(This was written over a year ago – a chronicle of my spiritual journey. Long, but after much thought, worth reading if you can make it to the end!)
When I was young, my family attended a Presbyterian church. I remember Sunday school, vacation Bible school, Mom singing in the choir, and looking around thinking that I knew most of these families like I knew my neighbors, having comfort in that. I knew the Bible stories, memorized the Nicene creed for confirmation, and sang a duet with my Mom at a mother-daughter banquet for Mother’s Day.
Dad rarely came. He was what we’d now reference as a CnE attender. Christmas and Easter would be the limit, and most of those services he’d rest his eyes and hum along to the music. When we’d visit his family in Canada each summer, I remember having rare discussions about God, but moreso in a condescending manner. None of them were in the believing set.
Shortly after confirmation, I remember beginning to think that this whole church thing, well….it was a crock. How did we really know that any of it was true at all, and here we passed the basket for money each Sunday and we were all like sitting ducks being led by our pocketbooks. That was around the time of the whole Tammy and Jimmy Baker scandal, which only helped to seal my cynicism.
At the same time growing up, I’d always had a fascination with the occult, paranormal, ESP, psychological powers. I think I’d always had an acute sense of awareness of there being something other, something bigger than all of us, but didn’t have a framework to conceptualize it.
At one time in my life, I believe I was in the 6th grade because it was my first year playing the clarinet. I was taking private lessons from an instructor who used our church classrooms for his lessons each week. Arriving early, I awaited my lesson and decided to go into the sanctuary to practice. I remember feeling incredibly small as I walked up the aisle to the pulpit. Feeling painfully alone as I carefully adjusted all the pieces together of the instrument. Playing the mournful sounds of the clarinet, it reverberated off the walls of the sanctuary giving it a more than usual hollow, clear sound. I played on, feeling proud of the instrument’s voice. However, the longer I played I began to sense a clear presence “watching” me. Surrounding me as if listening to my playing. At my young age, it didn’t feel comforting or safe – it felt bigger than life itself and scared the beejezus out of me. I couldn’t pick up my music, instrument, and case quick enough to beat it the hell out of there.
I experienced a similar feeling much later in life, after I’d had kids, and was writing for our church newsletter. They’d asked me to write about our Prayer Vigil that was coming up that weekend. I remember thinking, “Really? What’s there really to write about?” I envisioned going to see people’s heads bowed in prayer, scattered amongst the pews. Or worse, they’d be gathered in groups and asking me to join them. Nothing could be closer to a nightmare for me. I’d rather die than Pray Out Loud. I called one of the female religious leaders of our church to ask her what it was about a Prayer Vigil that made it newsworthy. Why did people feel they needed to make it a public event? Personally, I thought prayer to be intimate sharing between you and God. Why did people join together in public to do this very private thing? I must not have felt her answer had much bearing, because I don’t remember anything she said today. Just that she urged me to go and give it a whirl myself.
I walked into the sanctuary late at night and to find what I’d expected — a dozen or less people scattered throughout the sanctuary with their heads bowed. I took my seat in one of the back pews, feeling a little insecure and silly. So what?, I thought. What’s this supposed to do? Where’s the newsworthiness in this? I pushed around a few of the collection envelopes at the back of the pew in front of me, rearranged the hymnals. If I were a child, I’d have begun drawing pictures for as much as I felt at a loss for my presence there, a real boredom setting in. Then, becoming afraid that others might look and see me feeling so out of place, I bowed my head in silence. Said a quick obligatory “Dear God” prayer, help this person and that one, thank you for this and that, the Lord’s prayer. Having exhausted my list of known prayers, I sat silent with my head bowed in embarrassment of being “found out”.
It wasn’t long into that silence that I felt a strong presence surround me. A familiar presence that I’d not felt since sitting in that sanctuary long ago, playing a few cautious notes on my clarinet. Only this time, I wasn’t scared. I was awed and filled up with the all encompassing largeness of this presence that so enveloped me, it was overpowering. I kept my head lowered, for now tears were falling without abandon down my cheeks and I was again embarrassed. I didn’t want to cause a scene, for anyone to ask me what was wrong or even to share this moment with anyone. I just sat there being filled up, allowing this Ultimate Presence to surround me, embrace me, hoping that my tears would cease long enough for me to leave in peace.
This was the first adult miracle for me – this internal shifting to allow myself to conceptualize and accept a Being greater than myself into my mind.
