What Writing a Spiritual Autobiography Taught Me
When I started writing Our Father: Discovering Family, the working title was, Our Father: From Certainty to Faith. I had two questions in mind stemming from an amazing, eye-opening, soul-stretching experience I had at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. How did my spiritual development bring me to this point from where I started life in a small provincial town in South Carolina during the days of racial segregation? The second question was equally daunting. What am I to do with the remaining years of my life?
I discovered that God had a much bigger plan. God wanted to expand my vision as to who is in God's family. God always has a bigger plan than we have. I am reluctant to put words in God's mouth, but it is as if he were saying, Mitch, you can't understand me until you know who is in my family.
In 1998 my new wife and I were in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. At 11:00 a.m. the priest for the day announced, "At this time every day we stop and say together the Our Father Prayer." An amazing thing happened. People from all over the world: white, black, brown, male, female, tall, short, handicapped, able-bodied gay, straight were all praying the Our Father Prayer. For the first time in my life the true meaning of what "Our" means swept over me. I knew at that moment that my life had changed forever and that my faith had taken a quantum leap forward.
The process of prayer, reflection, research and writing lead me to two conclusions. First, I needed to drastically expand my understanding of who composes God's family and second God had been preparing me all of my life to be a voice for fostering better understanding and communication between Christians and between Christians and the rest of the world. We need a more Christ-like dialogue. Striving to improve Christian communication became my mission for both writing and speaking.
The book is best described as a spiritual autobiography. I grew up in the segregated South where learning about the brotherhood of man wasn't easy. As a child I could not understand how a church that preached God's love could turn black people away from its doors. Much later, I struggled through the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and a church split. My late wife, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, challenged all of my provincial ideas in a loving but forceful way. Her death coming just days before Hurricane Hugo struck Charleston and my beloved church was an unimaginable tragedy. One from which I was not sure I could recover, but God provided abundant expressions of love and reassurance.
In 2006 my wife asked me to volunteer to teach creative writing to her students in an inner-city minority middle school. The atmosphere reeked with negativity from both faculty and students. That experience lead me to write a little booklet, Say Something Nice; Be a Lifter. Then I founded the Say Something Nice Day observance now listed in the Chase Calendar of Event. In 2007 because of the rising tide of animosity between Christian groups, I spearheaded the Say Something Nice Sunday Movement celebrated on the first Sunday in June... This movement has gained support from Baptists, Catholics, Disciples, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians. The book I edited and contributed a chapter to in 2009, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, which brought together leaders from various denominations grew out of these events.
God brought great Christian thinkers into my life through my visits at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State and the many speakers at the John Hamrick Lectures at First Baptists Church of Charleston: Bill Leonard, Molly Marshall, Glenn Hinson, Martin Marty, Thomas McKibbens, Arthur Caliandro, Timothy George, John Claypool, Paul Raushenbush and Joan Brown Campbell to name a few. I owe a great debt to my childhood pastor, Rev. Roy R. Gowan. One day he said to me, "Mitchell, God made all of you and that includes your brain. He does not expect you to park it at the door when you come to church." It took me years to fully grasp what this wonderful man had said to me.
As I researched and wrote, Our Father; Discovering Family, all these isolated events - a career in communication disorders, Sunday school teacher, life-long church and civic volunteer, deacon, writer and speaker, consultant - began to fit together. They revealed to me that God has been leading me step by step to discover meaning and mission in my life. There are no coincidences. God's Word says, "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV) It also lead me to understand that the God I had been worshiping all of my life far exceeded anything that I could imagine or comprehend. Insights keep coming. It is an amazing journey.
An Excerpt from Our Father: Discovering Family
London and St. Paul's Cathedral are light years away from Woodruff, South Carolina and Northside Baptist Church but each is an essential mile marker on a journey - a journey to discover a fuller understanding of who God really is and how I can be more like him. In the process God revealed a much broader plan for me. He wanted to open my eyes and mind to see who his children are. It is as if he is saying," Mitch, you can't understand me without knowing and loving my children, your sisters and brothers. I am the Father of all." He is constantly reminding me that I am one of his children and that I belong to a family that is much larger, much more diverse, much more inclusive than I imagined at the start of my journey.
There are no shutouts in God's family or as Dr. John Hamrick says, "People are not throw-aways." We all belong. Just as my aunt tried to do 50 years ago, someone or some group is always trying to exclude some other group from God's family for reasons of their own. It never works. You and I are members of the family. We are loved, but we are not the head of the family. That is the basis of all sin - wanting to take the place of God. God is the head of the family. He alone decides who is in and who is out. His greatest desire is that everyone should be a member of his family. My role as a member of the family is to invite others to join by living a life that is truly reflective of what being a child of God is all about. It is about inclusion, not exclusion. It is about love not hate. It is about accepting the invitation, "Come and learn of Me."
Mitch is a lay member of First Baptist Church of Charleston. He edited Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, published by Smyth&Helwys, and authored, Our Father: Discovering Family, published by Wipf&Stock. He has written devotionals for Reflections, Open Windows and Secret Places. He founded The Say Something Nice Sunday Movement. He blogs at www.mitchcarnell.com and www.christiancivility.com.