Book excerpt: Confessions of a spiritual mutt

Note: This is an excerpt from my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

My church’s adult faith formation class has been discussing Christianity’s Family Tree, a fascinating exploration of how several denominations came into being and what their members believe. One thing I like about the book is that author Adam Hamilton refrains from criticizing the denominations he writes about. Instead, he compares members of various faith traditions to relatives we might meet at a family reunion, and invites us to enrich our own faith by learning what we can from our “cousins” in Christ who belong to the other traditions.

Studying the book has also helped crystallize for me why I’m increasingly at peace with the convoluted nature of my own spiritual journey. Hamilton’s personal faith experience somewhat resembles mine in its twists and turns – he started life as a Roman Catholic, joined a Pentecostal church as a teenager, then ended up a member of a United Methodist Church, where he is now a minister. I’ve done some hopping around myself and, like him, I’ve come to see my rather zig-zaggy spiritual path in a positive light.

My journey through the spiritual/religious kaleidoscope began early. The church my family attended on a given weekend often depended on where we had Sunday dinner. One week we might attend the mainline Protestant church we and several members of Dad’s family belonged to, while the next Sunday might find us at the more conservative church Mom’s side of the family attended.

Being of different denominations, the two churches presented contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (sprinkling or immersion?) to communion (wine or grape juice?) to how one gets “saved” (baptism or personal decision?). But Dad regularly assured us, “In the end, we all worship the same God.” And the extended-family feasts that followed church and Sunday School are among my favorite childhood memories.

In college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru), a nondenominational student organization whose main attraction for me was that these classmates didn’t pressure me to participate in the drug scene or the sexual revolution. (In the early 1970s, both proliferated on campus.) Some of the classmates invited me to attend services with them at a local evangelical free church, where congregation members encouraged us to join them for Sunday dinner – a great outreach effort for homesick students, I must say.

After college, I followed the trajectory of a growing number of today’s young adults and became a “None.” I didn’t stop believing in God altogether, but I was preoccupied with chasing professional brass rings and worshipping at the altar of career success. I referred to the endless round of political fund-raisers, Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties and Happy Hour gatherings with colleagues as “networking” and convinced myself these alcohol-soaked events were essential to my job … until I wound up in detox.

When I embarked on my recovery journey in the early 1990s, I immersed myself in the 12-Step movement, which labeled itself “spiritual but not religious.” The people I met “around the tables” came from a wide variety of spiritual/religious backgrounds with wildly diverse understandings about God. Folks at the meetings advised me, “Take what you need and leave the rest.”

Meanwhile, my husband and I joined a church that shall remain mercifully nameless. Members seemed obsessed with pointing out how smart they were in comparison to most Christians. The toxic organizational culture – marked by constant bullying, backbiting, infighting and power struggles between rival cliques – ultimately drove us out of the congregation. After that, I took another hiatus from church, though I continued to attend 12-Step meetings.

In my late 40s – after a huge medical scare during which I prayed fervently and made promises to a God I hoped would still listen to me – I started going to a mainline Protestant church with my husband and mother-in-law and periodically sneaked into a couple of Evangelical/Pentecostal churches my parents, other family members and friends now attended.

Shortly after I started going to church again, I began working for a faith-based prison re-entry program that encouraged congregations to “adopt” incarcerated mothers reintegrating into the community. Part of my job description involved recruiting and training a team of volunteers from each congregation to work intensively with their “adopted” mother and her children. The recruitment process required me to attend services at a dazzling array of churches – from Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian to Baptist, Evangelical and Pentecostal. Every month or two would find me attending a different congregation’s church service.

In addition to sampling the denominational smorgasbord as part of my new job, I read the entire Bible from front to back for the first time in my life and discovered passages that prompted me to observe, “So that’s where the Pentecostals get their belief about speaking in tongues … where the Catholics get their belief about purgatory … where the Evangelicals get their belief about the Rapture.” And I found myself agreeing with Dad’s long-ago observation: “In the end, we all worship the same God.”

I now belong to the mainline Protestant church I began attending nearly 20 years ago with my husband and mother-in-law. I like that the people at my current church do their best to practice what they say they believe. I like their involvement in serving the larger community. I like that I’ve been able to ask questions in our adult faith formation class that probably would have gotten me burned at the stake in a previous era, and I haven’t been excommunicated or struck by lightning. At least not yet. So even though I’m still questioning a lot of things, my current church is where I’ve settled and plan to stay.

