Friday, February 26, 2010

Growing Up Non Christian - Part 3

A few weeks after I became a Christian, I started attending the church I would attend until I left Perth after our wedding in April 2008.  I'd seen posters around campus, but was reluctant until a student from the Christian Union invited me along.  Looking back, this was the ideal church for someone unchurched like me.  They met in a lecture theatre, had no stain glass windows or flowers or lacy tablecloths draped over the communion dishes. The Lord's Supper consisted of juice in small plastic cups and breadmaker bread which we pulled lumps off.  People came wearing whatever they happened to be wearing that day.  It was simple, unpretentious and centred around the gospel and God's Word.

Yet, being unchurched, I still felt like an alien.  I'm writing this because I think people who have grown up in Christian families seldom consider how strange and confronting church services can be for the outsider.  I had no idea what people meant by a 'sermon' and I never had the courage to ask.  Finally I realised, oh it's the Bible talk!  I didn't know where to turn to a particular book in the Bible and I didn't know the words of the songs.  One thing I did appreciate though was that things were explained before they were done during church.  The pastor or service leader would say what they were doing and why.  I know some established Christians found this patronising and tedious, ,as a newcomer, I found it refreshing.  Each time I visit my old church, they still take the time to explain things in case there are unbelievers or new Christians present and, as a believer, I still find it helpful to be reminded of why we do things instead of following tradition for the sake of tradition.

Slowly God started revealing areas of my life which needed to change.  I learnt I had His Holy Spirit dwelling in me which enabled me to say no to sin and yes to God.  But this is a long and painful refining process which will go on until the day I die or Jesus returns.  To many non-Christians, I probably looked like some kind of saint.  I wasn't into drinking,  I didn't sleep around or do many of the 'bad' things that Christians don't do.  But God started to reveal to me the ugliness of my own heart and my involvement in many of the 'respectable sins' which many people don't give much thought - things like greed, lust, anger, pride, jealousy, gossip etc.  At first it didn't feel like my life was any different.  I still swore, I still burnt CDs, I still lost my temper (a lot).  But God was slowly whittling away at me, sawing off my rough edges to conform me into the likeness of His Son.  He convicted me through His Word, through other people, through a gentle rebuke to my heart, but still it felt like I wasn't very different to how I had been.  I remember once a friend from church approached me after the service and told me he'd Googled my name for the fun of it (as you do), and he'd found a short story I'd had published in an online magazine during my first year of uni.  He commented about the amount of swearing in it; I'd written about the bogan male flatmates from the previous post and since they swore a lot, I was merely quoting them.  He wasn't judgemental about it; more amused than anything.  I've had so many people comment that I look sweet and innocent (pffft) that it must have been a shock to the system to find that piece.  I explained that I'd written that before I was Christian, but still my battles with foul language were far from over.

The pastor at my church gave me my first Bible and as I read it, I was surprised to find out how relevant it was to life today.  In the past, I'd scoffed at the relevance of a book thousands of years old and the people who bothered to read it.  I learnt that Jesus' death was not the last ditch attempt to appease an angry God as my mum had made it out to be; that it was planned before time and Jesus went willingly out of his enormous love for us.  Not only that, but He was God in the flesh who came to earth to live the life we couldn't live.  One verse that struck me was 1 Peter 4:3-5 - For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.  I thought, wow, this was exactly what I was facing as a new Christian in the worlds of student housing and theatre.  If you don't get drunk, they scoff at you and won't hang out with you.  I discovered that sex outside of marriage didn't start happening in the 1960s, it was happening way back in Genesis, the first book of the Bible.  People were engaging in orgies, drunkenness, and some of the stuff I read, the Bible sure isn't this nice G rated book.  It's gritty and full of real life stuff.

Suddenly my faith in Jesus meant I was confronted with choices - God or the world.  I could strive to win the world's affection or I could live for my Lord.  This lead to me making decisions not be involved in plays at theatre that would involved nudity, not swearing in my creative writing pieces, and not getting drunk with fellow students in the student village or at theatre cast parties.  It wasn't easy, and it never will be.  I'd wanted fame and acceptance so badly, it was hard to just ignore ridicule and not care what people think of me.  I'm still guilty of caring more about what people think of than what God thinks of me.  But God has never given up on me and I've found great comfort in verses such as To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy. (Jude 1:24) and being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6).

Sometime I knew I would have to face the inevitable...telling my friends and family about my new faith.  To put it simply, it didn't go that well.  While some reacted with screams of joy and encouraging words, quite a few Christians didn't seem to believe me.  I thought, You were the ones who were praying for me and now you don't believe your prayers have been answered.  It's like in Acts 12 when the church is praying for Peter to be released from prison and God performs a miracle.  Then when Peter turns up on their doorstep they don't believe it's him!  That's what it felt like for me.  It was like they thought I was stirring them or something.  The family were another story altogether.  For the past few years, my mum had been telling me to go to church, to go to youth events, to go to Christian Union stuff (presumably to be a good influence on me and keep me away from drugs or something), but when I told her I'd become a Christian and was part of a church, she didn't react well.  It was as if she saw church as some kind of reform school and, since I was still a sinner, she told me it hadn't worked and was a waste of time.  She picked up on everything I did wrong and I ended up losing my temper on many occasions.  When I went to church, she and Nan would mock me, asking me if I'd had my sins washed away.  My dad and my brother were the apathetic ones; as long as I didn't force it on them, they didn't mind what I did.  In retrospect, I think my mum was frightened and still is.  Having a Christian daughter, however imperfect I may be, reminds her that there is a God out there who just might want her to acknowledge Him.  As a child, she'd told me that I hadn't been baptised and that that was a decision I needed to make myself if I wanted to be part of God's family.  When I finally did get baptised in February 2005, she seemed very disappointed as if I was doing it just to annoy her.  It was if my faith was an assault on everything she'd raised me to believe and I was confirming my status as the black sheep of the family.  She still thinks my faith is just a phase that I'll grow out of one day.  It's frustrating because it seems like its one step forward, two steps back with her.  Since I've been with Duncan, it's been better, but she still thinks God is going to give her a seven out of ten and just accept her.  Nan is the same; she thinks church is some kind of cult that will suck her in.  I was amazed when I read Jesus' words in Matthew: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn " 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law - a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'"  This was what it felt like for me.  My own family were my enemies.  Just by being there, it didn't matter whether I spoke or not, I was a visible reminder of a faith they didn't share.

