A few months ago, I was asked by a member of the ULC.NET forum to discuss my faith journey. I am reposting that tale here, in hopes that some of you may find it helpful in your own journey.
Be warned, it has not always been a pleasant journey. A lot of it was difficult and even heartbreaking. It is a tale of rejection, of pain, but also of redemption and grace.
For me, the outright rejection of the faith I had when I was a child occurred when I was about 13 years old. As I stated before, I had grown up a very devoted Catholic in a town where Catholicism was the norm. Out of a town of roughly 10,000 people, there were at the time (mid-1960’s) five very large Catholic churches of which my parents belonged to the largest. Both of my parents were disabled and unable to drive to or even get up the steps of the church without a lot of help from others. But they made sure that other family members or neighbors got me to church every Sunday until I was old enough to walk there by myself. I think at first it was their insistence on the importance of going to church and being a part of a faith community that fueled my first love of God and Christianity because I saw how important it was to my parents.
It was during those first early years of my life that I began to experience the desire to become a priest. Those of you who grew up in a Catholic tradition (especially if you are baby boomers) know how one of the things that you are indoctrinated into is the idea of “vocation”, that is, the belief that God is calling you into the religious life, either as a Priest or Religous brother if you are male, or a Nun if you are female. As an 8 year old, I joyfully embraced the idea of one day becoming a priest, as did pretty much all of my friends. The difference is that for me, that desire never went away.
I probably would have become a priest early in my life, going from high school straight into seminary and the eventually the Catholic Priesthood, except for experiencing two devastating personal tragedies that caused me to question my beliefs and the church I had grown up loving.
Right about the time I was entering puberty, my brother (who had been given a medical discharge from the Navy), had come home to live with us until he could get a job and move out on his own. Among his possessions was a brown paper bag, that he had very clearly marked “DO NOT TOUCH” and that he left on the top shelf of the closet in the bedroom we shared. Naturally the very first chance I had, I got the bag down from the shelf and discovered his collection of porn. I short order, I quickly discovered (and please don’t think the less of me) the joys of self-love. Of course being a good Catholic boy, one who really wanted to be a priest, I figured I really needed to confess this sin. So that Saturday I went to church and confessed my sin to my favorite priest, the one who was serving as a mentor to me as I had begun to explore the possibilities of the priesthood. Now until that point in my life, no matter what horrible crime I could have confessed to, the worst penance I had ever received was having to do a complete decade of the rosary. Today, however, this not the case. Father told me to wait in the back of the church, and that after the evening confessions where done, he would give me an appropriate penance, one that any boy who wanted to become a priest would have to endure if they really wanted to be able to enter the priesthood.
When everybody else had left the building, Father took me down to the basement of the church. To make a long story short, I was forced to submit to whipping, and then was raped, all the while being told that this is the punishment given to any boy wanting to become a priest who commits the sin of masturbation. After it was over, Father told me that I would have to come to him for confession at least every two weeks and that I would have to endure this penance again if I continued in my sinful ways. I was also told that I told anyone else of what was happening, I would never be allowed to enter the priesthood. Indeed, I could even be excommunicated from the church for breaking the seal of confession.
Now I don’t know what anyone else would have done, but at that time in my life, I believed completely in whatever a Priest would tell me, and I also was caught in the place in my sexual development that telling me to stop my solo sexual activities would have the same result as telling a hardcore heroin addict to give it up cold turkey. So this went on for close to a year.
Earlier in this post, I had mentioned how both of my parents were disabled. My father, who was a veteran of WWII having served in Burma and New Guiena, had come back from the war in pretty bad health. Aside from Malaria, he also had what I believe now would have been diagnosed as PTSD. He was able to hold a job, but having only a 10th-grade education his working life was pretty much devoted to doing manual labor. Around the time I was born, he started having symptoms that at first had been diagnosed as MS. He had to give up driving, but was still able to work, since we lived very close to the Oil Refinery he was employed at. When I was 5 (and he was about 45), he had his first stroke. This stroke left him unable to use his left leg, and he was no longer able to continue working. Every year or so after that, he would have one major health issue after another and lose more and more of his physical abilities. About a year after the abuse started by Father, my dad had another stroke, this one causing him to lose the use of his other leg.
