I’ve been in an on-again-off-again relationship with various denominations over the span of my adult life. They have all helped me. The have all let me down. I am relieved to learn faith is not a denomination.
Our communion bread was baked by local Carmelites. It was dense but soft and tasted like a thousand prayers sung before dawn.
When the priest set it on our palm, a moment of honeyed-lightness cleared the air before we were again submerged into the heady-safety-scent of incense. Years later I found myself in a parish youth group. We sang Beatles and Rent and post Vatican 2 hymns from the Spirit and Songbook. We played a lot of gotcha rounds in the gym and dated and undated each other and collected socks and soap for the poor with the Harley riding, habit wearing nun in charge of us.
Afterward, we’d drive to Denny’s with the windows down no matter the weather. Most would smoke, all would order milkshakes and quote movies until midnight. We were vagabonds and sloppy and I had a special tenderness toward this crew because I felt like they weren’t pretending and that was a faith I could get on board with.
But I saw the way our parents prostrated through mass in a familiar pew but were unchanged through the week and didn’t want any part of it. I was suspicious of the paternal wall constructed by the church. As a teen, I stared at the dried glue strands pulled between torn seem and sole on the bottom of the priest’s shoe while I confessed the sins of my body and mind to this man. Leaving the confessional in a splotchy purple of shame, I decided these are not my people after all and I broke up with Catholicism and it’s mystical traditions without experiential encounters of mystery.
In college while I was busy pulling all nighters talking and kissing with my one-day husband, then pulling all nighters writing passable papers for courses that I should have written better in the time I was using to talk and kiss, I also fell in love with new ways of understanding God.
A campus fellowship taught me how to analyze passages of scripture finding historical context, Greek meaning in words, repetitive urgency in syntax, and Old Testament allusions. Defining the Greek felt like a good and grown up way to quantify God. Nothing feels more official than the heft of a lexicon.
“Non-denominational service” felt a whole lot like Protestant to me where the room was dark and the band was loud and our very bones conducted additional reverb for the amp. It felt wild. It felt good.
For a few summers I worked as a camp counselor for a high profile Christian sports camp in the south. We looped chapstick on our shoelaces with hairties and spontaneously and collectively burst into chant at nearly every phrase possible. We did ridiculous stunts for each other and the kids and Jesus. Kids leading kids.
Faith came in containers of goofy skits, tactile object lessons, poignant heroes of faith stories, and prayer of salvation folding puzzle cubes. It was wonderful but also a cult unto itself and no matter how many cheers I did, I never quite grafted into this cool-kid club.
(Side story:this is also the time period when the audaciously full-frontal platonic bearhug from a guy friend in the parking lot of a Shakey’s on our night off tipped me into tears because I realized it was the first time I had been touched caringly by someone beyond the needy grabs of my cabin kids in weeks. Thanks purity culture for dehumanizing us by demonizing our need for physicality. Glad we’re starting to deconstruct that one.Un-side story.)
My concerns about cleaning the lake slide with unmeasured amounts of bleach were listened to but unchanged. My suggestion we begin recycling was met with a logistic defense of why we don’t, and when I wondered aloud if perhaps the generic chief headdress and warpaint worn by Christian white boys crossed into offensive cultural appropriation, I was labelled “that liberal girl”.
Again, I decided these were not my people and I broke up with Protestantism and the being pushed and pulled by emotions. I didn’t want to be around people smiling and focusing so intensely in worship with their hands up and eyes closed they were left little peripheral reach to see or care for the people and environment around them.
We walked down the diploma stage and directly to the marriage aisle before moving to another continent. My classroom was filled with collaborative projects, early literacy writings, big books, and equatorial heat. Our home was full of wall hangings and bugs and exhaustion and this felt right as I put on the title of missionary.
I followed the special rules given to us. On bad days, I became part of the problem of Western/African disconnect. On good days, even in the best of heart, it still felt that by simply being there we were perpetuating the harmful mentalities and practices of post-colonialism.
I slowly watched my husband of harmony harden and crumble while a power couple picked a fight with his character. Suddenly I understood the distrust others have for Christians based in the real pain of disappointing interactions with people in spiritual authority.
This didn’t feel like God, so I broke up with missionaries but kept the inspiration of faith from those I met from all over the globe during our time there as we came home to heal spiritual wounds and ideological rifts (and drink together while doing so).
There is more to the story of returning to church, and working for church, then recovering from working for church and the need and motivation behind those seasons and what continues now. And there is so much more to each part of these spiritual timelines.
For now I want to apologize for being that girl during each of these spiritual seasons. I was learning. I was trying to be the best at each one. They gave me guidelines to understand myself and the world and what I could cling to of God. I know I was annoying sometimes.
And for now I want to honor myself for being that girl during each of these spiritual seasons. I was allowing Spirit to breathe through soul and teach me truths in spite of all the brokenness in these spiritual sectors.
The cost might be a spiritual homelessness and a continual longing for both the bread and the incense, the perky cheers and feeling the bass drum in our chest, but the gain is no longer needing defined outlines.
The gain is being assured that knowing less for sure about God at thirty than at twenty is growth in a humbly truthful direction.
The gain is recognizing that when my faith needs space, I create a wider boundary for spirituality to take root in all areas.
I don’t have to continue breaking up with denominations anymore. It turns out they never were the keepers of my faith anyway.
Since sending this post into the world many of you have messaged or texted your concerns and questions. So why stay? We stay at our church because of the people. Although they are imperfect, I’ve seen their hearts, particularly the hearts of those in leadership. They are for others. They are tiptoeing toward riskier conversations and allow difference of opinion, journey, and unanswered questions stand.