Saturday, December 13, 2008

I Miss My Church, But Not Religion (Part One)

I miss my old church, the way it used to be. The way it was when I was a little kid.

It's at times like these I remember 1 Corinthians 13:11, when a passage attributed to Paul instructs people to put away childish things.

Now, it may very well seem out of place for an atheist to mention a Bible passage in his blog about atheism. I understand that -- but the context of this entry is my Christian childhood, so please take that into consideration before you condemn me.


I remember a lot of things about my old church as it was when I was growing up. I recall sunday schools and vacation bible studies. It was fun for me because there were all these kids in one place -- and the activities were always very structured. I was one of those children that thrived on structure and I was deathly afraid of having to interact with others on my own initiative. I didn't know how to interact. I was kind of developmentally delayed - not talking until I was in preschool and so forth. It took me years to become something other than a social pariah.

I loved going to church. It gave me purpose -- it gave me meaning. And most of the time, this had little or nothing to do with religion. It was just another place to be, another thing to do. It was a safe place for me, a place where I could be myself.

The elderly ladies of my church always lavished their attention on me when I was a child, and often times there were other kids which with I made friends and spent time doing things.

At one time in my life, my church was a very stable place for me emotionally, and it came as quite a shock when it ceased to have that role in my life, and practically became a destabilizing influence on me.

For much of the time which I attended, my church seemed to be cursed in one aspect or another. Whether it was the succession or absence of pastors, the reoccuring inability to pay the bills every month, or the steady flux of congregants who left our church due to job relocation or a change of denominations, it seemed that things were just going badly. In spite of this hardship, I still felt that it was a good place for me and it was an institution worth serving.

My earliest memory of church is tagging along with my mother to services and trying to follow her fingers through the lines of the hymnal book as we sang songs. I remember staring at the images of the cross, the ceiling lights, and the pulpit, wondering in awe what it all meant. I've always had an appreciation for the beauty of a church, even though the cost of that appreciation has been the decreased comprehension of many a sermon throughout my childhood.

Around age six, I had an enthusiastic, energetic sunday school teacher who was the first person to motivate me to be Christian. Of course, I had no idea what anything meant -- it's just that she was the first person to instill in me the idea that "Jesus loves you". She was a wonderful and engaging person; a wonderful teacher of children. I had a lot of difficulties in my life at that age, and her patience went a long way toward my early devotion to Christianity. Few people took the positive messages of Jesus of Nazareth more to heart than she did. Even though I no longer share her beliefs, I will be ever grateful for her benevolent and kind influence over my childhood.

I still didn't think about religion very much at that point. I did manage to progress slowly and purposefully. By age eight, I could follow along in the services without getting lost. I could sing songs without losing my place in the hymnal book. I was becoming a competent churchgoer.

It was at the age of eight that I first received the Holy Communion. I had to take a few classes on it, but I still had no idea what any of it meant. I think the Roman Catholics have a superior idea by waiting longer for the administration of Holy Communion. This is a reflection of my agreement with Richard Dawkins that it's unfair to force religion on children who have no way to properly analyze its merits or disadvantages. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to take children to religious services, as long as you don't push the faith on them aggressively.

After I received my first taste of communion (grape juice and a wafer - even most of the adults wouldn't drink the alcohol. After trying the communion wine as an adolescent, I don't blame them. I never touched the stuff unless we ran out of grape juice)...

After I received my first communion, I received my first personal Bible. It wasn't the Child's kind, containing mostly illustrations and only minimal substantive details -- it was the genuine article, Nehemiah and Colossians included.

I am a child of the spring. I have a birthday that is fairly late in the academic calendar year, so as a consequence I was also younger than most of my school classmates - which never seemed to help my social insecurity, unfortunately.

In April of that year, I had received my very own Bible from my parents, as a mark of my growing maturity in the Christian faith. That summer would become a very pivotal time in my life in terms of my relationship with Christianity.

After school ended for the year, I joined my church's youth group and attended a Christian summer camp for the first time (though I only went for three days instead of the full week since I was such a young tyke at such an unfamiliar place.)

I was more involved than ever before with Christians. We played games and ate food and did fun things; sure, we talked about faith a little bit, but it wasn't anything I hadn't experienced before. I'm not sure if I took the part about religion seriously or not. Sure, I didn't know what any of it really meant, but my faith had still become a major part of my life.

When I was nine, I finally opened that Bible my parents had given me the previous year. Unfortunately, I skipped to the end and read that just as children as prone to doing. (Who doesn't want to find out what happens at the end, right? I mean, imagine following Christianity for years, reading the entire Bible, and then finding out that Satan wins in the end. What a bummer that would be.)

Unfortunately, the first book I read from start to finish was "Revelations". Naturally, it scared the complete sh*t out of my nine-year-old self.

Of course I knew I was sinful - I'd disobeyed my parents before; I'd even acted up in school a few times (though I usually just quietly did what everyone else was doing).

At the age of nine, I had my first thought that this hell thing was actually real, and that I could actually go there. It was my first experience with a vengeful god.

At around that time, my mother was thinking about leaving our church. I mentioned all of the troubles our congregation had been experiencing. She was just tired of dealing with all that went awry. She put a lot of effort into supporting that church, and I think she was really burned out by it.

I thought we should stay. To my childish eyes, I didn't see a lot that was wrong with it, and it still meant a lot to me emotionally.

No comments: