I’ve known Christianity my whole life. From being baptized in a Presbyterian church as an infant, to reading the Bible cover to cover, to regularly driving an hour to a non-denominational, praise and worship singing, lay your hands on people and speak in tongues church, I’ve seen the gamut of Christianity.
Interestingly enough, the more exposure I’ve had to the faith, the less it rings true with me. Though I don’t identify with any one specific religion, I find the topic fascinating, and have studied it much of my life.
By college, I picked up a religion minor (only to have the minor dropped by the university). Didn’t matter. I still took as many classes on the subject as possible.
One of my professors – an ordained Presbyterian pastor – preached thinking for yourself. At one point I learned that he didn’t believe in hell. It was mind blowing, seemingly contradictory, and a little bit scary to me. Yet, I liked that he decided something for himself.
After graduation, I moved to Virginia where I started my masters in Christian education. This is where my faith started derailing.
Rather than finding freedom in Christ – or Christ portrayed by the university – I felt suffocated by all the rules. At this school, even those of legal age weren’t permitted to smoke or drink. All sexual anything was strictly prohibited unless you were married. I actually signed an agreement, as did all university students, saying that if I was caught doing any of these “illicit” activities, I would be kicked out.
In conversation with a university coworker and fellow student, I let my guard down a bit and said “damn”. He looked at me as though hell’s flames were emanating from my hair. As far as Christian institutions go, this place was ultra.
Needless to say, I didn’t fit in. After one semester, in January 2007, I moved home and took my first step away from religion.
The university’s rules were a microcosm of the mounting pressure I’d felt from Christianity. There were so many rules to follow in order to wind up on the up side of death instead of the down side. It amped up my anxiety and perfectionism big time.
There’s a line in a hymn, “My Tribute” that goes, “Just let me live my life. May it be pleasing God, to Thee…” I clung to that line – to the ability to just live my life. I hung on to two other tenets as well: The Golden Rule and love (love others as you love yourself, God is love, the greatest of these is love, etc). I started letting go of everything else.
I continued saying my bedtime prayers, a bit of a rehearsed script, that included the same line every night: “Please don’t take my parents yet. I’m not ready.”
Fast-forward to April of 2010, when my most faithful of prayers was denied. Dad died along with what was left of my religion. I told God, and Jesus for that matter, that I was taking a break. And just like that I walked away.
Over the next several years, I reevaluated my views on God, separating what I had been taught to believe (religion) from what my heart of hearts believed (spirituality).
I reflected on a world religion course I’d taken in college. One day a guest speaker told us of the Baha’i faith. She was the first person I’d ever heard discuss walking away from Christianity, and I thought, She’s done the right thing for her. Why? Because she lit up as she spoke, radiating happiness and calm, two of the hallmarks I’ve come to associate with people whose beliefs align with their hearts.
In that same class we visited a mosque. All 50+ of us sat on the floor and listened to the imam share stories of his faith and faith journey. He shared parallels with the Baha’i woman. He was speaking to a room full of college-agers, none of whom shared his beliefs, yet he remained calm. Peaceful. Happy. I liked his presence and his demeanor.
In 2012 I attended two services at a Jewish synagogue in Park City, UT. I’ve referenced the occasion before here, because it was a pivotal moment for me. In a Hebrew speaking congregation led by a guitar playing Rabbi, I felt God’s presence and power more than I’d felt it in years. And what was absent during those services? The name of Jesus.
There again, mind blowing. The sensation I was feeling is what Christians would call the Holy Spirit. I didn’t know what Jews would call it, and I wasn’t concerned about the label. I knew it was real and true, and that was enough.
Over time, I’ve decided the end game is the exact same God. That God is bigger than religions and labels and the human mind’s comprehension. There isn’t just one road, one path, one avenue to God. There are tons of ways. Through religions, yes, and also through nature and the arts and all sorts of experiences.
God isn’t limited to our labeled boxes. We don’t have to be, either.
In the end, it seemed to me that my beliefs didn’t fall under the “Christian” description, and so, I removed the label from myself. I left it behind on a mountaintop in Park City.
It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, walking away from the religious umbrella that I’d been raised under. It was also the bravest. And doing so? Brought me closer to God than ever before.
Some of my closest friends are regular churchgoers. Their Christian faith is a prominent fixture in their lives, and you know what I love? They believe it for themselves without pushing it on to others. Their convictions fill them up and give them peace and happiness reminiscent of the Baha’i woman, and the imam, and a guitar playing Rabbi, and so many more. Yes to that. I support that.
There are those who need you to believe what they believe. The more I hear people trying to convince others that their religion is THE religion, the more I think, Whom are you trying to convince? Others, or yourself?
Rather than debating outwardly with others, debate inwardly with yourself. Find out what rings true for you. If it makes you shrink, that’s probably a no. If it lights you up? Follow that.
My college professor/pastor encouraged us all to think for ourselves. It’s one of my great life lessons. But I would add to it. Think, and feel, for yourself. It’s one thing to have the knowledge in your mind. It’s another entirely to connect it to your heart.
Faith and religion can be terrifying, especially when you don’t fit in with the status quo. Ultimately, that’s why I’m sharing this.
If you’ve been wrestling with religion, know you aren’t alone, and know that it’s okay. It’s okay to think differently, believe differently, and to experience God differently.
In the end, it’s between you and God anyway. So why not make it between you and God now?