I will warn you in advance, this is a long post but one that I felt necessary to write. I hope that you will stick with it till the end and I pray that it will cause you to think and wrestle with what this means or could mean in your life...
Most sincerely yours,
Faith shouldn't have happened to me.
Faith was just a crutch used by religious people to bring some solace into a troubled world. A world full of pain and disappointment.
I mean, I couldn't really blame them. The disappointments of life are truly devastating to a human soul, anyone who has had a family torn by cancer or suicide can tell you that. Faith in God was what seemed the only thing that kept some of my friends going amidst the trials they faced.
Despite being raised in a non-denominational "church" home and being well-versed in Bible stories by middle school I had had it. The stuff that I heard on Sundays seemed more the stuff of fairy tales than reality; it would've made a really good movie or video game if a producer had the budget to do so.
And speaking of church, we had the routine down to a science! All throughout elementary school Sunday was as predictable as Old Faithful in Yellowstone.
We would all pile into the car Sunday morning to attempt to make the 9:00 am service (this was before coffee shops got put into churches, so there was little if no caffeine consumption). We would generally always be annoyed with whoever took the longest to get ready.
Then upon arrival we would shuffle off to our own things; the parents would go to "big church" as we called it and us kids would hit up Sunday school. Occasionally I would attend big church services but none of it ever made sense so I would use the time to try to nap on my parents. However I often found myself wishing for a pillow and blanket...
Then after our hour of church time was served for the week us kids would wait around in the church gym (yes our church had a gym for youth ministry events or congregation breakfasts, etc.), or in the church bookstore. But eventually we'd head home and I was free for another week.
It's not that my old church was a bad one, or that nothing good ever came out of it's programs, but nothing about the message I would get every Sunday would ever really stick out to me. I didn't care about the idea of Jesus dying for my "sins" or God creating the heavens and the earth... I mean what did all that stuff have to do with determining what I would get for my birthday? Or if I could have a sleepover with my friends and play video games and eat junk food all night? God just didn't fit into MY picture.
I went to a couple summer camps through the church during elementary school. Those were fun. There was excitement, singing, activities, cute girls... yep it was good.
I think every single summer I went I ended up accepting Jesus as my savior by the end of the week. It was such an emotional experience, such a rush each time... and then a week later with school starting I had forgotten all about this "life changing" moment and began to focus on grades and homework and the new year's friends.
See, this is why I find that committing one's life to God is more often than not a disappointment for so many "born-again" Christians. We believe that our life will be frozen in permanent joy and ecstasy after the conversion, that when all our struggles creep back into the picture and we realize that we are facing the same hardships as we had before.
More on that later...
Middle school is a difficult time for all teenagers, of this I have no doubt. My relationship and feelings toward God and church plummeted drastically around this time of life. I attended a public school at the time which presented a difficulty for creating a church social life. Virtually all of the kids in my age group all went to the same private Christian school. They all knew each other and had their own jokes and social lives. If that didn't make it difficult enough I was very shy and socially awkward at the time.
Now I'm just awkward.
I've come to learn that in life there will always be a clique of some kind. At your job, your weekly study group, the bar...wherever it may be. Humans have this need for acceptance and to feel as though they are loved, its just a fact of life.
And with any clique there are outsiders.
This is how church came to feel for me in middle school. The Christian school kids probably did not intend this, but intentions do not change perceptions of one who feels like an outsider. It didn't help that they all liked top 40 hits on the radio and that I listened to heavy metal. Nor did it help that I didn't wear the trendy favored American Eagle and other "prep" dress, but that I instead preferred the color of choice in most of the wardrobes of the bands that I admired. Black.
I didn't even mention that at the time I hit puberty and was already super freaked out about my voice. My self image in church was lower than low. I felt unwanted and unloved. I started to view God as someone who only loved the "pretty" people. The popular ones with the nice smiles and who seemed to have no problems in their lives. In my perception God was just as I perceived those who surrounded me at church; shallow.
In hindsight I know now that no one has an easy time in middle school, no matter how together they look. But why was it that going to church (the place that is described as the "body" of Christ, and the people who are brothers and sisters and children of God's "family") made me feel so completely alone?
It was during middle school that I realized I knew nothing about God. Nothing about my "relationship" with Him was personal or intimate. When I prayed I felt like I was talking to walls, when I read that Bible nothing made sense. It seemed so dry. So lame.
By early high school I had come to believe that Christianity was just another product being sold to the gullible. That it was purely a religion of hypocrites and the insincere. At that point I denounced my faith and donned the term agnostic.
I wouldn't have told you that God for sure didn't exist. I mean, who really has knowledge of the entire universe after all? Maybe Bill Gates does...or the founder of Facebook...but I definitely couldn't say with any certainty that He didn't exist. However it was the Christians to me who were very narrow minded and self- centered people and for the first time in my life I felt free. Free of the guilt that I felt burdened down with every single Sunday for not "following the rules", free from a religious system that only produced surface level people. I was free.
In high school I found my niche' in the music program. I made some of my best friends in the four years I was involved in it. My self image had begun to get better with dating (what guy or girl's image doesn't right?) and so I began to build this new sense of security for myself. I still struggled with the difficulty of clinical depression which I found out about my sophomore year, but that's nothing that pills can't cure. We are a self made society after all.
Life was pretty good. I had a supportive family, my own clique and while I never did super great with school I managed to have a fairly good relationship with my teachers so they at least liked me for the most part. I'll never forget how much I took all those things for granted. You see living a life apart from God meant I had to go to whatever lengths it took to please myself, it brought about an extreme selfishness that was the core of me. I was a parasite. I leeched off others and when they didn't make me happy anymore I'd move on to the next one. I still am sad to write these things for anyone to read, but it is important to note that living purely for yourself and your pleasure will never fill up our needs to be loved and accepted. It will never bring about healthy relationships with others.
It just won't.
As I look to fallout from shattered relationships I had experienced those years I can attribute it to one thing and that was my personal demanding selfishness.
Some of the friends I have to this day from high school are, in my view, saints for loving me despite my intense love of myself.
Maybe you have experienced this realization maybe you haven't. I pray you never do.
Throughout my years in high school I felt it my duty to show my Christian friends how foolish their beliefs were. I completely devoted my spare time to asking the unanswerable questions about the Christian faith to my friends (but only the ones who I felt were truly sincere in their beliefs). I knew they couldn't answer some things and so this questioning served a dual purpose; it made me feel good about not caring about God or Jesus or heaven or hell, and it made me feel like I was helping them to see how their faith never really challenged their worldviews or perspective but rather that it was a little bubble. A sunday "social club" rather than reality.
What I didn't know was that those people whose beliefs I was calling crazy were some of the most influential people in my life. I know some who were praying for me to find God since freshman year. One who had prayed for me since 7th grade!
These people weren't the hypocrites I was used to, they were genuinely concerned about if I was going to heaven or hell. All this I know in hindsight but never knew at the time.
Like I said earlier faith shouldn't have happened to me. I was fine.
Until my first year of college.
I was living life like I wanted with little repercussions to my selfishness. Things were going ok, until several things happened all at once.
I had ended up attending UW-Oshkosh for my first year of college and my girlfirend of the time was going to a different university. I was head over heals in love and already had grand plans in my mind for the future, of course I mentioned selfishness earlier and it ended up rearing its ugly head into that relationship. After spending a wonderful summer together I suddenly didn't have the security of seeing her everyday. In fact we were quite a distance away. This relationship had become my main source of feeling love and having that taken away from me was devastating. I couldn't function, couldn't eat or be content, couldn't focus on my school and studies.
Even as I write this I still remember how horrible I acted as a result of not being able to have what I wanted when I wanted it.
I can't even imagine the stress I put on her. The way I would use words to mask the barbs of guilt that I would shoot her way trying to say that she was responsible for my being miserable.
As I understand love now and look back on how I handled a relationship that I thought I was truly loving in the contrast is almost sickening.
She ended the relationship and I don't blame her in the least.
However this was devastating to me at the time. I couldn't understand. I had this all planned out and it was going to work out...
Shortly after I received a call from my parents who had been married at this point over 20 some years. They had begun to undergo some serious marital issues that nearly tore our family apart for the next few years following the initial clash.
Suddenly my family wasn't a rock I could fall back on. How could they do this to me?
I began to see this facade of happiness and security falling apart before my very eyes. I began to party a lot at this time and watched my grades (which weren't the best to begin with) crumble.
Drinking more. Separating myself from all reality and numbing the pain.
I'm sure that anyone can imagine how well that worked. I remember being on the computer for hours upon hours. Typing to people on chat while drinking a cold (and cheap I might add) Coors Light. I remember looking for those Christian friends online and asking them what the point was. Why would God allow this crap to happen to me. And eventually when I didn't get the answers I was satisfied with I gave up. I was done. Alone in my dorm I posted a last Facebook message and went to end my life.
I don't say any of this to be morbid, please understand that in order for me to write to you of hope and the miracle that I have found, I first had to go through the pain of losing that which I thought would sustain me. The reality is we live in a broken world with broken people, disappointments will happen, plans will be shattered. And this is why I understand that God is really the only rock a person can turn to.
That night I swear an angel was with me because my life didn't end. In fact I would submit to you that it had just begun.
Shortly after I got out of the hospital I attended a Campus Crusade meeting. Its really amazing how God works because in my "secure and enlightened" life I described prior I would've never given this sort of thing the time of the day, however after being in the hospital and realizing how out of control my life was I thought it was about time to start swallowing whatever pride I had left in myself and to reach for something outside that might be a better way to live.
At that meeting I remember one of their handouts was advertising a retreat to Florida for a week and oddly enough I had just enough money to cover it. I definitely needed a retreat so I kept it. Upon returning to Oshkosh I found out that they had their own branch of Crusade so it was through them that I signed up to take the trip. I figured I could deal with the religious people if it meant a week to get away to warmer weather and to try to sort out my thoughts. I told the project leader right out that I didn't agree with telling people about God because I didn't believe in him and given that fact I asked him if he would like me to still come on the trip. It kind of shocked me that he welcomed me on with open arms.
For figuring that Christians were clique-ish this sure was different...
So I went.
I was bound and determined to be a hermit the whole trip. Minimal contact with people was good. I didn't really care about them anyway, I was there for me and myself.
I'll never forget the first morning after arrival I grabbed my Ipod and slipped out the door to take a walk before anyone else woke up. I needed to think. And wouldn't you know it I ran into Mark (the project leader). He asked if I wanted to grab a Starbucks and being an avid drinker of such a product I felt inclined to accept, guess I wasn't going to be anti-social just yet...damn.
As we sat down he asked me a little bit more about my story and what brought me down to Panama City Beach. I was blown away by how he listened to my story. I didn't feel judged at all or looked down on this trip was definitely weirding me out already.
During that week I scrounged up a Bible cause I decided that if I read it again it would, in fact, confirm that all my prior notions were true and that God really wasn't there. I remember reading some of the apostle Paul's writings. He talked a lot about peace through God and peace in all circumstances. That stuff touched me and brought me comfort at the time (I now realize what people mean when they say that God "speaks" to us, it isn't necessarily audible spoken word but there is revelation in reading the Bible if you let him speak to you).
But the thing I couldn't shake at all was Jesus. I realized that virtually all my understanding of this man was completely wrong. It is not surprising to me in a culture where Jesus is made to look like a pious self-righteous wimp... but this wasn't the guy I found in the Bible. Jesus was the type of guy who befriended the "not-good-enoughs" he cared about people's lives, he commanded those that followed him to care about those in need and the best part to me, I kid you not, was the parts in the Bible where he took the self-righteous "religious" people to task. Jesus wasn't a fan of what the "church" scene had become. It really wasn't about pleasing God it was about pleasing people.
I'm not going to lie I had no idea at all that this was who Jesus was, it was appealing to me. But then I read something that I just couldn't get my mind around and that was his death. I couldn't understand by looking at myself and my life why any person would die for me so that I could have a better life.
I'm not kidding. I could not wrap my head around this.
At best I lived my life in fear of growing old and death, I hate hospitals and nursing homes because I don't like being close to my mortality and the reality that death is our ultimate destination on earth.
But here was a guy I didn't even know who was willing to give away that which was so precious to me so that lousy people like myself and the people who wrongly accused him could live. Not only that but in the midst of the pain and suffering he endured he prayed to God to forgive these people! My selfishness and mentality of self preservation and God's message of love collided violently at that point and I was conflicted for the rest of the week.
I would take long walks with my Ipod in and listen to a c.d. by the band Red called "Innocence v. Instinct. The lyrics sank deep in me and my conflicted emotions of the time. If you don't own the c.d. I'd highly recommend it...
Every night the 400 some students on the trip would get together and share their stories of meeting drunken partiers on the beaches and sharing this "good news of Jesus" with them. They would also pray and sing and listen to a message from the Bible. I attended these throughout the week.
Thursday night I believe was our last nightly meeting before the drive back to Wisconsin and as I sat there during the stories of people who had made the choice to follow Jesus or the people who had rejected it I had a revelation. I realized that Jesus did offer all the answers. I realized that God loved me more than anything and hated to see my pain. I realized the choice lay on me whether to accept or reject.
I will tell you now that this is the most basic tenant of Christian faith, but never in all my years of attending church had it been so real to me as it had that night. Without even thinking I went up to the stage and got in line to share my "story" of the day. As the line went down I remember feeling nervous, knowing that this was one of the biggest decisions of my life.
Walking up on that stage in front of 400 other believers in Christ was one of the most scary moments of my life. As I talked into the microphone about how I had walked away from God, and how even this whole week I had been fighting the idea that God could love me when I had no love for myself, I found myself saying the words "I'm done fighting. I don't want to fight anymore." And right there I prayed to ask Jesus if he would come and take my broken life and make it into the life he wanted me to live.
I'll never forget the sound of the brothers and sisters I had gained at that moment.
But more importantly I'll never forget the fact that in that moment faith became real to me, for the first time. Life hasn't been easy since then. I promise you that, but I have never regretted making that decision that night.
I know this is a long post, and I hope that you have stuck through it because this is the whole point. God loves you. God wants you to be in relationship with him. He wants to wipe your tears away and he wants you to know you are never alone...
I pray whoever (if anyone) reads this that you will find the peace that I now write with. That you will have the certainty and realization that hope and joy are possible for you no matter where you are!
Like I said, faith shouldn't have happened to me.... but I am so grateful it did.