The church that kick-started my transformation from utter non-believer to a devout Jesus died on the cross for my sins Christian was one of those trendy non-denominational churches that tried to be coy about their church status. Like, oh hey, we’re just here, in a barn, on a Sunday, with a few (hundred) friends, jamming on a guitar. Here’re a few spiritual platitudes… oh, and if they made you feel good, consider leaving us a (cough: monetary) note of gratitude in one of those no pressure conspicuously placed collection baskets in the back by the yummy doughnuts. Sure, they talked about Jesus, and sure they didn’t pay taxes, but they weren’t a churchy church if you know what I mean, and they were the first to tell you that. They were “liberal minded” and welcoming to all. It was a solid sales pitch. But just that. A sales pitch.

 

The reality was a little different. All of the electric guitars and flannel in the building couldn’t conceal the fact that they were a church, and that they were more conservative both politically and socially than they wanted to acknowledge. Despite this, there was something there I liked. Something there I had been longing for as long as I could remember. And at that time, I naively believed that your religion in no way had to intersect with your political and social views. So I happily kept going.

 

It took the majority of my childhood to convince me that Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior, but when the transition took place, it was genuine. The summer before my junior year of high school, I fell hard for Jesus. While it pains me to type that present day, it’s a reality I have to accept. I had excitedly decided to go on a church retreat as our trendy non-churchy church had been growing on me more and more. While there, the sheer volume of people my age, their enthusiasm for Jesus, the loud music, and the many transformative speakers and presentations opened a part of my heart that had been previously closed, and more significantly, closed a part of my brain that had been previously wide open.

 

While I had been letting my Jesus guard down slowly in the years leading up to this church retreat, I would characterize my pre-retreat self as Christian Lite. But post-retreat week, I was definitely Christian Heavy. I’d come to the realization that Jesus was real and that He was personally invested in my life and well being. The genuine belief that an all-powerful being was personally looking out for my interests made me feel invincible. I returned home on my Christian Heavy buzz and felt emboldened for a cause.

 

Certainty had set in. I was certain God was watching over me. I was certain that I had a one on one relationship with Jesus Christ, and that not only could He hear my prayers, but He could answer them as well. I was certain that because this particular church and this particular retreat had gotten through to me, that it was the exact right church and the exact right version of Christianity. I was certain I now had the answers that everyone else needed. I was certain anyone who felt differently was wrong. As you might imagine, with this kind of deranged certainty often comes a sense of superiority and condescension. Not surprisingly, I had both in spades. I didn’t know it then, but certainty made me ugly. Certainty made me the worst kind of person.

 

So there I was, back home, with all of my certainty, explaining to my high school sweetheart that we could no longer have the wicked pre-marital sex we’d been enjoying so much.   Pre-retreat, I was a horny teenager. Post-retreat, I was a horny Christian teenager. Unfortunately, the addition of the word Christian didn’t make much of a difference. As it turned out, Jesus didn’t magically give me the strength to suppress my sexual urges. And the sexual urges only got stronger because what’s hotter than hot sex at 16? Saying you can’t have the hot sex anymore. So my new no sex rule was a bust. Not to worry though, Jesus didn’t leave me totally in the dust. Instead, He showered me with guilt. Not only had I failed my first true test to demonstrate my conviction for Him, I was now dirty and impure to boot.

 

I struggled with the dirty and impure part more than the failure to demonstrate my conviction part. It was a new feeling. I had been having sex with my boyfriend for a year or so by that point, and I had never felt anything but joy. We were in love. He was kind, and thoughtful. He adored me. We had a remarkably healthy romantic teenage relationship, and a loving and appropriately passionate sex life. I knew what we had was special in the world of teenage romance. And so I rationalized with God. I prayed every night for Him to forgive me of this (rampantly reoccurring) sin. Lucky for me, I bought in to that really convenient New Testament business. You know, where God forgives all. Again and again. And again. Bottomless (sex) pardons if you will. While I did feel a very real guilt about letting down my God, I also felt absolved of any wrongdoing immediately upon my regularly scheduled evening confessional. I believed that because I was being open and honest with my God, He and I understood each other; therefore I got a pass.   After all, He knew I had the big picture right.

So, like many of the self-righteous before me, I continued my own “sinful” behavior while walking around confidently lecturing people, proudly declaring the truths that I knew, and condescendingly questioning their views, morals, character, and eternal well being.

