My soul

On December 28, 2012 I went “public” with my desire to explore religion.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

I thought I’d have a little op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times about how I was visiting lots of places of worship. People who read it might think “that’s nice,” and then toss their papers into the recycle bin.

At the bottom of the op-ed, the editor asked if she could print the internet address for the blog I had just begun. I was only toying with the idea of doing a blog; I didn’t cough up the internet address until the very last minute.

It came as a complete surprise to me when that original article was re-printed in other newspapers. It popped up in Dallas, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Atlantic City.

People from across the country—and around the world—logged on to my blog. Some began to follow my journey and comment along the way (I love you, dear readers!). Others wished to send me a note telling me a bit about their own journeys—in, out, around—religion.

Many who sent messages said they would pray for me. A few said their entire church group was praying for me. In my secular lifestyle, I’d rarely had anyone say they were praying for me. I thought it sounded nice, like they would place my name on a gentle breeze. “Thank you,” I typed back to each and every one.

When the numbers who said I was in their prayers climbed, I started to get nervous. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean: my entire nervous system began to jangle. I felt caffeinated even when I wasn’t. I had trouble sleeping. It was hard to concentrate. I had heard that praying can be a powerful act: all that thought-energy directed at a single source. Now I believed it. I thought too many people must be praying for me. Then I thought they were simply praying too hard. This wasn’t my name on a gentle breeze; this was a bolt of electricity to my poor synapses. I wanted to write them again and ask if they’d dial it back a notch.

Perhaps all this praying was a bit presumptuous. Was my soul in such a sorry state? A week or two into January, it dawned on me that I had unwittingly become a poster child for the “unchurched.” I fancied myself a “religious explorer” but, apparently, that’s not how others perceived me. One morning I looked in the bathroom mirror and glimpsed what they saw: a face of the “Godless” masses.

How had this happened? And, more importantly, why?

After some initial wallowing, I decided to buck up about it. If this was my calling, I would accept. See, world, we aren’t so bad. Some of us are even curious.

People sent me letters and packages. I got books and expansive thesis statements. I received CDs of sermons. I spread out these gifts on a table near where I write. Something about my little essay had spoken to people and inspired them to affix postage to envelopes that appeared in my mailbox. These kind people were sharing with me words and ideas that rang true for them. I committed to reviewing every last item even if it took many months. Who’s to say God wasn’t giving me a message through some sweet lady living in Milwaukee?

Many of the people sending me stuff were, in their own ways, encouraging my journey: they wanted to make sure I didn’t miss something they held dear. Others, perhaps, thought such an exploration sounded unnecessary and were hoping to save me the bother. They had found the right answer and were passing it on to me.

One DVD I was sent is entitled “The Biggest Question.” I put off watching it for fear it might provide the answer.

A few days ago, I finally popped it in…

 

The climb

“Is Christianity changing?” I ask Jackson.

“No,” he says, “but we are.”

I nod. Almost everything has changed since the first Protestant settlers came here: our cities, our houses, our transportation. Our tastes in music and fashion. How we navigate in space, how we take in information. All these broad shifts that influence how we think and act. Not to mention the countless incremental and personal changes that occur over each of our lifetimes. Just in these last several months, I’ve changed. Who would have thought I would have engaged in this epic church-going experiment? Not me, and certainly not anyone who knew me. The mention of God used to make me uneasy because I thought it had to be a very specific thing: big man in the clouds.

Critics may claim that a particular generation or population group is more spiritually complacent or less curious, but I don’t think you can judge what’s going on in others’ hearts and minds. Because despite all the changes, something fundamental stays the same. It’s what makes our need for the tools Christianity offers as vital today as ever. Each of us struggles to come to grips with being here, and with the knowledge that we will leave—as if these realizations are a fresh new thing just added to the human experience. Religion reminds us that people have been grappling with them for centuries. It’s spiritual dialogue across generations.

But being told a thing takes us only so far. We have to engage in it, each of us putting in the effort to make sense of it for ourselves. We wrestle with it so that we can reach beyond for a deeper joy. It’s like the Biblical reference to the mustard seed—all that potential sits in us, but it is the process, the expansion, the opening, that matters. No single church has changed me, no one sermon. But the act of going, of walking in those doors, is changing me. I feel my heart softening to people I had dismissed, my mind opening to ideas I once ridiculed. Each time I show up and come elbow to elbow with others who have also showed up, the chances are I’ll have a moment, however brief or fleeting, where the beauty of creation strikes me—the awe of this shared experience—and it won’t feel overwhelming or like something I can’t handle, but poignant and profound.

