A few months ago, I went to church on a Sunday morning with my mom. I was visiting her for part of the weekend, and, fully vaccinated and wearing a mask, I decided to tag along to church. And it was okay.
That was not the case a few years ago when I would still occasionally attend church, even after shifting away from the Christian faith. Back then, I’d have a mixed bag of feelings after the service. I would be really upset about some of the things that were taught from the pulpit and that were, seemingly, accepted so blindly by the other congregants. On the way out, I would think, “How can anyone believe that? Has anyone actually researched this to any extent? That’s not accurate/justified/kind!” Conversely, I’d be nostalgic, wishing that I could go back to being a member of the church, wishing I could still believe so easily the things I used to believe, wishing it was all still so warm and cozy. And I’d feel confused, wondering if I was wrong, if it was my fault for not having enough faith or praying enough or having the right attitude, or whatever else.
With time, and when we’re removed from a situation, we often begin to see things more objectively. When a relationship ends — we break up with someone, or someone moves away or passes away, for example — we can see more clearly what that relationship was all about, what was good or not-so-good about it, why he or she or we acted in a certain way, and so on. As well, as life goes on and we meet other people and experience new things, we get a different perspective on the past.
Throughout it all, there is an opportunity for us to learn lessons and also to hold onto some of the good memories. When I reflect on my experiences in the church, I realize that there are, in fact, many valuable lessons that continue to influence in my life even now. I am grateful for them, and sometimes I wonder if I would have learned them had it not been for my Christian upbringing. Maybe, and maybe not.
Christianity taught me what JOY is – “Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last.” Cheesy? For sure. But also a good reminder for a fulfilling, rich, joyful life. I no longer believe in the Jesus I used to believe in, but it doesn’t take much research to find out that being with other people, sharing our thoughts and feelings, being generous with our time and money, going the extra mile, reflecting on others’ uplifting experiences and being happy for them, and other such things will often bring joy to our own lives, too. And although it is definitely important to look after yourself and pursue what interests you, being self-absorbed and self-serving isn’t really conducive to a healthy, happy life.
Another lesson from Christianity that stuck with me is ACTS (don’t worry, not all the lessons involve acronyms!). That stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, and it can be a framework for one’s prayers. Nowadays, I don’t pray, but even so I like the idea of Adoration, in the sense of wonder, of mystery, of being in awe, of realizing our smallness in the universe. I don’t like confessing when I’ve done something thoughtless or stupid, but I know that, at the end of the day, it’s better to own up to it (most likely to fellow human beings, not to God) and take responsibility for my actions. You probably can’t go too wrong with giving thanks too much, so that’s a good category in ACTS. Supplication means asking for something for ourselves or for other people. Well, for that one, I think I’d be more likely nowadays to just go ahead and do what I can to fulfill that request. Without God in the picture, it’s up to us human beings to take matters into our own hands. It’s also more of a challenge, but I think it’s usually worthwhile. It’s quite easy to simply pray that someone gets healed, or gets a job, or has a better marriage; it takes more effort to help someone actively search for a job, or to donate to someone’s GoFundMe or visit someone in a nursing home, or to have an awkward conversation about their unhealthy marriage or be a sounding board. In these cases, I suggest we adopt the acronym I just came up with: DSDJP (do something, don’t just pray).
“The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace! Patience, kindness, goo–ood-ness! The fruit of the spirit is faithfulness, gentleness, and self…con…trol!” Oh, yes, Sunday School songs still run through my head sometimes. That one is based on some Bible verses, Galatians 5:22-23. Certainly there is no harm in cultivating those fruits, right? I don’t think many of us would regret being too patient, or peaceful, or joyful, or any of those virtues.
I’m not really a fan of most of the cutesy Sunday School songs, but I do still love a good old-fashioned hymn now and then. My life for the first couple of decades was filled with hymn-singing, listening to choirs at various churches, playing worship music on my CD players at home or in the car, going to concerts, learning to play arrangements on my piano. So much of it is so beautiful, and I am glad I got to experience that. I’m glad, too, that a few years ago, my friend, a former JW, and I could crank up the church music on her laptop while we made dinner one evening. Two former church gals, chopping vegetables and listening to “How Great Thou Art” – I’m game! More recently, my neighbour (an 89-year-old Mormon woman who is blind) and I sometimes listen to hymns on YouTube. She doesn’t ask much about my religious faith — I think that she thinks I’m “going through a phase” of struggling with God, but we simply don’t talk about it — nor push any of her beliefs on me, and we can enjoy the music together, no matter our statuses of faith.
I am grateful for the lessons that Christianity taught me about death. About life being brief. About being prepared for the unknown. About having things in order. About being at peace. About trying our best. Maybe I would’ve learned these lessons anyway, even if I didn’t grow up in a Christian home and attend church regularly and take part in so many other religious or spiritual routines. Maybe I would’ve learned many of the same things later on, like when I volunteered with people in hospice care or when I worked at a funeral home and crematorium. Who knows? Again, there’s no way of knowing what our experiences or what we would have been like if this or that factor was different.
Numerous sermons, Christian books, midweek Bible study groups, and Christians in my own circle taught me the Golden Rule (which, I learned later on, is also taught in other religions): “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). As well, I remember hearing the word “integrity” for the first time and being intrigued by what that meant and how it would apply to real life situations. I remember learning about forgiveness, repentance (a “moral u-turn”), hope. Perhaps I would’ve learned these concepts through school or books or other people in my life, but maybe they wouldn’t have been cemented in my mind.
There were, of course, several teachings that aren’t entirely true or beneficial. Some can actually become damaging to oneself and other people. Some teachings perpetuate judgmentalism, contempt, feelings of superiority, unwarranted self-blame and shame, and so on. Some teachings keep people from leaving unsafe marriages or instruct them to turn a blind eye to many types of abuse. As I moved further away from Christianity, I began to see how harmful it can be to “always forgive”; I learned that many relationships, even with close friends or relatives, don’t get better no matter how hard you try and that sometimes you have to let go; I learned that security is often just an illusion; I learned that life isn’t fair and things don’t always get tied up nicely with a bow.
About ten years ago, a friend and I had a falling out. We bumbled through some phone calls and emails and coffees afterwards, but as time went on, more issues rose to the surface. We went quiet for a long time, both of us, perhaps, allowing for time to work its magic. After a few years of no contact, I initiated a reconnection. For a while, it worked, and then it didn’t. Throughout it all, I learned (though not by choice) a lot about friendships, human nature, different personalities and ways of handling life. I also learned a lot about love, second chances, letting go, and being open to possibilities.
I bumbled through my transition away from Christianity, too, and we didn’t end up reconnecting for good. As with the loss of my friendship, there were sleepless nights, long periods of over-thinking, countless tears, feelings of hopelessness. Sometimes, there’s no way of avoiding that — you have to slowly work through it. And sometimes, when it’s over, you can appreciate the good parts and hold onto the lessons you learned along the way. There might even be an acronym or two that lodges itself into your mind for forever.