Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Churches through my years

After my earlier entry on writing and spirituality and an incredible entry by Steve in LA Journal, I wanted to explore a little more about my religious and church life.

I grew up in a very large Southern Baptist church with a beautiful building filled with marble staircases, velvet seats, a tremendous crystal chandelier and a weekly local broadcast of our Sunday Services. We also had our own bookstore, library, gym, bowling alley, skating rink and activity center with a fireplace and a fully stocked kitchen. From there, it grew into a megachurch with a regular attendance of close to 20,000, a worldwide satellite broadcast and an onsite assisted living center as well as additional recreational activities and facilities. Every preacher the church has ever had became president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and within that denomination, the preachers who have served there are well known.

When I was a kid, though the church was large, it also had intimacy. The parents and grandparents of all the fifty or so kids in my Sunday School age group knew us all, and their Sunday School class members would recognize us as belonging to one of their members. Literally hundreds of people were on terms of acquaintance through that one connection. My parents had been members there since they moved to Memphis, and the church served as one of their primary social connections. For decades, my family's social life was intertwined with our church life. It was a loving and nurturing environment for a child.

One of the primary teachings was that the Bible was inerrant, literal truth. We were taught Bible lessons three times a week and challenged with Bible drills. A Bible drill consisted of kids lining up in row before the rest of the group and the teacher who would announce a Bible verse. While a timer was going, we had to find the verse within the Bible and step forward. The first kid to step forward, after the timer went off, got to read the verse to the group. A prize was given to the kid who had been first the most times within the drill. One drawer of my jewelry box is filled with inexpensive bracelet charms and pins won in Bible drills. I also remember prizes like bookmarks and pens.

All those Bible lessons created a person who read the Bible, and that created questions. There were things I couldn't reconcile, and I was taught that I couldn't question anything or else my faith was weak. I treasure those leaps of faith that surpass logic, but I do need my religion to make sense to me. Questioning is the way I come to a deeper, more meaningful understanding, but it was a harshly judged way to grow. There were so many things seen as sinful that I just didn't get. I was a child of my times in love with music, and the hit plays Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were sinful. I didn't agree with certain things within them, like the lack of Jesus' resurrection, but I found them uplifting. There was so much emphasis on human sin that sometimes the message of God's love and forgiveness got lost. It seemed that on the balance scale, human unworthiness was far greater than God's grace. It took me years to unlearn that one.

As I came into my adult years, conservative churches were changing. Evangelism became not only the sharing of God's word, but spreading approved behavior through an increasing political organization. The motivations behind my politics came from my understanding of the Bible and Christian principles and responsibilities. Supporting programs which did things like feed and clothe the poor didn't measure as worthy within my church as working against legalized abortion. When I was given a brochure in church on who a Christian should vote for, something in me snapped. Between guilt and alienation, I left church behind, and it became only a way to please my parents by attending when I was visiting.

I never quit believing in God, but I knew that I had to find a way that made more sense to me. I basically studied and shopped around among religions for years, but the message and life of Christ pulled me like nothing else. I finally gave up trying to run away and started looking within Christianity for a denomination and a church that both inspired and challenged me. After a good bit of looking, the United Methodist Church seemed to fit the bill. In another city, I found a wonderful Methodist church that met spiritual, intellectual, creative and social needs. It was such a gift, because I'd never known church could be like that. We moved from there years ago, and I still miss that church.

For years, I have basically been without a church. Oh, my name was on the rolls, and I would attend sometimes. I love the denomination, but I was never at home in the church nearby we joined because of family pressure. In fact, I dreaded going. I felt unwelcome, excluded and judged. I was too conscious of my appearance, the underground politics in certain activities at the church, and why someone didn't speak when I said hello. At the same time, I really appreciated the preacher, the message and the music. The services would often move me to the point where I was blinking away tears. It would have just been too embarrassing to release those tears. That would have created another opportunity to be judged. Whether this was reality I couldn't say, but it was my perception. If there's anything that truly interferes with worship, it's self consciousness. I don't think we need to abandon our inhibitions when we worship, but we shouldn't be focused on what people may think of our reactions to feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The weekend my daughter was confirmed as a member of the church, I thought things might have changed. Her confirmation class had included parents as well as kids, and we parents shared a bond in the happiness of our children making a conscious, if maybe pressured, decision to join our religious path. My daughter had approached this thoughtfully. I know the wanderings of my own spiritual journey and I hadn't want to force this, even though I hoped that it would be her choice. The weekend of her confirmation, the kids filled roles of both leadership and servitude as our entire district gathered together at our church for various activities. She had been depressed and withdrawn for some time, and I was so happy to see her engaged in a group again. Her confirmation was Easter Sunday, and my father was able to join us and see his granddaughter confirmed in the denomination in which he was raised. It was a happy day that I hoped would lead to more. She withdrew worse soon after. Months later in a counseling session, it came out that she had been told when she went to join her confirmation group in a larger group activity days later that she had only been included because the rest of the people they hung around with weren't at the confirmation weekend activities.

Her hospitalization came a few months later, and I, in sadness and anger, went to our preacher for advice. I told him this story and was counseled to work on forgiving the church.

I already knew this was something I needed to work on, but I was left with some huge questions. Didn't the church have a responsibility to me as much as I did to it? Didn't the church have a need to address issues within its body that affected the lives and faith of its members? I didn't want these kids reprimanded. I didn't want a forced apology. I thought then and still do that a church must look at itself as an individual Christian is supposed to, to discover, confess to itself and its God, and address its weaknesses and errors. I have a responsibility to forgive. It's one of the primary responsibilities as a Christian. I also have a responsibility to work on improving the things in my life that merit the forgiveness of others. These topics never came up except in my own head. I don't know if they came up within the church later because I've rarely been back, and my engagement there was superficial at most.

