A few weeks ago the small church that Mother often takes W to sent a letter to the congregation. This is common and not unusual. What made this noteworthy was the mentioning of the closeness of All Saint’s Day and that typically this was one of the appropriate points in the liturgical year for a baptism. Which created the mentioning of baptism in our home in earnest for the first time. Which sort of tilted me off of my feet.
It isn’t that we are not a religious family, it is just that, well, my connection to religion is a bit complicated at the moment.
My Grandfather was raised in a family where there were many heated fights over religion. His Mother was a devout Catholic, his Father a Lutheran. When my Grandfather married my Grandmother he made her promise that they would only be a one religion household. My Grandmother was in 100% agreement – just as long as that religion was Southern Baptist.
My Mother was therefore raised in a religious environment where church was simply an extension of not only your family life, but also your social life. Indeed much of the growth of the small Alabama town overlaps with the growth of the church that my Grandparents belonged to.
I was raised with an awareness of church and religion but without a structure or routine or home church because we moved around so often. When I was around the age of five Mother and I began visiting local churches in the town we were currently calling home in Florida. Very early on I remember being immediately taken by certain rituals in certain churches. I also remember feeling strongly about dress codes and had a keen desire that we always look our best for church. If we visited a church where people were in t-shirts and jeans it didn’t feel “right”, it wasn’t dignified.
I know that Jesus had very little to do with my early associations to church. I knew about the guy. I knew that he liked little lambs and white children and that he had very vivid blue eyes. This was the portrait of Jesus that was presented to me at every church. I came to think of Jesus as kindness and God as unkindness. Jesus loves me yes I know. But when the people were bad God got pissed off and sent rain and only saved the guy with all the animals that knew how to build a boat. That was heavy.
But by the time I was 6 or 7 I had decided that I was an Episcopalian. It was my choice. And on an Easter Sunday sometime in the early 80’s I was baptized. I do not remember the names of the people that we elected to be my Godparents. I just remember that one of them gave me a banjo.
When Mother and I moved into the basement of my Grandparents house in Alabama so that my Mother could go to law school I got a taste of what happens when religions collide. I don’t think I realized that people could be upset about religion. But boy was Grandmother irked that I was going to Sunday school at the small downtown Episcopal church and not the massive mega church. To appease her and keep the peace I agreed to go some Sundays.
Mostly I wanted to see my Grandfather prepare for his class. He was a teacher for a hugely popular Sunday school class about the history of the bible and it was always filled with interesting people from the University and people that didn’t even belong to the mega church. I liked watching him set up by sketching out maps on the dry erase boards and if we got there early enough I was allowed to place the handouts on the empty chair seats before having to go upstairs to the children’s school.
Children’s school. This was where, upon hearing that I was Episcopalian and not Baptist, Misty Holt (not her real name) began to cry and dropped down in front of me, placing her head in my lap, and prayed to The Lord to save me. She was so so sad that I was going to be going to hell because I was not a True Christian. When she rose she gasped a little and pointed to my neck and whispered, “you don’t even have a cross”.
And I felt naked. And sinful. And dirty. I wasn’t a True Christian and now everyone in Children’s school knew it. Three Sundays later and I was on my way to being totally, 100% SAVED.
Then I got over it. I’m not sure what broke the spell. It might have had more to do with thinking Misty Holt was a turd than any ambivalence towards God. I just know that I asked to stop going to Children’s School and without much fuss everyone was ok with that. Instead I sat in the back of Grandfather’s class and learned about Alexander the Great and waited for Grandfather to wink at me.
I didn’t return to religion with much seriousness again until I was in the 8th grade. We had just moved to a new town and Mother and I thought a church in the downtown area was so beautiful as we drove by and when we realized that it was Episcopal we decided to give it a try the next Sunday.
Oh this church fit me like a glove. It was old, full of ritual, musical, reverent, and the sermon made me think. I started to really, seriously, think about God. I was putting things together that felt right for me. God could be about community and tolerance and love and understanding and within the stories in the Bible there were interesting lessons. And each week was a genuine aha moment. Nothing was forced, nothing pushed.
I started reading the Bible, I started going to classes, I became president of the local Episcopal Youth Community, I was the head acolyte and nearly every Sunday I was the crucifer carrying the large cross in the processional. My junior year in high school I was seriously thinking about studying to become a priest. My Senior year in high school I delivered a sermon.
My love for the church followed me to NYC and college. One of the first things I did, after getting settled and arranging my work study job, was sign up to be a layreader at the Episcopal church on Broadway just a few blocks away from my dorm. I connected church with service and community.
I continued to have a healthy church life when I lived in Los Angeles as well and found the weekly ritual to be grounding when so much of my world was chaotic and unruly.
Ironically it is when I returned to Alabama to care for Grandmother that I had a hard time going to church. I couldn’t leave her alone and there was NO WAY that she was going to attend an Episcopal church. I was able to bring her to her home church a few times before she begged us to not bring her again. Her anxiety about forgetting people and names was so large and she would rather watch the program on television.
[except her church delayed their broadcasts by a week which was utter HELL for us. Grandmother could barely retain that it was a Sunday so it was brutal to have to explain, “no It’s not Mother’s day- that was last week…”]
I probably don’t have to spell out the hows and whys of where my faith crumbled. But it did. I used to wear a crucifix around my neck and then one day I knew I needed to take it off because most of the other people wearing such adornments weren’t practising the kind of Christianity that I wanted to associate with.
So Christianity and I have some stuff to work on. I need to figure out if there is a place for me within it. The people on tv, the people with the hate banter, the people with the intolerance – doing it in the name of Christianity- well that just shuts me out. And I don’t get that kind of religion.
But how do you say, “I’m a Christian- but not THAT kind”? And how would I introduce W to a church if I can’t yet bring myself to be there myself? I guess this is why it is good that Mother is here. I just asked her how her faith is and she remarked, “it’s just fine”.
I do think that religion is important. And I think that I have some sort of belief system in me but my issues are probably more church related and then trickle down to faith.
Ideally I would love to introduce W to many faiths and beliefs and see where is feels most comfortable. It almost seems so precious and private to impose anything upon him, which is why I allow Mother, with her intact and healthy belief system, to drive this boat for me right now.
But I am curious what you guys think about faith, religion, beliefs, church…all of this stuff. Your thoughts would be helpful.