In a weird roundabout of life, I’m living next door to the church I went to when I was a newbie Christian.
It was a wonderful church and it helped me tremendously at a very hard time in my life.
But that’s not really the beginning. The beginning is the fact that my mother chose not to baptize me as a baby. She grew up in religious home. Church and related church activities from sun up to sun down on Sundays. She baptized both of my sisters. But I was a late life baby. She was farther from her childhood and she decided to let me decide what to believe.
So I only went to church when my grandma visited or occasionally I went with my best friend to Sunday Mass. I LOVED Mass. It was so mystical and cool. I did NOT love Protestant Church, which was so boring and uncomfortable.
When I was 16 my father died. I was oddly not emotionally upset about his death. I’m sure there are deep psychological reasons, and I won’t bore you with them. But I was more affected by all the uncertainty and change that came when the earner was gone and by my mother’s decision to move to Ohio.
Ohio was where I started to attend a group called Young Life. Young Life in my high school was FUN. It was a bunch of kids singing cheerful pop (not religious) songs and playing silly games. A very cool and handsome guy would stand up and give a very short talk about things high school kids struggle with, which was generally funny and emphasized a strong moral imperative to act right.
God was only mentioned when we prayed before and after each meeting. Also short and sweet. Praying before a meeting used to be thing for just about any meeting so I really didn’t think it was too odd.
My point is that I never really recognized that this was a religious group. I thought it was just a club where all of my friends could go and be silly. I loved it.
Then they had a retreat and I went. And that is where the God Factor was fully revealed. They gave a full on evangelical talk and even though I had serious doubt that God even existed, I was also in a lot of angst, from being a teenager, from losing my father and because my mother was an alcoholic.
This is the summary of what I heard. God loves you and ACCEPTS YOU JUST LIKE YOU ARE. That last part was said over and over. And I heard it. And so I accepted Christ into my life.
I started to attend the church my good friend attended, (the one next door) and met lots of kind people in the process. I got very involved in the youth group, in bible study, in youth service. I loved the people and the activities and the sense of belonging.
I learned the deep importance of forgiveness from being a Christian. I was taught the practical ways I could forgive someone who had harmed me.
I learned the joy of helping people just for the sake of helping.
I was very earnest in my belief, but it was slowly born on me over the next few years that I was the victim of a bait and switch game. The simple message that attracted me to God was love and acceptance. But the message that was swirling around in the undercurrent and occasionally in the open at church was not about love and acceptance.
I grew up being taught to look at each person as an individual. To accept a person until that individual has done something to merit condemnation. That is deeply ingrained in me. And I was having a very hard time with all of the condemnation of groups that weren’t part of the Christian life. There was this built in sense of us and them. Not her, not him, all of the Them. The oversimplification that comes from putting people into a group and judging. The basis of all prejudice.
Then there was realization that there was a disconnect between church and my relationship with God. Religious Life is an unspoken hierarchy of righteousness. Another religious friend of mine and I compared it laughingly to being in Mary Kay.
Everyone was working for the Holy Pink Cadillac of churchiness. You get a point for attending church. You get a point for volunteering for something that helps the church. You get a point for being in bible study. You level up if you lead a bible study. You get a point for being in choir. You get a point for going to the Wednesday night service. You level up for bringing in a new member, And if you convert someone. That is the pinnacle. If you are the reason someone converted you have achieved the Holy Pink Cadillac.
See, church is made up of humans and that is what humans do in all group situations. Only in church it’s kind of weird because you are supposed to be there for God, but most of them are there working for the Pink Cadillac of Holiness. I was finding myself just as guilty of it and not liking it.
So I stopped going to church. I figured then it would just be me and God and I would skip the distractions. But there is a reason why they work so hard to keep you going to church. The same reason why sober alcoholics are more successful if they keep going to meetings and dieters are more successful if they attend the weight watcher meeting instead of just the weigh in. Because humans respond to the need to fit in, to conform when we are in group situations.
Without the group telling me what to believe about what I read in the bible, my mind was free to think about it differently. At first this was very freeing, I was able to find lots of reasons to discard the prejudices that abound in Church and accept all the groups they condemned.
Eventually, I explored other religious views and other ideas and over the course of 20 years I came to where I am today. A nonbeliver.
But I don’t regret my time as a Christian. It was just what I needed. I met some very wonderful and kind people. I learned some valuable life skills.