My entire life has revolved around “The Bible Belt”. I grew up in a Southern Baptist household. Not just any household, but one in which the patriarch of the family was the pastor of the church we all attended. My grandfather instilled in our entire family a fundamental Southern Baptist ethic. Then, well, we all rebelled in our own distinct ways.
Some worked their way back into the church, sowing wild oats and then returning to the comfort of what they knew. Some simply left and, to this day, never looked for or wanted any spiritual guidance at all. Then there’s me. I’m the one that spent his entire life searching for something - anything - that simply felt “right”.
Growing up, I wanted so badly to be just like my Paw-Paw. I wanted to have that same peace and conviction he showed daily. I tried. I would watch him study, constantly reading, praying, rereading; I would do the same. I would read books from the church library. I would try to pray every day, waiting for that Moses moment, that moment when God was going to talk to me through my own burning bush. I still haven’t heard Him.
Perhaps it's just a lack of faith. Perhaps I’m just plain doing it wrong. But I've never seemed to get the whole talking to God thing. My grandfather did though. I've never seen him use as much as a notecard when he was giving a sermon. He would just read and study and pray all week, then on Sunday mornings, he would mark some passages in his Bible he was going to use and that was it. More often than not by the time he was ready to deliver the sermon he would be “lead by the Spirit” and change everything he prepped for. He is simply the best religious teacher I have ever met.
I, on the other hand, must be the worst student because I just never was comfortable with the Baptist "accept and believe" mentality. I would ask questions we've all asked like “Why is alcohol bad when Jesus turned water into wine?” The stock answer was “it wasn’t the same kind of wine”. (Yeah right.) Later in my life I would actually have the privilege of serving our country in Israel and I visited a winery that was supposed to be over 1000 years old. Trust me it’s the same wine. I was always that way too inquisitive for a Southern Baptist. While in college, I joined a fraternity and was exposed to all sorts of religions and made a point of going to as many different churches as possible. I felt that I was definitely a Christian but I didn't know where I fit in any of the traditional churches.
Here comes the point at which I start to give my opinion on the major Christian denominations. (It is my opinion so if it offends you I am very sorry, but my experience has formed these opinions. Here goes.) Church of Christ, Church of God, Pentecostal - couldn’t do it. The only church I have ever been in with snakes is a Pentecostal church in Cleveland, Tennessee. I won’t be doing that again. Ever. CoC and CoG are almost as bad, very fundamental and certainly wouldn’t have liked to have me argue doctrine with them. Episcopal – didn’t feel like church. It was very intimidating for a visitor. Catholicism – a lot of work to figure out that it doesn’t matter how you act as long as you ask a priest for forgiveness and recite some prayers for contrition.
When I joined the military I volunteered to serve as a lay leader in basic training which meant I got to lead everyone to the chapel on Sundays, and lead a prayer time every evening in the barracks. It was kind of cool, very non-denominational and everyone became a church-goer in basic just to get away from the Drill Instructors for two hours.
After basic, my first duty station was Korea. I loved it. I took every opportunity to soak up as much of the culture as I could. It was there that I had my first introduction to Buddhism, but it didn’t mean too much to me then other than it was simply a part of the Korean lifestyle. I toured a monastery with the largest Buddha statue in Korea and was impressed with how at peace and benign the monks were in their daily life. It greatly affected my view of what spiritualism was because by this point I had adopted my father's view of religion - just couldn't do the rules of organized religion. He'd even built himself a cabin in the woods that he called his Chapel. He didn't go to church, he made his own church. And when he was at home he'd wake up on Sunday mornings and watch church on TV while drinking beer. He practiced his own kind of spirituality.
Later, when I returned to the States, some friends of mine were going to a church in Clarksville, TN where we were stationed and talked me into going with them. It proved to be the best day of my life. I met my wonderful wife that morning. It was love at first site and in barely a month after we met we decided to get married. My soon to be wife was asked if she was pregnant because we wanted to be married so quickly. (She nearly hurt herself laughing.) And we were told that in order to be married in the church where we met, we first were required to attend "training" classes, and were also not to have have sex until we were married. The "training" classes were more of Southern Baptist Inquisition - making sure were both Saved (When, Where, etc. and what our sexual history was, what our plans were for the future for our family, our religious plans, etc.). We tried to be very active in the church, but the organization of organized religion had reared its ugly head to such a degree that we simply couldn't agree or be comfortable in any setting.
Several times over the years we have tried to start attending church regularly but the politics of church just turn one or both of us off. She believes one thing, I believe another. She cannot abide organized religion and is convinced it is evil, a danger to us all. I knew nothing but organized religion, it was my heritage. So church together was out of the question; we became heathens.
I searched for something, a spiritual peace I knew was to be found, and I missed having a place to called a church home. I kept trying to figure out the best way to find what I was looking for. I looked into many different religions and belief systems, I thought about non-denominational churches but they seem to be too much flash and fun, with no doctrine or guidance. I started attending a local Lutheran church by myself. I enjoyed the services but there just didn't seem to be a sense of purpose other than a place for suburbanites to spend Sunday morning so they could say they went to church. So I quit again.
I found myself becoming very depressed during this time - severely depressed. Looking back I believe a lack of a spiritual compass didn’t help but it wasn’t the sole reason for the depression. I was sick and getting worse. Panic attacks, a very real apathy about life - just a general screwed up view on life. The depression spiraled out of control and led to me being hospitalized. While there I learned some things which have changed my life for the better.
The psychiatrist I was seeing shared a quote from Epictetus with me which is the basis for Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, “We are disturbed not by events, but by the views which we take of them.” He challenged me to change the way I viewed the events that were occurring in my life and gain a different perspective on them. One of the MHA’s also started talking to me about this. He had an incredible 30 years of experience to call upon as he focused his full attention on each patient and helped them heal. We started talking about spirituality and how it could help change my perpective. I told him all about my aversion to organized religion. He listened fully, carefully and asked if I'd ever considered learning about Buddhism. I said no, I was a Christian even if I didn’t go to church. He brought me an article about how Buddhist meditation helped a someone be a better Christian. I was intrigued. When I returned home I started reading information on the internet and all my preconceived notions changed.
Buddhism makes sense to me. It is completely about self-discovery and challenge. Using your mind to understand the nature of our existence, not having someone else force it down upon you. I found the Drepung Monestary here in Atlanta and attended a couple of public sittings and meditated. Since then I’ve been burning through every piece of literature I can get my hands on. I've reconsidered so many things which I just chose to accept instead of truly investigating. I feel very connected to the teachings I have been reading about. I am so fascinated by the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, and all the teachers I have read. It feels like they are explaining to me everything I have been missing.
Today(Sunday), I will start my journey properly. I am attending the Beginning Meditation program at the Shambhala Center in Atlanta. Having searched, and read and studied programs all over I have decided that barring something crazy this will be my new spiritual home for a while. I am undertaking a new path - a path to enlightenment.
More to follow...