dishonest estate executor embezzled most of her money. I found myself challenged to understand God under new pressures and, just like Job, I learned that misfortune is not punishment. God worked in my life and by his grace I had people who have stood by me as I struggled, just as Job’s friends did. Before the difficulties relented, I lost so much, and yet, who I was, as God’s own, and the wealth that such knowledge brings, increased.

I am so grateful that my mother and I were able to be reconciled during those years. We had shared so much and it would have been so painful had we not reached an understanding and a healthy level of mutual respect before her sudden death in 2001. Gracefully, the darkness of her passing did not feel as overwhelming as it had with my father’s death. So much healing had happened in me in those years. Grace was there in all my trials, and I felt it long before I could name it. It cushioned the blows of difficulties that plagued my family life.

While at Penn I was very interested in advancing my meditative practice and began to study under Lobsang Sampten, a well-known South Asian historian, sand mandala artist and monk who lived with the 14th Dalai Lama in India. A wonderful example of a human being, Lobsang taught me how to deepen my practice as well as my commitment to compassion and the Christian faith. In my studies and personal life I thrived while at Penn and graduated at the top of my class, Summa Cum Laude.

After graduating from University I lived in North India for 6 months. I used the time to explore my relationship with God while living in the context of a culture fertile for such a life. I had studied the cultures of the Indian subcontinent as well as the Tibetan language at Penn and I was interested in immersion in the unique and rare culture of the Tibetan people, hoping to further in my studies of their texts. Ladakh, India is a remote Himalayan region where Vajrayana Buddhism survives in its most unadulterated form. It is a culture so delicate and interdependent that money has only been in use for a few decades, with complex systems of barter and sharing as the norm for centuries. I went to Ladakh as an anthropologist to witness an isolated culture and to experience a people legendary for their adept spiritual practitioners and unique communal life. While there I was asked by my tutor to be the housemother for 90 orphaned Ladakhi children. I was the orphanage’s sole religion teacher. I taught Christianity and Buddhism. We rose each morning at 4:30 for prayers. I was invited to practice mediation alongside the monks while focusing on my Christian tradition. This extended retreat in the Himalayas greatly deepened my Christian faith and prayer life.

Among the many things I admired in the highly inter-dependent culture of Ladakh was their extraordinary emphasis on family. I had planned to remain in India, furthering my research, but when I received a letter from my paternal grandmother, Frances Zimmerman, asking that I return home, in her words, “to share with her in a long winter’s nap”, I made the decision to practice the Ladakhi priority of family by caring for my own grandmother in her waning health. It was a wonderful time living with her in West Point, Virginia for the final 6 years of her life. That sweet thing let me into her home and into the most intimate role of caring for her aged body. I cooked for her, bathed her and prayed with her, honoring her dignity regardless of her lack of physical strength. She was so patient with me, putting up with my attempts to built a large flower and vegetable garden in her yard (tearing up her well manicured lawn and losing control of a strawberry patch in the process- whew that stuff can grow!). While with my grandmother, I worked in multiple forms of outreach in the community. I served by gathering and distributing food, clothing and money for families in crisis. I also taught English to Hispanic laborers and Spanish to their mill bosses. I ferried the (largely) illegal immigrants to the doctor when they became sick, brought them to church, and advocated for them with unfair landlords and prejudiced townsfolk.

I was not paid for much of the work I did while in India or West Point. I learned that it is one thing to say that I will rely on God to provide for me, and it is quite another to actually do it. Through helping the Hispanic immigrants, I was able to share in their simple meals which they offered in gratitude. When I didn’t have money for gasoline, fellow parishioners would offer me rides to church. The Indians had the least of all, which may be the reason why their generous portions of precious rice tasted so good.

While in West Point I had a weekly jail ministry at Henrico County Jail. Eventually, this work occupied more and more of my focus and extended to prison, jail and juvenile facilities all over the state of Virginia. I was so scared the first time I visited the jail that I trembled and cried. For several subsequent visits I kept my eyes on the floor and my mouth shut while others taught. I listened intently to the inmates’ fear, sadness and confusion. I heard the need in their voices, for healing, dignity and a relationship with God. As I sat I stilled my thoughts and began to think of Jesus. I looked up at those intimidating men around me and actively sought the presence of Jesus in each of them and saw Jesus in them, loving them and feeling their pain. I remember that exercise as if it was yesterday, that is how profound it was in helping me to find my place in prison. Since then I am as natural in a jail or prison as I am at home.

Prison ministry is a pilgrimage of the heart and requires a leap of trust that we will be guided by God in a place that we could otherwise be easily lost. It is more than worth the trouble to go into this world of the unwanted and find Christ abiding there. It is truly a blessing to witness God’s grace actively transforming people who we in the world have largely given up on. I commend this special ministry to every one of you.

While caring for my grandmother, I was offered a full merit-based scholarship to the Masters of Divinity Program at Yale Divinity School. I deferred acceptance until she passed away and just graduated from that program in May. It was an excellent education and actually enabled me to set the national record on the Ordination Exam for the Episcopal Church. The best part of seminary, for me, was finding men and women who were lovers of Jesus Christ and so capable of conveying that love for the benefit of the world. I spent a lot of time with Dr. Jonathan Bonk, a brilliant theologian and missionary. I worked alongside him in research and study. His library was my playground and I devoured his books on mission models, Church history, Theology and Christian Ethics. He is an amazing Christian living his faith with inspiring integrity.

If the role of a priest were a job description then it would be very daunting: administrator, counselor, leader, preacher, teacher, and advocate are among its many responsibilities. But it is not a job, it is a vocation. The priesthood is a way of life made possible only through the grace of God. Though the community raises an individual up to be a priest, it is God who defines the spirit in which a priest works. A unique and wonderful role of a priest lies in her administration of the sacraments. That I will be a priest in this phoenix of a church, celebrating the rites of life with you all is an honor that I cannot begin to express my gratitude for. This place is abundant with love. And everything we do together in this place, we do for the glory of God, in gratitude for the abundance of our lives. This has been a bit of my spiritual journey till now, and I am joyful that St. James’ is now a part of my continuing story. Thank you for listening.

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