The chair that you’re sitting on while reading this? It isn’t real. Neither is the table on which you set your stuff, or any of your belongings. They are matter. Matter is not real. This is one of the first tenants of Christian Science that a young child learns in Sunday School. They call it unreality.
I was seven years old, and sitting in the Sunday School room that was adorned with posters informing me how much God loved me. I was the only child in my class; in fact, I was the only child in the entire room. (The church had a regularly attending population of six or seven people, including the organist, soloist, and the two who did the weekly readings.) My teacher had a boom-box that she played hymns from, and when we were done singing that day she struck the table with her open palm.
“This is matter. It isn’t real. This chair. Not real.”
“But you just hit it, and your hand didn’t go through.” To seven year old me, this statement seemed perfectly reasonable. If it wasn’t real, her hand would go through. Like in a cartoon.
“You have to believe. Believe that you need nothing but God. Do you believe that?”
I honestly wasn’t sure. I rather liked sitting in a chair. The ground in the church basement was quite cold.
Was anything real?
After a minute, she continued, “The things on Earth are just here. They’re temporary. Tell me what you value most in this world.”
“How about this week? What did you value most this week?”
Even at that age, I was pretty sure that she wanted me to say God. But as I thought about it, I knew that simply wasn’t true. I had walked five dogs that week and helped two neighbors with groceries, earning me enough to walk down the street to the neighborhood bookstore and buy two books. “Books,” I replied.
I knew that. I knew the answer she wanted to hear. But I also knew that I was only showing up to Sunday School because my grandma took me out to eat after church every week and enhanced my collection of McDonalds Happy Meal toys. Bribery at its finest. Whether I valued God or not, and whether I believed the table was real or not, I still went every week.
When I was eleven, my grandmother moved away. The tradition of bribing me with food continued; the church population was down to six, and they were all over fifty. To keep me coming even without my grandmother, they shoved increasingly tasty foods down my throat along with their lectures on matter. As I got older, they started paying me each week to play the organ and sing the solos. I enjoyed that check very much; I used it to by books and candy. This kept me coming, when the population of the religion as a whole was slowly dwindling.
I learned a great deal about how to act; we were not supposed to pray out loud, as it was disrespectful. We only spoke in church when spoken to, unless we were on the podium. Silence equalled respect. Medication was another thing in the land of unreal. If God made a person sick, it was because they had done something wrong or because they had not believed in him enough. If they believed in Him more and strengthened their faith, they would be healed. Medication was matter; it wasn’t real and would have no effect. When a person signs up to become a member of the Christian Science church, one of the rules they are agreeing to obey is that they will not take any medication.
I was sixteen years old when I went into the residential treatment facility for my eating disorder. As part of my treatment plan, I took two different medications. When I got out I didn’t want to tell anyone at the church, and I felt incredibly dishonest. I stopped going. I knew that the real me would no longer be accepted there.
My grandma is now in her eighties. She is diabetic, and requires daily insulin as well as cholesterol and blood pressure medication. She still religiously attends church with her husband each Sunday, but she can not become a member. Though she hasn’t told anyone at the church that she takes medication, she just doesn’t feel right signing the membership document. She feels it would be a lie. And yet, she continues to go to church. She’s a good person, but she can’t ever officially join again. Doesn’t that make the Christian Science religion itself a lie?
My next venture into the land of religion began when I was sixteen, almost seventeen. February 19th, 2001. For many years prior, before my hospital stint, my voice teacher had been attempting to shift my focus from Christian Science to Christianity with Bible studies and helpful verses during my lessons. I was resistant to this after my experiences in the Christian Science church.
When I got out of the hospital, I was on crutches due to an unfortunate accident while playing Ultimate Frisbee during recreational therapy. I went with a friend from work to her youth group a week or two after being released because she thought it would be “good for my soul.” I met a woman there who is still my friend to this day—a fellow writer and an all around good person. She asked me how I felt about giving my life to the Lord. Feeling religiously aimless without the routine of showing up at the old church each week, I replied, “I’ve just been waiting for someone to show me how.” So she did.
