It’s possible that my reflections on religion have little to do with aging. I believe it’s relevant however because spiritual evolution is a journey, affected by time and deliberate consideration.
My core views haven’t changed much in the past 30 or more years, but my edges have softened and I hold a much greater appreciation for the journey. Spiritual journey, anyones spiritual journey, is compelling to me. I like to hear other people talk about their own spiritual journey, though sometimes it makes me feel cynical. Cynical happens when someone thinks their spiritual journey is superior to anyone else’s and the only way to believe. Still, it’s interesting to hear how people have formed their views.
The brand of moderate Christianity that influenced my early views made sense to me as a kid. My parents took the four of us to church on Sunday for Sunday School and then the church service as far back as I can remember. When your parents take you places to learn things, it becomes part of the way you understand the world. I liked it, especially when I got to the 5th or 6th grade. There were youth group activities and fun adults in charge. By the 7th grade, Sunday evening supper at church and youth group as well as midweek choir practice had become a standing part of my life. By high school, I was involved in Young Life — an international Christian organization focused on high school kids — and went to church based things with my best friend at her church as well.
There were obvious benefits to my church involvement. It was a safe place where values like honesty, faith, trust and love without judgment were encouraged. I was never exposed to anything extreme where I wasn’t able to ask questions or express possible doubt. However even early on, some things didn’t make sense.
Our church was located downtown, right on the edge of the “inner city”. I didn’t fully understand what inner city meant when I was twelve, but I knew there was more poverty, single moms, crappy jobs and more disadvantage in general. I had listened adequately to Sunday school lessons and sermons over the years to have learned the gospel stories were about Jesus and his disciples helping people like those in our inner city. Boom. That part made sense. It got me thinking about things.
One Sunday I was going downstairs at our church, probably to get a drink of water from the fountain at the bottom of the stairs, when one of our pastors was headed up the stairs. In a rare show of twelve year old courage, I stopped him right there on the stairs and told him I had a question. I said I’d been thinking about our church building and how big it was and how empty it was every day but Sunday. I wondered if we could use it for free daycare or something to help the families who lived so close to us; maybe that would help them be able to go to work. He looked at me for a few seconds and then said something pretty close to “That’s a really nice idea but it’s just not what we do.” That didn’t make sense to me. I remember the “just not what we do” part clearly. I had no idea how to open a daycare, but I was looking for something…something that our church did do like what was in the gospel stories.
That single experience didn’t change me but it continued to work in the back of my mind. My high school years rocked along with my good Christian girl lifestyle providing nothing so extreme to make me stand out as a Jesus freak but enough boundary to keep me from sleeping with my only “serious” relationship during my sophomore year. I still flinch when I realize if I had slept with him it would’ve almost certainly been unprotected. Believing in the rules of Jesus, as taught by every youth leader I’d had, saved me from a possible 15 year old pregnancy. I graduated from high school and went off to college fully committed to a good Christian girl lifestyle.
As well as being raised in the church, we were also raised to think independently. My parents were committed to children who could think. My dad was especially persistent about raising girls who could think, be strong and independent. As life unfolded, more and more things in my Christian experience didn’t make sense alongside this independent thinking thing. There was no intent to think myself away from Christianity, but that’s what happened.
Early in my freshman year at Indiana University, an older friend from home invited me to go with her to Campus Crusade for Christ meetings. Before I knew it, I found myself walking with her to the campus library at 6:00 in the morning to accost students, who’d been up all night, with the Four Spiritual Laws, trying to get them to pray a specified set of words so they’d be saved and my friend could send good numbers to CCC headquarters. What? I couldn’t do it. It was trickery…you read these sentences out of this pamphlet and we feel all righteous about being the pipeline to eternity. Again, what?
Abandoning CCC, I became friends with less extreme Christians on campus. Religion as I knew it and had built my belief system around continued to unravel but I remained silent and in denial about how much was shifting in my head. If I didn’t have promised eternal life, what did I have? In the meantime, life went on; I graduated from college and went back home to teach high school special ed for a year.
It was there I stumbled onto Patchwork Central, a spiritual community, living and working in the same inner city I’d asked our pastor about so many years ago. Several ordained men and women of the Methodist church, who had become dissatisfied with mainstream ministry, founded this nonprofit faith based organization, based on the Open Door community in Atlanta. It was the spiritual equivalent of oxygen. The two years I spent living, working, worshipping and learning about a life lived intentionally as part of a social justice ministry and community were the most meaningful spiritual years I’ve ever known.
Itchy to do something not teaching and wanting to live in a bigger city, I decided to go to seminary at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago. I picked Northern based on nothing more than its location and that I had been raised American Baptist. They also ordained women and while the faculty was lily white, there were also many students of color. Though never seeing myself on track to become ordained, I did see myself in some sort of social justice endeavor within a faith community.
My experience there fell flat. Outside of Dr. Ray Bakke who taught everything social justice, it was the academics of preaching and history and philosophy. All fine, but didn’t light me up. At the same time, I worked for Young Life to support myself. I watched my favorite staff person, who cared more about the well being of the high school students than he did about their salvation, get ostracized by other staff. There had been another Young Life leader when I was in high school who came to believe that once a Christian, always a Christian no matter what kind of life you led subsequent to declaring one’s faith as Christian. He too became disreputable among the faithful. These two men were rock stars to me.
While in Chicago, I met my sons’ dad. We got married and moved to Nashville. We spent five or six years church hopping and becoming more disillusioned. I wanted our kids to grow up in a church community and appreciate the benefits of being around people of faith. Until I saw it more as a liability. We ultimately settled in a church that was (and still is) based on intense commitment to the poor and disenfranchised and who pioneered inclusive church communities in Nashville…everyone welcome. No matter how much I loved everything else about it, I found the underlying structure of faith in the Jesus who saved us all by being crucified and later rising from the dead to not make sense. We left church.
When my kids were older and we talked of spirituality, I said more than once that if Jesus really did ever come back, he would be so damn appalled by all the shit we’ve done in his name. Judgment. Racism. Misogyny. Elitism. Homophobia. Hate. I still believe it; the real Jesus would be appalled. I believe leaders of spiritual movements, like Jesus, were trying to live and teach for good. Peace. Love. Justice. Fair play. Kindness. Equality. The greater good.
So here I am. Fifty nine and a half, thinking about God and content with my thoughts. I believe in powers bigger than me and things I don’t understand and goodness when it shows itself in people and hope for the world and justice and fairness and love. These things are my religion.