Instead of quitting with all the pre-marital sex, I asked my Catholic boyfriend to attend church with me. After all, I was certain the Catholic’s had it wrong. And I’d debate him endlessly on the subject. I remember one of our debates led to a discussion about the September 11th attacks. It was the first time I had ever been confronted about another religion and this idea that there were millions of people in other parts of the world who believed entirely different things than my trendy version of Christianity. I didn’t give it a second thought. Honestly, I didn’t even give it a first thought. I immediately spat out that all other religions were wrong, especially one as evil as Islam must be (not knowing a single thing about Islam at that time). And then I brilliantly followed up that my God allowed that whole tragic event in order to bring more people to Him. My boyfriend just stared at me exasperated – and dumbfounded. I sat there feeling sorry for him that he was so unbelievably clueless about the one Truth. In other debates of ours, I would say to him things like, “you go to church every Sunday, and you still don’t get it, you don’t get the big picture. If you’re not saved, you’re going to Hell. I say this because I love you.”

 

Around that same time, I remember sitting in sociology class when our teacher invited another fellow teacher into our classroom to discuss her being gay. She was openly gay and in a relationship with another teacher at our school. She was one of the most enthusiastic, funny, and beloved teachers at our school. She shared her story of realizing she was gay, marrying a man anyway, having children, eventually divorcing, and accepting her sexuality, in hopes of opening the hearts and minds of the students. She also shared that she attended a Christian church, and her pastor accepted her as she was.

 

Until I started buying in to the Jesus bit, I never looked at a gay person and felt the need to assess their life. They were just people, and I didn’t really see what the big deal was. But once I bought in, I felt I had to reconcile their “lifestyle” with what the bible actually said, because as we all know, the bible isn’t silent on the issue. That required some mental gymnastics on my part. I came to the conclusion that gay people were still just people – like me – who deserved to live their life however they wanted. But I didn’t stop there. I also determined, that sure, it was probably wrong in God’s eyes, but I wasn’t God, and so I didn’t have to make that judgment call. I deemed this a wise and progressive Christian view.

 

I wish I could say that I kept my wise and progressive view to myself. But remember, I had become the worst kind of person. After she finished her equal parts comical and heartwarming life story, I immediately raised my hand to inquire as to what her pastor told her God’s policy was on her living her life as an openly gay Christian woman. Specifically, I needed to know if her pastor recognized that God viewed it as wrong and accepted her in spite of this, or, if God was okay with it entirely. I have a soft and kind voice. But my condescension couldn’t be masked. And looking back, if I’m being honest with myself, I didn’t want it masked. Despite me not living by the so-called Christian rules, I still felt compelled to vocalize to the world what those rules were. Thankfully, my teacher didn’t miss a beat, and never held my hostility or immaturity against me. Just another reason she was so beloved.

 

That same year, I stormed out of a history class when a teacher began to discuss discrepancies in the bible as it related to what we actually know about the history of our world. I raised my hand to pompously let the teacher know he was out of line to be questioning God. I marched to the Principal’s office to declare my dissatisfaction. I had a small following of a few equally drama prone girls who were happy to aide my cause. There are many things I regret more than this moment – any time I ever hurt a person’s feelings for instance. But there is nothing more mortifying to me now than thinking back to my arrogance in trying to take down my history teacher for attempting to accurately represent history to his pupils.

 

In the months following my infamous class protest, I vividly recall getting into a debate with another person claiming that America was founded on Christian views. When they corrected me, I simply said, well, most of the country is Christian; so for all intents and purposes, it is Christian country and people need to accept that. Perhaps I should have stayed in my history class – and paid a bit more attention.

 

If you’re thinking I sound insufferable, you’re giving me even more credit than I deserve. I was my most arrogant, passionate, and obnoxious self during those later high school years. It was partly age and immaturity, of course. But the underlying issue was how small my world was at that time. I had never been anywhere, or done anything. The most culturally vibrant place I’d been was Disney World. In my little tiny town, every one looked liked me, sounded like me, and for the most part, believed similarly to me. The consequence of my small world was a small worldview. And my small worldview allowed me the privilege to believe I was right about most things.

 

College expanded my world immediately. In turn, my worldview had to expand as well. Edges softened that until then I hadn’t realize had hardened so dramatically. I dialed back my Christian girl melodrama almost upon arrival. I vividly remember proudly placing my bible on a bookshelf while unpacking in my dorm room. That night when my roommates and I got drunk together, they confessed they thought I wasn’t going to be any fun when they saw that bible. I shared my secret with them – I was a proud Christian, but my God and I had an understanding. I could do what I wanted. I drank – a lot, had sex – a lot. God and I were still cool. They didn’t have to worry about me being fun. If anything, I was too much fun at times. As that bible on my shelf collected dust, I was experiencing life outside of a small town for the first time.

