“The object of a question is to obtain information that matters to us, and no one else.”
- Sean Connery as William Forrester in "Finding Forrester"

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Beginnings of Faith

We are all on a spiritual path. Whether it is leading us away from the traditions of our youth, toward a more mainline way of thinking of one form or another, or off on our own somewhere there is no doubt that we all walk the path.

I wrote a post about a month ago on scripture. I asked about what makes a text scripture, who says, and why do we believe one set over another. Apparently it wasn't provocative enough to illicit any substantive responses (though, thank you to those who did). I've noticed that it is the most polarizing of issues that garner the most traffic and discussion. And, in some ways, I think that's a shame. Asking thoughtful questions about the nature of scripture and authority, should be central and ultimately of more importance than questions about divisive issues of the day which only prove to harden each side all the more against the other. And, in the end, we are left where we began.

In the same light as my previous post about scripture, I would invite you to comment on your spiritual beginnings. How did you acquire your set of beliefs? When and why did you claim your faith as your own? Why do you believe one thing over another? Is there any room for everyone else?

I grew up in a parsonage family. My dad was reappointed every 3 years or so which exposed me to many different congregations of all sizes, social makeups, and theological perspectives. When I was young, I was a good little PK and always went to Sunday School, had all the answers to the teacher's questions, and went to church camp every summer. Like most kids, I would imagine, I didn't really think about faith all that much. I was told about the church and the Bible and I accepted it. I was really just concerned with having a good time and gaining the approval of others by giving the right answers and following all the rules.

When the family moved to Georgia for a few years as my dad took some time away from the parish, I began to change my thinking. I would get tired of listening to the preacher and excuse myself to the bathroom for the remainder of the sermon, even listening behind the door until the musical response began before coming back in. I went through confirmation because it was the thing to do at that age and all my friends were there too.

When we moved back to Central New York I felt like the new kid that I was and found acceptance and friendship in youth groups and at the summer camp I grew up attending. When I went to my first CCYM retreat in 8th grade I loved singing all of the praise songs and feeling the joy with which they were sung. I loved getting all the hugs and the freedom to be my crazy self. So I joined and, in some ways, mistook those feelings for faith. At that age, I didn't understand that there was a real difference between the two.

I had myself convinced that I was one of the faithful. Everyone around me knew that I was a pastor's kid that went to youth events, got out of school to go to annual conference, and it was assumed that I was a strong Christian. And I played the role well. After all, I wasn't about to rock the boat.

Throughout high school and into college I felt that I needed to learn more, to understand religion as a whole. I saw things I disagreed with in my own denomination and found out that I could go to General Conference and do something about it. So, I was nominated and elected to serve as a delegate and after spending some time as an astrophysics major I transferred to the religion department to figure things out for myself. All the while, I rooted myself in the interdenominational campus ministries and held up the facade of being "the good Christian."

General Conference came and went. The feeling of being a part of that process reinvigorated as much as disheartened me about being a United Methodist. I became recharged and found myself feeling more faithful and directed than I ever was even as I was angered by the lack of openness in the "open hearts, open minds, open doors" church.

I continued to study the religions of the world and saw more and more how none had a monopoly on truth yet each held a certain lens with which to view it. My pluralist sensibilities really came into form, not because it is what I was taught but because for the first time in my life I really began to see God in a way that spoke to me.

Each year at annual conference I felt myself pulled toward some form of ministry. I had always known that I didn't want to be ordained - in part because of the realities of parsonage life (I have horror stories) - yet I found myself drawn to seminary to pursue a degree in social ethics and sociology of religion. I was quickly accepted and given a full scholarship for the length of the program.

I then left for Semester at Sea and found myself seeing the world in a different light from which I saw it before I left. So, I turned the seminary down. Yet, when nominations came around again for GC, I once again gave in to my sense of wanting to make a difference, to change things from the inside. And once again I was elected.

I offered to help out a friend with the conference youth and I began to work on starting a young adult ministry. All the while, though, I felt like I was playing the role of the dutiful Christian and, like a role in a play, it wasn't really me. I had long since stopped saying words in prayers and hymns that I didn't believe. I began to question why I did what I did. Why did I continue to be a part of something I didn't identify with, that didn't speak to me, that asked me to lead without offering much to sustain me. Was I just being selfish? Or did I need to step away from what I knew? I took the step away.

I attended a UU church for awhile and found myself inspired and filled like I hadn't been in so long, and in a much deeper and more honest way. But I haven't been in a while now. They're excuses, I know, but the distance is a factor, the lack of a community of people my own age is another, work and the need to rest weighs in, too. So now, the only real affiliation I have with any religious group is through work - where I relate to United Methodists and Southern Baptists - and as an adult advisor to that same youth ministry I've been a part of now for 3 years.

Do I do it out of a promise to a friend? Yes. Do I do it because the youth make me feel loved and cool? Yes. Do I do it because I feel like I am doing a good thing and am, in some way, making a difference? Yes. It is true that my desire to feel like a part of something has once again trumped my need to separate myself from that which I don't believe. It's hard sometimes. In some ways it's like I'm continuing to live the lie I had grown so accustomed to over the years.

I'm not sure what the next turn along the path will be, and even though I don't have a regular church home, I know that my heart is open to wherever this spiritual path will lead me. I have given in to the fact that I am not in control, that I don't have all the answers, and that is ok.

Where has your path taken you?