I remember growing up one thing was certain, if you prayed enough good things would happen to you. The existence of god and heaven was something I never questioned. My grandmother was a minister at a big church in Boston, my grandfather to this day works for an Episcopal non-profit. I was raised to play with Noah’s ark toys, I was brought up watching Veggie Tale movies, “Jesus loves me this I know- cuz the bible tells me so”. I did the Sunday school, first communion, confirmation thing. I was president of my Youth Group in middle school, an active member in high school. I was an advisor in training, a Sunday school teacher, and a confirmation class teacher at different points. I would attend church meetings, it wasn’t uncommon for me to speak in front of the church. The best part of EVERY SUMMER? Camp Berea, a Christian camp on Newfound lake in New Hampshire. Community service was a big part of my life and I never, not once, questioned the existence of a higher power. This isn’t a platform for me to brag about my religious accomplishments, they really don’t mean anything anymore. I want to talk about my experience with organized religion, and therefore my opinion on the subject.
The First Congregational Church of Marshfield shaped my personality. Upon entering the 6th grade, my next door neighbor Jan took me to my first youth group meeting. My mom was unhappy because we were members of an Episcopal church in a surrounding town. However, I was passionate about being a member of the FCC because they ran the “church dances”, bi-weekly middle school dances held in the church hall that were incredibly popular at the time. It was the cool thing to be apart of this Youth Group. They took us on weekend trips to Nantucket, a winter-camp called Berea and to Rockport, MA. It was an opportunity to travel and have co-ed sleepovers, HELLO FREEDOM.
While the social benefits were clear, I developed psychologically through youth group as well. I remember clearly my first emotional experience with the group. It was the anointing of the oil ceremony held during the fall Nantucket trip in 2004. Our group sat in the quiet empty church that we were staying in. Our group leader told us to come up one by one, sit down in a chair in front of the church, and share the burdens of your heart. When you were finished speaking, the rest of the group would stand up and lay hands on you, and as a group we would silently pray as our group leader put a cross of oil on their forehead. It would go on for a few hours, and by the end the entire group was sobbing. As promised, nobody shared the stories people told during the ceremony to the rest of the world. It was a beautiful way to connect a group of individuals. We put all of our trust in the rest of the group. Even if it was their first retreat, even if we had just met them, we exposed ourselves. I don’t think I’ve seen as much honesty since then, sober.
My church friends became my best friends over the seven years I spent in youth group. People would joke that it was a “dating pool”, and it definitely was. I think I declared true love for 2/6 of the boys that were my age in the group. People would also joke and call us a “cult”, I can see where they were coming from. We shared a powerful connection, a fellowship. These people knew EVERYTHING about me, my faults, failures and shortcomings. They watched me grow, and we assisted in the spiritual growth of one another. We helped each other through family issues, self injury, depression and the miniscule issues of adolescence. It wasn’t just our connection with God that kept us strong, it was knowing that every person in that group was praying for you. What if there is no god, what if those prayers were empty? It wouldn’t even matter; it was the support of others that brought an overwhelming feeling of safety.
I became close to people I never would have become friends with if it weren’t for FCC. The original members of the group would always bring friends to meetings and retreats. Some of them stuck; others would only show up every so often. It was an unbreakable bond, separately we all had our own lives and entities outside of youth group. Still, when we were together at church we were our own group. So much love, so much closeness. We watched out for each other inside and outside of the church, encouraging one another to attend meetings, discouraging any toxic behavior. As cliche as it might sound, we broke the social barriers of our high school. The “punks” were hanging out with the “drama kids” and the “popular kids”; we didn’t even think of one another as being different, that was never a concern.
Issues with Organized Religion:
Growing up I was always told that god was all-loving, forgiving, understanding. My parents had always engraved in my heart that as long as I was a good person and attempted gods will, I would go to Heaven. If I was afraid, I would pray. If I was thankful, I would pray. If I was regretful, I would pray, I would apologize to god and try and be better next time. I knew that God loved me SO much, why would I want to let him down?
