My Religious Life


When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to church a lot. Not just Sunday mornings, but sometimes Sunday evenings.

I had a friend, who happened to be a Roman Catholic. I mentioned to him once that I went to my (Protestant) church on Sunday evenings, and he expressed some interest in attending with me. But then I let it be known that I also went to church on Sunday mornings, which he found a little strange. I realized that he probably thought of Sunday evening church as something you did instead of going in the morning.

Lately I've been reflecting a lot on my religious experiences as a teenager. Just before I underwent a crisis of faith at age sixteen, I was more than a little religious. I was a lot religious, although my faith was theologically immature, and somewhat fundamentalist; then again, my theological immaturity was probably matched by my emotional immaturity, which was rather high at that time in my life.

I was already pretty religious by the time I reached my sophomore year in high school, thanks to family influences; but then I had a friend from grade school days whose family had recently transferred from another church to mine, and he was quite active in the church youth group for teens, a group that I had heretofore barely known to have existed. He would participate in the youth group activities that took place on Sunday evenings, and through him I became acquainted with this youth group and started going to Sunday evening services.

I liked the evening services at that church because they seemed to be somewhat less formal and stodgy than those conducted on Sunday mornings, which were so solemn, complete with a minister who droned on like a college professor when he spoke.

My friend once invited me to an autumn leaf raking activity at an old woman's house; the youth group did this one Saturday afternoon as a volunteer activity. I thought it was a great way to participate in an act of Christian charity, so I agreed to participate. How disappointed I was to discover that the young people who did this work earned some kind of "points" by participating; by earning enough points, they could win valuable prizes, or something like that, and apparently that was at least in part the motivation for their participation. I had no idea that there was any selfish aspect to this charity work; I thought they were just doing it because it was a good thing to do.

A little piece of my idealism died when I learned that.

The youth group had a Halloween weekend sleepover in a large cabin somewhere in the woods outside of town, chaperoned by the director of the youth group. I wasn't sure I really wanted to attend, but when I told my mother about it at the last minute she put together a sort of a costume for me to wear and so off I went. We did the usual wholesome church youth group sorts of things--bobbed for apples, told ghost stories. I slept in a sleeping bag, shivering much of the night because I underdressed, wearing a t-shirt in an unheated cabin in late October. I also didn't have a pillow; the next morning I woke up feeling dizzy, apparently from having slept with my head flat on the ground. But it wasn't a miserable experience altogether for me. We held a Sunday morning service. It was outside, as I recall, and we sat there in our blue jeans and autumn coats. A girl who was part of the youth group delivered a sermon based on the love chapter of Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians. I loved this "service" for its informality, in stark contrast to the dullness of what I experienced in normal Sunday services. I loved most of all that I was attending "church" in my blue jeans rather than in a suit and tie.

When I later started having doubts about religion, I had a conversation with the same girl who had delivered that sermon from 1 Corinthians. She was a grade ahead of me in school, I think. I told her about the doubts I had been having, and she gave me her answers, but they were unconvincing to me. I started to say, "The idea of Jesus doing such and such--it..." "Jesus isn't an it,", she replied. Uh, I was talking about the idea of Jesus being an "it", not Jesus himself, I felt like saying, but didn't, because even if she was missing the point, she really wasn't answering any of my other questions to my satisfaction anyway. My doubts about the doctrines of hell and salvation, about the contrast between biblical literalism and science and reason--the answers she gave to me just didn't work. It was shortly after that that I announced to my parents that I had become an atheist.

Before that crisis of faith happened, though, I was religiously active, and not just in my own church. Down the road from my house was a Baptist church that held a Saturday night coffee house for young people. Teenagers sat downstairs on the floor of the coffee house and sang songs and prayed and talked about God and Jesus. There was one guy, who was a couple of years older than me, who played guitar, and he played songs, including at least one that he wrote, that I remember being quite catchy.

