Can I tell you a story? It's about a kid and and a long, twisted and confused journey. It's about how this one kid grew up in a belief and then grew out of it somewhere along the road. It has a lot to say about how things change and how they stay the same; about faith and how it both succeeds and fails. If you want to hear it, read along.
It starts with me as a very young boy. I grew up in the 60's but didn't really live there. Not being old enough to sample the psychedelic side of that legendary decade or absorb its politics and assorted movements, I did soak up a lot of the side effects. Vietnam, the draft, the music, the protests, the chaos, the feel of it all sort of got inside my head and stayed there. It influenced many things now that I look back at them but at the time, it was just the way of the world.
During those years, I went to very old Methodist church with my parents...sometimes under duress because I very much disliked getting scrubbed and polished to go sit through something I didn't really understand. I was a trial to my mom and dad when they tried to get me dressed up for church when I really would rather have been outside getting muddy or sandy. When I did go, I remember sitting through the beginning of the service and then packing off to the basement for Sunday School and hopefully a cookie or two. It was during one of those downstairs lessons that someone said something to me that I'm sure they never intended to do what it did.
They were teaching us about faith and how strong it had to be if you wanted to go to heaven. Who could tell a child what heaven was supposed to be like when they were about seven or eight? Nobody. I didn't then and I still don't have any idea what they were talking about. All I knew was that it was where you were supposed to want to go when you died no matter what. I didn't even know much about what dead meant but I had heard it was bad unless you went to this wonderful place afterwards. But back to the lesson...
I don't even remember the teacher who said it but I do remember very distinctly how they said that if it came down to a time when your faith was questioned by anyone, you had to stand by it no matter what. As an example they said that if someone (they never told us who) gave you the choice to say that you didn't believe in Jesus or else you'd have to watch your parents be killed right in front of you, then that's what you'd have to do that or you'd go to hell. I didn't know what hell was either but I knew it was bad. They told of how in the Bible, people were tortured (another word I only knew was really bad at the time) or eaten by animals or beaten and yet still refused. Those were the good people. People who said they didn't believe were bad.
I was terrified. I couldn't even comprehend my Mom and Dad being hurt and who would want to hurt them anyway? Who was coming to do such horrible things to us? Why would this happen? I had nightmares for weeks after that. Night terrors of awful things. Screaming, awful things that haunted me for days. One little lesson in one little Sunday School class by one person who thought they were doing good put a terrible fear in a small boys heart that lived there for over 50 years.
Time went by as time does and the nightmares faded into the usual boy-stuff of stitched-up knees, broken bicycles, homework and long days of lawn mowing. I sort of drifted around not thinking much about that old lesson. Then one summer, the old country church right behind our house opened back up with a new and very young pastor at the helm and things turned a little different.
There was suddenly youth groups and Bible School and services within walking distance from our back door. It was fun and exciting and it felt good. The Baptists got a hook in my and started reeling in the line. I believed.
I believed so much that one fine day, I waded into a mildly slimy pond in a white shirt and was ecstatically baptized. It was like joining a special club and it truly did make a change in me. I believed that I believed...then. I looked at things differently after that. It was life-altering and it was part of who I became. I don't regret it but at the time, I didn't know what it would do to me.
Years passed and after a while, the shine faded a bit. I kept the faith because it was all I knew. But through it all, I still felt like I was missing something. The faith I kept started to feel like guilt. I think maybe because I was human? I grew and it seemed like everything I did was somehow wrong if I clung to that faith. I prayed because I was supposed to but I didn't get the foot-stomping, rolling-in-the-aisle feeling that everyone said I should from it. It was all about guilt. The endless, promised comfort and happiness were things I couldn't seem to find. And some of the people who professed to be such faithful Christians were in fact, really awful. They were not who I wanted to be or who I wanted to look up to. I remember thinking that something was wrong with me. There turned out to be no joy in it.
The turning point finally came when I went to a service many years later in another little country church. The pastor put on quite a show of hellfire and brimstone on a subject that was pretty close to my heart. I've made some mistakes in my life as have we all but he drilled right into the darkest place where I needed forgiveness the most. He didn't know it but he looked right at me and told me I was going to hell. I couldn't breathe. I was devastated. He took me right back to that Sunday School lesson so long ago when I knew that I could never be what religion wanted me to be. I felt like I'd been kicked in the teeth. Everything I had hung onto for so long turned into grief, guilt and pain. It was one of the worst days of my life.
I think I knew then that something was gone for good. It took more years but at some point, I realized that it was all over. I'd had my crisis of faith and come out the other side. I stopped praying but more importantly, I stopped feeling guilty for everything. A load lifted off my back that had been there for far too long.
And here I am. I've come around to something I never would have expected. A life without the fear of what will happen after that life. I found a place where I no longer worry about what an all-powerful, faceless, capricious and incoherent thing thinks of me. I'm ok with the end of my life being the end of all things. From nothing we come and to nothing we go. My life is meaningful enough without needing it to last for eternity.
I'm not an atheist. I'm just me. I don't care what anyone else believes or why. I just don't have it in me to search and yearn for something that can never be anymore.