The following is an essay I wrote for my Christian Tradition class about the different faith streams which have influnced my journey.
Faith Streams Essay – What is a Christian?
I didn’t grow up in church. Until recently (the past seven years or so), I had a limited religious knowledge base. Therefore, labeling and connecting different denominational or theological ideas is a difficult task for me. In the past few years I have gained more knowledge about movements and designations within the Christian tradition, but I don’t easily identify with any of them. For me, faith streams are indicated by how, at certain times of my life, I viewed the meaning of the term Christian.
For the majority of my life, Christian was a very broad and general term that signified belief in God and Jesus. I considered myself a Christian in the same way that I considered myself an American. It was just a given. If I wasn’t a Christian, then what else could I be? I had a basic understanding of Jesus and resurrection and I celebrated Christmas and Easter. For a while, I was satisfied with that simplistic understanding.
In my later years of high school, I developed a yearning for something deeper that would fulfill me in a different way. I was intrigued by the way that several of my friends outwardly displayed their faith. One of my friends often wore shirts that had names of church camps, Bible verses or crosses. I found such a display to be excessive but I was also interested in learning what would drive someone to proclaim such religiosity on an article of clothing.
My curiosity continued to grow and I decided I wanted to attend church. After my dad witnessed a fairly catastrophic event, he also desired to connect with God in a more meaningful way. We began attending a Brethren church at the advice of one of his friends. I was instantly captivated.
I learned about the love of God and was surrounded by people who seemed to have it all together. The world seemed brighter and I knew that my life had changed forever. My uncle (whom I still considered to be a little too religious) had me recite a prayer accepting Jesus as my savior and inviting him into my heart. I was baptized in a river, alongside my dad. I had been convinced that from then on, everything would be better and easier. At that stage of my life, I was influenced by a faith stream that described Christianity as accepting Jesus as a savior and trying to live a moral and righteous life, as laid out by the pastor.
Soon, my exuberance was replaced with uneasiness and even anger. When I heard my pastor proclaim things such as, “Homosexuals are ruining the establishment of family,” and, “Those who tithe more love Jesus more,” I decided that this new church home was not a home for me at all. Those statements were incongruent with all I was learning about the love of God. Luckily, my overall desire to grow closer to Jesus wasn’t derailed by one unpleasant church experience. My sense of Christianity was becoming blurred between my own ideas and the differing opinions I heard from others.
As I was disconnecting from my original church, I had begun connecting with the InterVarsity community at JMU and hoped to find fellowship and transformation there. I joined a small group and attended large group worship on a fairly regular basis. At first I was excited about the opportunity to connect in a fun and contemporary setting, but became disappointed by the conformity of those within the community. I observed the trend of putting on masks and building up walls in order to fit the mold of a proper evangelical Christian.
The exception to that trend was the honest, loving companionship I received within my small group. I attribute much of my spiritual growth and understanding of true Christian community to those six wonderful women who walked alongside me. With the simplistic streams of my childhood converging with new streams influenced by evangelical teaching and solid community support, I believed the purpose of Christianity was to help others find God so that they too could receive the gift of everlasting life. I clung to the idea of Sola Fide but still wrestled with ideas of right vs. wrong, sin and living purposefully.
Around the time of my senior year, I entered into my own Dark Ages, which don’t require much explanation here, other than to mention that those days eventually brought me a deeper understanding of God’s relentless love and grace and fueled a passion to revitalize the church’s mission of reaching out to the loveless in an authentic way. While struggling through the obscurity, I had no inclination of what it truly meant to be a Christian.
I began a slow ascent out of sheer brokenness and spent a couple of years searching for a church and community that could feed me but also inspire me to give back in tangible ways. I pitched camp several times but never truly felt I had found a place where I could grow and continue to search for truth.
A year and a half ago I was invited to join the leadership team of a new United Methodist faith community called RISE. While I had spent over a year attending a UM church before that, I hadn’t learned much about the tradition. RISE has given me insight into the Methodist tradition but has also introduced me to a progressive culture in which I can easily identify.
Through out the last year I encountered a multitude of beautiful yet challenging experiences, lessons and opinions. Coupled with the streams previously mentioned, this over-flowing river has helped me search out and form my own opinions on faith, justification, sanctification, the purpose of the church and how to truly live as good news with skin on. I’m sure my definition of Christian will continue to change and flow, but to me, being a Christian means that I ask for God’s grace each and every day in order to live as the hands and feet of Christ.