The Sunday afternoon after my dad had been taken away to the hospital (this was a few days after the stroke) my mother told me that dad would no longer be able to use what had been his good leg, and that now, instead of being able to get along on crutches and the use of a leg brace, he would pretty much be confined to a wheelchair. At this point, I lost it. I ran into my room, slamming the bedroom door (inadvertently causing the lock to engage and jam up) and sobbed my heart out. I couldn’t believe that God I had been taught was a loving God could keep messing with my dad this way. What could he possibly have done to deserve all this misery? And me, what was I doing that was so wrong and so awful that had I had to accept being beaten and…well, you know. There had to be something wrong, somehow I wasn’t getting the right message.
All this time my mother was standing at the door, pleading with me to unlock it and let her in. I absolutely refused to answer her. My brother tried, and I told him to get the hell out. Finally, my mom called the rectory and asked for Father to come and talk to me. So there I was, sobbing on my bed, not understanding why all this was happening, and the one man who I had trusted, who I had loved, and who had betrayed me and abused my love and trust stood outside my door and told me to accept God’s will. This was the very first time in my life that I told another human being, in fact shouted at him multiple times, to “get the F (insert your favorite F word here) out. Over and over again until he finally left the house. Eventually, my brother kicked in the door, and they got me to the hospital where with the help of a good strong sedative I finally calmed down. But I never set foot in that church again or spoke of what had been happening there.
I didn’t give up my belief in God. That has never every left. But I did give up the simple faith of my childhood. I had learned that just because someone says something from a pulpit, or orders you to do something under the guise of being a representative of God, does not mean that they have to be believed or obeyed. And I learned that there are no simple answers to the hard questions we struggle with in life. My dad was a good guy, why did he have to suffer so much? I was a good kid, not doing anything worse than most of my friends, why did God require me to submit to such degradation?
For a few years, I stayed away from any church. But I did read anything I could get my hands on about other faith systems. I studied Islam ( what little was available in my local library at the time). Buddism, Hindi, I became very familiar with the Bahi faith (which had one of the major temples just a few miles from my home). I kept searching, trying to find what I thought of as the time as the true faith. One that would answer all my questions, all my doubts. One that I would be able to fully embrace.
My good fortune, (or if this word does not offend anyone) my salvation, was that I met my future wife during this time. When we started dating (both of us were sophomores in Highschool) she was an active member of her churches MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship). Being the good boyfriend that I was, I started to go to her youth group functions with her. I began to discuss matters of faith with her pastor, who introduced me, very gently, to a way different understanding of Christ and the church then I had ever experienced. The nature of Grace (being God’s unearned, unmerited, undeserved total love for each of us), salvation by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, these were things that I had never been taught in Catechism class. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t rush right in and join the church. It wasn’t a burning bush moment. But it did get me to start to rethink my relationship to Christianity, to see that perhaps I was called to be part of a church again. That perhaps, Christianity was right for me, but that I had at first experienced some distorted teachings.
A few years after high school, my girlfriend and I wound up living in Milwaukee. She was going to nursing school and I had started a job at a local brewery (lucky me huh). We had separate apartments on different sides of town. She was looking for a Methodist church to join in her neighborhood but didn’t like the one by her apartment (which remarkably is the one I now preach at on a regular basis). Two block from my apartment was a Methodist church that had a big movie marque at the front. On it was always the title of that’s weeks sermon, under which in big, bold letters stated: “Rev. Reisner Preaches!” This was the mid 70’s, the time when TV evangelists were a big thing. Seeing that sign every day as I went to work, I thought that this guy was probably a bush league preacher, and that it may be fun to go watch him, so I invited Terri to try out that church, and said that I would even go with her (again thinking it would be good for a laugh).
That churched changed my life completely. Starting from what her youth pastor had first shared with me, I began to experience what God’s grace really means. I learned what it means to be accepted for him I am, faults and failings included, as a Child of God, loved and cherished, but also challenged to grow and become more. I learned that it was alright to question. That at least in the United Methodist understanding, our faith is not based on edicts from a pulpit, or on one person’s interpretation of Scripture. Scripture is primary, but also human reason, our traditions, and our individual human experiences.
