R is for Religion (The Early Years)

r xmas lightsSince it’s Advent, I thought I’d tell you how/why I became Catholic. So, to quote Rogers and Hammerstein (Sound of Music): “Let’s start at the very beginning…”

I was brought up in a nominally Protestant household. What do I mean by nominally? I mean that we went to church, said we believed in God, had Bibles in our houses, taught our kids the same basic morals as was preached in church, but didn’t do much else. Not much praying before meals or bed. A “God Damn” was not followed by discipline. Missing church was not considered a sin. Basically, we were like most Americans. And we were comfortable in our nominalism.

My brother and I were baptized in a Lutheran church during the first year or so of our lives. But we rarely went to there. At least, that I can remember. Mostly we went to a Baptist church. Why the change? I’ve no idea. The only real reason I can think of is that more of my parents’ friends went to the Baptist church. I also remember my parents saying something once about attitudes toward the Deaf at the Lutheran church not being the best, but I could be mis-remembering that.

In any case, most Sundays we got up and went to church. There was Sunday school, if we made it there on time (it was held before services), pot-lucks, and choir. Yep, my parents were in choir. They called it the Singing Hands Choir. Basically what happened was a recording would play and an interpreter would lead the singers in the lyrics so they were together with the recording.

Sometime in my ‘tween years, my parents choir was responsible for the annual Christmas reenactment of the Nativity. For those of you who are unaware, the Nativity is the story of Jesus’ birth. Because I wasn’t fond of babysitters, I usually hung out at the church during the rehearsals for this program.

My very first spiritual experience happened during one of these rehearsals. I was entertaining myself by walking up and down the pews of the church and straightening the hymnals. The choir, including my parents who were playing Mary and Joseph, were up on the stage/alter, in costume. Much of the time they were doing all the really boring stuff like determining when and where people would move around, so I wasn’t paying much attention, just looking up every once in awhile to be sure my parents didn’t need me for anything.

It was during one of those glances that I saw three middle-aged men, dressed as Kings, sing “We Three Kings” in perfect unison. Chills went down my spine and I got choked up watching their hands move. A quick glance around found my parents and everyone else reverently watching them. And suddenly I started to wonder exactly what it was about the Christ child that would cause anyone to follow him. I sat, afraid that I’d fall down, and patiently watched the rest of the rehearsal. Dumbfounded, I listened to rest of that familiar story, hoping I’d get an answer. I don’t remember if I got one or not, but I do remember thinking that my parent’s choir was the best thing ever.

A year or so later, we watched a performance by an Evangelical theatre group and I got scared that I’d go to hell. After the performance was over, I walked up to my parents’ Sunday School teacher and said that I wanted to “accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” She nodded, said something along the lines of “that’s nice”, and walked away. I kept waiting for something to happen. For that teacher to come back to me. To be filled with hope, or at least chills. Something, anything, to acknowledge the huge step I was taking. But nothing happened.

Not long after this, our family attendance at church started to dwindle. My mother was getting sick a lot and, in my disappointment with God, I was trying to rebel by refusing to go to church. By my teens, I’d stopped going altogether, at least with my parents.

My best friend since fourth grade was a Christian. A The-Bible-is-the-literal-truth kinda Christian, who was “on fire” praying_on_bible_redfor Jesus. This kind of Evangelicalism was, as you can imagine, a huge turn off for me. But she was my friend, so I let her drag me to youth activities at her church. There, between flirting with boys and gossiping with the gals, I learned quite a few of her church’s views. It was there that I realized that my family didn’t really “walk the talk.” Not that they were bad people, they just didn’t pray daily, read the Bible a lot, or quote verses all the time. By this point, I’d stopped believing in Jesus and the Bible, so it didn’t matter to me that our family wasn’t “doing” Christianity right.

I was about fifteen when the Mormons came to call. Now I should tell you that my parents were magnets for all kinds of religious organizations. We’d been given so many Bibles in so many different translations and sizes that they had their own bookcase. I don’t know if it was because the various Christian denominations targeted my parents for conversion because of their disability or if my parents were just unable to say “no” when handed a free Bible. It was probably a bit of both. In any case, the Mormons came, and came, and came, and came again. They knew sign language, were young and nice. So my parents smiled and nodded. They invited my parents to their church. My parents went. They invited my parents to convert. My parents converted. Complete with re-baptism and a long ceremony.

“We’re just being polite,” my mother told me. “We don’t really believe what they say, but it would be rude to say no. ” I just stared at my mother, eyes wide, mouth open. I think this was the moment I realized my parents were not like me. And, unlike most Deaf people, they were more afraid of hearing people’ perceptions than in living a life of integrity.

My best friend, however, wasn’t giving up on me. She constantly tried to talk me into becoming a Christian. When I told her that I had tried that and been brushed off, she told me that I must not have approached it right. That I should “accept” Jesus NOW. However, accepting Jesus meant that I also had to give up believing in Evolution and homosexual rights. I had to believe that every word of the Bible, even the contradictory words, was the absolute truth. Lit-er-a-lly the truth. Forever and ever, amen.

I just couldn’t do it. And I could never get my friend to explain why everything had to be so black and white. Why couldn’t seven of God’s days look like millions of years to humans? If Jesus was all about love, why couldn’t a man love another man?

There were times though that I wanted to say “yes, please, I want to be loved by Jesus. Please love me God. I want to believe. I’m so tired of not believing.” But each time I asked my friend if it was okay to accept Jesus even if I didn’t believe in everything, she said “No. You have to believe in it all and with your whole heart. Otherwise, you’re going to hell.” Well, I was going to hell, because I just couldn’t see why a loving God could turn his back on a human’s love just because the object of that love had the wrong body parts.

It was when I went to college (the first time) that I started calling myself, depending on who asked and how much debating I wanted to engage in, atheist or agnostic. I didn’t want to have anything to do with religion. I couldn’t believe in an institution that rejected people for the very thing it said it was all about: Love.

Coming next post: Paganism, church shopping, and the Rosary.

Blessings to all of you.

Be well.

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