When I was in 9th grade, I got kicked out of church camp. My dad showed up out of the blue to take me home and I had no idea what I had done or why I was being kicked out. Before my dad was called, no adult church leader had told me I was being kicked out of camp, told me what my church camp infraction was, or asked for my side of the story. My very disappointed father just showed up and a very surprised and confused me got into the car again with no official word from anyone about what had happened. After several hours of parental grilling, my parents understood that I truly did not know what I had done wrong, and they began to seek the answers to our many questions. Before I go further, let me provide some insight. I grew up in the church. My family religiously (pun intended) attends church every Sunday. On top of attending church weekly, I also attended Sunday school, Sunday evening youth group, church camps, mission trips, summer outreach programs, and other church activities throughout the year. I had attended private school or a private homeschool program until I was in the 6th grade. Outside of school and extracurricular activities, my social life revolved around church and church related activities. This particular church camp was a co-ed high school retreat and the topic of biblical discussion was Gossip. How as Christians, we shouldn’t engage or condone gossip. It was a relevant topic given it was directed at high schoolers but I had no idea how ironic the topic would become. I was excited to be there. Friends from church whom I had grown up would be there and I had some friends from my public high school who also attended. It was supposed to be a weekend of biblical guidance and fellowship. I had been on other co-ed church retreats before, so I was well aware of the rules regarding contact between male and female participants and I had always adhered to them. After my parents demanded answers regarding my church camp transgressions, it was revealed that an adult leader had seen me and a male friend from school walking around the campsite alone together. She saw what appeared to look like us walking into the woods alone together. Upon seeing this, she assumed that we went into the woods to engage in prohibited male/female activities (you get the picture) and began to gossip about me and this assumed behavior to the other leaders and students at the camp. This gossip ultimately made its way to the youth group leader who decided I should be removed from camp without ever talking to either me or my friend about the situation. This was my first experience with overt Christian hypocrisy. To say the least, it was a devastating personal attack and at most it was a huge blow to my identity which was directly intertwined with the church.
To be clear, no illicit type of contact or behavior had taken place at any time during this church camp retreat. In fact, we didn’t even go into the woods together. I had made us turn around because I knew it would have been inappropriate. Honestly, at this point in my life, I hadn’t kissed or even dated a boy. Now, I will admit that I have always been an outgoing person who never had a problem talking with people of the opposite sex so walking around church camp with a friend, who happened to be a boy, didn’t seem like a big deal. My parents believed me and advocated on my behalf to the church. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to clear my name. This boy had to come forward and tell the youth group leaders that nothing had happened between us. After he did only one adult leader, a parent volunteer, apologized. The apology was in private and in secret. Not one official church leader apologized and there was no formal or public apology which told the entire youth group of my peers that I wasn’t the type of girl they had been told I was. Even though I was allowed to rejoin the youth group, the damage to my personal self-esteem and church reputation was already done. I was no longer the accepted sister in Christ that I was promised to be as a part of God’s people. This was my second experience in overt Christian hypocrisy. It had an equally devastating effect.
After this, I was embarrassed to show my face at church. In a place that used to be an extension of my home and my family, now was the place where I had been judged and shunned. Even though I had done nothing wrong, I felt ashamed. Needless to say, church was no longer the place I wanted to spend my free time. My parents understood but our family values still required me to attend church every Sunday. Thankfully, as soon as I was old enough to drive, my parents agreed to a compromise. I would attend formal Sunday morning church with my family and then I got in my car and drove down the street to another church’s youth group. I attended this youth group, made some friends, joined a weekly bible study, and went on mission trip. It was a much more enjoyable experience but I didn’t do those things out of my desire to be in fellowship with God and fellow Christians. I did it out of obligation and ALWAYS kept myself guarded.
