On 18 October, 2020, we rejoiced to welcome Gudrun Pfeiffer as a full member of our congregation. The Gospel was preached as shared her Faith Journey Testimony with us…:
“My Faith Journey”
by Gudrun Pfeiffer
15 October, 2020
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
1 John 4:7-12
I was born into the protestant faith. I can tell by my birth certificate, which, sparse in information as it is, states that I, Gudrun Hertel, was born on September 28th 1970, to my father (of protestant faith) and my mother (of protestant faith), both living at a mutual address. Oh, and it also shows that they paid all registration fees.
This tells us that in my culture, from the moment you are born, your faith is an identifying part of you. Barely 48 hours old, this is who you are. A name. A birthdate. An address. Your parents. And your denomination.
Consequently, I never questioned it. It was part of who we were. Where I come from, you were either Roman Catholic or Lutheran, or neither. Neither could mean of no faith or denomination, if you’ve never been baptized (an exotic rarity in my childhood when everyone I knew, myself included, usually was baptized within a few weeks of their birth), if you were of another faith (less exotic, we had Muslim kids at our school) or if you were of a different denomination (HIGHLY exotic. I was in my twenties before I first met somebody who was a Christian, but neither Catholic nor Lutheran. He was Methodist, and for weeks I couldn’t stop marveling and interviewing him about it)
Your denomination put you in certain classrooms – in my home state, students stay together as a class all year, for the four years of primary school and then in their new class in High School until grade 13. Teachers would come to your classroom, and it was much easier lumping all the Catholic kids together in one class (and the Lutheran, and the “Ethics”) and have the religious education teacher come to them.
That was who I was for school administration: Gudrun, female, first foreign language Latin, Lutheran.
It is maybe most remarkable that faith and denomination defined us personally, while life itself was rather secular. I don’t remember attending any church services in my early childhood. My grandmother, who we shared an apartment with, would pray with us tucking us in at night. Probably our parents did, too. But I do not remember faith playing an important part of any part of our life. Or of any of my friends’ lives. Churches in Germany, to this day, tend to remain rather empty with the exception of Christmas and Easter and the occasional wedding or baptism – many people want a church wedding, even if that’s the first time they set foot into a meetinghouse in their lives and they have their kids baptized, even if they have no intention of bringing them up in the faith. It’s just something that’s DONE. Not many questions asked.
Things started to change for me in 1984, the year I was confirmed. I faithfully (pun intended) went to confirmation classes at the church we had picked because their confirmation date wouldn’t interfere with our ski vacation. In spite of YEARS – at that point eight – of religious education at school, what we learned and studied in confirmation class started me to question my belief. So, we were Lutheran because Luther wanted to break away from the hierarchy of the Catholic church? Sola gratia, sola fidei, only the grace of God would redeem the faithful, nothing, no priest, should get between them and God’s revelation – but why was there a pastor before me, then, with a bishop somewhere up the ladder? Sola scriptura, the only thing the faithful need to turn to for guidance was the Bible, but we also learned that the Bible was a collation of writings put together in the fourth century, with many apocryphal scriptures that never made the cut? Oh, and Christianity of course came over the world with fire and sword, assimilating everything from Winter solstice celebrations or Saturnalia or the birth of Mithras and Sol Invictus which was turned into Christmas (the date of December 25th was also determined in the 4th century) to spring fertility rites which got turned into Easter to the life story of Jesus himself, which from Virgin birth and flight to Egypt to baptism and sermon on the mount to his death and his resurrection completely mirrored the story of Horus, which had been around for millennia.
In short: I started to doubt. And because I am who I am, I instantly and concurrently started doubting my doubts. Because in all of the things I KNEW, things I doubted rationally and maybe justifiably, I also SENSED. And one thing that had always been with me my entire life and that has never left me was the irrevocable sense of God’s presence. I might not have been sure about God’s dogmatic shape, form or will, but God was always with me and around me, looking out for me and catching me when I fell. God was sometimes a bit remote and harder to get through to, sometimes very immediate, but always there somewhere. Always understanding, sometimes a bit reproachful, but … ALWAYS.
I never stopped praying. And so, in my doubts, I started praying that God himself (though I don’t see God as decidedly masculine, I’ve always thought and spoken about HIM) show and light my way to him. I started listening to the way he revealed himself and his will to me. Now, this too is a slippery slope. We know from SEVERAL parts of the Old and New Testament that there are false prophets and that the words of men are not the words of God and that we are deceiving ourselves if we deviate and create our own little comfortable idiosyncratic faith.(See for example Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”)
But that’s a catch 22, right? Either you believe in God and the power of prayer, then you will believe, too, that God reveals himself to you and guides your life in prayers answered. Or you DOUBT the power of prayer and that the Lord reveals himself to you and assume that you yourself made up the answers that you think you received – but do you even truly believe then?
So I came to focus on God’s revelation through prayer. I never stopped asking for him to show me HIS way to him, even if *I* felt the path should lead into another direction. You could say I was asking for his spirit to fill me. And I listened to many people of faith and to people of many different faiths. And I found God in many who believe sincerely even though they often weren’t of my faith, and sometimes, I didn’t even find him in my own church, at the services whose liturgy were so familiar to me.
