Searching for Community… Again

Last year I found a wonderful church community in a local Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation. My empty spots that needed spiritual community and the sharing of spiritual experiences found what they needed. I wasn’t able to attend frequently, but I enjoyed it when I could and was glad to interact with church members through social media. Our family joined the church and we were even married there. I was hopeful that we’d found our spiritual home. I really, really like the people we met at the church. They are very genuine and full of love and have shown me a whole new side of what religion and church can be. This summer the interim minister I loved moved on; the new minister, whom I really like, will begin her ministry in September. Lots of changes and exciting times are in store for the church, I’m sure, but I’m not sure we’ll be a big part of it. 

My idea of what “church” looks like or is meant to accomplish has changed greatly from my days as a Baptist. I like sermons about love, peace, religions of the world, and even how the church can be an active force in the community. The church we found seems to put more emphasis on being an active force in the community than anything else. That is what the majority of the congregation has chosen, so it only makes sense that the church would steer that direction. This emphasis on social activism is a bit much for me, though. Today I learned that the Religious Education (RE) curriculum for the fall would be about racial justice and social activism. One of the things that drew me to UU in the first place was the RE program for children – I love the concept! Religious education, from a progressive, open-minded perspective, that introduces children to many ways of thinking is a wonderful idea and something I’m totally on board with. I’m perplexed by this church’s choice of RE emphasis for the fall, though, because I do not see how a curriculum about racial justice and social activism fits the concept of RE. Naturally, this is just my own perception of what Religious Education stands for – the majority of the church feels differently and that’s fine.  Continue reading

Finding My Voice

I pulled out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement (and Christianity as a whole) in the fall of 2011 – that’s roughly thirty one months ago. My beliefs have changed so much during that time frame. Who I am has changed, and I’m very thankful for that fact. I’m happier. I’m healthier. I’m more confident. My spirituality is more fulfilling. I’ve found my voice and am no longer afraid to use it. Life is better.

Christian fundamentalism greatly stunted my personal growth. I’ve only recently realized how greatly it stunted my ability to use my voice. For starters, fundamentalism did its best to prevent me from developing my individuality. Self-aware individuals don’t conform to rigid rules and certainly don’t do well with one-size-fits-all doctrine. Individuals realize the world doesn’t fit into a box. Individuals use their voice to ask questions. Questions are dangerous if they remain unchecked. A child may except pat answers, but when that child grows up, his questions will not so easily be set aside. Fundamentalism prides itself in having the answer to everything, even if that answer is “God’s ways are not man’s ways” or “God knows best.” Receiving an answer like that was very unsatisfying, but it usually was enough to shut me up because I didn’t want to appear to be questioning God or the authority of the person whom I’d asked. Asking too many questions got you in trouble or, at the least, caused people to find you annoying and troublesome. I asked too many questions anyway, though, and didn’t get enough answers.

I can recall puzzling through matters of theology as a college student. Homework assignments designed to help me better understand my faith only made it more puzzling. One particular event stands out in my mind. I had been studying the arguments for and against predestination and free will and thought I’d had a breakthrough moment of understanding. I wanted to share my discovery with other people so I did my best to put it into words (which was long and complicated to do) and then put in Facebook. Immediately I got backlash from fundamentalist friends who disagreed; ultimately I chose to take down what I’d written. I saw then and there that a hole-proof, Biblical argument that reconciled predestination and free will didn’t exist. That was one of many things that I realized was not as hole-proof as fundamentalism declared/needed it to be. My faith was crumbling,
not being strengthened, and I began to realize why hyper-conservative fundamentalists declared higher education to be a “tool of Satan” used to pull young people away from their faith. I was not involved with Satan, though, and had only studied at conservative Christian educational institutions. My fundamentalist faith was not holding up to the thoughts inside my own head, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Eventually I had to start telling the people around me that I was no longer a believer. My voice was a squeaky whisper as I fearfully undertook the task of breaking people’s hearts. I put on a brave face, tried to protect myself by putting up a wall of defense, but nothing helped. I could no longer believe, could not live a lie to please people, but couldn’t bear to cause the people I loved so much pain and confusion. The year during/after my exit was messy and painful for all involved. I felt desperate for independence and a chance to discover the rest of the world, and in my desperation I made some bad decisions (my first marriage being one of them). Mistakes added to the pain and confusion, but through it all I began to find my footing and realized how strong I was – not how strong a deity or religion could make me. I found a place where I could blossom, a partner who supported me, and a faith community that was safe and nourishing (Unitarian Universalism). Finding love and support has given me the confidence I need to start using my voice.

