I have been reflecting on my spiritual journey as Holy Week begins. At times in my life it has been easier to consider what faith traditions I am NOT than to articulate what I am, what I do believe. That is my current challenge, actually, which perhaps is what inspired my blogging during this season. So, as I have been blogging these stories of light I have brought to mind those paths I have started down, the identities I have tried on, the places of worship I have visited, the boxes into which I have been placed or into which I have crawled for comfort. As I start on this final stretch of Lent, I pause to reflect not on the reasons I left or what didn’t fit. I want to describe what went with me from these experiences, the parting gifts to my spirit along my spiritual journey.
My earliest memories of church are a small congregation that called each other “brother” and “sister” and in which the code of belief and behavior was highly prescribed and strictly enforced. There was a freedom of expression in spirit…and that is a gift in Pentecostal worship, even if the beliefs and practices themselves did not take with me. Music was my solace, my own personal expression and I took this with me as my own parting gift which has brought lifelong spiritual connection. When my family left this church as an adolescent, I believe in retrospect that my mother felt sadness, my father felt anger, and I felt relief. The parting gift in that experience, though, was that I realized a family could be in different places spiritually and yet still be together and support one another’s growth. So, it became OK to question, to move, to try to find one’s fit, to see God in multiple expressions of worship. This has made me a different kind of person in my relationships, and in my own parenting. These may not have been intentional gifts, but they have been instrumental on my path nonetheless.
The second church of my youth had active youth ministry, music, and drama which resonated with my spirit. This time allowed me to explore being a church musician, a camp counselor, a youth leader, a young but involved church participant. I jumped into membership. I began to recognize the gifts of leadership, and of service. And then, I became disillusioned. This seemingly living, growing faith could only be framed as acceptable within a particular ideology. This period of my spiritual life aligned largely with both my high school and early years of college, which were at a similar religiously affiliated school. My parting gifts emerged from within profound challenges between beliefs of the soul and practices of the people. I learned that faith for me was radical. If I was going to believe in the stories of Jesus on which I had been raised, these stories had to become real through uncomfortable, mind-stretching, consciousness raising transformative love.
Unfortunately, I did not find many people who shared this view. So, in my next chapter of spiritual life, I was a wandering spirit. I took the term “spiritual but not religious” very seriously. I took classes in world religion. I read the Torah and the Qur’an for myself to understand these sacred texts. I studied Buddhist thought and meditated. I practiced incantations with pagans, and took in the stories and myths of nature-based religions. I went to spiritualist meetings, and humanist lectures. I got over the ideology that any of these traditions were “bad” or “evil” and stopped allowing others to pontificate on perhaps well-intended, but ignorant, misrepresentations of the many faith traditions in this vast and amazing world. I received a parting blessing of peace, understanding, and radical tolerance during this time of wandering. I learned, to the core of my being, that we all share an authentic human quest for knowledge and experience of the divine. What an amazing gift.
In my wanderings, I had stepped foot in several progressive Christian churches. I sang in a choir for many years, and was employed by a Health Care facility with deep ties to the Episcopal church and particularly transformative and radically loving clergy. I had stuck my toe into those waters of something familiar to my upbringing, yet different in acceptance and inclusion; but I couldn’t jump in. I couldn’t see my parting gifts at that time. I could only feel the frustration and take a self protective stance where formal religion needed to be kept an arms length away. So, I became deeply cause oriented, and found spiritual growth in advocacy and social justice, aligned with my profession. I sang music I had loved and played piano to center my spirit. Music, myth and mystery, and social justice. These gifts sustained me, and remained with me.
They remained through times of darkness. They illuminated my path with points of light.
Eventually, I would recognize these parting gifts as parts of my journey, and I would begin to reclaim my faith. But, this too is a journey. Perhaps one that begins with the waving of palm branches, and leads to a cross. The small flicker of faith and hope barely visible on the horizon. And yet, I keep moving forward.