Well, here it is; the Cliff Notes to my religious autobiography.
I pretty much grew up in the church. I can remember my mother taking my brother and I to a different church just about every Sunday looking for one holy enough for her. Twenty years later and she’s for the most part given up—not on religion, just on finding a church that matches her in holiness.
I think it was in the sixth grade that my mother took me to a Christian rock band concert sponsored by the local Vinyard Fellowship (one of the many churches we had frequented)—the band was Illustrator if I recall correctly. I remember this concert for two reasons. One, I was the lucky winner of the band’s record (yes, an actual record). And two, this was the night I officially “gave my life to the Lord.” Sometime toward the end of the concert, there was an alter call for all the lost souls to come forward to repent of their sins. For reasons not clear to me now, I went forward. I think in part because I knew this was just what Christians did and I was a Christian, right? And I think partly because my mother was gently coaxing me to go forward.
Everyone who came forward was then taken into a separate room (the choir room at the Junior High) where church leaders sat down with each person individually, went over the whole salvation spiel, and prayed us through repentance and accepting Jesus into our hearts. There were people of all ages there, but I guess because of my age, my mother was with me. I didn’t feel coerced, but when a shy sixth grader is surrounded by adults who tell him this is how things are done, what he going to do? I doubt I really knew what I was repenting or what it meant to “accept Christ into my life,” but I went ahead anyway—I was born again.
Around this same time, my mother seemed to have settled on the El Morro Church of the Nazarene and I was regularly attending Sunday School—memorizing bible verses and the usual. I attended this church religiously (pun intended) right through college. My mother eventually left for holier territory, though my apostate father had his Damascus road experience and started attending. I did all the things a good Christian kid, then teen, is supposed to do. I attended just about every youth event the church had, led youth services at times, served as the youth representative on the Church Board, went on various mission trips, and all the rest. And I enjoyed it. It gave my otherwise empty life meaning. Being introverted and shy, my only friends were friends from church. And two of my best friends to this day are boys I met through church.
When it came time to leave for college, I knew I wanted to go to a Christian university—though I’m not sure why. I applied to George Fox in Oregon and Point Loma Nazarene College (now University) in San Diego, got into both, but only got a scholarship from Point Loma. My first choice was George Fox, but only because it was farther away. Point Loma turned out to be a great choice and I remain grateful for the education, wisdom and direction I gained there. At PLNU, we had to attend chapel three times a week and of course were surrounded by Christians all the time, and so I rarely felt the need to attend Sunday services or plug myself into a local Church community.
At this point in this mini-autobiography, I need to jump back to the beginning. I can remember from a very young age questioning the basic teachings of the church. Or anybody’s teaching for that matter, which explains why I’ve always been into science and why I eventually chose the career I did. I remember asking my mother how the earth was populated: if Adam and Eve were the only two people to start with, how did their children procreate? Stupid question really, I know, but I still remember it as the earliest example of my incessant (but idle) dissatisfaction with many church teachings.
Over time, my questions would get more serious, and thus less susceptible to pat answers. Why did God allow suffering? Why does all humanity have to pay for the sins of Adam and Eve? Why is there free will? How does God answer prayer? And the list goes on. In addition to the more philosophical queries, many of my questions revolved around the moral proscriptions of the church. Why no sex before marriage? Why no divorce? Why is homosexuality a sin? Being prone to at least try to think rationally about such issues, I had a hard time accepting the reasoning of the church. And just to be clear, when I say “the church,” I’m referring the church in general, not the particular church I was attending.
Anyway, these unanswered questions just seemed to pile up over the years and my faith took a big blow in college. Partly because, as I mentioned, I wasn’t plugged into a church community, but mostly because of the religion classes we were required to take. These were some of my favorite classes in all four years of college, taught by the great John Wright. But the intellectual rigor with which these classes were taught and the historical perspective they applied to the scriptures only deepened my confusion about what was true, what was folklore and what really mattered.
But even as I left for graduate school, I still considered myself a born again Christian. I knew a lot of my view weren’t orthodox (homosexuality, evolution, sex before marriage, etc) but I also knew that I wasn’t alone in my liberal leanings. At least back then, the church seemed to make room for many different reading of scripture and was open to honest discussion.
