This ended up longer than I anticipated, so I’m sharing the first part of it today, and I’ll post the second part tomorrow.
I’m reading a book right now that discusses the abundance of writings available about the mechanics of faith and worship, the analysis of scripture, and the how-to of prayer and ministry. This is fantastic– there are so many resources available for us to discover more about the history of the church, to explore new authentic ways of worship, and to strengthen our faith with knowledge. But there is a significant absence of personal testimony in common Christian publications, and even in sermons and worship these days. We talk about how to be a Christian, but we don’t talk about what it means when you are. We don’t talk about our God experiences, when that’s the very reason to be a Christian. No one comes to faith because they want to follow rules– they come to faith because they want to see God through Christ. They want the Spirit’s presence moving in their life. And that means it’s incredibly important for Christians to share about the Spirit’s moving in our lives. That is our call to testimony– not only who Jesus was and what he did, but what God is doing through Christ and the Spirit in our lives today.
I am in an awesome place in my life where I can clearly see the workings of God in my life thus far, and the inklings of the workings of God in my future. I’ve learned what God’s working in my life feels like, and I’ve learned to trust that feeling to the point of certainty in faith. That seems like a contradiction, how can you be certain if it’s faith? But it’s a certainty that comes only through not having to know for myself, because I am absolutely certain God’s got it under control. Certainty only through faith.
In that faith, I’ve learned to embrace the duality of certainty and fear. I know what God’s calling me to, though I don’t always know why or how, and I have the wonderful, amazing feeling of freedom that comes with that complete trust in God. But it’s the same kind of wonderful, terrifying freedom that I would imagine one finds when skydiving out of an airplane: the freedom of free-falling through the air, trusting the parachute to guide you to safety. Trusting God’s plan is wonderful and freeing, but in the freedom of that faith, there’s definitely a feeling of free-fall. What will happen if I let go of my security blankets, my backup plans, my need for control over every situation, and give myself up completely to God’s plan? Will he catch me, or let me fall? Certainty in faith is giving up the need to be in control, and asserting, day after day, that God will catch you, even when you know that you can’t know for sure.
Today, I want to share my story of how I came to this certainty in faith. Now, my story isn’t one of those testimonials that you hear on Christian radio, where my life was a mess until I found God, or God found me, and turned my life around. I’ve never had a destructive lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, or sex, and I’ve never hit “rock bottom” and been forced to ask myself if I wanted to continue down this road and die before age 30.
Rather, I grew up with loving, supportive parents in a Christian household, though in a part of the country where if you’re a Christian, you’re a Christian for 2 hours a week, where you don’t talk about your faith, and you certainly don’t let it affect the rest of your life. I was baptized and grew up in Waterloo First United Methodist Church, I was confirmed in Geneva United Methodist Church, and I got my first job at 13 as an organist at Calvary Lutheran Church in Waterloo, down the street from my house. I took piano and organ lessons from the Music Director of Waterloo FUMC until I was 18. I was sent on mission trips from Geneva UMC. When I began at Ithaca College, I started attending St. Paul’s UMC, then found my way to Owego UMC, where I was able to substitute when their organist took a leave. When I moved to Virginia, my first job was at Beulah UMC, and my second job was at Starbucks. I began working at a church before I even had a job that paid my bills.
No one in “the industry”– that commercial complex that serves as pop culture within the American Christian church– ever asks to hear stories of God’s work in normal, boring lives like mine. I’m sure they think the dramatic, tragic, heart-wrenching stories of conversion are what sells. They might be right about that. But I don’t think the dramatic stories of God’s work in lives are the only stories that ought to be told. There are so many people who grew up attending church, leading relatively normal, uneventful lives, who are searching for God’s awesome power in their lives. If they only hear about God saving those who hit rock bottom, they might find themselves asking if they need to have similar experiences to see God in their own lives. Does God only save the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the homeless and destitute, or does he work in not-so-dramatic, everyday lives, too?
So today, I’m going to share a bit about my life in faith. I consider the beginning of my maturation in faith to be during undergrad at Ithaca College, because it was such an incredibly formative time. Now, for my entire childhood, I was absolutely adamant that I would not attend Ithaca College. I applied and auditioned because of a push by my mom, but my heart was set on Houghton College, a small Christian school in upstate NY. The more expensive Ithaca College provided so many scholarships that it ended up the least-expensive option, so in the end, it was decided for me. I was going to Ithaca.
I grew a lot through the normal experiences that everyone goes through, and I don’t know that I wouldn’t have had those opportunities elsewhere. The life-changing part of attending Ithaca, against other schools, was learning how to be a Christian under fire.
