Author’s Note: The first of a three part series about my faith and life as a Christian. I began writing this after Joy Behar decided to call Christians mentally ill during our holiest time of year, but really, I’ve been disturbed by the removal of Christ from our society for a while now. When I started writing this, I just kept going and going and by the time I was done, I’d handwritten more in a few days than I have at one time in years. The Spirit has moved me in a way I wasn’t expecting.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1
My faith journey began 43 years ago in the (then small) town of Chester, Virginia. My parents had me baptized into the Methodist faith at Chester United Methodist Church, though I remember nothing of it, of course. Instead, my first memory of being “in church” is probably from when I was three or four years old. I remember lying on my back in the pew with my head in my mother’s lap, staring up at the chandelier and squinting my eyes to see the halos the candle-shaped bulbs cast across the sanctuary. Back in the late 70’s there was no such thing as children’s church. If you were a kid, your parents expected you to sit through the service and behave, even if you were more bored than Jonah was when he was in the belly of the whale. My mother told me once that when my sister and I misbehaved, she took us out front to the narthex and explained that the church was God’s house and how we needed to be respectful and be quiet so that the people around us could listen and learn about God. When we went back in, we were so well behaved some of her friends were convinced she had spanked us, which she hadn’t. It was probably the first time I realized that God was so much bigger than any of us, and it led to one of the funniest revelations my sister has ever made – years ago she told us that she took the concept of “God’s House” literally and thought that meant He lived in the massive cross that was on the wall behind the alter. Because she was scared to think He was watching her every move, she minded her p’s and q’s and stayed out of trouble. That may be the only time I’ve ever head of the fear of God being a good thing.
The first person I remember who had an impact on my faith was Penny Smathers, our Director of Christian Education. Not only was she in charge of all the Sunday School classes, but Penny also ran the children’s time. She would call us all up front and we’d go sit on the steps with her while she told us stories about the Bible and Jesus –she had a gentle country accent and a grandmotherly way that made church fun for us. Thinking back, I have no clue how she managed to wrangle several dozen toddlers and elementary school aged kids and impart a message at the same time, but she did so with a gentle grace that was an amazing example of patience and love. As time passed, it was very important to my parents that I become more involved in the life of our church, so I joined the children’s choir and started attending Sunday School. By the time I was in middle school, my sister and I joined the Methodist Youth Fellowship. We met at church on Sunday evenings (I always thought it was cool to be in church after hours, like being part of a secret society or something!) and participated in various social and community service events. My most vivid memory of being in the group was our Christmas caroling in the neighborhood around the church. I loved to sing even then and it was fun to see everyone’s reactions when a random group of teenagers showed up at their door to share the Good News of Christ’s birth with them. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking of my faith journey when I ruined my new Isotoner gloves with candle wax or when I had hot chocolate after we returned to the church, but these moments and others like them were crucial the next phase of my relationship with Christ.
When I turned 13, I began taking confirmation classes on Wednesday afternoons. I wish I could remember more about the process, but I do remember that it felt like such a big leap to go from being a kid whose parents took her to church to a teen who decided on her own to dedicate her life to God. Upon completion of the classes, we were presented with an engraved Bible during a service and were officially declared members of the church. Even today, that Bible seems like a gift I’m not worthy of – a copy of the word of God with my name on it? It felt like His word was meant specifically for me, though as many times as I’ve studied it since then, I still fall far from living by what God’s trying to teach me most times, even though I try to do so every day. My family went out to lunch afterward and my grandmother gave me a cross that my grandfather had given her before their wedding, and it is one of my most cherished possessions. Just ask my husband about how depressed I was when I thought I lost it – we found it later in the sofa cushion, but it had me down for months before I did so.
Sadly, the older I got, the less time I had to dedicate to my church and its mission. Music auditions and my advanced placement projects and homework took up so much time on the weekends that something had to give. There just weren’t enough hours to get everything done during the week, but even though I didn’t attend church regularly, I tried to apply the lessons I had learned as a child and young adult to my everyday life. Though it would be a while before I returned to organized religious practice, my beginnings gave the strength to persevere and grow through the challenges that being on my own for the first time in college would present.