A Glimpse of Heaven

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.

converse-all-star-fashion-foot-1581In 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 intoxicated 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?”

That’s fine.

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.

adult-black-and-white-blur-257037Today 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,

julia

On a Wing and a Prayer

aisle-bench-cathedral-161060The church of my childhood used prayer as part of every service. We would all kneel, or stand (depending on which part of the service). The minister would say some things. We might mumble some things back in unison. There was also a time when individual members of the community could offer their private concerns for the group to acknowledge and, in theory, pray for. This experience didn’t do much for my understanding of prayer. It wasn’t something my parents emphasized either. I think we said grace at the dinner table, but it obviously didn’t make much of an impression on me. These scripted group prayers were pro-forma, something you just did. It didn’t have to mean anything. With that in mind I embarked on a prayer-free adult life. If it doesn’t mean anything, why should I make any other choice, right?

Then a book on prayer found its way into my hands – into my library bag actually. I tend to enter the library with a list of three books and walk out with two bags. The exuberance of discovery takes over. The most interesting part about this literary infiltrator is that my understanding of the divine, God, gods, Goddess, Universe, Great Spirit, Gaia is pretty murky and non-specific. And yet this book, by an author with whom I was already familiar, was in my bag. I remember putting it in there in the fog of bibiophilic fever. It just kind of called out to me, so I grabbed it.

My seminarian looked at it a little askance, but wisely refrained from further comment until the book had some time to settle in, until I had time to spend with the book. We like to spend time with books over here.

A few days later I picked it up and glanced through. Some of the language made me pause. It included theological certainties I wasn’t ready to claim, but something in me said, “just read.” And so I did. The book is not really a book on prayer, but a book of prayers. Organized by theme, by human soul need: for when I need strength, when I feel hurt, when I need courage. I read through several and once I softened to the language (sometimes substituting my own proper nouns, sometimes deciding I wasn’t sure it mattered), I could see the beauty of the text.

What was there was some of the most intimate conversation I have ever seen. The prayers included deepest wounds, dearest hopes, admitted failings, and unmitigated heartbreak; disappointment in others, judgment of ourselves, and above all a deep and relentless desire for love and a sense of belonging. It was an extended song about human-ness and the melody of it tugged at my heart.

The next morning, after my kids had left for school, I decided to spend some more time with the book, not so much as a visitor, but as a participant. I looked through the table of contents for a state of mind that sounded like where I was at that moment, turned to the page and then sat there staring, needing further instruction. “Just pray.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant. There was no minister here to say part of it and for me to mumble back my dictated response. It dawned on me that I was supposed to SAY these words.

Well, there was no way that was happening. I can’t tell you exactly why, but my brain said No Way to the idea of praying from this book out loud. Not having it. You can forget it. Case closed. The coach in me thought that was interesting, but the rest of me wanted to get on with things, and there was the whole “Just pray” that I kept hearing softly. I decided it didn’t matter HOW I did this thing, it seemed to matter far more that I did it.

And so I did. I read through the prayer in my head. But I didn’t read it to get to the end. And I didn’t read it to analyze it. I spoke it in my head. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but it was different. I paused between lines. I took deep breaths when something caught me. When I was done, I closed the book and proceeded with my day.

I did this for a few days running, setting aside the language questions, just praying.

And I began to notice something. I began to notice a lightening, an easing of burdens I hadn’t even fully made note of. I noticed the arrival of a peaceful kind of energy – a calming and enlivening at the same time. To be fair, as this was the morning, this could all be attributed to the arrival of the small amount of caffeine I enjoy hitting the blood brain barrier, but it didn’t feel like that. It feels like being inhabited by the best vision. It feels like co-creation and capacity. It feels like love and possibility and joy – sweet, blessed joy.

blonde-casual-fashion-18895I’m not sure why all of that is and the last thing I’m interested in doing is arguing about that, but I can tell you that this practice – this practice of being honest about where my head and my heart are, claiming healing, expressing gratitude for what is and allowing the openness to accept whatever assistance might be forthcoming – this practice changes me. And it feels good – not look how holy I am good, but in my body and in my heart good, at peace, connected, more whole.

I still sometimes struggle with whether to speak the words out loud, and I’m still not sure about what language it makes sense for me to use, but I will just pray because it feels good.