 

I still prayed to my God every single night. I went to church on the occasional Sunday evening after four long days of partying, and any opportunity while back home. But for the most part, I spent those four years learning – about myself, the world, new friends, boyfriends, relationships, other cultures. I had long drunken heart to hearts about God, religion, and the afterlife with more people than I can count. I became a better listener. While I still shared my views proudly, and even obnoxiously at times, I was able to listen to others as well, without say, storming out of the room and tattling to the principal.

Almost immediately into college, things with my high school sweetheart started to lose their luster. Rather than say so, I drunkenly cheated on him with an older guy who wooed me so easily it was scary. Scarier still was how quickly the relationship turned abusive and dysfunctional, how long I continued to date this man (five years), and how even still I feel guilty giving the relationship the “abusive” title it deserves.

Toward the end of college, I buried my father who died of heart failure (likely) due to his longtime abuse of cocaine. It was truly his lifelong romance. And despite “God getting him clean,” he went back to it after 12 years sober because a guy on his construction crew got him the “deal of a lifetime.” That’s a direct quote. God was good for 12 years of sobriety but couldn’t help him overcome a sale. (I often wonder if this trait is hereditary as I roam Anthropologie’s clearance.) I didn’t cry at his funeral because I knew he was in a better place. I remember feeling tremendous guilt throughout the services because I knew I appeared cold – but, it was so simple to me. If he was in a better place, I didn’t see a reason to be sad.

 

I spent much of my time in college pondering life, figuring out why I cared about social and political causes, and where I stood on each of them. I had always peripherally been aware that none of my views aligned with the bible. However, I was so accustomed to compartmentalizing each part of my life and playing by my own set of rules when it came to Christianity that I never felt I needed to reconcile the two. But, I found that without realizing it, my views on church and Christianity shifted and I left college a very different person than when I entered. My edges had softened once more.

 

While my Christian belief system still truly hadn’t been shaken, my life experience had allowed me a bigger and more accurate picture of our world. It also allowed me a bigger and more accurate picture of where I fit in it – issues and causes that mattered to me, the type of impact I wanted to have on the people around me, and the role my church played in all of these things up until this point. I still knew whole-heartedly Jesus Christ was my savior, that when I prayed He listened, and that ultimately, I was going to go to Heaven to be with Him. However, every part of the bible I had come to openly disagree with, I began to disregard as “old testament nonsense.” Occasionally, I would scour the internet in an attempt to reconcile this one gruesome bible story, or that one amoral parable with the positive Jesus vibe I valued, but I ultimately realized I could just pretend those stories weren’t there. If I knew Jesus was a good solid guy, why did a few Old Testament hiccups need to negate all the good He brought with Him?

 

This led me to conclude that my religion wasn’t the problem – it was just that most churches had it wrong. I even lumped my church into the bad lot, despite my years of proclamations that it was the one and only church. Upon leaving college, I was Goldilocks. I intended to find just the right church that reflected my exact views. It needed that upbeat “non-churchy” feel that had lured me into my church in the first place. It needed to have actual “liberal-minded” people, not people who just claimed that title. It needed to be primarily Jesus focused. It needed to avoid trying to solve 21st century problems with Old Testament wisdom. And it needed to be all about love and inclusion.

 

For the next few years, I attended different churches searching for my version of “just right.” Sometimes, I’d know the second I walked into a new place that their vibe was all wrong. Sometimes, I’d go for a few months, only to have the pastor say one wrong thing at which point I’d add that point to my “just right” list, and move on to the next trial church. Sometimes, I’d stop into my old church to see if anything had changed. It hadn’t. Finally, I found one that seemed to encompass my views almost perfectly. For a few years after that, I attended regularly and enthusiastically.

 

While Goldiloxing, and ultimately settling in comfortably to my new church family, I was also trying to be a grown up. I worked full time, bounced around jobs, and eventually changed career paths. I finally ended my on again off again abusive 5 year relationship. I aborted that abusive man’s baby. I confided in my mom about it. Her lack of awareness of the abuse I endured as well as her burning desire for a grandchild blinded her ability to show me compassion in my moment of need.  It was one of the only times my mother let me down.  The abortion didn’t faze me – I knew it was the right decision for me.  But her judgment scarred me deeply. 

