This is Jen’s story in her own words…
When I was in 8th grade, our social studies teacher assigned us a research paper. The topic was completely open – it could be on any person, time or event in history that we wanted. My friends did theirs on sensible things like World War II and the Civil Rights movement. Mine was entitled “Great Lutheran Theologians and their contribution to Protestantism – from Martin Luther to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” I got an A. Looking back on that now, the remarkable thing was not that I chose to do that topic, but that it didn’t occur to me to do anything else – that was the first choice.
My life growing up was filled with God and church and religion and Jesus. I loved the ritual of prayer at mealtimes and bedtimes, the pageantry of the church processional complete with banners, torches and incense, the sound of the organ that made your whole body vibrate. Church was where everything happened – my first kiss, my first heartbreak…
My Dad was a Lutheran pastor and a theologian and an ethics professor and a Seminary dean. His office at home was next to our playroom so my Nancy Drew mysteries and Judy Blume novels mingled with his books on Christian Anthropology and Ethics and so to me, the ideas in them all were somehow connected. From him I learned that faith was scholarship and study, learning, interpretation and meditation.
My mother was an activist for education and women’s rights who made sure we learned music and knew our hymns so that when we were in church we could Sing Out Louise – because if you’re going to sing in church you better sing loud. From her I learned that faith was lifting your voice – both in the pews and in the world – fighting for social justice and equality and standing up for what you believe in.
My grandmother – the matriarch of the family – after a long and difficult life of losing her husband, several of her children, her home and her sight, still shared what little she had with anyone in need and believed that God had a plan for her. She sent regular letters to my sisters and I that usually closed with something like “the weather has been just terrible. God is certainly showing us that he is displeased with our wickedness and reminding us that we are sinners in his sight and he will come soon to judge the evil deeds of the world. Happy Birthday, love Nana.” From her I learned that faith was giving even when you had nothing to give and putting yourself in God’s hands.
And it wasn’t all golden – there were years of unemployment, unhappiness and divorce, but even through that God and the church were constant.
And then I went to college and just as Rick Santorum predicted, I lost my faith and was indoctrinated into a liberal agenda. Actually the liberal agenda was already there, and I didn’t lose my faith so much as lose the person who made me get out of bed early enough to make it to church on Sunday mornings.
But from that time on while my faith as I knew it remained, it became more private and personal. I went to church occasionally but could never find a place that felt like home. My new step-parents were not as religious as my folks, so even going home church was not the same. Friends described growing up in oppressive churches that were intolerant of their being gay or their decision to date outside their race. The news was filled with stories of people committing atrocities in the name of God, misbehavior in the priesthood, politicians were using religion and it felt like Christianity had been co-opted.by the religious right. I found it hard to reconcile the hypocrisy I saw with my experiences growing up and organized religion came to seem divisive and judgmental. I found myself saying things like “I’m more spiritual than religious” which was code for I’m confused and angry and scared that everything I have believed in and held on to all my life is wrong. Because for me a big part of faith was church. My faith in God was still strong, but my faith in the church was really shaken.
So I replaced being in church with being in theater – another place of ritual and pageantry, another place where a community gathers to tell the same stories again and again in the hopes of learning something new about themselves. I met plenty of people there who modeled Christian behavior without being particularly religious at all, including my husband Scott. From him I learned that faith is forgiveness and celebration.
I missed talking with other people about God, so I started what I call the Enlightened Ladies Club (or the ELCs). A group of theater women – one Quaker by way of the Church of the Brethren, one agnostic Jew, one Buddhist yogini and me – who gather regularly to discuss spiritual questions over cocktails. From them I learned that faith is compassion, laughter and a really good bottle of red wine.
And then I had a baby. My beautiful Lily. From her I learned that faith is humility and gratitude and wonder. And she led me to St. Peters. My office used to be here on 4th and South and when Lily was a baby I would stroll her around the church yard to get her to sleep. I would often come inside to sit and read the sermons that are printed out right here. I was so hungry for their message and they were so exciting, so full of love and so immediate. I thought – I could go here….even though it’s Episcopalian. When Lily was three we were watching The Sound of Music and she asked me what a nun was. I said it’s a woman who is married to God. She asked who God was and as I started to talk about an invisible man who made the world I realized that I did not have the vocabulary to handle her spiritual education on my own. I remembered those sermons and we came to St. Peters. At the first service I attended, I cried when the organ played, I cried when the choir sang, I cried during the sermon – I still do. I came because I thought Lily needed it but I came back because I needed it.
That was four years ago. In December, my parents – now in their 70s and both divorced again – came together to visit me. The high point of the visit was bringing them to St. Peters, sitting in church together and worshipping as a family. It felt like home. And I was reminded that faith is healing. From Ledlie and Claire and all of you in this community, I have learned so much. Most importantly I’ve learned that faith is yes. The “Yes Yes Yes!” that we say when we are asked if we will accept and help new members. Yes to your questions, yes to your doubts, yes to your stories, yes to your gifts, yes to everything that you are – yes, yes, yes. My faith in church has been restored by being here – and I thank you for that.