After this reaction, I went into shutdown mode and didn't tell anymore people unless they asked directly.  I hid my faith where possible to avoid more rejection and ridicule.  Because of my reluctance to do evangelism, I began to doubt whether I was really a Christian and why on earth God had chosen such a useless person to be His.  This resulted in several really low periods in my life because of my guilt over doing silly things due to be being afraid to stand up for God. By then I had finished my three years of student housing and completed my first degree.  Emma moved to Perth in January 2004 to study at ACOM, and months before, she asked if I was interested in living with her.  Despite the dangers associated of living with good friends, I knew we'd get along fine and it was living with her that I experienced a few of those dark periods in my life.  I think I just couldn't believe I was in a place that was clean and equally mine (well, rented) and I had no drunken yobbos banging on my bedroom door at night while I was sick in bed with the flu like I'd had in student housing.  I think after three years of feeling like I was just surviving in my own dwelling and bottling everything, I just couldn't believe I was finally 'free'.  It was during 2004, when I felt that God would never want me anymore, that He taught me valuable lessons about grace.  God had chosen me to be his and He would finish the good work He'd started in me.  I couldn't understand why I would care so much about what strangers or acquaintances thought of me and a very wise person provided the answer.  She said, "Your own family have basically rejected you.  So, if the people closest to you have reacted this way, then you're feeling why would anyone else accept you."  That was a pivotal moment of healing for me, and, since then, God has only kept awakening a passion for evangelism in me that some nights is so strong, I can't sleep.

Some days I still feel like an alien among other Christians who have grown up in Christian homes.  In the past I've wished that I had grown up a Christian , but now I realise that this was not God's plan for me.  Growing up non-Christian means I see some things differently from those who have grown up in the church.  I question things that Duncan, for example, does not question so readily.  Some people probably get annoyed at me, thinking I'm some kind of stirrer, but I won't sit by in silence while some complacent Christians sit comfortably in the church when there is a dying and needy world outside.  I get so frustrated at old people who will fight for tradition instead of focusing on what is truly important.  I don't 'get' those people who think Christians should only sing hymns or get dressed up for church, and I certainly don't get why churches have to look so feminine all the time with flowers and all that crap everywhere..... no wonder some men don't want to come to church!  Having said all that, I'm certainly not saying that only Christians from non Christian homes feel this way.  I know of many who have grown up 'churched' but still feel just as alien in the church sometimes and care very much about the world outside.

Because of my experience of having Christian friends at a government school, I am so against 'closed' Christian schools (where only kids of Christian parents can attend) it's not funny.  Initially this caused Duncan and I to clash because he has grown up in a Christian home and went to a closed Christian school for primary school, and said he would quite like to send our kids to one.  I would NEVER in a million years want my kids to go to one of those schools!  I fully believe in Christian kids being given the chance to be salt and light to their friends who come from different backgrounds instead of being shoved into 'safe' little Christian circles in case they be lead astray.  I'm sure it was tough for my friends sometimes, but God used them to bring me to Himself.  God is a BIG God and He has our backs as we venture out into the world.  I'm not implying that Christian kids should be sent to the worst school possible just to prove a point, but I've seen too many young Christians I knew in Albany grow up in a Christian bubble and then fall away when they went to uni or left home.

Sometimes it feels some people who have grown up Christian don't 'get it' at times when I hear people say, "Oh your family aren't Christian, wow what opportunities." as if everyone is suddenly going to want to become a Christian because I'm around.  Yes, there are opportunities but it's also challenging. Having a non Christian family can be tough, but I want to keep things in perspective.  There are many around the world who are disowned, imprisoned, beaten and face death for following Jesus Christ. I've shared my testimony numerous times now and, each time, someone has been surprised to hear that I didn't come from a Christian home and told me they wish they had an 'impressive' testimony like mine.  I always say EVERY testimony is impressive, because it is God's miracle.  It doesn't matter whether it was the apostle Paul or someone who has grown up with loving Christian parents, each testimony points to God's power and grace.  Nowadays, I don't wish for a different background or upbringing; I just don't want to get complacent or give up praying for my family and for the world.


Amanda said...

Thanks for sharing all of that. As a person who grew up in a Christian home its good to hear things from a non-Christian experience. It took me a very long time to learn how to relate to people who don't share my beliefs. I appreciate your honesty in posting your testimony.

Iris Flavia said...

No other word than "wow"!

Umm... and... you really wonder why people tend to change when you are around? ;-)

Sarah said...

Sorry, Iris. I don't get what you mean by Umm... and... you really wonder why people tend to change when you are around? ;-)

Amanda said...

I took the comment as you being a positive influence on those around you.

Sarah said...

Oh rightio. I wasn't sure.