By my second year, it was clear that I didn’t fit in. I had casual friends, but I didn’t become close with anyone, because I was a Christian and no one really understood that. I was surrounded by people who considered faith to be a mental illness. If it wasn’t being called “evil” and “hateful,” Christianity was constantly being mocked. I had someone who I had considered a friend ask me, “Do you think you could not mention going to church? It makes me uncomfortable, I feel like you’re judging me.” I was called a “Jesus Freak” in complete seriousness; I sing along to that DC Talk album with a different perspective than some people, I think. Faith, to these people, was something you did for one hour a week, and if you ever talked about it outside of that hour, if it ever reached into any other part of your life, then you must be one of those crazy, ignorant, racist/homophobic/etc people and are probably mentally unhinged. So I began censoring myself, trying to pretend this wasn’t a huge part of who I was, out of necessity and in a futile attempt to fit in. A couple of years ago, I returned to Ithaca for the first time since graduating, and felt a suffocating weight settle on my chest as I remembered how much of myself I have to suppress in that city.
Classes were a whole different struggle, because my parents taught me to think critically and I made the mistake of bringing that to classes with me. Certain professors stopped calling on me because I was asking inconvenient questions. Other professors specifically singled me out because I “thought differently” than the rest of them, and I suppose it was easier to have me contribute than for the professor himself to be consider Christianity might not actually be an evil caricature. I got used to being alone on campus. I started to own the tag of class weirdo, and I came to terms with not having friendships that went deeper than casual. And so I reached out to socialize online; this was back when blogs like xanga and livejournal were still cool, in those dark days before facebook 🙂 I learned that though I was alone on campus, I wasn’t alone in the world. Those friendships got me through the rest of undergrad, and remain some of my closest friends to this day.
During the summer between sophomore and junior year, I fell into a depression, during which I struggled through a profound questioning of my faith. I wondered in despair what on earth I did to deserve Christ’s sacrifice. I began wishing that I could reject His gift of grace because I was really such a failure, and maybe God just didn’t understand that. After a time, my depression further proved to me that I was a hopeless case and Christ shouldn’t have saved me.
The campus counseling center was frustrating because there was no therapist on campus who understood a life of faith, and besides, I kept reminding myself, I had never been through trauma, so how was my depression even legitimate? I had no friends to turn to who would understand (or even listen to) a faith struggle. The Christian campus ministry was led by a Unitarian who taught that one didn’t need to believe in Christ to be a Christian, and took the Bible as more suggestion than Word of God. The church I was attending spent more time preaching politics than the Word of God, and what they did preach was Jesus’ teachings twisted into a kind of feel-good moral relativity that made me so uncomfortable I couldn’t turn to them, either.
I worked my way out of depression and found a new church home, driving the 45 minutes each way twice a week for church and Bible study, and I mapped out a course schedule that would allow me to graduate early. In my final semester, I spent nearly every weekend at home, removing myself from that environment and finding the support I needed in my family and my faith friends online. I graduated a semester early, eager to get out into the world and start my life– I didn’t even bother going back the following June for graduation.
Looking back, I know that I wouldn’t be the kind of Christian that I am if I hadn’t been through that fire. It forced me to find a defensible theological standpoint, to be sure of myself even when I was being mocked, and to articulate my beliefs to a hostile audience. It also gave me the chance to know and understand non-Christians and lapsed Christians, and I believe that gives me an incredibly valuable perspective on the places and the opportunities of church in culture. And the awesome thing about God is that I’m sure he used me at Ithaca in ways that I’m still unaware of.
When I graduated in 2007, I knew that God had sent me to Ithaca, and I knew that I was stronger for it. But I didn’t yet really know how to listen for God, or how to hear and respond to the Spirit in my life. I spent the last year of undergrad begging God for direction in my life, praying and hoping that one day, I’d get a reply. But I was in the early parts of God’s plan, the time when we’re required to walk forward blindly, trusting that God’s guiding us and putting us in the places where we need to be, and just hoping that it won’t be too long before we’re allowed a glimpse of his plan for us.
Those years in Ithaca taught me the importance of solitude to a life of faith, though at the time it was the last lesson I wanted to learn. It was also where I first began learning how to listen for God in my life, which I would become immeasurably better at in the next chapter of my life. I continue to use daily what I learned about myself and my faith during that time, and I am so grateful for God for the experience– I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
I’ll be posting part two of my story in faith tomorrow, when I started to put together the pieces of God’s plan in my life, and began experiencing certainty in faith in a profound way.
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