I love going to church. Unfortunately, it’s something I rarely do because I never feel like I belong. I have a spiritual belief system. It has no rules and no requirements. My relationship with God (a word chosen to represent the vague higher power) is a private one. I feel joy in sharing that relationship with others, but I am very protective of it for a variety of reasons. I choose to talk about this today in the hopes that my story can help someone else.
As a child, I was given no religious structure – meaning that I was free to choose whatever path I wanted. I am so grateful that my parents chose to parent us this way – they were available for all questions but there was never a feeling that if I believed something besides what I had been told all my life, they would be disappointed. I researched all kinds of things, went to Sunday school rarely, and for a long time considered myself an atheist. As we all know, thirteen-year-olds have it ALL figured out.
There came a point in my adolescence where I became so depressed that I was beyond the point of apathy – I was a shell of a girl. I wafted through my life, getting average grades and never getting angry and never getting sad. There was no joy and no pain, just gray. Gray everywhere inside of me. I began inflicting pain upon myself because I wanted to feel something, and a part of me knew it was wrong but it was my secret. That is, until my sister found out and told my parents and I had to go to therapy. A little bit of therapy helped a whole lot and I got much better. But, I sort of wondered how it was possible that I even survived. I know that might sound dramatic, but believe me when I tell you – I was in a dangerous place. I thought about committing suicide all the time, but I was too apathetic to even make the effort. I was truly a ghost of myself.
That was when the previously nonexistent spirituality and faith began. It started as a tiny seed, just a thought, that perhaps there was something bigger than me after all. I certainly didn’t do any of the work to get better – even the therapy was minimally effective. I don’t even remember talking to her that much, I just remember playing with magnets and that at the end she would ask me about payment, which I found to be extremely rude.
Anyway, this seed blossomed and began to grow. Today it is a beautiful tree. Probably a cherry blossom. It exists within me and is a part of who I am. I don’t even question it anymore. There have been a few times when I questioned my faith – the worst moment when my uncle died of cancer, but I even managed to work through that. I just feel a greater presence and energy all around me and I pay attention to the “signs” of the universe.
Which brings me to church. I should start by saying that I support each individual’s right to express faith in the way that he or she chooses. Religious freedom means a lot to me, and I do not see this reflected in most churches. To give you an example, when I lived in Ohio, there were many individuals in my life that were very Christian. If someone asks me, I tell them I am Christian. I have never been baptized, I have never committed myself to a church really, and I didn’t go to church every Sunday. My belief system is nothing like a Christian’s. A Christian will tell you that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save our sins, and the only way into heaven is to accept him as your savior. Until you accept Christ as your savior, you’re not allowed in heaven.
I asked one of them once – what if I am a good person my WHOLE life, I still won’t get into heaven? He said “Nope. It doesn’t work that way. You have to accept Jesus.”
Here’s what I hear: If you want to be a part of our club, you need to follow the rules. One of the rules is that you have to accept Jesus as your savior. Don’t follow the rule, you don’t get the ONE thing that everyone talks about: heaven.
Imagine me, having gone through this entire ordeal and discovering my faith in a time of darkness, being told that my relationship with God isn’t a real relationship with God. That I’m only half a Christian, but I’ll come around. I’ll see the One True Way. Also, all those other people – the Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses – they are all wrong, too. But, that’s okay, because in the eyes of all of those people, the Christians are wrong. The whole thing makes my brain hurt. Who decided that one particular path to faith was the right path? Oh, that’s right, all of their Gods decided that. It kind of makes me wonder if Allah and Jesus are boxing somewhere, trying to figure out who is a more deserving deity.
Here’s what I say: seek your own individual path to spirituality, in whichever way you choose, if you want to. I’m not even saying you have to be spiritual. Do whatever you want. It’s none of my business. But, for me, walking into a Christian church I feel like an imposter! Like I’m wearing a t-shirt that says “I do NOT walk with Jesus”.
I love going to church, I love the feeling of community and the music and the prayer. I love the energy of the room when everyone is reminded to be a good person. It’s emotional and cathartic and I just adore it. But, unless I drink your club-kool-aid, I’m not really allowed.
So, that brings us to this morning. I woke up early, got all my chores done, and sat down at the computer. I poked around on the internet for a while, watched some YouTube videos, then realized it was Sunday. As I do most Sundays, I wished I could go to church, but where to go?
