Bibles, Churches, and Crosses. Oh, my!
My spiritual journey has carried me through the aisles of many churches over the years, and led me to study and discover what most resonates with me.
I grew up in a home with little to no religion. My father was raised Catholic, my mother Pentecostal, and when I was a baby, they baptized me in the Catholic Church. My Grandma Aggie, who lived with us off and on over the years, attended Mass regularly at Sacred Heart. I went with her sometimes, but mostly only on holidays.
I knew that my parents believed in God but because of some bad experiences with the Catholic Church (pre-Vatican II) on my father’s part, and especially because the church still recognized his first marriage, they did not feel comfortable attending.
My aunt, who lived close by, had converted to the Jehova’s Witnesses shortly after my grandfather’s death. One year, we had a large Christmas celebration at our house. My aunt wanted to see everyone, too, but when she got there, she announced, “We aren’t here to celebrate Christmas; we’re here to see the family.”
Despite my father’s concerns that his sister was trying to convert us, he let me keep the black leather Bible and book of Bible stories she gifted me when I was younger. I remember reading the Bible stories over and over, and I remember feeling confused about why, in the Bible, some words were black and some were red.
In tenth grade, my friend Heather invited me to go to her Youth Group meeting at the local Assembly of God church. I went and that very evening — after an intense series of Worship songs during which we all stood, singing with our arms stretched up to Heaven — I was saved. The leader said the old me had died, and I was a new person reborn in Christ.
The feeling lasted about three days, and then the old me rose again. I didn’t understand then that we shouldn’t rely on our feelings to direct our faith.
A few years later, in Air Force Basic Training, all the Airman Basics (ABs) were given extra time off on Sundays to attend one of the two church services on base.
Everyone went. Everyone. Even the Atheists. Because if you didn’t go to church, you had to stay and clean the barracks.
So every Sunday, all the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Wiccan, and Atheist ABs marched together to the chapel. On my first Sunday in Basic, I went to the Catholic service.There were only 15 of us at Mass, and I couldn’t even take communion because I never went to Catechism or received my Sacraments.
The following Sunday, I went to the Protestant service. There were about 300 of us, and half the service was devoted to worship. Gospel music, mostly. It was fun; I mean, who knew you could sing, clap, laugh, and shout in church? In large part, that Sunday service is what got me through Basic.
Once I had my first son, the inevitable questions began: how will we raise him? What will we teach him? If we attend church, which one? If not, why not?
Did I mention I was living in Texas at the time?
So, to squelch the questions, I looked for a church. I had become friendly with Mary, another stay-at-home mom in my apartment complex, and she invited me to hers. (This was after trying a service at the local Unitarian Universalist Church, which warmed my California liberal’s heart, but to which my ex-husband said, “Um, no.”) Mary’s church was a non-denominational Christian Church. I went with her a few times, but then we moved across town, I lost touch with her, and stopped going. Less than a year later, we moved to New York.
My ex-husband was raised as a Christian Scientist. When we moved back to New York, we started going with his parents to the church he grew up in. We only went for about a year or so, and then I decided to go back to my roots and the Catholic Church.
Within a year, I started taking the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) class, then I had my First Communion and Confirmation on the same day.
Just like my Grandma Aggie, I was officially Catholic.
Next, I joined the choir, was a song leader for the Children’s Liturgy program, taught music at Vacation Bible School, taught Religious Education classes, led a small group, and completed a two year course to become a certified lay minister. During this time, we baptized our three sons, we were married in the church, and my ex converted to Catholicism.
I was all in.
Then I got divorced, and I stopped attending Mass because technically, I wasn’t allowed to take Communion. I felt like a fraud. No matter how many times I went to Confession and received absolution, I didn’t feel right at church anymore.
In 2016, I had a new student teacher assigned to me. Over the 8 weeks she spent in my classroom, we had a few conversations about faith. She revealed that she was a Christian and I told her I didn’t know what I was anymore. On her last day, she gave me a gift. In the gift bag was a pamphlet from her church. “No pressure,” she said.
That Sunday, I took my kids and went. My husband stayed home. All he said about it was, “Be careful. Don’t talk to any weirdos.”
When I got there, I dropped the boys off in the children’s area, then walked into the sanctuary, which was already full. An usher directed me to one of the remaining seats in the back, on the end of a row. I sat, and was surprised when the woman next to me greeted me and struck up a conversation. Her name was Alisha.
A minute later, the lights dimmed and the choir came out. There was also a band, complete with drums, piano, two guitars, a bass, and five people standing with microphones in front of the choir.
I wondered, “Is this church or a rock concert?”
