Shortly after I agreed to testify about what Jesus means to me, I found myself thinking "What was I thinking?" You see, I'm not sure I really know what He means to me. During his sermon last week, Daniel said that why we are here (in this church) is a mystery. For me, it's not only a mystery; I think it also involves a minor miracle. Perhaps exploring how I got here will help to clarify why I'm here, and what it all means to me.
I grew up in Rochester, in a household that paid lip service to God, but not much more. My parents sent my brother, my two sisters and me off to Sunday school every week, but never came with us. We said a simple child's Grace at every meal. Mom or Dad came upstairs every night to tuck us in and listen to our bedtime prayers. The words didn't actually mean anything to us; they were just phrases we rattled off quickly, out of habit. My parents made sure we became members of the church, although they themselves only went to church on Easter. I've often wondered why they even did that much, since it was pretty clear to me that none of it really meant anything to them. Perhaps it was because they wanted to avoid arguments with my grandmother, who was a deeply spiritual person.
As I was growing up, I was fairly involved in church activities: I attended church regularly. I sang in the junior choir. When I was in high school, the church formed a folk choir, and I played guitar and sang in that. I assisted one of the Sunday school teachers with her class. I went to a youth program at the church every Sunday evening. And one of my clearest, and favorite, memories of many Christmas mornings is of my brother and sisters and me sitting in my brother's bedroom, reading aloud the story of the Nativity from one of the Gospels, while waiting for my parents to get up and let us come downstairs to open our presents.
And yet, during this whole period I never really thought much about God, or Jesus, or what they meant. I was touched by what seemed like the magic of Christ's birth, but mostly took the whole religion thing for granted. It was there, but I figured it had nothing to do with me. By the time I graduated from high school, my brother and sisters and I had all pretty much put religion aside, and considered ourselves agnostics.
Things started to change when I started college. My brother had started attending a Pentacostal church, and my sister was thinking about converting to Catholicism. John eventually returned to the Methodist church we were raised in, and is now a minister in Iowa. Jody did become a Catholic, and remains deeply committed to and involved in her church.
I was briefly involved with a campus Pentacostal group during my senior year of college, but after that, I became a once-a-year churchgoer like my parents. For some 27 years, my church experience consisted of occasional Christmas Eve services, and weddings. When I joined a 12-step program, I found some comfort in the idea of a higher power, who, for me, was 'sort of' God. I wasn't entirely convinced He existed, but it was too scary to face what I was facing without Him. After a few years of that, though, religion once again faded from my life.
During this long period away from the church, I would occasionally pause and briefly consider the idea of God. This was mostly due to my grandmother, I think. As I said, she was deeply spiritual. I didn't have very much contact with her, since she lived several hours away from us, but I was always moved by the comfort she obviously found in her faith. When my life seemed to fall apart, I wished that I had something equally comforting to sustain me. I didn't understand exactly what she had, but I wanted it!
Some 15 years ago, I became involved in a local Buddhist center. It seemed to fill a spiritual void in me, and for a year or so it provided me with a sense of community that I sorely needed. Then it was back to not following any religion. About two and a half years ago, a close friend suggested that I try attending a church – any church – to get back that sense of community. I resisted at first, thinking it would be hypocritical to go to church since I didn't believe in God. Eventually, though, I decided I did believe in something – I just wasn't sure what to call it. Of all the neighborhood churches, Old First was the closest to where I lived, and it had a positive association in my mind, dating to 9/11, when the church opened its doors to anyone who needed a place to sit and pray, or think, or cry. So here I came. And now comes the miracle I started off talking about. I came in search of a community, and I certainly found that. But I also realized immediately that being here filled a large hole in my soul. I loved the music, the liturgy, taking Communion… And much to my surprise, I loved all the talk about Jesus. He became real to me in a way He never was when I was growing up. I began to try to make faith part of my everyday life. In a strange way, I think my years of living in a spiritual void made it easier to settle into the beginnings of faith. I had a better idea of what was missing from my life, and was more receptive to it when I found it. I still have a lot to learn about Christ, and the Bible, and having faith, and how to live in the way that God wills for me. But I'm here, and I'm learning, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to continue doing that.
Part of last week's scripture reading talked about how God is love. If you don't love, then you obviously don't know God. And that's a big part of what Jesus means to me. Jesus is love. I'm merely one more flawed human being, and I don't think I really deserve His love. But I firmly believe that He loves me anyway. I don't have to deserve it – it just is. Jesus will protect me no matter what, as long as I love him. Having Christ in my life means I never face anything alone. I don't always remember that, and my faith seems to waver a lot, but I always come back to it, and it sustains me. I sometimes wonder how I would have felt if I had been around when Jesus was on the earth. Would I have believed in Him? Would I have feared Him? Would I have been one of those who mocked Him? I'll never know. But I do know that now I can't imagine ever shutting Him out of my life again, and take
enormous comfort from knowing that He won't shut me out either.