The hard part about growing up is that the truths you’ve always held close begin to unravel a bit. I think this is why nostalgia is such a powerful feeling; we long for the days when things were simpler, when we didn’t have to worry about a mortgage or about how many grams of sugar we consumed in a day. We long for the days when things were black or white, good or evil, right or wrong, in or out. It’s not until we grow and mature that our brains can actually handle the shades of gray, the “but-what-about?”s.
Philosopher Alvin Toffler once said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” With the recent passing of writer Rachel Held Evans and my reading of her spiritual memoir Searching for Sunday, I began to sit down one night and scribbled in my journal the origins and winding path my own faith has taken. And I realize that I’ve done a lot of learning, a lot of unlearning, and am now in a constant cycle of relearning. Rachel’s words and her life make me brave, like sharing my faith story, while vulnerable, is important, that someone might need to hear my words. I know I needed to hear hers.
When I was small, the truth about my faith was this: Jesus was the only Son of God, He died for us, and three days later He rose again. There was nothing to question. It just was.
I grew up in the Methodist Church, red carpet and stained glass, the works. There, I learned about serving people and having an open communion table and being able to choose when I was baptized. We had an amazing female associate pastor who loved us so well. Throughout middle and high school, I was active in the youth group, spending Sunday mornings singing with the praise band and Sunday nights eating cheesy pizza and playing sardines and capture the flag. I knew every nook and cranny in that church building, every smell, every secret spot, every locked closet. At youth group, I felt like I was free to be myself, the boys liked me, the girls were my friends, the adults loved us like their own. This was different from school, where I constantly worried about who was in or out of the “clique”, who was popular, if my eyebrows were plucked thin enough, if I remembered to put on deodorant, if my clothes came from cool enough stores.
I spent a week every summer at church camp, five hours away from my family, where I learned of the gloriousness of Swedish Fish and a Vanilla Cherry Dr. Pepper straight from the fountain. It was high up in the mountains, that I understood the why of Jesus; the why we needed Him, the why He died. It was there that I first really felt the impact of the act of communion, the giving of His body and blood to those who could never hope to deserve it here on earth, but the fact that He gave nonetheless was an incredible thing indeed. And it was there that I learned of the completely emotional, overwhelming love God has for his children.
That mountaintop changed everything for me. It was there that I met my future husband, there that I formed lifelong friendships, and there that I learned to sit comfortably in the silence, out in nature, even for just a few minutes. If I could be gifted with going back in time for just one day, I’d probably choose one of those nights at camp, singing with our hands raised, tears streaming down the fronts of our oversized Gap hoodies, sweaty hugs and tearful “No, I love you more!”s.
I would come home from camp and mark up my teen Bible, filling up journal after journal, trying to hold on to that mountaintop feeling. I wrote my prayers instead of spoke them aloud; writing has always been how I commune with God best. Looking back on those journals now, my prayers consisted mostly of thanksgiving, for all that I’d been given, and also prayers on other people’s behalf. I didn’t question God or my faith, then. I just looked around and could find Him anywhere. I kind of miss having that child-like faith sometimes.
It was in high school when I began to be more outspoken about my faith, and it was also when I started to get made fun of for it. (Don’t hear me wrong: I do not believe I was ever persecuted for my faith, as so many evangelical pastors and books warned of, no, that word means something entirely different than greasy teenage boys being jerks.) When I started dating another outspoken Christian boy at my school, a group of boys who had a band wrote a song called “Katie and Jay, Doin’ It the Christian Way” and performed it at a school talent show. I laughed good-naturedly but inwardly cringed. That relationship fizzled out pretty quickly, in case you had any doubts. But still, I held onto my virginity like a most prized possession and was not sorry when I judged my friends for their more physical relationships (but I’m so, so sorry now). I did my best to dress in a way that I wouldn’t be a “stumbling block” to the boys (insert the biggest eye roll you can muster). One time at school, I was challenged in World History class when arguing about the tenets of Buddhism and how they seemed so hopeless to me. The teacher, who actually became one of my very favorites, stopped my insane screeching at the boy playing devil’s advocate and said, “Now Katie, are you being a very good Christian?” to which I responded by bursting into tears and running out of the room. Classic teenager me. You can tell I was really fun to be around.
But I found, for whatever reason, that I really loved learning about history, other religions, other people. In college, when given the choice between World Religions and History of the Bible, I chose World Religions, much to the side-eye of some of the more conservative people on my Christian college campus. Where some might be nervous to expose themselves to other faiths, I devoured religious texts and listened to Jewish and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu teachings. I learned so much about the world, but also the study served simply to deepen my own faith. When I saw what else was out there, I was only all the more convinced that the faith path I had chosen was the right one for me. And so I continued to love Jesus in a way that felt so good, so right, so easy, so comfortable.
At this point in life, I was blissfully unaware of the major problems with The Church (I’m going to use The Church with a capital T and C to represent the entirety of Christianity here, not any one denomination). I was aware of but didn’t understand the reason Catholics and Protestants were considered two different faiths. I didn’t understand why different Protestant denominations couldn’t seem to agree on things like baptism and communion. But I didn’t know enough to question why more women weren’t in places of leadership at churches, and I didn’t have the eyes to see that entire groups of people were directly excluded from certain churches based on skin color or nationality or especially, sexual orientation. These weren’t my experiences, so I couldn’t, and didn’t, see them; my privilege prevented me from having to feel them.
I remember the first time I was angry in church. I was in Vatican City with a group from my high school, and we were touring St. Peter’s Basilica. A Catholic friend of mine decided she wanted to take part in confession and stepped into one of the confessional booths. She came out in tears a few minutes later, having been denied confession because it had been so long since her last one. I couldn’t believe such ugliness could happen in such a beautiful old cathedral. That same trip, though, I remember standing in the very cell that held Saint Peter before he was crucified upside-down for his belief in Jesus, and I remember thinking, whoa, people were willing to die for Him. My faith felt very small that day, I remember thinking–would I be as brave as Peter? My seventeen-year-old self suspected not.
A couple years later, I got angry in church again when I attended Easter mass with my college roommate. She gently reminded me that communion at her church was only for those baptized and confirmed in the church. I felt personally offended at this and also a little rebellious. I mean, I loved the same Jesus they did, right? At the Methodist church I grew up in, everyone was welcome at the table; the children, the older openly gay couple who sang in the choir, the homeless man off the street in dire need a full hot meal and a shower. I had no understanding of a church who would deny me the body and blood of the Jesus I loved so much. My roommate could tell that I was a little put out, so she told me I could come to the altar and place my hands across my chest for the priest to give me a blessing. Fighting my first instinct to just walk up there like I owned the place and pretend, and because I try to be a mostly reasonable and respectful person, I did what she said and received the blessing that day.
But that’s when I started to open my eyes.
Stay tuned for the next part of this story–it was much to long to share in one post. Thank you so much for reading.