Dr. Clingenpeel’s Palm Sunday sermon “A Sunday Stroll” relates that “Faith starts small.” I mentally multitasked by listening yet not losing my then swirling thoughts. I heard a strain from a hymn favored since childhood, “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” and the voice of Dr. Donald W. Richardson delivering a Bird Life in Wington tale to parallel a sermon at Porter Street Presbyterian Church. I was a nine-year-old who marveled that he could “read” scripture from memory. I knew Dr. Richardson’s spirit would be in my life forever and decided to join church just before his retirement in 1954. A deeper relationship with God, a better understanding of scripture, and my role as a Christian began to evolve.
A dynamic educator, Joyce Gibson of our congregation, sealed my desire to teach, and my career eventually led me to the Quantico Marine Corps Base schools. One evening while preparing a lesson on Milton’s Paradise Lost, I became mesmerized by a verse that suddenly grabbed my spirit in a profound way: “The mind…can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” I lifted the line completely from both its speaker and context with apologies to Milton and literary scholars and made it my own for interpretation. It became a focal principle for guidance in my professional, personal, and spiritual journeys in life.
Such journeys generate challenge. How can one absorb the positive potential of humanity so intensely coupled with a world seeming like “a lost paradise”? Can one find balanced thought with embraced faith? I had also been drawn to Melville’s characterization of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. Ahab’s defiant mind pursues life’s complex questions but destroys his semblance of sanity and own humanity in the process. I reasoned that it is essential to attempt to grow from the raw reality of some experiences without losing a freshness of spirit needed to face future endeavors, especially in my cherished role of teacher. I continued, though, to turn to Milton’s “out-of-context” words not only in difficult times but also in those of joy and inspiration. This idea may seem simplistic, but recognizing and then validating positive moments generate hope and deepen faith during days of duress.
In 2007 as a visitor at River Road, I “strolled” into Bob Shepherd’s class (with perhaps that “Shepherd” hymn ringing in my head). He was analyzing the passage in Mark about the epileptic boy whose father says to Christ, “Help my unbelief” after Christ’s challenge to him in his perseverance to relieve his son’s suffering. Bob shared “a heaven” of invigorating thought that infused my faith as he talked about a world that tests yet tasks us as Christians to reach out to those needing hope and compassion.
The beauty of contemplative minds continues to empower me in both challenging and tranquil times. Such camaraderie of thought is now nurtured in this church of “Thoughtful Faith.” Early small steps in faith are thus expanded by ongoing ones enhanced by shared fellowship.
by Nancy Brown