Stories. We all have one.
A piece of mine goes like this…
I was raised in a Christian home, where heritage and tradition played a huge part in my faith experience. My great-grandparents immigrated from Patrica, Italy (outside of Rome), so our Roman Catholic roots were very strong, not just our family, but also in our community. My family attended mass every Sunday, didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent and basically did all that was required of us in terms of faith and religion. I followed the rules. Or selectively followed the rules, right? Isn’t that what all Catholics do?
When I think back on my understanding of the Christian faith during that time, it would be what I later heard Andy Stanley describe as having a ‘vertical’ relationship with God. I understood that being a good Christian meant that I always had to be in a right standing with God; sin, confess, repent – and repeat, show up for mass every week, participate in the Eucharist. Not only did I not understand other religions, I knew one thing that I was likely subliminally taught – they weren’t the right one. I remember questioning as a child if my friends that were not Catholic would also go to heaven someday. At the same time, I didn’t understand how God could pick and choose one religion over another. I questioned if mine was actually the right one and if possibly I wouldn’t get in. I wondered if my friends thought theirs was the right one too. My version of Christianity was filled with a whole lot of confusion and complication.
I went through the motions because Catholicism was part of my identity. Did I believe in God? Yes, absolutely. Did I really understand Him? No.
After leaving home and heading to college, my weekly attendance in church was more out of obligation than desire to grow my faith or relationship with God. It was keeping with that right standing. I attended mass and even confession during my first couple of years in college. I have vivid memories of sitting in front of the college priest, who felt that instead of having you confess your sins, would list out sins one by one and you could easily just respond yes or no. I remember one thing about those experiences and those questions. Guilt. Shame.
“Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.” Brene Brown
As you can imagine, I stopped going to confession – and then to mass.
Fast forward many years later, I was married and had started a family. I had a strong desire to have a shared faith with my husband and children and have this be a their foundation as well. There was really no question that my children had to be baptized Catholic and raised in the church because it was just what had to happen. The issue was that my husband wasn’t raised Catholic and really had no desire to convert. I found myself in church each Sunday, alone with my babies on my hip, feeling empty inside. I prayed for something to change, but I wasn’t sure how it could.
In 2007, we moved from Pittsburgh, where we were born and raised, to Georgia. I began meeting people who weren’t afraid to talk about their faith journey, their trust in God, and their desire to grow spiritually. This was a new experience for me, as most of the people in my life prior were much like myself, where church was more of an obligation, and honestly, no one spoke much about it. Hearing friends so openly speak of Jesus lit a fire inside of me. Quite frankly, I had no idea about this Jesus they spoke of.
Our journey brought us through a couple of different churches in Georgia, each serving a purpose in growing my faith. We moved back to Pittsburgh for an 18 month period and began attending an Anglican church. We found a home in this lovely place. God firmly planted us there and opened all of our hearts. We knew it was different. It was scary stepping away from the known and the fear of what people would think. But in this place I found the comfort of some tradition mixed with teaching that opened my heart to Jesus.
There was a moment in this church that began to shift my faith journey. Bill, one of our Pastors, stood during service before Communion began. He explained that ALL WERE WELCOME at the table. All, meaning – zero exceptions, zero rules. ALL WERE WELCOME? I remember something in my heart, let’s call it God’s voice, saying ‘YES, ALL ARE WELCOME JACKIE!’ Well, this was news to me! There was no ‘if’ or ‘unless’? What joyful news! I remember feeling like I could finally breathe.
This beautiful church was the beginning of a change inside of me. I knew God was pursing me and my family, and for the first time I felt ready to take a brave step and follow His lead.
Upon moving back to Georgia, we began attending Watermarke Church in the Fall of 2014. Watermarke, which is now Woodstock City Church, is a network church of North Point Community Church, led by Andy Stanley. This network of churches is very large and it is non-denominational. And it is completely different from anything I had ever experienced in my past. It was at this church that I stepped out of my comfort zone, walked away from the obligation of religion and into relationship with Jesus. I was able to do this because what was taught each week shifted my understanding that it wasn’t a ‘vertical’ relationship that God wanted to have with me, it was a ‘horizontal’ one. Jesus’ greatest command – to love one another.
I feel deep connection to others in the largest church I’ve ever attended. I feel impact and I feel hope for the future and for the next generation of Christian men and women. I feel a deep passion for the mission of our church.
As believers of Jesus, as Christians, we are called to love. I believe with my entire being that it should be this simple.
Faith is a journey. Relationship with Jesus is a journey. My journey led me to a decision to be baptized at our church – to acknowledge and recognize the belief in what Jesus has done for me and is continuing to do in my life. I don’t have this all together. I don’t have all the answers. But I believe in the freedom I’ve found in Jesus.
Bob Goff said in his book, ‘Everybody Always’, “For a long time, I saw Jesus from a distance and thought we’d met.” I surely relate to that sentence.
There are many people that have helped me grow in my faith over these past few years. I know they were placed in my path for a reason and I’m grateful.
I wanted to share this story with you to encourage you. I’m not writing this to judge those that have chosen different paths, religions, churches. I want everyone to feel the hope and the love that I have come to know. I want everyone to know that you may have questions, it may not make sense – and that’s ok. I want everyone to know that it’s ok to follow your heart and the journey that God has laid out in front of you, even if it means you may disappoint family & friends. Have the courage to take the steps that keep your faith journey true to you. I understand that change can be hard. I also understand that religion and faith can be complicated. I share this story with you because I believe Jesus does not want any of this to be complicated. He just wants to love you and wants you to love others.
All are welcome at his table. ALL ARE WELCOME! Praise hands for that!
Blessings to each of you!