I recently read a negative Amazon review for a home-decorating book from a Christian publishing house. The reviewer felt that faith is a “personal thing” and shouldn’t be brought to bear (in the form of references to God and to the scriptures) on topics such as home decorating. My first reaction was to think how sad it is that someone would feel that faith and religion should be hidden when discussing certain topics, and that she is so vehement about not wanting to bothered by someone else’s spiritual identity.
But her comment took me back to a time in my life when I kept my own faith and spiritual life hidden. I don’t know why I kept it so secret when I was a child, and later as a teenager. No one suggested that it was something to hide. It’s just that no one made it seem like something to talk about, so I didn’t.
When I was eight-years-old, and we attended a Southern Baptist church for a few years, I would save the front page of the church bulletin, where religious quotations and brief lessons were printed. I would pick up brochures on display in the church narthex with titles like, “What is the sin that will not be forgiven?” Our southern newspaper had a religion section with commentary on scripture passages. All these materials found their way into spirals and folders I kept in my room, which I took out to read from time to time. No one ever saw those things; I kept my interest in matters of faith underground.
Later, as a teenager, I would put on my Walkman headphones, listening to AM radio sermons and taking notes. I loved listening to sermons. I harbored secret hopes of becoming a minister myself someday. With no models of female ministers, though, I contented myself with the possibility of becoming a minister’s wife, and of enjoying a close connection with a church community that way.
My family knew none of these things, however. Perhaps because I went to week-long Bible camps two summers in a row, though, my sister would refer to me as “the religious one in the family.” I was given the job of saying grace before Easter and Thanksgiving dinners—pretty much the only times we gathered for meals in the dining room. My family probably figured it was easy for “the religious one,” but, in fact, I would hole up in my bedroom, tied up with anxiety, practicing what I might say.
I tried briefly to get involved with a youth group at a Baptist church near my high school. I had visions of a different kind of teenager there—teens who would look and act on the outside the way I felt on the inside. Kids who wanted to be good and kind and holy, like I think I wanted to be. It all came crashing down the night we played, ‘Honey, I love you, but I just won’t smile.’ It was a different era, so the game involved someone sitting on another person’s lap, trying to get them to crack a smile. At one point, I had a boy on my lap trying to break through my resolve, and when I said, “Honey, I love you, but I just won’t smile,” he hit me. I don’t remember now where he hit me, or if it was even hard or not. I just know I was shocked, horrified, and done. I never went back to youth group. My faith went underground again.
I never revealed how important religion was to me. I briefly tried a dorm Bible study during my freshman year of college, but the rest of my lifestyle didn’t fit a Bible-study persona, and I abandoned it pretty quickly. I’m not a big one for regrets, but I do look back on my college years and wish that I had handled them differently—gotten involved at our campus chapel and brought my “hidden faith” to the forefront of my lifestyle.
When I lived in Center City Philadelphia with my first husband, I worked for a year at a small Christian school. We had a required prayer meeting every day before classes began, and Wednesday morning chapel with the kids. I could use Bible examples and verses as part of my instruction. At home, we attended a Presbyterian church we walked to each week about seven blocks away. I became so “forward” with my faith that I even started bringing my Bible on our frequent flights to my husband’s home state, and read it like a novel on the airplane.
Fast forward five years to the circumstances that led to our divorce. I went through a phase of feeling like my faith, my hobbies, and my interests were mocked by my circumstances. Here I was at home, rubber stamping greeting cards, reading my Bible, and planning home décor for my first house, and I felt like such a silly woman when I found out my husband had been cheating on me all throughout my “square” “homebody” pursuits. I felt foolish. My faith went underground yet again.
It didn’t take me long to head back to church during my divorce recovery, though. I found a large suburban Presbyterian church with a pastor who inspired and comforted me with his Sunday sermons. Week after week I sat alone in the large sanctuary, and even put myself “out there” for a divorce-recovery group, a singles book club, and a cooking ministry in the church kitchen. In spite of my involvements, I stayed largely anonymous in that church, but it was during this time that my faith and my identity as a church-goer and a “religious type” became non-negotiable for me. I invited one of my boyfriends to church with me, and he snorted and said, “Why would I do that?” That was one of the many incompatibilities that ended our relationship.
But at that point I knew what I needed in a spouse: in addition to being a man I could trust and respect, as my first husband was not, I needed a husband with a sense of humor and a faith in God—not just a superficial faith or a go-to-church-on-Sunday Christian identity, but a faith that translates into worship and service and honesty and love.
When I met my husband Michael, I was able to recognize these qualities in him. And as we have built our household and family together, my faith has never since gone underground. It may be stretched, tested, and tried, but at this point I believe it has the substance to resist going underground again.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).