If I had to “pin-point” an event in time, I think that once I was told to fear god, once I was given specific orders, that I turned against god. You cannot have sex before marriage, it is a sin to be homosexual, if you don’t believe in the rebirth of Jesus Christ you will spend eternity in Hell. When I was under the impression that god was all-forgiving, all-loving, I was sure to do the right thing. I couldn’t bare the idea of insulting the nicest, most forgiving being. When I was taught to believe that everything I did was to be judged and punished, I became more hesitant to accept aspects of Christianity.
It was as if I was accepting a whole new religion. When you’re a child, nobody wants to scare you. They tell you only what will make you happy, they tell you only what will make you LOVE God. They tell you that you are God’s special creation and he LOVES you so much. However as you age, they tell you to FEAR God. They tell you that what you’ve done is WRONG, who YOU LOVE is wrong, they try and tell you that you chose your sexuality. They tell you that being who you are is a sin; “You chose to be this way”.
While we are taught to believe everything written in The Bible is the absolute truth, the book was written by man and inspired by God. The encounters are written from the perspective of those who lived in the time of the creation of the holy book, a time where women were baby-making-machines and being homosexual was grounds for being murdered. Life has changed, and while the basic moral lessons in the Bible hold true to this day (don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t murder); Science isn’t the only thing that has progressed, the world is a VERY different place. The Bible was written by MAN inspired by God, nobody ever said The Bible fell out of the sky and was written by the man in clouds. The book is a collection of religious experiences MAN incurred. How could man foresee what was to come of the world thousands of years later? Thousands of years from now people will look back on the actions of us with disgust. We don’t know what they will be disgusted by; otherwise we might try and make a change now. Did the contributors of the Bible foresee an empire built off of their encounters? Obviously not. They wanted to record their experiences so that others could learn from them. Is it possible that some of the stories are highly exaggerated? Of course, the Bible was written by man.
My only issue with the organized religion I have been apart of is that in my experience, nobody is willing to CONSIDER the notion that perhaps some of the stuff in that book isn’t all that accurate! As I said before, the Bible didn’t fall out of the sky; it was written by humans, its been translated into HUNDREDS of languages, something has been changed along the way. It just seems so obvious. Failure to see the fault of man is ignorant, especially when the faults of man are so clearly abundant.
I didn’t lose my religion when I said my first swear word without immediately repenting. I didn’t lose my religion the day I had premarital sex for the first time. I didn’t lose my religion when I stopped attending church regularly. I lost my religion when I realized that I was raised to believe one thing only to be told something completely different as I “grew up”. I like to believe there is a higher power with my best interest in mind so long as I continue to do what is “good”. I like to believe a perfect human being sacrificed himself so that the rest of us shall live eternity in heaven, and I like to believe there was a purpose for it.
Many people will argue that there is no place in the world for organized religion, I have to disagree. Those who believe firmly against organized religion have obviously never had a positive experience with it. It isn’t all about singing bible songs and living in “lalaland” (although if you want to know some good Jesus jams I’ll hook you up with some recommendations and “lalaland” is a place called Camp Berea, and I HIGHLY recommend it). Religion is an organized support system. The universe is complex and there is no way to fully understand it; surrounding yourself with a group of people who believe in the greater good of the world and one heck of an after(life) party isn’t the worst idea.
Because of my experience, I am eternally grateful for the existence of organized religion. There is no greater connection then one formed in time of ultimate vulnerability. The people I met through my religious experiences are ones I will never forget. I watched the size of my youth group dwindle as I got older, and it pains me to think of it someday not existing. Being absent from my religion for the past two years has made me realize how much I miss it. I know I am capable of great things, but my religion gave me a purpose unrelated to my career ambitions.
Anyways, please enjoy one of my all-time favorite “Jesus Jams”