UM: finding my religion…

At first, it appeared that it was a matter of chance that we drove by and that Daddy decided to stop. He swung our oldPlymouthwagon, tan with burn marks on the front seat from Daddy’s own carelessness, into the parking lot. He told us in his deep, stoic voice to wait for him as we already had scrambled out of the car. We rarely attended church, once a month perhaps; that was after it took Mom three weeks to convince him to go. But then, Pastor Sanderson needed a contractor to build an addition on the church for nursery andBibleSchoolclasses. The congregation had grown so fast. I don’t know if it was Daddy’s workmanship, price or simply his genealogy that got him the job. Twenty five years before, his father, who was very active in the church, befriended a young minister, and, when it came time to build his own church, he chose my grandfather, an established and reputable contractor in the area, for the job. Hence,ChristLutheranChurchbecame mine by inheritance. Then, I believed one inherited religion, and it just stuck whether you liked it or not. It was black and white; just like you were born the color you were born, and you had no other choice than to die that way.

We stopped before the large, heavy and dark doors like little soldiers obeying their sergeant. On the other side of them was the foyer, large and spacious, so Pastor Sanderson could greet his parishioners after each Sunday service. One Sunday, right there in the foyer, Mr. Polk approached Daddy. He was a nice man and a regular churchgoer, very active like I surmised my grandfather to have been. “So, Don, will we see you at church more these days. What’s it been, three weeks in a row? I bet you feel God’s more apt to be on your side with this project if you’re here more often.” He chuckled and shook Daddy’s hand. I was so embarrassed. Fourteen and impressionable, I thought, God, everybody knows we miss church so much. I thought it was just myBibleSchoolteacher who took attendance each Sunday before the service. Then, attending church wasn’t a matter of celebrating God – it was more about what others thought about me. That was really my religion then. Daddy opened a thick, mahogany door. The four of us entered together and then him.

“Don,” my mother exclaimed. Tears welled up in her eyes. She was staring at a plaque, right there, shiny and new, about eight by twelve in size with shiny gold letters. It was a plaque dedicating the church to my grandfather, Gustave William Norman, in big letters for all of the parishioners to see.

“Pastor called me today to let me know he was doing this. He suggested we take a ride by. They’re going to announce it at the service this Sunday, but he wanted us to see it first. That’s not all,” he added and began walking toward the church.

It was such an eerie feeling to be there at night with no one else in the building. Just us alone with God, I remember thinking. At the back of the church was a tiered area for the choir and the organist. I was in the junior choir for about a year before I realized I didn’t have much singing ability. I decided to try it upon my mother’s suggestion. Besides, I liked dressing up in the white robes with the royal blue collars. But the thing that really attracted me most about it was the daughter of the organist and our teacher. She had just become MissConnecticut. Her name was Mary. She was bea-u-ti-ful—long, brown hair, piercing brown eyes, a ski-jump nose, high cheek bones, and she was just as sweet as she was stunning. She was the whole parishes’ shining star. Her voice sounded like an angel’s when she would sing her solo on Sunday mornings. I longed to be as beautiful and to have a voice that brought people to tears as hers did. That was the closest I had appreciated my church and my religion in my whole young life. Wanting to be like Mary was the first holy thing I could identify with; she was about being beautiful on the inside and out.

The second was the crush I had on Craig, a year older than me, a boy in my youth group. I only agreed to continue going to youth group because I had become friends with Craig and Gary. In fact, I don’t recall a thing we did in youth group except me looking at Craig and the three of us cheating on our confirmation exam. Pastor Sanderson had given out the exams, and we began penciling in our answers rapidly (the first of the multi-hour grueling tests in my life). I remember bubbling in responses that I thought made sense, all the while realizing I had not paid sufficient attention in Bible school, nor had I read the Bible as carefully as I should have. Pastor Sanderson had an appointment mid-test, so his daughter, Karen, just a few years our senior, came in to proctor. I’m not sure who whispered the first question to her, but my ears peeled open to listen to her response. Eventually, she was spewing answers at us. I realized it was wrong, but I thought it couldn’t be a sin, for the Pastor’s daughter was just as if not more guilty than we. Back then, I feared God. I teetered between the fear of the unknown and the Catholic guilt my mother didn’t lose from her own childhood. With the help of Karen, the three of us passed, and we were, indeed, confirmed. The real right of passage of that experience for me was the power to decide when I would and would not be attending church. My parent’s rule was and had always been that they would decide when and if we’d be attending church on a Sunday until we were old enough to make that decision for ourselves, and that would be once we made the sacrament of confirmation. I so confirmed that Confirmation day would be my last day of attending Sunday mass for anything other than a wedding, a funeral or a baptism. And, thus, my decision stuck, that is, until I had children of my own.

