“I believe in God,” I recently said to an acquaintance that was bashing religion. “I attend church regularly,” I added. Oh I can’t pat myself on the back for saying that because there were many, many times I was silent when the conversation turned to religion bashing. My current conversation abruptly and immediately stopped. It was a much more powerful response than words could ever be. The look on my acquaintance’s face said it all. Intelligent people don’t believe in God!
Why are we so called “intelligent” people embarrassed to say we believe in God and/or attend church regularly? Why do others look askance at those who make that confession? Why do I respond by failing to or being embarrassed to admit my faith? Am I really less intelligent because I believe in God?
“Girls are you dressed yet?” my mother shouted up the stairs. My sister and I had already managed to put on our frilly new dresses, lace ankle socks and patent leather shoes. We had helped each other with buttons and buckles. We were squealing with delight. “We’re coming,” we shouted down. We were still putting trying to put on our hats with the ribbons streaming down. It was such an exciting time! We weren’t going to Sunday school this day. We were too young to take communion but we were going to stay in the church with our parents for the entire service! We raced down the stairs. My mother carefully inspected us. My father and brother were dressed in suits and ties. My mother had on a new dress with a matching hat. My mother, sister, and I wore white gloves.
When we arrived at the church, my parents greeted everyone in the narthex. As soon as we entered the sanctuary we were admonished to be very quiet and not to talk. There was a beautiful stained glass window in the front of the church. In the middle of that window was a huge cross. The sun was streaming through that window filling the sanctuary with light and warmth. Beautiful hymns were being played on the organ. The choir members were dressed in their robes and waiting in the narthex for their procession into the sanctuary. The minister was dressed in his black vestments with a purple sash.
As we walked closer to the front of the church I saw many of my schoolmates sitting with their parents and siblings and sometimes grandparents. They too were dressed in frilly, lacy dresses and bonnets. The boys were in suits and ties. The ushers were setting up extra chairs around the sanctuary. The church would be overflowing. After we sat down, the minister and choir proceeded up the aisle singing “Jesus Christ is risen today . . . Alleluia.” As they entered the sanctuary we all rose and joined them in singing that hymn.
My sister and I felt a bit wilted by the end of the service. After the service our parents visited with our friends, neighbors, parents of our schoolmates. We got to play with our friends. “Be careful with your new dress and shoes,” my mother scolded us. We didn’t stay too long at church. We had to drive to our grandparents’ house, which was about an hour away. You see my aunt, uncle, and cousins had come from far away to spend the holiday with my grandparents and us. They did that almost every year. We would all sit down together to eat a wonderful Sunday dinner of roast lamb my grandmother had prepared. Then we could change clothes and play with our cousins while our mother, aunt, and grandmother cleaned up the kitchen.
Religion or at least church was an integral part of my childhood. It was one of the foundations of our community. Our time at church was both religious and social. My Sunday school class was made up primarily of my classmates from school and my teacher was almost always the mother of one of my friends. It was an outing- a break from the monotony of being at home. We didn’t have all the options for recreation the children do now. I have wonderful memories of the church of my childhood although that is not where my faith in God was born. But, perhaps the seeds were planted there.
“This is for you,” my father said handing a package to me. “I couldn’t bear to throw it away when we sold the house.” My parents had recently moved out of the house in which I had grown up. I unwrapped the package. I recognized it right away. I couldn’t believe he kept it all these years. Well maybe I can. My father has always been very sentimental. The package contained something I had made one summer at Bible School. As I held it the memories of Bible School came flooding back. I was about ten years old at the time. I was so proud of that glazed tile. I had drawn a picture of my dog on it.
In the summer we all went to Bible School. It is hard to imagine in these current times but we looked forward to those two weeks. Bible School was our break from the monotony of playing with the neighborhood kids. Neighborhood activities were fun but we wanted some variety. Many of my schoolmates attended Bible School along with me. My mother and the mothers of my classmates were the teachers. We had arts and crafts. We learned stories from the Bible like we did in Sunday school. We had some recreation time together. The world felt safe and comfortable.
