Updated: Oct 21
I grew up in the Catholic Church raised by a Catholic family. I made my First Holy Communion, I was confirmed, I attended CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine), I genuflected before the pew, knelt before and after receiving the Eucharist, and held onto my Rosary beads. But I did not know the Gospel. On Sundays, I would hear a Priest give a 10-minute message I couldn't relate to, which helped me to keep Jesus in a "Sunday box". Church was the same amount of time as a Netflix episode, yet it could be difficult to encourage me to go. Truthfully, I was afraid to address that "box" where I felt shame, guilt, and the aftermath of Saturday night activities. I saw God as a god who gives rules and condemns you for not following them perfectly. A God of judgement who nailed his Son to the cross and gave us too perfect of an example to live up to, a God I loved but could never please. You may be able to relate to this.
Growing up in a family of 7, getting all of us to go to church was difficult; to us children, it was a chore. We often went Saturday nights to bypass the pain of the 10am Mass altogether. Then, we grew up. Financial struggles hit and so did our church attendance. By the time my sister and I could drive, we often went to church alone. Our brothers moved out, our parents were busy trying to make ends meet, but Theresa and I felt guilty if we didn't go, because well, we knew it was a commandment. I didn't grow up around Christian community, Christian role models, cool Christian music, or bible verses pasted on our house walls. In regard to my religion, all I knew were the Ten Commandments and going to church on a Sunday was one of them. So Theresa and I snuck in late and left as early as possible.
Due to these "sin rules", my whole life was me trying to gauge what was a sin and what it wasn't. What really deemed me ready for hell? I was on a constant search to see how far I could go in one area of my life before it was really a sin, waiting to hit a line that said "ding, ding, ding, you've sinned!" But the truth is, there is no line. The search for a line leaves you numb to your moral compass, indulging in selfishness, and utterly lost.
The search for a line leaves you numb to your moral compass, indulging in selfishness, and utterly lost.
It had me falling into the wrong crowd of people and the wrong crowd of activities. I felt so out of place. See the thing was, to the world, I was a good person. I loved my family, I got good grades, I was a loyal girlfriend, cared for my friends... but I was empty. My friends never really treated me right. My boyfriends tended to cheat on me. After every fun activity, I came home wreaking of shame, guilt, emptiness, and depression. If there was a God who loved me so much, why didn't I feel loved? And why was it so hard to get to Him?
When I was eighteen years old I went to Virginia Tech and heard the nudge of God. "Leave school". What? I worked so hard to go to school, I want to get my PhD, I love what I'm studying, I have straight A's, and I have amazing friends. "Leave school." So I did.
God called me to move out to Los Angeles at 18 years old. I moved out there alone, with very little money to my name but a dream and a drive. This began the biggest trial period I would face. The next two years would be years of immense isolation and loneliness, homelessness, fear, insomnia, and hunger. Yet the hardest of all of these was isolation. Isolation has physical and physiological affects. In 3 months, I gained 33 pounds. My immune system was almost ineffective, I contracted a disease that took me 3 months to heal from. So, I moved home and into the depths of depression I dove. I was insanely, critically... alone. No friend to spend time with. No community to run to. No family to understand what I was going through. But I knew there was a God I prayed to every night, so I was on a search to find Him. In this new search to find Him rather than the line, I tried a different Catholic church nearly every Sunday for 2 years. I needed a way out of this empty life that I was so determined had immense purpose.
How I Came to Know Him
One day, I found myself at confession confessing my sins to a Priest. I sobbed. For no apparent reason other than the love of Jesus, I felt it! I felt so small, I felt so seen, and I felt so deeply known. And to be honest, I was immensely confused. I could not say "Hello, Father" without breaking into a deep sob. So the Priest asked me to leave and I did. I went home and sobbed for three more hours. God, why am I sobbing? Why can I not get rid of this feeling? What is this? And I heard that still, small voice : "Go to a different church. Go to a different church. Go to a different church."
