Spiritual confessions, from the devoutly non-religious

skeleton holding a sign reading "confession"A confession. Actually, multiple confessions. I know–it all sounds so JUICY! But before I start, a qualifying note—some confessions prior to confession, if you will. First, these confessions ain’t all that juicy. So get your mind out of the gutter (those are reserved for a later time). Second, “confession” brings with it a quality of guilt and need for reparation, either with something bigger or with yourself or with another. That’s not what my confessions—what these particular confessions—are about. Yet there is most certainly a spiritual undertone and undertow to all of what follows. Let’s continue.

First confession. I grew up in Kansas. When young, I regularly attended Sunday School (of the Methodist variety). My parents were friends with the pastor and I remember visiting their house even after they had moved to another city (sidenote: their house had a cool stairway from the kitchen to the upstairs—reminded me a bit of playing Clue and escaping via a secret passage). After my parents divorced, I also spent a fair amount of time at Catholic mass. Growing up, I attended small churches where everyone knew who you were, as well as giant mega-churches where you were anonymous yet (supposedly) somehow part of something so much larger. My best friends in high school were a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Baptist, and a Mormon. I know, it sounds like the start of a joke: so this atheist/agnostic walks into a bar (well, probably not a bar) with a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Baptist, and a Mormon… If Kansas is part of the Bible Belt, then growing up I felt situated squarely in the middle of the buckle.

Second confession. I never liked any of it. It didn’t feel comfortable to me. Ever. Even as a child. While young, I loved exploring the darkened church, running behind the alter and choir area in what felt like hidden walkways that few ever saw or even knew existed. I still remember hiding behind the trees and bushes in front of the church and climbing into the newspaper recycling container with my best friend Rob. I liked trying to figure out the fire escape with its counterweight. But beyond the cool, young boy explorations, I didn’t like it. I felt uncomfortable wearing the gown-like garment (aww, let’s face it, it was definitely a gown, nothing “gown-like” about it) as I walked down the aisle to extinguish the candles on the alter. The special candle snuffing device was cool, though, as was the smell of the wick after it went out. “Lock-ins” were cool because I got to play basketball all night long. “Lock-ins” weren’t cool when we had to stop and talk about religion. Hide-and-seek in a church is pretty much more awesome than anywhere else. It’s creepy late at night and there are a million places to hide, hoping that the girl you like will find you before anyone else. It’s not nearly as cool to stop and join together in prayer.

Third confession. All of these feelings made me feel alone and lost and confused at times. One friend was going on a mission. Another friend’s brother went to divinity school. Another friend was so devotedly involved with his church that he always felt the most religious of all of them to me. This same friend gave me a book a few years later, an attempt to save me, I think, but done in a way that never made me feel uncomfortable or pressed upon. My mom gave me a plaque with the religious connotation of my name. I’ve kept it, and the Bible I was given as a child, all of these years, but simply have them boxed away. I tried to read the Bible from cover to cover once, maybe twice. I didn’t make it. And so what was I in the midst of all of this? A fraud? Not really, because I never professed to believe like the rest. They knew I wasn’t religious. It was more like I was the one who missed the day at school where everything was explained. I somehow just didn’t quite get it. Or, I was the one who saw the punchline that everyone else missed. Either way, there was a certain outsider status that I felt, though none of them ever placed it upon me.

Fourth confession. One of the above-mentioned friends told me years later that he thought of me as the most spiritual of all of them. Took me completely by surprise. I’d never thought of myself that way. I moved to the Pacific Northwest but I hadn’t become a new-age hippie or anything. Where did this come from? It did two things, though: 1) it altered my understanding of my friend, who before I would have guessed as being the most dogmatic and proscription-driven (he didn’t drink, smoke, etc). His concept of religion and spirituality turned out to be much broader and inclusive than I had ever guessed (broader, certainly, than mine since I could never conceive of myself as “spiritual”). 2) it made me think about what, in fact, was “spiritual.” Nothing dramatic happened, but I think it planted a seed.

Fifth confession. I’ve come, when I’m most open and at my best, to believe in trusting the “universe” and keeping myself as open as possible to it. That’s when the best things in my life have occurred. It’s hard to do, though, with guilt about the past and worries about the future and anxieties about my self-worth robbing that comfortable melding with the present that has been fuel for when the tumblers of life click into place and things move unimpeded toward the beauty and love that means more than anything else in life to me—whether that’s being filled with thankfulness when staring at the ceiling and asking that I be a good enough father to teach my soon-to-be-born son about love and ask that he feel love surround him like a bubble throughout his life, or putting all fears aside and risking myself in a relationship by fully letting go in the pursuit of unprotected love (big difference, kids, between unprotected love and unprotected sex: yes on the former, no on the latter).

Sixth confession. I want to believe in something bigger. (Have I indeed become a NW hippie after all?). For me, that something bigger is love and understanding that nothing happens in isolation. I think about my novel Ghost Music and I see those undercurrents swirling through the plot and character growth. The past, present, and future chase one another. The main character, Marcus Brace, has to learn to heal his wounds and risk himself with another woman again. At one point (in a pop culture nod toward a Brady Bunch episode where the kids break a vase playing ball in the house and try to glue it back together) Marcus wonders whether what has been fractured grows stronger for that break or remains forever fragile afterward. I say, with all due acknowledgment to the more typical Biblical aphorism, that you reap what you risk. Willing to risk fragility is its own type of strength. Be willing to be fragile, my friends. And in that, know that you are strong and there is love coming back to you.

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