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. A simple question about Jewish belief regarding the afterlife, for example, yielded not-so-simple explanations from several rabbis from several sects spanning several different time periods. The Talmud, a book of commentary on the five books of Moses, is full of arguments and spirited debates from rabbinic scholars who read and interpreted the Torah differently. Christianity, by comparison, seemed to have all its ducks in a row on everything from belief about the afterlife to whether premarital sex was okay (as an adolescent, that last one was of extreme importance). It almost seemed too good to be true.
I didn’t “officially” convert until during my sophomore year of college; I prayed the sinner’s prayer a Campus Crusade for Christ student told me about as she handed me a tract on my way to class a few weeks prior. I’d been reading devotionals, saint biographies, and Christian magazines. I wanted that personal relationship with God that my friends had, in which they communicated with Jesus on a first-name basis. Their God, Jesus Christ, was not some far-off Pie in the Sky, but possessed a human body. Most shockingly, He had enough chutzpah to make Him a hero to the underdogs and a threat to the religious authorities. Jesus seemed like someone worth knowing, worth following for a lifetime.
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, from voting Democrat to having a glass of wine.
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.
Some doctrinal concepts never made any sense to me from the beginning, like eternal punishment for nonbelievers. The doctrine of hell might be the most anti-Jewish idea I’ve ever heard, and to this day I still struggle to wrap my head around it. It’s especially difficult now that my father, who never cared much for religion, has passed away from cancer. Some questions without clear answers keep me up at night, and threaten to destroy my faith.
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?
I attended graduate school at a conservative Christian seminary for about a year before dropping out. It was a matter of choosing the wrong major at a school where I just didn’t fit, and my premature departure 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 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 be earning a master’s in creative writing at Colorado State today.
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 I’ve ever known in my short twenty-seven years on earth. 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 is 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.
I still live with the tension of faith in one hand and doubts in the other. But at least now I have something to focus on to remind me why this journey is worth it.