Faith Journey | Crisis in 11th grade

My junior year of high school was a bleak, discouraging time indeed. It seemed as if everything converged together to make my life sad and difficult.

I started the school year while still recovering from a serious illness, during which my weight had dropped to 80 pounds. My mother’s neuromuscular disease progressed to the frightening point that she was bedridden, and I lived with the dread of losing her. In the middle of that already difficult school year, my father changed churches, which meant another move. I stayed with a dear friend during the week to finish out the school year, and my father picked me up every Friday so that we could spend weekends together as a family.

But there was more.

As I’ve blogged in the past:

Back then, and for… many years afterward, I was hiding a deep dark secret, one so deep and so dark that I could only cope by refusing to think about it, by pretending it away. That didn’t work well. As a teenager, I was filled with the constant, overwhelming sense that there was something very much wrong with me, but I had no idea what — and I never connected that sense with the hidden burden I carried. Fear, shame, and secrecy had become a way of life for me. So had a form of denial so profound that it was almost as if I’d created an alternative reality for myself…

One of my former teachers, Mr. Bottaro would often stop me on campus and ask how I was doing. He never believed my polite responses or automatic answers. “No, really,” he would insist, his eyes trying to search mine for the truth. “Come up to my room and see me,” he would urge, no matter what I answered. I knew he saw…something.

Finally I decided to take him up on his offer. I would sit in front of him, let him look in my eyes, and tell him that there was something terribly, seriously wrong with me but I was too afraid to try to think about it. Surely he would be able to figure it out. That was my plan, anyway, to beg him to help me, when I arrived on campus early one morning. I was on my way to his classroom when another teacher stopped me with devastating news.

Mr. Bottaro was dead of a massive heart attack.

For much of that school year, I felt as if I was drifting along in somewhat of a foggy stupor. I felt on the outs with God, to the extent that I actually tried to make up my own religion, one with an impersonal god. Needless to say, I found nothing remotely comforting about my pretend construct.

When my despair seemed overwhelming, God would send me rays of light in the midst of my discouragement. My father was a loving, accepting, and reassuring constant in my life during that tumultuous time, kind of like a Rock of Gibraltar, only far more comforting. Plus, I had some truly wonderful friends. One of my classmates was Catholic, and I met a young priest from her parish who came on campus at lunch time just to hang out with some of the students. His kindness and compassion — and the fact that he looked like a kid himself — left a huge impression on me. And I couldn’t ignore the fact that no other pastor or youth pastor was visiting our campus.

But the youth pastor at our new church, and his wife, loved me — they loved our entire youth group deeply and personally — despite my sometimes off-putting and prickly ways. In fact, they are still dear friends to this day.

Somehow I survived that year. I went to summer camp, re-dedicated my life to Christ as so many of us did, and went on to have a wonderful senior year of high school, my only year at a private Christian school.

But I was still carrying around deep, hidden wounds, as much as I tried to ignore them away. The idea of trying to get help had died with Mr. Bottaro.

Faith Journey | Summer Camps

Summer camp — and also winter camp, but to a lesser extent — became a huge part of my life beginning after 8th grade. My father had joined some of his pastor friends to organize dynamic youth camps for young people and these men, as well as friendships I made, had a powerful impact on my life.

My brother and some of his friends went away for a week at the high school camp and came back dramatically changed. Kids found Christ, gave up smoking and drugs, and insisted their lives had been completely transformed. One Sunday night at church, we had “camp echoes”, and each kid shared their testimony. It was electrifying! I couldn’t wait for my turn at camp a few weeks later.

It didn’t disappoint. Hardly any kids from our church went, but the experience was wonderful. I left feeling revived and “on fire for Jesus”, ready to bring Christ — and the Jesus Movement! — to my junior high school. (Considering I was a weird, easily intimidated shy kid, this was pretty amazing.)

