Friday, June 08, 2007

Thank Friday, It's God

I've been thinking a lot about spirituality and religion these days. No particular reason, just as something that's slightly missing from my life. Not a huge, gaping hole kind of missing, just something comforting and grounding.

As a child, my parents used to shepherd me to the neighborhood Presbyterian church. I don't recall that we were ever members of that church, but whenever I have memories of Sunday School or fidgeting during the sermon, they always take place in the small church at the edge of our neighborhood. Our attendance was very sporadic as I grew up. I seem to recall going less and less as my brother and I grew older. Pretty soon, we were Christmas and Easter Christians, and then no kind of attendant Christian at all. Mama always said that God knows when your heart is true, and it doesn't need to be bound within four walls. Mama must've been related to Forrest Gump's Mama somehow. Still, I took that adage to heart, and tried to live what I thought was "the right way."

In late high school and early college, my best friend's family were full-throttle churchgoers. And Lutheran, to boot. Whenever I stayed over at their house on Saturday nights, it quickly became just another habit to pack a Sunday church outfit as well, because it was understood that I would attend with them. I guess that was Mama T's way of trying to bring some salvation to my heathen little soul.

As time progressed, I started taking membership classes, wanting to know how "Lutheranism" differed from all of the other Protestant sects. I became a full-fledged member of the church, and attended without Mama T's insistence. After my second family moved away, I continued to attend services there, even though I was a little lost without their guidance.

My church was an older congregation, and when I say "older", I don't necessarily mean the median ages of the congregants. I mean that they were an established congregation, who had had the same leadership for quite a while, and who were obviously set in their ways. They liked things a certain way. To buck the norm was to set their beehive hairdos aquiver with distaste. For example -- ladies wear dresses to church. Not slacks, and certainly not anything that one would consider "wash and wear!" Heavens, no!

Now, I'm not a dress kind of girl, and throw pantyhose in, and you have the makings of a soapbox rant on your hands. But, I sublimated myself for years for the sake of my soul and salvation, and dressed appropriately. But, slowly, the blush began to fall from the bloom. I became more and more dissatisfied with the people that inhabited my church. Instead of being stick-in-the-mud matrons who disliked pants, the ladies became gossip-mongering harpies who had nothing better to do than use the Lord's Day as an excuse to trash anyone who did not meet their ideal. The men were no better, with their attendance on Sundays, but their infidelities and tax manipulations every other day of the week.

I thought it was me. I thought that I was just becoming dissatisfied with where I was because I no longer had the presence of my friend and her family as my spiritual backup. After a while, I had a falling out with the friend, and I felt that the pastor of the church, when told of the falling out, judged me, and harshly at that, for my role in that sad affair. Granted, he had known their family a lot longer than he'd known me, but I honestly believed that he would weigh the situation fairly, but being only human -- he did not. Instead, he insulted me, and I left the church, never to return.

Shortly after my break, it was discovered that the man who ran the youth services division had been molesting an underage member of the congregation. Distaste coupled with disillusionment led to quite a few years of shying away from attending services of any kind.

My husband has often quoted his dislike of organized religion to stories like these. He claims that he's an atheist, but I tend to think that he just has an innate dislike of hypocrisy, rather than a firm belief that there's no higher spiritual power out there. He's a "show me!" type of person, needing physical evidence to explain away all the mysteries of the cosmos. We married in a Christian ceremony, to which he did not protest. A lot of his dislike stems from the fact that he was labeled as a 'troublemaker' in his wild youth. In Sunday School, he asked the hard questions -- "Why does the Bible say 'an eye for an eye' and then say 'turn the other cheek'? Which one do you do?" When no one had a good answer for him (for that question, or many of the others he had) the Sunday School teacher merely asked his parents not to bring him back.

All of this apathy has led to years of non-observant behavior. My daughter knows nothing of being forced to sit still during Big Church on hard pews while the clergy drone on and on. I have tried to raise her right, though -- telling her the Bible stories that I recall from my youth. I've tried to instill in her the Judeo-Christian ethic, but I find it lacking. I'm no learned sage, no prophet; title be damned. There's a gap in her education. A large one. And I can't help but feel that gap in my own life as well.

I did look around for other churches, years ago, but none struck a chord with me. More than a specific church, I think I want a spiritual family -- people who have my back, much like my second family did all those years ago. I think that's why I blog. You all are my church. My salvation safety net. You inspire me to be a better person while still helping me through the life I live each day. You impart your wisdom and life lessons, and I am comforted by you. You carry me when I am low, and you raise my spirits constantly.

