A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about going to hell (not), in which I described some of the experiences which led me to leave the church I grew up in. I was very surprised that more than 30 of my Facebook friends actually read it. I was very moved by some of the comments and encouraging private emails I received. Thank you, all of you!
Today, I will tell you the next chapter of this story. Spoiler alert: there is no ending, because it is an ongoing journey. In my last blog I left you off with my decision to not go to church until I felt the desire to, and the finding that I really did not want to return. What followed in the next year was a roller coaster of sorts. For a while, I did feel tremendous guilt. I also started reading. Two books stand out: (1) When Bad Christians Happen to Good People and (2) The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Now, before you flame me, I need to let you know that most of the Christians encountered in my former church were good people, and most of the time it was not abusive. But I also have to tell you the hard truth that yes, some abuse was definitely going on.
I actually tried to speak to one minister about it. He told me it did not bother him not going to the movies and other social activities as a teenager. Well, this is good to hear, but let me tell you: I was very much bothered by the social isolation I experienced by not being able to go to the movies, go to a club, or not even being allowed to go to ballroom dancing class. For a slightly chubby and socially awkward teenager to start with, all of this was not exactly helping!
But back on topic. So here I was, finally on my way to spiritual freedom. But here I was, also, very much isolated. Just having moved to California, I did not have the close friends to have a talk with except one. Here is to you, Andrea! She introduced me to the Insight Meditation Center, where I am learning mindfullness meditation. I also subscribe to their podcast on iTunes for those weeks when I cannot make it to hear the Dharma talks. Some aspects of Buddhism I admire very much, but in general I was not ready to formally commit to anything involving doctrine.
Oh heck no! I had enough of DOCTRINE. What use is the encouragement to ask questions when it is expected of you to accept the official, doctrinal answer without further ado? I am sorry, but this is not for me. I rather enjoy the freedom to think. I am deeply grateful for the mandatory religious instruction class in my fabulous High School (Edith Stein Schule Darmstadt, a catholic school named after a jewish convert founded in a protestant town to give girls an education). The priests, the teachers, my classmates, they all taught me to think and to explore spiritually. They literally opened my mind. Spirituality is a house with many rooms for many beliefs.
But where to find this house in the real world? I am now racking my mind about where I first met them, but I did encounter the Unitarian Universalists eventually. They intrigued me, but for many years I had just stored away the knowledge about their existence in some remote corner of my brain until, just when I needed it, it bubbled up to my conscious mind. I did find a congregation near me, the UUs of Palo Alto (UUCPA), where I showed up the week before Thanksgiving in 2007. What did I find? Brussels sprouts!
Huh? Yes. That weird vegetable. The UUCPA has a tradition of “Caring and Sharing” during service, which on this particular Sunday was about things we are thankful for. And toward the end, one woman in the choir, I believe it was Diane M-P, voiced her thanks for brussels sprouts! You should know that those very same brussels sprouts were my favorite veggie since kindergarden. Really. And not only did I find a fellow brussels sprout lover: I found a congregation which warmly responded with laughter and joy to the love for a weird vegetable. Hey, if they can accept brussels sprouts, they can accept a weird person like me! And they did.
It took a while. It took a while for me to become comfortable, to accept the notion that there are people of various religious beliefs from the most faithful christians, buddhists, humanists, hindus, pagans, atheists, jews, agnostics to who knows who else I forgot, who manage to worship together in the common search of spiritual meaning. A place not exclusively Christian which managed to run a religious education class for adults on the making of the New Testament where I learned more about the New Testament than in the 33 years of evangelical Christianity. A church with a covenant explicitly embracing that there will be disagreements! And the commitment to address these very disagreements by expressing our concerns directly. You mean, a spiritual community which actually embraces all the messiness and imperfection which inevitably is part of any group of human beings? Where kids are actually allowed to be kids in church, where playing together after Sunday School is equally a part of education as visiting neighboring churches, temples, and synagogues? Where music in church has ranged the whole gamut from classic to jazz to pop?
It took a while to get used to it all. It took several years for me to be able to say out loud: In my world there is no hell, and you cannot scare me with one! It took several years for me to confidently say that while I admire the teachings of that wandering, rabble-rousing rabbi called Jesus , I am not a Christian, and yes, this still means I can be a good person. It took many seasons to be comfortable in knowing that I cannot label my spiritual beliefs right now. Am I an agnostic, a pagan, a buddhist, an animist, a christian? A mix of any or all of them? I don’t know yet, but this uncertainty is ok. It is ok to be scared about dying, and not knowing what comes after. All this is not about sitting on the fence; it is about exploring spiritual meaning. And it is a normal development, as I discovered.
What have I learned? First of all, I found valuable guidance on my at first lonely path in the words of Scotty McLennan, who not only is the inspiration for the famous Reverend Scotty in the Doonesbury cartoons, but also the Dean of Religious Life at Stanford. He has written a short book called “Finding your religion: When the Faith You Grew Up in Has Lost Its Meaning“. Go get yourself a copy, it is a really good read. I also learned that whenever anybody wants to insert a doctrine between you and your God, run the other direction. Run fast. And I finally learned that all of this is not really about doctrine, faith, church membership, etcetera. It is, very fundamentally, about the honesty to be who you are.
I wish I could share this blessed feeling of being kind to yourself spiritually with so many of those I have encountered on my way. But I know that proselytizing “My Way” is not helpful. I can only be, and be there to listen, to talk, to not judge whatever spiritual path each of my friends chooses to walk. In the confidence of knowing that no, there is no hell, I have found the freedom to accept my very own experience of the Divine. Blessed Be.