Little did I realize, I began attending Church service before I was ever born.
My parents divorced when I was only five years old. It didn’t traumatize me. Although, perhaps it should have. My little brother was too young to really know what was going on. It never really dawned on me that my parents were splitting up. I was more upset that we had to leave the family dog behind. Her name was Pogo. She was a beautiful German shepherd and my best friend. I would sleep with her in her dog house on rainy days.
Little did I suspect that I would be reunited with Pogo ten years later, although she didn’t seem to recognize me. To be fair though, she was 14 years old (69 in dog years) and I had long since faded from her memory. I remember crying that day–a decade after my parents divorce, all because my old German Shepherd had completely forgotten who I was. My hope was that I lived on in her dreams. A little four year old boy cozily snuggled up on her warm furry belly.
That was the innocence of my youth.
Lesson 3: Always remember where you came from–but never cease to keep your eyes fixed upon the horizon.
Church hopping became a big part of my early life. My mother took us from church to church. We moved out to Seattle for a while. My mom said she wanted to get away from my dad. But he was already over 300 miles away from where we lived and I only got to see him every other weekend. I don’t know why–but my mom had her reasons.
While we church hopped, my mom decided it was time I was re-baptized. At the time we were attending some upstart mega-church. I don’t recall the name–only that is where I was almost drown to death.
The day of my second baptism, I was waiting nervously in the wings. This particular church had a fancy baptism pool which was at the end of a small catwalk. The front of the pool had a plate glass viewing panel, like the sort of an aquarium, so the entire church congregation could witness the children being dunked. It was a spectacle for sure.
Lesson 4: Learn to swim (if you don’t already know how). You never know when such a skill may come in handy.
Somebody ushered me out and then the minister was babbling some sort of prayer, kept mentioning somebody named Jesus, and then placed his warm hand on my forehead. I was waiting for him to count to three or something so that I would know to hold my breath. Suddenly he pushed me under.
It was so unexpected that I gulped in a huge reservoir of water. I came up hacking and gagging–looking all pitiful like a wet cat. Somebody took me by the arm and yanked me out, then I was ushered out the back and handed a towel. Nobody even told me what the entire baptism thing was important for. Little did I realize my mother was trying to secure the eternal salvation of my mortal soul (since being dunked in water three times somehow turns your moral soul into an immortal one–never mind how that works–I was told to take it on faith).
All I knew was that I had almost been drowned.
A week later I was in Sunday school. It was the same church. It was such a massive place, and I was new to the area, I had no friends, and I didn’t know any of the teachers. My mom just dropped me off at Sunday school, like one would drop a kid off at daycare, and went on to listen to the main sermon.
It wasn’t even five minutes into class and, squirming in my seat, I raised my hand. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
The Sunday school teacher waved at me that it was alright to go and one of the TA’s took me out into the hall and asked if I knew which way the bathroom was. I said no, and she pointed down the hall and said to take a right at the end.
Following her rather vague instructions (remember I was only five at the time) I went down to the end of the hall, alone, and turned right. It merely opened up into another hall. No bathrooms. So I walked a bit further to the end of that hall too, and it went through some swinging doors, and into a lobby. But still no restrooms. At the end of the lobby was a there was a fork which lead into two more halls. It was a veritable labyrinth. Quite ridiculous really–as almost all mega-churches are. I turned around and went back the way I came.
Upon sitting back down in my seat I had the horrible sensation that I was going to wet my pants. I stood up and said out loud, “I need to go to the bathroom!”
The teacher stopped mid speech and gave me a stern look. “I thought you just went.”
“I couldn’t find it,” I replied.
To my chagrin, the Sunday school teacher walked over, grabbed me roughly by the arm, and then escorted me to the bathroom himself. All in front of kids I didn’t even know. Needless to say, after that little display, nobody wanted to be my friend.
Welcome to Sunday school! I never wanted to go back. Soon thereafter we left Seattle and moved back to Montana.
Jump ahead ten years and I would be helping to lead an Interfaith ministries between my Montanan Assemblies of God church and several other Evangelical churches out of Seattle. I was on fire for Christ–and loving it.
Slowly, but surely, my faith began to define me. I was on a mission from God to spread the “good news.” How did I go from that small boy afraid of wetting himself in Sunday school to a bold and daring young Christian leader? The funny thing is–I can’t really say.
When I turned fourteen my mother entered a serious bout of depression. She stopped socializing–severed all ties with the outside world–and stopped going to church entirely. But for some reason, after years of inculcation, stopping cold turkey just seemed wrong somehow. So I decided to go back to church on my own accord.
Luckily, many of my high school friends were attending a new youth group service. We would meet at my friends parent’s houses, have a meal, then sit around in the living room talking about God. The appointed youth leader (a youth minister in training) from our church would arrive shortly thereafter, and we’d do some formal Bible study. It was a relaxed atmosphere–and this time I had friends to share my thoughts and experiences with. It also came with a free meal–and what teenager in his right mind would pass up free food? Certainly not I. In fact, I showed up to every one of those meetings that year. Not just for the food either–but a girl I had developed a huge crush on was also in my youth group. Incentive enough for a young teenage boy, I think you’d agree.
Soon afterword I would become the veteran in my youth group. The other youth leaders had all graduated from high school and went off to bigger and better things. Most of them trucked off to college. Only a handful of us “regulars” were left, and somehow I involuntarily found myself voted into the position of the “unofficial” youth group leader.
My pastor took notice, called me to his office one day and told me that I was a natural born leader. After our meeting he invited me to share the position of youth pastor with one of my other good friends. Without hesitation I accepted. Now instead of simply attending the discussions and Bible studies–I was leading them! I was spreading the Gospel word–teaching people about the saving power of Christ–I was doing the work of God! I felt God working in me daily and I prayed he would guide me according to his will.
I was a true Christian–there was no denying it. By this time I was attending Church nearly five times a week. Three times during the week and twice on weekends. You might say, I had become possessed–by the Holy Spirit!
My entire world revolved around my Christianity–it defined me as a person. Moreover, it defined how I lived my life. My faith was my culture, my religious identity was analogous to my personal identity, and everything was rainbows and sunshine. I felt blessed. My life was good.
You might be asking yourself–how in the world did this fine young Christian man become a hardened skeptic and an atheist? Well, this is the story of how my faith failed me and why I became a nonbeliever. I hope you will continue to read my journey from belief to nonbelief.
(Next time, in Part 2: Indoctrination, I will talk about my pubescent experiences growing up as a “born again” Christian–and the horrible guilt of maturing sexually in an atmosphere which shunned anything remotely related to sex or the very idea of sex, which in turn compelled me to become even more pious in my faith.)