Last Sunday morning, two services overlapped at church. 7:00 ran over time and I, a faithful 9:00 goer, stood in the lobby waiting for the sanctuary to clear out. I had done just about all of the hugging, kissing and greeting folks I was planning on doing, and as I hung back until the ushers corralled us, I randomly started watching a little girl playing with her daddy. She was probably 4 or 5, adorable in her velvet dress and tights, and she had her little arms looped around his neck, steady laughing at some joke they were sharing. Looking at the joy all over that child’s face made me so happy for her—for both of them—I silently hoped that she would always bask in the glow of that kind of love.
I grew up surrounded by love in the church too, from my grandmother, aunties and cousins who fluffed and cooed all over me, kept me quiet with a bottomless supply of peppermints from their purses and scolded me for racing down that irresistible grassy hill with the boys. My belief in God was seeded by their belief in Him, and faith by association—and lots of Sunday school—carried me through until I developed a real relationship for myself. In the interim, especially in my idealistic college years, I wondered occasionally if I thought there was a God just because I’d been groomed to.
Being around students from other religious and non-religious backgrounds exposed me to new systems of thinking that made Jesus love seem like a generational inheritance. I had been programmed to kneel and pray rather than contemplate things as they actually might’ve been: a series of coincidences, a symphony of happenstance, life simply unfolding with no mystical orchestrator at the helm. Roundabouts senior year, though, I stopped wondering and rediscovered, very much for myself, who the Lord is. It wasn’t anything I could reason or dissect. In the midst of a horrendous breakup with my boyfriend, a terrible semester academically and the real world looming just ahead, complete with student loan repayment, there was an inexplicable comfort and serenity. I felt God.
NPR just ran a story about the growing number of “nones,” the atheists, the agnostics and other folks who just don’t identify with any organized religion. It’s becoming more common in our community, particularly in a generation that has had the privilege of post-secondary education and, as a result, has become critical of the Bible, the church and Christianity, the predominant practice. With our new enlightenment and degrees dangling from so many of our walls, what worked for our grandmamas now seems archaic, hinged too much on emotions from struggle and not reasoned enough intellectually. Factor in headlines about Reverend Scandalmonger pimping a member of the congregation, dodging the IRS or otherwise sullying the reputation of ministers, and personal experiences that make holy rolling saints seem akin to on-the-corner sinners, and the exodus is understandable.
I think God wants us to think intelligently about our faith and the way we operate in it, not just for our own posterity, but also so we don’t fall into a flock following a whole bunch of crazy. Some doctrines, for example, are purposefully interpreted to oppress women and are sometimes, bless the Lord, perpetuated by women. I wish someone would try to convince me to stay in a dysfunctional relationship because I’m supposed to be subservient to my man (which is what one minister told my aunt when she was preparing to divorce her husband after he struck up an affair with their next door neighbor). That’s where the balance of thinking analytically, not just feeling spiritually, comes in. Being smart in your faith.
My hope for those defecting and those thinking about doing it is that they’ll find a place where they can make their own sense of who the Lord is, to not let the regimentation of religion box them in and box them out of belief. If, after prayer or maturity, you don’t feel like God is speaking to you in a certain area, be free in that. Borrow from other faiths and religions to create a program that works for you and remix as needed. God is a power source, and I’d hate to see anyone give that up for any reason, especially because someone else imposed their own finger-wagging rules on them.
Even after theoretical, philosophical discussions I’ve had as of late about religion, I’ll still be praying to and believing in a God I can’t see or touch. That might make me foolish in some folks’ eyes. But it’s made me even more sure that I couldn’t have made it this far by myself and that, even at my lowest points, I’m resting in my father’s arms, just like that little girl at church.