We waited at the end of the aisle: me, my sister and my brother. I was awestruck by the lighting. The pulpit was lit by a golden light and candles. It was the most peaceful the church had ever been for me. We watched my father move up to the altar. He stepped up onto the altar. I wasn’t sure if that was acceptable or not, for I had only seen Pastor Sanderson on the altar behind the pulpit. The altar had three tiers. The bottom was where the parishioners would kneel before the railing to accept communion. The next tier had two podiums where guest readers would read from, and Pastor Sanderson would talk about community events from. The top tier is where the pulpit was located, a long, high mahogany table where an enormous Bible sat on a pedestal along with the blood and body of Christ. My father walked up to that table and stood in front of the sculpture of Jesus hanging on the cross which hung from the back wall. Meanwhile, Debbie and Michael were giggling and fiddling. My mother held onto to Michael’s hand and tugged it to shush him. Beneath the golden light, my father folded over the cover of the Bible. What he did next, I will not forget as long as I live; he covered his face with his hand and sobbed aloud. It was the first time I’d seen my father cry. I don’t remember as much what the inscription read, as we did eventually join him on the pulpit and my mother read it aloud to us. It was some kind words about my grandfather, a man who just seemed to pass from my life like a casual friend who moved away.

Religion was defined for me on that day as a love so deep within one’s heart that it never passes; one that lives inside forever. My sense of religion has taken many shapes since then. In college, when I was finding myself, I took a Literature of the New Testament course; I learned more about my religion in that literature course than I had in six years of Bible school atChristLutheranChurch. Of course, I believe that in order to understand and accept religion, one has to be ready.

For a while, I considered myself a New Age hippy. I joined a SETH group on Prodigy (the web before the World Wide Web). There were four of us who formed a cyberspace chat group: me, Phyllis fromNew York, Marla fromCalifornia, andGaryfromChicago. We came to know each other very well. At first, we had Jane Roberts channeling SETH in common. We also moved into the realm of Edgar Cayce and Shirley Maclaine among others. I got to meet the ladies of the SETH group when I invited Marla to come stay with me for a weekend (talk about faith), so we could attend The Whole Life Expo inNew Yorkwith Phyllis. I didn’t realize at the time how special that time together was. We had our auras read and met world renowned psychics like Brian Weiss and Ken Eagle Feather; I also learned what chakras are and the different energies of different kinds of stones. Once, Phyllis, an astrologist herself who has gone on to write several astrology books, did my astrological chart. Past life regressions, dreams, reincarnations, psychics, tarot card readers, runes, rising signs all became part of my new vocabulary. It was a very heady time for me trying to figure out how all of this fit into the religion I had grown up on. I managed, over time, to find myself in all of that: to invest in my own beliefs.

Experiences like this one made me believe that we are intuitive selves. My mother and I were on our way to lunch, something we did on very few occasions—meeting to go out for lunch. We happened to be passing by the Masonic Home, an assisted living home for the elderly. My great Uncle Dick and Aunt Marie lived there together. I remember thinking it so sweet that they were able to retire to a nursing home together. As we passed, I turned to my mother and asked, “Mom, when did Uncle Dick pass away?” She looked at me, awestruck and replied, “Uncle Dick didn’t pass away. Where did you get that from?” I explained that I thought I had heard someone tell me such. The very next day, my grandmother called to tell my mother that Uncle Dick had passed the day before. When my mother asked what time, my grandmother responded at1 p.m.

My son, Tyler, has given me insight into the existence of angels in our lives, or spirits who we love that have passed and are watching out for us. Children are said to be very intuitive until we teach them not to be, and I have listened.

The first piece of evidence. Some time after my mother-in-law’s passing, whenTylerwas about four and a half year’s old, we were laying in bed at night saying our prayers, a nightly ritual. After he said, “God blessGrandmaMo,” I asked, “Tyler, do you miss Grandma Mo?” He said, “No, mommy.” I prodded further and asked him why he didn’t miss her. He said, “because I see her all the time, can’t you see her up there,” pointing towards the ceiling, “she’s with all the pretty white ladies dancing and laughing.”

Since, I have learned to be aware of the angels in my life. On one such occasion, my car nearly missed being in the midst of a head-on collision with a mac truck and another car traveling behind me. I watched it in slow motion from my rear view mirror, where the face of my maternal grandfather appeared. Another, more recently, happened when I felt a presence over my shoulder. When I turned to look it seemed that I watch it disappear, but I felt my grandmother. On another occasion, I sniffed the scent of her talcum powder pass before my nose as I was working in my office when no one else was even home.

My grandmother has spoken to me, too, through the medium Suzane Northrop. She mentioned things no one else but my grandmother could have known like the way she wore babushkas to cover her wig, so it wouldn’t fly away in the wind, and that we baked ham pie and Pinole cookies together over the holidays, or the fact that I inherited her rosary beads and had one more made from the flowers I ordered for her funeral.

Tyler, the old soul amongst my children, asked me as a young boy, much before I had even had a conversation with him about reincarnation or afterlife, asked me if in the next life I would be his mother again.

