I Am Not a Religious Person!

I am not a very religious person.

I know –

shocker!

After all, my father was a pastor and I started attending church weekly by crawling on the nursery’s floors. While in university studying music and English, I had a minor in Bible and Theology. I am married to a pastor. I lead the music and worship at a church.

But, I am not religious. I was for the first fourteen years of my life. I memorized Bible verses because my Sunday school teachers rewarded me with Dunkin Doughnuts. I tried to act the correct way in church when everyone there expected me to be a stellar example as a pastor’s daughter. I even gave all of my tenth birthday’s gift money in an offering – trying to show that I was that “type” of good Christian kid.

But, all the religion – the process of me trying to be good enough for God by following a set of rules and expectations – that all ended abruptly on a porch swing.

*****

In our line of overseas work, we are allowed to ship over a container from America ONE time in our career. If you serve for 50 years in the same country, you only get once chance to smuggle your materialistic Americaness across the ocean.

Our chance came in 2007. We had finished three years in Armenia and were about to fly out for our second term. A semi-truck arrived early one Friday morning and deposited a rusty, orange shipping container in our driveway. We had eight hours to fill that baby up before the semi would reappear and take our things to the nearest train bound for the East coast’s shipping yards.

We filled every corner of that thing. Last minute, when we realized that a little space remained, Nick drove to the nearest Sam’s Club and returned with a car full of discount, bulk American toilet paper and paper towels to stuff into every open nook and cranny. We were smugly confident that if that container’s ship sunk in the middle of Atlantic, even the fish would be impressed with how airtight and strategically packed it was.

It’s hard to think of everything you may possibly want or need from America for the unforeseeable future of working overseas. But, Nick insisted that one of my favorite things, a traditional wooden American porch swing, was a necessity.

I found God on a swing, hung on the porch of my parents’ Victorian home, when I was 14 years old.

I first sat down on our porch swing one night when I felt completely powerless. My months of excessive exercise, controlled eating and quick weight loss had finally been diagnosed as an official case of anorexia. My body had started the process of shutting down, and I had no idea on how to overcome the gripping fear I had when I was forced to eat well again. I had finally started to feel beautiful, worthy, and in control of a girl who had always felt valueless. It wasn’t about the food; it was about losing the beauty of me.

So on a hot summer night, my skinny body sat, swinging back and forth, under a star-filled sky. I started to sing an old church song I had learned as a girl. Perhaps the neighbors heard my teenage voice attempting to reach the stars. But, I didn’t care.

“You alone are my strength and shield.

To you alone may my Spirit yield.

You alone are my heart’s desire,

And I long to worship Thee.”

And as I sung that, I experienced the presence and overwhelming love of God for the first time in my life. I felt as if God took me, his dying daughter, into his lap, held me, rocked me and whispered courage into my bones.

This soon became a ritual for me. I would conclude every day with a time, rocking on my porch swing, staring at the stars, and singing and praying to God. I was no longer following a religion. I was following someone I loved.

Through the repetitive back and forth motion of that swing, I learned that God does not want our “religiousness.”

He just wants us.

*****

Tonight I sat in a theater filled with parents and little girls as we watched Disney’s new rendition of the classic fairytale,

Cinderella.

Most fairytales center around a life lesson that the author intended for young children to glean. And I couldn’t agree more with how Disney chose to sum up this classic about a girl, found faithful in the cinders, who become queen.

“Have courage and be kind.”

Unfortunately, not all of us are born kind. My sister was. My parents would call her “Sunshine” or "Sweet Pea" as she would wake up every morning, her thin hair standing on end from static, and greet the world with a great big smile, kiss and hug.

I, on the other hand, was not born kind. Ask my parents. I entered the world screaming and colicy. A government social worker was even sent to my parents’ home to check against abuse since they knew how challenging of a baby I was. That continued into my toddler years. I was extremely determined and strong-willed. There was absolutely nothing easy about me.

Once my sister entered the world and became old enough to interfere with my life, I shared my best with her- stuck popcorn kernels up her nose, bossed her around with the greatest efficiency, and even would sit on her head while attempting to “expel gas” as a punishment for her disobedience to my iron will.

I also had a very sharp tongue. When my childhood crush refused to acknowledge my existence, I bit into the core of his weakness with such sharp words I found him crying in a corner twenty minutes later.

Although I certainly was not all bad or unpleasant, my mother used to summarize me best. “Olivia, you just have a mean streak.”

But then that mean streak met the God of my porch swing.

As I sat, nightly, I knew this was something that needed to be transformed in me. I began to pray and quote one of those Scriptures I had acquired for the love of doughnuts.

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

- Galatians 5:22, 23; The Bible - Message version

And as I prayed those words, I saw real change. My sharp tongue was softened and my mean streak turned into a heart filled with compassion and kindness. EVERY ONE close to me noticed a difference. It was as if I became a different person. God did what he does best – He performed a miracle of the heart.

So, Hollywood blockbuster

Cinderella,

thanks for reminding me of something taught to me 22 years ago on a porch swing in St. Joseph, Missouri.

God took me in the midst of my fear and sickness, and taught me how to have courage- all while nestled in the lap of a powerful Father. A heart born defiant became softened with kindness.

And so, to you, I echo the words of Cinderella. “Have courage and be kind.”

Always.

Do whatever it takes to build those qualities in your heart and life.

Your kingdom was never meant to be marked in the history books as being weak and bitter.

Your “happily ever after”

will

be marked by courage and kindness.

Do whatever it takes to find your own porch swing under the stars.