For the last couple of weeks I have been given much, much thought to religion. Maybe because Easter just passed, maybe because my boss and co-worker just lost their daughter/sister at a very young age, maybe because I have gone through some personal trials lately. Don't know, but here goes...
I consider myself to be a religious mutt. I was born into a family that consists of a pentecostal mother and great-grandmother, another grandmother who was strict southern Baptist, and a grandfather who was a primitive Baptist preacher. All very, very strict religions who took more of the hell, fire and brimstone approach to winning sinners into salvation. There was no tolerance of any kind of music except for gospel and even contemporary Christian was criticized for sounding "too worldly". At my church camp through the pentecostal (Church of God, not United Pentecostal---that would've been even worse), the girls had to walk all the way around campus to get from the dorms to the pool area because we were not allowed to walk in front of the boys dorms with our swimsuit cover-ups on. In the middle of summer at the Weatherford, Tx campground we wore cullottes instead of shorts in fear that we might show too much leg and appear too sexual. Dances were forbidden, although my parents did allow me to participate in school dances. Of course, no foul language of any kind. Even "dang it" or "darn" were considered what my grandmother called "by-words" and should be avoided. They definitely taught parents to "spare the rod, spoil the child", with the rod being anything from a clothes hanger, switch, belt or anything else within reaching distance. We were taken to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night and every single night there was a revival. And at the end of each of those services there would be an alter call where you were expected to go down and confess your sins though not always audibly it became a very public confession with the rest of the congregation sat speculating on what you could have done wrong. If you did not travel willingly to the front of the church for prayer then you risked the chance of someone coming back to where you were sitting (especially if you were sitting on the last 3 rows of the church which were considered the "back-sliders" pews) and physically taking you by the hand or arm and leading you to the front because they insisted that God asked them to pray for you because you had something you needed to repent for. The God I knew was one of fear and intimidation. I attended this church from infancy until I was 16 years old and could drive myself to church and still was made to attend there by my mother or else suffer the guilt-trip and wrath that would ensue afterwards.
When I was 16, I had been in a relationship for 3 years with my high-school sweetheart, Chris. Chris was raised in and attended the First United Methodist Church in Paris. It was one of the largest, most ornate, beautiful churches in town with one of the wealthiest crowds. I actually found myself loving the predictability of the services and the pretention of the congregation. I loved the story-telling of the minister and the tinkling handbells as opposed to the loud booming drums, saxophones, tamborines, etc at my mom's church. I have to say that I didn't have a huge emotional reaction to any of it but I could breath. I could relax. And for the first time I didn't feel God looking down on me in shame. I was 16! I was a straight A honor student! I had yet to have a taste of alcohol! I will admit that I was sexually active but had only been so with my steady boyfriend of 3 years, whom I continued to date and became engaged to after another 4 years together. With the exception of sex outside of marriage, what did I have to be sooo ashamed of?
After my relationship with Chris ended and I had moved out of my parents house, I attended a few different churches. I learned a few things about myself...I love Christmas Eve candle light services. We never had those at my mother's church. I love contemporary Christian music. I still love the order and repetition of the Methodist church but could not exculsively attend a Methodist church. I love the way my friends that are Mormon always look like they have a light around them, although I could never be Mormon because of some of the teachings. I had a patient once in the recovery room immediately after her significant orthopedic surgery who woke up to me smiling, gracious without any complaint whatsoever of pain. She wore a red string necklace and I asked what that symbolized. She said she was Buddhist. I had been taught that Buddhism was practically a cult because they worshipped "Buddha" and not "God", but this woman was at complete peace and love was emitted from her very pores. When I took her to her room post-op her sister was there to greet her. Her sister had the same glow about her and they embraced each other with kisses on each cheek and warm hugs. I wanted what they had!
I have read three books that have changed my life spiritually. The first is called "the five people you meet in heaven" by Mitch Albom. Until I read this book I hadn't given much thought to what heaven was like. It was drilled in my head what hell was like but other than streets of gold and mansions and Jesus at the right hand of God, I really didn't think about it. The premise of the book is that when you die you first encounter 5 people that either you have affected and changed the course of their life or vice versa or both. Each of those people helps you to find answers to your life questions that burdened you on earth. So you obtain some sort of peace and then you become one of someone else's 5 and pass into heaven. I'm not sure if that is exactly what it's like but I do like the idea that I will have an understanding of things that I can't wrap my human brain around now. Like why God put Mike Pelton in my path and we conceived children that I feel endure a great bit of suffering because of him or because of the relationship that he and I have now as divorced parents. Or the pain that the Bullock family is going through now after losing daughter/sister Malorie at the age of 19 in the prime of her life.
The second book I read was called "Tuesdays with Morrie" also by Mitch Albom. This is more of a documentary about a teacher/student relationship after the teacher was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gherigs disease. The teacher knew death was inevitable and his mind was completely unaffected by the disease until the very end when he was no longer able to sustain a high enough level of oxygen to prevent brain injury. The student, a sports writer at the time, cataloged Morrie's thoughts about life and death and continued to learn from this great teachers experience. I didn't realize it at the time, but reading this book became a catalyst for me to finally seek the divorce that I knew was inevitable. This book and the death of my grandmother who I knew would be disappointed in me for getting divorced even if I had every biblical reason to support it. (I would also like to make a note here that after my divorce, I took my two little girls to a Baptist church on a Sunday morning and was asked not once, but twice where my husband was. I was not wearing a wedding ring and gave no other indication that I had a husband except for the fact that I had offspring. I thought to myself, do I have a scarlet "D" on my chest?)
The last book I read that probably had the most impact on me was "Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read this book six months after my divorce. The first chapter was good, but it was the second chapter "pray" that I was finally able to see and feel the presence of a loving God. This was achieved by reading about her experiences in a yoga retreat. Not yoga the exercise but yoga the meditation and prayer practice. I learned that the happiest people in the world are those who serve others selflessly, without reward or even payment. Even though I had heard it a billion times throughout my many church experiences, I finally learned that God made us in his image. Each one of us. And think about how different we all are. Of course He gave us free will but His seed is planted in us all. And some of the things that I have hated about myself might actually be my biggest gifts that someone else might need. Many times I have seen other people and thought "I need to be more like her, I need to be more meek and mild and less animated or dramatic" but I was made in His image just like that girl. And maybe He needs my loud mouth to accomplish things that miss meek and mild doesn't have the strength or will to accomplish. He gave me a new husband that only sees the good in people and I tend to be more cautiously optomistic and judgemental. If we were both looking through those rose-colored glasses we might be taken advantage of or trotting though life whimsically where I keep us a little more grounded and a little more aware of our surroundings. We balance each other. And He knew we would. We are both a little better because we are together.
I attended a Lutheran church for Easter and was not impressed. Not because it was Luteran because I have said I do like the ritualistic services sometimes, but because of a message that the minister gave. He showed a clip of a commercial that was about quitting smoking. The catch phrase in the commercial was "quitting sux. Quitting with nicorette sux less." He said this is how we need to approach people when we are witnessing to them. He said "being a sinner sux. Being a sinner with Jesus sux less." He also said that we need to be more "current" with our witness and use terms that the population today will understand. Basically to get down on their level. If I hadn't been there out of respect for my father-in-law and with my husband in tow, I would have leapt out of my seat right then and there. First of all, we were created sinners. That's why we need Jesus. Second of all, while Jesus did go into the sinners habitat where other so-called Christians felt they were too good to go, he DID NOT lower his standards in his witness. He set the standard and sinners were DRAWN to him. Just like I was drawn to know what the Buddhist patient had that I didn't have. Just like I have to respect the glow that my Mormon friends have. I do not believe that only one religion will be taken into heaven. I do not believe that you must be publically baptized to go to heaven. The thief on the cross next to Jesus accepted him into his heart right there and died moments later and Jesus promised him he would be with him that day in heaven. I picture heaven for me more like fields of flowers with abundant sunshine than any gold streets with mansions. I have my own convictions. I do not think that FOR ME drinking alcohol is bad. Getting out of control with the potential to harm myself or others is bad. I have relatives (one in particular) that takes numerous prescription mood-enhancing medications. For me, I feel convicted if I take a tylenol pm to go help me sleep! That is my personal conviction. I am a more conservative dresser. That is my conviction. I watch my language, especially around my children. That is my conviction.
Although I do not attend church on a regular basis, which I will say that I feel like I should for my childrens' sake just to get the knowledge base of the bible, I have a really great relationship with God. I am almost constantly in prayer. And especially since my divorce He and I have been closer than ever before. He has had His hand on me guiding my path every step of the way. I hear His voice more than ever. He has answered every prayer tho not always in the way I imagined he would. I have always had what I needed. And I am the happiest and most at peace than I have ever been.
This was my journey. I think everyone should have their own. It may not look anything like mine. And that's ok. As long as we all get there!