“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad and that is my religion.”
When I was growing up, organized religion occasionally entered into various scenes of my life, but it was never present long enough to recruit me into a particular belief system….or to create a spiritual foundation upon which my entire life would be built.
When I was very young and my parents were still married….and my mother was still mostly undercover crazy….we lived in a small, mid-western town where it seemed everyone attended the Methodist church on Sunday mornings, followed by lunch at the only restaurant in town and then home to sit on front porches or to call on neighbors….or recover from serious hangovers….my mom, not me.
After my parents divorced, my mother gained primary custody of my brother and me and promptly moved us away to a suburb on the outskirts of a small city in order to be closer to a guy she met in rehab.
We still attended Church….multiple times a week actually….we just spent all our time in their smoke-filled basements at AA meetings.
We all lived and breathed AA. All of my mother’s boyfriends were guys she picked up at a meeting, or at an AA sponsored social event. Her friends and by extension, our friends, all came from people we met through the program.
It was in those days, that my brother developed an affinity for carrying a purse….he insisted on being Penny from Dirty Dancing any time we played house….we both had a little crush on Patrick Swayze….and he frequently walked to school with a dog turd stuck to the end of a stick to ward off the neighborhood bullies.
As for me, I lied….constantly….and about everything. I told kids at school that I had 13 additional brothers and sisters….but they all lived with my dad because my mother only wanted my brother and me.
I occassionally gave a riveting account of how my grandmother survived the sinking of the Titanic….except she was no where near the Titanic in 1912….in fact, she wasn’t even born yet.
I told people I was a Cherokee Indian….never mind my white blond hair, green eyes and fair complexion.
I convinced my brother that he was adopted and that his real name was Figgendad.
And….did I mention I cursed like a sailor? As a third-grader, I had quite the repertoire of curse words and I wasn’t afraid to use them in social settings with my peers.
“Ready or not, here I come mother-fuckers!”
Perhaps, we could have used a little religion in our lives….albeit a very progressive and open-minded religion. Maybe something like a cult….probably wouldn’t have hurt anyway.
Not too long after my parents divorced, my mother remarried a man named Steve who she met at an AA meeting.
Steve brought to our lives a whole new layer of dysfunction.
That’s a longer story for another time….so for the purposes of this post, I’ll just say he met my mother’s criteria for a mate in the aftermath of my parents divorce….a handful of sobriety chips and an instability greater than her own.
The marriage was essentially doomed from the start. More often than not, they were embattled in vicious fights and my brother and I regularly inserted ourselves into the drama.
As their fights escalated to physical attacks….typically perpetrated by my mother….my brother and I would hurl heavy items at Steve in her defense….trying to buy her the seconds needed to get in a good, swift, kick to his balls or a solid upper-cut….she was our mother after all….and we were like little assassins….constantly shifting our positions to maximize impact.
When the fighting was over, it wasn’t unusual to find shards of coffee cups lying around, or matchbox cars lodged into the drywall….a police cruiser in the driveway.
Every now and then, when the bail was posted and the dust had settled, Steve and my mother would come to the conclusion that we could really use God in our lives and so we would traipse of to church.
It never really stuck though, until one Easter Sunday when our neighbors invited us to attend services at their church. They were Pentecostal, which meant nothing to me….until we filed into the pews and the service began.
While the church choir jammed out to hymnals….accompanied by a small band….a projector displayed the words on a large screen as the congregation stood to sing along. I watched as the people seated around me clapped their hands, tapped their feet, swayed their arms and raised their hands as if trying to catch something imaginary while shouting “PRAISE JESUS!”
The sermon involved a lot of yelling, pulpit smacking and intermittent shout-out’s to the heavens from the incessantly murmuring congregation. It seemed a bit too theatrical and over the top for me and I wasn’t at all drinking the grape juice.
It didn’t matter though, because the next thing I knew, I was in the Youth Group, we were attending Church three times a week and Steve, tone deaf and without the slightest bit of rhythm, had unfortunately joined the choir.
Our deep dive into this new religion did little to change our lives between services though. Whatever lessons we were supposed to be learning were promptly forgotten by Sunday evening when shouts of, “Jesus Christ, you’re a stupid idiot” could be heard ringing throughout our house.
Putting on a show though, that was something the adults could get behind. My New Kids on the Block and DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince cassette tapes were forcibly replaced with Amy Grant and DC Talk.
Car radios were permanently set to various Christian music stations and Steve would warble along loudly while pretending to play a piano on the dashboard, randomly shouting, “Hallelujah!”
Our car sported a chrome fish emblem with “Jesus” in its center and bumper stickers stating things like: “WARNING! In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” Leaving me to wonder how God felt about false advertising.
We were just posers though and it didn’t take long before the cracks in our fragile facade began to show.
During services, I mostly sat in the back of the church, where I would be free to read Helter Skelter, or The Stand unnoticed.
The churches teachings on certain topics didn’t ring true for me and my attendance was not voluntary. My lack of enthusiasm during youth group activities and my knack for pointing out hypocrisy, made me less than popular, but I was just a kid.
The weakest link, was Steve.
Unlike my mother, who was content to simply show-up and play along with the crowd, Steve needed to be in thick of things and the center of attention.
He wanted to become a church leader and to sing solo’s during holiday services. He was baptized in the church, which had a baptismal pool in the sanctuary. Unlike the other parishioners, who were quietly baptized and then exited the pool, Steve did a full on Shamu the Whale performance, erupting out of the water and shouting, “Hallelujah!”
Once, in the midst of morning prayers, Steve threw himself into the aisle and began stammering in what sounded suspiciously like Pig Latin. He wailed and sobbed….sinking to his knees….rolling around on the floor and then finally crawling toward the pulpit.
No one in the congregation seemed to be in any particular rush to lay hands on him, like they did when other members of the church were so overcome with the spirit of Christ that they spoke in tongues. Of course, none of them said things like, “raisepa, esusja!”
It was clear that no one was buying what he was selling, which was at least a little comforting to know that these people thought him a fraud, as I found it hard to reconcile the person leaping and prancing in the name of the Holy Spirit, with the guy I caught spying on me while I was taking a bath.
Our stint as Pentecostals eventually came to an end. I’ve never known the full story, only that we were asked not to return. Yup….we got kicked out of Church.
After that, we bailed on the whole organized religion thing and instead adopted an every person for herself approach to spirituality.
It ended up being the best religious education they could have given me. It forced me to find faith on my own and often in places and circumstances where it would have been easy to believe it couldn’t be found.
It was my belief that there had to be a reason and a purpose to my life, that helped me survive a difficult and abusive childhood.
When I was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant with my son, faith gave me strength and hope.
And while I’ve personally never looked for God in a Church, or within the doctrine of a specific religious affiliation, I’ve also found I don’t have to.
“She is clothed in strength, and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.” Proverbs 31:25.