One day at a strip mall, two older girls, late teens or early 20’s, approached my friend and I, asking if we had accepted Christ. I was probably in fifth or sixth grade. One of them explained, “You just have to ask Jesus into your heart.” I said, “Oh, yeah. I ask him in all the time.” I thought this was a great answer, but it was met with a disapproving, “Oh no. You ask him in once and he’s there forever.” I could tell by her tone that she didn’t think I really was a Christian, or at least not a very good one. The two older girls had us close our eyes and repeat after them. “Jesus, I am a sinner. I accept you as my savior. Please come to live in me.” My friend and I did as we were told, but when we walked away we agreed that the whole thing was weird and uncomfortable.
Growing up,, my mom had periodically taken my sisters and me to Presbyterian churches. My dad was a solid atheist, so never joined us. By sixth grade, I would sometimes walk to church by myself for Sunday School. I memorized all the names of the books of the bible, old testament and new, and received a King James bible. In seventh grade, I was invited to confirmation classes. I didn’t think I qualified because I hadn’t been baptized. If I’d never been baptized, how could I go through confirmation. The pastor explained that I would be baptized when the other two students, both boys, were confirmed in front of the congregation. For me, the classes raised questions more than they provided answers or understanding. Instead of asking those questions, I dropped out of confirmation class and quit going to church.
When I was in ninth grade, my oldest sister became involved in an Evangelical church attended by her boyfriend and his family. I would occasionally accompany her, but what I remember most is listening to Casey Kasem’s top 40 countdown on the long drive and singing along. My sister married said boyfriend at that church. As she now lived across the county, and closer to their church, i didn’t tag along anymore, and that was fine with me.
I went through high school, college and my early 20’s without any involvement in religion. When I was diagnosed with a health problem at age 26, my boyfriend, now husband, and I started to attend a church near the house where we lived without the benefit of marriage. The church met in a school gym or cafeteria. The people were very friendly and we enjoyed going for a time. On the one year anniversary of that church being established, they revealed that this was a Pentecostal church and several people began speaking in tongues while another congregant interpreted. I got up and walked out. I wasn’t so much upset that they spoke in tongues, as I was disturbed by the way they had not mentioned they were a Pentecostal church and no one had spoken in tongues previously; then, all of a sudden, several people did at once. My understanding of speaking in tongues was that it was supposed to be the Holy Spirit communicating through believers, and it didn’t make sense to me that no one had demonstrated this aspect of worship at all and then, on the one year anniversary of their establishment, several people were moved at once to do so. It felt staged to me. I felt like they had built a small congregation without all the information about who they were in order not to lose new followers by alienating them. It seemed to me that if the Holy Spirit truly expressed himself in this way, he wouldn’t hold back for a year and then spring it on us all at once. It was several years before I tried connecting with a church again.
My husband and I married and moved back to my hometown. We bought our first little starter house. I hadn’t been sure I wanted to have children but my biological clock kicked in about the time I turned 30. I got pregnant two years later. Something about bringing kids into the world, and wanting to do it right, sparked a new interest in faith for both of us. My husband had enjoyed attending church with a neighbor family when he was quite young and felt a strong faith in God since, but now we wanted to look into attending church regularly. We went back to the little Presbyterian church I’d attended during junior high. It was on the liberal end of the Presbyterian spectrum. We enjoyed it very much and went regularly. I was baptized while pregnant with our first son, and we became members of the congregation. Both of our sons were baptized there as infants.
Because there weren’t many couples with very young children, I began attending a group at another Presbyterian church that was much larger. Moms with young children met each week. Once a month we would have a speaker and brunch. Most weeks we met in small groups, some doing bible studies, some doing crafts, some meeting as a book club.
We sold our little starter house and moved miles north, now quite close to the larger church. For a while, we continued attending our small church but eventually transferred membership to the bigger, and much more conservative, church where there were many young families and congregants of all ages. It was on a college campus and many professors and students attended. There were two services, a traditional one early on Sunday mornings and a contemporary one later. There were a lot of children in Sunday School. We joined a small group of couples that met on Wednesday nights, and the boys attended Kids’ Club.