I remember my very first Sunday in State College (I went to Penn State for graduate school) I sought out the local Nazarene church. Over the first several months (if not the first two years) I attended various churches. The Nazarene was fine (though a bit far for someone without a car). I tried a Presbyterian church, a Baptist church, a very small new church that met out of a high school auditorium (and eventually someone’s home) and I even tried this really weird place that didn’t permit any musical instruments. Nothing seemed to suit me and I stopped attending for some time. Then a coworker of mine who attended the local Assembly of God invited me to join him and I attended his church for the next two years or so. For quite a while, I felt like I really fit in with this community—while I never really got involved with Sunday School or any other groups, I felt really comfortable with everyone there. Which maybe is odd, since this was the most Pentecostal church I’d ever attended—people regularly spoke in tongues and collapsed on the floor during worship and all the other things you associate with the most charismatic fellowships. While I had never been “touched by the Holy Spirit” in such a way, or even seen it happen to anyone in all my years of attending services, I knew it was biblical and so I didn’t think it all that odd. I was even water baptized in this church (all those years since I was “reborn,” I’d never been officially baptized until then). Then I started hearing more and more about this “baptism of the Holy Spirit” idea. Anyone attending this church or who had spoken to someone already baptized by the Holy Spirit would have gotten the impression that all “real Christians” were. Only new, still-wet-behind-the-ears Christians weren’t. So of course, I wanted it—whatever it was (I didn’t really know).
But another reason I wanted this spiritual baptism so bad was that I was so unhappy. There were several factors contributing to my unhappiness, many of which I won’t go into yet, but the major factor was my job. Graduate school turned out be much harder than I ever imagined. I found myself in a job I hated, working for someone I hated and feeling as if I had no way out. I was doing synthetic organic chemistry, which is incredibly hard even under the best circumstances (though I don’t think I knew that when I started). I felt like I wasn’t making any progress and nothing was ever good enough for my boss. I’ll write another post later about the whole grad school experience, but for now it’s enough just to say I was miserable. So miserable that I wanted to drop out of school, but I was too afraid of being a failure. So miserable that at times I wanted to kill myself. I don’t really know how close I ever came: I certainly never actually tried, but I can remember browsing the web looking for easy pain-free ways to end it all. (As a brief aside, I want to mention some coworkers in grad school who made it a little easier to come to work everyday. While they may never have known how I really felt, we shared a similar disdain for our boss and it was always somewhat cathartic to be able to vent with these people. I’m thinking of Paul and JC (among others), but especially Kristen. Thank you.)
For quite some time I turned to God for help. I prayed for guidance: should I quit school, should I change advisors. I prayed for strength to go on, to get through each day. I prayed for spiritual baptism. I had other people pray for me. And it was all to no avail. Eventually I just got sick of it. Church wasn’t doing anything for me, so I stopped going. Sundays were my only days to sleep in and pretend for a few hours that my life wasn’t the living hell that it was—church only cut into my time. At this point I don’t think I’d completely given up on God, just grown tired of the effort I was putting in without getting anything back.
But it was at this point that I really started to question what faith I had left. I felt that if ever there was a time when God should have been there to hold me up, to reveal his plan to me, answer even one of my prayers, this was the time. And God didn’t. So I concluded that all this God stuff, the whole salvation story, was just that—a story. Something dreamed up my mankind to fill the void in their lives. And maybe it does for some people—and so be it. But that doesn’t make it real or true. Over time, I’ve put aside my emotional objections to religion and replaced them with intellectual ones. Religion still fascinates me a topic of discussion (why people believe such ridiculous things), but I’m can’t imagine I’ll ever go back to the church. Not unless God truly reveals himself. Not in some metaphorical series of random events, but in cinematic fashion with the clouds parting and that deep booming voice we all know he has. Until then, I’ll stick with reason and intellect.
Well, this little biography has ended up being a lot longer than I ever expected. But I’ve pretty much reached the end. I will just conclude by saying I am no longer miserable. I finished my Ph.D., found an awesome job back in California and life is great. Do I still have bad days? Who doesn’t? I just know better than to turn to God to try to make things better. Only I can improve my lot in life. So far so good.