Home > Christianity, Judaism, Love > The Church of Sunlight through Trees

The Church of Sunlight through Trees

My mother was raised Mormon but left the church early. She couldn’t, she told me, abide a faith that told her she’d only make it to heaven if her husband called her there. She opted for non-denominational Christianity when she was finally free to act on her own faith.

My father was the born-again sort. He’d take me to church with him on some of our rare visits, but I don’t recall much about the visits. I do remember having an increasingly hard time with his faith, which–as he told it–would allow him forgiveness as long as he said “praise Jesus!” after any transgression. To me, that translated to, “I can beat your mom any and every day, just as long as I say sorry to Jesus afterward!”

Oh, how that troubled me. But I went with it, because–what else could I do?

One afternoon a little later, I watched a cheesy horror show. Its happy ending was a villain in hell.

How the hell is that a happy ending? I wondered. Some dude has a crappy childhood and learns you interact with people by hurting them, so he gets to spend an eternity in hell because he wasn’t lucky enough to be raised by Pollyannas or at least find them early enough to be pointed down a better path? 

I didn’t agree with my dad’s take on being forgiven, but that didn’t mean I wanted him to suffer an eternity for acting out cycles put in place generations before him. I’d seen his horrible acts, but I’d seen tenderness, too. He wasn’t really a monster, just–to borrow from Home–a sad-mad man.

I wanted to be a superhero so I could stop bad guys like the predators I already knew, but I didn’t want them dead. I definitely didn’t want them to suffer for an eternity. In fact, I didn’t want that so much that I didn’t want any part of a religion that endorsed it.

I stopped calling myself a Christian. I still believed in some form of God, but I didn’t–couldn’t–believe in hell.

One of my mom’s friends took me to synagogue around the time I started high school.

I was captivated. Not only was it okay to interrupt a sermon, it was … welcomed?

And then I discovered there was no hell in Judaism. Just an emphasis on acts of lovingkindness and seeking forgiveness directly from the person you’d wronged. Not from Jesus, but from the aggrieved.

I was in. It took me a decade and a half to convert to Judaism, but I finally did …

… only to find myself questioning everything all over again, just weeks after affirming my commitment to life as a (Reform) Jew.

I sat quietly on my questioning. It felt shameful to be so indecisive about faith, something other people seemed to feel so very decisively, and to do so barely weeks after I’d committed myself to living my chosen faith wholly for the rest of my life.

But sometimes, at night, I’d quietly talk to Jesus and feel awash in love. I’d get up and Google all kinds of permutations confirming that Jesus’s ultimate message was one of unconditional love. How could he speak so clearly and still be so misunderstood by so many? I wondered. His wasn’t a message of hatred or hellfire as talking heads on the news might have me believe, but one of absolute love. It lifted me in the quiet nighttime hours where the noisiness of hatred seemed far, far away.

Then daylight would come and I’d ask myself, “Holy cow, was I really trying to have a conversation with a thousands-years-dead dude?” My rational daytime self was frustrated by these nightly forays into unreason.

And yet, as Easter approached this year, I found myself wanting to go to church. By daylight.

I didn’t, for many reasons. But the pull made me think there’s probably coming a day I will set foot in church again, and maybe do so afterward if the church and its goers emphasize love and forgiveness with nary a mention of eternal damnation.

Until then, I’m going to waste less time arguing with myself over what I should or shouldn’t believe. If I find myself having a hard time with that, I’ll try to remember the time I could have drowned while rafting in college.

I hadn’t listened to a single thing my rafting instructor had said. Not one.

(I was busy thinking about a cute guy.)

So when my raft did capsize, I was pinned against it upstream. I fought and fought to climb my way against the water and up over the raft, but the water was too strong, and I so frail against it.

Then, an epiphany: Maybe survival isn’t in fighting the water, but going with it. Maybe I need to stop fighting.

I relaxed my muscles and flowed downward, with the water. I tumbled beneath the raft and fought my way upward, gasping for air just seconds after figuring I should resign myself to drowning.

