A testimony

Plants in late March
New life. One of my front yard sedums in early spring.

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.

An old postcard of Christ Church. Source: Cvilleimages.com.

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.

22 thoughts on “A testimony

  1. Thought worth printing so I can re-read. I don’t do that very much. But this is special.

  2. This is so encouraging to read. I’ve been a Christian my whole like (my dad is a pastor!) and I’ve always felt embraced and fed by the church universal and my church locally. I was fed the message of grace and fully believed it for other people, but somehow I thought I was the exception. I thought I had to perform, I had to be the “summa cum laude Christian” (love that phrase) so God wouldn’t be disappointed in me. Finally this past winter–29 years into being a Christian!–I realized Jesus doesn’t want me to live FOR him, he wants me to live WITH him. Let him do the work, join him in his work, join him in his love, lay down my weary burden and enter his rest like he asks me to do at the end of Matthew 11.

    Everything is changing now. It’s slow. I have a lifetime of habits and thinking patterns to change, but everywhere I look I see his grace and his goodness. So glad you do, too.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Joanna, and for sharing your story. Praise God that “everything is changing now”! I share that sentiment.

  3. I’m no longer a Christian myself, but I like hearing stories like this. I like thinking that faith can be redeemed for some people, because it’s in desperate need for it. I don’t think it ever can be for me, but I’ve mostly made my peace with that by now. At the very least, I do not think I will ever set foot in a church again. I attempted to even go to a completely secular church-like event held in a UU church hall, but the environment of the whole thing had me in a dizzy near-panic-attack almost the entire time. Christianity has inflicted far too much abuse on me to ever feel like a safe place I think, no matter how kind and welcoming the church may be.

    I feel a lot of freedom in having left religious faith. But at the same time, I resonate a lot with those who find faith meaningful, since it was for a long period on my life and I appreciate that. And I am always encouraged to know that people are finding life and refuge in faith spaces instead of condemnation or cruelty. I may not be a part of that, but it still restores my faith in humanity a little… the one faith that I do try to hold to. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Anna. (Do you still go by Anna?) I am glad you have felt freedom, and I am sorry that all of this has happened to you. I certainly can understand why the church would never feel safe for you again. Hope you have peace and joy!

      1. 🙂 I go by Evan now (actually I just got my new drivers license two days ago!) Thank you very much for your well-wishes. I enjoy being able to keep up with your life and story. It can feel a bit isolating having a background that none of my friends understand, so it is nice to be able to keep touch and see how all of us progressed to where we are at now. Have a great day!

  4. This is a beautiful and a heartfelt piece of writing. So articulate and a powerful witness to the relief that grace can bring to all who seek God, and to those who do not yet know that they are seeking to know and be known by a loving creator. I’m one of the lifelong Episcopalians, raised in the crazy liberal seventies so I don’t have much direct familiarity with the evangelical culture you describe. In that way I have had a narrow spiritual journey and your writing helps me appreciate the varied religious paths that are traveled before finding the church home that will feed the soul and welcome the stranger with God’s loving hospitality—not so you can work harder, but so that you can rest in the arms of God and only then be equipped to go out to love and serve the world. This week’s lectionary speaks to that “Abide in me as I abide in you.” No work camp philosophy there, although there is the pain of being pruned by God’s love and surviving it to bear fruit for the world. Thank you for this powerful biography.

  5. I was confirmed at Christ Church this morning! Our backgrounds are very similar, and I’m so glad to have found Christ Church and friends like you there. This morning before the service the bishop was speaking to us, and the first thing he said was he was honored that we were choosing to join the Episcopal church, but that he did not believe we were leaving the wrong way to join the right. We’re still thankful for the pastors who baptized us (some of us by dunking), the grandparents who took us to Sunday school, and the vacation Bible study leaders. I had to fight back tears.

    1. Congrats on your confirmation, Andi! That is really sweet; I love that anecdote and that thought (to remember the things we are grateful for from our spiritual histories, however weird).

  6. Really sad to know others are suffering under the weight of religion, just as you were. But also encouraging to know that you (and others) find freedom in Christ. Thank you for sharing.

  7. A truly illuminating “true story”. Isn’t it strange, that many Super-Christians do not seem to understand that Jesus died (and lived!) not for the self-righteous and ambitious, but for the lost souls? I fear, however, that the “pressure to achieve”-approach to faith is not limited to evangelical Christianity, but exists in many churches.

  8. […] 3: We are personally so grateful to be part of a church community that believes that we cannot save ourselves. We attend a church that preaches, day in and day out, that we have all fallen short of the glory of God and are all in need of forgiveness. Yes, even us so-called and self-identified Christian righteous. We are no better than anyone else, and judging others is a waste of your wild, only life (not to mention baldly hypocritical). More about how this church saved my faith in another post. […]

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