When a women’s ministry program was started, after many years of not having one, we integrated our Mom’s group into a general women’s program on Tuesday mornings. We still had a whole group meeting once a month with brunch and a speaker. The other weeks we had a variety of bible studies meeting. I was on the planning board for the Mom’s group and then was invited to be a part of the women’s ministry team.
During those early years, I also took a course on the campus that met one weekend a month for lay ministry, people who serve in the church without a formal education and title of minister or pastor. We studied theology and religion. We delved into the history of the bible and the church, including the early formation and persecution of groups of Christians, the establishment of the Catholic church, the reformation, and the development of the wide variety of denominations.
At one point, I volunteered to emcee the monthly, large group brunches with speakers. I took my responsibility seriously and would prayerfully consider a devotion with which to begin the gatherings, hoping to help all of us focus on the love of Christ as our primary purpose in worship, our many roles as women, and receiving the message of the particular speaker of the day. As an example, I had cross-stitched the Serenity Prayer (my one and only cross-stitch project) when I’d attended the craft group, and I’d had it framed. I subsequently learned that the Serenity Prayer is longer than one verse, which really surprised me. So, one month, for the opening devotional, I showed my framed Serenity Prayer and then explained that there were more verses than commonly known, and I read the rest of the prayer. I truly felt led by the Spirit in how I opened each program. After a few months of acting as emcee, it was made known to me by the co-chairs of the planning team that I was not the speaker for the brunch and my welcome at the beginning of the meetings needed to be much shorter. I did as asked but handed the role of emcee off to another volunteer before long.
In the meantime, our sons grew and moved from the nursery to Sunday School and Kids’ Club. A new person was hired to coordinate the children’s ministry programs, and let’s just say she expected the youngsters to behave as though they were at school. There were more formal lessons and less music and movement. Our very active little guys gave her a run for her money. For a time, she required that I be in their classes because they were not meeting her behavior standards. It became obvious that she didn’t like my guys, and that did not sit well with me. I felt like they had enough of sitting in school and that church children’s programming should be more fun. I wanted my sons to want to be there and to feel welcome. I spoke with the pastor in charge of family programming and he asked me to share my feelings with the children ministry coordinator. He sat with us as I tried to explain my point of view and how it seemed she didn’t like my children. Rather than listening, really hearing me, and responding to my concerns, she became very defensive and went to great lengths to justify her treatment of the boys.
By this time, I was the volunteer director of the Women’s Ministry program. I enjoyed working with the team of women to plan small group bible studies, evening events like a Christmas tea, and annual weekend retreats at a beautiful lakeside lodge. I myself attended many bible studies and even taught one with a friend of mine. At some point, I was asked to attend a planning committee with representatives from all the different ministries of the church. I kid you not, most of the meeting consisted of discussing how people were not keeping kitchen items organized in their designated places. We had two kitchens, an older one off a meeting room and a newer, larger one that had been built with the new addition of a gym. Much to the consternation of the people at this meeting, items that belonged in one kitchen were ending up in the other. The result of the meeting was that we would use a label maker to denote what belonged in each drawer and cupboard, with labels on items to identify the appropriate kitchen. Then, I was asked if the Women’s Ministry team could host weddings and funerals. I explained that the Women’s Ministry team’s purpose was to meet the spiritual needs of the women in the church, not to fill roles in the church traditionally held by women.
In the spring of 2009, when I literally became deathly ill, I was unable to attend church, small groups, or planning meetings. What might have been a short break, became a permanent departure from the church, primarily because I could not keep taking my children to the programs run by a person who disliked them.
I did a lot of reading and prayerful consideration. It became so apparent to me that God, the intelligent designer, is love. Jesus loved and served the least respected of society. He said what is most important is love, loving God and loving our neighbors, serving the weakest, the broken, the neediest. I identified my purpose in life as weaving love and compassion into the fabric of life, wherever I was, whatever I was doing, whomever I was with. My daily life became my ministry. I believe God is bigger than organized religion..
I do believe in God the creator. The amazing details in creation point to intelligent design. Fractals, geometric shapes or curves, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole, such as snowflakes or trees, in which similar structures recur at progressively smaller scales, are evidence of the divine, in my opinion. I believe this loving, thoughtful God is a part of all our lives and is not limited to religious denominations constructed by mere mortals.