I’ve had a difficult time writing this post and put it off for a couple days because I would like to dive into a very difficult subject — religion. Whenever I discuss religion, it seems I get mobbed by fundamentalist Christians who want to tell me I’m not Christian enough for them and I need to be saved if only I would repent and convert to their church, or fundamentalist atheists who tell me that my spiritual indecisiveness merely means I have not seen the light yet. While each of those contrasting sides are certain in their beliefs, I am anything but certain of my own heart. However, time and again, crisis or not, I find that in the end, spirituality helps my mental health, and so I keep returning to it.
I have a long history with religion — Christianity, specifically. My mom raised me in a small Episcopalian church and as a baby, I was baptized Episcopalian, with godmothers and all. In junior high school, my best friends were members of a youth group at a Presbyterian church, and they encouraged me to join. Throughout middle school and high school, I became very involved in my youth group, and I loved it. But I was the one who was always questioning everything, even when I accepted Jesus.
On a mission trip once, we gathered in a church to listen to worship music and to hear testimony. Afterward, we were all gathered together in small rooms, talking about how much it moved us. Everyone was crying. Everyone seemed deeply moved. But my eyes were dry. I longed to feel the religious ecstasy that my peers were experiencing, but the questioning in my heart always stopped me short of complete submission. I pretended to feel that adrenaline rush, the abandonment of the soul.
The problem is I think deeply about things. I’m a scientist, at heart, too. I was a reporter for seven years, besides. Questioning is in my nature. From a very young age, I have questioned and challenged authority. I feel comfortable living in gray areas. I don’t like being told what to do. When issues are spelled out in black and white ways, my hackles rise. Nothing is ever simple. The world is beautiful because it is complex and hard. When something doesn’t make sense, we investigate why. We come to conclusions. We realize that those conclusions are fluid and may change if we receive new information that challenges our assessments.
Fundamentalism, however, can’t accept that. Fundamentalism wants you to accept that God is in control and to lose your sense of curiosity. Curiosity and fundamentalism do not mix. Curiosity scares fundamentalists. Please note, I am not talking about all Christians when I say this, and I am not only referring to Christianity. Fundamentalism exists in all religions. People who twist the word of God to justify their own prejudices and hateful impulses and call it reading religious texts literally.
I continued my religious education in college. I attended chapel regularly, nondenominational religious services. I met many of my best friends in college through chapel. The pastor became a mentor to me who served as a career reference for many of my first jobs. During these years, I felt like my beliefs were stronger than ever. Maybe I still only wanted to believe.
But still, college missionaries made a beeline for me. I would be sitting in an outdoor cafeteria with a friend. They saw a shy, lonely, geeky girl who looked sad, I guess, and approachable. They would sit at the table in pairs. They would start innocuously, by being excessively friendly. They would launch into small talk. I soon grew a sixth sense to notice them. I could smell the conversational gambits. Then they would say, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior?” I wanted to yell at them, “I’m Christian too! Can’t you see it? Do I have to wear a giant cross on my forehead whenever I go out in public? How come I’m not the right kind of Christian for you?” I would find every excuse for an escape route. I soon developed paranoia and anxiety around these encounters. What if I didn’t use the right words? They didn’t see me as a human being. They saw me as a number. A sales pitch for a quota they were driven to meet. Another soul that needs saving. Another soul that needs to be convinced that being gay is an act of sexual immorality.
One time, I was even accosted at work, when I was shelving books at the campus bookstore, where I worked as a retail clerk. It was a Sunday, of course. I invited him to chapel that evening. He made some excuses and slunk away.
After college, I lived in Japan for a year, teaching English. I was constantly struck by the odd, yet fascinating dichotomy of modern and traditional cultures in the country. Every day I walked to the train station from my apartment building to go to work. I passed by a small Buddhist shrine, lovingly tended each day with fresh flowers placed at the altar and a freshly burning candle simmering away in the brisk wind. Beyond it, a massive highway roared by, pumping the smog from modern vehicles to this roadside haven. I attended a Catholic church there for a time, for the comforts of home.
Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve found a church, usually Episcopalian, but not always. I like ritual; I don’t find it stifling, I find it comforting. I enjoy the old hymns; they aren’t boring, they’re inspiring.