I recall one conversation with my mother sometime after I had left fundamentalism: she asked me not to become an activist. Turns out the term activist made her think of 70’s era feminists like Jane Fonda. I know very little about Jane Fonda, but I’m aware that some of the activism of days gone by left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. Feminism and environmentalism both got a bad rap in IFB circles, and since those are two of the most well known areas of activism, I guess many fundamentalists assume activism is crazy, despite their very active attempts at proselytization and protecting themselves from what they considered to be infringements on their religious rights. IFB told me to speak out about salvation so the world would not all die and go to hell, but it cared very little about the worldly state of humanity and the Earth. Humanitarian efforts were seen as secondary (at best) to missionary work that resulted in conversions. I was always troubled by this, and wanted to involve myself in something that sought to help others at whatever level they needed help – not just their souls.

I guess I’ve always been an activist at heart. I don’t like sitting idly by when I see something that is needed, but years of doing just that must be overcome. I’m finding my voice and have lots I want to say. I don’t have the courage to speak very loudly, and the thought of public speaking still terrifies me, but I’m finding ways to use my voice. This blog is really what got me started; I needed to tell my story, and in the absence of an existing audience I made the web my audience. There are other things I’m passionate about, and I’ve been able to use the web to help me speak out about those things as well. Now that I’m a member at my local UU church, I think I will quickly find new ways to speak about what is important to me. I don’t have a special story, but I do have my story. I don’t have great ideas or even unique ideas, but if I don’t speak my thoughts I remain part of the silent majority. I want to bring about change, not remain silent while the world dies around me.

Happy Easter!

picture is the property of funnyfacejess

I love Easter. I looked forward to it as a child and I still look forward to it now. Easter has always represented hope, rebirth, happiness, and life. In the past I tied those things to the Christian narrative of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Now that I’m no longer a Christian, how do I observe Easter?

This year I attended church for an Easter service – probably my first Easter service in three years. Since leaving Christianity I’ve had no desire to hear the gruesome details of a crucified Christ, nor have I had any desire to hear how the blood of Jesus is responsible for securing my place in heaven. At the Unitarian Universalist church I now attend with my family, none of those things came up. Jesus was mentioned, but in a way that was beautiful and healing to me. Everyone at church was excited about all the new beginnings occurring this Easter – new members were welcomed (including me!), a new baby and his parents were blessed, and Spring finally decided to show up. I was reminded of the cycle of life and found myself touched by this season of birth. The way my pregnancy coincides with the change of the seasons has helped me feel even more keenly the power of changing seasons (literally and symbolically).

Easter is Spring, the season of birth and new life. People have been celebrating this season for a very, very long time. Even the word Easter originates from ancient pre-Christian times,
when the marking of the seasons was the norm and abundant fertility was cause for celebration. The story of Jesus even resembles ancient stories where a god is born, dies a sacrificial death, and is then restored to life miraculously. It’s a beautiful story, regardless of who the protagonist is, and I find myself unable to feel disdain for the story of Jesus. I too can sense the wonder that comes with the story of his miraculous life, particularly the great hope surrounding his resurrection after defeating death. I feel no joy at the message of sin and salvation, though, so I will probably never choose to attend a Christian Easter service again. In the future I look forward to telling stories from all the mythologies of the world that are appropriate for Easter, not just the story of Jesus.