Thank you, friends.


Miche said...

Back at ya!

liz said...

What Miche said.


Anonymous said...

I thought you grew up in the south, KLee, not here in Illinois! Except for the the molestation mention, you could have been decribing the Lutheran Church my family belonged to. Some of the same folks who were so pious and judgemental inside the church couldn't wait to run to their cars (usually swearing at on-coming traffic on the road between the church and their main lot), often swearing in frustration at how poorly the Cubs were doing. But that didn't put me off organized religion. A friend's "evangelical" church did.

I couldn't have been more than 10, since my mom was still alive. But it was winter, and my friend's church was having a Saturday night swimming party. Swimming in winter in the midwest? What kid wouldn't want to go! The bus ride to the church was so dark I had no idea what direction we were headed, but it felt like it took a long time - to this day I don't know where it was. The church kids were singing Amazing Grace and teasing me for not knowing the words. (As a Lutheran I grew up with light liturgical ditties like A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, not Amazing Grace.)

Before swimming, we had to go talk to the preacher, and we (the guests) were all shuttled into a room where the fire & brimstone preacher tried to "save" us. Much like JF, I imagine, I questioned some of the ideas the preacher was proposing, debating him with things I'd learned in Sunday School. His God sounded vengeful. My God was not venegful, mine was forgiving. (If anyone saw the Buffy episode where she's at an Initiaive breifing, questioning every thing they're being told, then you have an idea of what I'm talking about.) I challenged the preacher to defend his positions - that's when he and a woman quickly ushered me into a separate room, berated me for causing problems. Even as a child I sensed that he was afraid of admitting that he did not have all the answers. When bullying me into being "saved" failed, he started threatening me, saying my parents and siblings would never get into Heaven if I didn't get saved. (Not the thing to tell a child who's mother is dying!) He had me sobbing and shaking. It was mental abuse, no question. I was alone, terrified, with no means of escape. Even if I had found a phone, I had no idea where to tell Mom and Dad to come get me. To come and save me.

That's when I said a long prayer, asking God for help, and telling God that the only way I could think to get out of this situation was to play along and pretend to be "saved." I was scared of accidentally pledging my soul to someone I don't trust, so I wanted to make it clear to God that I was NOT following this scary man's so-called path to Salvation. So the preacher, thinking he "saved" me, paraded this long line of kids out to his congregation. I remember thinking it was creepy they were in church at night, like it was a horror film and maybe we were the offering. He made us repeat some prayers and pledges. I stood there, pretending to mouth the words he'd coached us to say, standing and sitting when instructed, while silently praying to God to help me get home safely, and for reassurance that He knew what my real intentions were. Full of pride over his success, the preacher finally let us swim - I recall a bunch of us in a small pool for just a few minutes, so for all I know it was actually a Baptism.

When I finally got home I ran sobbing into my Mom's arms. After I told her about the terrifying experience, she called my friend's mom. The next Sunday they came to our church, they soon joined and became far more active Lutherans than we ever were.

Lesson learned: You can't blindly trust someone with your soul. For every Songbird out there, there might be one of these horrible preachers who positions himself as the only person capable of saving your soul - you just have to do everything he says. That's an all-consuming power no one should have. I put my trust in God Himself, and I've probably spent more time praying and reading the Bible than most of the people in that church that night ever have.

Sorry for the lenghty story, but it was a horrifying experience that clearly shaped my views on organized religion. It works for many people, but not for me - and I truly believe God knows why, and understands.

LaReina (for some reason I couldn't remember how to reply non-anon, so to speak)

Yankee T said...

Love you right back!

Bridget said...

ah so sweet, i feel like i am in a similar place, i don't necessarily believe in a higher power, but it would be nice to have larger "family" that could openly share beliefs or at least discussions of beliefs. yeah like a blog family, but one that could bring you casseroles. :)

ccw said...

Aw, you're too kind!

Again, JF and Mr. MFBA are the same person. He says he's agnostic. Me, I don't know where my faith has gone. I would never say I don't believe but I don't pray and don't desire attending church on a regular basis.

purple_kangaroo said...

I'm sorry you have had such bad experiences with church and church people. I wish you could come to some of our churches out here, where people seem to be more willing to accept that we don't know everything and don't feel like we have to pretend to be "perfect church people"--just be growing in our relationship with Christ as our savior, and out of that flowing a love for and acceptance of others.

I'm praying that you'll find the answers and grounding you're looking for.