So I started this post about three weeks ago, and, man. It's really hard to gather my thoughts, which is why it's so late. But here you are.
So it's Lent, which is when I get all contemplative and stuff. Of course, it also means that I'm probably going to ramble, so please forgive me in advance. Mea culpa.
The reason that I tend to ramble when I think about my faith is that I'm usually rather conflicted, and so my thoughts get...complicated.
In any case, some background to begin, because, to be honest, I can't separate out my personal history from the way I think about faith. I was raised Protestant--evangelical, specifically. My parents, by contrast, grew up Catholic. I grew up in Baptist churches, one on Long Island, one in Massachusetts. They were...well, they were very different from each other.
Our church on LI was big. It had programs. It had people to run those programs. I don't have a lot of clear memories--we moved when I was 13--but I do distinctly remember being in huge Christmas pageant productions. Apparently, I had a gift back then for memorizing large chunks of text, so I ended up with speaking roles a lot. I was in Pioneer Girls, the church equivalent to Girl Scouts, and I ended up going to a Pioneer Girls camp (which I wrote about here). And the Vacation Bible Schools were enormous--300, 350 kids. Side story: I got the chicken pox one year in the middle of VBS and ended up exposing those 300 or so kids. (My youngest brother one-ups me, though: he got the chicken pox right after going to the Children's Museum in New York. He must've exposed thousands of kids.)
I remember being known as one of "Pete and Dianne's kids." My parents were married in the church, and they were really involved in the community there. So I spent a lot of my time growing up at church or with people we knew from church. And that's not a bad thing, for a kid. You grow up around a community of people, most of whom are kind and good and loving.
There's anxiety, though, about "being saved." You get sort of bombarded from the time you're young with this idea of Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, as if that's the be-all, end-all of Christianity. I think I was...7? when I said the Magic Words, and I remember the Sunday School teachers being thrilled. Strangely enough, I can't really remember my parents' reaction. Looking back, I think this is probably because they take a dim view of the idea that saying the Magic Words will somehow save you.
We moved to Massachusetts when I was 13, leaving Long Island behind. I was unhappy, to say the least. And can you blame me? To a kid who'd grown up in a town of 70,000, Westboro, MA, with its population (back then) of 16,000 seemed like rural Iowa or something. During my first week of school there, one of my teachers said that she'd had a coyote in her backyard. I thought, where have my parents moved us?
We ended up at this church called Chapel of the Cross, this tiny little place where you walk in and people want to know you, even if they'd never seen you before in their lives. It was sort-of Baptist, by which I mean it was Baptist, but no one really called attention to that fact (Baptists in New England are a whole diff'runt breed, lemme tell you). And I made friends, because there were a lot of kids my age, and I really needed friends at that time. (Middle school, as I'm sure you all recall, is brutal.)
As an adult (what? I'm an adult?), I recall two things from my high school years about church and about faith. The first is the emphasis that was placed on feeling. You couldn't just believe--you had to feel it in your heart and soul. I specifically remember going to an event in which the speaker said you had to separate your head from your heart. I remember going to events where the "worship leaders" would deliberately try to get you worked up and then tell you it was God.
I bought into it, for a while, but in general, I was pretty screwed up emotionally.* When I look back, it seems that when I attributed feelings to "God," it was really my own mind. And really, I've never been a feeling person (despite Myers-Briggs telling me that I'm a slight F). I've always been a thinking person, which is why looking at texts and analyzing and studying appeals to me. So trying to get me to feel things--that's like sticking a square peg in a round hole, or whatever the analogy is. That's not to say I don't feel. Obviously, I'm human. I feel. I have emotions. But--and again, hindsight's 20/20, or at least 20/40--I look back and feel like I was manipulated a lot.
The other thing that happened was that our church changed, slowly but surely. When we started going there, it was small, tight-knit--the type of place where people actually cared about one another. It was chaotic at times, and there were tons of jokes about "disorganized religion." This extended to the youth group, of which I was a part. If it had stayed that way, I might have been okay, because the stuff I talked about above wasn't happening then.
When I was in high school, leadership in the church changed. My mom, who was on the church board, said once that she felt like they'd picked her because they needed a woman, and they thought she'd keep her mouth shut when she disagreed. Oh, how wrong they were. My mom is a spitfire when she wants to be. And much later on, my dad said that he was at a meeting in which the pastor said that he thought the church should cater to the upper middle class. My dad, being my dad, had a bit of a conniption, in the "Are you reading the same Bible as I am?" sense.
In any case, things changed, as they do; the church got bigger, and with it, the services seemed less personal, more performance-like. We moved to an auditorium, which only served to enhance that. And really, 45-minute sermons (sorry, "messages")? I zone out around 15 minutes, people. When I was in high school, I thought that made me a rather crappy Christian. Now, though, I realize it's 'cause I am not an auditory learner. Give me text. Give me something to do. But jabber on, and you'll lose me completely.
Anyway, even though I didn't know what was going on behind the scenes, I felt uncomfortable. And I was spending a lot of my free time with church friends and doing things at church. Have you ever ignored your feelings by throwing yourself headlong into whatever was making you uncomfortable? Yup, that was me to a T here.
At the same time, I had good friends, many of whom were confused by me, but who, for the most part, stuck by me. I had a great mentor who pushed me, gently, into getting help when I needed it. I went on missions trips, which helped to solidify my interest in social action.
I don't know if this explains anything about where I'm coming from, or if it explains it particularly well. As I said, I tend to be conflicted about my high school years and my experiences.
In other words? It's complicated. More Complicated than That, if you will.
I suppose my next post on this will be on my college years and kind of looking at where I am now. It took me a while to write this one, though, so we'll see about the next.
*This is another story for another time. Really.