Some of the high school kids with the dramatic testimonies joined the hippie group I wrote about previously. All of them started coming to church regularly. Unfortunately, a number of them “backslid” to one degree or another once school started back up in the Fall.

Even though my “re-dedications to Christ” didn’t always stick very well for very long, at least not with the same fervor and intensity, the time spent at camp shaped me in significant ways. I still remember some of the sermons and Bible studies. Thousand Pines and Forest Home hold myriads of memories for me, some quite serious, and sone quite amusing. I wouldn’t have traded those summer weeks or winter weekends for anything.

The prayer chapels at both camps truly were “holy ground”. And one of the pinnacle worship experiences of my entire life took place at Thousand Pines. I can’t imagine what my faith journey would have been like without those camps.

Faith Journey | The Jesus Movement

The year that I was 13 was a significant year indeed. (See the two blog posts before this one.) I came back from a summer in Europe to my father’s new pastorate, which meant seemingly everything in my life had changed. Returning to America after spending time in Germany had felt disorienting before, but now I was dealing with a new home in an unfamiliar town. I didn’t know anyone, and I missed our small mountain community and our cozy little home on the lake.

It was 1971, and it didn’t take long for the Jesus Movement to find us again. (My father had already held youth-oriented evening church services in our previous church, and they had become quite popular.) Soon a few ragtag hippie-types were meeting with my father, peppering him with questions, and begging to be taught by him. “He knows the actual Greek!” one of them enthused to me.

These kids had dramatic conversion stories: almost all of them had been “into something”, like drugs or eastern religions or promiscuous sex or all three, before coming to Christ. It was a truly exciting time, to the point that some people were sure we were observing the end times revival.

Eventually I got caught up with this group of new converts who had somehow found my dad. They were intense! For awhile, it seemed as if we had two youth groups, our regular bunch of typical kids and the “spiritual” semi-ex-hippy group who wanted only to study the Bible, sing choruses, and have deep discussions. When the two factions got together, it was awkward indeed.

I guess we weren’t intense enough at our church because our hippy friends invited my older brother and me to what was supposedly just a Bible Study — only we called it a “Bible Rap” because it was the early 70’s and that’s how we talked. It consisted of a bunch of us sitting around on the floor in a beautiful little Episcopal church, with one of the most breathtaking carved wooden crucifixes I’ve ever seen.

As far as I could tell, there wasn’t any real leadership within this group. We met weekly and, maybe once every few months, some older guy showed up who everybody seemed to hold in respect, if not awe. There was talk of trying to emulate the “New Testament Church” which, to this bunch at least, bore a strange resemblance to hippies sitting around singing “Happy in the Lord”, talking about the end times, reading the Bible, telling our testimonies, and complaining about people who we thought didn’t measure up spiritually. But gradually there seemed less emphasis on sharing our unschooled interpretations of the Bible, and more on being baptized with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.

Around the same time, people in the group became extremely judgmental and legalistic. “Rebukes” were common: I got fussed when I referred to a boy as “cute”, for example.

I remember being surrounded by older girls (I was probably the youngest kid, by at least a couple years, who attended) and they were demanding that I confess the SECRET SIN in my life, because there had to be some, it was obvious, or my spiritual experiences would match theirs exactly, and I would speak in tongues. I remember week after week of confessing everything that I could think of, like being “lazy” (undiagnosed inattentive ADHD) at school, having a “messy” room, etc., etc. The weekly interrogation sessions were only one aspect of how controlling and pushy and borderline abusive this group had become.

I went on a quest to be “baptized in the Holy Spirit“ — to be slain in the Spirit and speak in tongues — and I went to meeting after meeting and event after event, wherever I heard that “the Spirit was moving” and I had a way of getting there. (My mother patiently drove me to a number of these.) I would go forward and, inevitably, almost everyone around me would fall down and speak in tongues, but nothing ever happened to me.

Eventually I missed one of the Bible Raps, but something that night got my brother all upset, to the point that he and his girlfriend were convinced that they had observed demonic activity. We never returned.

