A Spiritual Journey

As long as I can remember, I was searching.  At first, I was searching with my dad as we visited church after church. I went to school, and I began to "believe" in science.  It was not enough.  In college, I studied different religions, but I still came up blank.  But finally, I found a place where I was accepted as I was.  I found people who weren't insulted by or afraid of my questions.  I found a God who was big enough not to make me check my intellect at the door, a place where I could be me.
... I was lost, but now I'm found.
   Was blind, but now I see...
    (Amazing Grace)
 If you're interested in a more detailed version of my journey from agnostic to Christian, keep reading...

This was originally posted as a multi-part series.

Part 1 - February 9, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I stepped out of my blogging comfort zone to talk about something potentially controversial, the dynamic of different religious groups in the town I now live in. Several of the comments expressed an interest on how I decided to become a Christian in the first place. I thought that would be a great continuation on my religious theme.

In a way, this is kind of my life story because this journey has been going on throughout my life from about as long as I can remember. Hopefully, I can keep the story from dragging too much. ;)

Like any good story, I have to set the scene. Act 1 Scene 1 starts by being raised in a non-religious household. Oh, I had a Christening dress that I still have on a shelf in my closet, and I have Godparents, who had nothing to do with giving me religious instruction. There's some paperwork that the ceremony took place at an Episcopal church. I knew that my parents also were married in an Episcopal church, but that was about the extent of it.

If there was any kind of religion around the house, it was the religion of the U.S. Army. Like any religion, it is filled with disciplines, traditions, and a moral code. However, it was not a household of blind obedience.

My parents had grown up in the shadow of World War II where Nazi military personnel tried to deflect the responsibility of their atrocities by saying that they were only doing what they had been ordered to do. This was also very shortly after the end of the war in Vietnam where the citizens of the United States learned that their government had lied to them in order to generate support for the war. The level of trust in anything besides what one could observe or reason through was very thin.

My father would regularly tell me stories that sounded true ... at first.  As the story continued, it would get more and more far-fetched and outlandish. A particular one that stands out was about submarine races on Lake Superior. (I probably remember it because it was my cousin who got sucked into the story and was pretty bummed when he found out that we couldn't go and see the race. lol)

The way that I figured, this was my father's way of teaching me that I shouldn't blindly follow or believe anyone, not even him.  I should always use my brain and my own reasoning power before believing anything.  Naturally, this attitude backfired on him when I became a teenager and questioned everything he said. For some reason the stories stopped shortly after that. I'm not quite sure why. ;)

Now, it wasn't that my parents were particularly anti-religion either. When I was six, and my neighbors invited me to go to church, my parents had no objections that I recall. However, about a year later, when I wanted to ride my bike rather than go to church, they had no objections either. Of course, at no time in that year did they ever go with me.

In other words, I was briefly exposed to Christianity, but we lived in an irreligious household. There was no significant change from this as long as I lived with my parents, even after they divorced. We celebrated Christmas with Santa and Easter with bunnies.

However, as all parents (and children) know, children don't learn everything about life at home. School began to have an influence. And that's where the story will pick up next week.

Here's a hint. My father's teaching to question things was encouraged. You already know how the story ends, but I can assure you that I approached the whole thing with a great deal of skepticism.

Part 2 - February 16, 2012

This week I’ll be focusing on many of the reasons that I didn’t think I could ever consent to be a Christian.

I don’t know about these days because I’ve been out of the school system too long.  But in my time, if one already had a tendency to be skeptical, school would encourage that. The only exception to that was the teacher him or herself. They were the dispensers of “truth.” If you didn’t believe or questioned them, your grades would reflect that. In other words, I was trained to trust my teachers but not anyone else.

Really, that’s fine with math. Math questions are either right or they’re wrong. It works for spelling and vocabulary tests too because the teachers are picking the words. (I doubt that “irregardless” would appear on a test.) The problem came up with subjects that required interpretation and analysis.

History class probably made the most profound impact when I learned about all the evils done in the name of Christianity. Crusades, inquisitions, the wars associated with the Reformation, colonial exploitation, and the list goes on and on. (And believe me; I haven’t forgotten any of those things.) What I wasn’t given is context. I was told who did what to whom, but I wasn’t told the reason why.

In actuality, the lesson in most of those actions was the corruptible influence of great power. (The lesson of absolute power corrupts absolutely wasn’t introduced until Napoleon, but that’s another story.)  However, the lesson that I learned was that Christian Church regardless of manifestation or denomination was evil. Individual Christians might be all right, but the Church was a horrible entity. And don’t even get me started on the science and religion debate.  If evolution (among other things) was not compatible with Christian beliefs, you could count me out.

My time outside of the classroom was not terribly encouraging for the church either. The town that I lived in was predominantly Irish and Italian, and there was a large Roman Catholic presence. Even though my best friends were among them, I felt excluded from significant parts of their lives. (I now realize that their priests would be appalled that they didn’t ever invite me to participate.)