But I haven’t stopped exploring ideas or getting spiritual support from a variety of sources.

Over the years, I’ve continued to attend Evangelical and Pentecostal services when visiting family and friends. Members of my parents’ congregation never failed to make me feel welcome when I went to church with them and I absolutely appreciate how supportive they were of my parents during their final years when I lived too far away to be as involved in their day-to-day care as I would have liked.

More recently, my husband and I have been receiving spiritual direction from a pair of Dominican teaching Sisters and this year we joined their “associates” program. Spiritual direction is a partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God, and serves as a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church. During monthly sessions, I have been examining my relationship with God, prayer, my personal values, and various lifestyle choices. As associates my husband and I assist, among other things, with the Sisters’ social justice activities such as their anti-racism and environmental efforts.

I’m an insatiably voracious reader as well. I subscribe to both Christian Century (mainline Protestant) and Christianity Today (Evangelical), as well as America Magazine (Catholic). I devour books by authors from a variety of faith traditions – some of the more interesting titles I’ve been reading lately include Falling Upward by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, Do I Stay Christian? by Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren, Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk by Evangelical pastor Eugene Cho, Creation as Sacrament by Greek Orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis and Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor.

During a recent session of my congregation’s adult faith formation class, I shared some details about my rather eclectic spiritual background. “I guess you could call me a spiritual mutt,” I joked. One of the other participants responded, “I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing,” and I would be inclined to agree.

Some might consider my spiritual journey – with its hopelessly squiggly lines – confusing. (At best!) But I’ve come to believe that experiencing a variety of traditions has had benefits. I certainly don’t claim to have a corner on the truth about religious/spiritual matters. I refuse to demonize people whose beliefs differ from mine. I’m less likely to get drawn into squabbles with other Christians over the long list of issues Martin Luther would label “adiaphora.” And I get thoroughly impatient when either conservative or progressive culture warriors imply that people who belong to a denomination other than their own “aren’t real Christians.”

Instead, like Hamilton, I prefer to learn from my “relatives” in Christ and to look for areas of agreement. What I really care about these days is how well a church encourages its members to fulfill these commandments:

  • Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.

“When we view the body of Christ as a tree, there are several things we begin to realize,” says Hamilton, in Christianity’s Family Tree. “We are reminded that all the branches share the same roots and trunk. Our roots are Judaism. Our trunk is Jesus Christ. Permeating the entire tree is the Holy Spirit, which feeds the leaves and allows the tree to grow.”

Hamilton reminds us that in the beginning, Christianity did not have denominations. There were no Lutheran, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal churches. Christians were known as “followers of The Way” or simply followers of Jesus Christ.

And I still trust my father’s advice: “Remember, in the end, we all worship the same God.”

Question for readers: What has your spiritual journey been like, and has it changed over the years? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

18 thoughts on “Book excerpt: Confessions of a spiritual mutt

  1. Hello, thanks for sharing your story. I am sure God has been in all of it. I have gone from traditional Scottish Presbyterian to evangelical to agnostic to Catholic. In Scotland there is a big Catholic/Protestant religious divide although it is becoming less divisive in recent years. I have discovered that God is on both sides and in the no man’s land in between.


  2. I find that we are, to a degree, kindred spirits. My faith journey hasn’t been quite as zig-zaggy as yours, but is still somewhat wandering. I grew up Southern Baptist, in a small church in my home town. I was very active, and was singing in the adult choir by the time I was in high school. In college, I waivered somewhat in practice, while continuing to hold on to faith. I started in the FBC of the town, but later moved to a smaller church, and, at one point, took on my first Music Minister position at a tiny Baptist church in a nearby small town. It was during that time that I decided God was “calling me” to be a Music Minister.

    So I went to seminary. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, about fifty-ish miles from my home town. I had also gotten married in 1978, a mistake that would come to light later. I finished Seminary in four years, with a Master’s of Music degree, with an instrumental concentration. During that time, I was part time Music Minister at a couple of different churches. It was also during that time that things began to heat up in the Southern Baptist Convention. I found myself at odds with the more conservative faction, and not too long after graduating, resigned the small church I was working at and joined a Presbyterian church, where my current girlfriend was attending. Oh. I forgot to mention that I had also gotten a divorce during that time. To their credit, the church at which I was ministering was very gracious and allowed me to stay on their staff.

