Nineteen years ago, I walked onto campus as a college freshman.
I felt called to music ministry and was preparing to study worship. My guitar was tuned-up and in-hand. My tie-dye was on point.
I wanted to do something awesome for God and, man, I was 110% ready.
I was 17 years old.
I remember what I was wearing the first time I walked into my first class. I remember every word to the songs I played with my (awesome) roommate while other (not as awesome) girls gushed about boys. I remember the geese that chased students around the pond. I remember signing my name on the list for an interview for my first on-campus job. I remember the first time I met the girl who would become my best college friend.
All these early college memories have suddenly come back to me because, next month, I’m traveling back to my Alma mater to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of my degree program.
I’ve only been on campus two or three times since I graduated (in 2004) and going back has always elicited a wave of complicated emotions–from curiosity about what’s going on on campus these days to gratitude for the wonderful people I learned from and alongside while I was there and, always, a real mourning for all I lost in the the process.
I lost my faith at a Christian college.
(Well, not really. I don’t believe people of faith ever really lose their faith. But, I felt like I was losing it.)
It’s a really long story that I won’t recount here (though I’m always willing to share in real life if you’re so inclined to ask).
The short version of the story is this:
I walked onto campus knowing all the answers and I left knowing none.
There was no big moment of spiritual trauma, just a steady accumulation of small spiritual burdens.
It was like (spiritual) “death by a thousand cuts.”
First, it was an important relationship gone sour. Then, it was family problems. Later, it was personal struggles, interpersonal struggles, and disappointment with “church people.” I was confused about the Christian response to culture and politics (9/11 didn’t help). I was fed up with my peers who seemed oblivious to it all. Eventually, it was theological issues. (BIG theological issues.)
Yes, I was struggling with sin. But that wasn’t how it all started and it wasn’t the biggest problem.
The biggest problem was the constant dissonance between who I had believed God to be and what I had believed he’d promised compared to what came to be and what I saw play out in real life.
All the spiritual coping mechanisms I had available were suddenly insufficient to carry me through the complexities of our complicated and confusing world.
I was full of questions and was met with silence.
I struggled in private for a while. I read the Bible and I was urgent in my prayers. On a daily basis, I would go through the motions of school and ministry and then, late at night, cry out in desperation to a God who never answered in turn.
Eventually, I was just flat-out disappointed with God. I felt like he was not living up to his end of the bargain, his promise to answer when I called, to walk with me through the valley, and to give me peace.
I remember one particular moment when I showed up to a late night worship service that, for a year or two, I had enthusiastically led from the stage. I entered through the back door. I stood and closed my eyes and took in the music and the mood and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t sing.
Honestly. I could not sing.
Nothing welled up inside me. I was not moved.
I felt nothing.
Late that night, I drove off campus to an empty parking lot in a forest preserve nearby (where I often went when I needed to get away), got out of my car, crawled down on the ground and wept like a baby.
I worried that I’d reached the point of no return, that it was the beginning of the end and my entire purpose and future and identity in Christ was gone.
It was only my junior year. I had to two more years to survive before graduation.
I slowly faded away.
I stopped saying “yes” to ministry opportunities because I knew I didn’t belong in ministry. I disengaged from deep connections with people at school and at home who I knew would challenge me. I didn’t want to have to lie about how I was doing and I worried that the truth wasn’t welcome. Besides, I felt like there was no answer anyone could give me that I hadn’t already considered and found wanting.
I didn’t ask for help and I didn’t really let anyone in.
Looking back I know that, if I had looked for help, I would have likely found plenty. But, in the depths of a “dark night of the soul,” the church can–ironically–feel hostile and Christians can be infuriating.
I can also see, looking back, that this deep, dark questioning didn’t begin in college. I’d struggled with depression and social anxiety in middle school and then, near the end of high school, I frequently emotionally isolated myself with heavy questions that felt too dangerous to speak out loud.
My college career didn’t totally crash and burn. I had great friends and I still really enjoyed my studies (when I could keep them in my head and out of my heart). There was hiking and bonfires and music. But, I avoided deep spiritual connection anywhere. I just couldn’t connect anymore even if I tried.
When I graduated, I was confused and felt spiritually vacant, but I hadn’t given up.
I knew I was not at the end of the road.
I knew that the fog would clear so long as I kept walking.
But how would I keep walking?
I kept walking because God granted me a million small, but significant, gifts in those most difficult years.
The first great gift was that I started dating a childhood friend who was experiencing a similar struggle and we became a refuge for each other for a time. (Our relationship is what brought me to Cincinnati.)