I’m thankful that my parents never bought into demonizing Easter eggs or Easter baskets. Our annual Easter egg hunt still holds a special place in my heart. 🙂 I was excited to find out that my UU church has an Easter egg hunt for the children every year. There are many ways to celebrate this beautiful day, and I’m saddened by Christians who withhold Easter fun from their children. The nicest people I’ve ever met all have this in common – they don’t let their religion get in the way of life. Enjoy life and celebrate it every chance you get – lighten up!

Happy Easter!

New Life

At the end of December my partner and I confirmed that we were expecting a baby; we were both overjoyed! Now, 11 weeks into the pregnancy, I’m finally emerging from the awful symptoms of the first trimester. I don’t feel like I’m in survival mode all the time now, which is wonderful. I’ve been able to enjoy reading and thinking during the past week or so, so hopefully my creativity is returning and I’ll be able to write more. The reading and the thinking has certainly taken a new direction due to the fact that I’m pregnant.

I’m assuming that my parents as well as my partner’s parents are hoping that this new addition will magically transform our hearts and we’ll come running back to the fold. The thought of getting involved at a local progressive Christian church has briefly crossed my mind, actually. Not because I want to be involved in Christianity, but because of the community and support such a church would bring. We’re far away from all family and friends of the past, and our lack of community is scary to me as I imagine life with a new baby. There’s a great UU church we’ve attended a few times… but we haven’t been able to attend very frequentlye. We keep missing services due to sickness, morning sickness, weather, my partner’s work schedule, etc. I sincerely hope that things will improve as we draw closer to Spring. Speaking of Spring, it’s fun to think about how the baby will be growing inside me right along with the growth of Spring, and then be delivered towards the end of the growing season in August.

So yeah… a new baby definitely has me thinking about my community, my home, my family, our spirituality, what the future looks like… so many things. I know this pregnancy will be life changing. One way it is already changing me is by reshaping my spirituality and refueling my desire to learn more and grow. I think I know where I’m headed – to a point – but my IFB background is holding me back. It’s so hard to let go, let loose, and simply feel and do things… because of fear. The IFB instilled within me many fears, one of the chiefest being to fear what other people think. My interactions with other Baptist kids (school, camp, and college) taught me to fear how I look and whether or not what I’m doing will seem stupid or silly. Now I still battle with fearing what others think, how they’ll see me. I also battle with a fear of not being in control, which is heavily tied in with my fears about how other see me. Early on I did my best to hide all tears, possibly even all emotion, in public because it opened me up to ridicule and pain. I never liked being asked to do things out of my comfort zone because I feared failure, feared how I would look. I missed out on a lot of opportunities thanks to all this; it’s only been since I left Christianity that I began finding the freedom to loosen up and have fun. I look forward to being further changed by the experiences of this pregnancy, giving birth, and holding my baby.

Spiritual Experiences

When I discuss religion and faith with other people, I find myself most interested in why they chose their particular path. For some their decision was greatly impacted by their family and heritage. For others, it was a spiritual experience that led them to choose a particular religion and/or deity. Spiritual experiences fascinate me.

While I was a Christian I had very few spiritual experiences, perhaps because the IFB world I was raised in downplayed personal experiences and the Holy Spirit. I suppose that’s why we were fundamentalists, though, because we stuck to what we perceived to be the fundamental teachings of the Bible – people of the Book and all that jazz. I had a friend in school who was a member of a Pentecostal church, where the Holy Spirit and personal experience was emphasized more heavily. I never attended any of their services, but the stories I heard were certainly interesting! I imagine the ecstatic fervor that is a hallmark of Pentecostal services would have been scary because it was so far from what I thought was normal. I’ve been to several church services (of varying denominations) over the years that made me very uncomfortable because the church members felt comfortable enough to show honest emotions while worshiping. I’m secretly jealous of how genuine they allow themselves to be while in public.

