When Facebook first offered the ability to choose a religious affiliation, I faced a bit of a conundrum. I don't formally belong to a Christian denomination or identify with evangelical "non-denominationism." Terms like "Red Letter Christian" seemed condescending, as if other people skipped over Jesus's words in the Gospels. I finally settled on plain-old Christian - simple, succinct, and true. But like any label, that word fails to summarize my journey to embrace multiple theological languages that tell the story of God in different, beautiful ways.
Bizarrely, my walk began in junior high via a fundamentalist church that I never attended, although my best friend did. Through it, she heard about a weekly teen "coffeehouse" sponsored by the local Youth for Christ chapter As I didn't have a bustling social schedule, I went with her. Unlike other church-sponsored events with cliquey kids, the group in this place was welcoming, even to a nerd like myself. There were 10-minute mini-sermons, but their preachiness was tempered by three hours of socializing with people who thought being weird was cool. In this way, my first faith community included a number of atheists and agnostics, including one I dated for six months. Out of this mix, my faith grew slowly, rooting itself in a foundation of diverse viewpoints.
Being thrilled to find acceptance, I began attending the youth group led by the coffeehouse's organizer. He was always open and honest with us, alluding to his own spiritual struggles without going into gory details. He acknowledged how easy it was to become distracted and how difficult following Christianity could be. Perhaps most importantly, he encouraged us to open up to each other. As other kids at school had been mocked me for my lack of artifice in the past, it was refreshing to have my honesty accepted. Openly sharing our own voices, we saw how we could fit into God's story.
In college, I found myself challenged to think beyond the evangelical box. I joined a church that embraced charismatic movement as well, which has joyful and loud services. The first time I attended a charismatic service, there were people dancing in the aisles with flags, random "Amens" during the sermon, and jams that challenged those at a Phish concert. The overly-emotional singing and requisite hand-raising was familiar to me from my high school evangelical church, but this was uncontrolled! But over time, I came to appreciate this abandon, even though I never did pick up a flag. Not allowing anything to get in the way of expressing your love for God - even societal norms - was freeing. At that point, words weren't needed - music was the language itself.
My experience further widened during my junior year of college, when I went on a week-long service trip with my friend's mainline Protestant church. Although I knew almost nothing about the community we were volunteering with until we reached it, I quickly fell in love. Known as H.O.M.E., the community arose from a crafters' co-operative founded by two Catholic nuns as part of the Emmaus movement. Based on the philosophy of "Serve first those who suffer most," they've been serving low-income people in rural Maine for the last 20 years. As they discovered new needs, they found new ways to meet them, including establishing a food pantry, an alternative high school, a day care, and a land trust. With a minimum of resources, they've built a community where all are welcome and everyone has a purpose, no matter what your beliefs, background, past addictions, income, gender, and (pleasantly surprising for the Catholic church), sexual orientation. Although most of the people who participated in H.O.M.E.'s activities lived elsewhere, Sisters Lucy and Marie and few other members lived together on a farm, taking seriously Jesus's commandments to share everything they had. I found myself inherently comfortable in this place, despite the physical awkwardness of sleeping on the floor of their chapel. As I slept under a statue of St. Francis, their work made his philosophy real for me, their love expressing itself in action.
My understanding of Catholicism shifted further as Chris, my then-boyfriend, began to explore his faith. He grew up in a Catholic church, but for him, it was just a place you went on Sunday. However, with Pope John Paul II's death, he started thinking more about his role in the global Catholic community. Being that I still saw H.O.M.E. as the exception to the rule, I found this shift discomfiting. That attitude caught up with me on another service trip. As the leaders shared sobering statistics about urban poverty, I smiled to myself, knowing that I wasn't learning anything new. But my smugness high didn't last. During a session where the leaders challenged us to consider what people we weren't "allowing" to be Christian, the answer smacked me in the face. "I haven't been considering Chris Christian; I've been judging his faith as Not Good Enough." Tears streamed down my face and my breath came in gulps. I ran up to the roof of the building, knelt on the asphalt, and begged for forgiveness. After all, this was the man I loved; what kind of person was I that I couldn't trust him to choose his own faith? Staring into the night sky, I related the vastness of space to the diversity in the church. Before, I had heard different accents recounting the same words; now I heard the multi-layered tongues of the apostles at Pentecost.
An incident the following fall cemented my rejection of Protestantism being the end-all of Christianity. Chris and I were engaged and we were trying to decide between being married in a Catholic church or the evangelical church I attended in high school. In our pre-marriage interview, my high school pastor looked hard at Chris, knowing his Catholicism, and said, "You do know that marriage is a holy act?" Too shocked by his total disrespect to say much at the time, Chris later commented, "Yes, that's why Catholics consider it a sacrament." After that meeting, I walked away from that church and its narrow-minded perspective once and for all.
Later that year, I read A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren's attempt to reconcile and draw from a variety of Christian traditions and belief systems. I loved it - it expressed everything I had been thinking. As we were attending a Catholic church at that point, I told our priest that I was looking for a church where community and diversity met. I wanted a church where everyone said hello to each other during the passing of the peace, where the members shared meals together, that drew from historical and modern Christianity, and that fostered relationships among people with diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. Frowning slightly, he informed me that no such church existed. I wanted to physically hear the many voices in harmony, but would have to wait.
When we moved to the U.K. for a year, we needed to find a new church again. Instead of the large Anglican evangelical church in town, I was drawn to a Catholic study group led by a few young men studying to be monks. Unlike small group leaders that orchestrated fill-in-the-blank "discussions" (sometimes literally), their knowledge and in-depth study encouraged engagement with the text. They wanted the group to wrestle with theological ideas, just as scholars throughout history had. While the story of faith could have ended up tangled in obscure philosophical points, the words only became more impressive the closer we looked at them.
In addition to the small group, we also began attending the monks' Sunday-afternoon services, full of ritual and chants. I had never been a fan of "smells and bells," but the services' formality invited me in rather than pushing me away. This wasn't going through the motions like I had viewed it previously - it was engaging with history, drawing us into long practiced traditions and ways of moving. The silences and solemn music spoke of quiet grace.
After a period of personal and geographic transition, we finally found the faith home I had longed for. Chris and I now attend a multi-denominational emergent church that embraces traditions and beliefs of many branches of Christianity. We have Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals from a variety of countries and cultural backgrounds. A recent sermon series covered the uses of the cross through history, including the Greek cross, St. Francis's Tau cross, and the crucifix. We aren't specifically tied to the liturgical calendar, but let it guide us gently, embracing celebrations of Advent and Lent. Perhaps most importantly, we are a community. We break bread together, both with our weekly celebration of Communion and the after-service spread. We share our joys and concerns every service and try to say hello to every person during the passing of the peace.
This spring, my pastor referred to the Easter narrative as "our story as Christians." This is my story and the story of those faithful people that helped guide me to where I am now. I hope it resonates in every action I take, every note I sing, every word I speak even when I am not speaking of God. To misquote St. Francis (the origin of the quote is unknown), I hope that my life reflects the idea to "preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words."
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