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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Renken

Finding Faith

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

After almost 40 years of practicing religion, I found my faith in the most unexpected of places.

I could recite all of the books of the Bible by the time I was seven.

No one--and I mean no one--could beat me in a Bible drill.

I didn't miss a Sunday morning, Sunday night, or Wednesday evening service for the first several years of my life.

I asked Jesus into my heart. (But just to be sure I hadn't screwed it up the first time--or the second, third, or fourth--I repeated the sinner's prayer any time I doubted my salvation. Because what if I got a word wrong? What if I said it in the wrong order?)

I was baptized.

As an adult, I read the Bible cover to cover and devoured Christian literature. (Especially literature that proved my beliefs were the right beliefs.)

I was a Christian. And proud of it.

Until I wasn't.

Proud of it, that is.

Because if I was a Christian, I was undoubtedly a bad one. That was the only explanation for getting so overwhelmed by life, I found myself sneaking vodka into my iced tea on a Saturday morning and waiting for my husband to turn around so I could pop a pill.

If I was a Christian, I was undoubtedly a bad one.

Nope. Jesus certainly wasn't going to put my picture on His* box of heavenly Wheaties. Pretty sure I wasn't going to be on the short list to be His spokesperson.

Christians don't do the things I was doing. Christians don't make the bad decisions I made. And Christians most certainly couldn't understand my desperation. My misery. My self-hatred.

How could I be swimming in heartache when I was living the American dream? Who the hell was I to be sad when there were people with real problems? God had blessed me with it all--family, education, career, health--even a dog named Tootsie.

If I wasn't at peace, it was because I wasn't doing Christianity right. I wasn't praying enough. I wasn't thankful enough. I wasn't Godly enough.

I simply wasn't enough.

At least, that's the message that stuck with me from years of sitting in the congregation and soaking up God's word, as interpreted by the men preaching it.

So when I was spiraling toward rock bottom, the last place I wanted to turn to was the church. If I admitted my struggles to them, I was admitting failure. Failure at being a Christian.

No chance the church could understand me--much less, help me.

Instead, it was a Jewish therapist and a bunch of drunks who were the key to me finding my faith. Not finding my faith again--finding my faith, period.

On the therapist's couch, I came to terms with my addictions. In the Rooms (that's AA talk for meetings), I came to terms with my faith--or, more accurately, lack of faith.

In the Rooms, I realized that my faith was not faith at all--it was fear. It was pride. It was self-righteousness.

It was empty. And it had led to a life of insecurity, shame, and self-doubt.

In the Rooms, I felt God's presence more than I had ever felt it sitting in the church pew.

In the Rooms, I realized what I had been longing for in a church: Acceptance. Belonging. Honesty. Trust. Humility.

In the Rooms, I can speak my worst thoughts and no one raises an eyebrow (in fact, I can usually look and see more than a few heads nodding in understanding). Self-righteousness is nowhere to be found, because self-righteousness can't coexist with honesty. When you're courageous and vulnerable enough to speak the truth about who you are, how you struggle, and what you've done, there's no pretending you're on any higher moral ground than the person on either side of you.

In the Rooms, I learned what it really means to honest-to-goodness trust God and not just give lip service to it. To take everything, put it in a package with a bow on it, and hand it over. I had gotten myself into a fine mess trying to direct the play and all of the cast members for almost 40 years--and I finally realized I was doing a miserable job at it.

Trusting God doesn't mean praying that what I want to happen will happen (because that's just a sneaky way to get back into the director's chair).

Trusting God doesn't mean He will reward me as long I follow the pastor's rules or, for that matter, to accept everything the pastor says as true.

Trusting God means I believe--truly believe--He wants me to be happy and He's the only one who knows how to make that happen. It sounds so simplistic, but that realization was the breakthrough.

All of my life, I worried that God's will had to include the punishment I so richly deserved. (Spare the rod, spoil the child, after all.) I was sure my well-being here on earth was of little interest to Him because the only life that mattered was the eternal one. I was wrong. And for the first time, my faith felt right. Real.

I'd love to say it's been happily ever after since then. It hasn't. I've worked through a lot of resentment and anger toward the church (as I had known it and understood it). Toward those who I saw as flaunting their faith, rather than living it. Toward the decades of messages that ingrained into me I was Less Than.

Less Than the woman who dutifully services her husband (because your own feelings should never stand in the way of satisfying his sexual needs).

Less Than the men who are allowed to serve as church leaders (because preaching is a boys-only club).

Less Than the women who don't work outside the home (because if you have a career, you can't take proper care of your husband, home, and children).

Less Than the men working beside me (because who was I to complain about being treated equally when God didn't want me working outside the home to begin with?).

Less Than women who hadn't put themselves in a position to be raped (what did I expect--being alone in a beach house, drinking with a man?).

I know now I'm Just as Much as the boss who told me I needed to understand and accept "bathroom humor," and the women who didn't sleep with men in a desperate attempt to feel loved.

And I'm No Better Than the woman who had an abortion or the man who's lost everything because of an addiction to heroin.

Christianity isn't about me--it's about the person whose example I'm trying to follow.

My newfound peace and confidence come from my newfound faith. And my faith has its roots in my Christian beliefs. But I don't know I will ever say I'm a proud Christian.

Because, first, being a Christian is nothing to be proud of. I've done nothing to earn being a Christian. Christianity isn't about me--it's about the person whose example I'm trying to follow.

Second, when I hear people start a sentence with, "I'm a Christian," I cringe. My resentment flares because the phrase is almost always followed by a pat on the back or a statement of moral superiority.

"I'm a Christian, so I tithe."

"I'm a Christian, so the death penalty/abortion/pick-your-political-issue are non-negotiable."

"I'm a Christian, so I believe gay marriage is an assault on God."

"I'm a Christian, so I go to the soup kitchen every Thanksgiving."

That's not my faith.

This is my faith: God wants to see me smile, laugh, and love my life, and He is perfectly able and willing to make that happen if I will just let Him. Trust Him. He loves me so much, He made the ultimate sacrifice so I can spend eternity with Him--and he did so knowing every little thing about me. He loves me regardless of my mistakes, and always will.

This is my truth: I have one overarching command from God, and that is to love. God has not commanded me to tell others how to live their lives, to push laws through Congress, or to correct the world's moral deficiencies. My job is to be kind. My job is not to judge other people's choices. My job is to have compassion--and not just for the terminally ill, but for the addicts, adulterers, death row inmates, and other hard-to-loves.

This is my church: Where we talk honestly about our struggles, so others don't feel alone. Where we admit we don't have all the answers. Where we don't focus on our moral or spiritual obligations--we celebrate the fact that we are loved no matter what. Where no one keeps track of how many Sundays you've skipped, and people don't ostracize you because your sin is different than theirs. Where we all admit we're broken. Not bad--just broken.

And we help each other heal by admitting, "Same here."

* I do not believe God is a specific gender, as we understand genders; however, in the interest of consistency and ease of reading, I use masculine pronouns.


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