From Critic to Christian: My Journey of Grace
If someone had told me four years ago that I would be a licensed local pastor attending seminary, I would have laughed in their face and probably thrown a Bible at them. I was raised in a United Methodist Church and was very active in church youth group during high school, but about the time my conservative high school youth group leader said "Gay people don't really love Jesus," I swore that I was done with Christianity for good. Sure, I had "given my heart to Jesus" more than once by the time I was 17, but by the time I reached college I identified more strongly as an atheist than anything else. Part of what drove me away from Christianity was the suffering that I saw in the world. I was enamored with Buddhist philosophy because of its acceptance and transcendence of suffering. But the more I tried to accept my suffering and the suffering of the world, the more miserable I became. As a senior in college, I felt like I was in this constant state of searching, trying to fill an inner void that even antidepressants and professional counseling wouldn’t fix. Father of Methodism, John Wesley, would call this being in a state of prevenient grace; the God of the universe was reaching out to me, even if I didn't know or care yet.
I was at the public library one afternoon just before my senior year of college, browsing the
religion and spirituality section in search of a book on Buddhism, when a book titled The Prodigal God jumped out at me. I picked it up because I thought it sounded like a critical, snarky retelling of a Bible story I was familiar with. Funnily enough, when I went to check it out, the librarian said it wasn't even in their system, but he'd let me take it anyway if I promised to bring it back. What I encountered as I read that book was far removed from what I expected. The author presented Christianity as a lifestyle that wasn’t for perfect, judgmental people, but for the prodigal sinner. Better yet, it spoke of a God who was also a prodigal, breaking the rules just like the ancient patriarch in the parable running to greet a son who had gone astray. For me, reading that book was an experience of justifying grace in the Wesleyan understanding. In the words of Wesley himself, I felt my heart "strangely warmed."
It felt like that inner void was beginning to fill back up. A Christianity more about love and radical inclusion than judgement and moralism was one I could get on board with. I'd spent half my life trying to be perfect, to earn grace, and the other half totally rejecting it; turns out that grace is freely given and comes with a mandate not to judge but to love. After that, it was almost unbelievable how quickly my life began to change, like dominoes were being knocked down, one after the other. At the time I was in my last year of school to get a bachelor’s degree in nutrition. When school started, a United Methodist campus ministry at my school became active for the first time in five years, and I was able to get involved. Pretty quickly I found myself devouring Bible passages, books on Christianity, and online sermons. I saw how following Christ didn't mean rejecting science or Eastern philosophy, but rather how it fit alongside them like part of a puzzle, the missing piece that gave my life new meaning. It was one day when walking home from class and listening to a sermon podcast, that I just suddenly had the thought “I should go to seminary.” It literally stopped me in my tracks. I looked up and said “Really, God?”
With hesitation, I began exploring the possibility and really exploring my call. I’d done all the right things and built a perfect resume to go on to become a registered dietitian, but as I started writing personal statements for graduate programs, I found myself writing about being called to build supportive communities. I explored that call further and it began to become clear to me that working in the church was a very realistic way to do that. I found a seminary called Iliff which inspired me with its emphasis on social justice and inclusivity.
Here I am three years later, building a new faith community in the same neighborhood where I lived as a meaning-seeking college student. I’m working to connect current college students to their spirituality and a sense of greater purpose by providing them with opportunities to explore their faith and serve the community around them. Now I'm in the longest and probably the hardest part of the journey of grace according to Wesley, sanctifying grace. He had this idea that all people could go on to "perfection in love." That's a tall order, and I certainly don't believe that I'll ever be perfect, but if I can just once act out of perfect love for my neighbor or for God, I may have accomplished what I was put on this Earth to do.
While I'm a big picture person who likes each day to be different, I’ve come to appreciate the discipline with which John Wesley lived his life. Without some amount of self-discipline, it’s entirely too easy for spiritual practices to slip, for time in prayer to become less and less, and for God’s presence to seem distant. No one’s got it all together, and I’ve found the real key is just to keep going. Don’t stop pursing God, pursuing community, pursing love and high ideals. You never know where that journey of transformation is going to take you.