For nearly 20 years I avoided church like the plague. Like a lot of people, my childhood experience of church did more harm than good, which meant that by the time I was thirteen I believed that I was headed for hell. No one tried to convince me otherwise, so as soon as I was old enough, I stopped going. It somehow seemed pointless to spend my Sundays being reminded that I was damned.
Something significant happened to me in church though; something that was far greater than the fear that was being planted in my heart. Despite everything, I loved God; I loved Jesus; and somehow, deep down in my soul I knew a deeper truth. I could not access it; but it lay there dormant, just waiting…
When I became an adult I tried other churches thinking that perhaps it was just my church that had earmarked me for hell. Unfortunately the next church I landed in was even more focused on damnation than my childhood church, and that only made matters worse. So I walked away from the church – believing with all my heart that I would never step foot in a church again. As far as I was concerned all Christians were the same – a bunch of hypocrites who made sport out of casting stones at others.
I led a hard and difficult life. I did many things that I regret, and I made many choices that hurt others. I cared only about self-gratification, and the harder I tried to fill my own emptiness, the more desolate and barren I became. But the other side of that was my long hard quest for an alternative to Christianity. About this time New Age thinking was starting to catch hold, and I jumped on the bandwagon but I could never really figure out where I fit in. I became interested in Zen Buddhism, but that wasn’t part of my story either and I had no idea what to do with it. I searched high and low looking for a way to be closer to God without having to go back to church…it was a thirst inside my soul that I just could not quench. I read books; I listened to music; I climbed mountains; I looked under stones…but it was always alone, and I always felt unfulfilled. Then there came the day when I realized that somewhere along the line I had stopped looking; and that, for me, was my great awakening.
God heard my cries and God answered, and soon after my epiphany I found myself standing in front of my new church home. I had not planned to be there, but I was and right away I knew that I would be returning on Sunday. No power on earth could have kept me from returning on Sunday. I was scared to death, but not even that could keep me away. I went inside literally shaking all over; and once inside I discovered what I had been searching for my whole life. I found a small community of people that knew how to show hospitality to the stranger and extend the love of Jesus to the broken and the lost.
You see this is where I come to believe that something significant happened in church a long time ago that marked me as one of God’s own and made it possible for me to return to the church. When I walked into my church it was a homecoming for me. I knew with every fiber of my being that I was back where I belonged. Every one of my senses was alive with this knowledge. My baptism as an infant had given me a permanent address – one that could never be taken away from me. All that was required was that I go back and take up residence once again. And once I did, I discovered that what I had feared the most was exactly what I needed the most – my church community. The Christian community was what I had shunned all those years of wandering, yet community is at the heart of what sustains a healthy human being in this world. Without community we are essentially wandering around in exile. For the faithful, exile means being left without the support of family and neighbors; it is to feel the loss of true community, where mutual love, unconditional support, and other values of God are upheld and celebrated; and in this sense, I had been very much in “exile” from my true home in God’s reign.
Where we get hung up though is in thinking that the Christian community should always be perfect, non-judgmental and accepting, and that is something that is probably never going to happen, at least not in my lifetime. Sometimes we do a really good job at it, but other times we mess up. And so we are accountable to each other, because it is impossible to see ourselves straying off course unless there is someone to give us a nudge. Had I been able to stick around the church long enough to become an adult I might have discovered those things about the Christian community without having to wander for so many years in exile. But that is not how it happened.
When I came back I was like one who thirsts deeply after wandering in the desert for many years, I found that I could not get enough. I wanted nothing more than to share what I had found. I received a very simple and compelling invitation to “come and see” what it means to follow Christ, and as I followed I began to see that serving others was the path that led to happiness and wholeness, not just for myself, but for all of creation. Within months I began to feel as though I was being invited to go deeper and to give myself completely to God through ministry. All I could say was yes; and from the first moment I started following Christ there has been nothing else I am able to do. I strongly believe that if God can call and transform someone who is as self-absorbed as I was, then God is indeed still-speaking and doing new things in our lives and in the world…come and see!