I have gone to church most of my life. My first memory of church was, almost literally, the little church in the vale. It was a tiny, old Methodist church tucked well back a country road surrounded by woods and an ancient graveyard. It was so quaint that it had two entry doors, one on each side of the church facade. Only one door was used, but there were two for that once-upon-a-time when women and men were required to enter into and sit in church separately. There was still an ancient group of gentlemen that maintained their lifelong pews on the left-hand - mens side - of the church.
I loved going to church. I loved the dusty/musty smell covered up with furniture polish from the cleaning earlier in the week. I loved the coolness of the church basement where Sunday School classes, Christmas gatherings and wedding receptions were held. I loved that my mom was the piano-player which allowed the 4 of us, my brothers and I, (my father never went with us) the freedom of drawing on the bulletin, slouching, and staring at other people, which most children are expressly prohibited from doing and going into the giggles unchecked during the hymns. I loved the way men and women dressed up - farmers during the week wearing their Sunday best to include all those hats. I loved running around in the cemetery playing tag while the adults were filing past the preacher saying their say. I loved the food that was laid out for potluck dinners. I loved the way the adults would fuss over the children. And I especially loved the music.
I was steeped in the old rugged cross in the garden of prayer, the rock of ages on sinking sand, being able for bringing in the sheaves, and Christian soldiers marching as to war, then on to Zion. I still have the old hymnal - barely an inch thick and dated 1944 - and thumbing through the pages I can hear, even today, the bass cadence of that east wing of old men singing 'Oh, come, come, come, come, come, come.....' while the rest of us were finishing the invitation to 'come to the church in the wildwood....'
There was a revival held one summer to convince us all of the fire and brimstone that was waiting if we didn't beg for the Mercy of the Lord as we lay down our sins at His feet. I may have been all of 5 or six, but was acquainted enough with the ways of the church to understand the gravity of the alter call. And to my mother's dismay and impotence to stop me (because she was busy rocking the rafters with her piano playing) I walked up to that altar several of those nights of that revival to admit that I was a sinner and beg that He have Mercy on Me.
I am not sure whether mother finally convinced me that repeated responses to altar calls were, basically, overkill and that Jesus did indeed know my heart and I could just relax in my seat for the rest of the revival. But after a few repeat visits, I finally did keep my seat.
I was moved. I wanted God's Mercy on Me. I wanted to live in heaven and I wanted to be a good girl now, above all else. It was only years later that I would remember with embarrassment and some shame those trips to the alter and wonder what could all those adults have possibly been thinking letting a small, crying child go up repeatedly to an alter asking forgiveness?
Eventually, like many young people who grew up 'churched', I found myself wanting to 'steal away'. But this was now stealing away from, as opposed 'to' Jesus. Somewhere along the way, the mortification I felt personally by all that begging for Mercy as a child translated into an anger, then disdain for the preachers who could so terrify a child into thinking that she was a black-hearted sinner who needed to be washed clean by anything, let alone blood.
It was only when Lauren was born that I knew I wanted my children to grow up with the church as a foundation. Even though I had begun to veer from the path of a professed Christian, I wanted my daughter to know the prayers and the songs, the stories and the traditions that were in and at the heart of me.
I wanted her to understand that what moved me most about the message of the church was not fear, but Love. I wanted her to know that Love was the only thing that really means anything in this world and was, really, the only thing we are 'commanded' to do. In each of those 10 commandments Love is the foundation. I didn't want her frightened about the sinning and the blood and the dying. I wanted her touched - and led - by the Love.
I was recently reminded that the beginning of my true, personal spiritual quest came when I was in my early 20's in the form of a book about a seagull named Jonathan. I resonated with the message and understood that there was truth there. The book was written especially for 'people who know there's more to this whole living thing than meets the eye.' Jonathan wanted to spend his time learning to fly - to soar - rather than merely existing. So do I.
Throughout my spiritual journey I have studied various world religions and become aware of the similarity of most as well as the shared Genesis of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. I was particularly struck with the truth of a quote credited to Martin Luther King, who formed the first Protestant church. He said, 'No one can do my dying for me, therefore no one can do my believing for me.' Amen to that! Interpretation seems to be something that can't be told or given, but must be personally made. I am convinced there is no one 'true' religion yet have never* questioned the ever-presence of one eternal (non-anthropomorphic) God that loves unconditionally and never punishes.
I say I am 'Buddhistian' because the tenets of Buddhism ring most clearly true to me except for my unshakable belief in God and God in us. It is the lives - not the deaths - of the Masters that move me and for that reason I identify myself also as a 'Christmas Christian'.
Recently I attended a funeral of a good and faithful servant of the church. During the service the unanimous prayer to ask God to 'have Mercy on Me' was begun and I was shaken to my core. Just as it seems ridiculous to ask the ever-present God, source of all things everywhere, to 'be with me' in prayer, so does it feel insincere to ask an unconditionally loving God to 'have Mercy'. It dawned on me with the brilliance of sun in the morning that the one to whom I should be asking Mercy was ME, for in my life I have been my own worst critic and enemy and have rarely shown myself the loving kindness that Buddha suggested or that Jesus spoke of when he said to love our neighbors as we did ourselves.
God have Mercy on me? Not even close.
Loving God, help me to feel and know your presence in all things.
Ruth? Have Mercy on Me.
* Okay. Once.