And maybe most importantly, I began to experience Christ in a new way. In my early experience, I saw Christ as someone who I had condemned to death on a cross for my sins. I had been taught to feel guilty about being a faulty human being. I wasn’t even good enough to be able to pray to him, talk to him, directly. Everything had to be done by going through others, Saints who had an overabundance of grace, the Virgin Mary, priests. No, in the UMC I learned that I could have a personal relationship without all the go-betweens. I learned that I was good enough, worthy enough, loved enough, to be able to go Christ as a friend. I could tell him anything, ask him anything. Like a friend, he would listen. And like a friend, he would help. But like a friend also, he wouldn’t do everything for me. Somethings I needed to do for myself. He wasn’t going to throw money in my lap, I had to go out and earn it. He wasn’t going to make my relationship with my wife always smooth going, we had to work on that together. If I screwed up in life, I would have to suffer the consequences of my mistakes. That was the nature of the world God had created. And when I suffered because of the actions of others, I learned I could always turn to him for comfort, because he understood what it meant to suffer at the hands of other people, as he had done it himself.
This all took some years. It wasn’t until about 11 years after we first became members of Central that I had the experience where everything really jelled for me, when I could with integrity really state that I was a Christian. My wife, our two children, and I were at a Wednesday evening worship service at our church. We were all sitting around a piano in the lounge area, and having a hymn sing. In our hymnal is a song “Lord of the Dance” that is a very joyful song about the love of Christ. As we sang, our children ( who were about 6 and 2, as well as some of the other little children of the church had gotten up and starting dancing spontaneously around the piano. I thought how great it was that we were part of a church that was so loving, so accepting, that no one tried to get the children to sit down when they dancing with the pure joy of a child. Then it dawned on me that as our church accepts our children, so too does God accept me as I am.
After that moment of clarity, my life took a very different course. Until then I had focused my life on obtaining material success. After that, I wanted to share my faith with others. The old desire that I had when I was a child to become a priest reasserted itself with a vengeance. Naturally becoming a Catholic priest was out the question. There was too much in that churches theology and in the way it is governed that I could not accept. But I could easily see my self as a Pastor in the Methodist church. The Wesleyan way of thinking, our understanding of Grace and free will, our openness to let the Holy Spirit move our church to reach out to the outcasts and misfits of the world, these are things I wanted to share.
It took a few years before circumstances allowed me to enter a seminary. Seminary was another life-altering experience for me. While I know that there are seminaries that are little better than schools of mind control, only teaching the party line as it were, and rejecting any ideas that fall outside the little box that they consider the fundamentals, Garrett followed their motto of “Faith Seeking Understanding,” We were encouraged to study other understandings of Christianity, as well as other faith systems. We had heated debates over what really constituted sin. We debated vigorously over some the issues that still divide my denomination. Some of these debates even caused me to reconsider some of my previously held beliefs. For example, before I entered the seminary, I was a staunch opponent of the very notion of Gays and Lesbians being able to wed, to say nothing of being ordained. I did a complete 180 in my views over those issues, as I came to understand how very often we mistake what where cultural norms of centuries pass as being God’s will for the present.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned in seminary was that our God is a living God. A God who continues to speak to humanity in new and exciting ways. So many of my brothers and sisters in Christ take the view that God’s revelation to the world ended when the Canon of Scripture was decided on by the early church founders. I do not believe that to be so. I have come to view God as a loving, caring parent, who as humanity has grown and matured, given us more freedom, more knowledge, and more responsibility, for growing to our potential, and caring for this world that we have been entrusted with.
Of course, my faith experiences have been different than all of yours (thank God right). My faith has been formed by many different factors, some way beyond my control, some that I choose for myself. All I can say is my way, my faith, my relationship with God and how I choose to live it out is right for me. When I preach to my congregation, when I write here or on other sites, when I talk to friends or people who come up to me, all I can do is share my story, hoping it will help them on their own faith journey. It may not lead them to the same destination it led me. But I can say with confidence that my journey has led me to a place where I have found the greatest joy and sense of purpose, and brought me to the deepest relationship with my Creator then I had ever imagined it could.
In Christ’s service,