My church, which was a restoration movement independent Christian church, was theologically very close to the Southern Baptists on most points. So attending this Baptist coffee house for teenagers wasn't a big deal to me. I also attended Baptist church that sponsored the coffee house at least a couple of times. They might have been evening services--I'm not sure. I remember singing a hymn once and getting my timing off and starting to sing the next verse a little too early, meaning that my own, not very good singing voice was the only one heard, a second or two before the rest of the congregation joined in. I was so embarrassed over that incident that I still haven't gotten over it to this day--when I attend a church, I am afraid that my singing voice, which I am not proud of, will stand out in some way. I also remember once having a conversation after services with the minister, who asked me if I had been baptized. I said yes, I had. He said that he didn't mean to embarrass me by the question. I actually had not been embarrassed; I was proud to say that I was a baptized Christian.

The youth group in my church staged a play my sophomore year. I somehow got stuck with, or maybe volunteered for, a small part that had just one line. I was feeling out of sorts and regretted having taken on even that small part. I didn't feel very accepted in the group. I was kind of nerdy, kind of an outcast, and in addition I was probably having my theological doubts by that point. The day of the play, I tried to get out of doing the one line part. One of the girls in the cast had a phone conversation with me and explained that even though I just had one line that had no importance to the plot, they couldn't do the play without my participation, because it would throw off the cue for the next line. So I went. My mother asked me if I wanted her to come watch. I said no. Before the play started, the girl who had convinced me on the phone to come asked all the boys in the cast, one by one, for a good luck kiss on the cheek. I was embarrassed about doing that, but didn't want to insult her, so I complied along with the others. Immediately after doing that, I was even more embarrassed. During the play, I slightly bungled the line when I delivered it, but apparently not enough to throw off the next actor to speak. After the play, all the cast but me gave each other hugs and were very pleased and excited. I was depressed, feeling completely excluded from that post-performance joy, feeling more alone and excluded from this group than ever.

When in my early twenties, I ran across that girl who had convinced me to participate in the play--she was of course an adult woman at this point. She worked a teller in a bank in my home town. I was living there for about a year after my college graduation. She recognized me, and although she wasn't necessarily terribly friendly--we weren't exactly friends in high school--but she was cordial enough. She asked me if I remembered her. I did, and then said her name--except that I got the last name slightly wrong. Ah, embarrassed again! She corrected me, and added that it wasn't her last name anymore now that he she had married. Many years later--maybe six or seven years ago--I ran across her comments in a class reunion web site message board. She mentioned being divorced. I didn't bother to contact her or respond to anything she wrote. I have no idea if she even still remembers me . I kind of hope not.

When I was in my mid to late twenties, after years of atheism, I got my first inkling that maybe I was more interested in religion than I had realized, when I bought a copy of Elaine Pagels's book The Gnostic Gospels. After a while, I became actively interested in religion, becoming a Quaker in the process. This was more than fifteen years ago. But then, about ten years ago, my interest in religion seemed to die down. Partly this was because I had not found a religious home to suit me after moving to my current California location. It has only been recently that my interest in religion has been rekindled.

And one thing I have realized is that this interest in religion is both deep and persistent. Just going to church on Sunday mornings doesn't entirely satisfy my religious cravings. As when I was a teenager--when I attended church twice a Sunday and went to a Saturday night coffee house and participated in activities of the church youth group--I find myself involved mentally and spiritually in religion more than just on Sunday mornings. That was what brought me to attending a Taize service on a Wednesday night this week. That is why I write a religious blog. That is why I read books on religion almost every day of the week. That is why I study the weekly lectionary readings in advance of the Sunday services. That is why I read other people's religious blogs.

Am I drawn to religion in this constant, persistent way because it fills some kind of emptiness in my soul? Is it a crutch to make up for a life that is missing some kind of complete fulfillment? Or am I drawn to religion in this way because something inside me, something in my upbringing or genes or whatever, has made me at some deeper level a religious person? What has held me back for so many years has been the problem of religious dogma, and finding a religious home. I have suddenly discovered in the past few months, though, that there are pockets of religious liberalism even within the mainline churches, that it is possible to find religious satisfaction in ways that don't force me to check my mind at the church house door. And now that I know this, I find myself deeply craving to experience spirituality, and to connect with God, often.

Maybe this is a passing fancy. The last time I became more spiritually focused, the religion faded away after a while from my life. But the circumstances were a little different, because I was more limited in where I was seeking religious sustenance. I know now that more options are available to me. Where this will all lead, I do not yet know.