Expounded from my autobiographical paper “Going to Heaven” written in 2009. I can put that up as well if there is any interest.
To old high school chums that read this – the ones that I know who read this I’m sure won’t be offended. If I had no idea you followed me and you’re addressed in a negative light, no offense. But you were rotten in high school.
This is obviously a dramatic rendering. In its heart it is truth, but dialogue is scraped together as well as I can remember it, but with artistic license, as in some conversations are amalgamations of ones that took place with many people over many days. But I strive for accuracy in what the person would have said at that time. It does not make the story that follows untrue, however.
“But why are you hanging out with Corissa so much.”
“C-cause?” I responded, a little confused. Monday morning, first period, Everyday Algebra with Stephi, because we both sucked at math. “What was the answer to 27A? It’s X plus ten to the third, with-”
“But she’s a Wiccan.”
“So? She’s in the group.” The Group. That ever important piece of adolescence. Your brand, your pack, your clique. Groups meet under trees or on the hills outside the cafeteria or in the one ramp behind the gym nobody uses. They gossip amongst themselves and complain and talk about homework assignments and are generally positive. But not always. And I was about to find out just how “out” I was within my own “group.”
“So Wiccans believe in magic.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“No it’s not!”
“It’s in the Bible, Emily.”
My brow wrinkled. I was getting tired of having this argument all the time, of going along with Stephi and April and Jamie to their bible studies and being told how wonderful Jesus was and being shown how inferior my beliefs were. I had just gone through two years of Confirmation every Wednesday, punctuated every summer by strained trips to Camp Lutherwood with my youth group, so by my opinions had to have some legitimacy.
But I could never quote bible passages the way those three did, and without question, the queen of all things holy was Jamie. She could tell teachers just how many people statistically converted to faith in adulthood, what entire books of the bible talked about, what prophets and heroes and neglected women did what and when at why.
“And God wrote the Bible,” she was continuing.
“What! No he didn’t, Stephi, PEOPLE wrote the Bible!”
“God told the people what to say.”
“That’s…that’s just….” It was too crazy for words. It was at this point that I noticed Stephi was writing down my answers on a scrap of lined paper. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing. What do you and Corissa talk about?”
“Um…s-spiritual stuff. Like….like I believe we all have a spirit that guards and protects us.”
“Like….animals and stuff….Stephi, what are you doing.”
Stephanie colored, her long thick locks falling to her red and full cheeks. “Well…” she admitted, briefly chewing on her pencil because she usually chewed on things like a teething baby. “Jamie asked me to write down what you said.”
I privately fumed the rest of the night, and the next morning, beneath our tree by the school’s facade entrance, she took no trouble to deny this. “Your soul could be in jeopardy, dealing with magic stuff.”
“Jamie, that’s none of your business!”
“I just want you to be careful. Jesus loves you, you know.”
And….well, I tried to be “careful.” I hung out with Corissa because I admired her and wanted her to like me, and she tutored me in French after school; because despite her lisp, she was to languages what Jamie was to Holier-Than-Thou-ness. But all the same, I tried to get Jamie and April and Stephi (whom I also admired), to accept me the way they all accept each other. April was especially problematic, because she had always just gone along with whatever idea was popular at the moment. Before being a rabid Christian, she was a Wiccan who hung out with Corissa as well. It will surprise no one that by the end of high school she was an avowed atheist (and also pregnant). Despite my best attempts, I had never liked Jesus. Never. He was the popular kid everyone always talked about who had his own bracelets and line of jewelry, but I much preferred the quietness of the idea of the “Holy Spirit” or “God” or whatever. So in high school I tried to be happy and love Jesus the way he supposedly loved me. I tried damn hard.
By the end of my Sophomore year, this idea had fizzled out completely. Perhaps because there was no pleasing Jamie no matter how religious I tried to be. I talked about loving the earth God gave us, she talked about her passionate desire for the Rapture to occur right then and there. I didn’t express any particular problems with pre-marital sex and thought she was being hard on Mariam, who was actually a virgin. She explained that no, this was how God wanted it, though despite her claims a virgin she was not.
So maybe that is why I remember with such clarity sitting with my dad on a cold pew, watching a DUI meeting run its long and very boring course for my Driver’s Ed class. In its initial moments, it had the straight forward messages of how alcohol kills and all the bad things that have happened while driving under the influence, which I was unlikely to do anyway. I was able to blandly and passively accept all of this information and even be terrified of the idea of riding a motorcycle until the very end, when the lead speaker – a reformed alcoholic himself – led us all in prayer and explained that Jesus would help break the weak of their addictions.
I was devoutly going to church every Sunday that I wasn’t sleeping in that summer, but I was still taken aback. It still mattered to me, Christian or no. “Papa….” I whispered in the parking lot. “People HAVE to go to these things when they get tickets, the city makes them, right?”
“Then….can they really mention God? Aren’t you not supposed to do that?”
A lengthy theological and legal discussion followed, which my dad was always good at giving me throughout high school when I presented my friends’ many follies, but even he wasn’t prepared for what happened as we turned onto the main thoroughfare that was mere blocks from our home: I burst into tears. He practically stopped the car at his sudden surprise of such an unexpected response.
“Emily, what’s wrong!”