One point Jackson made in his sermon about Nehemiah stood out for me. In the first moments after learning about the destroyed walls, Nehemiah is overcome with grief and begins to weep. Jackson paused and asked everyone to think about the sudden painful rawness of Nehemiah’s emotions. Nehemiah hadn’t witnessed the walls being smashed—it happened earlier and far away. But all at once Nehemiah realized it was not an abstract occurrence that happened to others, but his very own experience. After a moment, the wave of anguish recedes, and he makes his plans.

A flicker of understanding rises in me: I see that each fresh recognition of the awesomeness of life is the huff and puff of gaining elevation on a mountain climb. Because it’s the facing it—the working through it, the accepting it—that gets us closer to the top where compassion, for ourselves and others, and gratitude resides. Each time we grasp the intangible, the mustard seed grows.

Sacred spaces

Jackson, the young minister of the Buzz, and I talk for almost two hours, sometimes like inhabitants of different planets meeting for the first time and at others like old friends. He confides that he and the other Buzz leaders have agreed not to build or buy a building to officially house the church. He says, “You put all this money and energy into raising the funds and then…” He trails off. I nod, understanding exactly where he’s going with his thought: the struggle for permanence may hurt a congregation whose mission, in part, is stay abreast of current trends. I think back to Vibrant Belief and the amount of creative energy the church leaders must have poured into funding and planning their elaborate building. Did that effort displace their original motivation and message?

For now, the Buzz will continue to rent. Just in the few weeks since my visit to the Buzz, the worship services have moved to an auditorium with built-in seating that accommodates more people than the previous event center. The congregation was able to up and go like a tumbleweed. But if they owned a building, they wouldn’t be able to adapt so easily. They’d be the church on Main Street or at 5th and Elm; they’d be the church with a cavernous space or a square space or a small space or a round space. People think the building is the church. But it’s not: the church is the people inside. The relationships. The ideas. The voices combined in song.

In his talk on Nehemiah, Jackson explains that when Nehemiah comes to Jerusalem he takes a deliberate approach to the enormous task he’s assigned himself of repairing the city’s destroyed walls. In the middle of the night, when everyone else is sleeping, he rides around the perimeter and surveys the damage. He takes an unflinching look at the problem. He acknowledges how bad it is before taking steps to make it better.

As a former servant, Nehemiah may have been an unlikely person for the job, but he was engaged in an unlikely job. His efforts weren’t focused on the most obvious target: the temple, which had also been wrecked. His idea of sacred space was much broader. It encompassed the areas where everyday life took place. Today, it might include the grocery store, the post office, or the sidewalk. Perhaps, too, it is the cyberspaces we occupy: Facebook, websites, and blogs. Nehemiah seemed to understand how everything that surrounds and supports the inner life is worthy of attention and protection too.

The temple may not have been the only thing worth salvaging but, for many, it was still the most important. A physical location for worship or prayer—a designated place where people gather to commune with each other and acknowledge something greater—remains a powerful draw. It seems the effort to build and maintain these structures, as energy-depleting as it may be, continues to be worth it. Even if we are only on the outside, driving past on our way to the grocery store, they remind us of life’s less material aspects.

The buildings that house places of worship have spoken to me my whole life. Not one in particular, but each whispering as I passed, “Why don’t you come inside?”

The okay-ness

I’m surprised when Jackson tells me that officially the Buzz is Baptist. After seminary, he was struck by polls showing the abundance of people lacking a religious affiliation in the Pacific Northwest and, with the financial backing of a national Baptist organization, relocated here from Texas. At first he worked as the youth minister at a local Baptist church before striking out on his own about five years ago. Today, the ties to the national organization have loosened. It pays only a part of his salary and, of the 20 or so people on his staff, each one is responsible for securing his or her own funding, which comes from multiple sources. I wonder what it means about the future of denominations that I’ve had to work so hard to find one here.

When he asks me why I started my church-going mission, our conversation turns to the less material. “I’m trying to better understand spirituality,” I tell him. I’m surprised to hear myself admit this out loud, much less to someone I hardly know. Before I started this endeavor, I thought of spirituality like I think of ghosts—a phenomenon somewhere between fascinating and frightening, but of which I had no first-hand experience. When I imagined what it might be, I always pictured some object—chimes, trees, fabric—swaying in the breeze.

“What does spirituality mean to you?” he asks.

How to put it into words? I rarely have this kind of conversation. My None friends and I—we tend to lack the language. When we attempt to talk about these issues we turn into frustrated apes; we thump our chests and open our hands to the sky.

I know the official Christian answer would be something like “accepting Jesus as God and my personal savior” but I’m not sure if I can do that just yet even if I understood exactly how.

I tell him, “I think it’s being more like Jesus…like how he was day to day.” I feel as wobbly as a fawn taking her first few steps. “Jesus was aware of ordinary life and responsibilities, but he always kept something bigger in mind…an awareness that he’d be gone someday too, and an okay-ness with it that made the everyday more precious. It’s the awareness and the okay-ness…” I catch Jackson looking at me in a way that suggests I’m either saying something profound or profoundly incomprehensible.

I want to keep going because it feels good to try to talk about this stuff even if I’m not good at it. I need to say something about compassion because I know that’s a big piece of the spirituality puzzle, and the okay-ness is key because if we can be okay with the being here—and the not being here—then we might even be able to love ourselves and whatever force brings us here and then snatches us away.

I think about the atheist slogan: “I can be good without God.” I had thought I didn’t need help with that because the goodness they are referring to is about not breaking laws and making the right choices morally and ethically. But maybe it refers to something much more subtle, being “good” as in being “okay”—learning to be good to ourselves and others, gentle and kind, accepting of our own and each other’s foibles. The okay-ness is the root of this love, which we can only extend to others if we first possess it ourselves. I want to say all this and more but forming such abstract ideas into actual words suddenly feels too daunting. They dissolve into a sweet puddle like a clump of cotton candy on the tip of my tongue.

Neat packages

 

“What stood out most about your visit to my church?” Jackson, the young minister of the Buzz, asks me.

“The young, good-looking crowd,” I say. I realize that’s probably not the answer he was looking for, but it’s the truth and I’m relieved when he laughs. Apparently this youthful congregation has posed some challenges.

When I was visiting, before he started his talk on Nehemiah, Jackson mentioned his previous sermon series, which had addressed the topic of love and dating. He briefly reiterated to the congregation that while romantic relationships are healthy and good, the search for one shouldn’t be their motivation for attending church. Once he said that, I had to admit I was picking up a certain vibe I’d never considered: Jesus as matchmaker. The fact that services are held in the early evening may add to the romantic ambiance.

“…besides that, your literature is so….” I search for the best way to describe the difference between the leaflets at the Buzz versus those from many other churches.

I was struck by how artfully they were put together. It’s not just that the church has its own logo, it is how the text and the graphics were presented in fresh fonts and interesting colors on glossy cuts of paper in varied sizes with just the right amount of white space to make it all “pop.” Many other churches cram black words on a white 8.5 x 11 page folded in half. In fact, it’s the quality of the Buzz materials that made me think they must be backed by an organization with deep pockets.

“Slick” sounds too derogatory.

“….well designed,” I decide to tell him.

He explains that one staff member has a background in graphic design. It seems almost a requirement these days for an “emergent” church: minister and graphic designer. People who have grown up since the 70’s have such a keen eye. Almost no aspect of our lives isn’t tastefully presented, from websites to wine labels. Today’s average Joe is a sharp-sighted consumer—of Christianity and anything else.

But it’s more than just aesthetics. So much content is available to us in both design elements and words. We prefer it filtered and arranged. We want the main point, but we also want the option for more. We’ve grown accustomed to the way the internet works: stay with the headline and synopsis or click to go deeper. We decide. As consumers, we have grown accustomed to the ability to navigate the information and, in some way, to participate in its presentation.

It’s a new way of moving through the world, one that can permeate even the smallest tasks—like singing. At the Buzz, the band played one of the same Christian rock songs I’d heard elsewhere, Your Love Never Fails, but in a slightly different way. They branched out to more complicated verses, but they returned to the lines of the chorus—Your Love never fails/Your love never changes/You stay the same through the ages—so many times that even I was able to sing along easily. Depending on knowledge and comfort level, a person can dive into the verses or just stay with the simple refrain to which the band returned until we were all of singing it over and over again, in an endlessly comforting loop.

Yet, I wonder about the downside of information that’s presented in such neat packages. Does having the path you tread prepped and prettied diminish the sense of discovery? Are we singing along on autopilot?

The Buzz

Out here, at the tail end of this leg of my religious journey, denominational differences have faded, church names have gotten creative, and the music has grown a steady beat. I’ve just left a rented event center packed to the brim with mostly young, good-looking college students. The music was played by five guys, each more adorable than the last, like an angelic boy band on the brink of fame.

The name of this congregation does not tie it to any kind of Christianity that came before. It’s christened for a sound and news too good not to share. I’ll call it “the Buzz.”

The cavernous auditorium was filled with studs, jocks, and even handsome hipsters; so many young women had clear complexions and long silky hair. A sprinkling of stylish middle-agers and mature high-schoolers rounded out the crowd. These were the kind of worshippers who don’t believe in wearing business casual to honor the Lord so much as the right wash on their denims.

