When I was in high school, I was invited to a Christian youth group. It was held in the evenings, at participating students’ houses. There were college aged leaders. Songs were sung – with guitar players from our school. The kids who went were nice. We had fun. The theology was pretty accessible and it felt really good to be there.
So I dug in.
I started reading the Bible.
I started listening to Christian music.
I joined a smaller group who did Bible study and met BEFORE school – meeting before school is a big deal for a teenager who is already completely fighting biological rhythms by starting school at 7:30.
I dug in.
And the connection was such a gift.
In that time of psychic disorientation and social confusion, romantic experimentation and disappointment, total insecurity and budding ego these smaller rooms full of people who seemed to want to do good, be better, and talk about what made that hard felt like a balm for my adolescent soul.
I went on a weekend trip to Ocean City. Honestly I don’t remember much of that – but only because it has faded, not because of either intoxicant highjinx or trauma. It just doesn’t stand out.
The time I spent with that group was good.
For Easter that year my Mom included a gospel tape (pre-CD, I am old) in my Easter basket in an attempt to be supportive. I hadn’t heard of the group and when I said thank you with a full understanding of the symbolism of the gift, my stepfather responded with: “Well, what else do you get a Jesus freak?”
It was fine, really.
I didn’t particularly love the label, but I didn’t really care about it either.
What it DID say to me was that I was treading into water that was uncomfortable for my family.
Part of that discomfort was around the fact that the faith that I seemed to be dipping into had a real component of feeling. A little religious ecstasy was allowed. The Episcopal Church of my youth was not big on ecstasy – although if ecstasy had been around in the 70s I can’t make any promises about how that would have gone…
The point is that the messages I got – or I should say the messages I received/chose to hear/interpreted to be really fair – reflected a faith of the intellect, a mental pursuit of the holy. This new water I had my feet in said I could FEEL God. And oh lordy did I want to feel God, especially if God would love me unconditionally, accept me exactly as I was, be there in times of sorrow, be the friend I could count on. Oh yes I wanted to feel that God.
And it caused some worry, this change for me.
My sister checked in. She rightly raised theological questions: “Do these people think I’m going to go to hell if I don’t accept Jesus as my personal savior?” I stammered, not really knowing the answer. You see, you don’t get to those kinds of issues for some time in well-orchestrated religious youth groups.
I had found a place that was safe, where I belonged, and it felt good. I felt good. I don’t just mean I felt good, like pleasant, I mean I felt like I WAS good because I was doing “right” things, being with others doing “right” things. It felt, and I felt good.
So good, that when the question of summer camp came up, I asked my parents if I could go. My folks paid for my trip and I anxiously waited for the months to pass until we could go to the Adirondacks as one big feel-good tribe.
And then the wheels kind of came off the bus. Some infighting developed. People began having issues with other people, even in the more devout early morning group – issues. The leaders worked to help us find ways to reach out to one another, to bridge the gaps. I really don’t remember the details, I just remember tension rising.
And then the bottom dropped out. School ended. I waited to hear about our camp trip. As the date approached, I didn’t hear anything. I started to get nervous – maybe something had gone wrong. My Mom asked if I had a packing list or anything – an address, emergency telephone, that sort of thing. Nada.
I waited and trusted. And then I called. I called someone else who was going and discovered that there had been several meetings in preparation for the trip. They had all been meeting without me. As an adult I can look at it and see that there was obviously some logistical snafu, I got left off the list. But that is DEFINITELY not how it felt to teenaged me.
I was sure that this was proof that these people were no different. I took it as evidence that this gathering was just one more place where people would be crappy to each other. And truth to tell, in those things I was right. But what I forgot was the good stuff. I forgot about all of the good stuff that came with it. And I wrongly attributed all of that to the people involved.
You see what I was really benefiting from was connecting to something larger than myself. I was feeling good because I was allowing myself to plug in. And I was willing to believe that the force that I was plugging into loved me, saw good in me, would care for me. THAT was where the good stuff was. THAT was the ecstasy behind the theology that, as an adult with internet who can look it up, I really can’t agree to.
By allowing myself to connect to something bigger and benevolent, I allowed myself a glimpse of heaven here on earth. I allowed myself to believe that I was okay, better than okay, worthy of love, worthy of attention, worthy of any of the things I wanted.
Today I know I can get that without agreeing to ideas about people being born evil or what they have to do get right. I can have that experience without even having to read or believe in any book at all. I can make contact, I can connect with all the parts of me. I can accept the parts I’m not as proud of. I can accept myself and love myself unconditionally. I can experience connection with the divine, and not even be sure what that means.
It’s been right there the whole time.
All I had to do was believe I was good enough and allow it.
In ill-defined and amorphous faith,