When people asked me if I went to church, I said yes.
As a child, I believed all the Bible stories and I knew where to put every single felt Bible character on the flannel board. I knew all the words to “Now I lay me down to sleep” and “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our fud.” I even knew the sign language to the song “The B-I-B-L-E.” When I did go to Sunday School and we took turns reading aloud from the Bible, I knew to secretly skip ahead to “my” verse and rehearse it in my head so that when it was my turn I wouldn’t sound stupid. My family watched “The Ten Commandments” every Easter season and we never put the baby Jesus in our nativity set until Christmas Eve. I could recite the Lord’s Prayer by heart, could sing the doxology on cue and I even knew how to sing the first verse of Silent Night in German.
This is how I defined being a Christian.
When I was fifteen, I made a commitment to Christ. Looking back, I’m confident my decision was authentic, but I didn’t know how to disciple myself, so spiritual growth was inconsistent and confusing.
As a teenager and young adult trying to learn how to live out my new faith in my every day life, I found myself actively involved in fundamental Baptist churches, believing without question, everything I was told by well meaning teachers and volunteers. There was a lot of emphasis on rules. I began compiling an internal list of things “good” Christians should always do and an even longer list of things “good” Christians should never do.
Questioning religious authority was one of those “never do” things. Unacceptable. Expressed doubt equated to a lack of faith, or worse yet, evidence of sin. You might as well have sewn a big “H” on my forehead for “heretic.” I dared not ask too many questions for fear of landing on someone’s prayer list.
On the “What good Christians always do” list? All good Christians had quiet times and quiet time included Bible reading, note taking and prayer. Prayer was formulaic: the five finger method, the ACTS method. . . praying on our own was never encouraged – we might leave something out or our prayers might be too selfish. And quiet times were supposed to be first thing in the morning, preferably before sunrise.
I was consistently not a “good” Christian.
After over a decade of serving in and faithfully attending Baptist churches, my husband I walked away from the fundamental legalism – and ran from the unaccountable theocracy so prevalent in its leadership. After searching for a church for nearly 8 months, we found ourselves attending a Methodist church whose “Open minds, Open hearts, Open doors” motto meant that the answer to every theological question began with the precursor “It’s a matter of interpretation…” We found that for nearly every “set in stone” doctrinal stand the Baptist church had taken, there was a parallel “set in sand” interpretation by the Methodist church. The emphasis was on service. service. and more service. acceptance. tolerance. and more service.
Sure, I prayed. I read my Bible. I even had a prayer journal that I wrote in occasionally. I thanked God for His blessings nearly every day, asked Him for help when I needed something and engaged in the Christian “WHYne” when something bad happened in my life. I taught my kids a full CD of Bible songs, bought them Veggie Tale movies and prayed with them at the dinner table and every night as we tucked them in bed. We had family devotional books and we actually used them at bedtime and on the Sundays we skipped church. Sometimes. I was a moral person, a “good” person. When I didn’t get charged for an item at a store, I would go back inside to pay for it. Even in Christmas season when that meant waiting in line a second time. I was honest, I did good deeds, I sang solos in church and even had occasional stints attending Sunday School and Wednesday night services. I thanked God for good parking spaces and I laid fleeces for “big” decisions, not realizing that a fleece was really a big dice I was tossing in a desperate lack of faith.
But as a young married woman,
trying to learn how to relate to this guy I promised to love and live with for the rest of my life,
trying to raise responsible, happy kids who knew and loved God
trying to build a business while waiting for that moment when everyone figured out I had no idea what I was doing,
trying to fit in at church by appearing to be the person other people expected me to be,
I had compartmentalized my life, my time and even my thoughts. It was almost as if I were different people: a wife, a mother, a home manager, an entrepreneur, and church member. Not that each of those personas in my life were so vastly different from each other, it’s just that they didn’t overlap. I take that back. My home and work life overlapped. My home and church life overlapped. But my work and church life? NEVER. Church was religion and religion had no place in my work life. At least no comfortable place.
And notice I didn’t include “Christian” in that list. I said “church member.”
To make a 25 year story short, in October of 2007, I ended up with a worn copy of a book written in 1965 entitled “The Taste of New Wine” by Keith Miller and I discovered what I had been missing since the moment I accepted Christ.
I never knew that what I was missing even existed.
I realized it was possible to have an intimate, personal relationship with a living God. The kind of relationship that saturates my life, my days and my moments, regardless of where I am or who I’m with. A presence of God I’m so acutely aware of that I feel like I’m never alone. The kind of faith I can live out every day and not compromise in some cowardly attempt to make other people more comfortable. The kind of faith that leads me to intuitively consider people and situations from a bigger perspective than from my own skewed and limited vantage point. The kind of faith that has planted in me a desire to do everything I do “as unto the Lord” even when it’s as boring as loading the dishwasher or as unpleasant as interacting with a passive aggressive person. This authentic relationship doesn’t have much to do with church or religion. It’s much more intimate.
I was surprised to discover that when I began living out my faith, without condemnation of others who think and believe differently, they weren’t offended by my honesty. When they realized our differences didn’t freak me out or compel me to immediately and aggressively try and change their mind, it opened dialogs I never thought possible. I’ve been honored by the trust people have placed in me as they talk about their lives, their struggles and their faith – or lack of it. I don’t betray that trust. More and more, I find myself risking being rejected or ostracized by just being myself. I’m tearing down the walls of my compartmentalized personas and rebuilding on a foundational commitment to God that remains constant and crosses over into all areas of my life.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Keith Miller’s book, The Taste of New Wine, was the impetus for this life changing shift in my thoughts and actions. Through his authentic and vulnerable account of how God worked in his life to bring him to an authentic and bold faith, Keith taught me what living out my faith could look like in my own life. I learned it was possible to extend unconditional grace and never compromise my beliefs to make myself or others more comfortable. I learned that I could serve God every day as a missionary in my vocation and in the secular world, not just in the safety and comfort of my home and in the church where talk of God is accepted and expected.
The Taste of New Wine was one of those books that I couldn’t put down until I was finished. It’s one of those books that I can’t stop living until I’m finished.
Finished living, that is.
Keith Miller died of cancer on January 22, 2012 at the age of 84.