Interestingly, the longer I searched and I wondered, the stronger my conviction grew that God was WAY beyond human understanding. That we can only accept to grasp an essence or aspects of God that our imperfect human minds can work with, but we in our earthly existence will never see the full picture, or, as the case may be, God’s full glory.
I also felt that there were many aspects of God, and that he offers different aspects to different persons and peoples over time, because their minds might be able to grasp different things than mine or than ours in our time. And I came to believe that God has other aspects beside the Father and the Son — how about the mother? After all, there is a strong female aspect even in the Catholic faith with the Mother Mary. So I gravitated towards what is usually called a neo-pagan believe, accepting that all Gods are one God and God was in all aspects – the father, the mother, the sustainer, the hunter, the healer, the redeemer. Yet all the while, I never stopped feeling the familiar presence of God around me. I never stopped talking to those of other denominations and other faiths to learn about God’s work in and through them. And I kept worshipping the way I always had, since the way God had revealed himself to me in who I was, who taught me and who influenced me was as good as any and all of his other ways.
For a few years, 2006 to 2010, when we first lived in the US, though we by far weren’t regular church-goers, we worshiped here. From the very first time we entered the meeting house we felt surrounded by friendship, by welcoming people, some of whom had been our friends before and lots whom subsequently became our friends. We felt very, very at home here and learned again that denominations are just different stickers on jars that all in all contain the same goodness. After we moved back to Germany, we felt those jars were at least half empty, though.
Because returning to the Lutheran church got me in touch with a few dubitable characters – all, unfortunately, ministers. One who flat-out refused to baptize a young girl because her parents weren’t baptized. A minister who lied to us and cheated in a business transaction. A minister refusing to bless a gay couple. Several others who seemed to have entered ministry not as a vocation, but as an escape from the world they felt too challenged by. A Bishop telling people who voted a certain way that they were not welcome in THE church. How could these people be our spiritual guides? How or why would I, still the wandering Christian-by-birth-certificate with my underlying spiritual doubts, remain and say: Yes, I am a part of this group, I can get behind all this and condone it?
Well, I couldn’t. And so I left organized religion in 2014.
But that wasn’t the end of my faith journey, of course, because that journey never ends as long as we live. In 2015, I read a book by Tom Harpur, “The pagan Christ”. While many of its theses are shaky, most importantly his denial of a historic Jesus Christ, his argument that Christ’s essence and message are so eternal, they are in us and with us and have been with humanity for all times, even long before the year 0, resonated with me very strongly and quieted most of my spiritual doubts. The story of Christ had not just been coal-copied and assimilated. Jesus was and is and will be the once and future Christ.
On the practical level, I was brought back into the fold by our youngest child, our daughter Amrei, whom you might have met. In 2017 she told us she wanted to get confirmed. We told her that we supported that decision, but since we ourselves were no longer members of the church, she would have to sign herself up. I went to the church office with her, she filled and signed all of her own forms and gladly went to her weekly confirmation classes and the yearly retreats – and then my husband Frank got transferred back to the US. Back to Hollis, even. We moved back. And Amrei was crestfallen, because that would mean she couldn’t confirm with her friends in Germany.
So we approached the pastor there and after a long talk with us, he agreed to confirm Amrei if she did confirmation classes here. I went online, found this church’s email (apparently there was a new pastor now, one Reverend Tanya) and wrote and asked if she would let Amrei take part in confirmation classes. The wave of welcoming washed over us, the strangers, again – of course she was. One lovely August Sunday, as Pat Harris put it recently, on the steps of this Church in 2018, we met Pat, who as confirmation teacher, instantly, in the same spirit of friendship and welcome, agreed to accept Amrei. I offered my help if they wanted it.
And again, God worked in his very own ways. He looked at me and said “you might think you are done with religion – but I will show you differently. Let me put you in this place”.
I now find myself teaching confirmation classes. And as always, teaching teaches me so much. God teaches me new things every day. Every day I spend in and with this wonderful, open, loving congregation. Every time I see and hear how God touches the lives of our children, those in our homes and those that we teach. Every time I see the unfaltering dedication in the many, many people working here in this house, this house that is not just a building, but a house of God, a congregation of diverse and different people, from many ways of life, working together faith-fully. Full of faith. Always open to conversations and discussion, faith-focused or otherwise. Never sanctimonious, condescending or hypocritical. Always trying to LIVE the word of God in the teachings of Jesus, not to merely preach them.
So how could I turn away. God has put me here. The path I always asked him to show me took me here. So, today, I will officially become a member of this church. Does my journey end here? Is my faith monolithically cast in stone now? Have I stopped doubting?
And I hope I never will. Because after all, there is a season to everything. There’s a time to doubt, and a time to be reassured. A time to search and a time to be let in, as it says in Matthew 7,7-8 (“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. “) We asked to be let into this congregation, and we were let in. For the time being, let this be my home. Thank you for being my family.