Tremendous spiritual uplift often comes at the worst times in our lives. This happened to me during my daughter's recuperation and our family's emotional recovery. I found an online group of women of different religious backgrounds, Christian, Muslim, Pagan, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, who constantly inspired me. We verbally battled our differences sometimes harshly. We have stood by each other with an emotional support that amazes me. We have learned so much from each other about not only each other's but our own religious beliefs. I never expected a Wiccan high priestess to remind me of the love and forgiveness my Creator has for me, but that is only one of the gifts I received. I think that bloggers, more than many internet users, know the intensity of feelings that can sprout from internet friendships. This group of women made me hunger for a real life community of spiritual connection and helped me realize that I had grown very tired of worshipping alone.

Every Sunday, I would ask if the family wanted to go to church. The husband believes that one's religion is best a private thing, and he hasn't felt the need. The daughter eventually wanted to, but not to the same church where we were members. She suggested a church one morning, and in the last month, it has become our new church. It's very different from anywhere I've ever been. We meet in a borrowed office because the storefront space the church rents no longer holds the congregation of about 60 people. The music is far from the traditional hymns to which I'm accustomed. There's no choir, but a good band, and I do get a kick out of hearing a mandolin in church. The preacher wears jeans on Sunday morning. Some people will lift their hands when they pray and when they sing. I am so far out of my zone of familiarity and comfort, that I'm surprised I'm comfortable there, but I am. I'm challenged to think, to feel and to connect. If I'm moved to tears, I'm almost comfortable letting them come. I feel no pressure to either make a display of my emotions or to hide them.

I no longer expect any church to meet all my religious and spiritual needs. My years as a solitary Christian taught me to look within myself and to God for fulfillment, but community is important. I've shortchanged myself in that area, and I'm looking forward to see how this aspect of my life grows next.


Blogger Gannet Girl said...

What a fascinating and beautifully written entry.

Although I've been involved in a variety of religious coimmunities, I've never had to endure the inerrantist fundamentalist variety, except online -- where I found the people to be gracious and loving as long as you didn't say anything that turned them into judgmental, vindictive, and threatened. I would imagine that in-person relationships would be quite difficult, and it's not surprising to me that you would find a Wiccan more loving and Christ-like than certain members of the SBC.

Your new church experience sounds fascinating; it will be interesting to see it unfold.

December 14, 2005 9:18 AM  
Blogger Candace said...

I know exactly how you feel. I grew up in the church, memorizing the bible verses, singing in the choir, confirmation.....I was a good little church goer...but I got nothing out of it. I found God in my own way outside of church and when I was ready he led me back to church. The church I go to is not the church my mother would have chosen. They raise their hands in prayer and song, I have yet to hear them sing Onward Christian Soliders but they have sang Tim Mcgraw's Live Like You Were Dying....
In the foyer of the church they have a sign that says "God Led You here"...and I believe it. : )

December 14, 2005 11:33 AM  
Blogger Lisa :-] said...

Very interesting post, Cynthia. It gave me some insight into your views on this subject that I had not had before. I had to laugh in the begining of the essay, where you were describing this church with its own library, bowling alley, and skating rink, and "from there it grew into a mega-church." I had no idea churches like this existed. A bizarre mixture of ostentation and bible-thumping...

The litte church you are now attending sounds like the first pentecostal church we were in. We met in a rented grade-school classroom (the ACLU would have a field day with that now, I'm sure...) The problem with those little store-front churches is that they often self-destruct, leaving behind a mine-field of hurt feelings and disillusionment. Not saying this will happen to yours, but it's something to keep in the back of your mind...

December 14, 2005 11:34 AM  
Blogger Globetrotter said...


You write so well, but more than that I could relate to about 99% of what you've said here, with the exception of finding an online spiritual group.

I would call myself a recovering evangelical, because I too, left a church that was judgemental and had a pastor who handed out pamphlets to his congregation regarding whom to vote for based on abortion rather than caring for the poor.

I miss the community aspect in my spiritual life but I do try to remain spiritual.

Thank-you so much for this entry, and I intend to read more. It is so nice to know that I am not alone in wanting Christ in my life without a church filled with people who judge you if you dance or have a case of beer in your pantry.

My feelings are real

Inside the Gilded Cage

Dark Side of the Moon

December 14, 2005 6:45 PM  
Blogger Celeste said...

Wonderful entry...this is why I call myself a "quiet Christian". ;) C.

December 15, 2005 12:40 AM  
Blogger Becky said...

I can relate. I've heard it called a crisis of faith. But that's not entirely accurate. My faith never waivered. It was my complete disgust with oranized religion and the judgemental and narrow minded attitudes of your average church goer that made me leave the religion I was raised with. I searched, like you. But I'm still in research mode. I think Unitarian Universalist would be a good fit. Or Quaker. But neither has a church near me. So I'll just hold my own beliefs until I can find a place that welcomes my unique point of view.

December 15, 2005 6:43 PM  
Blogger Tina said...

Hello, Cynthia ... This was a wonderfully written entry about a subject that I am sure alot of people can relate to. I have spent years trying to find a perfect fit, as far as a church to attend. I loved my church in Colorado, and then we moved to California, where I just haven't found that service that leaves me feeling inspired. But I haven't given up yet. It sounds as though you might have found what you were looking for, and I am happy for you.

December 15, 2005 9:43 PM  

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