After I left Christianity I began to study other religions more in-depth than I had previously.
I began to recognize that spirituality and spiritual experiences were universal things… and that the non-Christian forms were not evil and Satanic. Fundamentalist Christianity tends to make the horrible claim that all forms of spirituality that aren’t Christian stem from Satan and his demons. Even as a Christian, I was puzzled by such claims, because plenty of people in other religions had lovely experiences and did wonderful things. They weren’t evil and certainly didn’t act like they were being mislead by a demon! It’s very liberating to no longer feel obligated to label people’s faiths in such judgmental ways. Instead, I am coming to respect the variety that exists in the world – different doesn’t mean wrong or right, just different.

I’ve had several spiritual experiences since I left Christianity, and each has nourished my soul and made me a better person. When other people tell me of their spiritual experiences, I feel no need to discount them if they don’t line up with my brand of faith. I feel that the Divine works through all religions. My mother, who had a spiritual experience when she chose Christ and Christianity, is confident and happy in her faith. I have no desire to pull her out of her faith. I do desire that she is as accepting of my spirituality as I am of hers, though. Fundamental Christians are often quite loud about salvation experiences, because they feel that these experiences prove they have found THE path to the Divine. I take issue with that mentality, and think it’s a bit ridiculous given the fact that people all over the world have had spiritual experiences for thousands of years, regardless of their chosen faith.

So… what are my beliefs these days? I rather like Unitarian Universalism, because it embraces respectful recognition of all beliefs (including atheism and agnosticism). I believe there is a Divine presence in the universe, and that this presence manifests itself in many forms – male, female, both, genderless, etc. The Divine exists in all of us. I also believe the Divine can be reached through many paths – there is no right or wrong way. As many others before me, I too hope that interfaith love and peace will be achieved one day.

Article: Unity of Religions? "God is not One!"

This article makes some good points. I am totally for all religions learning to peacefully coexist rather than all religions losing their individual identities and being merged into a single blob. It is the beautiful diversity that exists amongst the religions of the world that prevented me from hating religion altogether after I left the IFB. It’s true that I currently attend a Unitarian-Universalist church, but it seems that the UU’s version of universalism and the universalism described in this article are not the same thing at all.

Sunday Morning Musings

Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest for Christians, but for most of my 20 some years as a Christian, Sunday was far from restful. The day started out with my family scrambling to all get showered, dressed, and out the door in time for Sunday School (at 9:45). Three out of four of us were not morning people. My mom tried to have a special breakfast for us on Sunday mornings plus she needed to prepare the lunch we would eat after church, so she had added burdens that required more time and less sleep. Getting out the door was incredibly stressful and hardly helped at least me to be in the right frame of mind for spiritual things. The Sunday events at my home church consisted of 9:45am Sunday School, an 11am service, 4pm teen meeting (for the few years we had that), 5pm choir practice, and a 6 pm evening service. The 11 service often ran until 12:20pm or later, but we didn’t get home until close to 1pm because we socialized with friends. By the time lunch was made and eaten, there really wasn’t much time left in the afternoon. We made the best of it, though, by taking walks, playing games, or watching something together. As we kids got older we discovered the joys of Sunday afternoon naps. Some families didn’t allow any activities on Sunday (based on Old Testament principles); I was very thankful my family wasn’t that hardcore. When I reached college I did begin to question spending time on non-spiritual things on the Lord’s day, but quickly abandoned my questions.

My Sundays in college were rarely restful. I chose to attend churches that were at least an hour away all four of my semesters. The first two of those semesters were spent at a church where I did what I could to help the pastor by teaching a Sunday School class, knocking on doors (even in the snow), and working on whatever odd projects came up. The next two semesters I attended a different church, largely so I could be with some new friends that I had made. We spent our afternoons crashed at the pastor’s house, at a nearby mall, or otherwise having adventures together. It was during this time that I began to question how conducive to a day of rest the model of church I was used to actually was. My friends brought this up and I found myself in agreement; if one of us was sick or just feeling wiped out we chose to come back early or, rarely, skip church altogether. The college would have never approved of what we did, but to an over-tired (and very ill, as I was experiencing a mystery illness that would turn out to be fibromyalgia) college student, it hardly seemed important. My body, mind, and spirit needed rest; God had commanded that we observe a day of rest, so I rested.