But did I give myself over to it? Hell no, I was stubborn. A real thinker! No way was I going to just fall over into the hands of some God, just because I was humbled by His Presence one evening. Shoot, I could have just as easily been tired and overly hungry. Let’s not go crazy or anything because of a couple of “felt” events in my life.
Again, I was asked to report on an event for the church newsletter – this time by attending the church women’s retreat. In all honesty, there is no way on earth I’d have attended a woman’s retreat then on my own accord. To spend two full days with other women in the church who’d choose to spend an entire weekend talking about……God? Hell, no! What on earth would I have in common with those people? Thankfully, the woman that sat next to me in choir invited me to share her room with three others, so I didn’t have to feel alone or out of place. She told me to bring some food for sharing later in the first evening and a bottle of wine. What? Alcohol at a Christian retreat?
The retreat itself was forgetful – the speaker and meaning, although I do remember that it was about angels – but I came away from that weekend feeling a strange kinship to these ladies I hardly knew. We’d see each other each weekend, dressed to our Sunday best sitting side by side in the pews, yet I realized that with our eyes focused on our pastor up front there was little time to really SEE each other. That weekend helped me to recognize that though we were all very different in ages, family situations, religious upbringing, we were all very much the same in our journeys. Some further along, some just starting, some falling and coming back, but all of us striving, reaching for something more outside ourselves. Walking away that weekend, I felt part of a religious community that felt somehow deeper than relationships I shared with my friends away from church.
Did I delve headfirst into my new friendships, spending time to get to know them further and strenghthen our relationship together in Christ? Hell no! I was stubborn. Most certainly, I was too cool for that kind of thing everyday. Besides what would my other friends think? I’d become some kind of God-freak! The last thing I wanted to be seen as was one of those church ladies!
Around this time, I began openly questioning. Trying to sort out what I learned with a child’s trust on Sunday mornings with my discomforts in the Bible as an adult. I turned to one of the pastors from a prior church who I’d befriended. We’d since moved away from that church, but I sensed an openess with him that I could ask anything and he’d not shove the Bible down my throat.
He did anything but — he told me to pick up Marcus Borg’s,”Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” What I read there scared the shit out of me! It was suggested that the Christmas/Easter stories weren’t exactly true, that they were created “post Easter” or post crucifiction to solidify the early Christians belief that Jesus was the Savior.
Holy shit, really???? What the hell do we believe in then? Why are we going to church? What are we continuing to learn if its all just a bunch of made up hoo-ha?!
I read as much as I could, then hid the book at the back of my drawer like it was the Devil’s work itself. Something encouraged me to not throw it away as if I might be drawn to pick it up later, but I buried it. It had pulled the rug from my unsteady legs and I wasn’t ready. One of the things that my old pastor told me that stuck, however, was “The Bible is not the thing we worship. It’s like the cradle in which Jesus was laid.” It’s just the framework which holds Him. That understanding, however, was far from my acceptance – or full understanding – at that point.
A few years later, one of the friends that I’d met at that initial woman’s retreat asked me to join a Woman’s Bible Study Group. That was like asking me if I’d like to walk around naked in public every day. Are you kidding me? But this was my irreverant, real friend – someone that I knew to say what she thought no matter the audience or how shocking, yet she loved the Lord and desired a closer relationship with Him. I admired that in her. She could say, “Fuck” in church, drink like a sailor, making sexual references that would make a pimp blush and yet, her trust in God was true. She sang in the choir, volunteered to chair committees and chided with the pastors and their wives as if they were her best friends. There was something about that openess about herself that I was strongly drawn to, to say to the world, “This is me. I know that some of you might find me offensive, but it’s who I am.” Seeking after Christianity without feeling the need to wear sheep’s clothing. So I trusted that if she were willing to go after this Bible study stuff, I’d follow along with her. At least she’d be worth a few laughs as we learned together.
Then she moved. Didn’t attend one meeting with me. Left me on my own. Why I found the desire and guts to go on my own, I’ll never know. Probably because I distantly knew the woman that was creating the group, which meant I’d talked to her twice and had a distant sense of “realness” about her.