“Are we going to get to go the first day, Friday night?” I asked my Mother. “Can we go on Saturday as well? Can we play all the games? Can we buy something?” I continued to pester her. I was asking about the Fall Festival at the Church, which was going to take place in a couple of weeks. My sister and I were very excited. It was an annual event. My mother was usually one of the organizers of that event. It took months to arrange and coordinate everything. Volunteers had to be procured and scheduled to man the many the booths and cook the dinner. The booths had to be set up by the fathers on the weekends or evenings. White elephant items had to be procured, tagged and displayed for sale.
We played games and won prizes. My favorite game was throwing a beanbag into a backboard one of the fathers had made and painted. There was great food. We always had a dinner but there were snacks as well. I can still smell the sautéed mushrooms that were being prepared in electric skillets at one of the booths. I still love the smell and taste of sautéed mushrooms. It reminds me of the Fall Festival. As I think back to the time I spent at those festival and other church events I am overcome with a feeling of warmth and comfort.
As I matured I remained involved in the church. I taught Sunday school. I participated in the high school youth group. I attended church summer camp for two weeks although I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do that. It was an expensive camp and I overheard my parents discussing whether they could afford it. In the end, they made some financial sacrifices because they thought it was important for me to attend. What a thrill!
The camp was located in the next state. It was a long bus ride but it was so worth it I thought. It had been a wonderful two weeks. We studied the Bible but we also did a lot of other things. We went sailing and water skiing on the lake. We had campfires, cooked smores, sang and talked. ”Camp is coming to a close. We want to encourage everyone to find a quiet spot and contemplate Jesus,” Sally, our Church Youth Minister said to all of us. She had accompanied us on this trip. During those two weeks Sally kept asking me if I had “experienced God”. I had no idea what that meant and I was feeling like a failure because “it” hadn’t happened for me. This would be my last opportunity to do that. I distinctly remember finding a tree, leaning against it and closing my eyes. I thought hard about God and Jesus for a short while. Then I just relaxed and tried to tune everything out. A short while later, I jumped up and ran to find Sally. “Jesus appeared to me,” I exclaimed to her. Sally was ecstatic. My experience and that of several others were announced to the whole group later that day.
“Jesus Christ appeared to me,” I wrote to my parents on a postcard from camp. I think that the camp counselor must have encouraged me to write because my family never discussed these types of things. Emotional or spiritual experiences were never a topic of conversation in our family. Our conversations focused on the physical events of school, work and church.
I was on an emotional high that lasted for several weeks after I returned from summer camp. But as more and more time passed I started to doubt my experience. We had so much pressure put on us to “experience Jesus” that I started to doubt my experience was genuine. I felt the youth minister put too much emphasis on those types of experiences. It turned me off to religion. I started drifting away from church and the youth group after that. The youth minister lost interest in me. I guess I wasn’t experiencing religion as she thought I should.
“We can’t afford it. I won’t fill out the financial aid application. Those colleges think parents should contribute huge amounts of money. It is ridiculous. We can’t contribute anywhere near the amount they will want from us,” my Father said. I had worked incredibly hard to have the credentials to be admitted to an Ivy League or similar University. Now my Father refused to allow me to apply. This was one of my first huge disappointments in life. I had the sophomoric notion that God could make this happen if He wanted to. In those days my faith in God was rather immature and I was angry with God. Other kids from my high school were accepted and attended the schools I wanted to go to. Their credentials were not as good as mine.
“Brad is attending a very expensive university away from home. Why can’t I do the same?” I complained to my father, “He will have to support a family,” my Father said to explain why my brother got to attend the university of his choice and I didn’t. I never got the message, which I understand some of my peers did, that a woman could be anything she wanted to be. I felt alienated from the world in which I had grown up and by implication that included God. I was depressed. I lived at home and attended college. That is what my parents could afford. I wouldn’t give God much thought again, if any, for at least eighteen years.
The events of my life would compel to contemplate God again later, especially as I cared for and watched my beloved husband die from Lou Gehrig’s disease. However, that is a topic for another day.