Sarah Bessey’s new book Out of Sorts releases today. As a member of her launch team, I am participating in this synchroblog with the prompt “I used to believe _____ but now I believe _____.” I LOVED Sarah’s book and would highly recommend you order a copy of it. (Let’s be honest. The greatest books are always yellow!)
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I grew up and became a Christian when I was 12, because I was scared of hell at a fire-and-brimstone play at a Baptist church. But before that, I would have most likely identified as Christian simply because I wasn’t anything else. My family wasn’t Jewish or Muslim or anything really so I always saw myself as Christian by default.
Once I accepted Christ, I attended youth group. We met on Friday evenings in a room reserved just for the teenagers. It had a raised stage, old metal chairs, and stank of sweat and hairspray and dirty feet. In this room we worshiped together to simple songs and our youth pastor, Bobby, shared a short message every week. During the summers, we went to beaches and walked around the mall. I had friends and I liked going, mostly because I didn’t have friends at school. Friday nights were the nights where I was accepted without question. Sometimes I came to church on Sunday mornings, where we sang from hymnals and wore dresses and flats instead of jeans and running shoes.
In ninth grade, the youth pastor left, so I decided to go to a new church with a few girls I’d made friends with in high school. If I had understand what denominations were, I could not have picked a church more different than the one I just left — I moved from a quiet Baptist church to a Pentecostal church replete with prayer flags and tambourines, were people spoke in tongues freely during service and altar calls happened at the end of every sermon. I made friends here, too, but this time they were my friends in school as well.
We sat together at lunch, most days talking for a few minutes about Jesus and also about boys and dating and we whispered things about sex and smoking pot when we thought no one was listening. We learned about Him at church on Sundays and youth group on Tuesdays and during Wednesday evening service and on Thursdays we took care of the kids in the nursery during choir practice and told them about Jesus, too. But I don’t think most of really knew Jesus. We were Christians by choice then, but what we believed about Him was less by choice and more by force.
I knew a lot about Jesus when I was a teenager. I knew He was holy and I understood that my sins separated me from His holiness. So I worked hard to prove how holy I was. And when I messed up and made stupid mistakes, when I felt shame because of what others had done to me, when still worse things (that I couldn’t talk about for a long time) happened, I knew I was defiled and worthless because Jesus demanded you give up all of the crap that kept you from Him, and I just didn’t know how to give it up to Him. He required you to walk away from the comfort of licking your wounds in the corner and I couldn’t let go of the shame and I couldn’t tell people what I’d done and sometimes I wasn’t even sorry about it all, about clinging to the pain and the tears because it was safe and I knew it and even though it hurt, it didn’t scare me.
I used to think you were right about Jesus or you weren’t, and since I knew the right things about Jesus, about His holiness and how His loved work, I had to walk away from all of the garbage the church dumped on me when I told them some of the things I was going through because they made it clear that in light of what Jesus had done, I definitely wasn’t good enough. I only ever told them about the abortion at 15 because it was all I needed to tell them to treat me like a pariah. They taught me about Jesus and they made Jesus unsafe for me because they made me see Him with blinders on.
So I left. I walked away and said never again. I lived in a world where I didn’t feel right or good about things, because deep down I missed Jesus. I missed what I once had with him. As my friend Sarah Bessey writes in her new book Out of Sorts,
When I made the decision to stop going to church and to stop calling myself a Christian, it didn’t feel good. But there had been a long litany of abuses, burn-out, and exhaustion. The trail of hurt people wounded souls, and even dead bodies was too great. It weighed on my soul, and I felt tremendous grief. I couldn’t align myself with that anymore.
I just could not do it anymore. And I didn’t have to. I wasn’t living in a home that mandated that I earn Jesus’ love by my Sunday morning and Tuesday evening attendance. No one cared about my righteousness if I wasn’t at church. Finally I found a place that didn’t break me as much as the church had.
But things change. It took nine years but somehow, my heart softened and God gave me a new friend, six years ago this month in fact. When every other friend I had who knew Jesus was in a place of hardship on their own — marriage stuff and new babies and grad school — God said, “Here is someone who doesn’t know what you carry. She loves me. Ask her about me.”
So I did. We’d already been friends for a year by the time I gathered up my courage to ask her about her Jesus, who seemed to be so different than the Jesus I met so many years before. I asked her a lot of questions. I talked to her a lot. Sometimes I cried. I stood by her side, with sweaty palms, the first time I walked back into a church for a regular Sunday morning service. I sang quietly and didn’t raise my hands or arms. I glanced around, looking everyone in the building with me. There were no prayer flags or speaking in tongues or tambourines. How could the Jesus here be the same Jesus when I left the There?
I didn’t know how it was possible. Even though I was in my late 20s, it seemed impossible to reconcile these Christians with those. So I kept coming back. I had to see if they were the same. And in some ways, yes, they were the same. That’s what scared me a little bit, because the words they said and the stories they told about the Bible reminded me so much of the other church, and I still felt so wounded and raw from it. But then I got to know people, one person at a time, and I saw that there were differences, too. These differences let me ask the hard questions, let me have the space to grow and change. I prayed and begged God to change me in the ways He needed to change me because I saw that I wanted Him again but I couldn’t let go of the things the world had taught me during my nine years of wandering, but I also couldn’t let go over the things about Jesus that the Baptist church at taught me. I was afraid to let it go, because how could we all be Christians if we didn’t believe the same things? Sarah says it perfectly:
I’ve had to build up a bonfire in my backyard and throw a few cherished beliefs and opinions right into the flame. There is always something so satisfying about watching an ugly lie burn away to ash.
Those lies that tried to keep me from who Jesus is burned, little by little, until they were a pile of crispy pieces that I could walk away from.
I used to think you were right about Jesus or you weren’t, but now I think that we all know Jesus in different ways, and in different seasons our relationship with Him looks different, and my relationship with Him looks different from yours, and we aren’t wrong. We just know Him differently and there’s nothing wrong with that.
And things are still changing. I am still changing and growing, and to tell you the truth sometimes it scares the hell out of me. What I believed five years ago, when I first came back to church, is not what I believe now. The more I learn about and know Jesus personally, the more what I believe looks so different. The more I pray and spend time reading the Bible, the greater my questions are, and it frightens me that for every answer I get, I have five more. But something in me reminds me that I need to live the questions now, not fear them. Then I take a deep breath and remember this:
If our theology doesn’t shift and change over our lifetimes, then I have to wonder if we’re paying attention. The Spirit is often breathing in the very changes or shifts that used to terrify us. Grace waits for us in the liminal space. We can be afraid to question. We are afraid that if we let ourselves question theology or doctrines — the theology we developed or were given in our first naiveté — that we will be at risk.
I am paying attention. I am leaning into the questions, into the hard things and letting them shape me under God’s guidance. I am listening more. I am embracing the stillness and the unknown because this is the space where the shifts begin to make sense to me. This, too, is my greatest wish for you. As Sarah says, and I’ve learned by trial,
I hope we change. I hope we grow. I hope we push against the darkness and let the light in and breathe into the Kingdom come. I hope we become a refuge for the weary and the pilgrim, for the child and aged, for the ones who have been strong too long. And I hope that we live like we are loved. I hope we all become a bit more inclined to listen, to pray, to wait.