Something I remember from my years in Christianity is the practice of telling one’s story of how they came to Jesus. There’s a name for these stories, but I can’t remember what it is…. maybe ‘witness’? Last quarter I had planned to write about how I found Feri but the move took up so much of my brain that I let that go. Now, hanging out with friends, the question has come up – what was my upbringing? What was my time in Christianity like? But every time I start this post I get caught up, tripped up, in my own stories. After thinking about this topic every night for several weeks I think I’ve figured out what I’m going to do: I shall tell you my spiritual ‘biography’ as it relates to Christianity, interspersed with me revisiting texts or exploring new ones.
So here goes.
I was raised without religion. I used to say I was raised nothing, but now I realize the word for that is ‘secular.’ My family wasn’t even all that culturally Christian. We had a Christmas tree and I got Easter baskets, but we did not attend church, unless we were staying with my grandmother in Australia. We didn’t even have a bible on the book shelves. (I later found, one day while my parents were out and I was snooping, a leather-bound bible given to my father by his namesake for his christening, shoved in the back of a high shelf in my parents’ closet.) I had friends who attended various churches: Catholic, Mormon, Episcopalian, and several Jewish friends. I went to church and Sunday school with them occasionally, even church camp and vacation bible schools. But none of it sunk in. I went merely for the social interaction.
Was it from these outings that I developed an understanding of God? I don’t know. But from a young age I thought about God. I wrote letters to God and buried them in the side yard where I buried the birds and mice that my cat would kill and leave on our front step. I figured, if people get buried in order to go to heaven where God lives, then surely if I bury my letters they will get to God. I didn’t know anything about prayer.
When I was 12 or so my uncle, who was about to move to Ethiopia with his wife and 6 month old son as missionaries, sent me a New Testament. I read it like any other book, mostly in one sitting and cover to cover. I distinctly remember being impressed with Jesus – what a complicated person! I was particularly impressed by the Sermon on the Mount. I taught myself the Lord’s Prayer and would pray it at night. I thought Paul was cranky, and I remember telling God that when I got to Heaven I wanted to have a few stern words with Paul. I remember seeing televangelists on tv and thinking that they were missing the point of the New Testament. How could they have gotten such a different idea than I did from the same little book?
Thus did my life begin as a self-professed Christian and as a theologian.
Growing up I had assumed that if you weren’t Jewish you were Christian. In the 8th grade I wanted to be a nun, but I wasn’t Catholic, so I ruled that out. I look back and see a budding mystic, a girl who had no language or context for what she was experiencing or desiring. I grabbed what I could: Christianity. Not a bad thing, and I don’t regret it. I’ve learned so much over the years, even though Christianity wasn’t the right fit.
One summer (between 8th and 9th grade?) I went to the local Christian summer camp: Echo Ranch Bible Camp. So many things about it were great: the social aspect, the rustic qualities (no electricity, wooden bunk beds, yes I actually liked that), the setting (so beautiful). The hard parts for me were the chapel and all the Christian culture bits – it was just so foreign to me. I didn’t know the words to the songs, or the words to the prayers, or when to wave my hands, or what. I also felt pressure to pray The Prayer. The prayer that makes a person a Christian, as far as evangelicals are concerned. It goes along the lines of ‘Father God [always with the Father God], I’m a sinner, but you died for my sins, please come into my heart and be my saviour.’ Something like that. I prayed the prayer. Did it make me a Christian?
Even after camp I stuck with the Christian crowd as one set of friends, even dating a Good Christian Boy for about five minutes. I borrowed some one’s Petra tape. I did not mesh well with Christian Culture and I still didn’t go to church. While I have an appreciation for church in theory now – community is a good thing – I even then understood that church attendance had nothing to do with the message of Jesus. I struggled with the ‘no sex before marriage’ thing too. I understood that it was a Big Deal in Christian culture, but it didn’t seem like it really had anything to do with Jesus.
As usual, I did what I wanted to do.
I also struggled with horrific nightmares and crippling anxiety. I didn’t have enough understanding to put the word ‘anxiety’ to what I was feeling, but I would pray. Oh, did I pray. I took very seriously the line from the Gospel of John, ‘If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’ (John 14:14) What to do when it didn’t happen? It’s not like I prayed to win the lottery or for a pony. I prayed for the nightmares to stop, for the midnight presences to stop appearing, for the fear to disappear, for my voice to sing to steady and sure. I’ve since read various theories about why prayers aren’t answered, but they are intellectual masks. I took Jesus at his words, with the faith of a child. I think I’m more disappointed now than I was then.
Going off to college opened me up to a lot more, as the experience is supposed to do. I’ll cover that in the next installment of My Story. My first reading assignment for myself is to re-read the Gospel of Matthew, the gospel that contains the Sermon on the Mount. Even though I’ve spent a lot of years reading Christian theology I wasn’t a biblical scholar and avoided the bible as much as possible, with the exception of the first three chapters of Genesis.
Next post: Niki reads the Book of Matthew.