And so, I did what any millennial would do and I posted on Facebook asking for churches around the area. I had no Christian friends except one acquaintance from high school I always admired. He suggested I go to a non-denominational Christian church and so I did. Alone, I found myself walking through these Christian church doors. They had a band playing, a pastor, and communion consisting of wafers and grape juice. Weird. But this was the first time I heard the Gospel. Someone finally teaching me who Jesus really was and the freedom we live in, due to His grace. So, I continued going, and boy, was I learning. I finally felt free! I finally had peace! I finally understood the love of Jesus! I have heard the Gospel! So, on a search to find out what was really Truth, I read the entire Bible within 6 months.
After I Decided to Follow Him
My heart, thoughts, and attitudes have changed quickly. The things that would fill me for a moment, no longer tempt me. I have been renewed. I talk differently, I use my time differently, and I love differently. I eternally have peace, joy, and gentleness all due to the love of Jesus. Which is funny because after deciding to follow Him, things got even more difficult. I went through another 8 months of loneliness, fought to make rent, went the winter without heat, lost three family members, experienced great family division, and lost countless numbers of jobs. See the thing about following Jesus is, it does not mean your life gets easier, but you have a Protector and you understand the worth of life. My stress was lifted off my shoulders causing my health to get better. I gave more of my money away, even when I didn't have any, with peace He would provide for me. (And He did, every time). The things I worried about, went away. Because I finally learned I have an eternal God (as do you) who loves me tremendously, cherishes me, and cares for me. It was no longer religion, but relationship. I no longer base my faith off a set of rules but rather exhibiting to God and to others, the immense love He has given me. Jesus Christ was sent for me, sacrificed His own life for me, and stays with me, through everything. And I want to do the same for Him.
My life is abundantly full with things that fulfill me. God plucked me out of Atlanta and moved me back home where I now have an amazing Christian community around me that has become family. A community I prayed for every day for two years, thank you for this answered prayer, God. They have wept with me, laughed with me, and shoulder me all the way. They adore me just as I adore them and I spend every single day with them. Now, we work together to make others feel loved, accepted, welcome, and not alone. Although my walk with Jesus isn't always graceful, it is always grace-filled. I no longer do for Jesus because I feel demanded, I do out of love.
I have changed. I see God as a God who gives grace and strengthens you when you are weak. A God of mercy who nailed His Son to the cross and gave us a perfect example of love. A God I love and with faith, please. As a direct result of this love, I love, and I am never going back.
I tell you now, the life you live where you think you're a good human being compared to the rest of the world, is not a life that is fulfilling. God does not exist in a "Sunday box". He exists in your every thought, your every feeling, your every action. If you think He only sees you on Sundays and only loves you on Christmas, then you are so far from the truth. If you want to change your life, don't wait. If you are empty, sad, and nothing is truly fulfilling you, take the first step. Take that leap. Don't wait for that invite to that Christian event, go. Don't wait for your parents to pull you to church, go. Don't wait for that horrible news to make you pray, do it now. Go, seek, pray. Do it now. Do it alone. If you are anything like I was, you know there's a God but you are too comfortable to change. Too scared to leave your fun activities for fear of addressing the guilt. Too scared to do it alone. Too world-focused to think of eternity. But there's a still, small voice running after you, telling you to turn. Jesus is pursuing you.
As Chance The Rapper says, "the first step pleases the Father, might be the hardest to take."
Whoever you are, Jesus loves you and so do I. Fully. It may seem weird because the world has screwed you up. It's screwed up your thoughts of God, your thoughts of love, your thoughts of grace. I understand that. But take a chance and pray, ask God to reveal Himself. It can't hurt. It changed me.
Disclaimer: My old friends, my family, and never directly led me astray or caused my sadness. I love them dearly. But, they couldn't fulfill me. They are in no way responsible for the heaviness I had in my heart and the darkness I experienced. I was missing Jesus in my life and that is why I was empty.