Having grown up in church, God and Jesus have always been present to me and always been a pair I believed in without question. I never needed to question it because it had always been so. Until I reached college and had all these different ideas thrown at me, from Christians and non-Christians alike. I no longer knew what to believe except that God existed. This was a fact that could not be questioned, and through those first three years of uncertainty, God’s existence is what I clung to.
The summer before my senior year of college I finally got to experience traveling abroad. I was so excited to get my first stamp in my passport! The reason for this travel was that I was going for four weeks to be a media intern for a mission’s organization in the Dominican Republic. I remember admitting to one of my art professors before I left that I did not feel as close to God as I thought I should, and he answered that I’d better figure that out before I went down to serve! I knew he was right, but still it was hard because I felt that I was forcing something on myself that I did not want. It’s not that I had an annoying friend who went to church and always begged me to come and told me about God and tried to convince me; I was that friend to myself. I was like Smeagol and Gollum, one having all the answers and knowledge and trying to tell the other this is how it should go, and the other not wanting to listen or believe. I didn’t want to hear about God; I knew about God, and I knew how it was supposed to go but still it did not go that way and I began to believe that religion was something we all made up to make us feel better. Even as I write this I am surprised to recognize some of these thoughts because I never thought I would be the person having them. But I did, I did think that Christianity was made up and that even though God was real, I would never feel him in my life because real live faith just didn’t exist. I consoled myself by saying I just was not a good enough Christian and if at some point in my life I did get serious about God, then maybe these powerful transformations I heard about would really happen. If such things really did happen and were not all the masks we put on to show we have it all together.
I was obsessed with this idea of the mask. I imagined everyone in my church was wearing a mask, trying to pretend that because we knew God, our lives were not struggles for us and we never struggled with sin. But I knew the truth. I knew they were all pretending and I began to hate them for it. And I hated that I could not be honest with them because I had changed from the happy little girl who loved Jesus they had watched grow up into someone who struggled with hatred and eating disorders. I could not admit this to my perfect congregation and I had to put on a mask to hide my struggles. This made life more miserable and Christianity more fake.
But like I said, I went for a month to the Dominican. I was expecting that showing up there would automatically solve all of my problems, God would become so real and awesome to me like when Paul saw him on the road to Damascus that I would have to fall on my face and surrender everything to him. And then I would be back on track and fall in love with God again and have faith in what I believed in, easy peezy lemon squeezy. But that’s not how it happened.
My first week in the Dominican, nothing happened. Like, nothing. I couldn’t even see how God was involved at all in the work we were doing, because we were just doing the same things that any secular humanitarian organization would do. But then I thought of something. The difference between a mission’s and a humanitarian organization is not in what they do but in whom they do it for. I actually just thought of that right now, what my first thought was back then was that, maybe I should read my Bible. I brought my Bible, of course, because that’s just what you do when you go on a mission’s trip, but I had not once even thought to open it the first week while I was there. And I guess if you want to have a relationship with someone, like, say God, you’re going to have to spend some time with him.
So I opened my Bible and began to read. And what I learned did not come from what I was reading, but just occurred to me while I was reading: that if I want a deeper relationship with God, I’m going to have to work for it. He’s not just going to blow my mind away and force me to follow him. Where is the free will in that, after all? No, he wants me to come quietly and consistently to him. The main word that played over and over again in my head that month was “intentional.” I am going to have to be intentional about this relationship. I am going to have to intentionally take time to talk with God and read my Bible whether I feel like it or not. I can’t just wait for the divinely inspired moments to take out my Bible, turn to a page and magically receive the strength to keep on living for the next few weeks. Everyday I must intentionally make time to read my Bible, even for just a few minutes and talk to God.
So for the next week, I did. And I kept waiting for my “Damascus” moment. I thought that God was going to show up and rock my world because I was being obedient and consistent in reading my Bible. And it didn’t happen. Not to me. One of the girls who came down that week found the real God and became a Christian, and yeah I was a little jealous of the spiritual high she was experiencing. But I just kept reading my Bible. And then one afternoon I was alone in the dorm and had some extra quiet time with God. And I drew a little bit closer to God that afternoon and learned some things that I would have missed had I not been quiet and still before him. Like when God shows himself to Elijah, he first sends the storm and the earthquake and the fire, but God is not in the fire. He comes after in the still small whisper. Sometimes you just need to fall on your face before God and let him be who he is.