In my personal life, I unconsciously decided to let this event define me. Up to this point in my life, I had always strived to be the good Christian girl I was raised to be. Yet, I still had received all the stigma of a label without any of the fun. So I did what most teenagers do when they are given a negative label, I let it become a self fulfilling prophecy. I started rebelling, dating, drinking alcohol, and at times I put myself in unsafe situations. These experiences perpetuated my low-self esteem and shame. When I left home for college, I also left behind my obligations to the Christian faith and especially the church. College was one experiment of worldly pleasures after another. Don’t get me wrong, it was A LOT of fun, but when the party was over, I was left with the hangover of years of bad decisions, inner emptiness, and, yup you guessed it, shame. I had also racked up some external consequences. After receiving my third Minor in Possession of Alcohol ticket, I knew things had to change. I decided get control over my life, to reign in my behavior, and become the responsible and pro-social adult I was raised to be. I did those things, but I didn’t return to my faith.
Shortly after, I started dating a friend who is now my wonderful husband. I used to tell him he saved me from myself. At the time, I truly believed that. He was (and still is) a solid object in the chaos of my life. For the first time someone, outside my family, loved me unconditionally past and all. He never did and still has never made me feel unworthy of his love. To this day, he is the love of my life, my partner, and my best friend. He is the most trustworthy, respectable, and loyal person I have ever met. We have seen each other through the good, the bad, the fun, the ugly, and some really hard times. Together we have built a life, a support system, and a family. We both got great jobs. And we both have taken turns supporting the other when we decided to change careers, chase our dreams, and fulfill our purpose. Together, we take on the world. Together, we have thrived. I wouldn’t trade our marriage, our partnership, for anything in the world. But, he didn’t save me. Those feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and shame, started to creep back into my soul (See my previous blog post regarding my love language). I felt lost. I had changed my life around. I had gotten a good job helping kids, not just any kids but at youth involved in the criminal justice system. You know those kids with labels, those kids most people judge and shun (I digress, that is a blog topic for another day). I had made all the right decisions. What was missing? Feeling restless and discontented, I remembered a bible verse from my childhood. Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Knowing what I needed but no idea where to start, I went to the place where I know God resides, church.
Miles away from my hometown, my childhood church, and miles apart from the girl I was once, I went to church because I wanted to. Because, I was looking for something and I remembered a time when church felt like home. I didn’t feel worthy of God’s love, I just knew I needed it. I still wasn’t sure about it all, so I went alone and sat in the back. To my surprise, this church taught about Jesus’s love, acceptance, and restoration. Its message was about being a place where sinners could come, feel safe, and hear the gospel. I kept going. It stressed joining a small group so reluctantly I did. It was just what I needed. What I had been looking for. Just as God had placed my husband in my life right when I needed him, God had now placed Godly, yet imperfect women, in my group. These women shared their struggles, their desires, their lives, all their imperfections, their insecurities, and their Godliness with me. We connected and they accepted me, my past and current imperfections, as a fellow sister in Christ. It broken down my walls and reopened my soul to the possibilities of finding fulfillment by living a life dedicated to following Christ. I rededicated my life to Christ and began searching for his meaning and purpose for my life. But, I kept it to myself. You see, long ago I had vowed to NEVER be the type of Christian who had hurt me so badly. I never wanted to be the type of Christian, the hypocrite, who claims to be a Christian, claims to understand Christ’s love, dresses in their Sunday best each week, and uses the bible to shame, hurt, and condemn people. I didn’t even want to be perceived as a hypocrite and there is absolutely no way I could be the perfect Christian, so I kept it all to myself. But over the past four years, through biblical guidance at church, through the women and studies in my small group, I have grown in my understanding of God, Jesus, and how imperfect Christians, such as myself, are an extension of Christ in the church.
I can’t control the church. I can’t control what the leaders and the people who make up the church do, say, or how they act. I can’t control how this story, my story, will be perceived especially by other Christians. I can’t control how people will view me after I share it. And for the first time, I’m okay with it. Because I now know that my identify as a Christian isn’t with the church or with other people; It is with Christ. As a Christian, I have a personal relationship with Christ. I believe that God created the world and all its inhabitants. I believe that God has a unique plan and purpose for all things. I believe God is Holy and Just. I believe that God condemns sin. I believe that Because God is holy and just he can’t be close to people who sin. I believe that God wants to be close to us so he sent his son, Jesus, to live as a human on earth. I believe that Jesus lived a perfect life. I believe that Jesus was crucified and died on the Cross. I believe that three days later he rose from the dead. I believe that Jesus started the Christian faith and the Christian church. I believe Jesus saves and restores. I believe that by accepting Jesus as my personal Christ and savior and repenting my sins it makes me a Christian and ensures that I will go to Heaven when I die. I believe in the trinity which means I believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, are one. I believe that God gave Christians guiding moral principles and commandments which to live by. I believe all of these things to be truth in my life. Because I believe these things, Jesus has saved me. He restored my broken, ashamed, and restless soul and replaced it with peace, joy, contentment, and purpose.