I witnessed my first act of God when my grandfather passed. He had been fighting cancer for over two years, much of that time, I helped my grandmother care for him. I stayed up with her during the night while she tended to him, I held a bowl for him to spit the endless stream of yellow bile after his chemo treatments, I wiped his behind after my grandmother had given him an enema because he had been backed up for days. I held her hand, cold and wrinkled, when she tried so hard to cry, to let it out, she said the tears had all dried up. We’d been through a lot. I was sleeping at her apartment when she got the call from Hospice (he had just agreed to be admitted the day before) that the time was near. We met my mother and my uncle there. We flanked around him in a circle, holding each other, holding him. I found myself mustering up the courage to be strong for my mother and grandmother. We whispered to him to let go, that we’d be okay. For hours, endless hours, we remained by his side. And suddenly, he breathed deeply in, a breath so strong, unlike the labored ones that had come before it, and that was it. He never exhaled. I felt his soul rise from his body at the moment.

The other acts of God quite obviously came with the birth of each of my children. I remember thinking when my eldest, Ryan, was born that here we all were in this room (the nurses, the doctor, Anthony, the baby and me) all experiencing the same act, but differently. Each of us endured a completely different experience. For the nurses and the doctor, it was a day in the life of a job. For Anthony, it was about awaiting the birth of his first child while witnessing his wife going through a great amount of pain to deliver him. For me, it was terror and joy, pain and anticipation, equally and all rolled up in one. For Ryan, it was a rush of fluid and movement, then light and cold, and who knows what more?

I often come back to that moment and all of the moments that have followed in each of my children’s lives, and I ask, “How could anyone conceive of a child and not believe in God?”

Anthony and I married as Catholics. Pastor Sanderson was supposed to perform the ceremony, too, but he said he had forgotten and double-booked (chances are he was back in rehab for alcoholism). Anthony grew up two houses from the neighborhood church, and, coupled with having attended Catholic school for ten years, his family practiced religion much more routinely than mine. At that point, however, I had learned the differences in the Catholic and Protestant religions, a fundamental difference being the Protestants do not believe in original sin; therefore, there is no confession in a protestant church. I decided not to accept communion as a protest to the Catholic belief in original sin. At one point, my mother-in-law refused to come to our wedding unless our ceremony offered communion; I compromised and asked the priest to make communion available at the rehearsal for anyone who wanted it. Secondly, the money rolling in and out of that church became very apparent to me during the pre-Cana process. We were told to buy a certain size of flower arrangement, so they could be seen well from the back of the church, and the caveat that we had to leave them there for mass on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Also that we needed to rent a runner made of material versus plastic because the plastic one looked too cheap for their church. And lastly, the thing that really put me over the edge was the fee, not the donation, for getting married (much higher than some of the other churches because they had just put in a state- of- the- art organ and were saving for an elevator).

I baptized my boys Catholic in the same church we were married in simply because we didn’t decide what to do about church and religion in our family, at that point. After we moved into our house inCheshire, we decided to make a decision about belonging to a church. We chose theFirstChurchon the green. It is quaint, understated, and Congregationalist (a form of the protestant religion). Our daughter, Alexa, was baptized there. Although, we intended to attend on, at least, a semi-regular basis, life took over. Well, we allowed it to. I think my husband was so entrenched in religion his whole life that he has rebelled. I felt I wasn’t getting his support coupled with not being sure of shoving religion down my children’s throats at a young age, as I felt at the time, was the way I wanted them to find themselves in religion. So, in hindsight, I’m not sure that we did the right thing by not bringing our children up in an organized religion. I have made it a point to talk them about religion and God and the Bible, to say prayers at night and in times of need with them, and to show them I believe by my actions. Only time will tell. Perhaps this is one of the ways we will have scarred our children, but we won’t find out until they are too old for us to do anything about it. I have told them, if at any time they want to attend any kind of church, I will take them; not one of them has asked.

I believe religion is something that is part of each of us, not something we necessarily have to practice by attending bible school or mass. Some need organized religion, and this is where these things have their places. I believe in God, and that we, with God, create our destiny—our perfect state of grace, and I believe we may need to incarnate ourselves many times before we achieve it. I believe in soul mates, those who travel with us through lives, and angels, some of our soul mates who look out for us on earth when they have gone before us. I believe that there was a Jesus; I believe he was the son of God, just as we all are the children of God. I believe the Bible is symbolic of the way we should and should not live our lives. I believe the church is a place of wisdom and peace and spirituality.  I cannot pass an old church without wanting to go inside. Once I am inside, I light at least one candle for those in need. The architecture of some churches I’ve been in from Westminster Abbey to The Cathedral of Notre Dame speaks volumes of voices that live within their walls. I find myself mesmerized by the candlelight and the stained glass, the sculptures, the statues the catacombs. I feel completely at peace in these places of worship; I can hear the voices of those who have passed who whisper the miracle of God in my ear. And each time I pass ChristLutheranChurch, a small protestant and modern, brick church, I cannot help but see my father’s tears and remember the first time I contemplated religion.

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