I didn’t grow up in church, but I was surrounded by it. My parents weren’t regular attendees, so I wasn’t a regular attendee. But, I attended a Catholic middle school and college, and this combination of experiences—religion classes, mass attendance, playing Pontius Pilate in school plays, etc.—allowed me to learn about Christianity without being indoctrinated into it. Let me put it this way: I learned more about the last days of Jesus from watching Jesus Christ: Superstar (still one of my favorite movies) than from reading the Bible.
These experiences also set the foundation for the way I’ve come to be a believer. Although I “believed” in God as a child and young adult, this belief was theoretical. I believed in the idea of God, but not necessarily in God Himself, as I just wasn’t able to completely wrap my mind around the existence of a supreme, supernatural being.
I also realize that much of this belief was more do to familiarity than faith. Believing in God and being a Christian was just what people around me did. So, although I didn’t fully embrace it, I accepted it the same way little kids accept their parent’s explanations for why you need to do well in school before they’re even able to grasp why you need to do well in school.
Yet, as I grew older, smarter, met more people, read more books, traveled more places, tasted more foods, felt more pain, loved more women, breathed more air, and saw more things, it started to make sense for me. The Earth is too vast, varied, scary and, well, perfect for it not to have been created without a purpose. And, it took me knowing, seeing, and experiencing more to realize that I didn’t need to understand everything. More specifically, I didn’t need to understand why certain things happened (or didn’t happen) and why other things happened (or didn’t happen).
I realize this might seem like a strange and semantic way to come to a spiritual understanding, but this is how it had to work for me. It had to make intellectual sense before it made spiritual sense. And, while I recognize there’s no way of knowing God’s ultimate plan, a glance outside my window lets me know a plan exists.
This understanding has not been easy. For instance, last year I blacked out during a completely irresponsible, reckless, stupid, and dangerous attempt to drive while drunk. I also had two friends in the car with me. We’d been drinking at a club, and we decided to hit a 24 hour diner afterwards. The next morning, the memory of the drive was completely gone. Today, almost a year and a half later, it’s still not there.
We all could have very easily died that night. While I’m (obviously) glad we all made it home alive, it didn’t make any logical sense that I’d make it out unscathed while people in much less dangerous situations regularly meet tragic ends. I eventually stopped trying to make sense of it when I came to understand that it won’t make any literal sense, and this process of accepting that some things will just be beyond my comprehension has been a struggle.
My church attendance was also born out of the same mixture of circumstance, happenstance, and slow-burn belief. I happened to live five minutes away from the most popular Baptist church in the city, and I began to attend two years ago for two reasons:
1. It was close, and it was a “thing to do.”
2. I wanted to match my burgeoning faith up with “professional” believers.
It can be hard not to associate a belief in Christ with the type of shouttastic enthusiasm often associated with Black churchgoers. And, since I didn’t feel as compelled to sing and shout as many of Mt. Ararat’s attendees seemed too, I began to doubt my own faith. I mean, I thought I believed, but why didn’t the Holy Spirit seem to permeate me the same way it did them? Why was I so distracted by…everything from the awkward cut of the suit worn by a junior pastor to the fleeting eye contact with the woman in the pew in front of me who looks just like someone I used to date? And, at the end of every service, when the pastor called for attendees interested in becoming members to walk to the pulpit and be received, why did I sit and pretend he wasn’t talking to me?
“I’m supposed to be a Christian, but I’m sitting up here, lying in Church!”
Yet, the more I attended and the more I was able to talk to Christians a bit more mature than I was, the more I realized my relationship with God was my relationship with God. And, like all other relationships, the dynamic of your interaction is dependent on you—your personality, your idiosyncrasies, and all other things specifically unique to you. Nodding while others are shouting doesn’t make you any less (or more) of a believer. It just makes you you.
Still, there is considerable value in putting an act behind a belief. Especially if this is an act where the difference between doing it and not doing comes down to you getting over yourself. For me, that meant overcoming my introversion, joining the church and allowing myself to be baptized in front of a captive audience in August.
It’s been three months since that day. And, aside from the initial rush from completing the process, I have to say that I don’t feel much more Christian now than I did before I joined. In this sense, it’s not much different than how many married couples describe the act of getting married. Basically, the wedding doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make you love someone more. You were (hopefully) already in love with each other. The wedding just announces it to your family and friends.
That said, those types of public proclamations do make you both publicly and internally accountable, and just how there are societal and internal expectations for how a husband or wife should comport themselves, a Christian is expected to act a certain way. This has been—and will continue to be—a process as well. While my faith is strong, my understanding of how that should affect my behavior is still a little cloudy, and I do find myself bargaining and compartmentalizing while talking to God in an attempt to justify certain things. (“Yes, I know premarital sex is frowned upon, but what if you intend to marry her? Also, if you don’t want me to use so many cuss words when I write, why would you even invent them? Huh, big guy? Can you answer me that?”)
This has also been a struggle. But, with this struggle, this burgeoning want to be better at being a good person, this humanity, lies my growth as a Christian. So, I’ve embraced it. That I’m a work in progress is undeniable. I’m not done, and I doubt I’ll ever be. But I’m still progressing. (Well, at least I think I am.)
I received a text from one of the women from the blackout night a couple months ago. She was celebrating her 31st birthday in a few days, and planned on doing a scaled-down version of her 30th that Saturday. A club, a cake, and some Ciroc, but no private tables and a smaller group of friends. Although it sounded like a good time, I remembered that my girlfriend and I had other plans for that night (although I couldn’t remember exactly what they were.) I replied.
“I’m going to have to pass this year.”
“Word? Why? Still shook after almost killing us all last year?”
“LOL. Nah. Just won’t be able to make it. Have other plans.”
“What could you two possibly be doing that’s more important than my party?”
“Honestly, I can’t even tell you what we’re planning to do, lol. But I'm sure a plan exists."