Central Pennsylvania is dotted with churches. Some dating back to the arrival of the first white settlers. Others are modern facilities complete with media installations to support an array of electronic age preaching. I see the buildings while I ride and am curious about the people and services that take place inside.
I’ve had a long history of interest in churches as examples of architecture and culture. As a child, my mother dragged me into every church in Bavaria and beyond. The human history in those places made a lasting impression. The nature of religion and faith were only words, but they played a part in the history I was learning.
Religion was problematic for me. I recognized early the adult hypocrisy reflected in the personal politics of the congregational leadership. Hearts and minds. When I left for college, my religious education had pushed me toward agnosticism but ending up a dissenter. There was a mistrust of the people behind the words heard in the church.
While four decades passed looking at churches from the outside. While I held a belief that a Prime Mover existed, distrust of the establishment running the church continued. Perhaps the best reflection of my own feelings of church and God were found, accidentally, in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales which begin with The Deerslayer. The protagonist, Natty Bumpo, reflected an awe of nature that he roughly equated with God.
God, religion, faith — all personal choices and explorations that provide meaning or solace that may make sense for me yet be utterly incomprehensible to another. Riding through quiet places, finding solitude, and being alone with my thoughts is where I find God. For a very long time I could not bring myself to apply that label for reasons stretching back to my teenage experiences in church. Time and experience has revealed the presence of some higher power that I can rely on. I don’t try to explain it or justify it to others. I require no proof or scientific evidence or argument beyond my own senses.
A little over a year ago a reader suggested I consider attending a service at a church just down the street from my home. I had been considering attending a Christmas Eve service — motivated primarily by nostalgia and the desire to remember times I spent with my mother and father.
The church, and it’s services, are surprisingly familiar. The spoken words, the rituals, it’s as if nothing has changed in 45 years. Except me. And I’ve sensed none of the congregational intrigue that I witnessed as a child. There’s a genuine feeling of caring and fellowship. But still I’m guarded.
My natural uneasiness with groups of people is in play and always leaves me feeling an outsider. I prefer to be alone. More than one other person is a crowd. And a congregation, well, it remains a challenge.
I consider church, and faith, an ongoing personal journey.