Moreover, teenagers are cruel, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. I felt the hypocrisy of the Church paraded before me on a daily basis by teens who talked about going to confession on Saturday then were hateful to everyone the rest of the week. There’s no way that I wanted to be a part of that.

[Just as a side note: This isn’t a hit exclusively against Catholics. Just last week, I read a story of almost the exact same treatment of a nice Catholic girl who had moved to a predominantly Protestant town.]

So, I graduated high school happy, downright thrilled that I was able to escape what I thought was my small narrow-minded hypocritical Up-state New York town.

I tried to live my life by the world’s rules, as I understood them, which actually meant the way that I saw in movies and tv. Work to achieve academic and professional success. Get money. Buy things. Have relationships with whomever you want, the more the better. Live today, for tomorrow you die.

My life made sense of a sort. Everything was logical and lived up to my cynical expectations, but something was missing. I was very unhappy.  I felt empty inside. I came to the point of “there has to be more to life than this.” As a matter of fact, I felt like I had been tricked. I followed all the rules. Why wasn't I blissful? I went in search of what was missing. I started my spiritual quest, and it went all over the map.

Part 3 - February 23, 2012

When  we last saw our heroine, she had heard enough from those secular-humanist folks that said that all religion and spirituality was hooey. It made life seem so pointless. If they were right, we might as well be living in a computer simulation.  She came to the conclusion that they didn't know what they what they were talking about ... any more than anyone else, so she decided to go and investigate it for herself.

She did a lot of what I call "aimless wandering."  She went about her business in the world with an open mind, willing to consider whatever she came across. She tried and tested many things. Some people may have thought it was silly, but really how can you know unless you try. She tried astrology, tarot, and Wicca. They seemed intriguing, for a while. There's more to astrology than what you read in the daily paper, you know. They had method. They had an internal consistency, but ultimately they didn't work for her. They didn't live up to their claims or their predictions, so she moved on.

She looked at some of the more broadly accepted faith traditions such as Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam.  Even if she decided that she couldn't accept them, she considered it worthwhile to better understand other people in the world. She found them interesting. She was amazed at the intellect among the people within them. Was it possible that some of the people who participated weren't delusional or otherwise mentally deficient?

However, you shouldn't suppose that our heroine did this all in a whirlwind or a vacuum. These investigations were more like a hobby. She would be wildly interested for a period of time, but then the fever would pass, and she would return to her day to day life, sometimes with years in-between.

Occasionally, her hobby brought her to the doors of Christian Churches. For several years, Catholicism piqued her interest, both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Her father's side of the family had a history with the Roman Catholic church, and despite her negative experiences with the Catholic Church in her teenage years, she decided to give them another chance. She found the Basilica of St. Mary's to be especially awe inspiring.  The incense was also a wonderful experience. She went through the motions. (You'd be surprised how many people in worship services are doing that.)  She was very respectful, but it was more on the line of a sociology or psychology experiment. She wanted to understand what people were getting out of it beyond the atmospherics, the music, or even the camaraderie. Was it just some sort of glorified clubhouse?

She asked people the question, "Why do you believe that?" Many many times. After all, she just wanted to understand. The response that she got dumbfounded her. "You just have to believe. You have to take it on faith.  If you need a reason, it really isn't faith."  That didn't make any sense to her ... at all.  If she asked any follow up questions, folks tended to get a bit hostile. She couldn't understand the hostility. It was just an honest question. (Maybe that's why none of her friends in high school would invite her to church events?) She would usually wander off on her own for quite a while after one of those episodes, scratching her head.

Then one day, after a particularly chaotic year in the dance business, she had to move. (For two years, she had been exclusively immersed in the spirituality of dance.) Her choices were Minneapolis, Minnesota or Charleston, South Carolina. It had been a particularly cool summer in Minnesota that year. It seemed like the highest temperature for the whole season had been somewhere around 65˚ F. It was the beginning of September, and weather forecasters were already predicting snow. No contest, she decided to try out Charleston, South Carolina.

She found Charleston to be both a blessing and a curse. As a history buff, living in the hometown of signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not to mention where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, was like a dream come true. Historic housesBeautiful gardens all year round. Going to the beach in September was bliss. Hurricanes, alligators, and snakes ... not so much.

There's one more thing about Charleston. It's also known as "The Holy City" because of the plethora of historic houses of worship there.  That was going to have a profound effect in her investigation and experimentation with spirituality, but perhaps not in the way that you would expect. It was more of a historical expedition, but more about that in our next episode...

Part 4 - March 1, 2012

 We have reached the last installment, at last! Last week, I mentioned that I moved to the Holy City, Charleston, SC.

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
That was all well and good, but I couldn't get past this thing about why people "believed" or how they had come to believe. I still couldn't get a more coherent answer than "because," which just wasn't cutting it. Obviously, my interest had been piqued, and I was perfectly willing to continue going to services because I was getting something out of it.

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.


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