My family stopped going to the local Methodist church when I was twelve because there was a change of preachers. My mother liked the preacher we’d had for most of my childhood. He drank a little, liked to go hunting on Sundays before service, and generally spoke his mind, sometimes cussing right from the pulpit. This style of ministering eventually got him into trouble with the more upstanding members of the congregation and he was replaced with a prim and proper, Bible-quoting sermonizer – a total bore, as we quickly learned from his first couple sermons. My mom said: “To hell with that! We’re not going to church if I have to listen to that pious S.O.B.”
I was only too glad to be given an escape from churchgoing.
I could never quite understand what I was doing there. I was used to excelling in public school during the week, but the rules of achievement and reward were peculiarly different at Sunday School. For instance, I once earned a pasteboard wall plaque featuring the Bible verse John 3:16 glued on in gilt lettering, simply because I had memorized and spoken that same verse aloud before the entire class. If you memorized bigger chunks of the Bible, you could win even greater rewards. But somehow I suspected that such tasks and rewards were not really supposed to be the point of religion. On top of that, there were some rules of school that did not apply at church whatsoever.
For instance, if I asked the Sunday school teacher a perfectly innocent, curious question like: “If God loves everyone, why does He let people get sick and die?” then I was very unlikely to get a straight answer or any help with looking up the answer in the library. Instead I’d get no answer at all, just an embarrassed throat-clearing and an admonition to go back to reading the Bible until I learned to stop asking so many questions. I seemed to irritate the Sunday school teachers with my big questions. Yet those were the inquiries I really wanted answered at church; they concerned the mysteries of life that were seldom brought up in regular school.
It wasn’t long before I understood that my metaphysical questions were not going to be answered on Sundays as I’d naively hoped. Since I never got a report card from church, I didn’t see the point of trying to excel by taking on bigger memorization challenges. By the time my family quit church, I was more than ready to leave Sunday school.
In my teens and twenties I was more or less agnostic.
I was more interested in social and political change than religion. That put me and my friends in a definite minority where I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, home base of both the legendary evangelist Billy Graham and the notorious televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker. From time to time I’d heard of various weird religions – Zen, Baha’i, Sufism, the Hare Krishnas – that had completely different points of view than the Christianity I’d grown up around. But I didn’t see much sense in trading one set of religious beliefs for another. It would be a while before I learned the difference between direct spiritual experience and accepted religious beliefs of any kind.
I spent most of my thirties sick as a dog with a new-fangled disease that wasn’t even trendy yet. When I was finally diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) after about three months, it was a relatively new diagnosis, and even less was understood about it then than now (which still ain’t much). To make a seven-year story short, I got over CFS essentially by trading it in for a spiritual life. More precisely, I came to realize that, for me, CFS was the megaphone that my long-suppressed spirituality used to get my attention. I wouldn’t make that diagnosis and prescription for anybody else suffering from CFS, but it sure was true for me.
To put it concisely, I learned that what heals us is the experience of God rather than a mere belief in God.
More about that to come in future installments of “Sense & Spirituality.”