 

I reconnected with friends I had lost touch with during my long-term relationship. We laughed, dressed up, partied, flirted with boys, and always went home together. I gained a self-confidence I hadn’t possessed before. I let my guard down. I loosened up, and opened myself up to indulgences even if I knew they weren’t necessarily leading me toward that “get married and settle down” life I had previously been aiming toward.  I dated a man nearly twice my age. It was carefree, erotic, and passionate. I learned so much about myself – about satisfactions that had been missing in relationships before him.

 

I traveled. I saw beautiful parts of our world I had only seen in pictures. I met lots of people – fun, kind, exciting friends and lovers, sometimes both. I also met cruel and selfish people – terrible lovers, and worse friends. I discovered things that I wanted out of romantic relationships and friendships I never could have anticipated. I had another abortion. I made the decision quicker and easier than I did the first time, but it had a longer lasting effect on me. Not because I had any regrets about my decision, but because I tremendously regretted my carelessness that led to it. I accompanied many friends of mine to abortion clinics through those years – many religious friends who “didn’t believe in abortion.” I talked them through it while telling them about our forgiving God. I knew him personally, and I knew he forgave me. He would forgive them too.

 

I went to law school. I met bright and dynamic people there – professors that intimidated and inspired me, friends that elevated and motivated me. For the first time, I was taught how to think, rather than what to think. I learned how to look critically at evidence, how to see two sides of an argument, how to argue the side you disagree with, and how to argue points of view that can often make your skin crawl – most importantly, how to do all of these things within the bounds of the law. I graduated; I passed the bar, and became a working lawyer. Along the way, I met the love of my life. It was easy, and fun, and exciting, and romantic, and eye opening in a way that nothing in my life ever had been before. It was a real partnership. It felt different, and right. He even volunteered to come to church with me despite his own lack of belief. I knew I was going to marry him.

 

Again, without realizing it, my edges had softened. My worldview had expanded once more. I no longer had a place for judgment in my life. I no longer felt like it was my mission to tell the world about my God. My relationship with Jesus was just that, mine. Personal and private. I viewed it as having a friend with whom I could share anything. I could get things off of my chest. I could talk through my career change nerves. I could thank Him for sending me my future husband. And best of all, I could continue to ask him to watch over all of my favorite people. I felt very much at peace.

 

Then one Sunday, I sat in my perfect church with my perfect boyfriend listening to the pastor go on and on about not having pre-marital sex. He shared his story of having not even kissed his wife until his wedding day. The congregation applauded him. And I just remember thinking how sorry I felt for him. He missed out on so much life experience. Different people, different kinds of love, different expressions of love. All for a God who I knew didn’t seem to really care about what we do in the bedroom. After all, I was sitting there beside the man who’d given me an orgasm just hours earlier. I started to feel that same uneasiness I’d felt years earlier about my prior church. Sure, the music here was loud and upbeat, and most Sundays were spent talking about how Jesus wants to make my life better, but I couldn’t relate to a man who got on stage talking about waiting until marriage for a kiss. And I especially couldn’t relate to an audience who applauded that. I stopped attending church regularly. I was too busy being in love, and having guilt free multiple orgasms.

 

A few months after the pre-marital sex sermon, my pastor took it upon himself to blog about how Christian’s were being persecuted, and how corporations were violating a certain duck calling crowd’s first amendment freedoms. My attorney senses burned with every legal inaccuracy he wrote. As friends and acquaintances shared his blog on social media, I became even more disheartened. My pastor was misrepresenting the laws – and spreading those misrepresentations to his fairly large audience. Church congregations often take what a pastor says not just to heart, but as fact. That was clearly happening, but my pastor wasn’t spreading facts. He was spreading his own misunderstandings and lack of knowledge to a mostly unequally knowing crowd. I don’t believe he did this maliciously; rather he was ignorant of those laws. But that actually was worse in my mind. The cavalier nature in which he spread his ignorance of the laws he was pretending to understand alarmed me. After reading it, I never went back to that church. Or any other.

 

While I still clung to my belief in Jesus and my personal relationship with Him, I decided on another change. I would pray and maintain my personal relationship with God, but without the help, guidance, or cost (both emotional and financial) of a church. In that moment, I believed that was how the rest of my life would operate.

A few months later, I got married. The next morning, my husband said, I want to start a family. My entire world altered. The edges didn’t just soften. The walls came down.