Grandmother attended the Church of Christ; the kind of church where women didn't wear pants to worship. Bible believing. Fundamental. No instruments. Make-up O.K. None of us liked going, but we went out of familial obligation. It made her happy to have her family with her at Church. It was one of the most boring events I remember. We just sat there. I had no idea what the minister was saying. I couldn't read the music so had no idea what the tune was to the songs we sang (which didn't make sense to me anyway). No one looked happy. No one looked like they wanted to be there. The sheeple followed their shepherd with blank almost creepily undead stares. I don't ever remember feeling the slightest sense of awe; the only wonder I had was how much longer till the end when we could go home and eat lunch and I could then spend hours wandering trails in the woods, along creeks, up by the spring house and through small pear and plum orchards that my grandfather kept.
No, mom and dad did nothing to build my spiritual foundation. Mom denies any memory of it, but this is my perception/memory (remember, this is an old memory, you know how they go): Once I was sitting in her bathroom while she was getting ready for work. I remember asking her "Mom, do you believe in God." I remember her rounding on me with a sharp look in eye, clearly bothered by the question. "It's none of your business and tell whoever's asking you it's none of their business either." I felt rebuked for my curiosity, though she probably didn't mean it. I must have hit a nerve. I recall a later conversation with mom, when I remarked at how many Catholic churches there were in Pittsburgh, where I lived after college. I remarked how many people I knew who were Catholic and also went to mass. They were practicing Catholics. Mom's clever retort, as she was turning left off the westbound exit of Interstate 40 onto Cedar Bluff Road (yes, I remember): "practicing Catholic is an oxymoron." No, I didn't get religion from my parents.
The Baptists did have their impact on me. For a couple of years I attended Central Baptist of Bearden with my classmate whose older sister was my babysitter. This was in 6th and 7th grade. Worship was the same as the Church of Christ: pastor, sermon, Bible-based. I understood little. Unlike the Church of Christ where only the bleating of the zombie sheep could be heard when directed by an unenthused leader (judgmental maybe?), the choir was strong. It didn't matter that I didn't know any of the songs except Amazing Grace (my favorite hymn; who in the South doesn't grow up knowing at least part of that song). The choir and accompanying organ / piano were loud enough to drown out my and my neighbor's squeeks and squawks as we struggled to find the notes and follow along. There was a lot about blood in their songs. I didn't understood why, at the time. I generally would observe those around me, as I was already self-conscious about whether or not I fit in (there, at school or anywhere). I often noticed the women looking at each other, eyeing each other up and down with calculating eyes that took in everything but with the sweetest smiles. No one ever caught me looking at them. Baptist fashionistas! Whodathunk? In retrospect, how could people dress up so well, come from such wealthy parts of the county and sing such depressing songs? I hear about Jewish guilt or Catholic guilt, yet clearly those who limit emotional self-flagellation to the temple or cathedral are missing out on the low church steeple houses! Whoo-ee! I remember after one of their fantastic spaghetti dinners we all watched a video about the crucifixion. By the end of the movie they had us all in tears. There I was sobbing that Jesus was dead. And he was dead because I killed him! We all killed him! And with every lie we told our parents, every bad word we said, we crucified him again, driving in a nail in his hands and his feet with every sin we committed. Oh yes, Jesus died not just for me, but because of me!
That wasn't all the Baptists gave me. I learned quickly that Baptists weren't any different in church as they were in school; at least not the kids who attended both Cedar Bluff Middle and Central Baptist. No, they were just as cliquish and mean in church. The Sunday school teachers did no more than the secular school teachers to make sure I was included, to make me feel welcome. I didn't have the books of the Bible memorized like the other kids. I didn't know who the major characters were. Oh, and I was a sissy. Trust me, they had to have smelled out that I was "different." Not one of my Sunday School teachers made an impression on me. But the final straw was that one fateful day, when I was sitting up front, listening to the charismatic pastor preach about salvation. This was not a hell-fire and brimstone Baptist Church, mind you. No, these were respectable Baptists; cultured. Many well-to-do. But the preacher always seemed to keep my attention. He was building up to the climax, closer to making a decision for Christ, further from a life of sin and damnation, you can do it, you should do it, you say those magic words "I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Personal Savior and "TOUCHDOWN!"
"Touchdown?" my mouth gaped, as if all sinew lost its strength and support. Whatever he said after that was lost on me. On that day, on that very day, I realized that this was not for me. Salvation = touchdown? But I hate football! I never went back.
The Baptist God, however, would be my God for nearly two decades. I would reject him, and run to a pagan concept of goddess or god. I would deny him as a anthropomorphic being, eventually moving to nontheism, though accept that there was still a greater force or power that I would still call God. I would misunderstand him, and only see him as a jealous, petty father who punishes the bad and good alike for reasons we mere mortals couldn't understand. I would resent him for making me gay and not delivering me from it. I would resent him for the people who would hate me for being gay. I would resent... Lord have mercy, did I accumulate some God-sized baggage.
And yet, here I am, writing about this Power greater than myself. This power has been calling me to intimacy with it/him/her since I was a child. I clearly was seeking him when I went to church in middle school. I would find him and experience him intimately, charismatically, powerfully. I would hear his voice, have visions, and be used prophetically in meetings for worship. His sometimes still, small voice would tell me what to do or not to do (though I would usually ignore it, do what I wanted, and pay the piper later). This power would be with me through medical diagnoses, illnesses, the death of a partner and the dissolution of a long-term relationship. This Power would be the Source upon which I would draw when my life would have become so insane, so unmanageable.
This Power is my deliverance. It is that which is pure of God in me. It is my inward Guide which keeps me in awe of the Lord. When I mind it, when I sit in the Light, this power nourishes me. It feeds me. I can't tell you what God is or isn't. I quit trying to define God. I see God as wholly manifest in Jesus of Nazareth. I see God's nature revealed through the archetype of Jesus, the person of Jesus, the myth of Jesus and, yes, even in the imperfect community of believers. God is Spirit. God is Love. God is Emmanuel - he is with me.
Along the way I've unpacked some of my baggage, but for the most part it was so jammed packed full of crap that I just handed what I hadn't gone through over to God and said "you do it." Funny thing, he hasn't given me anything back but his power and love. If I find anything else that needs sorting, I know who can do it much better than me. Maybe he'll show me how to sort my own stuff out at some point. But where I was lost, now I'm found. Where I was blind, I see again.