If I had to pinpoint the start of my spiritual journey, I’d say it began with my Great Aunt Bonnie.
Aunt Bonnie was one of the first manifestations of God that I can remember, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I had no previous religious training or understanding. Aunt Bonnie lived in Florida, near Disney World. Disney World had just opened and this was our first trip to Florida. I was nine years old. Aunt Bonnie welcomed me and my brothers into her home. I didn’t know much about her. I never knew she existed. I learned that she was married and had two children, a boy and a girl. The girl couldn’t walk or speak and could only lie in bed. She was much older than I was. “Is she retarded or something?” I asked my aunt. In those days, using the word retarded was acceptable. “Yes, she is,” my aunt answered matter-of-factly. “She was born with a cord around her neck.” I had never seen a “retarded” person before, and here I was related to one. This left me with a strange feeling I couldn’t quite understand.
But Aunt Bonnie tended to her daughter with total mindfulness. I watched her feed her, clean her, dress her, comb her hair, change her diaper, performing acts only a mother, or a saint, would. I admired my aunt, but she scared me. She was very religious. Maybe too religious. I didn’t know what it meant to be religious, and she wasted no time in giving me a crash course. Moses. Noah. Job. Jonah. Mary and Joseph. Jesus and his rising from the dead (what?). The Apostles. Heaven and Hell. And, then the kicker: If I didn’t want to go to the fiery pit of Hell, then I needed to get down on my knees and accept Jesus into my heart as my Lord and Savior. Say, what? Out of respect for my aunt, I kneeled down and repeated whatever she said. None of it made sense but the “Hell” thing scared me. I don’t think Aunt Bonnie meant to scare me, but she did, and maybe this was God’s wake-up call for me. That’s when all the questions began.
When I returned from Florida, I had a lot of questions for my mother. Who is God? What’s a virgin birth? Why did God let his son get killed? How did he come back to life? What’s Heaven like? Is there really a Hell?
“What’s with all the questions?” she asked, “Go play with your dolls.” I guess my questions annoyed her, so rather than answer them, she enrolled my brothers and me in the religious education program at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Another day of school? At a church? Are you kidding? Since we weren’t baptized as babies, Sunday School and confirmation classes would pave the way to being “christened” into the Christian life. Our church didn’t practice full immersion baptism.
Once the pastor completed his opening remarks, he excused the children from the pews to Sunday School. I wanted to stay with the adults to learn the answers to all of my questions. “Get your ass to Sunday School…now!” my mother whispered, with a sharp elbow to my side. “Okay, okay. Jeez, mom.”
My Sunday School teachers weren’t very helpful or knowledgeable. I don’t know how much training they had to teach us. Nothing they taught was new. I was aware of most of the bible stories, thanks to Aunt Bonnie, but they were just stories. We played games and did crafts most of the time. One of our projects was to create a clay head of Jesus on a block of wood on some kind of egg-beater device that was designed to hold the head. When I finished, the teacher walked over for inspection, and said, “Your Jesus is too fat. And why is he smiling? Jesus never smiles.” Perplexed, I looked around at all the other Jesuses. They looked emaciated and sad. “Well, if he rose from the dead, wouldn’t he be smiling? ” I answered back. “Who said Jesus has to be skinny? You told us to make him the way we picture him. And he’s not fat. He’s healthy. My Jesus is happy,” I finished. If there were a principal’s office in Sunday School, I would have been sent. Instead, I had to sit out in the hallway for the remainder of class. It wouldn’t be the first time this happened to me.
Finally, the day came for my brothers and me to be christened. Supposedly, this was a big deal in a Christian’s life, and it was to be performed during the Sunday service. From what I learned about baptism, it meant a new life with God. John the Baptist had baptized his cousin Jesus in the Jordan River, and a holy spirit dove descended from heaven over Jesus’ head. Maybe I expected too much, but as the pastor sprinkled water over my head, I felt absolutely nothing, except the water dripping into my eyes and off of the end of my nose. The heavens didn’t open. A bright, blinding light didn’t shine down upon me. No voice spoke. “That’s it?” I asked the pastor. He didn’t look too pleased. I went back to my seat, dejected. God didn’t make a big deal over me. So, I put him on the back burner. But Spirit would move in other ways to push me along the spiritual path, though I was unaware at the time.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment of my spiritual birth; rather, it has unfolded and evolved. Kneeling next to my aunt in front of a crucifix on her wall with one hand on the bible and repeating words that I didn’t understand was simply an act. I mimicked what my Aunt did and repeated what she told me to repeat, much like I did in the various churches I attended over the years. But that one act left me with so many questions. Those questions sent me on quest; they became my guides on the spiritual path. Since the religious education program couldn’t answer my questions, I dropped out of Sunday School, determined to find answers through other avenues.
Do I still have questions? You bet I do. God may have his hands full with me and my constant questions, but at least He lets me stay in class.