That group changed my life. We’re all very different, seven of us now in all. It’s changed a few times over the years when one of us moved, or shock of all shocks, became disenchanted with the rest of us, or when we’ve opened our arms to invite a new face in. (Which doesn’t come often. We’re stingy enough with our closeness that we’re snobby about newcomers. By church standards, we’re supposed to be always open armed, but it stretches all of our Christian growth each time we allow it to happen.) These are women that in all honesty, I probably wouldn’t have befriended at that time on the “outside”; a few are frumpy or overweight, some have appeared closed off and unfriendly, and others, intimidating. But I’ve come to judge them by a new standard that is all-important: by their realness. And by looking beyond the failing of their exteriors, which plagues us all, into the depth of their hearts. By their ability to stop playing the game of pretenses, allow “Oz out from behind the curtain” to show not only his unweildly, overweight, scraggly haired self, but his deep compassion. Indeed, allowing ourselves to run naked in public for all the world to see, coming up in laughter and tears, grasping each other’s shoulders in a giant hug of understanding.
We call ourselves “The Church Ladies” in smug reference to those little old ladies you remember dishing out casseroles and advice in the church basement, issuing “Hallelujahs” , a Bible verse or two and scorn for the sinners. It’s tongue and cheek for everything that we see that we are not.
We have a backdrop of Christian learning through one book or video or another, but it’s been through the sharing together that has brought us deeper in Christianity. The opening of our hearts when a son is put in jail, or the death of a parent, or depression, or another’s addiction. Sorting it out in context of our faith walk and the compassion of listening when the power of words have long lost their luster. It seems as though we each take a turn in our misery – God’s been good to us in that way – so that we can focus all of our good mojo on one person before the next begins to stumble. We’ve shared our doubts, laughing in shy embarrassment at our perceptual mistakes, or guffawing at our common disagreements. That willingness to be open and honest, finding commonality in our confusion and hunger has helped us all to grow. Even when one of us feels stilted, we’ll all gather at either shoulder and carry her along until she feels strong enough to stand in faith alone.
Around this same time, I found my way to 12 step programs. Even without revealing all the reasons that brought me there, I cannot emphasize the extended gifts I found in spiritual blossoming, self awareness, forgiveness (for self and others), and living a life of gratitude.
And I firmly believe that “the God of your own understanding” mentioned around those tables has opened me up to know that there’s a God Beyond The Bible. One that’s far more personal and beyond comprehension or explaining and study. I’ve become more accepting and grasping towards the mystery, knowing that answers exist more deeply inside us than in the pulpit.
Another mountaintop experience that I felt the presence of God so profoundly, helping me to step beyond myself and my fear of who I might be, came within a few months of attending 12 step. My husband and I had just started counselling when I found out that I’d become pregnant. Despite playing fertility roulette with birth control after our youngest was born, we’d remained blissfully (my word) infertile for years. My husband had long since given up encouraging me to have just ONE more, and had promised for four years by this time that he’d go under the knife and have the little guy snipped. Imagine my sheer horror and shortly after, the disgust I had for myself that I’d let something so important to MY life, MY needs recede to the expectations of another. I was the self-sacrificing momma, by choice, yet felt resentment for years for the lack of help and attention I received from my husband. His life barely skipped a beat after each child was born, while I felt that mine was completely sacrificed. It was my choice, the way I felt it should be done….but it bothered me quite a bit that he was not nearly as self-sacrificing as I. I would not, absolutely WOULD NOT do it again.
One week, one short week later after an incredible woman’s retreat with an incredible speaker whose topic was “In His Time” had me doing a complete 180. A message that “if we wait to feel ready for what He asks of us, none of us would ever get anything done.” That the characters of the Bible were not “ready” or often willing. That turn-around influenced me to stand in our pulpit at church and share about it, after a very real discussion the night before with that same God-presence I’d come to know – arguing about my ability to speak in public, much less our church where surely this sinner did NOT belong!
Shortly after, when I’d lost the fetus, I was so confused and distressed, feeling SO sure of His sending this child as a message to us. And within a short time again, being able to turn that into a message of gratitude for what we have, the children – my family. That the learning that needed to come of how we’d do it differently in the anticipation of another child, still greatly applied to the two youngsters still thriving, needing our attention at home.
That experience sealed the deal. I was all in.
Another five years down the road, and here I find myself, skipping along off the beaten path, following the butterflies. Is it all lightness of being and joyfulness in my heart? Hell no! There’s sticks and gravel off the paved path. I stumble, stub my toe, and feel lost sometimes. Several times I’ll raise my head and think what the HELL am I doing here when everyone seems so accepting of the known path? But I strongly believe with every part of my being that I wasn’t meant to walk on the pavement where many others walk just following those before them. I know with a deep sense in my soul that I’ve always had this desire to search for the butterflies as they scatter about, no matter where and maybe especially BECAUSE it’s off the beaten path.
