Over the years, my religious life has taken a few twists and turns. I'd like to think that I still embrace Christianity for the most part, but I don't believe as I used to. Certain things I used to embrace wholeheartedly, I doubt now. And I'm starting to feel at war with myself in certain areas because I'm not sure if my change in beliefs is a crisis of faith, or a mere change in the overall course of my spiritual life because I've gotten older.
A little backstory...weeelll, maybe a lotta backstory. I've been in the church all my life. I sang choir starting at age 13 and have been doing so since then, off and on because of my time in the military. I started out Baptist attending the family church, Sixth Mt. Zion Baptist, as a young child for the same reasons that most kids attend church...because the parents told them they had to go. I did the whole Sunday School routine: studied my lessons; put a quarter in the offering after debating with myself whether I should put it church or save it for the candy store; I dutifully performed in the annual Easter and Christmas pageants. After Sunday school I walked the block and a half down to the church to sing in the children's choir, or serve on the youth usher board, or do whatever was asked of me to do.
The parents made it clear that in no uncertain terms, my butt was to be in church every Sunday the Good Lord sent. It was only after I got into my junior year in high school and started playing on the soccer team, that I was able to get my mother to budge even part way on church attendance. Because the soccer team played most of its games on Sundays, we made a deal that during the season, I could skip church as long as I went to Sunday School. A pretty good deal, I thought. About that time, I decided to "join the church."
For the multitudes who read this blog who are Episcopalian or other religions and have no idea about how Baptists in general or at Sixth Mt. Zion in particular, "join the church", lemme splain to you how it's done. When you feel the time is right to become a member of the congregation, you simply walk forward to the front pew when the preacher gives the altar call. The altar call usually comes at the end of the sermon, which in the Baptist church is at the tail end of the service instead of about 20 minutes in like it is in the 'Pisco church.
The preacher starts asking/begging/imploring/cajoling/pleading for those who are interested in joining the church. Those who feel the Spirit leading them in that direction get up out of their seats, walk to the front of the church and sit down. And of course, this causes all sorts of consternation amongst the congregation that another lamb has found its way into the fold. They get especially geeked up when a young person decides to make the walk. Well, out of a sense of duty to my mother, whom I loved very much, and did not want to disappoint, I decided to make the big leap. Of course, my mother fell out along with half the senior choir. That was the primary reason for going through with it. Afterwards, the deacons take you into another room, congratulate you, set you up to take some classes in the basics of the faith and how Baptists do things and if you survive, you're then baptized, and given the "right hand of fellowship" which means that everyone in the congregation processes up to shake your hand and welcome you into the congregation.
Did I do it because I felt God's hand on me imploring me to walk up? I'm not sure. The Sunday School lessons were a blur to me, I forgot most of it once I left Sunday School to head down to the church. I did it because mother told me I had to. If there was anything I learned about those years at "Sixth", it was that service to the church was really important, though I learned diddle about the disciples. I enjoyed getting involved in the choir and on the usher board. Traits that are still a part of my life to this day.
Fast forward to 1983. I had just finished my deployment on the Carl Vinson, where the last thing on my mind was serving the Lord in his church. I'd like to think that this is a PG rated blog because my occasional use of the word "shit," so I will not go into the various exploits that I got myself into whilst overseas on the taxpayers dime, but suffice it to say, what happens in the PI, stays in the PI. if you know what I mean. It was close to Thanksgiving and I was in a new town, didn't know anyone there and was bored with just hanging out in the bars. Mind you, I'm not a big drinker, and even back in those hazy, crazy days, I was a lightweight in terms of my partying prowess. But, the bar scene was getting a little humdrum. And as I had Thanksgiving off, I had to figure out what I was going to do because I wasn't going to stay on the ship any more than I had to. I noticed that one of the local megachurches, that peculiar religious institution that is well known throughout California, was trolling for sailors to host for the holiday at their "campus." I had made plans to catch the bus to go out there, but as I hadn't learned the topography of the base all that well, I went to the wrong gate. There I was, sitting at the base gate in the rain looking like a drowned rat, with nothing to do.
So I decided to start walking. Of course, I had no clue as to where anything was in Alameda, but eventually I ended up near the main drag, and I saw this little house next to a laundromat. And the sign on the house said "Compass and Helm Christian Servicemen's Center." I had no clue whether they were open on Thanksgiving, and I had nowhere else to go on a rainy Thanskgiving in a strange town, so I knocked on the door. A rough looking guy answered the door, and I became quite uncertain. He looked like a biker, and not someone to be trifled with. I explained that I was a sailor off the Carl Vinson and I had Thanksgiving off and I was looking for a place to spend the day. I wasn't looking for food or a place to sleep, just someplace to hang out. Well, he invited me in, introduced me to his family, including his wife and two little girls, and told me make myself at home. His name was Chris Grant and he and his wife Kathy ran the "Helm" as it was known in those days as a ministry of the local churches in the area to give servicemen like myself a place to go that was an alternative to the bars and sleazier parts of town.
