I was baptized in an old German Lutheran church in Rochester, NY. I was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ by the same minister (Dr. Freed) who sealed and marked my father. Tradition. My baptismal certificate sits among my other important papers in my safe, protected.
I attended that big, old church at least once a month as a young child. I remember feeling overpowered by the massive, dark wood and the echoes of the organ as the booming 100-year-old hymns were played week after week. The hymns were not bright and upbeat, but they felt strong and steadfast to me. I was lifted by their promises, shielded by their notes, and comforted by their message.
The rest of the time, my family attended a smaller, not-so-old, Danish Lutheran church in our hometown. The wood was lighter, the lights were brighter and, although many of the hymns were the same, they didn’t seem to hold the same authority coming from a much smaller organ. The words still brought comfort to me. I knew so many by heart by the time I reached Catechism class. Even the third verse…nobody remembers the third verse. As I sat in my pew, I read the altar carvings every week “Et Er Fornodent”…it means it is needful. This was my teacher.
I was too young to remember Dr. Freed, or anyone other than family from Reformation Church. But, back home in my little St. Paul’s church I had Pastor Scheel to start my faith journey. And, what a leader he was! With his longish hair and sandy beard, he was the living representation of Christ to a very young child. He made worship fun but not frivolous. I remember learning about the liturgical seasons and their colors. He taught us about the meaning and the feel behind the music. Pastor Scheel made religion real for me. It wasn’t just words spouted back at me from some mysterious book. It was lessons about kindness and caring for each other. It was the repeated exemplar that what we do matters in this world and we have a responsibility to ensure that we do good. It was reminders that when I fail….because I will fail….that I am still worthy of love. I am forgiven. That word was very important to me as a child. I craved forgiveness for all that I was not. Daily. When I was confirmed and could finally take Communion, that became my favorite moment in the church service. As an adult, it became even more poignant. This was my cleansing, my forgiveness. That moment…feeling the softness of the bread on my tongue, the sting of the wine in my throat….that was my slate being wiped clean. Perfectly, completely, gracefully wiped clean. That was me being claimed, once again, as a child of God. I didn’t get to experience that moment at my baptism. I was only 2 months old, after all. But, at Communion, it was like being baptized all over again….a re-affirmation. Every time. That was a private moment between me and God where I imagined his arm around my shoulder, his tender kiss on my forehead, and his gentle hand lifting my chin. I’d imagine his voice, softly telling me to raise my eyes and look to the light of a new day for I was forgiven and I was worthy. I heard the Word and I was healed.
Pastor Scheel left our church just before my Catechism. I struggled with his departure. I wanted so much to learn from him. And, our interim minister was not someone I connected with. Trying to get through a significant milestone in my faith journey with a teacher who I was afraid to ask questions of was not easy. But two years later, I’d survived. Hmmm….not what you would hope to say about delving into your faith: “survived.” Things got better as we received new Pastors to lead our church. Pastor Paul and Pastor Rob brought such energy to our little congregation. I was given the chance to bring liturgical dance into our worship once (that was met with mixed reviews….I was not forgiven by some church members for that). Oh, how glorious that was to mix two things that stirred my heart and soul so completely: faith and dance. Telling a story of freedom and release and awakening through scripture and music and movement – it still makes me smile to remember it. But, I was moving on with college and busy with work and my attendance started to dwindle. It’s the same story repeated in churches of all faiths all across the country.
I came back and was married in my church. Though it wasn’t my first choice, it was important to my husband-to-be’s family that we were married IN a church (perhaps to my family, as well). I wanted to get married in our vineyard. I still wanted Pastor Rob to perform the ceremony, and I could think of no better place to feel close to God than in His creation. But, it was not to be. And it was beautiful just as it was.
In my new, married life we moved a few times and worked to adapt to life together. Unfamiliar places and uncertain partnerships meant church fell to the wayside. Years passed with only sporadic attendance at my old hometown church. An unpleasant divorce, wrapped in religious games, dampened any ember of desire I had to find a new church in the town I now called home. It would be many, many years before I would find my way back to church. I missed it during my absence. Sometimes I would get dressed on a Sunday and drive to a church – never quite brave enough to go in. I wanted to, so very much. But anxiety, battered self-esteem, the stink of divorce, and isolation meant I would simply listen to the music waft through open windows and worship by myself in my car. I craved the Word in my soul, and this fed me a little.
Many years later I married again and had a beautiful son. He brought me back to church. There was no way to avoid it anymore. My son had to be baptized. I dreamt of holding him while the water was poured over him, of seeing the shine on his forehead from the anointing oil when he was marked with the cross. While I was pregnant, my husband found a nice little church with a daycare – two things we needed. I called to make appointments with the pastor and the daycare director. We met Pastor Dean first. I walked into his office very nervous. I hadn’t been to church in 15+ years. What if I didn’t like him or he didn’t like me? What if he wouldn’t baptize my son? As he offered a seat to me, I saw a picture on his bookshelf of the entire congregation gathered around him, each laying their hands on the one in front of them all leading in to him at the center. It was a mammoth, living kaleidoscope of love and peace. There were smiles and tears in that picture. I felt it all. I knew I’d found the right place. In that picture I saw the community I wanted to help me raise my son. In that meeting, I met the man I wanted to learn from. I knew – this is where I belonged. I would later find out that picture was taken at Pastor Dean’s sending for a sabbatical – a deeply spiritual and experiential discernment for him. I also found out that Pastor Dean and Pastor Scheel were seminary classmates who bonded over their views and understandings of faith and life. No wonder I was drawn so powerfully to both of them. This place was like coming home.
My faith was my foundation for most of my life, the root of my identity. During some difficult and questioning times that foundation got shaky. A broad series of unsettling events in a relatively short period of time then rocked that foundation to its very core. I have never quite recovered. It has been many years since I have attended church regularly. After my abrupt departure from my old church, I attended other churches here and there with friends. I remember attending on Ash Wednesday with a dear friend one year. Ash Wednesday was always one of my favorite days – feeling the ashes pressed into my forehead, being marked again as a child of God for all to see – this was my peace. That year I stood in front of a pastor I greatly respected as he marked me with ashes, and I felt….nothing. I think I cried longer that night than I had since the end of my marriage. The emptiness I was left with was frightening to me.
Here I sit, many years later, with my faith life drifting farther and farther away. The saddest part, is that I am not even reaching to save it anymore. I don’t know how I got here. I don’t know how long I’ll be stuck here. I don’t know how to find my way back. Even more frightening – I’m not sure I want to. The things that spoke to me in my faith are silent now. For a time or for always – I don’t know. I still believe in the need for caring and kindness, and our responsibility to do good. But, I no longer feel chosen, or marked, or claimed. I’m not ‘mad at God.” I’m also not talking to God. I don’t turn my back or try not to listen, but there is nothing to hear any longer. I understand life differently.
I’m not sure where this new path will lead me. I don’t know how long this part of my journey will last. I don’t know if this will bring me full circle to a new understanding of my faith or if it will continue to lead me away. So, I journey on – with Christian books and spiritual guides and monks and meditation masters and Yogis. Someday the silence will be broken and I will hear the message I am meant to receive. Somewhere I will find home again. Somewhere I will find me again.
You are a beautiful writer. Your story of faith is not over, and you are still chosen by God! That is a promise that never faulters. It is hard when your path changes so drastically. My heart is with you.
Robyn, I connected with your story today. I too have struggled with my faith for years and going to church has not been a regular occurrence. But since I’ve had time to think and contemplate life ,I’m slowly hearing God’s voice again. It certainly is a great path, yesterday I bought my first Bible, my very own. I’m excited to begin again….