If I think back to the first moment when faith sunk in deep into my life, it would be sitting around a lunch table at Simpson College.
I wasn’t actually a college student then, but a sophomore in high school participating in our Youth Annual Conference. It was hosted there at the college every year and it was an opportunity for youth leadership to be developed, new friendships to be made, and for us to explore faith in a totally different way.
I had been floating around the periphery of church for a while. I went to Sunday School a few times as a youngster. We went on Christmas Eve with my grandparents. I had been to funerals and weddings. And I had a number of friends who were Christian and often invited me along to church. But their experiences of faith were not my own. I wanted to know more about Jesus, but I never quite felt like I totally fit in with their traditions. Looking back, they were more conservative and evangelical than where I eventually ended up, so perhaps early on I was sensing that wasn’t where I belonged.
I remember vividly in the fall of my sophomore year, however, that my mom realized I had not yet been confirmed and we started going to church as a family. Both sides of our family had been United Methodist, so we went to the biggest church we could find nearby. And I was instantly hooked. I joined the youth choir and the youth bells. I started confirmation. I went to youth group. Because it was a large church, my social circle instantly expanded with students from other area high schools all becoming my new best friends. It was a really amazing time.
And that spring, we went to Youth Annual Conference. We were a small group, even though it was a large church – just my mom; the youth pastor, Todd; another student and myself. It was my first experience of holy conferencing and resolutions and voting on legistation. It was my first experience of a praise band. It was my first chance to really understand what it might mean to be United Methodist.
But it was a conversation around the lunch table that really got me hooked. Others had been debating about whether or not we should listen to pop music, but Todd had just been rapping in the lunch line the whole “Fresh Prince of Bel Aire” song. And when he finally joined in the conversation, he talked about how he had used a Judas Priest song in youth group one night. This was many years ago, but I remember he talked about redeeming rather than rejecting culture. He talked about asking better questions in the face of music and narratives and people we don’t on the surface agree with, finding out what makes them tick and what they are trying to say, so we can speak with them. And I knew, right then, that I could claim that kind of faith.
In his book, Falling Upward, Richard Rohr talks about the two halves of our lives. The time we spend creating the container for our lives (identity, security, relationships) and then the time we spend living in and discovering the life we have built for ourselves. He writes that a type of spiritual awakening or falling apart happens in between the two of them…. when we realize we can’t just keep going on and building that container for ever, we actually have to start exploring what it means to live in this life we have created.
In the life of faith, one way this can be described is the move from law to grace. In the first half of our lives, we need the rules of faith: don’t kill, love God, pray this way. Rules lay the foundations… but the law itself is not the end. Rohr quotes the Dalai Lama here: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” Grace is helping the man get his oxen out of a hole on the sabbath. Grace is releasing the adulteress and telling her to go and sin no more. Grace is meeting people out of love rather than judgment.
Because I came to my faith a little bit later in life, my religious experience was never steeped in law and judgment language. That being said, I was one of those “good girls” who tried to always follow the rules. I got straight A’s. I never drank in high school, or smoked, or experimented in any way. I had enough formation in rule following in other aspects of my life.
In fact, I think in many ways, the church I discovered in places like that lunch table helped to break down and expand that initial container I had built for myself. My experiences of Jesus and religion were the catalyst for some big changes in my life. I moved from a desire to be a scientist/meterologist to a religion major. I found myself moving towards people who were all about breaking the rules…. in both healthy and not so healthy ways. But because my initial experiences of church were fairly traditional, I have maintained an ability to see and converse with all sorts of different faith languages. We don’t discard the containers we build in the first half, Rohr says, but they become the stuff we build from.
I am living in a very different sort of faith life than I ever imagined was possible sixteen years ago, when I sat down at that lunch table. I have been an advocate and fundraiser for global health. I have ministered in cities and small towns. I’m about to become the senior pastor of a mid-sized church in the city. But as I continue to live into my relationship with God, the desire to get to know and understand someone or something where it is and start from there is what continues to drive me.