I’ve since picked back up “Meeting Jesus for the First Time” as well as Marcus Borg’s other books. I’ve read Spong online. I’ve joined Progressive Christian message boards, participated in Women’s Spirituality groups, drummings, honored the Goddess, read Buddist or Hindu influenced materials, written on multi-faith message boards, even become a Stephen’s Minister and Prayed Out Loud with another in their pain. Listened another woman into being. Even left the traditional church and my beloved Church Ladies, having served their purpose in my journey. I’m now at a metaphysical church that follows the principles of Earnest Holmes – Science of Mind.
Again, it’s like lifting your head after skittering through the forest trying to grasp that flittering butterfly, only to look up and realize how far you’ve journeyed. Always just a slight shift until you realize you’re far from the concrete.
I’ve read somewhere that a miracle is a shift in your thinking which otherwise is unexplainable. That is how I view my spiritual self today. Knowing me of my teen and young adult years, I have no idea how I got here. There’s no sense to it. Marianne Williamson, in “A Course in Miracles” says that “Miracles are both beginnings and endings, and so they alter the temporal order. They are always affirmation of rebirth, which seem to go back but really go forward. They undo the past in the present, and thus release the future.” My growth, the one I’m growing into be, is nothing short of a miracle.
What I’ve come to learn- and if you’re of the traditional Christian set, you may be offended and upset to read further. Or maybe you feel that your legs are too unsteady to have the rug pulled out from underneath you, as I did. Maybe you’ll think – oh horrors – that I’m surely possessed by the Devil. (That’s okay, if you do. My sea legs have found their bearing now.) But if you’re willing to hang on to the end of this writing, you’ll see what it’s meant to me — if I can put it into any kind of deserving words by that point. It’s not The Traditional Path, but it’s my own, and it’s garnered great meaning and purpose to my life.
I don’t believe that the Bible is authored by God. I think it’s a Christian work, that’s pulled from Jewish history, compromised with Pagan beliefs, to further the early Christian faith into being, fighting its way with many other faiths at the time. It’s a work of early Christian ancients. By not living in that era or that mindset, sometimes it’s hard to fathom their thinking, so it’s where our confusions lie, the trying to put it into our modern day framework. The Bible’s contents were voted on by various church leaders at the Council of Nicea appointed by the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great. They were to decide which holy writings, of which there were literally dozens, that were considered “holy” enough and able to support a unified Church. He needed to establish a single canon that would be used by all Christians as the “word of God” to help unify the remains of the Roman Empire. From my understanding, many of the old gospels not deemed holy enough have been lost, even though some – like the Gospel of Thomas – have been recovered to give us a picture that is very different than what is seen in the gospels of the Bible. Yet it is an earlier picture of Jesus than any of them. This understanding today, however, doesn’t make me question church and Bible study. I can put it into perspective today. In Marcus Borg’s book, “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time,” I like that he teaches that the writings, when viewed through the eyes of understanding its ancient time and historical surroundings, are profoundly true. Meaning that not all of it may be historically true, but it still has great meaning for us today through its teachings. Rob Bell, author, narrator/actor of the Nooma series, and pastor of a largely successful Christian church in Michigan says that the Bible is “alive” in that it still has great power in putting it to meaning in our lives today.
The virgin birth is not a unique story to Jesus. In ancient days, if a person seemed to have power and wisdom greater than the multitude, it was a common practice to place the label of God upon him. However to explain his humaness, they said he was born of a woman. Many before Jesus were given this magical, illusive beginning: Romulus, Perseus, Plato, Danea, Malanippe, Auge, Antiope, Osiris, Attis, Mithras, Hercules, Alexander the Great, the first Roman Emperor, Augustus. It was the ancient way of explaining away the mysterious. It’s hard for me as a rational thinking adult to think that all of these prior virgin births were somehow different or not true , yet the humanized God of my own faith is true. Either they were all true, or they weren’t.
I’ve also read that early Christianity, and even Christianity that is alive today in more eastern traditions honor a relationship that is more personal. Many of those early Christian beginnings honored an intensely personal relationship to the Divine, a respect for the feminine, the natural world, and a mystical experience. In our Western view of Christianity, we often see our beliefs as the “only way”, when we’d be surprised to find Eastern cultures that practice more “eros” or emotional, soulful traditions within Christianity. Less about explaining the unexplainable, guilt seemingly a motivating factor, but about discovery and experiencing the mystical. I believe that it’s been through the Greek and Roman culture that fear, moral desciptions of “good and bad”, guilt, and power have been embedded in western Christianity. It hasn’t been taught through Jesus, whose central messages have been a more feminine ideal of compassion and love, rather than agression and competitiveness. In fact, Jesus’ message was so radical because it suggested that people look at things in a new way, fighting the masculine messages of power and agression with messages that espoused virtues of forgiveness, peace and humility.