They opened their home to me, a complete stranger, and even shared their Thanksgiving dinner with me. They explained the role of the Helm, and later that day they opened for business. I got to meet some cool guys from the other ships in port as well as the base command, and even met some of the other local visitors from the major supporting church in the area, Westside Baptist. It didn't take long for me to realize that I had found a home away from home and a respite from life on board ship. I started hanging out there on a regular basis. The Helm held Thursday Night Bible Studies and Westside had Wednesday night Bible studies and I made it a point to start attending those services.
Westside was a great little church. A part of the Conservative Baptist Association, Westside's teaching and doctrines may have been on the conservative side, but their makeup and overall atmosphere was anything but. Westside was a small church with about a couple hundred members on the rolls, but averaged about 35-40 souls per Sunday if the fleet was out, and 60 or so if the fleet was in. It was my favorite kind of church. Small, friendly, open to strangers, easy to get involved in, and multicultural. Their worship style was very informal, the dress code was "come as you are", and while the choir didn't come along until close to the end of my time there, I was able to fill my choir jones and get involved. They didn't have a lot of "stuff" and their building was very modest, but what they had was a genuine spirit of community that made it very hard for strangers not to at least admire what they were trying to accomplish, let alone just jump in and help out. There were a succession of older and more traditional pastors who all preached their sermons from the King James Bible, and had no problem preaching the hellfire and brimstone when needed, but were still open for discussion and friendly to the younger members of the congregation. It was a church that took its ministry seriously, but did not take itself as such.
The church catered to the local naval base and depended pretty heavily on it. They created the Compass and Helm ministry to reach out to the military population, and the Helm over the years built up a small but intensely loyal following of people, military and civilian, who loved Jesus and wanted to have fun also. We went on trips to amusement parks, occasionally took in A's games at the Coliseum, and had a great time. I had gotten so involved in the ministry and the church that I joined Westside. I learned a tremendous amount about the Christian faith through the Bible Studies at both the Helm and Westside and also by attending Sunday services. I guess that being older and a little more focused, I was actually ready to receive the knowledge that was being passed down. It was a typical Baptist " born again" approach to Christianity, There was talk about sin and judgement, and the commandment to witness and to live a holy life, but it wasn't beaten into the parishioners by the pastors, like it seemed to be in the more evangelical and fundamentalist churches. The congregants were a little older and a good deal more mature, so I didn't think it was necessary.
And during this time, I started reading much more Christian literature. Especially books about prophecy, and expositions of the end-times teachings in the books of Daniel and Revelation. I read a lot of Hal Lindsey, and I tended to gravitate to the prophetic aisles of the Christian bookstores. Also tended to get into a lot of studies of comparative religions, and how to debate people of other faiths on the merits of Christianity versus their chosen faith. I was never big on the whole concept of trying to witness to others and getting them to convert to Christianity, and I don't do it today. But I was fascinated in trying to learn about other faiths and how they differed from my faith and how to defend the faith and also debating the strengths and weaknesses.
End-times teaching and comparative religion study are the areas of Christianity that tend to attract the more extreme authors and elements in the faith. It's like crack for the Christian. At least when I used to go into Christian bookstores, They used to put those titles towards the front of the store and those topics used to get more traffic. I read more than a few books that went overboard in their logic. As it was 20+ years ago, please don't ask me to quote a specific book. Those books tend to be somewhat sensationalistic, and always telling the readers to constantly be on their guard as the end-times are coming if they aren't already here. I've seen books about the Rapture that announced that it would happen: Before the Tribulation; after the Tribulation; 3 and a half years in; it had already happened; there won't be one; it's happening right now a few souls at a time; yadda, yadda, yadda. You name it, someone was making a buck off their theories.
There was a booming market in books that tried to explain the mysteries of the Book of Revelation, and tried to forecast to the day when the various events described in that final and most controversial book of the Bible were to happen. Of course the Bible says that not even the Son of God knows when all this is going down, so what makes some pastor in San Diego think that he has inside info from the Father that he would not even tell His Son. Don't know, but it's a nice way to make a little scratch I guess as well as looking busy when the Rapture comes. I think that's one of the things that started me to wondering about the state of the church. So many people are willing to make a buck at God's expense. I know that not everyone who professes to be a Christian wants to make money in the God business, but those who do are the ones who steal most of the headlines and start the tongues to wagging, and also make those who are genuinely interested in becoming Christians do a double take.
