I was raised in a branch of Christianity that, in my perception, was very foreboding. In it, God and the church were bullies who regularly threatened to take my lunch money if I didn’t do what they said.
I was a good girl as a kid mainly because I was terrified to be bad. I was taught that, if I lied, cheated, stole, sassed my mom or coveted money and fame, I would burn in hell while a menacing red devil fanned the flames on my ass. And don’t get me started on the crushing guilt that came with any minor bad acts. Oy.
From as far back as I can remember, my family went to church every Sunday and participated in all its extracurricular activities. I was in youth group, went to church camp in the summer and attended a private Christian school from first through sixth grade.
I believed in every word of the Bible and did not question any of its more preposterous notions. I remember actually being concerned about the second coming and some of the scarier shit written in the Book of Revelation.
Ironically, it was a religion class in sixth grade in which my teacher approached Bible study like a college literature survey course where I first started to look at it as a just another historical text and not the absolute truth as inscribed by angels and prophets.
Anyway, for most of my childhood, I adored the religion that had been foisted upon me. It gave me a strong moral foundation as well as a lot of comfort, despite all its focus on sin, sinners and retribution. I really enjoyed youth group activities, Sunday School class camaraderie and the time I spent examining scripture.
And then my family changed churches.
I don’t know all of the back story to it, but my parents apparently became disgruntled when their favorite pastor left our close-knit congregation, so we moved our membership to another branch of the same tree. It was a much larger and more affluent branch than our previous church, and I could tell the difference immediately. And not in a good way.
The intimacy of the small, community church we had known was gone, and it was replaced by an overwhelming sense of interloping. I felt downright ostracized by the ’tween girls in my new Sunday School class. I came from a perfectly respectable middle class family, but these chicks made it clear that I did not measure up. Even at age 11, I knew that these rich bitches and their snooty attitudes went against the basic tenets of Christianity.
We stuck it out at this precursor to Six Flags Over Jesus (aka the mega church) for a few years. By then I had left Christian Academy and gone on to attend public high school, so religion had stopped becoming part of my daily life. In other words, I was already on the outs with God.
And then, at age 16, I got hit with a double whammy. First, when my parents went to the minister for counseling during some marital troubles, he had the audacity to inform them that divorce was a sin and to suck it up, no matter how bad things got. He didn’t bother offering any constructive suggestions to repair their relationship, just a dismissive: “Don’t get divorced.” Needless to say, my parents got divorced, both of them left that church and they are much happier people because of it.
I was also new into a relationship with my very first boyfriend at that time, a young man of mixed race named Tony (I wrote about him and his band here.)
My mom swears she didn’t say it, and my dad says it wasn’t him, so maybe it was my racist grandmother … I don’t care anymore who’s to blame for it, but SOMEBODY pointed to an obscure passage in Biblical scripture about how the races shouldn’t mix and told me I was going to hell for falling in love with a black man.
And that was it.
I was done with God, the church and all the fuckers inside it. Organized religion was a crutch, a crock and it could KISS MY ASS.
So for years afterward, I was an atheist. OK, that’s not entirely true. The residuals of my fear-based religion held on for dear life, so I was too damned afraid to proclaim that God didn’t exist at all. But I hated, I mean really friggin’ HATED, all organized religion.
The downside was this: Once I cast religion out, it left a big ol’ hole in my soul. I’ve written about what I tried to fill that hole with here and here. Nothing worked. I found out only recently that the hole represented a mislaid spiritual connection.
I studied the world’s religions in college, and I was drawn to many of the principles of Buddhism, but I never adopted that belief system entirely. I also loved Native American spirituality (still do, if two of my tattoos are any indication), and the idea that Great Spirit is in nature, people and everything. But again, I never went whole hog into it.
I tried meditation for a while, but I couldn’t sit still long enough for my mind to be quiet. I did mind-bending drugs a couple of times, thinking I could manufacture a modern version of the vision quest, but all that did was make me crazier than I already was.
It wasn’t until I got miserable and desperate enough to do something different that I was able to forge a true and honest connection with a higher power (HP) through 12-step recovery.
I was told to “act as if,” to pray anyway, even if I had no idea what I was praying to, and eventually, I would believe that God was listening. Damned if that shit didn’t work, too.
I was also told I could come up with my own idea of an HP and that I didn’t have to make friends with the sanctimonious asshole from my childhood. In fact, a gentleman who has become a very dear friend informed me early on that I could make a chair my God if I wanted to, because it could hold me up a hell of a lot longer than I could hold it up.
Not to go all Joey on “Blossom,” but … Whoa.
Today, I don’t necessarily think my ol’ HP has a gender, but it’s easier for me to give it a penis rather than pray to, say, asexual water vapor. So my God is still a “he,” but he’s much more young surfer dude than elderly, stern grandpa.
I know my HP is always hovering nearby, and all I have to do is ask for guidance. I don’t always like the answers I get, but I believe he knows what’s best for me, and whatever happens is what was supposed to happen. I have evidence of my HP working in my life every day, from the people he has brought in my life over the past few years to all the amazing gifts I have been given, tangible and intangible.
I have been told that faith is the opposite of fear. To assuage any fears that pop up in my life, I rely on faith and actively pray today. When I pray, I feel better ... it's that simple: When I let go and let God, my life gets better. If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be in this place today, I would have told you to take a long walk off a short pier.
I even yell and swear at my HP from time to time because he’s cool like that. He forgives me for being human and accepts me as I am, and he would never banish me to the fiery flames for any of my mistakes. It’s an easy and relaxed relationship that is not unlike my closest friendships, which is pretty awesome. For realz.
Writing about my journey of faith made me realize that I am not pissed off at the God of my childhood anymore, or even at the church bullies (they were even harder to forgive). Yep, I have made peace with Christianity and can respect other people’s choices to be part of it. I’m not sure when that happened, but I am damn glad that it did.
To pay if forward, I will keep praying that anyone who feels bullied, lost or alone inside the confines of any religion finds a kinder, gentler way ... just like I did.
‘Cause for me, it really has made all the difference. Namaste.
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After 10 years, she's still just saying.