As a baby I was baptized by the Lutherans, and when I was a little older the Baptists saved me twice. I often accompanied my grandparents to a magnificent Presbyterian church with velvet pews, a massive pipe organ, and ominous stained glass windows. The Catholics married me, the Moravians confirmed me. I imagine I am still a member of the United Methodists. Such is my spiritual path. It is a compelling history, one that might lead you to doubt my upbringing and moral compass.
You can’t say I didn’t try. I joined retreats, taught Sunday school, participated in vacation bible school and prayed. I’ve joined bell choirs and bible studies, sung hymns and read verses. I’ve helped with the Christmas pageant. I’ve led youth groups. I’ve attended both the Easter sunrise service and the midnight Christmas Eve ceremony.
My uncertainty arrived early. In my childhood, arriving back from Sunday school, escorted by my big brother, I questioned a God who could send people to a fiery hell just for not knowing about Him. That was what the teacher said. She told us how important it was to tell others about Him. If we didn’t, we would be held responsible. That was my earliest memory of bible study.
As a youngster, the girls were ruthless. Questions like “You don’t know what catechism is?,” “Do you believe in evolution or creation?” and statements like “I just don’t know how to feel about [so-and-so] because they’re Jewish” illuminated walls I hadn’t known existed.
The Baptists asked me, as a teen, to raise a hand if I didn’t know what would happen if I died that day. I raised my hand, was led to the front and saved behind closed doors. The second time (I was only being honest — ever the skeptic) I raised my hand again, and was again led to the front. The third time they asked, I still wasn’t positive what would happen if I kicked the bucket that very minute, but I did know what would happen if I raised my hand. So I didn’t.
I was a new bride when the priest asked me if I would bring up my children in a Christian home. So I signed the paper and I did as promised. My children would have an intimate understanding of their beliefs. They would have the answers when the world confronted them.
When our family was young, Sunday was the worst day of the week. It began with the prodding to get out of bed and the crying that they were tired. Words that would never be repeated in church were yelled through their bedroom doors. I sometimes found a quiet place — the bathroom or the basement — to pray for peace in my own home. “For their own good,” I would repeat in my head, the scriptures of submission and honor and discipline on my tongue.
In reality we were just a normal family. We fought, we cried, we yelled, and we laughed . . . a lot. Yet I could not escape the contradiction between what we were and what we let people see. Every Sunday morning we were a perfect, spiritual family; the children eager, the wife loving, the father doting. While behind the doors of our own home, there were hurtful words and autocracy.
I became a teacher and leader of young people in a religious setting, speaking the truth I believed. As with most mentors, I learned more from my students than they from me. I learned that there really is no stupid question. I learned the value of honesty, trustworthiness, and acceptance. I learned that everyone is different, and if everyone was the same that would really suck. They taught me that the best path is usually your own.
And so the teacher embarked on her own path. I questioned. I delighted in the differences of others, and celebrated the differences in myself. I found the world was a better place than I was led to believe. I liked the people who were different, and to my dismay I noticed they liked me too! I heard my voice and realized that it was sometimes fairly wise and intelligent! Until at last, I found I could not follow blindly the paths of those I no longer believed in or trusted.
Though I won’t say I didn’t learn anything from the church, the good messages I learned cross all religious and non-religious boundaries. I also learned that hurtful people can say anything in the name of God and few will question him. I think humans have a need to believe in something, and that’s okay. From the earliest days we have believed in Gods, and oddly enough they don’t look a lot different from the Gods we believe in today. Even Atheists have convictions, contrary to popular belief (pun intended). Chances are, some of my beliefs look like some of yours. And it’s okay by me if they don’t. Because if everyone were the same, it would really suck.
I believe in family; the one that came before me and the one that will live after me. I believe in myself and all of my capabilities. I believe in those I trust and love and the potential they possess. I believe we influence the lives of those around us, for better and for worse. I believe in the power of forgiveness. I believe in the resurrection of a life lived in vain. And the fragility of the one life we live on earth. Amen.
Peace . . .