My takeaway that day was that I should listen to safety experts. But as the years have marched on between then and now, I’ve found another takeaway: that, though I love to argue, and to resist, I most often find my truth in the rare quiet of listening to–and honoring–the voice inside that strives toward living love, and has no concerns for shoutings of should-bes. The voice of yes.

I haven’t started calling myself Christian again, but if I feel the need to pray at 3 a.m., I will. I will flow with the water instead of trying to force myself up and over the edge of that raft.

If I feel compelled to visit a church, I will. I will go with that flow.

Until then, my church will be the sunlight through the trees, the wind through my hair, the prayer of thanks at 3 a.m., the sweetness of fruit bursting in my mouth, the sound of my little boys’ laughter. It will be in the “for,” not the “against,” and most of all in the love I hear resounding around me when I only


to listen.


  1. Deb
    April 7, 2015 at 5:04 am

    This is lovely. I am an atheist, but religion and spirituality can take many forms other than organized ‘church’. If your system of belief brings you peace and what you are searching for then that is what matters and what is needed for you.

    • April 7, 2015 at 9:38 am

      Thank you, on all counts. I suspect part of me will forever remain skeptical, but … far and away, my heart seems to be gravitating elsewhere, and I finally feel (mostly) willing to follow.

  2. April 7, 2015 at 5:08 am

    I feel you on this one. Faith is a tricky thing.

    • April 7, 2015 at 9:39 am

      So many seem so certain, you know? I’m almost a little envious, but hey! What a journey to enjoy, with the right mindset. 🙂

  3. April 7, 2015 at 5:15 am

    I am myself a wholehearted member of the Church of Children’s Laughter. That stuff is powerful medicine and could cure the world’s ails, and it’s all the religion I need. There is a scene I like from a movie I can’t quite remember, perhaps Dead Man Walking. A nun is asked if she believes in hell. What I remember her saying is that she believed that there was too much hell on earth, for hell in the afterlife to be real.
    You are a superhero. Hero’s are those that recognize the cycles of the generations before them, and opt out. Superheros question the behavior that they grew up with, and find their own, better way to be human.

    • April 7, 2015 at 9:43 am

      Thank you so much for these beautiful words. I think of all the things I am grateful for, it is holding my oldest son for the very first time and knowing I was not at risk of carrying on those cycles. My best friend insisted there was “none of that” in me, but I didn’t know for sure until that moment of holding. What joy to remember!

      Kids’ laughter really is the best cure. No matter how sour my mood, one giggle from a little belly brightens it. Even thinking about it now makes me smile.

  4. April 7, 2015 at 5:28 am

    WOW, this is so beautiful, I have goose bumps…. I too have struggled most of my life with trying to find a church or belief system that I fit into but after all these years I feel I fit and don’t fit into most of them so I am now a Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Taoist, Hindu, human being believing in the universal love and light of one God, call him or her what you may… It is all so beautiful in its true essence. People pervert religion, the basic message in almost all major religions is the same, love. Much peace and love to you, and thank you for this wonderful post! 🙂

  5. cardamone5
    April 7, 2015 at 6:39 am

    God and Jesus understand your thoughtfulness. Let me rephrase: I think god and Jesus understand your thoughtfulness, since I am not privy to their thoughts. Take your time, and choose the best option for you, even if it remains the 3 am prayers.

  6. April 7, 2015 at 8:20 am

    I’ve been a believer since my mid-20s, and over time my faith has shifted many times between deep and secure to confused and seemingly nothing but questions. Through it all, the words I cling to are Jesus’ own definition of the greatest commandment – to love God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength, and next to love others as ourselves. This has become my benchmark. If it’s not about love, I can set it aside. If my thoughts or actions aren’t motivated by or steeped in love, they’re probably flawed. By “love” I don’t mean the warm fuzzies, either – I mean an intentional choice that drives one to action. And I don’t want to claim that I go around loving on everyone all the time, because I don’t – I’m an introvert with misogynistic tendencies … but allowing me to be what I am is part of loving myself. Loving God involves trying to know what he wants so that I can do it, trying to understand, seeking to obey. I don’t know that I’m phrasing this very well … but it works for me, it helps me to be true to myself and, as best I can, true to God.

