My heart raced as I edged down the row to an empty seat. I held my breath the whole way praying no one would notice me or try to talk to me. Words to the song the rock band was singing flashed on a video screen above. I read them to myself with no feeling. I didn’t want to sing, even though everyone else swayed and swooned. It wasn’t my kind of song; didn’t even know the words.
I rolled my eyes, “what in the hell am I doing here?”
I’d come to this church with a boyfriend to prove a point (that I was okay with his beliefs, if only he could accept mine) and now I was surrounded by the very people I feared the most, the Christians. I knew the boyfriend had brought me here to test me; maybe to see if I could be converted, but I was failing, and I didn’t care. I was surrounded by “the enemy,” and I couldn’t wait until the hour was over.
You see, I wasn’t comfortable “talking” about God to anyone. Even now, it’s still hard for me. I think it’s a personal thing, like sex or having pizza again for dinner when you already had it the night before. It’s not something that’s easy to explain. I’d discovered one too many times that people often didn’t agree with my beliefs about God. They always challenged me on it, like it was a chess game. They quoted their scripture and history and asked me to, “show them proof.” Who wants to be told they’re wrong, least of all about how they engage with God?
The fact was, I was no stranger to Jesus.
I grew up attending Catholic grade school and went two, sometimes three times a week to church where I sat in a hard wooden pew staring up at the crucifix hanging in the middle of the altar. Jesus on the cross was pretty, in a gruesome kind of way to a pre-adolescent curious about love, purpose and acceptance. Much prettier to look at than Father Moriarity and the blue-black mole perching like a squishy marble at the edge of his neck collar.
Jesus was there, like a hero, in all of the stories they read to us. He was the main man, and of course I admired his ways. But, more importantly, his Father was the one you had to watch out for. Pleasing God was the most important thing you had to do in life. And, at the time I wanted to do that. It seemed right.
But when I was nineteen, I gave up on “being Catholic” and “being “right with God.” I’d grown cynical about God’s help. As far as I was concerned, the only person I’d ever been able to count on was me, so why bother? That’s when the Christians began in earnest to try to “save me,” when I was homeless (so to speak). It seemed like they were everywhere and always asking, “Do you know if you’re going to Heaven?” and “Do you know Jesus as your personal savior?” Was that the same Jesus? I thought. What did they mean? They told me their rules and I listened. I’d just gotten over being Catholic; I didn’t need another religion. I told them I suspected I would get into heaven; I’d always been a good person. They told me being good wasn’t enough.
But that was all I had to give at the time and the only thing I felt certain about.
I hated those religious interactions and avoided them like the Black Death. Mostly I avoided the Christians. I didn’t want to have to defend or fight for what I believed in. I still had so many unanswered questions and was afraid I’d look stupid. I wasn’t even sure I could explain what I thought.
What did I know about it anyway? What could any of us really know?
Twenty years! I’d managed to stay out of churches for twenty years and now the boyfriend and I were facing off over our individual right to believe what we wanted. Although I hadn’t attended a service in all that time, I knew a lot more about God in my life. After years of soul searching, reading, studying and asking the deep, deep questions, I’d come to understand God in a way that made more sense to me than ever before.
But the boyfriend informed me, I was wrong about God. He couldn’t accept that we were all the collective consciousness of God, that he lived within each of us, as us. I said it was okay if he didn’t believe that. He got angry, said I had no proof. And he was right. All I had was experience; but for me, that was enough.
I looked around at all of the faces lit up by the flashing lights of the stage where the band played another upbeat Christian melody. I asked again, softer now, because I needed to know, Why am I here? What is it that I need to learn? I closed my eyes, letting the vocals wash over me and the answer came.
“Isn’t that what you were looking for?” a voice reminded, “allowance for your beliefs, acceptance, understanding? The right to believe? The “All” is who we are.
I realized then that all of those people, worshipping God in their way, and myself, a stranger among them, we all wanted the same things. Everyone lifting their hearts in song, they were all there for the same reason – to believe that something bigger, greater and stronger loves us and protects our souls. They were there for guidance, for inspiration, for answers to the complicated questions. The details of how and why didn’t matter.
My fear of the “Christians” slipped away. It is just a label, I thought, like the New Age label I’d been assigned (by the boyfriend) that didn’t even come to close to explaining what I believed. I imagined each of these people also struggled to understand God, purpose, acceptance. I knew they were probably confused about it sometimes, had insecurities and fears just like me. And those who wanted to spend their time arguing about the intricacies of the One could have their fight. I wouldn’t be a party to it. I no longer felt like it was an issue because Love was what I’d always been after, like most of the people surrounding me singing their hearts out. I refused to see them as the enemy anymore.
I admitted to myself in that moment that I didn’t really need to convince the boyfriend that my beliefs were valid. I had to convince myself that even though a lot of people didn’t agree with me, what I felt deep in my heart to be the truth was good enough. Entering that church was, for me, an invitation to recognize the many dimensions of God. I needed to really honor everyone else’s right to believe the way they wanted to if I were to really own my beliefs.
I could feel right then that my heart had let go of the relationship with the boyfriend. It ended within a week, having served its purpose, I suppose. The relationship I really needed to nurture was the one I had with my Source. I’d been challenged on it and came out confident, knowing that even though I didn’t have all the answers, I had a lifetime to deepen my faith and trust in God in a way that makes sense for me without apology, defenses or fear.