July 10, 2008

A Journey in Faith: The Unbeliever Years

Don't believe in heaven or hell
No saints, no sinners, no devil as well
No pearly gates, no thorny crowns
You're always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
Those lost at sea and never found
If you're up there you'll perceive
That's my heart upon my sleeve
If there's one thing I don't believe in,
It's you.... Dear God

"Dear God" XTC

Once one of my favorite songs, this song now represents to me a part of my life that has passed. It still holds a special place in my heart as I think of the way I felt for so many years, as I struggled with faith periodically then let it go.

I wasn't born into a religious family. My father's background is Catholic, his mother is a devout Catholic and he and his brothers and sisters all went to Catholic school for a good part of their lives. I'm not precisely sure of my mother's religious background before I was a child, although I suspect it was neither strong nor fulfilling since she spent a good part of my childhood searching for something that spoke to her.

Throughout my years, I experienced some of these with her. I attended Baha'i meetings with her a couple times. I remember learning how to play the game 'bullshit' there. I attended Unitarian Church, from which I remember this chant: I will be gentle with myself, I will love myself, I am a child of the universe, being born each moment. It was sung while we all stood in a circle holding hands. I do remember the youth group at this one being particularly comfortable. I remember being scared off from Presbyterianism for a time by the Good Friday service where all those attending were given a large nail, then one by one pounded them in to a big wooden cross at the back of the room. For a while, she tried out the Quakers, but I never attended a meeting there. As a child, I used to accompany my Grandmother to Roman Catholic mass. Around age 14 or 15 I developed a strong aversion to Catholic mass, being prone to burst into emotional tears during the service. I'm not sure what happened, the only event I can see that could have brought this on was the death of my cousing and missing her funeral. It was like every time I attended one of those Catholic masses, I felt like I was at a funeral.

When my cousin died, I was also in the 'why would God let this happen' camp. I remember being at some kind of church gathering with my Mom (I think it was the Presbyterians) and a woman talking about her daughter who'd been in a pretty bad car wreck (she had pictures of the car, smashed and bent) and talking about how lucky they were that GOD SAVED HER. That was all good and well for her, but I couldn't hold back my tears as I wondered why God had chosen to save her daughter, but had not chosen to save my beautiful cousin Kathleen.

By the time I was 16, I felt I had made up my mind about religion and God. It was pretty simple, there wasn't one. How could there be? Why would a God choose to do the horrible things that happened in the world? Not only that, but I felt that I would never be able to believe. I had lived for 16 years without God as an explanation for anything, I didn't understand how I could possibly fit God or Faith into my life when I already had scientific answers for the things around me.

Around that time, I met someone who would come to be one of my best friends. His name was Thomas, and he was a year or two younger than I was. Back in the days when AOL was the cool new thing, Thomas and I chatted for and hour or more each night for over a year. I came to trust him and depend on him, I could tell him anything. Thomas was a Christian. He went to Christian school, and had a strong faith in God. He was the first person in my life who I had extended, questioning conversations with about religion. Over the time we were friends, I came to envy Thomas for his faith. I didn't understand it, and I felt jealous that I didn't think I would ever know what that felt like, to believe so completely and trust so wholly in something like that. I lost touch with Thomas, and I am trying to figure out how to get back in touch with him now that I've gone through my incredible journey over the past year or so. He encouraged me to explore the world of faith, but I still felt that I would never be a part of it.

As I got older and explored my ideas of faith, I came to the conclusion that I didn't believe in God, but I did believe in some kind of spirit, something bigger than I was. I went on through the years, trying to be open, but deep inside believing that it was never going to happen for me.

When I was 21 years old, I met Violet, who quickly became one of my best and closest friends. After knowing her for only a year, I asked her to be a bridesmaid in my wedding. Violet was five years older than I was, with colorfully died hair and tattooos. She swore and ranted and we got along great. She was also a Christian. Violet attended Lake Forest Park Presbyterian Church, and over the years I went to church with her several times. I went with them for Easter Services, and for their first daughter's baptism. I found the church to be comfortable and welcoming to me. It was not like any of the other churches I'd attended where I felt pressure to figure out what the heck I believed and join up already! Over the years I had a lot of religious conversations with Violet. She was incredibly patient and thoughtful. Instead of trying to force her beliefs on me, or convince me, she answered my questions and listened to my reasons why I just couldn't bring myself to believe.

Justin had been raised Lutheran, and when we got married and started trying to have children, we discussed what kind of religious upbringing we would want our child to have. It was important to me that my child attend church. I felt that it would be easier for them to make their own decision later in life if they had experienced the community of faith from the time they were young, I felt like I hadn't been able to make that choice because the experience just wasn't there in my childhood. Then we had Sam, and when he was about 1 year old, we decided to start going to church regularly. Since we were already familiar with it, we decided to attend Lake Forest Park Presbyterian with Violet and her family. I felt comfortable there, knowing some people, as well as knowing from Violet's experience what a great children's program they had there, and after attending a couple of services growing to really like the Pastor and the music at the contemporary services. But I still believed that I wasn't going to be able to fully let faith into my life, that I would never be able to, and I was a little bit disappointed about it.

We attended services regularly for a couple of months, then the opportunity to take their two session new members class came up. Justin and I decided to attend, and little did I know, that was the beginning of the end of my time as an unbeliever...

to be continued next Thursday!

- Read the next post in the series: 'Something Stirs'
- Find links to all posts in the series here.

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