Choosing My Religion

Sometimes I feel like it would be much easier to be a secular individual.  If I didn’t believe in God, I wouldn’t have to worry about the little things, and I wouldn’t be so stressed out trying to do right by the Lord all the time.  Right would be whatever I deemed it to be, for better or worse.  I’d live by my own rules, fly by the seat of my pants, and skim through life on the surface.  Easy-peasy.  No consequences, no uncertainty, no judgment for having faith in a higher power, no being criticized for being a bible thumper.  No fear of being publicly beheaded for my personal beliefs.  No conscience beating around my head, nagging me about every stupid little detail of every single facet of my life.

Maybe some of that is just my clinical anxiety talking, but as a Christian those are some of the thoughts I take note of.  Let’s be real here, I’m a sinner and a hypocrite just like everyone else but the cool part about my particular story is that I was not baptized when I was young; rather, I was allowed to grow up and decide what, if anything, I would like to believe in.

My earliest memories of religion are of attending a Baptist church in St. Catharines which my grandfather Johnny Roshka helped to build.  My grandparents were very much believers, and when I would stay over I remember lying in bed with my grandmother while she read the bible to me and taught me about Jesus.  At the time, I think I was fascinated by the idea of His story, and intrigued even, but I was also very young and still had a desire to just have fun and be a child and not to be pressured into something I didn’t fully understand.  I enjoyed my grandparents’ company and the way I felt when I was at their home, and I knew that religion played a massive part in their everyday life.  My grandfather was a man of God, no doubt about it.  He was a big man, tall and sturdy and handsome, and I absolutely adored him.  My grandmother was sick with Multiple Sclerosis, and back then she was still somewhat mobile and used a walker from time to time but was typically in a wheelchair, and that woman loved the Lord probably more than anybody I’ve ever known.  My family would go to church and they’d get me all dressed up in these pretty frocks with those ridiculous underwear that had built-in frills which you could feel on your butt every time you sat down.  I remember being livid every time I had to wear them.  (I was the kind of kid who tried to convince my younger brother to eat cat poop out of the garden, cut all the leaves off my mother’s favourite plant and then proceeded to tape them back on with black electrical tape and also once tried to make quicksand out of sawdust and water so the cars driving down my street would get stuck and sink in it.  Not necessarily the type to enjoy having bum frills.  Do they even make those anymore?  If they do, they should stop.  Immediately.)

So that being said, we’d go to church and usually after the introduction portion of the service all the kids would be sent to a room at the back where they held Sunday school.  That part I enjoyed, until one day instead of dismissing the children, the pastor asked all of the kids to come up and sit in the first two rows of pews.  I can’t remember why we had to do this, but I was pissed right off because I wanted to go to Sunday school.  I had a friend there, and after being seated at the front we decided that the best way to get out of this mess was to crawl underneath all of the pews to the back of the room and get the hell out of dodge.  Needless to say, this did not pan out as we had planned because some Good Samaritan stopped us halfway and made us get up and go back to our seats.

After that, church was a little less exciting for me.  I often felt pressured into religion by my grandmother as I grew older, and began to feel resistance on some subconscious level.  I rebelled, I made poor choices as growing individuals are wont to do, and my spirituality was on the back burner for quite some time.  But I also had, and still do have, an intensely paralyzing fear of death.  Of just suddenly not existing anymore, of my soul snuffing out like a candle.  One moment you’re alive and present, and the next you just cease to exist.  Even the you inside your own head–the you that drives all your inner thoughts and emotions–is just gone.  Nothing is more terrifying to me than death.  So the idea of God and an afterlife was quite a comfort to me, and I clung to that throughout my childhood.

Later on, probably around grade 7, I became good friends with two sisters who were part of a large Jamaican family who lived within walking distance of our school.  I was allowed to visit after school sometimes and occasionally would ride my bike to their house (which was quite a long distance for me) and I remember being welcomed into their home with open arms.  They fed me dinner, they were always funny and kind, and their family was so big and full of love that it felt like their house could burst at any moment.

This family loved church, and they brought me with them several times, including to a church in Toronto.  Imagine a family with six children driving in a van to Toronto and having the heart to let an extra kid tag along!  Their father preached during one of the services.  It was intense.  You could see the passion that he had for the message he was conveying.  I can’t remember specific details because it was literally 20 years ago and he was yelling at the top of his lungs, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.  Afterwards, we all went downstairs to the basement and had a huge feast.  Everyone had brought food to share, and from what I can remember I was probably the only Caucasian in the building.  But you know what?  I didn’t feel like it at all.  I still look back at these times with fondness.  When you share a love of Christ, all the walls come down and you’re just people, just children of God.  Brothers and sisters.  And that family taught me a lot.

