06 Jul 2017

Where God Is: Spirituality Series, Part 1

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My hands are shaking as I get out of the car. My mind is racing with a thousand useless thoughts.

Crap, I don’t have any money to feed the meter. Wait, it’s Sunday, I don’t have to. Did I remember to put on underwear? Check, did that. Damn, I don’t have any money for the collection plate. Is that even a thing they do anymore? I wonder if it’ll be all white people. I’ll be annoyed if it is. Am I going to burst into flames when I walk in the door? Will anyone even notice I’m there?

Bells ring above my head, chiming the quarter hour, jarring me back to awareness, reminding me of what I’m about to do.

For the first time in sixteen years, I’m going to attend a Sunday morning church service.

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I grew up Methodist, to greater and lesser degrees of seriousness over the years. My family attended a mega-church before the term mega-church existed; over 10,000 people squeezed into the sanctuary on Christmas and Easter, with an average attendance of 6,000 on typical Sundays. I felt lost in the shuffle most weeks, just another bored face in a sea of well-groomed white children.

Despite a lackluster church life, my relationship with God has always been solid. Better than solid, even. Most of the time, it’s deeply personal and ever-present. In many ways, it existed totally separate from anything that happened in church. I felt like He was always around me, a cloak of protection from the difficult home life of my youth. God existed in my bedroom when I sat on the floor and prayed over whatever teenage drama plagued me at the time. He existed in my travels when I felt the wonder and awe and gratitude Christian mystics wrote about in the face of all the extraordinary beauty in the world. He existed in the music and art and dance I ate up in my youth. There was no question to me that God existed, only a vague concern that I could never really connect with Him in the walls of a church building.

As a teenager, when my home life fell apart and I was left largely to my own devices on Sundays, I buffet-styled my way through the Christian faith. I went to an Episcopal church with with friends, a Presbyterian church with a boyfriend, and Catholic mass by myself just because I was curious. I tried Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and a couple of flavors of non-denominational. Eventually, at the invitation of a high school friend, I landed in an Assemblies of God church–where speaking in tongues and running up and down the aisles during service was commonplace–and proceeded to stay there for two years.

I’m not sure what kept me involved in a pentecostal church, so very different from my low-key Methodist upbringing. The youth pastor and his wife took a supportive interest in me during my parents’ divorce, which certainly had an impact. I made friends who seemed to genuinely like me, as long as I didn’t talk about the binge drinking I occasionally did with my “other” friends. I needed a place to land for a while and be reminded that God loved me, and I found it there.

Although I was accepted, I never quite fit in with my youth group. My relationship with God was deeply personal and intuitive, so I never adjusted to someone telling me how I should experience Him and His love for me. I also maintained beliefs that didn’t jive with the ultra-conservative orthodoxy of the Assemblies of God church, such as believing that science has its place in the world or that gay people aren’t inherently sinful and going to hell. Still, I kept going, in part just to have somewhere to go, and in part because it felt healing to be part of something.

But then, just a few weeks before I graduated high school, I shared with one of the youth group leaders that I believed in evolution and didn’t see it as contradictory to Christian beliefs. For this heinous crime, he told me I was going to hell and had no place in the Church.

And that was the end of that.

The speed with which I sprinted away from church is immeasurable. In a flash, church became the institutional equivalent of a persona non grata in my life. I had nothing to say to it, and it had nothing to say to me. I went to college and didn’t think about going to church again for many, many years.

None of this had any effect on my relationship with God, however. The separateness between God and church that had always existed in my life became a blessing, as I maintained a connection with my Higher Power even as I lacked a building to meet Him in. I continued to pray and talk to God daily. My actual belief never wavered.

After I discovered yoga, I spent my 20s ripping my way through all manner of spiritual exploration. I read the Yoga Sutras and classic Buddhists texts. I chanted in kirtans and danced myself into trances. I meditated and prayed and got Reiki certified. My spiritual hunger was strong and kept me on a constant hunt for communion with God.

And yet, I remained somewhat removed from a true relationship with God. I held onto a belief that I had to do everything myself, even as my marriage ended and I entered my 30s uncertain of what the future held. I had to be “strong” and push through, creating the reality I thought I should have, rather that curiously asking what my Higher Power wanted for me. I was like a toddler who wants to run around on the playground willy nilly, but then occasionally circle back to their parent, as if to say, “Are you still there? Do you still love me? Will you still be there when I decide to come back?” I wanted to enact my will in the world while maintaining the option of brushing God with my fingertips when I needed reassurance I wasn’t alone.

And then, late last year, I crash-landed into a personal situation I didn’t know how to handle. All my training and experience and personal growth work had not prepared me to navigate the onslaught of negative messages I received about myself. For the first time in my life, I questioned my connection with and belief in a loving Higher Power.

As I slowly started putting the pieces back together, I asked God–perhaps a little angrily–to show me where it is I’m supposed to go next. If this is now my reality, where is it that I’m supposed to find peace and meaning?

Over and over, despite efforts to push such thoughts aside, I saw images of the church I attended as a child. I saw the stained glass windows and heard the resonance of organ music. I heard the rhythm of a pastor’s voice, steeped in faith in a loving God.

For reasons I can’t fully explain, I was being called back to church.

Not knowing where to start, I decided to go back to my roots in the Methodist church, and if that didn’t work, to expand out from there. The only thing I required was that it be an open and affirming church; in other words, one that openly welcomes LGBTQ people. I knew such churches exist, and while that doesn’t sum up the totality of my spiritual needs, I figured it would be a good place to start.

So I Googled “most liberal Methodist church Birmingham AL.”

And the next Sunday–Easter Sunday, with its obvious metaphors of loss and rebirth–I put on the most church-appropriate dress I own, took a deep breath, and, for the first time in sixteen years, drove to church.

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A couple of months later, I’m leaving another beautiful Sunday morning service. I’ve met enough members at this point that a handful of folks greet me by name on the way out the door. The pastor, whose sermons have become like balm over my aching heart, preached about oneness and how and why the church should be a unifying force. He talked openly about LGBTQ issues and race relations, which stimulates the deepest recesses of my heart. The music is viscerally familiar, and the stained glass catches the late morning like just right. I feel peaceful and at home.

Soon, I will sit down with two of the staff to talk about membership. I’ve never been an adult in the church, so I don’t know how this works. I will enter the conversation vulnerably, willing to be guided deeper into this community, grateful to feel like I can relax and trust.

My relationship with my Higher Power hasn’t changed much. God remains everywhere, and yet, for now, His essence and love seem to be highly concentrated in this beautiful building with the red doors downtown. There is something here for me, and I’m too exhausted to question it. It feels more restful and healing to trust it, to keep showing up. To allow people to hug me and tell me they’re happy I’m here. To allow people to pray for me and my well-being. And to hear over and over again that God loves me just the way I am.

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One Response to “Where God Is: Spirituality Series, Part 1”

  1. Mollie L Erickson says:

    Not only are you stronger than you think you are, you are also very brave.