I decided to do a Google search to see what was around. I don’t know what any of these words mean. Episcopalian, Lutheran, etc. I thought I’d just look at the websites and see what it said under “beliefs” or “about us”. Every single website lays it out real clear: this is the way to God. Come worship with us and find out more. No, thank you. And then, just when I was starting to feel like I’d never find something, I happened upon the Keene Unitarian Universalist Church.
I had never heard of those words before. Unitarian – well that has the root word unity, which means bringing together. And then universalist, which could mean encompassing all things. I decided to take a look. The first words I read were “welcoming congregation”, but I was skeptical. They all say that and then hand you a rule book in the shape of a bible.
I went to “about us” and read the principles of faith. And then read them again. And again. Here they are:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The word God isn’t even on there! Holy crap! What is this about? I started to get excited! I poked around a bit more and saw the Sunday service is at 10am, and at this point it’s nearly 9.
I hopped in the shower and dashed over to my BF’s apartment to see if he wanted to go. He said sure so we walked down to the church. I was very nervous at this point, I had become so excited and I didn’t know what it was going to be like and I didn’t want to be disappointed. I have never been to a service that wasn’t about The One True Way, so I had no idea what they would even talk about!
We walked in and were greeted warmly. It was in a smallish room with fewer than fifty folding chairs. They explained that in the summertime they have much smaller services (fewer people) and so don’t use The Sanctuary (the giant room with stained glass, organs, pews, etc.) They gave us a hymn book and a piece of paper with the list of events for the day. The title of today’s sermon was This We Believe.
Apparently they did something new today – different speakers got up and talked about what they believe in. There were two men and one married couple. Oh, also, there was a giant rainbow equality flag hanging by the front. Amazing. You’d never see that in a Christian church. They don’t like homosexuality there. Something the bible says, I dunno.
So, everyone gets up and talks about where they come from. One man is a preacher’s son and had to come to terms with abandoning the family belief system. The married couple were Catholics that had just had enough of the Catholic church. The last one… well he was very hard to understand, but he quoted Douglas Adams and Hitchhiker’s – so he was okay with me. There was a small ceremony (?) where we could walk up to the front, take a pebble, tell the group whether it represented joy or sorrow and why, and drop it into a bowl of water – the ripples from the rock symbolizing the ripples of energy that accompany joy and sorrow. There was singing (I just followed along, I don’t know hymns and it’s been years since I knew how to sight-read sheet music) and stories. I couldn’t help but feel like this was exactly where I belonged. A few times I almost started crying, because I was overwhelmed with relief that I could sit in a place and express my faith with others without feeling like I didn’t belong there. There was one woman who said “blessed be” to us, which is a Wicca phrase I believe, … there were just so many elements that really erased any division between us as individuals.
My very favorite part of the entire hour was when they passed the offering basket around. I really have a problem giving money to churches, especially ones that have funding from other places. I will happily donate my hard-earned money as soon as you present an itemized report of your spending for the year. However, when they got ready to pass it around, they said “If you are visiting or brand new, please do not put money in the offering. We are just so happy that you are here with us today, that is enough.” I smiled from ear to ear!!
After it was all over, we were going to scoot out of there but of course the others were so happy to have us! It was a small group, maybe twenty people, and everyone there knew we were brand new. They wanted to know how we heard about them (because they do not evangelize, which means they do not actively try to recruit members. Of course I plugged Cheshire TV, and they jokingly made me head of communications) and what we thought. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness. It felt great to talk to them and not feel like a phony, to tell them exactly how I felt: I love going to church but I never feel like I belong because my faith is so “unorthodox”. They all smiled and nodded and seemed to know exactly how I felt.
They also loved my Beatles t-shirt – because the kind of church I want to go to is one where I can wear my Beatles t-shirt. Everyone was, not surprisingly, dressed in shorts or casual clothing. We checked out The Sanctuary, which is where normal services will resume in early September, and of course the BF walks right over to the piano to play it, but it was locked. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful morning.
So, I share this story with you all, because I know I am not the only one that struggles with wanting the church atmosphere but not feeling like staying inside the box of faith that the church requires. Or, alternatively, that respective religion. Actually, no one even said the word God the entire time I was there, except for the people telling their stories about where they come from in terms of faith. We talked about being a good person and spreading joy and happiness to our neighbors. We talked about taking care of each other and community. We talked about the things that are real and tangible for me – all things I have been saying all along, but without all the Jesus stuff attached to it.
The KUU belongs to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. If this sounds like something that you might like, you can look for a congregation here. =)