It was grief that turned me away from god and grief that brought me back.
I grew up going to Presbyterian church with my grandmother every Sunday as part of a long tradition of weekends spent almost exclusively with my maternal grandparents. Granny & Boom, as I called them, provided 100% of my access to religious education, including paying the tuition to my Baptist preschool.
When I was 4 years old, I got kicked out of that preschool for teaching kids to play blackjack, but that’s a story for another time.The bigger story here is that my expulsion should have been a sign for my future in Christianity.
Despite my exit from preschool, I spent another 10+ years attending and loving my grandparents’ neighborhood church. I think it had much more to do with the ritual of familiar weekends than it had to do with any understanding or appreciation of god. Like plenty of people, as I got deeper into my teenage years and more steeped in questioning everything around me, my relationship with church also began to change.
From the time I was 12 until I was 16, my grandfather, one of the central aspects around my church-going ritual, rapidly disappeared in the throes of Alzheimers Disease. It was terrible. He was my safety, my protector, my hero, and he was disappearing without dying. Then he did die. There was no humane or extraordinary explanation for his descent, and as far as I was concerned, no god would let that happen to the best man I knew.
During my first year in high school, a friend committed suicide. We weren’t close, but I saw her the night before her death and she was as nice and kind as she had ever been with no indication that anything was particularly troubling her that day. The day after her death, the first thing I heard about from some random kid was that because she had committed suicide, she was going to hell. Though I have learned since that that is a denomination-specific belief, after that comment, Christianity no longer made sense to me.
With the decline in my grandfather’s health, I had already stopped going to my grandparents’ house on the weekend, and thus pretty much stopped going to church, but it hadn’t been intentional until I had these things happen in my life that made me angry at god and church.
The truth is, my story isn’t different than most folks who leave organized religion. I was grieving and the religion I had practiced and god I had believed in had betrayed me, as far as I was concerned. I went from being the kid who delivered the sermon on Youth Sunday (seriously), to the teenager who would poke holes in any argument trying to prove the validity or truth of organized religion, especially Christianity.
As I got older, I felt hurt from Christianity in other ways. The assault on human rights for both women and LGBTQ folks was omnipresent and lent itself to a further feeling of being unwanted and outcast. I know now that there are Christian congregations who are fully inclusive and doing justice work to combat their exclusive counterparts, but that didn’t matter to me then.
It’s easy to stay bitter about something that has hurt you. It took several years, a ton of education, and lots of good people for me to open up to the possibility that Christianity and other organized religions might not be as terrible as I had once thought.
Through the years, I have come to know people from all religious backgrounds and have seen the influences of those beliefs as they have shaped many of the best people in my life.
Somehow, despite a lingering resentment to Christianity, I ended up with several close friends who are all devout Christians. One attends a southern “mega-church,” one of them has biblical references tattooed on her arms, and one of them is an ordained minister in an evangelical denomination. They each have different beliefs and practices, and one thing they have in common is that 20 years ago, I would never have allowed myself to get close to them. They would have said they were Christians, and I would have turned the other direction out of fear and need for self-preservation.
I fully believe the best way to show what you believe is to act like what you believe. These three women live their faith every damn day and through them, I’ve slowly reopened myself to allowing religion to be part of my life.
Let me be clear, I do not identify Christianity as a faith I want to practice. It works for a lot of people, but it’s not for me. My agnostic view on the universe can be simplified into the belief that everything happens for a reason. I know it’s cliche and can also be the most condescending and least helpful reminder, but it’s truly what I believe. As far as I’m concerned, there are no coincidences and things are meant to happen in a particular way. The epiphany I had a few months ago is that “everything happening for a reason” is also the “universe at work,” and that is also god (whether you use a big G or little one or none at all).
As I have come to realize, grief has played a central role in my consideration of the existence of god. My mother’s death was astoundingly difficult for me to experience. It was both swift and prolonged, malicious and merciful, heartbreaking and relieving. It provided all the questions and all the answers in one fell swoop.
My mom struggled with her physical health for at least the last 10 years of her life and with her mental health for essentially her whole life. The last few years were particularly hard, as she questioned why it was even necessary to stay alive given how much pain she was in every day due to chronic vertebral fractures and debilitating migraines. It was awful to watch and not be able to do anything about.
Her death came at the end of a month-long stint in a skilled nursing facility that was more stressful than rehabilitating. I fought as hard as I could for her during that stay, talking with countless doctors & nurses, facility administrators, and insurance company reps. None of that mattered when she had a heart attack, though. The only fighting I could do on that day, as I sat on the sideline while ER doctors and nurses tried to explain to me that my mom’s DNR made her chances for recovery slim, was to pray.
In the moment, I am sure I was praying for my mom’s recovery. As the days went on and my mom straddled life and death in the ICU, I prayed for guidance and strength. As confusing as it was to seek support from god, I didn’t have time to worry about it. I needed whatever support I could get, and I needed it immediately.
I turned to my ordained minister friend, also a hospital chaplain practiced in helping families in the worst moments of their lives, for support. She was phenomenal. She held space for me to grieve, to feel the broad spectrum of emotions that come with hoping my mom would recover and knowing she probably would not. She was quick to offer reassurance that my instincts for how to proceed with my mom’s care were right. She reminded me that I could be both devastated and strong at the same time. And even though she didn’t mention god, I know it wasn’t a coincidence that I had my beautiful friend to rely on for this type of support.
When my mom died, it was by far the worst thing I have ever experienced, and also the clearest indication that some force far more powerful than me exists in the world. So many incredible things happened simultaneously, I could almost feel that presence in the room with me. She died, unassisted by any medication, without me having to tell a doctor to switch from active to palliative care, and as the final notes of a Willie Nelson song played. There are more elements that feel too personal to put out there just yet, but it was too much for me to be able to explain without some divine intervention.
When my mom died, it opened a floodgate of grief for not only her death, but the loss of nearly every person who truly raised me. It has occurred to me over the last year and a half that I don’t think I ever actually grieved my grandparents’ deaths, or the deaths of several people integral to my life as a kid, or my cousin who had once been my idol and ended up a victim of his own drug abuse.
With that realization and the necessary processing to come, combined with the added pressure I was feeling at home due to some of my husband’s health concerns, I had reached the limit of what I could handle on my own. It was at this point that I began considering a return to church.
That was about 8 months ago. It’s taken that long for me to get comfortable with the idea of being in a church again, and as long to convince my husband to go back. His experience of church was different than mine, and it’s for him to tell, but suffice it to say, it has been a tough sell.
Along with my idea of religion, my idea of “church” has also evolved. I know folks who find solace in the practice of very traditional places of worship. I know folks who find their best spiritual connections come in nature, or when they’re dancing, or when they are serving in their communities. When I say looking to return to church, what I mean is a return to a space that feels safe and fulfilling, a place to investigate the mysteries of the universe, and a place to celebrate and grieve with a community.
Shelby and I have attended a Unitarian Universalist church for the last several weeks and we are enjoying it. We are attracted by the church’s commitment to learning from all religions. It is heartening to be in community with people who strive for justice. And I know that as we spend more time with the congregation that the emotional and spiritual support I am seeking and know we will need is there. We are both cautiously optimistic, and I am already feeling a bit of relief that comes with putting effort into a spiritual practice.
This story is far from over, and I don’t think it ever will be. As I have learned over my life, my spiritual beliefs have evolved and will continue to do so. What I do know for sure now, though, is that as certain as I am that grief will continue to be a part of my life, so will god.