I also discovered life-giving books and music to speak to my experience. Without my own words to explain what was going on within me, I began to depend on the words of those who had gone before me. These writers became some of my greatest allies. They validated my experience and made me feel understood.
Eventually, I started writing. It was like therapy, a way to process and communicate. I poured my heart into my music. My songs became my prayers. And I shared them and people listened. And then I didn’t feel so alone.
I found a way to communicate to God through liturgy in an Anglican church. When my heart and mind were absent from worship, my body and voice were still present. I showed up (sometimes), even though I didn’t feel like it. I received the Eucharist like it mattered. (Because it did.)
Later, when I moved to Cincinnati, I found a Vineyard house church community with Anglican liturgy and monastic rhythms. These new friends welcomed me and didn’t ask too many questions.
These new “church people” let me smoke cigarettes on the front porch and speak freely over dinner. After a time, they asked me to help lead. And I trusted them. So, I did.
These were the things that kept me afloat and kept me hanging on to the promise that God would not abandon me.
It was about five years of silence, about two years in Cincinnati, before I heard God speak to me, really speak to me, again.
“I never left you.”
That was all he said.
But, man, it was everything.
It was about twelve years ago that pieces started to fall back in line for me.
I can’t tell you how it happened. It’s not like I “found my way back to God,” because Christ had never left me and I had not really walked away in the way I’d been told people “walk away from the faith.” But he began to resurrect parts of me that had been dead and silent.
It wasn’t like coming back; it was like coming back to life.
Slowly. Awkwardly. Over time. I felt like I could embrace my faith again. Rather than it casting a shadow on me that was impossible to ignore and impossible to explain, I was willing to call it “mine.”
You can probably guess that I never saw my dreams of Rock Star Worship Leader come to fruition. (And you’d better believe that I’ve thanked God a million times for sparing me from that dream-come-true.)
But what did happen? Where did I end up?
Well, I’m here in Cincinnati. I’m married to an awesome man and we have four awesome kids and life is good. By appearances, my story has come around full-circle and “I got everything I always wanted.”
But, not really.
I compare my faith to the relationship of a married couple who has experienced a separation and then reconciliation. They are still married, happily, but their marriage may never be the same. While there’s no bitterness, there are some deep scars.
After being stripped down and rebuilt again, my faith feels certain and strong and resilient, but different. I still have a lot of unanswered questions. And I don’t know that I’ll get the answers this side of eternity.
I’m learning to cling hard to what I know and be okay with what remains “unsettled.”
What about my dreams of ministry? Well, I really struggle with this one. I wonder often how many of those dreams I had when I was young and alive and on fire were from God and how many were only my own delusions of grandeur.
Among the things I’ve learned about my younger self, two big errors come to mind:
I believed that I was the hero of my faith story.
I thought that God’s will for me should bend to my own.
(I was wrong about both.)
Every time I feel the urge to step up into a place of leadership, I second-guess myself and my intentions. So, I’m honestly not sure how to reconcile my desire to serve the Church and my love for worship and music ministry with my new aversion to all types of “professional” Christianity.
(As you can expect, because I’m married to a bi-vocational pastor, this aversion to professional ministry can get a little complicated.)
For now, thankfully, I believe my primary ministry is mothering my children. So any other professional aspirations are taking a back seat at this point anyway.
For what it’s worth, I have learned to love the Church more than I ever did before, especially the messiest parts of it. And I’m still here. And I’m still showing up. And it’s less of a struggle–and more of a pleasure–every time I do.
I feel really awkward with Christians sometimes, like I don’t know where I fit, but God has given me a soft spot for his people. Especially those who are struggling hard, those who are on the fringes of the Church, those who are asking deep and scary questions about their faith, and (especially) those who can’t shake their skepticism but come around church anyway.
My experience tells me that every one of us is carrying some sort of deep burden, either a burden caused by their own sin or by the sin of another or by the sins of the world. Some people carry them all at once. (Lord, have mercy.) Christians do the world a severe disservice by pretending otherwise. And I have no interest in pretending.
To that end, one recurrent theme along my journey is discovering the beauty and necessity of lament. I’ve learned to stop theologizing the sadness away and let my sorrow–sorrow for my sin, for our broken world, for its injustices, for our imperfect condition–become an integral part of my worship and work. I have learned to embrace the need for justice and mercy, both for myself and for our world. And I’m working to embody it in my vocation and my relationships.
My hope is that my faith someday embodies the kind of incarnational ministry that extends the real, living, near, and active love, mercy, and justice of Jesus to a hurting world and helps make the Church a place of peace and companionship along the journey to restoration.
Other than that, I’m not sure what comes next…
…except for teaching 5th grade Latin, tending to a son who needs to potty-train, and avoiding my 15 year college class reunion.