The lighting during the services was dim and moody; I felt like Jesus might appear on stage at any moment with a big digitally re-mastered halo around his head. I had the impression of Jesus as the ultimate celebrity: all the boys want to be like him and the girls want to date him.

After attending the service, I find the website for the Buzz and click a link to send an email message to the head minister, Jackson, asking if he’ll meet me. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about the sermon he gave, which was not at all what I expected. With all those young people in expensive jeans as his audience, I imagined he’d talk about something generically positive like the power of love or manifesting abundance in your life. Instead he gave a detailed lecture about Nehemiah, a lesser known character in the Old Testament. I knew nothing about Nehemiah, whose claim to fame was rebuilding the destroyed walls of Jerusalem—hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. Nehemiah had never even been to Jerusalem or seen the walls before he decides his life’s mission. He was an unlikely candidate for the job. He was working as one of the king’s servants miles away when he asks permission to go.

I also realize I have no idea what denomination the Buzz is, or if it even has one. No mention is made of it on the website or in any of the literature from my visit. I go back and scour the local newspaper’s Worship Directory, but the church’s name isn’t listed. I search the phonebook but don’t see it there either. It’s managed to fly completely under the radar. Its members must learn about it by word of mouth. Come to think of it, that’s how I first heard of it. A teenage daughter of a friend of mine said I should check it out.

Jackson agrees to meet me at a coffee shop a few weeks after the semester ends. The girls working behind the counter know him by name. Others in the café say hello. Suddenly I feel like I’m meeting a member of Jesus’s entourage. Maybe Jackson will be the next mega-preacher superstar like Joel Osteen. He certainly has the camera-ready looks: friendly blue eyes and a full head of sandy blonde hair with just a touch of grey starting at the temples. Maybe he’ll head up a popular mega-church like Saddleback in California, providing sermons to hundreds of thousands both in person and online. He’ll write a Jesus-centric bestseller like Rick Warren’s the Purpose Driven Life.

We sit in a pair of cushiony chairs facing each other. We are roughly the same age and his easy-going and open demeanor makes him feel familiar. I tell him a little about my background: that I’m a None whose been attending church for more than a year now. I have my notebook on my knees, ready to take notes, but he wants to hear from me first.

God’s hands

After Jesus died, beliefs about what sort of being Jesus was were all over the map, even among the most devout. They said he was divine, but a little less so than God. Others insisted he was the human incarnation of God, equal to God because he was God. Some preferred to think of him as an exceptional man who understood and embodied the wisdom of God; if he was divine, it was only in the way that each of us has the potential to be because we are all expressions of the divine. When I read about this spectrum of opinion, I was surprised because I had imagined everyone was on the same page at the beginning and it was only more recently that thoughts splintered and diverged.

As early Christendom spread, this lack of consistency grew troublesome. Preachers were going out into the countryside teaching their own interpretations and some people were worshipping Jesus as a separate being from God, threatening the basic monotheism of Christianity.

Summoned by Emperor Constantine 325 years after Jesus’ death, the first official ecumenical council of Christendom convened in a city called Nicaea. The goal was to create a single “profession of faith” so that when the participants returned to their corners of the kingdom, they could explain Christianity using words identical to those used everywhere else. It was quality control. Christianity went corporate and the product needed consistency. The bishops voted on the wording, but even then it wasn’t unanimous.

The Nicene Creed of 325 stated that Jesus and God are one in the same; the revised Creed, created in the year 381, wrapped in the Holy Spirit as well. Today, some congregations regularly recite the creed in unison. I’ve said it myself on several occasions since I began my church-going adventures. It reads in part:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth…

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father…

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified…

The “Trinity” continues to be a topic of debate among modern Christians and some denominations opt not to use it—at least not explicitly.

Whether one embraces the concept or not, it seems to indicate an undeniable truth. In developing an understanding of God, some people might envision an entity that is more concrete, perhaps inhabiting a body, while others prefer something that’s bigger and more amorphous.

From the Trinity, I see that people have been treading these same paths to God for centuries: one, a human incarnation of the divine, and the other, nothing but spirit. It seems to me they’re all heading in the same direction.

Perhaps some people need a mixture of form and formlessness, or will use one or the other at different times in their lives. I’ve thought of God as an endless plane of vibrating energy of which we are all a part, but I’ve also pictured God with arms and legs and hands I can hold. Because sometimes I just want a hand to hold, even if just in my imagination.

Even within a congregation that emphasizes one version over the other, individuals will work it out for themselves because it’s such a personal thing. There are bound to be evangelicals who ride the Holy Spirit to God, just as I’m sure there are Pentecostals who can’t get there without Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, a few Unitarians—a denomination that does not officially use the Trinity–hold that bundle close to their hearts.