Brenda's Memoir

Religion, Faith, then Spirituality

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Religion, Faith, then Spirituality

In my memory, religious experience started at Camp Reveal. Pappy Reveal, a non-denominational, evangelical minister, started The Rescue Mission in downtown Evansville for derelicts and drunks and Camp Reveal on the outskirts of town for underprivileged children. Mom and Dad went there as children, so my brother, Bill and I went there. During my summer there as a five year old, my aunt prepped me to sing in public for the first time at the Wednesday night camp fire.  I sang Don't Do a Half Day's Work for the Lord and Expect a Whole Day's Pay. Today I can't sing it without sounding sarcastic, but then I was a sincere little angel-choir-of-one.

Don't do a half day's work for the Lord and expect a whole day's pay.
Only what's done with all of your heart, counts on the judgment day.
How can you stand idly by, knowing souls are doomed to die?
Don't do a half day's work for the Lord and expect a whole day's pay.

I think I won third place, but it might have been first. Only in retrospect, do I question the theology of the chorus. At the time, I didn't understand what a heavy spiritual load the song intended to lay on a five year old. I dodged the guilt, at least for a few more years, because I was much more concerned about winning the camp fire contest than pleasing the Lord.
However, I did 'get saved' at Camp Reveal when I was nine. Some late night service in the big building when tears and remorse were flowing freely,

I walked down the aisle and confessed my nine year old sins. It didn't occur to me to confess that the aunt who prepared me to sing at that campfire a few years before, also sexually molested me on a regular basis that same year. In my forties, I finally figured out this was a sin that she needed to confess. It took an even later epiphany to connect panic and fear of singing in public to that fifth year in my little girl life.
On Friday nights at Camp Reveal, we hiked to the foot of the cross at the entrance of the camp. If a car passed on the country road, the campers would call out "Graveyard" in a sing-song manner which I suppose was to encourage you to get off the road so you didn't end up in the graveyard. The hike seemed like twenty miles, but was probably two or three. The cross signaled the entrance to the camp for passersby on old Highway 41. Surely, it was at least fifty feet tall, but later years proved it to be about eight. Made of wood, it was also electrified and proclaimed brightly for the entire sinful world to see that "Jesus Saves" in neon letters. We sat at the foot on those hot summer nights and sang choruses, gave testimonies and wallowed in the culpability of our wayward existence. Even at nine, I knew I was a sinner saved by grace and Pappy Reveal. Pappy was a charismatic stump of a man who would have whole cows donated to his ministry of saving the wretched children of the poor.

The theology I learned at Camp Reveal was reinforced at Grace Baptist Church. While we moved all over Evansville, this church provided a source of stability even if the teachings were a bit medieval. Various parts of my family were connected to the church but most significantly, Aunt BJ. Distant cousins, whom we called Aunt Emma and Uncle Dan, reared Aunt BJ and it was their influence and the guidance of this church that led her to becoming a missionary. Her picture still hangs in that church.

I bought into the theology of the Southern Baptists in ways even my Mom didn't. I was the keeper-of-the family morals---I use the word morals here by intention because what I learned at that church was not spirituality. Don't drink. Don't smoke. Don't dance. Don't go to movies. Some women didn't ever wear pants or shorts and some just didn't wear them to church. Even as late as high school in California, a co-worker of Mom's chastised her for keeping me from attending the high school dances. Mom's reply, "Hell, I don't keep Brenda from dancing; she keeps me from dancing."

When my sister Bonnie was diagnosed with sclerosis of the liver at age five and at the same time my sister, Normi, a newborn had spinal meningitis, I had to throw a whopper fit to get my Mom to have the pastor come over to the hospital so they could "get saved" and then would not go to hell if they died.

During childhood years, I frequently went to church by myself, often walking but often being picked up by church members other than my family. The sanctuary of that church seemed huge to me. I sang for morning worship before I could even see over the pulpit. I won the Sword Drill championship at Grace Baptist Church and some young couple took me to the Indiana state competition where I also won, but only after throwing up in their car because I was too shy to say I was car sick. The Bible Sword Drill was memorization of many Bible verses but also the training and skill to know how to find verses in the Bible. The children stood in a line. The instructor would call "Attention!" and we stood military straight with our regulation Bibles at our sides. "Draw swords!" Bibles would then be raised to waist height with one hand on the bottom and one hand on the top…no fingers curling over the sides. "John 3:16. Charge!" With that command, we would turn through the pages until we had our finger on the right verse, look up at the judges and then step forward. I carried monster guilt for years that I once stepped forward and realized that---even though I wasn't called on to read---I had my finger on the wrong verse. You were supposed to rat yourself out if that happened. My realization happened quickly as we were stepping back for the next round---I never told a soul.

