By the time I graduated from college, I was ready to quit being a Christian.
A young lifetime spent in the grasp of the American evangelical movement had worn me down. For so many years, I had been so faithful; I had been the Good Christian Girl. I played guitar in the youth group praise band. I led small groups. I memorized entire books of scripture. I once gave a speech (hard to call it a sermon) to our congregation on Proverbs. I went to evangelical summer camps and proselytized on city streets. I had faithful daily “quiet times” and by the age of 18, I had read through the entire Bible three times. I thought I was solid, as far as my eternal salvation was concerned.
But by the time I got to college, I wasn’t so sure. While I stayed involved in a church and in InterVarsity throughout my tenure at UNC, my spiritual energies were flagging. My soul was exhausted. I was thankful for my Christian community in college, and I made close, life-giving friendships through IV, but that network just fueled the fire of my attempts to be the summa cum laude Christian. Even though I tried, I was never up to snuff. I didn’t care enough about social justice. I didn’t volunteer on the weekends. I gossiped and lied and spent so much time pretending to be good. I couldn’t keep up this façade anymore, of being the Good Christian Girl. Because deep down, I knew I wasn’t.
When I got married, a few weeks after graduation, I started to quietly and silently think about throwing it all away. If Christianity meant being your Best Possible Self all the time, I wasn’t cut out for it. The barriers and judgments that came along with this brand of Christianity, especially the indictments against gay people and women, had also weighed heavily on my heart for many years. I was ready to be done with it all.
And then we found Christ Episcopal Church.
My husband is a lifelong Episcopalian, so once we moved to town, he suggested that we try it out. We didn’t know a single person in Charlottesville, and so, why not? I went with bated breath and a hefty dose of apprehension. I had always been skeptical of the denomination, as a true and fiery evangelical Protestant. Isn’t it just a bunch of musty old liberals exchanging Hallmark card pleasantries? Plus, didn’t it smack of Catholicism lite? And what, they can’t make up their own prayers? They have to read them out of a book? What’s the big deal about communion anyway? The church I grew up on only gave us grape juice and crackers once a month, on a Wednesday night, for completely mysterious and unexplained reasons.
We started going to the 5 o’clock service, and over time, my fears dissipated. The clergy were instantly so friendly to us, and within a week, they had already learned our names (a notable accomplishment, when one of the names is “Guion”) and greeted us warmly. We started to make friends. We stalked the music minister at Kroger and looked like homeless puppies so that he’d have to hang out with us, out of his reservoir of pity and kindness.
On a community level, it was an immediately warm and comfortable place. But on a spiritual level, Christ Church dragged me back into belief.
Importantly, being there was the first time, in my entire Christian life, that I’d heard anyone talk about grace.
Yeah, the word was bandied about a lot in the churches of my youth. The word “grace” seemed to hold significant semantic currency, but it was never explained, and it certainly wasn’t practiced. Every pastor I grew up with would tell you that, of course, they believed in grace, in the gospel, in the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but when it came down to it, it was up to you to get yourself right with God, to prove to God and everyone else that you were the Good Christian Girl. And then, only then, you could be acceptable. Then you could be loved.
The church I attended in college sprung out of a particularly aggressive, masculine brand of reformed Christianity, and today I feel ashamed to say I went there and that I loved it. Or I thought I did. It spoke to my deep need to feel in control of my salvation, to show everyone what a top-notch Christian I was. Jesus was at the center of every sermon, but he was a militant, performance-based Jesus. A CrossFit trainer Jesus who wanted to whip you into shape so that God could love you more. The congregation was filled every week with young hipster Christians, feverishly taking notes in their Moleskines to find out how they could make themselves lovable and forgiven.
This was not the message I heard at Christ Church. All I heard, week in and week out, was: God loves you exactly as you are, which is a pretty busted state. You are not going to make yourself better by your own effort or merit. Jesus wiped your slate clean. He died once, for everyone. Everyone. Come to Jesus. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. Hear this comfortable word from our Savior. This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
I was flabbergasted. This was Christianity? The same religion I was raised in? This endlessly forgiving collection of broken people? I was shocked by the message, delivered in utter absence of judgment, that I was royally messed up and that I had to stop pretending I wasn’t. Indeed, this grace was offensive. What about all of those prayer groups I led? What about the time when I memorized the entire book of Ephesians and recited it weekly? What about that? Was that for NOTHING? I wanted some credit. I wanted Jesus to pat me on the back and say, Great job, kid, I love you more than most people because you’re better than most people.
Being at Christ Church, I learned, quickly, that it was foolish to expect such a word from the Lord and Savior. Rather, the message was: Abby, you’re really screwed up. But you are welcome and loved just the same.
As it turns out, that was all I ever really needed to hear.