Fast forward to 1993. I had left Deliverance Baptist Church a few years after they split off from Sixth Mt Zion as a result of a nasty fight between the pastor and the deacon board. I had a vision of a little church over on Kelly St in Homewood called Holy Cross. I had never been there before and didn't know the first thing about it, but I felt that maybe God wanted me to go there instead of Deliverance. I made some inquiries and attended a few services and was hooked on the place. They were of an odd denomination I had never heard of called the Episcopal Church. And their services were 180 degrees from what I was used to in the Baptist faith. Everyone from the preacher, to the choir to the people who read the Scriptures wore robes, there was no jumping up and down and going crazy with the Spirit, the sermon was 20 minutes into the service instead of at the end, there was no altar call, nor a screeching preacher urging his or her followers to "get right with God." The service was quiet, contemplative, some of the music was familiar from my Baptist days and the rest I'd never heard before. There was candles and incense, and a procession and it had the whole Catholic feel to it. And I found that this was the church for me. Unlike Deliverance which had plenty of people and lots of eager volunteers, Holy Cross needed a young person to help kepp them going. I felt more needed at Holy Cross than any other church I'd been a part of, and I still feel this way almost 16 years later.
I ultimately figured out what is different about the Episcopal Church compared to its Baptist cousin. The Episcopal Church is a lot more liberal. It's very tolerant of opposing viewpoints, and like most of the black Christian denominations places a large emphasis on social justice. It's a church that 'got it' in terms of allowing women to become ordained clergy back in 1976, while there are still many Baptist and other denominations that forbid the practice. It also takes the attitude that as long as we can agree more or less on those things laid out in the historical creeds and the various documents that formed the church in this country, the rest of the stuff is open for debate, and we can all worship and take communion at the same altar rail in mutual love and respect and discuss our differences in the undercroft over coffee hour. Now for someone like me who came from a church that preached that everyone pretty much had to be on the same page in all things and frowned rather heavily on dissent, however respectful, this, was a bit hard for me to get over. And to be certain, the Episcopal Church has more than a few folks in its leadership who's beliefs come damn close to repudiating traditional orthodox Christianity as I know it. I'm not just talking about the Rapture, or tongues, or fringe doctrines like that (Most Episcopalians don't place much creedence in either of those teachings, by the way, I however still speak in tongues and have no problem with that teaching.) But that's the great thing about this particular church, you can harbor those teachings and profess them all you want and no one will think any less of you. Some of the more hardcore denominations feel that they have to constantly scare their members into walking straight with visions of hellfire and eternal damnation if they put a foot wrong or speak up questioning a long held church teaching. The Episcopal Church like others, has it's share of people who think that their way is the right way and all others are wrong, but most Episcopalians are willing to let them do their thing and leave them alone. It's a very "whatever works for you, is cool, as long as you respect my beliefs" kind of attitude.
But getting to the crux of this essay. Because this church no longer had to scare me into accepting one belief over another and did not impose a penalty on me for having doubts, questions and criticisms about my religious beliefs, I started to wonder whether a lot of the long held baggage from my earlier days would start to impose this crushing guilt upon me. Because I no longer hold many of the things I grew up believing in such high regard, would it jeopardize my salvation as I knew it. I grew up thinking and being taught that the Bible was inerrant. I no longer believe that. I still believe that it is the Word of God. I still believe that it contains all that is necessary for salvation. But I also believe that certain parts of it were written for the time between 4000 BC and about 100 AD, and that those parts have no real influence in todays world. I believe that the Bible is God's Word written and interpretated by very flawed and imperfect humans who added their own feelings, prejudices, opinions and accounts into the mix. And equally flawed and imperfect humans have taken the Bible and used it to justify the most unChristian and ungodly behavior.
Look at the four gospels. Each one of them portrays the Life of Christ from four very different viewpoints. They don't even agree on small things like whether there were one or two beings at Christ's tomb on the day of his resurrection, or whether those beings were angels or not. A truly inerrant Bible would have equally valid accounts across all four gospels. All four got the big things right, but small differences amongst the authors prove to me that the concept of the Bible being inerrant is not true. Back in the day, I believed whole heartedly in the concept of the Rapture despite that term never being used in the Bible. I read all the books that explained all the different angles. Now, I don't really even care when it happens because it will happen when it happens, and I don't see the point of wasting time trying to predict the end times. Because I have all of a sudden put away these and other long held fringe beliefs, but still maintain the core doctrines of my faith, am I in danger of hellfire? Don't get me wrong. I can recite the Apostles and Nicene Creeds without crossing my fingers. Those creeds contain the essential parts of Christian belief. If you want to call yourself a Christian, the precepts mentioned in those creeds is a must. I believe in those creeds, and I recite those creeds earnestly. The other stuff, that's personally between you/I and God. This is an ongoing debate within myself that probably will not answered by a post on a blog. I surmise that I will finally get my answers when I finally stand before God, and He explains to me whether I got it right or wrong.