What intrigued me about the place as much as anything was how full of history it was. I mean, Charleston was one of the very early European settlements in North America (ca. 1670) when it was known as Charles Towne.
Its politicians were heavily involved in the American Revolution and the Civil War (or The Recent Unpleasantness, if you ask the tour guides) as well as an important battleground for both. Only in the last 25 years has it really economically recovered from the Civil War and Reconstruction. The result of that is that huge numbers of historic buildings were never torn down over the years. The blessing in disguise of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 brought in an influx of insurance money, which allowed many of these historic buildings to be renovated to their former glory.
As I have a major interest in history, this place was a great source of inspiration. I loved to walk the streets and look at the houses and gardens. I loved to listen to the tour guides as they spun their tall tales, when the carriage tours passed by. Among these buildings was St Michaels Episcopal Church, built in the 1750s.
This was a place that was jam packed with history. Signers of the Declaration of Independence and creators of the Constitution worshiped here. You could see the plaques on the walls and the stones in the graveyard.
It's one thing to go into a place like this in the middle of the week when it's hushed and empty (and air conditioned with temps in the 90s and 99% humidity), but it's quite another to experience it with a worshiping congregation.
I admit that I was still going to services as an observing social scientist, but here there was a difference. I found myself really connecting with the sermons. What is a sermon really other than a glorified speech? These speeches were really getting to me. They touched the wounds in my life, and I started to have a glimmer of why I felt like a fish out of water when I tried to live by what I understood as "society's rules" for success, happiness, fulfillment, or whatever you want to call it.
|Interior of St Michaels|
One day in a public library, I found the most extraordinary book, The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary. It was extraordinary for many reasons, but most important for our story is that it was the first thing I had ever heard or seen that said that it was reasonable for me to need a basis for faith! Peter, James, John, and all of Jesus' disciples (i.e. students, followers) had a basis for their faith, and they had to explain it on a daily basis to the people around them. There wouldn't be a Christian Church if they, and the other people of the Early Church, were not able to explain the basis for their faith. At Last!
Meanwhile, I started looking for a church that was closer to where I lived, and I wandered into a United Methodist Church. A curious thing happened. They weren't threatened by my questions! They were cool with Evolution and the Big Bang. They had women preachers. Heck, they had women bishops! (Bishop is the highest leadership position in the United Methodist Church.) They didn't say that all gay people were going to hell. It really made me rethink my presumptions about the church.
With all of my questions, the pastor invited me to a Bible study that would cover almost the whole thing over the course of 34 weeks, Disciple. Like many people, I had tried several times to "read the Bible" for purely literary and historical purposes if for nothing else, but I always got bogged down and quit somewhere in the second or third book. This study had a method that helped me get past that. It was a huge investment in my time, but I saw it as an opportunity to get the kind of understanding of Christianity that I was looking for.
I made a decision. I would give it a shot. I would go into it skeptical (as always), but open to the possibility of being persuaded. I talked to God ("prayed" if you will), not being sure that I was talking to anyone. I made a deal. I told God that this was God's last shot. I would commit to this study, and it was God's chance to convince me. If it didn't happen, I was done. No more churches. No more research and investigation. It was over.
During the course of those 34 weeks, I had many ups and downs. One of the great things about this study was that there was a lot of explanation of why: where things came from, how outside cultures and religions influenced Jewish and Christian thought and the development of the Bible. It introduced historical information from Greek and Roman sources. Some of what I learned disturbed me. Other parts inspired me greatly. As we were reaching the last few weeks, I still wasn't sure. I felt positive about what Christianity teaches, but the Bible didn't have credibility with me as a historical document to persuade me about the existence of God or belief in Jesus.
What I was looking for was independent witnesses, not something that was seen exclusively by the disciples. That was my threshold. It's going to be different for everyone. As it happened, within the next couple of weeks, I was "introduced" to independent witnesses. Hmmmm ... now I really had a decision to make. My criteria had been fulfilled, but I still wasn't sure. I kind of held it to a judicial standard, beyond a reasonable doubt. The bottom line is that I decided to believe. I decided to believe that Jesus was who he said he was. Once I did that, I had to believe what he said ... including that there was a God. It's kind of like an all or nothing proposition.
The reason that I still believe is what has happened in my life since my decision. It has only been confirmed over and over. Being a Christian does not mean that one's life always runs smooth, nor does it mean that a person has become perfect or all knowing, quite the contrary. The more one learns, the more they see how much more they have to learn.
But that's how it happened. It's complicated, convoluted, as well as very individualized and personal. And you know what, I could be wrong, but that's okay. I will still feel that it was a life well lived. It was a long journey. Thank you for going along with me.