“For every dark night of the soul there is also a sunrise.”
For the Rev. Rebecca Gunn, that is one of the essential messages of celebrations around Christmastime.
In honor of this deeply meaningful time of year, here is the story of one woman’s faith journey that led, ultimately, to a life of ministry. In opening our hearts and minds to the paths and questions of others, perhaps we may progress along our own paths and find our way.
Becky Gunn, an only child, spent her early years in Washington state. Her parents practiced no religion but on visits to her Mormon grandparents in Utah, Becky got a taste of what religious community feels like.
“At age 6 or 7, I got up one Sunday morning and walked to the Mormon church. I recognized at that young age my need for structure to hold me together.”
Becky’s parents were alcoholics. Her peripatetic early childhood involved numerous upheavals and new schools. When she was 10, her family moved to Utah where she lived until she was in her early 20s.
“Religion provided a safe place for me,” said Becky, “but I was always a very rational person as well. As I grew, I found there were aspects of my religion that I could not tolerate.”
By the time she graduated from college, she felt disillusioned with her church. She moved away and left religion behind for 25 years.
During those 25 years, Becky explored the worlds of education, business and family. She settled in California, where she raised a son and completed her MBA while working. She found a successful job as a manager in the high-tech world.
“It was all very involving, but not fulfilling.”
Around that time, Becky and her husband decided to look for a religious community together. They ended up discovering a Unitarian Universalist church, which became a mainstay for Becky. When her marriage ended badly, her religious community buoyed her up.
“That is part of why religion works. It is a community that cares for you,” she said.
In 2001, Becky began to feel the call to ministry. She felt a powerful drive to give back for what she had received — in time, in service, in energy from others. That fall, she enrolled in the Starr King School for the Ministry in California. She considered herself a Humanist when she began, and did not believe in God.
Along with others in the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of 17 religious organizations, she studied and discussed questions of faith. She met many colleagues who had a deep faith in the divine, which began to cause a shift at Becky’s core.
“It was a wonderful opportunity; it breaks you open.”
Becky realized that it was a particular image of God that she disbelieved, not the divine concept of life’s deep mystery. She recounted an unforgettable morning in the beautiful setting of the Yosemite Mountains when she fully embraced her new belief.
“It was so joyful.”
It stirs the soul to hear someone speak of such a moment, especially when it opens her heart to helping others on their own search for meaning.
When it comes to Christmas, Becky says she feels many emotions. First, she is filled with compassion. She regrets the weight of expectation that leaves many people feeling discouraged or deficient if their lives do not measure up to the Christmas standard of joy and family. She learned this feeling firsthand at the age of 12, when Becky’s parents neglected her appeal that they be home for family time on Christmas Eve. They returned home late and inebriated and couldn’t understand Becky’s sense of betrayal.
But she also embraces the spirit of Christmas:
“There is a great spiritual message this time of year. It is about birth and the sense of possibility in every human life.” It also means a return of light after a dark time. “It is a metaphor for our lives,” she said.
To each and all — may you find promise in the gradual lengthening of days, in the light and warmth of the returning sun. May your Christmas be everything you wish it to be.
The Rev. Becky Gunn is the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor. You can read her writings on the Bangor Daily News Religion Blog, “Making Connections”: http://makingconnections.bangordailynews.com/ . She also is a regular contributor to the BDN Religion page’s column Voices.
**LAST CALL** for contributions to the Conversations With Maine New Year edition. What are your plans for New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day? How do you observe or celebrate the turning of the year? Share your stories from the past or your plans for the year ahead at email@example.com or mail to 20 Summer St., Hampden, ME 04444.