I grew up dutifully attending the First United Methodist Church with my mother nearly every week. Sometimes my dad would be there, but not always as he was fond of visiting any of his patients that were hospitalized in the mornings even on Sundays, perhaps especially on Sundays. Church would include my going to Sunday School in the hour before sanctuary worship, and then usually the family going out to the members only Yacht Club for the after church brunch and hobnobbing session with the elite of my hometown. A few of my Sunday School classmates and other regular school mates who went to other churches had a similar routine including the Yacht Club lunch, and so for the most part we all knew our lucky place in the world and which daddies were the doctors, lawyers, judges, or business owners.
My church attendance was not anything I rebelled against much. My brothers before me had generally succeeded in getting old enough to say ‘no’ and/or had embarrassed mom and dad enough in 1960s era long hair hippy rebellion that by the time I was going with mom they were not. For the most part I liked it although I sometimes chaffed at the attire my mother insisted I wear in comparison to some of my cohorts. The Yacht Club had a coat and tie minimum dress code and we weren’t going to church without the social gathering afterwards so I had to wear what mom said and I did.
As the years went by Sunday School achieved its goal in familiarizing me with the entire bible, and at the urging of my mother one summer I read it again on my own with relish. At church the preacher who presided over our Methodist flock was a fantastically worthy and righteous spiritual inspiration, and many times I was touched and enlightened by his message. Of course, my father was his physician and they had a friendship that saw the reverend over to our house for dinner or a swim now and then so I could see his sincerity and utter lack of hypocrisy both on and off the field. He was a beacon of a life lived in righteous relationship with God.
All of this added up to how for me church was mostly a positive experience. The biggest thing about it that fought against good spiritual growth was knowing most of my Sunday School classmates when they were not in church. This irony grew especially pronounced as the teen years came and mom tried to get me to attend UMYF (United Methodist Youth Fellowship) on Sunday evenings. Our church was the big one, and so our UMYF included some of the kids from other nearby Methodist churches. We all went to school together for the most part and knew each other about as much as kids turned loose in a giant recess on the blacktop could. But everybody coming to ‘the big one’ where there was room enough to cage and feed us all in a cafeteria set up of sufficient capacity fostered a wildness in the air that could stifle any moment of serious spiritual growth.
It was supposed to be fun and we could dress casually in our normal school clothes instead of coats and ties for some of us. We could play games or basketball. So as a young teen I could ‘enjoy’ spending a long few hours keeping my head down and staying out of the way of the bigger older kids while we all went through the line and got the same pizza they served at school, etc. In addition any classmate girl a young boy might be sweet on and could talk to at school would instead be talking to the older junior high football quarterback or some such. It was a king of the hill environment and I was not anywhere near the top.
My mother hoped that the youth program would be another spiritual building block, but back then it sucked for me and I did not like UMYF at all. I’m told how years later that program did get much better at breaking out the kids by ages and developing into “small group” dynamics etc. However, for me it was spiritually draining to see the same kids who just recently had been quietly reverent in prayer all dressed up to honor God now turn into little loud-mouthed bullies and braggarts just like they were in school. My being an egg head and a fly on the wall probably didn’t endear me to any of the other kids much either so we all likely shared the desire for me not to be there.
Yet out of duty and obedience to my mother and her advice that I keep trying it I went many times. “Be patient,” she said. “Try to find someone who is sitting alone and go talk to them.” Or, “If you are not having a good time get out your bible and read something.” These ideas worked only a few times wherein a good conversation or new interpretation on refreshed bible readings did happen, but they were the exception.
In contrast what really cemented my spiritual faith was when my mother took me on a journey to the Holy Lands of Israel. I was just turned 13 and though I had travelled several times with the folks to resorts where my father was giving speeches or helping with the Board Certification Test of Internal Medicine, this was my first long distance trek abroad. As a gift, my grandparents had always taken each grandchild before me on an “around the world” trip when they got old enough. But with six years between me and my nearest brother who got one, Mammy and Pap had grown a tad too old to do it again when it was my turn. Lucky for me my mom was enticed at the last minute to join in and go on a church planned Holy Lands tour with a Methodist Bishop and some of her other friends at our church. She would likely not have gone with just a preacher and Sunday school teacher group, but she could not resist a Bishop. Best of all, I could go. “Just keep still, speak when spoken to, and make me proud. I’m sure I can count on you to be a gentleman.” And she could.
Being on that trip, as the only child surrounded by adults all searching for spiritual and historical context, while visiting many places the bible speaks of was an enormous boost to my faith. I had challenged myself to have faith without seeing, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing,” said Jesus (John 20:29) yet being here in a bus full of tourists traipsing into Bethlehem, or seeing Golgotha, or standing on the Temple mount, experiencing living history was putting reality into many words I had read and studied, but before felt were far away, almost fictional. In comparison to our group praying in the garden of Gethsemane beside centuries old olive trees, somehow back home anyone pretending that playing volleyball in a church gym could hope to be spiritually magnetic or uplifting seemed utterly ridiculous.
When I returned from Israel I was spiritually hungry and starting in a new private Catholic High School where old testament studies were required. I grew and learned. I continued to try UMYF periodically for a few more months, but there was one final nail in the coffin for me after that year’s Christmas season, during a New Year’s Eve social thrown together by one of the popular girls of church and a classmate near my age. After a regular UMYF dinner one evening, somebody was going to grab the church’s van and load up about a dozen of us to drive over to her house for cookies and games until the midnight hour countdown and then bring us all back home one by one. It sounded fun, and the girl’s mother was a friend of my mom’s so I was encouraged to go.
After the countdown we were all tired and I remember our sort of staggering out the front door and slowly moving towards the van. The neighborhood was quiet and most of the lights were off such that the night sky was ablaze with stars almost the same way they can be at sea, or as seen when deep into the woods on a clear night. There was little moon that evening and as I looked up and saw not only the stars, but clearly a galaxy or two with the cosmos lit up almost as if it were a painting, I leaned my head back and turning around slowly I uttered in a calm reverent voice, “God.”
There was a silence as the kids near me stopped walking and talking and I realized something was wrong. I brought my gaze out from the heavens and looked around for what the matter was, and saw utter repulsion on several faces. Somehow to them I had taken the Lord’s name in vain and my calling on His name had ruined the whole evening for them. 13 year olds. We loaded up in the van, but all chit chat and/or party giggles were silenced and though my home was not the nearest to our current location I expected to be the first kid to be dropped off, and I was.
“Hey honey, did you have a nice time at the party?” Mother asked.
“Yes mom, it was a fun time and the cookies were great. You should take a look outside at the stars mom, it is incredible tonight.”
“Really? OK, I will.” And she went outside to see for herself. “My God, you are right. They are just incredible.”
“Good night mom, I’m going to bed.”
“Happy New Year sweetheart.”
That was the last time I went to UMYF youth group. Though I enjoyed the adult worship in the sanctuary with mom and sometimes with dad there as well until I left for college, something ended in me about wanting any more time with my “classmates” there. My mother, heretofore always capable of needling me into changing my mind or using guilt of some sort to get me “back to it”; somehow she sensed a shift in my calm refusal ever to go there again.
My spiritual journey was my own now, between myself and God.