Well readers, at the end of my previous entry, I mentioned that there were other events that transpired in the absence of my braillenote but which needed a separate entry. Well, the most important of these events that came to mind first was my leap of faith, literally. I think I have mentioned in past entries that I was Catholic? Well, this is no longer true. I now officially consider myself a non-denominational Christian. It was a somewhat wrenching decision, as I knew it would upset my grandmother, who was also my confirmation sponsor. But as I transition in to adulthood, it occurred to me that while respecting elders is important, I could no longer ignore the yearning for a more meaningful church experience. I am so blessed to have a mother who understood where I was coming from and felt the same way herself. We had been going to this non-denominational church full-time for about a year, but perhaps out of guilt, we kept putting off making the plunge, so to speak, by becoming official members of this church. But in February when we found out about a membership class being held February 28, we decided we were ready. So I guess it is fair to say, ironically enough that Pope Benedict and I both resigned that day.
It was a three hour class with speakers who discussed the history of this church, what this church believes and what it means to be a member. Then the day after the class, I filled out my membership candidate form, which asked for general stuff like contact information, but also a testimonial about our life before faith, how we came to find our faith and what life is like now. At first I wasn’t going to publish my testimonial on this blog because it is personal, but when we met with our group leader to discuss it last Sunday, fulfilling the final step of the membership process, and the leader said it was really well written, I thought it might inspire others to reflect on their own faith journey as I did, and give them the courage to make a change in their own spiritual lives if necessary.
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have faith in Christ. I was raised Catholic and had wonderful moments where I felt Christ’s presence in my life. I was also inspired by my grandmother whose devoutly catholic practices gave her peace which got her through the tragic loss of two sons. But unfortunately, as I got older, I started to notice that I was viewing faith as a one hour a week obligation. I was just going through the motions to respect my family, especially the previously mentioned grandmother who has a strong bias against other Christian traditions. I think this negative attitude intensified when this church’s leaders wanted to renovate the church and school but were having difficulty raising the funding because it was the height of the recession. The priest often spent sermon time showing videos about how great these renovations would be and pleading with the congregation to “prayerfully consider donating more money.” When there was a proper sermon, I often felt like the priest was just rambling about how the readings can be applied to the mission of that particular church, but not really using the bible to go deeper. I felt like I wasn’t growing at all and in fact was possibly regressing. I would rattle off the prayers with the congregation while in my heart I wanted to roll my eyes. When mass was over, I left with a “glad that’s over with for the week” attitude. Something had to change.
I came to a Sunday morning service at Elmbrook Church for the first time on August 31, 2008. I had just moved in to the dorm at Carroll University and heard that a lot of students went to Elmbrook Church. I had heard wonderful things about Elmbrook from my mom who was also looking to grow in her faith and quietly discovered and joined a Tuesday morning women’s bible study. I couldn’t wait to get home from school on Tuesdays and hear about the dynamic speakers she heard that morning, and we were both inspired by the global mission mindset of Elmbrook. Hearing about all this made me secretly want to attend a church service at Elmbrook and see if this church might bring my faith back to life. But in an effort to respect his mother, my dad did not want to try a different church, and since Mom worked weekends and I am blind and thus cannot drive, my only choices were the Catholic church or no church at all, so I decided to stick it out at the Catholic church. But when an older girl in the dorm offered to take me to Elmbrook that first weekend in the dorm, I joyfully accepted.
From the moment the service started, I loved it! The music was more modern and way more joyful. Even though I didn’t know the words to the songs at the time, just hearing everyone else singing them made me feel more awake and alive than I had felt in a long time. After the singing, some church members who had just returned from a mission trip came forward to speak and I remember thinking “wow! I wish our church did that!” Our catholic church would take up a collection for a school or church in another part of the world each lent and send teenagers to rural, impoverished areas of this country in the summer to help poor families with home repairs and things like that, but nothing to the extent of Elmbrook’s mission work. And I was awake and engaged through the whole sermon, one based solely on the bible. When that service ended, something told me I would be coming back.
Unfortunately, I could not come back as soon as I would have liked. Living in the dorm proved to be difficult for me and my new service dog, so my parents and I came to the consensus that I would have a much less stressful college experience if I moved back home. While this was a wise decision for the majority of the week, unfortunately it meant going back to my old church every week. It would have been too much of an imposition to ask the student to pick me up at my house or Dad to take me to Carroll to meet up with the student. Even a year later when my mom got a different job and didn’t have to work as many weekends, she wanted to try and stick it out at the Catholic church, even though she also wanted to grow more in her faith, simply for the sake of family unity. Occasionally if Grandma was out of town, we would sneak off to Elmbrook and Dad would go to the Catholic church by himself, but mostly we still felt obligated to stay with the catholic church.
But with each passing week, I was feeling more and more frustrated and disengaged. When I confided to Mom that as soon as it was financially possible, I couldn’t wait to try living on my own again, ideally in an apartment close to Elmbrook so I could arrange transportation and go to Elmbrook by myself, Mom and I decided it was time to go where we felt called. We both felt guilty that Dad was going to church by himself, but we decided we couldn’t put our faith life on hold any longer. By the time Elmbrook started the Famous Last Words series (a series that delved deeper in to the significance of the last words Jesus spoke before his crucifixion), we were going to Elmbrook full-time.
Taking the leap and switching to Elmbrook full-time was one of the wisest decisions I have ever made because my faith life has changed dramatically. Church is no longer an obligation. It is an hour I look forward to all week. And when the service is over, I think I can speak for both Mom and me and say that we are so inspired that our worship continues all week. In the car on the way home from Elmbrook, we always feel compelled to discuss how that day’s message is relevant for our own lives, whereas I pretty much forgot about the catholic sermon by the time I got to the car and the discussion was on to “what’s for lunch?” The songs Elmbrook chooses for worship continue to fill me with joy the way they did that first service I attended, but now that I know the words to many of them, I’ll catch myself singing them with passion all week as I go about the house. My favorite is Beautiful (a powerful song about how we can see God in everything from the sunrise to the galaxies and how we will soon be “coming home.”) While I still fall in to sinful behavior sometimes, I have become more aware of when I am being sinful and pray for guidance and forgiveness on a much more regular basis.
But the most dramatic and probably important way my faith has been transformed by Elmbrook has been in the revelation that being a follower of Christ is not about observing the right rituals, memorizing the right prayers or donating enough money. It is about following God’s commands laid out in the bible, having a personal relationship with Christ and praying from the heart. Or in the Pastor’s words from the Stuck series (where he talked about sinful patterns believers get stuck in) that still stick with me, “it’s not about religion. It’s about faith.”
I’m still not the devoted follower I would like to be. I will be the first to admit that sometimes when I am faced with a difficult situation, I forget to pray and instead rely on my own strength, and as a member of Elmbrook Church, I will need to make a more concerted effort to take my worship beyond the church service out in to the local and global community. I will even admit that when watching the news or encountering people skeptical about the existence of a god, I have questions sometimes. But I have come a long way, and as a member of such a large, loving and supportive Christian community as Elmbrook Church, I know my faith can only grow stronger.