A safe place to tell your story: A candid discussion about faith

No other topic that I’ve written about has resonated with readers as much as when I talk about God. Why is this? Are we all so hungry for meaning? I think perhaps yes.

I’m tired of the rule that we aren’t supposed to talk about religion. Why not? Does it so offend us when someone disagrees with our foundational values that we are unable to listen? Are we truly that insecure in our beliefs? I think we are better than this.

Each of us comes to God differently.

Some of us never come to God at all, or run away as fast as we can. Why can’t we acknowledge the obvious reality that with each unique life comes a new and distinct way of making sense of things?

I am going to share my story. It isn’t my parents’ story. It isn’t my brothers’. They have their own stories. I hope by sharing my own story, others will share their stories as well.

It doesn’t matter if you practice a different religion or no religion at all. What matters is that we stop tiptoeing around faith, terrified of offending everyone. And maybe, if we can talk about it, we can learn to respect those who disagree with us.

So, here’s my story…

Growing up I adored the story of Pippi Longstocking, the girl who raised herself. Her story was my own. It was lonely at times, and it had pitfalls that trickled deeply into my adult life. But it also drove me to the one safe place in my life. Church.

Public image was very important to my parents. Despite both being in private crisis, my dad was on the church council and my mom was superintendent of the Sunday School, and for a time worked as the church secretary. I had Girl Scout meetings at the church, attended craft bazaars and church suppers. I was there sometimes five out of seven days a week.

We attended an ELCA Lutheran church in rural northeastern Montana. The moderately progressive nature of the ELCA was tempered by the conservative culture in which our church existed, creating the perfect happy medium in which to flourish.

It is no exaggeration to say the church raised me.

It’s been difficult to explain to my non-denominational husband why it’s so important for me to be a Lutheran. It isn’t because I think Lutheranism is the only way. That’s not the way I was raised (by my parent, the Church).

It’s just that this is my family, the only place I’ve ever felt completely at home. This liturgy, this sanctuary, this narthex, these hymns, this choir and this organ, this baptism and first communion and confirmation, is the only stability I knew. And it was good.

Why do I want my kids to grow up knowing this tradition?

Because this tradition is their grandparents. This tradition is their history, their heritage. In knowing this church, they will know me, all the best parts of me. The happy parts. The laughing parts. The contented parts. The parts that felt safe to be myself and grow.

If you take the Lutheran out of me, I’m just a messed up kid from a dysfunctional family. Please, please don’t take the Lutheran out of me.

The amazing thing about my faith journey is I don’t have all the religion hang ups that so many others carry into their adulthood. There was no purity culture. There was no sex abuse scandal, no financial scams. There was no legalistic fundamentalism. There was no loss of innocence or identity. There was only love and safety.  

It was just me and God…

…hanging out in a quiet, dark sanctuary while my mom finished up her work in the church office, or my dad attended his council meeting. I read that green liturgy and hymnal book cover to cover (it’s red now). I had it memorized. I laid on the cold tile floor behind the alter and watched the birds land on the skylights, the enormous steel art Jesus looking down at me, and I up at him.  

I took the secret winding staircase behind the alter down into the basement storage room to sneak out through the fellowship hall into the kitchen to snag cookies from the Tupperware in the refrigerator.

God the Father was my dad, the Holy Spirit was my mom, and Jesus was a brother who didn’t pick on me. When you are a child, all this stuff makes perfect sense.

God spoke to me through the flickering light of the red sanctuary candle. When I got that warm shiver down the back of my neck, I knew that God was standing behind me and I could face anything. I still get that shiver, and I still know I’m safe.

I didn’t have the influence of overreaching parents to push their own faith baggage on me. (They gave me plenty of other baggage that took me 40 years to put down, but their faith bags were, so far as I could tell, empty at the time. In the very least, we didn’t talk about it, which is probably just as well.)

Nor did I have parents with an adamant anti-faith who made me hesitant to pursue matters of the spirit for fear of being viewed as simple-minded. Nobody ever told me science and faith don’t mix.

I didn’t know their God

My parents separated and we moved away from my congregation of origin when I was in late high school. By this time, God and I were tight.

When I was told a skirt I’d worn to my old church a dozen times was too short to be worn in my new church, I stopped going.

I knew God. That wasn’t Him. That was just these people’s weird hang-ups, applying rules haphazardly from the Bible, while disregarding the ones they didn’t like, taking no account of the time and culture in which it was written.

I knew that God loved me regardless of the length of my skirt. I knew that I could chat with God any time I wanted. I didn’t have to be in church to love Him.

I maintain the pure, unfiltered faith of my childhood.

I’ve done quite a lot of Bible studying since those days. Yet my foundational beliefs remain the same. I know only a loving God.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14 NRSV).

What a gift that I come to Jesus just as I did as a child. Who among us can say this? I know no one else.

On grief and gratitude…

I grieve for those who don’t have this luxury. I grieve for those among us who search for meaning, who battle against ideas forced upon them by human institutions, who feel pushed away from God by human judgement, fears, and insecurities.

I grieve for those who don’t pursue all their God-given gifts because their church has assigned them a role in which they do not comfortably fit, or offers them no role at all.

I am grateful for my Pippi Longstocking childhood, in all its brokenness. I’m grateful for my parents’ relentless pursuit of outer perfection at the expense of inner peace, because that is what brought them to church; that is what brought me to church. And the church is who I am.

What is your faith story?

Do you believe in God? What religion do you practice, if any? Why or why not? Has your faith journey been a happy one, or is it painful?

This is a safe place to tell your truth. We don’t have to agree in order to love each other. I only insist that you aren’t cruel. Insulting or hurtful comments will be deleted. Redefine love!

Related Links:
Good God, I think we can: A manifesto on faith
Speak the language
Faith
The Shame Cycle
How do I redefine love?

Published October 14, 2019

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