Growing up in church, the biggest lesson our Sunday School teachers always taught us is that we can believe whatever we want to believe. There are no right or wrong religions – no right or wrong ideas about the meaning of life. Sitting on those metal folding chairs in our wood-paneled church basement, we were encouraged to stretch our imaginations and be good little sojourners on our own individual “quests for truth and meaning.” While this may sound heavenly to someone bruised by a more doctrinal upbringing, I have to admit that it left me more than a little lost and confused. So like children naturally do, I mimicked the way the adults around me were questing for truth and meaning – and thus my own thoughts about God were pretty much limited to the idea that it was perfectly OK to not have any thoughts about God at all. Growing up Unitarian Universalist in an historic puritan church in Massachusetts, where the cross had long ago been pulled down from behind the pulpit, I was raised a de facto agnostic.
This worldview was left pretty much unchanged until one profound moment at summer camp. I was studying as an 8th grader with the John Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth summer programs reading Plato’s dialogues with other overly ambitious children. We were discussing Euthyphro and Socrates’ question of whether piety is defined by the gods’ favor, or whether it exists as a stand-alone definition. Our instructor told us to forget the “gods” language of ancient Greece and simply pose it as a more modern question concerning God and virtue. There it was – a request to debate something about God in a way that required a common definition. I raised my hand to declare, with 13-years-of-religious-education-backed-self-righteousness, that “God means many things to many people and some of us may not even believe in God.” The instructor rolled his eyes, clearly exhausted by reading Euthyphro with middle-schoolers for six hours a day, and told us to assume the Judeo-Christian God exists. “Take it as a premise for the sake of this discussion,” he told us.
Take God as a premise?! My young mind was completely blown. Forget the genius of Socrates – I was simply in awe of what that request for imagination demanded of me. For the first time in my life someone had asked me to assume, if even for a few minutes, that there is a God. Then came the strange part. A physical warmth began to wash over my body, emanating from within my core. Sitting there in a stuffy seminar room with Plato’s dialogues flopped open in front of me, I felt God’s presence enfold me. And for a short time, I believed.
When I reflect upon my faith journey, it all seems to hinge on that experience. I’ve spent plenty of hours contemplating what it actually meant. Was it a psychosomatic response? Did I simply learn that it feels good to believe in God, rather than that God exists? Today, I’m still not entirely sure what the answer is. I change my mind about it frequently. But what doesn’t change, what’s stayed constant since that road-to-Damascus day, is my deepest hope – hope beyond faith – that there is a God, and that God made herself known to me that day.
That hope has carried me on quite a journey. When I entered college, I was a nominal Unitarian Universalist – still clinging somewhat to the apron of my mother faith but looking towards other traditions as well. Around that time, my sister came out to our family as a Christian. (She had already come out as a lesbian years earlier and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Christ was seen as a more scandalous suitor than her girlfriend.) I was intrigued by her path and eager to see what drew her in that direction. I started attending her church, Hope Church, a UCC/DOC church plant in Boston, whenever I was on break from college. It was there that I began to know Jesus and my hope grew not only for God but for Christ as well. I could not imagine a better story ever being told than a God loving humanity so much – loving life and the human experience so much – that he/she chose to embody that creation and walk amidst her children, serving, healing, and ultimately sacrificing for them. I became a Christian.
I continued on that path until a few years later when I moved to Atlanta to be with my boyfriend, now husband, Andrew. The two of us were looking for a church home, at my insistence, and ran into the demons from Andrew’s fundamentalist past – he was painfully uncomfortable with Christianity. We ended up landing at a wonderful Unitarian Universalist congregation in Atlanta. I was back in the fold, but with a new perspective from having developed a relationship with God and becoming a Christian. This time as a UU, I was drawn towards the theological basis upon which the two denominations were founded in the 19th century. Learning about the beliefs of my theological ancestors – back before the cross was taken down from behind that pulpit – allowed me to engage with my faith as a Christian in a whole new way.
At my pastor’s suggestion, I worked with our ministerial intern on creating a theologically universalist worship group called One Love – my attempt to capture the essence of unitarian and universalist theologies. With me as worship leader and our ministerial intern as the biblical expert and oftentimes preacher, One Love flourished for a time into a loving community of about 15 participants. We prayed, studied the Bible, and talked about the tough questions that scripture presented to us. I was completely in love with this little community I helped create – thinking at times that it would one day spin off into its own church. But my naiveté was ultimately revealed with the departure of our ministerial intern and my subsequent burn-out. I learned the hard way that my UU church very much liked the idea of having a Christian group under the roof of their multi-faith home, but it was hard to find many individuals who themselves wanted to be committed Christians. I realized that my faith and hope needed to be nurtured and expressed in another denomination.
That’s when I joined Kirkwood United Church of Christ. It seemed like the best place for me to grow as a disciple of Christ - loving and serving not just the church, but also my neighbor and the world. Today, I’m sure that it was the right decision. Not only has Kirkwood UCC been the best place for me to express my faith as a Christian – it is fulfilling the ultimate mission of Christ’s Church by molding and forming all of us, myself included, into disciples. I find myself constantly challenged to break out of my normal patterns of hearing and sharing the gospel – through my intellect – and begin hearing it with all of my senses, sharing it with others through the echo of all my actions.
It was at Kirkwood United Church of Christ that I was first baptized, a day I will never forget. As a newly baptized Christian, some may ask, “Who are you to teach the gospel to those who have known it for so much longer than you?” And I would be lying if I didn’t confess I’ve thought the same thing, many times. But ultimately, I know deep in my soul that sometimes it is those who have been hungry who can best describe the absolute glory of food, more so than those who have been fed full all their lives. I can only pray that this perspective, my painfully raw and humbly open perspective, will be used in some way to glorify our God.