I’ve never been a very spiritual person. I can tell you that when I was in my early teens I believed in God as much as a child that has no interest in him can believe. I was far more interested in the activities that believing allowed me to participate in: trips to amusement parks, concerts, sleepovers, softball games (for the boys, not the sport itself), and weekends in the mountains. Sure, I’d wave my hands in the air and sing a few songs in exchange for all that fun time away from my parents.
Forming a relationship with an entity I couldn’t see or hear wasn’t that difficult a concept as I spent half my time immersed in a world of fiction anyway. But I thought about God with the inconsistency of youth, usually when I wanted something that I wasn’t likely to get and prayer was the only bargaining chip left. It was a selfish belief and I imagine completely common among that age group. Going to church gave me a set of friends I wouldn’t have had otherwise and for that I was grateful. I was a strange mix of social butterfly and awkward outsider – sometimes outrageously present in a room and sometimes so in my head that you would’ve thought me deaf. (If that doesn’t scream bipolar, I don’t know what does.)
The summer I turned 16 my cousin Ben died in a Jet Ski accident. I’d had older relatives die – my Nana, an uncle, a great aunt – but Ben was just three months younger than me and there was no grasping that reality. I loved him fiercely. We grew up next door to each other and his absence was so close to intolerable that, in the weeks after his funeral, I recall virtually nothing – my memory is spotted with black holes.
Like everyone that grieves, I became angry. I renounced my tenuous belief in a God that would take away someone so good and so young. There was no one else left for me to strike out at. I left the church and the youth group behind.
However, Ben was still gone. And if I didn’t believe in God at all, how could I believe in heaven? I spent so much time sitting in front of his headstone, talking to the air and tracing his name with my fingertips – trying desperately to figure out a way to believe in the place and not the maker. Instead of imagining Ben within the pearly gates, I imagined him sitting on a low cloud, his ever present fishing pole in one hand. It was the best I could do.
I went through phases over the years – waiting on signs, believing in signs (there or imagined, I still couldn’t rightly say), and avoiding the question of God and heaven all together. If someone asked me, I would say Ben was in heaven. I didn’t want to explain my feelings or debate the bible. Still don’t, in fact. Theological debates interest me about as much as politics – which is to say, not at all. I don’t often think about where Ben is anymore, but rather just remember him as he was. Next month he’ll have been dead 10 years and with each passing season it’s gotten a little easier to let him rest, wherever that may be.
I don’t have any problem attending a church service these days. There’s no more anger or staunch refusals to be a part of it in any way. I can go to church on a Sunday morning with my grandmother and sit quietly in the pew, reflecting on what we’re going to have for lunch or my new handbag. I can hang my head and close my eyes during a prayer, stand up and sing, and warble the sing song “Amen” with the rest of the congregation. Church is just a place, God is just a name, and prayer is just a moment of meditation. It’s safe to say that since my breakaway, I’ve thought about religion as much as I’ve thought about the mating habits of beetles. Until the past few weeks, that is.
Now I have a daughter and I’m supposed to be the person that shapes her into the woman she’ll one day become. That’s difficult enough without the question of religion.
For the first few years of her life I was quick to say that, no, I didn’t intend to take her to church and no, I didn’t intend to have her baptized, and as far as I was concerned she would be free to choose her own spiritual path when she was old enough. This, of course, did not go over well with my family.
My grandmother is, for lack of a better description, a loyal Lutheran. And while I’ve made fun of her sayings and speeches in the past, I don’t actually belittle her faith (Or anyone’s, with the possible exception of a Kool-Aid cult). But honestly, anyone who says to me “Red underwear is the devil” or raises their arm and proclaims in a reverent voice that they hope the drivers of cars with loud “boom boxes” will be struck by the “mighty” arm of God...Well, they’re just asking for it. I will laugh. I’ve exasperated her with my unwillingness to budge on the topic of religion (and politics, but that’s another story).
Recently my mother, unbeknownst to me, signed my daughter up for a week of vacation bible school. Now, she’s been to church before a few times and she’s been told stories about God and Jesus by my grandmother and mother, but I generally stay out of those discussions. I always felt that she was too young to understand anyway, so it wouldn’t make a difference what they said. But this was a first.
Starting last Monday at 6pm, I dropped her off at a church down the road from my house. (One of the doctors that work with mom is a member and invited her.) I walked her inside the fellowship hall behind the church, exchanged pleasantries with some of the women I knew by the door while I made sure she was where she needed to be, and returned home until it was time to pick her up at 8:30.
Each night I picked her up she had a smile on her face and some crafty thing in her hand. I liked seeing her excited about coming back. She was like me when I first started years ago – more eager about the company I was keeping and the fun things I was doing than over the reason behind it all. She asked me a few questions about heaven, but thankfully they were mostly rhetorical or required only an “mmmhmm”.
Saturday night I went with my mother, sister, and grandmother and sat in the sanctuary. I watched and smiled while Hannah sang and did her little dance routines with the other kids her age. Afterward I shook hands with a few of the members, smiled, and participated in the southern chitchat required of church functions.
And in the car driving home, while Hannah sang to herself in the backset, I wondered:
Should I join a church for her, even if I personally am not sure I believe in a higher power? Should I pretend for her benefit, will it be good for her? Will it confuse her when she’s older if I go along with it for now? Should I answer her questions about heaven the way a believer would, rather than a cynic? Should I continue to avoid them? What, if anything, should I do? Isn’t laying the basis of belief the same as telling her what to do? I would love to let her decide what to believe when she’s older, but I’m just not so sure anymore.
I still haven’t made a decision and maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just be the procrastinator I’ve always been and put it off until she’s grown and then the decision will be made for me.
Only God knows, right?
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