I can still remember the name of my first Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Carston. I can still remember my first service in “big” church. It might have been Mother’s Day, and I was four or so. My mother held the hymnal down low and traced her index finger under each word as we sang Holy, Holy, Holy. To this day I’m undone when we sing that hymn.
All of which is meant to show you that I was brought up in church. I didn’t become a misfit until I was a teenager. I was twelve, right about the age of confirmation. At youth group on a Sunday night, our church’s minister of education (I remember his name, too, but choose not to provide it here) was talking about the Bible—the book that had been presented to me with great ceremony on the chancel steps when I was in fourth grade, the book I struggled to memorize verses from—the book I had been given to believe was the foundation of our Christian faith.
This is what I remember him saying:
We believe that Mary was the mother of Jesus, but we think Joseph might have had something to do with it, too (wink and snicker).
All the cool kids in Junior High youth group were giggling right along with the minister, so I conjured up a grin. Inside, though, I didn’t get it. I was at that age when life becomes inherently confusing, and now a minister was telling us that the Holy Bible contained lies?
As I thought about it, I remembered the day two years earlier when my Sunday School teacher had chastised me for drawing Christ on the cross. We’re Protestants, Dear. We focus on the resurrected Christ. I remembered the day a year before that when parents were invited to visit their children’s Sunday School classes. I had been called upon to summarize the previous week’s lesson. In my nervousness, I had said sheeps instead of sheep.
And everyone, including the parents, including the teacher, laughed.
Well, there you had it: A regular hat trick of hurtful events in church. You know that old saying, “three strikes and you’re out?” That summer marked the beginning of my sabbatical from believing. I mean, I still went to church and I still called myself a Christian. I even signed up to sing with the “folk” group that was forming at our church (this was the seventies, after all). But where before I had carried a sense of comfort and certainty about God, now all I had was a handful of confused understandings that crumbled like dry leaves when I tried to look at them up real close.
Fast forward fifteen years or so. It’s Christmas Eve, and my brother is home from college. I’m divorced (twice over, by age 27) and he is giving me a lift to church for the Christmas Eve service. Our parents would meet us there.
“I’m really looking forward to the music,” I said.
“And the message?” my brother said.
I shook my head. “Not really,” I admitted.
“Well, this is much more than some stupid holiday concert!” he said, with that unique indignation that only siblings can muster.
“What did you get Mom for Christmas?” I said, eager to restore peace.
The irony, in hindsight, is twofold. First, the church I grew up in was a progressive denomination—asking questions and exploring doubts was encouraged. To this day, it’s mysterious to me why, as a young teen, I felt like the bedrock of my faith had turned to sand.
But I did.
The second irony is one that from my current perspective makes perfect sense: All those years that I was unchurched, through all the hurtful mistakes I made, all the wounds I inflicted, God chased after me more ardently than any husband ever had. It wasn’t until I surrendered, another 20 years or so later, from deep within a dark well of misery, that I was able to say yes, I was the one sheep that strayed.
Sheila lives with her husband Rich and their two dogs, J.D. and Doc, in beautiful Trabuco Canyon, California. She enjoys serving at her church, Trabuco Canyon Community Church, gardening, cooking, and most of all, spending time with their children and nine (so far) grandchildren. She has lived her entire life in southern California, except for a year spent in French Polynesia as she conducted dissertation research. She doesn’t understand boredom and is passionate about words, their power, their beauty, and their care and feeding.
As a young woman she published poems in dozens of literary magazines. She has also contributed to anthropology journals and contributed a chapter to the book Fieldwork and Families: Constructing New Models for Ethnographic Research.
More recently, her work has appeared in Wounded Women of the Bible: Finding Hope When Life Hurts, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (BibleDude Community Commentary Series), and a few volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She has work forthcoming in Soul Bare. Her Christmas tale Yankee Doodle Christmas is available as part of Kathi Macias’ the Twelve Days of Christmas series. The characters from Yankee Doodle Christmas are the stars of Sheila’s current serial novel, Remembering for Ruth, which is being released over several months of 2014. She is also participating in a collaborative romance, just for fun: The San Francisco Wedding Planner.
Click here to purchase Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith.