Church Journey

There are a lot of days when, if I can be honest, I’m ready to throw in the towel when it comes to church. I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about why I’m still around and some of the things that have kept me a part of a church community. (When I say “church community,” I’m referring to a gathering of people who consider themselves followers of Jesus.) I’ve been thinking specifically about the Christian traditions I’ve been a part of over the course of my life, and how exactly I’ve ended up where I am today. To be honest, I feel like a mutt. It’s been a hell of a journey (pun intended,) but also an incredible one. For the first 16 or so years of my life, I spent every Sunday in a southern baptist church. Those who grew up with me know that as a kid I was pretty shy. I wouldn’t even make eye contact with you if you greeted me in the hallway. I have so many memories from this season of life. Even now, I can almost smell the resurrection rolls baking in the church kitchen on Easter. I mourn the days when my parents stuffed my chunky, 7 year old, tomboy self into a dress. I remember what it felt like to be the only 8 year old in your Sunday School class who had not walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, and gotten “saved.” I remembered not caring and almost priding myself in being the heathen of the group. I remember transforming, slowly, from that shy 10 year old who more a hat all the time (and was always asked to take it off while the blessing was being said) to the 12 year old who was a part of the youth group, trying to cross this boundary from childhood to adolescence.

It was when I turned 12 that I would say my actual relationship with Jesus began. He was always there in the past, but I tended to keep him at arms length. (Since this in and of itself is probably the central event of my existence, I’m not giving it nearly enough attention here.)

As I look back on my years in youth group even now, I still believe they were some of the best days of my life. I had an incredible youth pastor, one who invited us into bigger conversations about deeper things. He and his family were real people. He wasn’t the type of dude who preached a lot about what we ought and ought not do, instead, he showed us how to follow Jesus.

Around the same time that I was getting older and preparing for college, there was also a transition on staff at church. I stuck around half the time and started visiting nondenominal churches the rest of the time. The lights and the loud music were refreshing to me. People lifting their hands in worship was refreshing to me. For years I had been itching to have a church experience where that was the norm. Eventually I left my church at home altogether and got involved at another nondenominational church. It just felt like time to move on. Throughout that season of life, I was a very anxious person, more than I am now. I still have friends who go to the nondenominal churches I spend my time at and I listen to a sermon from those churches from time to time. The problem was that in the process of being surrounded by a massive amount of people in these churches, I felt more alone than ever. I met great folks, but no real community formed.

The next season of my life felt like a later, joyous season, much like my years in youth group. I started going to these worship nights we called “ps150,” which stood, obviously, for Psalm 150. Some nights it was 30 of us packed into the house near campus, and other nights it was 80 of us. Several people brought guitars, others brought banjos, ukuleles, mandolins, drums, and keyboards. We would worship together for a couple of hours and lay hands on one another and pray at the end. It was incredible.

One evening at ps150, an Asian lad named Kenny stood up and mentioned that he was starting a gathering on campus where folks were just going to come together on Thursday nights and pray for the campus. The first time I went to this Thursday night gathering I never would have guessed how much it would have changed my life for the better. This small gathering of friends became my community, my true church. We drove to Kansas City together that December to attend a conference put on by IHOP (not pancakes, but prayer). It was the wildest Pentecostal environment I had ever been a part of. People were speaking in tongues and convulsing on the floor. It tripped me out. I was pretty cynical the whole week.

However, those 4 days were some of the best days of my life. Not because of the conference, but because I got to spend time hanging out with my best friends. We lived like hippies. At IHOP I learned more about what I did and didn’t believe about God. I began praying more often. All the time, actually.

Whenever I came back to Wilmington after that trip I was invited to visit the church where a few of the folks in our Kansas City crew went. Though it’s nondenominational, it has some charismatic undertones. This place has been refreshing beyond belief. I have found community there that is more loving than I ever would have imagined. I feel like I have come full circle there. Whenever our college aged group eats at long plastic tables on Sunday, I can’t help but be reminded of the years when I sat at those same tables in a Rocky Point baptist church.

My theology is shifting these days. I’m seeing sides of Jesus that I’ve never seen before. I’ve come to believe things that I once thought were wrong. I’m coming to a place of openness and freedom. To be honest, my faith has nothing to do with what I believe at this point, and much more to do with trusting that God will catch me though I am not sure of anything. It’s about grace these days. It’s about death and resurrection. It’s been about seeing parts of me dying and resurrecting as something different than I would have imagined.

Yesterday morning I attended an episcopal church before I went to my nondenominational church. There was something about it that I found so peaceful. I never thought I would find liturgical settings the least bit interesting, but I do. Part of the reason I left the southern baptist tradition is because I felt like there was some legalism that had seeped in. I longed for the freedom of the Spirit. I didn’t foresee a liturgical setting to be a place where there was room for the Spirit to roam free. Where I found the Spirit was in the warm handshakes and voices of those who looked my in the eyes and said “Peace be with you” or “God’s peace.” I found the Spirit in ancient creeds and liturgies. I found myself saying “yes,” and “thank you” under my breath after a prayer or passage of scripture was read. They resonated with me so deeply.

In a season of life where I’m not sure of much anymore, it's comforting to be able to stand on the shoulders of Saints who have prayed to the same God centuries ago.

“Dying, you destroyed our death. Rising, you restored our life. Christ Jesus, come in glory!

Send your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts of bread and wine that they may be to us the body and blood of your Christ. Grant that we, burning with your spirit’s power, may be a people of hope, justice, and love.”

It’s comforting to take the bread and wine into my mouth and trust that in some mysterious, unexplainable way, God is going to meet me there.

It’s interesting being a Christian mutt.

I am a holy roller who is no longer startled by the sound of someone speaking in tongues. I still have my baptist roots and am learning to love and wrestle with the teachings of the bible again. I am coming to believe, as outrageous as it may seem, that bread and juice might actually be more than simply a symbol of the body and blood of Christ.

Some days I’m so disenchanted with the church that I’m ready to throw in the towel on faith altogether. It’s hard to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. One of the reasons why I’ve stuck around is because of the people who are Christ to me. Those who see Christ in me and I in them.

I share all of this because I know I’m not alone. Hope this is encouraging to the folks who might also feel like a mutt or somewhere on the fringes of faith.

God’s peace.

LGH