  7. April 7, 2015 at 8:37 am

    I really admire your honest seeking. I was raised Jewish (with one Jewish parent). My husband was raised Catholic. I think my church now is pretty much the church of nature. The church of sunlight through trees has a good ring.

  8. April 7, 2015 at 8:38 am

    I love the sensitivity you use in describing your experience – it is so honest and generous. So many of us within the institutional boundaries need to hear you, that we can share in your experience honestly and generously. Thank you, Deborah!

  9. April 7, 2015 at 10:53 am

    This is really a wonderful piece and resounds deep within. I too have been struggling with faith/religion’a spiritual way of being, having never really been indoctrinated into one or another. Buddhism has always appealed as has Native American beliefs and spirituality. It’s the call of loving and respecting life in all its forms that speaks to me the truest. Universal love is something I walked in long before it became a catch-phrase 😉 You either feel that deep inside or you don’t. No religion will teach it to you… Thank you for this. Nice to know I am not alone in the quest for meaningful spirituality. And I love your title!

  10. April 7, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    “God is in the midst of you” – God resides in your heart, in your loving relationships with the creator, yourself, everyone you know and meet, and the natural world. What more could anyone want or need? All religions come back to this point, your relationship with God expressed in the way you live and love others. Churches, Temples and Synagogues are just places to learn and gather in fellowship – but they are not the whole picture. Keep trusting your instincts, living in love, and expressing your heart in prayer and thoughtfulness 🙂

  11. April 7, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    A really tricky area.
    I am an agnostic with strong leanings towards the atheist end of the equation. I firmly believe that our behaviour matters. NOW. Kindness, respect and love are more important to me than a label. Any label.
    And I find a lot of peace in the beauty and the miracle of nature.

  12. April 7, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    Faith and belief come in a million different packages. Feeling forced to label your personal relationship with the divine (or not) is only productive and helpful for those who want to pigeonhole you. Good for you for giving yourself the flexibility to figure out what you believe on your own terms.

  13. April 7, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    I love this! I love it SO MUCH. And I feel like you’re speaking right to my heart because I am so right in that same spot. Thank you for articulating the complication of it all.

  14. April 8, 2015 at 4:30 am

    Everyone has a story … and many thanks for sharing yours. If I could mildly guide you on your journey, let me remind you of something that you already know …. Christianity comes in many flavors, so pick a church that has a positive message.

  15. Nikki
    April 8, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    This is so great. 🙂 I am a lover of Jesus. I have found that the brick and mortar institution and organization of ‘church’ is only as strong as it is broken. It’s taken me years to understand and reconcile the good and bad. We are a broken humanity that often falls away from the Truth because we naturally lean into the people who claim to know the Truth, and it lies to us. Hurting people hurt people. We can’t count on all people. But we can count on the One that is True always. I do go to church, but I don’t go anymore for its denomination or what it can do for me. I go there to rub shoulders with other broken seekers and believers, and prayerfully consider the Truth that whispers to me in spite of all the broken. I listen to it, the breath of the Holy Himself, and I trust it. No ‘church’ is perfect. But if I choose to BE the church, even when I do not darken a door to a building that contains it, I find church is everywhere. My faith is in the One who saves; not in the fallible institutions or broken followers that are as shifty and variable as the wind. My foundation of belief is in the One who was and is and will be.

  16. April 10, 2015 at 4:17 am

    I have been, I don’t know there are many words for what I am many definitions. I suspect my heart mothers is the best; a spiritual Deist or Spiritual Agnostic, of course she also use to lovingly call me a damnedable pagan quite frequently.

    I have always found the Jewish faith compelling. This likely has a great deal to do with the Hell Fire and Brimstone of Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity my family is split between. The Christian institutions, well they leave something to be desired don’t they? My Heart Mother was the best example of a Christian I had ever known, living her life as a loving and giving person every single day, fallible and error prone, always seeking the best in people, always ready to do good, always willing to forgive and ask for forgiveness. If anyone walked the walk she did. I suspect we see the Church and sometimes forget there are those who simply are like you and even me, seekers.

    Loved this, loved your honesty as always.

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