Over the years I have attended many different churches.  Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, and whatever denomination that church I mentioned above was, and some have been amazing experiences and some have not been so great.  (Actually, one experience in particular can only be described as traumatizing.)  But the point is, I dipped my toes in and tried different things until I finally found the one that stole my heart.

I was about sixteen years old, and my friend invited me to his church, which at the time was called Central Gospel Temple.  It was a Pentecostal church whose slogan was “Producing Passionate Followers of Jesus Christ”.  Initially, I can describe my first impression as ‘a little intense’.  There were a couple of people who spoke in tongues here and there, and I had never experienced that before.  Another thing I noticed was that the majority of the congregation liked to put their hands up during worship (which was four or five songs played by a full band, everyone just standing with their hands outstretched and their eyes closed, singing and dancing for the Lord).  I learned that this action is a sign of surrender.  And you might not believe it, but such a simple gesture has been incredibly difficult for me, even in the 15 or so years I have been going to that church.

I stood with my friend and took it all in.  The room was very welcoming.  The carpet such a vibrant red colour, somehow bringing more life into the room if that was even possible.  I felt a sense of peace there.  The service began after worship and the pastor at that time, Darin Latham, began to speak.  I forget exactly what the topic was, but I felt as though it was meant for me.  It was something about struggling with your beliefs.  And for the first time in my life, I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment.  I left the service with tears streaming down my face and was determined to go back.  It was such a moving experience, and I wanted more.

I attended the church regularly for about a year before I decided I wanted to be baptized.  Darin was excellent; he really had a way of adapting messages from the bible to current-day situations, and I always left there feeling as though I had learned or gained something for having gone.  I had seen many baptisms by then and I craved that moment for myself.  The standard procedure was to write a testimony.  I was about 17 or 18 at the time, so not a whole lot had gone on in my life that I could talk about.  I had not yet truly experienced hardships or drugs or whatever people typically write about.  Instead I chose to focus on the struggles I had experienced during my childhood.  I was relied upon to take care of the house and my brother and sister while my parents worked, and as a result I felt like I had missed out on some part of my childhood.  My parents had recently split up and we were all still adjusting.  I felt like I knew more about life than I should at my age.  Our circumstances at home were not typical, and the point I was trying to make was basically that I had struggled with this experience and coming to church had helped me accept these feelings and provided me with a new support system.  I wanted to give all of the negativity to God and be rid of it.

So on that day, my friend stood on the stage and read my testimony, and in that moment, standing in the pool and listening to my own words out loud, I felt like it was extremely lame.  All of these bad thoughts were stirring in my head.  They baptized me and I stood up from under the water and felt this rush of emotion and adrenaline running through my whole body.  I was shaking.  And all I could think about was how I could see that I’d hurt my mother, because she got up and left, and she did not come downstairs to celebrate afterwards.  It was supposed to be a positive thing, something amazing, and somehow I had managed to spoil it.  It was never my intention to hang my family out to dry; it wasn’t about them, it was about me and my struggles with life and my spirituality.  I wasn’t trying to lash out or hurt or humiliate anybody.  But that’s not necessarily how everyone else interpreted it.  I spoke with Pastor Topping, who was helping with the baptisms, and explained how upset I was, and he told me that the devil seeks to destroy us when we are at our highest moments.  And that made a lot of sense to me.

These days, I think back to that moment and imagine what my testimony would be like now.  I have so much more to repent for, so many more regrets and mistakes and convictions.  If I could do it all over again and write the real story, I would do it in a heartbeat.  I have so much more wisdom and life experience now that I feel it would be so much more meaningful and healing for me to wash all my sins away now that I have such a huge collection of them.

On the bright side, I didn’t let my guilt consume me; instead I remained a Central girl (and I still have to this day).  It has changed so much over the years; Pastor Darin moved on to Vancouver to help out at a new church there, and we were blessed with having Pastor Bill Markham step into the role of Lead Pastor.  This man has a natural gift for connecting with everyone.  He is funny, charismatic, intelligent, humble, and genuinely kind.  He stand up there and tells stories from his life and uses them to convey messages in the bible, like Darin did but in a much more animated way.  Sometimes he comes in wearing a Maple Leafs shirt so he can brag if they won the day before.  They make it fun for young people to attend, rather than being rigid and ritualistic and unwelcoming.  People don’t typically speak in tongues anymore, so it’s a little less intimidating for new people who are trying it out for their first time.  We got a new band and they sing new songs.  The name is now Central Community Church.  They are growing so much that they don’t have room in the parking lot for all the people coming to the services, and they have to use a shuttle to bring them in from another lot.  Over the past few years they have been rallying and campaigning to purchase a new property in Niagara-on-the-Lake in order to be able to accommodate all of the people who want to be a part of it.  Sometimes I sit in the pews and cry because something hits home with me and makes me feel happy or sad or repentant or overwhelmed.  Sometimes I sit there and feel nothing.  And then there are times when I don’t feel connected at all, and my head is brimming with doubts.  But I still go there when I can, and I really try to get the most out of my visits.  And whenever I’m there I wish I could just sit there for hours and think.  I don’t want to leave.  I’ve spent some time volunteering as a greeter, an usher, and part of the welcome team.  I’ve met some amazing people who are also followers of Jesus Christ.  It’s a place where I can go to feel release, to get back in touch with myself and my own personal spirituality.  And my kids love it too.  The youth programs are so amazing compared to the Sunday Schools of my childhood.

I don’t believe that you need to be at church every Sunday in order to be a good Christian.  You can have church any time you like, as long as you’re talking about and honoring God.  It doesn’t have to be about rituals.  It comes from the heart.  You either believe it or you don’t.  And I have a hard time not believing because of the many, many coincidences I’ve experienced in my life.  Sometimes I’ll be driving home and see the most beautiful sunset, and I have to stop and marvel at it and take a picture because it feels like God painted that sky just for me.  Or I’ll happen to meet some stranger who touches my heart with a story and I’ll just know that I was meant to be there in that moment.  I struggle, I won’t lie, I have questions that don’t have answers and maybe I’m afraid to ask them.  I let the devil get the best of me, and I worry about things I can’t control instead of trusting that God has a plan for me.  I have the biggest potty mouth out of probably anyone I know, and when I go to church and meet all these people I sometimes feel like a fraud because I am honestly just not that pure–I can barely speak a sentence without cussing.  And I am still terrified of death, maybe even more so than I used to be, because the older I get the more of a reality it becomes.  People are dropping left right and center.  Tragedies.  People I once knew and cared for.  And one day it’s gonna be me.  Or I could lose the love of my life first.  And I don’t even know what I would do without him.  And the prospect of life after death is a comfort in the face of all that fear.  He doesn’t believe in God, but I hope that if there is an afterlife, somehow he will find a way to get there and stay with me.

I’m not your stereotypical Christian who thinks if they go to church every Sunday they are free to be hypocrites the rest of the week.  I do my best not to judge others, because I have probably made worse decisions than most people so I’m the last person who should be judging.  I try to help people when I can, to serve others.  I try to be generous when I can.  I try to be kind, considerate and thoughtful.  I pray sometimes, but not enough, and usually it’s when I’m driving somewhere and am either overwhelmed with sadness or thankfulness.  My life has turned around so much in the last two years that I truly have a lot to be thankful for.  I try to live my life with humility and grace (although anyone who actually knows me would probably not describe me as graceful in the physical sense).  I strive to be the very best version of me that I can be.  And I happen to believe in heaven.  That’s as far as it goes.  I’m not looking at what anyone else is doing; I’m more concerned with my own personal growth.  I just believe that if you try your hardest to be the best version of you that you can be, then that’s a lot better than most people are doing these days.  And so yes, sometimes I do wish I was secular, because then I wouldn’t have to concern myself with how hard it is to try to do the right thing.  But as the saying in Matthew 7:13 goes, “Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it…” Essentially, the road to hell is wide and easy.  The road to heaven is narrow and tough.  And I choose to work on myself continuously.

I’m open to comments/discussion on the subject.  I actually have an essay I wrote in high school which I will add to this once I have located it.  I remember reading it in front of my English class and two girls crying because of the emotion they felt.  It was inspiring.

Another thing I would like to share is this photo that I had the absolute pleasure of being a part of.  Years ago, my friend Pam was experimenting with photography, and she also had connections with her local church, St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Niagara Falls.  This building is just stunning.  Again, Catholicism is decidedly not for me, but I think the church itself is absolutely gorgeous.  The priest there was kind enough to let us go inside and do a photo shoot one day.  I dressed up in a white dress and put angel wings on and posed at various locations within the church.  The only one I still have is this one, and in my opinion it turned out the best.

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