Then I took a break for a few years from religion. I went back to my agnosticism for a time. It was back to the old question. Yeah, I feel the most comfortable with Christianity. But I also see value in all the other religions. If I can believe in a Christian God, I find no reason not to believe in the other gods. Certainty has never been my strong suit. I feel more comfortable marinating in curiosity and possibility and challenging my world view.
But I was still searching for something. I needed spirituality in my life. I needed to believe in something bigger than myself. I needed a greater purpose, a religious community. Over the years I’ve tried Buddhism. I tried Unitarianism. I flirted with Wicca and earth-based religions. Nothing felt quite right, even though Buddhism was closest to my heart. It’s a religion of the mind, which appeals to me. No white bearded man sitting on a golden throne in the sky, judging everyone. Enlightenment, instead, is the goal, through getting to know yourself better.
That’s really what I wanted. Getting to know yourself better.
I went to an Episcopalian church for a while. I enjoyed it, because it reminded me of my childhood. But it didn’t feel quite right, in the end. Progressive, denominational churches, I’ve discovered as I’ve church-hopped to several, are all dying out. They are populated by gray-haired ladies in their 70s and older and a few families. No Millenials. My generation, it seems, is lured by the mega church, with rock bands and sound speakers and preaching about the right lifestyle to lead to find God.
Then Trump was elected. That morning I went to an Episcopalian church in Portland. It was packed. We sang Hallelujah, the version by Jeff Buckley. The sermon was about love. There was not a dry eye in the place. I couldn’t stop crying. Was this religious ecstasy? That feeling I so craved? No, it was just despair.
Since then, I haven’t felt comfortable in a church. I have watched how Christians turn a blind eye to all the immoral behavior of this President in favor of the only issue they care about — outlawing abortion. It poisoned the tree for me of the whole faith. If some Christians could believe this way, why not all Christians? Even progressive Christians pick and choose from the text, affirm their biases. You can read into the word of God whatever suits your heart.
I kept trying, though, after another break. But that trend. The gray hairs who loved the politics of church committees. Or young people who hated the lgbtq community. I also came out as bisexual in my mid-30s, so I was especially sensitive to attitudes about queer folks. I am queer.
I tried one Baptist church (I know, but I wanted to find young people) and in the sermon, the pastor mentioned “snowflakes” in an insulting manner, immediately making me feel unwelcome as a liberal and a self-avowed snowflake. And the sermon was about forgiveness, but only in a conditional way. Why is it that some Christians only want to give when they agree with the cause?
Trying so many different churches was spiritually exhausting, so I stopped for awhile. I decided maybe I was just spiritual, but not religious. Organized religion does as much harm as it does good in the world, after all. Maybe I was agnostic, after all.
But no, that didn’t feel quite right.
The last couple weeks, I’ve been live streaming Christian church services again. I actually do like the rock music; it reminds me of my youth group days, when I felt like I belonged to a community of faith, a community that would stand by me no matter what. My best friends to this day are from that community.
And I felt something stirring in me again. I really am Christian. I have always been Christian. But my God is not a God of hate. My God is not a God who picks and chooses based on His prejudices. And no, that doesn’t make it a social club. My Jesus is the Jesus who serves prostitutes and welcomes money-lenders and practices radical, nonjudgmental, unconditional compassion. My Jesus is love. No matter your background, your ethnicity, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your marital status, your family background, your socioeconomic class, even your religion. My Jesus doesn’t care about any of that.
Newsflash, fundamentalists: Your world is dying. The world is more educated, more queer, and more liberal than ever before. Don’t be so afraid of it, and embrace it. Jesus would. Jesus hasn’t lasted thousands of years because he is afraid of change. Only His followers are afraid of it.
My Jesus may just be a story. Maybe He is not the One True Faith. Maybe He is not strictly interwoven with the Word of the Great Book. Maybe He is just in my mind. Maybe He is just a narrative that comforts me in my long, dark night of the soul when I am yearning for a greater purpose, a greater connectivity with the world.
But none of that matters to me, and maybe that is my religious passion, as it were. This Jesus is my Messiah. My Messiah is love.
This is my testimony.
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