My dad grew up Catholic, my mom Baptist. When I was two years old we began attending an Assemblies of God Church.
I remember attending Mass in the Catholic Church one time. I remember the stand-up sit-down routine and the smell of incense in my nostrils. It made me nauseous.
I can still hear the organ from the Baptist Church I visited while visiting my grandparents. It commanded attention while I clenched the hymnal and dutifully recited the lyrics on the page in front of me.
During our weekly worship service in the Assemblies of God Church, I remember long gaps between songs as people around me mumbled to themselves, some louder than others, in a language I didn’t understand.
As a child, these were some of the ways I saw Christianity- these were the labels I learned about. I spent more time around some than others, but they all impacted me.
By the time I reached adolescence I thought I knew all I needed to know about Christianity. Affirm your belief that Jesus Christ is God, pray a prayer, and receive your ticket to heaven. I prided myself on having read the Bible in its entirety by age twelve, and was convinced I had the book of Revelation figured out by thirteen, ready to explain it to anyone who needed understanding.
If only I knew then how far from Jesus I really was, I may have saved myself an enormous amount of hurt and heartache. But I’m stubborn, and just kept getting further and further away from God.
By age seventeen I found myself deep inside a pit convinced I was an exception to God’s love and forgiveness. After all the terrible things I had done why would He forgive me? I knew better. I did some of those terrible things just because I knew better. I didn’t deserve Him. Why would He love me?
The fact that I struggled so much to accept God’s forgiveness when it mattered most is what makes it clear I wasn’t really walking with Him all those years before. Oh sure, I knew about God, but I didn’t know God. I knew His story, but I was scared of Him.
But He. Found. Me.
Jesus came to me in the deep pit of guilt and shame that surrounded me. One ordinary day He picked me up and began the journey of pulling me out. He was the only one who could. It didn’t happen in an instant, but slow and steady He took me by the hand and led me out of the pit. It wasn’t easy, it took me over a year to get on solid ground. When you’re in a pit that deep, it takes a while to get out. It took me another year to get cleaned up, being in a pit isn’t a clean place to be.
Now that I’m walking with Jesus, religious rituals and spiritual disciplines have new and different meanings.
Prayer is no longer a duty, it’s a conversation with God. Reading Scripture isn’t a box to check-off, it’s a opportunity to learn about who He is. Fasting isn’t an obligation, it gives me a dependence on God in the best way. Communion isn’t a ritual, it’s a reminder of who brought me out of the pit.
These spiritual disciplines help me consistently connect with God and keep me grounded in my faith.
Now I can look back at the churches I experienced as a child and appreciate the way they worship God. They did it in a way that made sense to them. Are some genuine? Maybe, maybe not. But how can I criticize their method when for so long I wasn’t genuine myself?
Since my faith became my own, I’ve loved experiencing and exploring the variety of expressions of the Christian faith. As a college student I experienced a worship service in an Anglican Church in Oxford, an Evangelical Church in London, and the Easter service at St. Peter’s in the Vatican. The following year I found myself in a southern Baptist University where I went on to graduate. Each of these experiences gave me a window into the Church and helped refine my faith.
We all have our preference and our labels. So often they get in the way of our ability to truly see each other the way God does. Thankfully He doesn’t ask us if we are Baptist or Pentecostal, or if we are Calvinist or Armenian before entering heaven. He simply asks if He is our Lord.
No strings attached.
No hoops to jump through.
Each of us are uniquely created to experience God in a way that we understand. Some of us connect with Him through creation, art, and song, others through writing and study. When I look at my kids this makes so much sense- they are all so very different. I love teaching them to connect with God in the way their heart understands, the way they are created to.
The Spirit of God breathes love, joy, and peace. It breathes patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. However I’m connecting with God, these characteristics should be flowing from it. Am I becoming increasingly patient with others as a result of my time in prayer? Do I spend more time criticizing or bringing peace to others? If the Holy Spirit is working in my life, I should. Why would God want me to fast if I lash out at everyone around me while doing so. If spending time in His creation sets my thoughts upon Him, why wouldn’t I make that a regular part of my life?
When Jesus walked on Earth it was the religious people who didn’t recognize Him. He didn’t wear their labels. They questioned his methods, challenged his authority, and were the ones who put Him on the cross.
The beauty of the Church is that it can be expressed so differently throughout the Earth yet still produce the same fruit. Where the Spirit of God is, His fruit will be evident. How boring would it be if we only tasted apples? I’m thankful He created an abundance of varieties of fruit to choose from.
All of creation and all of the created point to our creator. As we allow His Spirit to live through us and express His love, others get a glimpse of Him and are compelled to follow too.
“For the mouth simply shapes the heart’s impulses into words.” Matt 12:34