Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW
Be still and know that I am God.
My Norwegian ancestors left Norway in the 1850’s because of persecution by the state church for their evangelical renewal movement and formed a small rural church in southwest Wisconsin, where many cousins still belong. Services were conducted in Norwegian until the 1930’s. On my mom’s side, my great, great, great grandfather was the first Methodist circuit rider to plant churches in central Illinois in the first decade of the 19th century.
I grew up in the pre-merger American Lutheran Church, now ELCA. In Junior High School, I memorized the red version of Luther’s Small Catechism and was confirmed. I attended church, went to Sunday School and Luther League weekly until the day I left for college, when I said “enough!” My search for spiritual growth has taken me many directions since then.
In preparation for marriage into a Jewish family, I studied Judaism with Reform rabbi and holocaust survivor, Manfred Swarsensky. I learned about the Jewish roots of Christianity and came to appreciate Judaism’s rich traditions from Passover to sitting Shiva with mourners to the haunting melody of Avinu Malkeinu at Yom Kippur.
When I divorced, I didn’t know what I believed (or didn’t believe). I read voraciously – from Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr to St. Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart and St John of the Cross to Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossan, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. During this period, I practiced Lectio Divina, not in a disciplined way but as the spirit led.
During this period, I attended a contemporary Catholic mass. The quiet beauty of the liturgy and the practical guidance of the homilies spoke to me at a deep level.
After I graduated with my Master’s in Applied Economics, I traveled in Asia and studied Theravada Buddhism for six months. It was here in 1981 that I started meditating in a more disciplined way.
Mine is a simple practice — much like Centering Prayer — 20 minutes paying attention to the in-breath and out-breath. I am connecting with God’s spirit within me on the in-breath and connecting with God’s creation on the out-breath. When my mind wanders (as it often does), I bring my attention back to my breath and God’s presence in my being.
Living in Botswana, I went to an informal English-language church where expatriates from all different denominations took turns leading the service. Writing sermons caused me to study the Bible in ways I never had before. It was eye-opening, especially the Synoptic Gospels, Paul’s letters and the old testament prophets.
I spent more than a decade in a Methodist Church, where I served in various ways from committees to teaching Sunday School. The people and programming provided a supportive environment for our young family. Sermons and our forum class were thought-provoking. But over time, my ego-driven busy-ness got in the way of being mindfully present.
I joined an Episcopal Church, also known as “the gay church” in our small city. I loved the rich traditions, liberal theology and close-knit community in this small congregation. The liturgy and Eucharist touched my soul. In time, I was asked to serve on the vestry and the finance committee. These led to administrative projects. I was hooked (again). Bogged down in administrative details, I had lost sight of what mattered.
I’d like to say my consistent meditation practice kept me centered in these over-committed busy times. The truth is my practice has been on and off — consistent for months or years at a time; then nothing. The more I fill my life with egocentric busy-ness, the less I meditate. Then something happens and I return to the practice that brings me back to God’s presence (which of course is always available except when I am too self-absorbed or busy to notice).
The trigger that most recently brought me back was depression. I found my way to a Wednesday healing service at the Episcopal Cathedral. It was a simple chapel service. I took comfort in being present with the soothing words of the liturgy. The Eucharist (again) touched my center. I arrived and left in silence. There was freedom in my anonymity. I began meditating again. Meditation healed me from the inside out.
In 2009, I left my career as a behavioral economist and went back to school to get a Master’s in Social Work. I came out as a lesbian, graduated and passed my licensing exams, went back to work, met the love of my life, moved to St Louis, married, and bought a house all in the span of six years.
Today, my spouse and I strive to meditate daily. Sometimes we do; sometimes we don’t. It’s okay. I am more at peace with myself and feel God’s presence in my life more now than ever before. My search no longer has a frantic quality to it. I still question but with more curiosity and I accept more.
Since my first internship in 2010, I have used mindfulness-based therapies with people who suffer from all sorts of mental illness and trauma. Those who develop a meditation practice however inconsistent and apply skills no matter how haphazardly improve one baby step at a time. Their lives are still difficult but they have more inner resources and more tools for the hard work of healing.
In August 2018, I transferred all my individual clients to other therapists so I could devote my time and energy to Christians Meditate St Louis. I continue to teach mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for clinical depression and anxiety at St Louis DBT. At Christians Meditate, I am now helping people of faith let go of the worry and fear that separates us all from God’s presence.
The pilot classes of the Living Mindfully in Christ series were held during Lent 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church in St Charles. Read what participants had to say about the experience. It will be a full summer with three classes now registering participants. I will be leading an online class through MeditationChapel.org, a collaboration with Contemplative Outreach and WCCM, and a face-to-face class at St Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville. My life has come full circle.
When asked what religion I am today, I instinctively hesitate. I think of myself as an ecumenical Christian informed by Judaism and Buddhism. Truth is, I don’t know because labels are so limiting.
Here’s what I do know. I believe in one eternal, loving God. I believe Jesus was a man, son of God and timeless prophet. I believe Jesus embodied the Love of God in a broken world. I believe all people are created in God’s image and are children of God, co-creators with God and inheritors of the Kingdom. I believe the Kingdom of God is within us, among us now and will continue after our death. I believe Jesus came into the world to show us how to love our neighbors as ourselves and love God with all our hearts, minds and souls. I believe Jesus gave his life to demonstrate the power of love over darkness.
But following the teachings of Jesus involves more than ascribing to a set up beliefs. It is a way of life. I have been fortunate as an adult to be able to live out my faith in my work — the issues I have been able to address and the people who I’ve had the privilege to serve. I try to the best of my abilities to treat each person I encounter as a child of God worthy of respect and kindness. It is what we are called to do.
As a follower of Jesus, I believe we live out our faith in community. I am looking for a church where I feel comfortable and safe, where I can be part of a community of believers, where people strive to live as Jesus lived. We think we have found a good fit. Time will tell.
I hope you will join me on this journey. Together, we will learn how to recognize the mind of Christ that is already in us, even if just for moments here and there. We will experience the mystery of God’s presence in our lives and we will be enriched because of it.
Want to “Test Drive” a Class at No Cost?
After piloting our classes at Trinity Episcopal Church in St Charles, Christians Meditate St Louis is seeking two more interested churches willing to further “test drive” a class or retreat in the Living Mindfully in Christ series in 2019 at no cost to your church or participants. To learn more, contact Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW at email@example.com or 314-399-8568.