Then the first song began and halfway through the first verse (something about coming home to God), I started crying. Not a few tears, but the full on, trying to keep the snot from dripping down my face kind of crying. I was grateful for the loud music and singing, because choking back tears and trying to breathe is not a quiet operation. Alisha noticed and put her arm around me.
I made it through the service, and the boys and I went back again the next Sunday. And the next. After a month or so, my husband started going with us, too.
A few months later, I gave my testimony and was baptized.
That was almost five years ago. My husband and I have each served in different ministries at church, and we each attend a Bible study group every week.
Nowadays, when I think about religion, faith, and spirituality, I see them each having a distinct role.
Religion is divisive. Religion both includes those who belong to a particular one and excludes those who don’t. I prefer to focus on the common beliefs we share among the various religions instead of what divides us. If I had to label myself as a particular religion, it would be Christian, but there are beliefs I love in other religions. And if I had to choose a secondary religion, it would be Buddhism.
Faith is trusting that something is true even if you can’t “prove” it. I find that faith makes many people uncomfortable these days. It doesn’t jibe with our modern sensibilities and need for guarantees, facts, scientific proof, or logic that can argue something and leave no reasonable doubt that it’s true.
Faith doesn’t work that way; that is the exact opposite of faith. Faith is enigmatic. It’s trusting and knowing. It’s intuitive and perceptive. In many ways, we’ve lost our way when it comes to faith. The ancients relied on all these concepts, which we now view as suspect.
Spirituality is the umbrella hanging over religion, faith and all of my beliefs. I have to laugh a bit whenever someone says, “I’m a spiritual person.”
We ALL are.
It’s unavoidable. I believe we were each created with four moving parts: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. To deny that you are spiritual is to deny one-fourth of your being. It’s as preposterous as saying, “I’m not a physical person.” Um, yes, you are.
And just as it’s important to cultivate and grow our physical, mental, and emotional health, it’s equally as important to grow our spiritual health. This doesn’t mean you have to “choose” a religion, but it means you should do something every day to grow yourself spiritually, whether it’s meditating, reading spiritual texts and thinking and/or journaling about them, attending church, praying, talking to other people about faith or spiritual ideas, listening to podcasts or watching shows that probe spiritual topics. It’s worth wondering about.
To me, spirituality is more about asking questions than finding answers. Religion seeks to provide answers to all our spiritual questions, and while that can be helpful, I think it’s problematic to put all our eggs in the religion basket. And while faith can also provide us with some comfort, helping us to believe something we don’t really know for certain, like religion, it can also keep the door closed to that wondering, that mystery which I believe is essential to a healthy spiritual life.
I am grateful that my church is apolitical; while there are many conservative members of my church, the pastors never talk politics. If they ever do, I would want to leave in a hot minute, yet I would fight against that impulse. Let me explain why.
There are still some things I struggle with in church. Namely, their non-acceptance of the LGBTQ community. While they never preach about it, I know if I were to ask one of my pastors about same-sex marriage, they would be against it. Or if I were to tell them that my youngest son, who attends Sunday School there, self-identifies as the Q in LGBTQ, they would advise me to pray about it and counsel him against it. This disturbs me, and the minute they ever make him feel uncomfortable for being the wonderful, colorful person God made him to be, it would be difficult for me to stay.
Yet, there is a part of me that believes it is vitally important for me — and other liberal Christians like me — to stay in the church where I can best effect change. The sad thing is, too many open-minded Christians end up leaving, which keeps the church insulated against having to become more inclusive. The only way to change the church is from within, and I pray that one day there will be an influx of the LGBTQ community within the churches, forcing them to wrestle with their judgment and exclusivity.
In the meantime, like Brené Brown, who has spoken about similar struggles with these beliefs in her own church, I will continue to attend mine to “break bread, pass the peace, and sing with people who believe differently than I do.” She wrote eloquently about this in the article, “Why Experiencing Joy and Pain in a Group is So Powerful.”
I’ve come a long way on my spiritual journey. Over this past summer, I went through a six-week Spiritual Warrior training program with Iyanla Vanzant. We read some interesting texts: “The Way of Mastery,” “Steps to Knowledge,” “The Sacred Yes,” and “The 7 Day Mental Diet.” These are not Christian texts, and that is ok with me. I have an open mind about learning new things. I take what is helpful in my current spiritual practice and leave the rest.
No matter what, I will always strive to continue growing in my spiritual life and cultivate my spiritual practice. My faith has gotten me through several trials, and I know it will get me through many more.
I hope you know that no matter what you believe or where you are on your spiritual journey, you are wonderfully and beautifully created. In the therapist’s office where my son and I go, there is a lovely phrase stenciled on the wall:
“Courageous is the soul that ventures through time and space to learn of their own divinity.”
I’ll quote Brené Brown once more: “Divinity is your birthright.”
Now go claim it!