However, I won’t pretend my life is perfect. I know that I am not now nor will I ever be a perfect person or be a perfect Christian. I know that I am still a sinner. I know that I have to continually repent my sins. Sometimes, multiple times a day. I love Jesus but often I fall short of living out his perfect image. Sometimes, I let the pressures and the stress of my day to day life overwhelm me. Sometimes, I don’t have faith in God’s purpose and try to control everything. Sometimes, I still try to find fulfillment in worldly things. Sometimes, I still fall down a shame spiral (see my recent blog post about my son peeing the bed) Sometimes, I curse. Sometimes, I drink (responsibly). Sometimes, I get upset at my husband, my son, and other members of my family. Sometimes, I’m selfish. Sometimes, I have talked bad about people. Sometimes, I have even engaged in gossip. And it pains me to admit it but sometimes, I am a hypocrite. Still, I go to church. Sometimes, I show up in my Sunday best and blow it before I get out of the parking lot. Yet, I get up the next Sunday and go again. Now, with my family and I sit closer to the front. I don’t go because I am perfect, if I was I wouldn’t need Jesus or the church. I go to church because I need the weekly biblical guidance, weekly scripture reading, weekly corporate worship, weekly restoration, and I go because I can feel God there. I go because I now understand that the church isn’t what hurt me so badly. It wasn’t Jesus who had judged and shunned me. It was people. People can hurt, judge, and exile others but Jesus never does. People let other people down but Jesus never does. People are hypocrites but Jesus never is. People, even Christians, are imperfect but Jesus WAS perfect. People can’t act as the go between God and his people but Jesus can. People can’t save but Jesus can and he did. Which is why I choose to forgive the people who hurt me all those years ago. I choose to let go of the hurt and the shame that followed and accept that it was and it still is an important part of my faith journey. Because if I hadn’t been hurt so badly by Christians, I never would have left the church. And if I hadn’t left the church, I would have never known how much I NEED Jesus.
Today is Good Friday. The day that Christians remember and reflect on what Jesus did to save us on the Cross. Easter weekend is the pinnacle holiday of the Christian faith, my faith. On Easter Sunday, Christians across the world will go to church to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. It is also the weekend that some, non-church goers, complimplate going to church. Some will go because that is what you do on Easter Sunday. But others will chose not to go. Maybe because they had a similar experience with the church or a with a Christian. If you have, I’m so sorry. But please don’t do what I did and accept the actions of an imperfect person to be God’s truth and Jesus’s love. That is not how Jesus intended his church or his people to be. Jesus spent his time on earth with sinners and with the lost. He didn’t shun or condemn them. He loved and taught them and because of this they chose to repent their sins and follow him. By doing so, they chose to adopt God’s biblical guidelines and purpose for their lives. By doing so, they lived out Jesus’ mission, spread the gospel, and started the Christian church. By doing so, they were persecuted. Leaving behind the church, and its imperfect people, to continue the mission. So it is on this mission that I share my story. My story isn’t pretty or perfect and sharing it isn’t easy. It is vulnerable and scary. But, it is real and authentic just like my faith. As is my invitation to you to join the Easter celebration by going to church. Where, yes some other imperfect people will be, but also where the message of the Good News of Jesus’ saving grace and love can be found. If you are local, I invite you to come to my church, Clear Creek Community Church. You can look up the many services and times here: https://www.clearcreek.org/events/details/2019/04/21/easter-all-campuses-3/. Happy Easter, He is RISEN!