One of the most irreverant of my beliefs today is that Jesus didn’t die on the cross for the ultimate wiping away of all our sins for the rest of eternity. Partially, it is based in the fact that as a rational thinking adult, it’s difficult for me to think of one sacrificial killing over 2000 years ago somehow magically wipes away the bad deeds of all humankind for the rest of eternity. That sacrificial thinking, once again, has its foundations in ancient beliefs of sacrifice to the Gods being necessary for absolution. But it also comes with a strong conviction that I have about the love of God. There is nothing about my God, ultimately a loving and compassionate God, that created man in His image, to be so angry with them that He’d wipe them out unless His son died a horrific death on the cross for us. I don’t believe in the cruelty of a God like that, and am happy to see that there’s many others including biblical scholars, that are much more learned and well read than I, that agree. To me it’s a furthering of the guilt imposed by the original Church to impose upon us how much we owe. I also can’t believe in a God that would send any of his children to a firey Hell for the rest of eternity if they don’t succumb to one way of thinking. Once again, how arrogant to think that we have the right way to salvation just because we are the ones practicing it, and all the rest of you are not only wrong, but headed for eternity in fire and damnation for believing that blasphemy. And ultimately, I have a real hard time believing in the “magical” saving of all the rest of eternity for all time for the sacrificing of God’s beloved son on the cross thousands of years ago.
I don’t believe in a heaven as an actual location of pure bliss where all our loved ones are in wait for each other. I think we’re all spiritual beings, made human through birth and in death, we return to the spiritual realm. (We’re made in His image…) But what “heaven” is truly about is really a non-issue because it’s more important for my faith to connect with the here and now, not so that I’m rewarded someplace else after I die. In fact, I abhor the focus in traditional religion on the afterlife. For me, in a more real sense, heaven and hell are personal, real entities here on earth. I think we create them with the choices we make in our lives. Living your life in closer proximity to God, in some kind of relationship with Him/Her, gives your life more of a sense of blessing, gratitude, forgiveness and patience for chaos or what isn’t “acceptable”, and power over your own fears to encounter the mountains that block us. Combined, they create our own Heaven here on earth. In Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, she writes that sin doesn’t send us to Hell, the complications it creates and the angst it fires in our psyche make our own Hell. Heaven and Hell for me are in direct proportion to my relationship with God. And in that way, I see Jesus as a Savior because living closer to the ideal that God has planned for us, saves us from our own personal hells.
So knowing all this, putting some reality on the spin the early Christians took liberty of creating in the early centuries, “What’s the point of Jesus? Of Christianity? Of the Cross?”, as one of my small group members cried when I uttered any of these beliefs that I’ve shared here.
I think Jesus is still crying out, as He did when He walked this earth. A call to flip over our traditional thinking, our analytical, competitive masculine thinking, our Western tradition of explaining away the mystical, our way or the highway (or death/Hell). I think it’s a call to journey on a more eros tradition before the Roman empire stamped their masculine power to it. Further, Jesus is a model for all of us to recognize the God within all of us, created in His image. Hand in hand with the God within, the miracles that await us are no longer impossible, we just have to move aside the mountain of humaness and doubt that block us.
And the cross? My pastor, the one I correspond with from time to time since he still stands within the Lutheran church, helps me put things into perspective. It helps to talk with someone that I know who has similar views as I do, but still preaches from a traditional pulpit. He said something to the effect that the cross is about dying to ourselves to something bigger. And in that way, I can see Jesus’ death being a symbol of salvation for all of us. That in letting go, in putting aside all our rational belief and understandings, and releasing over to the mystical, unexplainable, just TRUSTING in that power beyond ourselves, we can be free. Free of the human condition that keeps us aching, in pain and fear, searching for what can’t be found in the physical world.
This pathway, this spirituality, keeps me feeling free. Open to the possibility. Trusting in the mystical, okay with not having to understand it all. I’ve never felt so at one with my faith. Comfortable where I am though not fully knowing. Still seeking and interested in learning about Truth as it rings true for me and God within. Being open to chase butterflies, no matter where they lead or how deep in the forest.