Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My "godless" childhood

Last weekend we had my husband’s company Christmas party in Newport, RI, which is where I lived as a child. We decided to stay over since it would have been a long, late-night drive back. I thought it would be fun to go to my old church on Sunday morning and called my best friend to see if she wanted to meet us. We grew up in that church, that is, until I moved away, and attended a different church of the same “religion” in Massachusetts during my later teen years.

After the sermon I heard on Sunday, I would not actually consider this movement to be a religion at all, though Wikipedia defines it as a liberal religion characterized by a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" and states that members do not share a creed, but are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth.

I further disagree. There was really nothing spiritual about the service at all. I do know that the primary useful thing this church taught me as a child was that there are many ways of doing things. I remember reading and rereading “Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret,” a Judy Blume book about a girl in sixth grade who grew up without a religious affiliation. I spent my teen years wishing I was Catholic, because all my friends seemed to be; then attending a Baptist church for a while with some friends from my high school cross country team; and then into the dark void of college – occasionally brightened by my fascination with Martin Luther King, Jr., who got his Ph.D. in theology at the same school I attended – and young adulthood, until I landed in a Protestant church after finding God in a self-help fellowship with spiritual guiding principles.

The service started out with “Oh Come, Emmanuel” but that was the only reference to God or Jesus in the entire hour and a half, and I guess that was supposed to cover the topic of advent as well. No Lord’s Prayer, no “peace be with you,” and no “Glory Be.” The minister talked about “storytelling” and the fact that stories get diluted and changed as they are passed along, how foolish our ancestors were to think dreams were reality (e.g., if you see your loved ones in a dream and think they are real, you must be really simple minded, which is insulting to me, because my dreams about my parents who have passed and my memories are what keep them “alive” for me), and suggested that the Bible was just a bunch of made up stories. Even though I often wonder why the Bible was edited the way it was and believe it does not contain all the gospels, as well as the fact that it’s no doubt translated differently by different people, I didn’t think discounting the Bible the way this minister did – especially in a supposed house of worship – was even remotely appropriate. My husband later told me he almost got up and left at that point. I replied that I wouldn’t have blamed him.

No wonder I used to daydream. And count things like panes in the magnificent stained glass windows and people’s heads in the rows in front of me, or pick at my fingernails…or later on, when I attended the church in Massachusetts, analyze the other girls’ wardrobes and wonder if I would ever be able to dress that way or if I even wanted to, coming from the “other side of the tracks” as I did.

At lunch afterward, I said to my friend, “I grew up godless. No wonder I was always searching…” I began my tirade, “With all the intellectualizing, how could there be an opportunity for spiritual growth? How do you learn that God loves you? Or that Jesus is your friend? It’s all above the neck, in your head; but spirituality is supposed to be below the neck, in your heart…and you feel the Holy Spirit in your gut. I do anyway…isn’t that what’s meant by a gut feeling? I need a bit more heartfelt testimony to feel that I have been spiritually moved,” I sputtered, my friend unable to get a word in edgewise.

My Godless Childhood: What you are is God's gift to you. What you become is your gift to God.Then, on the drive home, I had a light-bulb moment that brightened my reflection on my supposedly spiritually barren childhood. I remembered a big gaudy yellow button with a bright green frog that I’d stuck into the cloth speaker on the clock radio next to my bed. It said, “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.” I have no idea where I got it but was fascinated by that saying and it has stuck with me my whole life. I did not grow up godless!

This saying is why, in our family, we do talk about gifts and talents and try to remember to thank God for our sports skills; our academic gifts, or our creative talents like music, art, and writing in our prayers.

On Monday, I recounted my experience to a colleague whose husband is a pastor. Normally I do not talk about religion at work, but there are certain people with whom I know I can. I told her how beautiful and historic the church is, and how amazing the stained glass windows looked, and how awesome the bells sounded – you could hear them for blocks, all the way to the hotel where we stayed – but that I felt like the minister was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She replied, “Oh yes, my husband just spoke about that last Sunday. We are in Wolf Country.” (She lives in the southeast U.S.) It was a relief to be able to have a below-the-neck conversation with a like-minded person who spoke the same language.

She reassured me, “You were not godless…God brought you into this world for a purpose…and had you experience what you experienced so you could do His will in the manner that He had planned for you. So continue to seek and He will order your steps.”

God has been with me all along. God believed in me, even when I wasn’t so sure I believed in Him. I don’t have the frog button anymore but do have a tiny ornate plaque with a similar saying.

I thought about the steps and stops along my spiritual journey in the years and how my family ended up in the American Baptist Church; how my kids break out in song sometimes, “Jesus is a friend of mine;” and how excited they were to find out we will be able to go to the late Christmas eve service and light the Christ candle for the second year in a row.

“And remember, if you don’t use your gifts, you will lose them,” my colleague admonished.

At first this sounded kind of ominous, but upon reflection, it is actually the reason why I felt compelled to write this particular story, and why I continue to write and share stories even if it means I am doing so even when I might be doing other things, like sleeping or perhaps Christmas shopping, writing cards, making cookies, cleaning my house…

…but what better way to prepare for Christmas than by appreciating my God-ful life, reflecting upon Christ's first coming to Earth as a baby, and for feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit…and sharing this with others?

1 comment:

  1. […] I can go to a Catholic church with my husband and mother in law; I can go to a Unitarian church – growing up Unitarian is what helped me to respect other faiths; I can also go into my son’s dad’s church and feel […]


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