Just like that, I was a Christian. Back then, I didn’t really understand what that meant; I just wanted to find a place where I fit. This meant that I had to change.
I quickly realized that being a Christian was about being challenged and tested. Satan would give trials to people in the church, which God allowed because they would test and stretch the faith of believers. Four days after, February 23rd, was my first challenge. And while it hurt, I still chose to believe. It was better to believe in something than nothing at all. My continued belief in God despite circumstances beyond my control made me a stronger, better person, and He would love me more for my perseverance. At least that’s what I was told.
I stuck solidly with the Christian religion for eleven and a half years. I showed up to church nearly every Sunday, and I quite enjoyed it. I made friends; I got to sing in the choir or worship line of every church I attended. I was no longer regaled with tales of how matter was unreal, or forced to believe in a version of the Bible that didn’t make sense. I fit somewhere. Over that time period, I went to eight different churches. And I was tested. Oh, was I tested. I was told this meant I must be pretty special, that God had fantastic plans for me. But I always had trouble reconciling that statement. I was a good Christian, and I followed the rules. Don’t make a scene. Smile, nod. Respect your husband. Stick with the herd. Fit the mold.
Rape, child death, a horrible marriage. These were just a few select tests of many. Just a few parts of “God’s master plan.” I still stuck it out though, because I knew nothing else.
I loved the church where my ex was hired on staff. Were we still together, it would have been the church I stayed with forever. But staying together was not in the cards; my very identity rode on the mandate that we separate. I would be lost if we had stayed together. The Bible cites only two acceptable reasons for divorce: sexual immorality and spousal desertion. My reasons fell into neither of those categories. At first people were of the “who cares?” bracket: “Come to church anyway, you can sit in the back, nobody cares.” But in a rush soon after, both the public and social media de-friending began. I knew that my ex was sharing stories about me; after one initial (poorly formed) attempt, no one made an effort to hear my side. They simply turned their backs on me without seeking the truth, and I was not courageous enough or solid enough in who I was as my own person to force them to hear those details. People who had been my friends were now his, just like that. The division was very clear. The side that the church supported was very clear. And I left. That was three years ago.
In those three years, I have visited a myriad of churches, but none have been to my liking. All I see are people who are going to judge me as I was judged in the aftermath of the divorce. While I am well aware that this is a blanket statement and does not apply to all Christians, (I have met many good ones outside of the church setting), I still find myself unable to trust many of them. I am unable to settle on a church. I am unable to attend.
Christianity filled a hole for me when there was nothing else. Losing my church the way I did left a hole like no other.
I can’t say for one hundred percent certain where I am now religion wise, but that’s okay. I know that I believed in both of these religions for the wrong reasons: tiny Barbie toys, tasty food and fitting in. It isn’t that I don’t believe in God, per se. I do, though I sometimes wonder about the things He allows to happen in this world. I just struggle to put belief into organized religion at this point in my life. The church is supposed to be a place where everyone is accepted. I did nothing wrong in either church, but I was no longer accepted. I was treated horribly. I can’t be a part of that type of system anymore.
I believe that I am my own person. I don’t have to serve anyone else; I don’t have to conform to anyone else’s standards. I don’t have to blindly follow orders just because someone told me to. I am free to make my own decisions, to follow my own path. This path does not involve standing in anyone else’s shadow, or following anyone else’s ideals. It is about me being me, about me creating my own reality, about having my own ideas and sharing them. I can’t allow my decisions to be shaped by anyone else, not anymore. I believe that God should love me just the way I am, and that anyone who says otherwise is not worth the time it takes to hear their statement.
I am tired of being hurt. And to me, the benefits of not being hurt outweigh the risk of trying to make myself fit where I’m not sure I ever actually belonged.