I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not a Soldier

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!

So, I’ve been struggling a bit lately, with my faith (or apparent lack thereof).

Growing up, my mom had always at least talked to us about God, and she brought us to church  fairly often. I believed from the time I was five years old. My younger brother and I attended Christian school from first through sixth grade. Every morning in class we would pledge allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible. We would attend all-school assemblies in the gym once a week, during which we’d enthusiastically belt out hymns like the one above. We studied subjects like English, history and biology from a biblical angle and had Bible Studies for a set period of time every day.  At one point I could even recite the names of all the books of the Bible (these days I can only get as far as Ruth). There was even a time in high school when I was pretty religious but that fell by the wayside after a while.

Since then, I have had a complicated relationship with God, with Christianity and with organized religion in general. I can’t not believe in God, yet at the same time, I struggle to find where I fit in with the tenets of religious doctrine.

A few years after high school, my then-boyfriend’s mom wanted me to officially convert to Catholicism. I had grown up going to a Catholic church but had never been baptized and, since my dad is Protestant, I couldn’t be a “cradle Catholic”. At least that was my understanding of why I couldn’t take communion but my mom could. Anyway, my boyfriend’s mom began to take me to a group for women who were interested in converting to Catholicism. It would take about a year to go through the process but in the end we’d be “official” and when her son and I got married, we could have a full Catholic mass at our wedding. After the second or third meeting, I said “I just can’t do this” and dropped out.

For several years, I was sort of vaguely spiritual. If asked, I’d say I was Christian, but I didn’t attend services and didn’t own a Bible for the longest time. I was somewhat curious about Judaism but didn’t know enough about it (or know any Jews I could ask) so I never found out more.

Several years later, when my husband and I were engaged and had been living in our current town for just a few months, we decided to go church shopping. We were going to be getting married the following year and wanted our little family to have a spiritual base. There was a particular church we were interested in visiting but we got out the door too late that morning to make the 10am service and opted to attend at the United Methodist church (UMC) down the street at 10:30 instead. We figured we’d sit back, listen, take mental notes and visit another place of worship the following Sunday.

That never happened. When we slipped into the back pews we were noticed and greeted enthusiastically by some folks sitting nearby. After service, someone grabbed us and said we needed to have coffee and get to know everyone. We found them to be friendly and open and were pleasantly surprised to note that there were some couples around our age (well, sort of. I was 25 and the next youngest person was 33. Close enough). We never looked back and a few months later, we both were baptized as Methodists. A few years later, we baptized our son at the same church.

What appealed to me about the UMC was the fact that all their literature was all about inclusion – of singles, of the young and the old, of folks from other denominations who were visiting – and all were invited to take part in communion. Our pastor was a woman, and very approachable. One night we went out for ice cream with her and her husband. She told us about how she’d come to a crossroads in her life, and was considering becoming a lawyer or divorcing her husband. Instead, she converted from Catholicism and went back to school for Theology. This particular pastor had the gift of gab, and her sermons were part speech, part stand up comedy routine, always in plain English and kept everyone’s attention. For the first time, I had a spiritual home.

Things started to fall apart a bit after I had my son. My husband and I no longer were attending as often and sometimes opted to just stay home on Sundays and recoup after a busy week of working and taking care of an infant. Our original pastor was transferred out of the area (they rotate pastors every few years in the UMC; not sure how it is with other denominations) and we got a new person. She was great – we had pizza with her one night and she talked about her divorce and conversion from Judaism – but we didn’t quite hit it off as much as we had with  our previous pastor.

Soon my husband began to lose interest in going and I was attending by myself with the baby in the childcare center, which didn’t always go well. He had been kind of generically spiritual when we met, but had an interest in Taoism. He seemed to be going back to that. I could feel that my fellow Methodists weren’t really interested in having a conversation during coffee hour.

The more time passed between visits, the fewer people said hello to me during the times I did make it. Some new people joined the congregation and thought I was new. Then, a few of the regulars I had gotten to know became ill and died. Not all were elderly; one woman was all of 48 when she lost her second battle with cancer. It was very sad. Church just wasn’t a warm and fuzzy place any longer. Eventually, I just kind of stopped going.

Which leads me to my current dilemma. I live all the way across town from the UMC and down the street from a Buddhist temple. On a clear Sunday morning I can hear the bells chiming from both places of worship. I’m not Buddhist so I’d feel like a poser attending services at the temple (I wonder if they conduct them in Japanese anyway; I only know a few words thanks to my mom). Not to mention that Buddhism is a completely different spiritual experience than I’ve ever had. But I don’t really feel like I can call myself a Methodist anymore either. I still get the monthly newsletter and read through it, but the people mentioned are virtually strangers to me. I feel very guilty about all of this.

And because I haven’t stepped foot in a church in so long I don’t seem to feel as spiritual in general. Every time something starts to go wrong, I wonder whether God is watching and listening or whether He’s not returning my calls because I’ve been so flaky.

I can’t make the leap to call myself agnostic – not quite. And I have so many more thoughts on the topic. But for now I wonder whether I can and should start all over again.

Over and out, last call for sin
While everyone’s lost, the battle is won
With all these things that I’ve done
All these things that I’ve done…

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2 Responses to I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not a Soldier

  1. Jen says:

    I think my parents had a similar thing happen with the Unitarian Universalist church. They started attended when my sister’s friend got her to go some youth group gatherings, they adored the female minister and found a community that fit their….need for community. But after a couple of years, the minister moved to the East Coast and the new one just had a different style that they didn’t like as much. My mom attended less frequently and stopped going altogether. My dad’s remained active on various church committees, but rarely attends services. I’ve never had an interest in it. My sister was active in the high school kids’ youth group, and even worked as an admin aide in the office for a few years, but I think seeing the uglier side of the politics in ANY sizable group of people kind of turned her off.

    We never were a part of any church when I was growing up, and I’ve never felt the need to change that. I imagine it would be much more difficult if you did grow up with that, because you’d feel such a profound lack or hole in your life without that thing that brought comfort and structure and felt like a connection to God. For me, I get a sense of community from my family and friends, both local and online, and my spirituality is something very solo and personal. Going to Yosemite is church for me. Making a beautiful photograph can tap into that, too.

    I’d say, go check out that Buddhist temple sometime when you’re feeling open to something new. I know a couple of people who would initially describe themselves as Christian or Catholic, but have also gotten into Buddhism or other Eastern religions. I’m of the idea that you don’t necessarily have to be just one, and you can find things that are good for your soul in more than one place.

  2. nlguy says:

    Thank you, Jen. You bring up some very good points!

    My sole experience with the UU church was when gay marriage was legalized in California and they came by the County Clerk’s office to show their support. I mentioned something to a coworker about that, and he said “Don’t tell me; they were protesting, right?” Christianity has quite a reputation and it seems like it’s rubbed off onto any group that calls itself a church. I don’t know much about them but I do have a friend who goes to a UU church. I’ll have to find time to pick her brain one of these days.

    I am of the belief – for whatever it’s worth – that the whole point of Christianity is to help others. Therefore, I wonder whether I can consider volunteer work to be a form of worship? I feel that way about photography in a way too. Any sort of creative endeavor, actually.

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