    I only stayed Presby for a few months, before heading back to my Baptist roots, and eventually became a “Worship Leader” again. I spent another eleven years or so as part time Worship Leader at a couple of different churches.

    After resigning from the last one, again over somewhat political issues (not American politics, but church politics), we wound up going to a church plant up in north Fort Worth called The Exchange. It was a pretty great experience. But nothing good lasts forever, right. I got involved in the setup/tear-down “ministry” (I didn’t get invited to play in the worship band for some time), and got to know some great people. One Sunday morning, both the lead pastor and the associate pastor resigned on the same day. Both had “been called” to other churches in other states. We love the brother who became the lead pastor (already on staff at the church) and stuck with him, as membership dwindled drastically. We didn’t have a building . . . we had been meeting in school auditoriums. We moved to smaller places, and eventually wound up meeting in a room at a local YMCA. The pastor even got involved with the board of the Y. Finally, we got so small that we could no longer afford to do that. The pastor resigned, we all cried, and we voted to disband the church. A handful of us kept meeting together as a “house church,” mostly non-denominational.

    We have finally quit going to that, as it has simply not been doing anything worthwhile, in my opinion, especially after we began meeting again after the worst of COVID. I won’t go into any detail, but I have become somewhat dissatisfied over the behavior of a couple of the guys who were supposed to be co-leaders with me.

    As of right now, I am on the verge of becoming Lutheran. (Hah!) The guy who was our last pastor, still a wonderful friend of ours, has started going to a nearby Lutheran church. I have visited with him and really like it. My wife went with me last Sunday and, while she doesn’t “love it,” is okay with us going there. In the meantime, over the course of the last few years, I have become totally convinced that it’s all about those two commands that you listed up there. And it’s all about Jesus. The political division in the American Evangelical church, right now, is breaking my heart. At this point, I cannot call myself “Evangelical,” even though, at heart, I am, because I believe in evangelism. But it is what it is.

    I’m sorry. This is very long. Forgive me. But you asked, right?? Hahaha. Anyway, if this is an excerpt from a book you are writing, I am very anxious to read it, someday!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Debi Sue, I think I’m probably a spiritual mutt, too. I grew up in the Presbyterian church, became “on fire” for Jesus when I was in college (a “Jesus freak”?), married a Catholic, and as we moved to various cities, attended a non-denominational church, Church of the Brethren, Nazarene, charismatic, and missionary alliance church. I am now a full-fledged member of a Baptist church I love.

    The church I belong to now is what I think of as everything a church should be. They love one another and take care of one another (with group emails to help with everything from babysitting to meals, rides to the airport, help with moving – you get the idea.) Their prayer meetings are unlike any I’ve ever been to before. While most churches are lucky to have a dozen people show up for prayer, this church gets hundreds every week, and we pray very specific prayers and get very specific answers. Lastly, these people take the Great Commission very seriously. Most of their prayer requests are for people they’re sharing the gospel with – relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates. These Christians start Bible studies with people who aren’t even believers yet!

    I had a dream once about a ratty old grey hoodie of mine that had the word “impact” on it. In the pocket was about $10,000, in $1 bills, $5 bills, $10’s, $20’s, $50’s … When I awoke I realized the money in that ratty old hoodie was my “treasure in an earthen vessel” – what has impacted me and the impact I have on others. When I pondered why the money came in such an assortment of bills, it hit me – they were different DENOMINATIONS! 😀 ! The “treasure” in me is an assortment of lessons and experiences from all the different congregations I’ve been a part of. I have loved each of them in a unique and different way.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. B-b-but what if Peter pulls out a record of our church (building) attendance when we get to the Pearly Gates!? Or do you think the Lord may care more about how we obeyed the Big Two? 😉 ❤️& 🙏, c.a.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Love your post! I must profess I belong to no denomination. I attend no church being the victim of too much judgement and forced doctrine. I just got away from all of that and have been much happier ever since. The HOLY SPIRIT is my teacher. I write to prisoners in the USA and around the world through Voice of Martyrs and write music and poetry as I am inspired by GOD. I go where the HOLY SPIRIT leads me. GOD BLESS you and your family. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Liked by 1 person

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