My experiences during that time were mixed, with lots of excitement, but also seeing what seemed good at first — like the Bible Rap — fizzling out or turning into something negative. My view of “church” was both challenged and, in retrospect, strengthened. Summer camps, youth rallies, and the enthusiasm of so many new converts galvanized my faith. Shy little me handed out “Jesus Papers” at my junior high school, carried around a cool looking Bible, and even started a weekly Bible study that met before school. (Talk about the blind leading the blind…)

Eventually, by the time I reached high school, one by one, the “Bible Rap” kids started “falling away”. It was a sad, discouraging thing to watch, made all the more so because of painful things in my personal life. My faith walk during those years became one of lukewarmness, pain, and even doubt — punctuated by times of renewal and re-dedication. It was definitely a roller-coaster ride.

Even years later, I would miss those first few Bible Raps that I attended, before things got weird— when we sat around on the floor, filled with youthful zeal, gazing at a beautiful giant crucifix and earnestly pouring our hearts out to God.

Faith Journey | Attending Mass in Italy

When I was 13, I had the privilege of spending five wonderful weeks in Italy, in the delightful little town of Vettica, where my uncle was born and grew up. He had married my mother’s oldest sister and the two of them, with my cousin in tow, returned to his family home every summer. That year they took my older brother and me along with them.

I could write volumes about my time there, because it was such a pivotal experience for me on so many levels, and left a huge impact. Just two examples: I finally learned to swim; and, thanks to my aunt’s fascinating “bedtime stories/lectures”, I developed an interest in linguistics which inspired me to study Latin in junior high and high school, and various language/linguistics classes in college. Mostly, my time there was hugely enjoyable, despite getting rather ill. Even then, I was doted on by my uncle’s sister and extremely well taken care of, so my brief “suffering” seemed not much at all. It was mostly an idyllic time, full of feasting and swimming and fascinating places and wonderful people who treated me like visiting royalty.

But I’m writing about my faith journey…

Before going to Italy, my experience with and understanding of Catholicism was minimal. I knew schoolmates who observed meatless Fridays and vaguely knew it had something to do with their Catholic faith. From somewhere I’d gotten the idea that Catholicism was old and traditional, which made me think it should continue on without change, so I was strangely upset about the Mass no longer being in Latin. At the same time, I really had no idea what the Mass was and had zero interest in the Latin language, so I’m not sure why this mattered so much to me. (What can I say? I was a weird kid.) My father had befriended a Catholic priest during his first pastorate; apparently the two of them were the only ones, in a local group of mostly theologically liberal pastors, who “really believed the Bible”. That gave me a rather positive impression of priests. So did watching Bishop Fulton Sheen on TV a few times. A story I’d read about Italian immigrant families made the very idea of midnight Mass at Christmas seem so wondrous that I wished we observed something similar. I’d come to the conclusion that, for the most part, Catholic Churches appeared — from the outside at least — to be more beautiful and “churchy” than their Protestant counterparts. And that’s about all I knew.

Then I went to Italy.

Catholicism was woven into the very fabric of everyday life, and I was exposed to things that, frankly, bewildered me. I saw statues of Mary everywhere, it seemed, and statues of village patron saints paraded about in processions and celebrations. At one point, I blurted out something to my aunt about idolatry.

“You ignorant little girl,” Tante Lydia responded, somehow making the words sound loving rather than like an insult or rebuke. Then, ever the teacher, she proceeded to set me straight. I wish I could remember what she said, but my takeaway was that there was a vast difference between worshiping and celebrating or honoring, and that I was wrong to judge the hearts of people when I didn’t even understand their words, actions, or the real meaning behind them. The lesson about judging the hearts of others is one that, sadly, I have had to relearn over the years.

Weeks later, back in Germany, I made some comment to my grandfather about wondering why “real Christians” didn’t leave the Catholic Church. My Opa loved me dearly — in fact, for years I was convinced that I was his favorite grandchild — but he didn’t hesitate to rebuke me strongly for my prejudice. He had known many “real Christians” over his lifetime, he told me, and some of the most devout ones were Catholic. He trusted that they were exactly where God wanted them to be.

While in Italy, we attended the village church. This was 1971, and the Mass was in Italian. The priest, a relative of my uncle, helpfully loaned me an older German/Latin missal, cautioning me that the liturgy was not identical but that I would hopefully understand most of what was going on. So my first introduction to the Catholic Mass was reading a German translation of the Traditional Latin Mass during an Italian Mass! Unfortunately my German vocabulary wasn’t quite up to the task. I did come to the conclusion that a lot of it was prayer. In fact, it seemed to be mostly prayer, as far as I could tell.

I secretly found the priest fascinating. In public — as in whenever he was around the church or going out and about on the village street — he wore his cassock and carried himself with an air of sober dignity. During the Mass, I thought his voice was impressive and reverent. And then he would show up for an evening visit or to go out with the fisherman at night, dressed in a quite ordinary way. Yet there was still something about him…

I returned to America thinking that Catholicism in our country was of a very different sort. In many ways, that’s true. It was far less public. In Vettica, the children about to receive communion processed down the village street that was lined by all the rest of us, and I’d never seen anything like that at home. Faith in general, where I lived, seemed a way more subdued if not private thing, best kept within the walls of church and home, with the exceptions (like Billy Graham crusades or the Jesus Movement) being newsworthy. If American towns had patron saints, they were kept hidden away and never mentioned, at least as far as I could tell.

But I had to admit that there was something very special about the church as a center of village life, and about people seeming to take for granted that they could openly express and celebrate their faith anywhere and everywhere. And there was also something special about churches and traditions that went back hundreds upon hundreds of years. America always seemed so new in contrast, and I wasn’t sure that was entirely a good thing.

I often found myself longing for deeper roots, for a sense of belonging to something far greater, grander, and more enduring. Looking back now, I see so much of this as God planting seeds in my life and in my heart, seeds that would take decades to come to full fruition.

Faith Journey | Beauty and Awe

My German grandmother introduced me to beautiful architecture. How I wish I had paid more attention to her attempts to teach me about history and architectural styles, but I did absorb an appreciation for beautiful churches — places that took my breath away and inspired in me a sense of reverence. On one of our visits to Germany, when I was 13 years old, Oma insisted she show us the cathedral in Limburg.

How glad I am that she took us there! I’ll never forget my first glimpse of this magnificent cathedral that dominated the landscape. At the time, they were restoring the exterior, but enough of the work had been completed for me to be stunned by how beautiful it was.

When we entered the building, I was overwhelmed with the sense of sacredness.

We were given an unexpected gift on the day we visited, and I wish we had pictures and recordings of what we experienced. It was a Saturday, and people were readying for Mass the next day. Someone was practicing on the pipe organ while women were decorating an area around the altar with flowers. Over 50 years later, I can still remember how exquisitely and reverently beautiful it all was. I was in awe, and I never wanted to leave.

My grandmother showed and described many more wonderful things over the years, planting deep in me a longing for truth, beauty, and goodness.

We can worship God in many ways and in many places. But not all of those places inspire a sense of awe and reverence, and not all of our attempts at worship are necessarily befitting the One we claim to worship. Sorting that out, for me, has been a lengthy process, involving study, soul-searching, long conversations, and prayer. And, as I have written previously, I’ve learned from experience that I am far more capable of worship when “my soul is fed by beauty in an environment designed for worship rather than vexed by ugly, distracting things scattered across what looks like a concert stage.”

Although I don’t worship in a grand cathedral on Sundays, I do worship in a sacred place that is entirely focused on worship. I am surrounded by truth, beauty, and goodness, and our worship feels timeless to me, with a liturgy that spans the ages and contains the very words that resound and will resound around the Throne of Heaven. Why settle for less?