“Am I a bad person for having doubts? Why is Jamie so good and I’m so bad, what’s wrong with me?”
By this point, we could have walked home, but he pulled into the school district parking lot anyway to try and calm me down before my mother saw me and had an attack of nerves.
“Emily, it’s okay to have doubts! It’s okay!”
“But Jamie knows all these things…” I started picking at a zit on my chin and rubbed at my reddened eyes.
My father was unimpressed, brow furrowing. “Well, I’m glad to hear Jamie has personal talks with God.” The flippancy achieved its desired effect – I laughed. “Emily….look, if God is infinite, then whatever we know about him is just a little tiny piece of the truth! It’s a grain of sand compared to the entire beach! It doesn’t matter what Jamie says. You’re a very good girl and I’m proud of you. Okay?” I nodded and snuffled loudly. After another twenty minutes of conversation and cooling down, and we were able to drive the rest of the way down the hill and into our own driveway.
So I gave up on Jesus. By my senior year, I was having a hard time not giving up on God entirely, despite my best efforts. Frustrated arguments with the resident fundamentalist Mormon and pointing out that he was a bigot and could not prove any of his nonsense were merely ending with me coming home and flopping onto our plaid couch in tears. He knew he couldn’t prove it but he “just knew” and I was restrained by actually wanting facts with my large general statements. It didn’t help that I excelled in my world history class, which made me all too aware that the origins of my own religious faith looked as made up as any other – certainly I had already known this, but I’d never had to acknowledge it so strongly before.
It was perhaps the worst three years of my life for many reasons. I was leaving home, I was growing up, and that comes fraught with its own problems. I was facing the torture I’d been put through in middle school by my supposed best friend, herself a Jehova’s Witness – and torture is meant seriously and in a physical and mental nature, complete with attempted drowning, forced incarceration in a closet and being held tightly to a chair by duct tape and rope. So I had that lovely holy being to remember, one who always let me know I was sinful for celebrating Christmas. And I had Jamie, and Stephi, and dear and lovely April who was having a baby out of wedlock with a boy who stole toy cars from Wallmart shopping centers. I had my own church, whose youth group had made it very clear I was unwelcome to join them, and put me down severely when I tried – until I finally stopped trying, even when they got a hip, new youth minister who desperately attempted to recruit me. Instead he ignored that I was graduating – when unlike the youth group, I went to church on Sundays and it was a long tradition that graduates within the church were supposed to be given special recognition at one service at the end of the school year. And then he had someone else apologize for his lack of care. College increased my doubt as it increased my knowledge.
It’s easy to say all this is overly dramatic. But I think only people who have had a faith and lost it, or come close to that moment, truly understand what that is like. It’s being ripped from the womb of security and community that let you stay warm at night and not have to ask those hard questions about morality and immortality. The things that you took comfort in, the songs you loved singing grow bitter and meaningless as the words sit on your tongue. No one loses God because they want to. They should not be blamed for suddenly being unable to stand up during the Lord’s Prayer and choking on the kingdom and the power and the glory. It is a product of internal thought, yes, but it is not something a sane person would chose – for who would cast aside comfort for cold loneliness in bed at night, praying into an un-hearing darkness?
Most realizations have no defining moment, but despite its long and twisting road, I know exactly when I stopped being a Christian. It was when I stopped singing “Silent Night” during the Christmas Eve service and wrote on the program “It seems really unlikely that Jesus is the son of God, huh?” and passed it to my father, and he responded with a whispered “It’s very unlikely, no.” I was at last able to accept this. But I could not keep singing.
Which is not to say I have a problem with Christians anymore than I have a problem with Buddhists. I have a problem with the people who tell me that I am evil and sinful. That my best friends will burn in hell for being homosexual (also out of choice, which I’m sure would be news to them), when such righteous people are the ones choosing to be narrow-minded bigots. I have a problem with the people who refuse to understand that evolution does NOT mean we were descendants of monkeys, nor does it mean all scientists hate God and have no moral reasoning outside of God to tell them that murdering and eating babies is wrong. I have a problem with THAT.
And not to harp on Jamie, but it bears saying that my defense of God was never good enough either. Sitting with my VERY atheist friend Mariam in US History, I said “Yeah, sure, God isn’t fair! I agree with that!”
“Then it makes no sense.”
“Maybe it doesn’t need to? Maybe we’re just saved with grace. Maybe we don’t have to DO anything.”
Jamie popped a piece of gum into her mouth and casually crossed her skinny legs. “Emily, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“W-what? Yes, I do, I was taught that passage in Confirmation. ‘For by grace you have been saved, and it is not of your own doing, but a gift of God.'”
“So why are you trying to convert Mariam, huh? Just leave her alone, she has her own opinions.” And she casually collected her backpack and moved on to the next class while my jaw hung open.
Ex-Christians will often tell you they felt that they could never make their God happy. They weight of the indoctrination of Original Sin was just too great a burden for them to overcome. Whether this is what the dogma states or not does not matter. It is that their communities let them know how greatly they constantly failed to live up to God’s expectations. I didn’t need a whole community, I had Jamie and the many people throughout the world just like her to let me know I was a failure in the eyes of God. Who, by the way, loves me.
And so it is from our own Brothers and Sisters in Christ we suffer most. No Devil need apply.
To be continued.