By Rev. Shawna Foster
Make sure they have fallen in love with your spirit first. Your body second. – Nayyirah Waheed
As a child living in a liminal state, the stability of church was important. Being a military brat meant I was always moving, but at least our family was together. When my parents divorced nothing was together. I felt whatever I loved would disappear.
Except for church. That was always there. I didn’t understand why but we were doing the same things on a weekly basis and I liked it. We ate Jesus’ body, drank his blood, and knew that he was alive within us. In a worldview that says humans knew the mind of God as the world came into being, these rituals seemed infinitely old. This was the body of the church that I could touch, taste, see, hear, and smell when the rest of the world made me feel numb. This was the body of a universal and ageless church I wanted to be a part of. It was a mask of the Christian faith.
I took my Bible study classes seriously. I learned that maybe we weren’t quite sure what God was thinking when the universe was created. I learned that people made up rules at different times in church history. They said God told them to make these rules. I don’t know how God picked the winners or losers in these ancient debates; it seemed more political than holy.
I read the Bible to find the trinity, but it wasn’t there. I wondered why God would command one particular canonization of the Bible, and say other books were heresies. I could not find a common thread in either. Closely, I studied this mask of Christianity and it looked less and less immortal and more and more human.
Most of all I was worried about babies. If a baby was not baptized and died on earth, it could go to hell because of original sin. This mask was off. Instead I saw the spirit of this religion telling me its truth: babies are born in sin. They have to be, or the death of Jesus is not the divine redemption of all humanity.
At thirteen years old I thought about all the children I had played with in the church nursery. They seemed perfect. If only more people could be like babies, happily surprised with new experiences. Babbling for the sake of their own amusement. Radiating the love they got back to the whole world.
Even though I had gone through the tests and studied hard, the spirit revealed to me was not one I could confirm. The church was nice about it. They appreciated my doubts and welcomed me to stay. I did not.
For a while, I had no mask, no body of religion. In my small hometown people would ask if I was Christian and I said “no.” They would ask, “Well then, what are you, Jewish?” I didn’t know much about Judaism, so I said no to that too. I didn’t know there were any other religions or ways to be.
I knew my spirit, but had no words to define it, nobody to celebrate it with, no mask to show to the rest of the world. I was religiously naked. Some people like that sort of thing. They say they are spiritual, but not religious. I feel the opposite. I need the institution of religion, I need people to be with, and I need a place to call home. I need a body and a mask to show the rest of the world. I am religious, but not spiritual.
In my mind I made up my own religion. Maybe God would be there, maybe not. We’d probably admit that it was hubris to say we knew for sure either way. There would be rituals that would help people mark the special times in their life, the seasons, and embrace the mystery of life. Instead of hell after death, people would fix things now. My religion seemed so outrageous to me that I gave up religion.
Later on, my mother was the one who made me find another body for my spirit and don another mask in the dance of life. She said that my children needed a moral compass. If they grew up without a religious home, inevitable crises would make them susceptible to religions that prey on vulnerable people. She went to beliefnet.com and filled out the spiritual-o-matic quiz as if it was for me, and it matched.
It is grander than the religion I dreamed up as a teenager. I found a place where immortality wasn’t as important as the here and now, was pretty honest about the fact it was mainly influenced by and was for people, and yet had an enduring spirit of embracing mystery which moves in and out of definition. It had a body shaped by the human experience and a mask of reason and reverence. It is home.
The masks of religions are not bad. I encourage you to find one that you want to show the world. Easy definitions are helpful in a world of information shooting around us like lightning. The body of religion can be good too; the things we can physically sense. It provides a grounding stability. This is hard to agree with if the body of religion has done nothing but harm to you or your family. Don’t let bad religion define your religious life.
Be open enough to dance with different masks, different bodies until your spirit matches a religious spirit in this odd, fantastic consciousness we call life. There are so many manifestations of the spirit that I am sure there is one for you. However – and especially with religion – take care to stay long enough to feel the spirit first, and decide what you are in love with.
Rev. Shawna Foster is a Unitarian Universalist Minister serving the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist congregation in Carbondale, Colorado. You can find out more by visiting TwoRiversUU.org or UUA.org. Contact her by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org