In my life as a 27-year-old media professional in New York City, the subject of God is not one that comes up a lot. Even when it does, I am reluctant to join the conversation, because my vocabulary is often different from that of almost everyone around me.
I grew up a Footloose Baptist, the kind of religious that people in this part of the country have trouble comprehending, the kind not allowed to dance or watch secular cartoons or join in the Pog craze of the early ’90s, because it was too similar to gambling.
Of course, secular media was out of the question – had Harry Potter been around back then, witchcraft would have kept it off the acceptable reading list. In my day, we weren’t allowed to watch “Captain Planet” (the characters controlled the weather) or MTV (uh, Madonna). The occult was lurking everywhere, in the celebration of Halloween (we had alternative family fun nights at the church instead) and in the book about the Salem witch trials that I felt so guilty about enjoying that I burned it in the backyard, even though it belonged to the library.
I went to church camp every summer, where the rules excluded two-piece bathing suits, shorts above the knees, and coed swimming. (Although the latter practice just resulted in a row of boys lined up against the chain link fence trying to get a glimpse of their sisters in Christ in their chaste one-pieces.)
I once called my mother to come pick me up from a slumber party where other children were playing with a Ouija board. (I was not only religious, but also deeply uncool.) My church friends had much more acceptable celebrations, like the “scary movie” night at my friend April’s house, where we saw a religious scare film called “The Rapture” that haunted me for months with fears that the rapture was coming to snatch me away from my friends, or worse, leave me behind with all the abandoned, tipped-over bicycles and boiling tea kettles.
I believed wholeheartedly that my lord and savior had died for me to cleanse me of my sins. That the end of the world was coming and that I must spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to save those I cared about from an eternity spent in hell. I asked Jesus into my heart at age four, was baptized in front of the congregation, and swallowed down the bitter intolerance they taught as easily as the grape juice that was supposed to symbolize Christ’s blood.
Ours was the kind of religious you see in documentaries like “Hell House,” railing against homosexuality and abortion. I was one of the hard-faced tiny warriors lined up on pews being filled with a boiling rage larger than our own small frames. So deeply did the hellfire and the hate lodge themselves inside me that on a trip back home, just pulling the car up to the red-brick church where I spent my formative years was enough to make my heart flap in my chest like a trapped bird.
I soaked it all up like a faithful little sponge – internalizing the unrealistically rigid morality that imbued my every action with guilt and fear.
My nascent sexuality in particular seemed so sinful that when I lost my virginity to pre-marital rape, I was too ashamed to tell anyone what had happened to me. I was taught that “True Love Waits,” but that 19-year-old with a boner? Well, he didn’t wait. It seemed my days as a good Christian were numbered.
Unfortunately, when I discarded the bad parts of Christianity, I tossed out the good as well. For all the messed-up things about the religion of my childhood, faith itself is a beautiful thing. The people I went to church with weren’t bad people; they just believed in a concept so fervently that it grew bent and warped in the fire of their zeal. I became the kind of person who scoffs at the idea of spirituality, replacing the oppressive values system I’d been taught with a reliance on fleeting moments of hedonistic happiness.
So it may be no surprise that the next time I talked to God, it was in a room filled with folding chairs and addicts. Desperate, I tried to reach out to a loving deity, but all I saw was the stern father of my youth, as oppressive as a suburb. The God I knew damned you to hell; he didn’t pull you out of it.
But sometimes the only way to get back up after you’ve fallen so far is to rely on something bigger than yourself. And while I wasn’t ready to call it God, I knew there were things I couldn’t control or explain – from the beauty of a tree outside my window, to the unbridled potential for kindness and love between people, to the talent that comes and faithfully offers me the right word. These things can be holy too.
I will probably never again call myself a Christian, never spend another Christmas with my head bowed in worship, never walk back into the red-brick building where love so often ferments into hate.
But in those creeping moments when I walk down the street and look to the tops of the buildings that skim an endless skyline, when joy unexpectedly fills up my lungs like crisp winter air, until even my blood is sweetly singing, then I know I am feeling God.