I recently had a conversation with a friend who, like myself, grew up in the Christian church but now struggles with being identified as a ‘Christian’ because of all the terrible things religion does in God’s name. It has only been more recently in my journey that I have been willing to again use the word ‘Christian’ to describe myself. Even now, my use of the word often depends on with whom I am speaking. This hesitancy to use the word ‘Christian’ has nothing to do with my love for Jesus, but about the positions that the name has come to assume that I might take on a variety of issues.
It has now been twenty years since my father first attempted suicide and the tapestry of my religious upbringing began to unravel before me in confusion. I saw and felt the responses he received to revealing that he is gay, as I wrestled with my own issues of depression and then addiction. I understood the depth of pain a person is in if they are attempting suicide. It was clear to me in watching the journey with my family, that while people might make any varied level of sexual decisions, core sexual orientation is not a choice. I watched not only the journey of my own family, but also the struggles of others I love who were beginning to share with me their own experiences as identifying with being gay and Christian.
I will never forget sitting in the hospital, holding the hand of the son of dear friends near his death at 20 years old from a drug overdose resulting from his shame at not being able to change that he was gay. The brokenness of his parents, who had at first believed God wanted their son to change, turned into passionate advocates for the LGBTQ community. They saw the results of their well intentioned, but misguided response to their son’s question of sexuality, and it made them warriors for change. I saw the rigid application of biblical interpretation that members of the church we attended clung to in their own fear and confusion.
I remember my many attempts to get sober, and being welcomed into churches when I first got clean, only to be rejected when my attempts failed in their eyes. I felt the stings of words telling me that the reason I could not get sober was because there was something wrong with me and my relationship with God. They could not grasp that God could still love people while they were still messy, and questioned the sincerity of my efforts because they did not quickly enough generate the effects that they desired.
I knew my own heart and it’s desire for change. I was far more frustrated than anyone else at my lack of progress. But eventually I realized that my problem was that I kept trying to do things other peoples way. They had wonderful tools to offer by way of the Bible or the book Alcoholics Anonymous, but the way others imposed their interpretation of those texts on me was painful and made me believe wrong things about God himself.
Early in my journey of more steady recovery, that began in 2012, I finally made the decision to walk away from both church and AA in an effort to find long term sobriety. That is generally the opposite experience people have with getting sober, but it is mine, and so it is the only one I can speak to. I had a close circle of friends who had been with me through my journey. They continued to speak into my life and help me with accountability outside of the structure of someone else’s program.
It was in this time, I really began to read the Bible for myself and to see what it says outside of the interpretations of others. I could not call myself a Christian at that point. The word, to me, felt like a knife in the back. I hated organized religion and the damage I could see it had done. I remember reading in the book of Exodus as Moses asked God who he should say sent him to lead the Hebrew slaves to the promised land. Exodus 3:14 “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.’”
I recently explained this moment to the friend with whom I was speaking, and the suggestion that one of my trusted friends made as I mentioned that verse. I was struggling with using the word ‘God’ and he suggested that for a while I could call myself a follower of I AM. This was a game changer for me as it let me keep God without identifying with the toxicity I experienced around more traditional doctrines.
It was here that I AM revealed himself to me through his word and through his spirit, in ways that were finally my own. No longer was my faith about what others said, but about the personal relationship I found with I AM for myself.
It has been nearly 10 years since some of these early moments and experiences that shaped my new faith. In that time I have come to once again call myself a Christian because I am what the word defines. I am ‘A Follower of Christ’. But I have also come to know that does not mean that I have to agree with the opinions of others that might use that same name in hurtful ways towards others. They are accountable for themselves and I am only accountable for myself and the message that I share.
I have come to a place of confidence in the foundational stone of my God. I am able to set things upon it and be less concerned when those things make others uncomfortable. I am now able to walk into a Christian church that is not affirming and boldly share that I am affirming, and not need them to agree with me, but also not let myself be drawn back into the narrow black and white understanding of the faith in which I was raised.
Right now is a season where I feel strong in my faith, but I am also confident, that just as seasons go, I will again be upon one where my faith feels dry and lifeless. Perhaps in that season I will once again need to withdraw from the organized church to the safety of my God and my smaller support circle. But today I know it is okay to have seasons within my faith. Today I know that life is about the journey and not the snapshot at any given moment. People’s judgments of me based upon snapshots they see are often about them and their own experiences and perspectives. I do not have to take personally the criticism of someone who does not have enough context to fully explain the snapshot they might be currently viewing.
For those who identify with the feelings I am describing, I will not give advice but I will ask if you own a Bible, and if you want to check out I AM for yourself. It can be done without the toxicity humans have brought to organized religious structures. I am always happy to talk about questions of faith and love the conversations my posts have generated with friends from atheist, to Muslim, to deeply evangelical and many others woven in. Ultimately, I have learned that it is not another person, but myself that I fall asleep with at night. It is in my own personal journey of faith that I must pull comfort, because all humans are fallible. There is no single person who can meet all my needs, and my expectation that someone could, has often left me broken and disappointed.
For me, the true moment of solitude came in a jail cell where I was finally left alone, and sober with myself. It was there that so much of the noise was turned down and my own connection with God began to tune in. I think of the words of 1 Kings 19:11-13 and identify with the sound of the gentle whisper where Elijah heard God speak to him. For me it was also a whisper, that I had to quiet down long enough to hear.
That quiet was forced upon me, but it was I who still had to decide to listen and respond. I have found peace in that gentle whisper and the anchor that it brings to my life. I relate to my friends on both sides, those who hold tightly to evangelicalism and those who have tossed all religion aside. I have no judgements, but know we all have different paths and processes that are not mine to understand. I can speak only to where I find my anchor and I have to let someone, far beyond my pay grade, take accountability for all of the rest.