Later in life a friend in Kentucky tells me he once interviewed to be pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Evansville. He turned them down saying, "I can't be pastor of a church that professes only what we don't do as Christians instead of what we do do." However, during my seminary years another friend remarked, "Brenda, you need to get over your anger at the Southern Baptist Church, girl. Those churches provided you with role models, values, safe places, and more." He's right on one hand. And I am grateful to many adults in those churches. But, I also experienced the shallow, prejudiced, narrow beliefs as another violation of trust. I think I'm finally over it. Maybe. Kinda. Sorta.

Some folks may think religion, faith and spirituality are distinctions lacking a difference. That may be true for Webster but in my life these words represented different stages of development. Religion connotes baggage of centuries and institutions, structure and divisive doctrine that we humans lean toward arguing about. Faith, which is what I called my second stage of formation, conveys accepting what you really may not have experienced for yourself. This stage may be problematic for some folks because it connotes accepting rather than knowing.

I rest comfortably at this point with the term spirituality. I maintain that spirituality can be experienced and known by everyone who cares to access their spiritual center. By spiritual center, I am talking about that source of all that is good and virtuous about human beings---some may choose to call it our God-source, God, Higher Being.  

Accessing your spiritual center can be radically different for various persons. The Number One path to access for me is music---not all music is spiritual for me but music that stirs me spiritually can vary from Streisand to Sondheim to Sting depending on the venue. One of my most profound spiritual moments occurred on a car ride. Husband, John and I were cruising and singing along to the St. Olaf College Choir CD (John sang in this choir of all choirs as a college student). In short order, it became the most celestial quartet I have ever had the privilege of hearing with the addition of Spratley, our Chocolate Lab/Border Collie and Tristan Robert, our then fifteen month old grandson. These precious creatures who had no command of words accessed their spiritual centers and sang with passion and abundant joy. Those moments are indelibly etched on my soul.
Another path to spirituality for me is relationships. Have you been in a moment with another human being(s) when you know that you know that you know---it doesn't get any better than this---and this is true spirituality? Those are the moments when you move beyond the separateness of your own skin and experience a oneness of heart and mind and soul---spirituality at its best. I'm thinking of several venues which have provided such moments for me---worshipping with others, laughter with family or friends, hanging out with girlfriends and sex with my beloved.

The Number Three path to my spiritual center is reading. I do not believe that God stopped speaking when the Hebrew Scripture, the New Testament and the Koran were finished. Even novels occasionally guide me down the path to my spiritual center. Anne Lamott, Sue Monk Kidd and Barbara Kingsolver have all been spiritual guides for me.

Nature would be on most persons list of pathways to spirituality. While this path is not unknown to me, it eludes me much of the time because I'm too focused on what critter or bug might be approaching.  

Wayne Muller in Legacy of the Heart, suggests that the Buddhist word for faith, sraddha, "implies a sense of trust, clarity and confidence---it literally means 'to put one's heart on.'" He also maintains that faith is a verb not a noun. I celebrate this explanation and co-opt it as my meaning of spirituality. Nevermind that I rejected the word faith in the English definition, I did not say that faith or spirituality is tied to logic. And it is, indeed, a journey and I relish the journey ahead and not knowing where it will lead.

updated: 7 years ago


ShirleyMonday, September 12th 2011 12:25PM

Brenda, your childhood self sounds a lot like mine--the agonizing conscientiousness. Your finger-on-the-wrong-verse story is the perfect illustration.

Maybe this "washed in guilt" syndrome can be blamed on a person's chemistry. Maybe other children could sit through hellfire-and-damnation rants without taking everything so deeply to heart, so literally. For us the horror bored down through to our bones.

Your "cast of characters" chapters are a Mary Karr memoir in the making.

bpetersonMonday, June 6th 2011 4:52PM

Brandi, it really takes serious effort to overcome spiritual abuse. I truly believe that some of us were abused by the narrow theology taught to us as children. So so pleased that we are traveling this journey of healing by knowing each other.

Brandi Monday, June 6th 2011 6:01AM

I love you. Thank you for sharing this. 10 years, I've been searching for someone who's shared the same experience and here you've been , reading my blog this entire time. I knew we shared some similarities, but not to this extent. I can't tell you how much this article speaks to my spirit.