You could say my future conversion to Christianity was set in stone when I had my Bat Mitzvah in a church. At the time, that was my only option—borrowing another religion’s sanctuary to celebrate my entrance into Jewish adulthood because there were no synagogues nearby.
Just as there are “Christmas and Easter” Christians, my family were “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” Jews, with the occasional Friday night Shabbat service—if there were donuts afterward. I hated those services: they were long, they were boring, and barely any other kids my age were there.
I might have hated those services, but I was always interested in God. I went to school with a class of almost exclusively Christian kids who went on monthly retreats (and came back with matching T-shirts) and did fun youth group activities together. None of that existed for my fraction of a Jewish community. As I prepared for my Bat Mitzvah, slogging through ancient Hebrew prayers I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate for their historicity and depth, I envied the fact that conversing with God looked so easy for Christians. All they had to do was talk to Him; no new language necessary.
Actually, everything about Christianity from the outside looking in seemed easy compared to Judaism. Christians could pray in English and eat bacon without consequence. But more than that, Christianity seemed crystal clear about right and wrong, good and bad. Christianity seemed to have simple, concrete answers to everything, whereas Judaism celebrated “two Jews, three opinions.”
My type-A, obsessive-compulsive nature liked binaries and absolutes.
But the problem with being on the outside for so long is that I didn’t get a complete picture. What I didn’t see during all those years of Jesus Envy was just how divisive Christianity actually is.
This is what happens when communities of fallible humans attempt to interpret a divinely inspired text: churches split over difference of belief about communion bread being literal or symbolic; infant or adult baptism; salvation by faith or works (or both); intelligent design or literal six-day creation; whether or not women should be ordained. The list could go on for miles. I quickly discovered this after joining Campus Crusade myself, participating in countless Bible studies, and then going to seminary right after college.
Accusations of who was “on fire” or “lukewarm” were rampant. Engaged couples at seminary whose apartments were on the same floor would walk up the stairs separately, so no one would assume they were meeting alone together. The Christian witness was really that fragile, and someone like me, who generally doesn’t give a rat’s behind about what people think, risked leading others astray by being too careless.
I felt I’d been mislead, even if by my own naiveté. It should go without saying that any institution run by humans is going to face dissention of some sort, but the Holy Spirit is supposed to dwell within each Christian, right? The more books and blogs I read, and the longer I sat through theology lectures and chapel services, the more confused I became about what “truth” really was.
So why do I keep calling myself a Christian, then? Why do I continue reading, researching, and praying for wisdom into doctrines that give me such anxiety?
My premature departure from seminary left me with a mountain of debt. Already aware he was dying, my father—who was never okay with my being a Christian in the first place, and certainly not my decision to attend seminary—let me know that he wanted to bequeath some of his life insurance to me, with the purpose of paying off that loan. The gospel was suddenly clear: a literal death gave me a literal chance of a new life. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to earn a master’s in creative writing at Colorado State.
The Bible is full of stories where God chooses unlikely candidates—murderers, adulterers, prostitutes—to participate in His plan for glory. I’ve considered the possibility that God used my non-Christian father to teach me the biggest lesson about grace, and about how love is bigger than having to agree with every little choice that we make (provided they aren’t destructive in some way). That lesson is sure to follow me for the rest of my life.
Not only was my father’s selfless gift a picture of grace, it was also a picture of redemption. His death is without question the biggest tragedy in my life. But still, it was used for something precious. It was not wasted. It was redeemed.
This is not the same as saying that my father had to die just so I could go to grad school, however. Obviously, I would hand back that degree in a heartbeat if I could have him here again.
But redemption doesn’t always mean fixing something broken; sometimes it’s about creating something new out of the broken pieces, like Japanese kintsugi. All things can be made new.