After I left college I returned home to be with my family. My illness kept me miserable 24/7, so I missed a lot of church, particularly Sunday mornings (mornings are the worst). My parents couldn’t understand and gave me a very hard time about how much church I missed. It became a source of stress and pain in my life and put a kink in our relationship. I spent the time sleeping (I suffered from killer insomnia at the time), doing personal devotions, or listening to the church service being broadcasted online. I discovered that I felt more spiritually refreshed when I had the time by myself than if I attended the Sunday morning services. One Sunday morning in particular stands out to me. By that point in time I preferred to use the ESV translation (my background was militant KJV only). I sat outside in the sunshine with my Bible, a journal, and a cat to keep me company. I read the beautiful words from my ESV Bible and then wrote in my journal. I encountered the Divine that day in ways I’ve rarely felt in a church setting. It was so perfect and healing to my soul. I tried to tell my father about it, but he did not share in my excitement because he felt I should be in church on Sundays. A few months after this experience I left my Baptist beliefs and Christianity as I knew it.

I still attended church as I was able, at least for awhile. I grew up in that church and its school, so it was a huge part of my life. I remember the Sunday my father told me I needed to leave the choir because it was hypocritical to be up there when I didn’t believe what I was singing about. I knew he was right, but I hated to leave because singing in the choir brought me such great joy. Church services became fuel for what I wrote on this blog; what I heard brought me to anger and disgust. The awkwardness of being an unbeliever amongst fervent believers also made it hard to enjoy church. Very few people knew my lack of belief at that point, and I was deathly afraid of how they would react to me if they did know, so did my best to smile and nod and maintain my secret.

When I moved away from home and was no longer pressured to attend church, I found great relief in spending my Sundays as I saw fit. There was no rush or bustle, no need to dress up, no shouting preacher… it was nice. I did try to keep the principle of a day of rest because I thought it necessary for maintaining good health. I toyed with the idea of a low-tech or no-tech day. I spent time outside when I could; Nature has always felt like a spiritual place to me. I also spent time exploring new ways of viewing spirituality through a variety of books. I never wanted to attend church again – I was tired of oppression and embracing my freedom wholeheartedly. I discovered and claimed the title spiritual but not religious; I was definitely still spiritual but wanted nothing to do with organized religion and churches. Things went south with my then-husband, I moved back home for a time, and I was again thrust into the world of busy, Baptist Sundays.

When I left home the next time, I remained content with church-less Sundays for several months. I didn’t spend much time looking for the Divine at that point, but eventually found myself on the path of searching once again. I found spiritual connections in discussions with other people, time spent outside, books and the internet, and within myself. I found the Divine in everything if I took the time to look for it. I also found spiritual healing. With healing I found I was ready to give church another try and began looking for an acceptable church. I became familiar with Unitarian Universalism (UU) many months ago, but never had the courage to attend; I was also afraid of the concept of church and what it might entail. A few weeks ago I found a local UU congregation that fit what I was looking for and found the courage to attend. It was wonderful! I’ll have to dedicate another post to tell you about it. Anyway. I was missing the community that comes with church, the experience of group singing, and hearing words of inspiration. I have found these things again, but they are better than they were in my Baptist church back home because there is no judgement present. There is no pressure, no negativity, no guilt-tripping about lost souls going to Hell. There is support, love, and acceptance. I didn’t attend the service this morning because I needed the rest, and that’s totally fine – nobody will get on my case. My spirituality is my own, and the UU church respects that. I am pleased to be reclaiming my Sundays, church and all.