I began learning things that week that would be obvious to any Christian. I learned that only God could fulfill the desires of your heart. Duh. But this is like a truth that I have always known but never internalized. Like a parrot repeating memorized phrases but never knowing what they meant. The best way for me to explain this is to relate a story of when I was learning Spanish for the first time. I remember how excited I got the day I realized that a memorized phrase, “y tu?” was a combination of the words for “and” and “you” and that is why it meant “and you?” It no longer had meaning because somebody told me it did, which was all true and I knew without a doubt that “y tu” meant “and you,” but now I knew why and it was something I learned for myself and could internalize and I still remember now after I have forgotten most of my memorized Spanish phrases.
One of the themes this summer was about telling your story of what God had done in our lives. I told my story of how I grew up in church, went every Sunday morning, night, Wednesday night and everything in between. It felt like a great build up to a climatic moment in the story, but then I just ended there. Because I did not know what came after that...but now I have a new chapter to my story! Ask me now how I know about God and I will tell you!
But you see, the story doesn't end there (unfortunately for the reader, as this is an excessively long post).
Because what God started actually in an airport with a man from one of the teams on the way down to the Dominican did not end with a hug from mom and dad on the way home. Growth does not end when you return home. I was given a book to read while I was in the Dominican, which I did not actually read then. But I am reading it now, and I think the timing is just right. It is called Not A Fan by a pastor named Kyle Idleman. But I am getting ahead of myself.
When I came back to school, I went to the little church I had just started going to at the end of last semester. I believe this was my fourth time there. When I saw the topic for Sunday School, I groaned because it was something I knew and I wanted to learn something new (not knew!). The topic was “how do we know that Jesus is God?” I already know Jesus is God. But something strange happened to me in Sunday School that day. You know that “Damascus” moment I was waiting for all summer? This is the day it happens. And it’s still not that bright light shining, blowing my mind away, but this is God doing something big in my life and finally opening my eyes to see. You know what, maybe my “Damascus” moment happened years ago when I was a young happy Christian, and this was just the scales falling off of my eyes. It was strange; we were just going through the Scriptures where Jesus claims to be “I AM,” and suddenly it made sense. This was another one of those “y tu” moments. Where I had known this all my life but I felt like I was hearing it for the first time, and I thought, “Yeah, that does make sense! That is a logical argument why we should believe that Jesus is God.” And I thought that if I wasn’t already a Christian who already believed all of this, I could nod my head to that argument and maybe think about believing. Which is exactly what I did.
It was later that evening, in the setting sun, sitting on the fountain with my book, Not A Fan, that I finally realized why I believe what I believe. Why I am a Christian. Certainly any modern day Pharisee would pick up a book like that and imagine coming out of it as a follower rather than a fan. So after that night’s reading I decided it was time for this Pharisee to say she was not a fan. But this is not just “Pharisee Julia” talking. This is the Julia who has been slowly learning more about the God she has always claimed to know, and has been (slowly) building a relationship with. Reading it that night, I felt like there was a whole God out there I knew nothing about. And to a Pharisee, that is terrifying. Reading some of the Scriptures Kyle was pulling out as to what a follower looked like, it was overwhelming. With all my church schooling, I honestly had no idea what a follower’s life would look like. How in the world do I give up the world when I happen to live in the world, for God? How do I give up my home? Does that mean I must sell everything, stand on the street corner in sackcloth and proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God? Seriously, I didn’t know. So I thought I could ask God. So the prayer begins, Jesus, help me to know how to follow you. And then the question: why? Why? Why? I didn’t know I had to have a reason! Because I’m a Christian and that’s what we do. Why? Because people think I’m a Christian so eventually I’m going to have to start acting like one. And then I gave up the masquerade.
Coming from an empty slate, why do you want to be a follower of Jesus? And I went back to what I had always believed: that God exists, and that God is sovereign. No matter what, God is God and that alone makes him worthy of praise. That needs no why, that is. That is my starting point for the logical argument, and the reasoning on side B is because it is a truth. From there we can move on. Let’s look at the arguments we talked about in Sunday School today: Jesus claims to be “I AM;” he is claiming to be God. Jesus rose from the dead and we have lots of evidence of that. Let me say, that based on this, I am convinced that Jesus is who he says he is, that Jesus is God. And if Jesus is God and God is Sovereign, then to follow God means to follow Jesus. And that, dear friends, is why I, Julia, am a follower of Jesus Christ.