Religion is a funny thing. Everyone has an opinion on it, both good and bad. It’s been a staple of human behavior since our first introduction on Earth, and it still serves as a huge influence across the world today. Many use their respective religions to justify their actions and beliefs, a kind of tool that they can fall back on when others question them. There are constant arguments on which religions are true and which are false, and sometimes these disagreement have led to full out wars. Religions can certainly be messy. So how do you make sense of it all?
My own experience with religion and faith has spanned across my whole life. It’s always been there, even when I didn’t realize it. My dad had graduated from seminary and was heavily involved in his church, and during my childhood he even started a job there that he still holds today. As a kid I would ask him the “big” questions about God, and he’d give me the answers. I wanted to know about the man in the sky who you couldn’t see or hear, but was apparently always there. My child mind could not grasp every concept, but that was okay for me. All I needed to know was that God was there. That was enough.
Many would think that with a parent so heavily involved with the church that I would have been forced to go with him every Sunday, but that wasn’t the case for me. I don’t remember a time where my dad ever forced me or my sister to go to church with him. I remember tagging along a few times, never really understanding the situation at hand. Since we went to a Baptist church, there was a lot of pageantry involved with every service. And it culminated with the pastor giving an impassioned sermon that always led to him yelling into the microphone about the glory of God. Because I didn’t understand what he was talking about, I believed that he was angry with all of us in the crowd, and thus he had to yell at us. I told my dad that I didn’t like that so much, so for a majority of Sunday’s there on out, my sister and I stayed home with our grandma Janice.
During my childhood I would make small guest appearances at church, but never for more than one Sunday at a time. Some days after school I would go to my dad’s office and wait with him until it was time to go home, but being in the church never felt like anything special. It was simply my dad’s place of employment and nothing more. Thoughts of God still passed through my mind, but they were not ones of love and comfort. As I grew up, my thoughts of God started to focus more on the unpleasant aspects of the divine: God being angry with people who did wrong. I knew that I was far from a perfect person, and that had to mean that God was mad at me too. I found no comfort in the things from up above.
As I transitioned into my formative teenage years, I began to struggle with various difficulties that greatly shaped who I was becoming as a person. Many of these issues stemmed from anxiety. What most kids my age would dismiss, I would constantly obsess over my fears and possible outcomes for the future. Things became so bad that I had to start going to therapy, something that I hadn’t had to do since I first entered elementary school.
I don’t remember my therapist’s name, or even what she looked like. But I do remember the way I felt during every session. She was an art therapist, which meant that every session we did some sort of art activity together. The first session I went to, she had me draw out a picture of how my anxieties made me feel. I remember drawing a picture of myself: a tiny figure at the bottom of the page who was anything but strong and powerful. My figure was surrounded by darkness, a representation of all my fears baring down on me. We talked about my feelings as I drew, the therapist asking me questions about my life and me giving her answers. And then the topic of God came up. To this day I’m not sure who first mentioned Him. At that point in my life I hadn’t been giving much thought to God. But when he was brought up in relation to my anxieties, I realized that He had been playing a crucial role the entire time. I told the therapist, with tears in my eyes, that I believed that God had forgotten all about me, and that was why I was surrounded by darkness. I had never cried because of God before, and even at that age I was surprised that I had. God was supposed to represent all the good; how could I be crying about Him? Before our session ended, the therapist taught me the Serenity Prayer. When I got in the car with my dad, sketchbook in hand, I thought about God and if He was still looking out for me.
Teenagers think about a lot of stuff throughout their days: dating, sports, homework, parties, gossip—the list can seem infinite. But rarely does it seem like teens spend their precious brain power thinking about religion and spirituality—at least, that seems to be society’s take on the matter. Matters of faith always interested me, and I loved to discover the varieties that exist across the plethora of religions across the world. As I got into high school I started attending my dad’s church more. Wednesday nights were for youth Bible study, and Sunday’s were time for good ol’ Baptist services. Being involved in the youth group was like diving into the deep end of a swimming pool. Being an introvert, I often found it unnerving being in a large group of people I had never met, with many of them leaning more on the loud side. They were teens from all walks of life, many of them with different experiences than my own. I kept to myself mostly, like I did in every social situation in my life. But deep down I did enjoy being there and learning more about a God that I often saw as a mystery. Maybe if I followed God and His rules more closely, my life would finally start to get better.
Wrong. Dead wrong.
In high school, my life simply sucked, especially from a social standpoint. Making friends was a mystery to me, and instead of stepping out, I reigned myself in. I ate lunch by myself in the hallway every day, avoiding eye contact and conversation. I was comfortable, but somewhat miserable. I knew I was a freak in the eyes of many. How could a loving and powerful God let me be miserable in what was supposed to be the “best” time of my life? I couldn’t find any answer, so I went looking somewhere new.
I first learned about Buddhism during a unit in my middle school social studies class. The religion promoted a sense of peace, a gift that I was desperately searching for at 15. I knew that a family friend was a casual practitioner, so I asked her if she could give me any insight into the unknown. She lended me several books, including one on meditation. I read and read, trying to learn as much as possible in a rather short amount of time. The Dalai Lama talked about achieving real happiness, one that was not dependent on material possessions or trying to be better than everyone else. But I had made a preconceived “error” that I had completely forgotten about: my first mission trip with my church. I had signed up months before, and the time to go on this new adventure was upon me.
Everything changed on that trip.
I’ll keep the detail as brief. The most important part to come from that trip was that I accepted Jesus into my life. Obviously this is a big deal in the life of a Christian, and it was no different with me. From that day on, I dedicated most of my life to a Higher Power, and wanted to do as much ad I could. I threw myself into working with the youth group, volunteering at our many events and going on annual mission trips. I even got the chance to do my own sermon during on of the youth services, and to this day it is still one of my proudest moments. I actively studied the Bible, wanting to find out what was in the holy book for myself. I wrote poems and blog pieces on what I thought about God, and later on began reading commentaries from legends like C.S. Lewis.
I’m sure that many people saw me as a “Jesus Freak”, probably thinking about the stereotypes that are often portrayed about Christian teens. But I don’t think I was anything like that. Being a Christian was not about me wanting to seem better than my counterparts. Yes, there were many times where I didn’t agree with the choice they made, but that was on them. I knew that I was pretty far from being perfect myself and had no right to judge others, many of whom were going through the same struggles as me. Instead, me being in tune with my spiritual side gave me the hope that I so desperately needed at that time in my life. I learned how to empathize with others and perform charity with those who were less fortunate. I did not focus my time on trying to be popular or being someone who I knew deep down I wasn’t. My story was different, and I was thankful for that fact.
God has been in my life since the very beginning, and even though my faith has gone through many phases of evolution over the years, I still believe in something bigger than this world. I’m thankful for having the choice that I did to explore what I liked and didn’t like, and not having faith forced on me by my parents. I still don’t have all the answers, but I have the rest of my life to explore and find out more.