Thinking of My Spiritual Journey

There’s a nature center next door to the college I attended. It used to be my favorite place to go when I wanted to get away and think. Once you set foot inside, you realize pretty quickly you’ve just stepped into a maze. The path splits off into different directions, and the route you took yesterday may not be the same one you take today. There’s no telling what kinds of plants you’ll see, what people or animals you’ll bump into, or even how long you’ll be inside. All you know is that, eventually, you’ll find your way back out.

Most of the time, I daydream when I walk. I immerse myself into the story I’ve been thinking about. Or I think of how to write the story I’m working on. Sometimes I just end up telling myself stories. But every once in a while, I reflect on questions my therapist asked me, or questions my best friend and I ask each other, or questions I’ve been asking myself. How have your beliefs and worldview changed since growing up? How did you get to where you are now? Why am I not part of a faith community, despite believing in Jesus?

And in those rare instances, I reflect on my life.

“They Want to Indoctrinate Our Kids!”

Going to church twice a week was normal for me growing up. On Sunday mornings, my family would drive to the late morning service. Sometimes I stayed in the sanctuary with my parents, and sometimes I went downstairs for Sunday School. And on Wednesday nights, my parents would drive me back to church for youth group. My brother quit youth group in middle school. I was not so wise at that age. I stayed until high school graduation.

As an impressionable kid, I didn’t think much of it. Youth group was a time to play with kids my age and listen to people talking about God and the Bible. Things shifted in middle school. For one thing, after making some pretty bad choices in fifth grade, I became convinced that I was a bad girl. And in order to become a good girl, I had to invest myself in everything the pastors, youth group leaders, and Bible teachers were trying to teach me. The second shift, at least from what I noticed, were the social divisions and cliques. They gave us the Abstinence Only version of sex education, and boys and girls could no longer be in a room together unsupervised. Even so, that didn’t stop us kids from searching for the perfect Christian dating partner. There were two types of girls: the girly girls and the not-like-other-girls. Any questions you asked could be subjected to scrutiny–sometimes by your leaders, and sometimes by your peers.

The ironic thing is, every bad thing anyone ever said about high school was magnified in high school youth group. At school we had one teen pregnancy in my graduating class, and at church we had three. The catty, exclusive girls in high school didn’t hold a candle to those at church, particularly those who wore “Christian Girl” like a badge of honor. And my high school youth group leader was her own brand of awful.

In the midst of all that, my attitude towards Christianity started changing, though it took a great deal of time to realize this. I would walk into church and then realize there were other places I’d rather be, though I couldn’t say where or why. I had questions about what was wrong or right that no one wanted to answer, at least not in any way that made sense. And I began to wonder if I called myself a Christian because I wanted to or because I had to.

“Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid!”

College came and went without much incident, at least in the religion department. I started attending a different church, though not as often (despite the warnings my religious school gave me against sleeping in on Sunday). I discovered my love of wisdom through philosophy, and I found the courage to ask questions and explore ideas I hadn’t dared to before. But despite my asking, I found myself nowhere closer to the answers I sought.

In my last year of college, I fell in love with a conservative evangelical classmate. He would turn out to be a Nazi sympathizer a few years later, but I didn’t know that at the time. As a sheltered, naive white girl, what I did know was that the evangelical church was reluctant to accept LGBTQ+ people as they were, and I wanted to know why. So, I attended an evangelical church for three years.

That experience was a softer version of my high school youth group, down to my mentors. I had more liberty to ask the questions I wanted, though I never received any satisfying answers. Cliques weren’t as prevalent, mainly because the church itself was one big clique. The division between girls and boys wasn’t mandated (at least for anyone over twenty) because they wanted everyone to get married and have babies, and they only accepted straight marriages.

Ultimately, I stayed longer than I should have. But when I left, I knew it was for good. I never felt closer to God while I was there, nor did I feel like it helped me understand God any better than before.

“So Close, and Still So Far”

After Donald Trump became president, I became distrustful of other Christians. Many of them voted for him, either because of the hate he inspired in his campaign or in spite of it. And I wondered if there was any church that actually practiced what it preached.

I shared my concerns with a coworker who felt the same way, and she recommended this church down the street from where we worked. I wound up attending for about three years. It turns out, when you set low expectations, you’re easily impressed by anyone who can meet them.

To be fair, there was a lot to like about this church in particular. Though the pastor didn’t always have good answers, he did ask good questions. When he talked about Bible verses, he included the context of those passages. And my time at this church marked the first time any man told me I didn’t have to be okay with anyone touching me without my consent.

But it was very much a church trying to have its cake and eat it too. Their stance on gay people was “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Their desire to appeal to people across the political spectrum meant they didn’t really challenge anyone to think critically. And during the pandemic, when infections started to go down and there weren’t any vaccines available yet, they took a vote with the congregation on whether to resume in-person services.

Everything changed when I found a support group for people who’d been stung by church.

The first few weeks alone challenged everything I thought I knew about God, church, and faith. The importance of church attendance had nothing to do with going to a building once a week, yet everything to do with being part of a community built on faith. Jesus didn’t die for our sins, but rather because he stood against the oppressive authorities of the day who wanted to keep the common folk in line. And having a personal relationship with Jesus doesn’t mean being afraid of him.

And then after a few years, before the pandemic started, I left. To this day, I still can’t say why.

Maybe I need to figure out what I believe for myself before putting down roots anywhere. Maybe I can’t stay in one place for too long, and the restlessness is my spirit telling me it’s time to go. Or perhaps I’m still figuring out what it means to be part of a healthy community where everyone looks out for each other. Whatever the case, I haven’t joined any church or faith community since leaving the Bible study.

“Not All Who Wander Are Lost”

I recently found a hiking trail close to where I live. Like the nature center, it’s got a number of twists and turns. There’s no telling what I’ll bump into, or where the turns will take me. I can’t even say for sure how long I’ll be in the maze. All I know is that, as long as I keep moving forward, I will eventually find my way home.

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