“I grew up in church.” That’s the phrase that starts most of the testimonies I’ve heard. It starts mine, too. I grew up in church. Then comes the part where they breeze past their baptism but I won’t. I remember in exquisite detail the swish of the robe when its edges first hit the water because it’s an exotic feeling to be in a body of water fully clothed. I was surprised at how warm the water in the baptismal was, and how the whole ordeal was over before I even had time to plug my nose. That’s where my story really begins: as a six-year old girl hopping around on one foot on the slippery steps of the baptismal, trying to get the water out of her ear.
What happened next was no one’s fault. Or it was everyone’s. I don’t really know how to explain it except that I could never talk about the sermons we listened to. No one really asked me to until my first boyfriend did. He would ask me what I thought on the car ride to get burritos with our friends after church but what we’d heard never made an impression. I could follow our preacher’s cadence down to the last bullet point, so I would just settle into the gentle rumble of his voice and stop noticed what he was saying. We sang worship songs about a God that loved us and a son but nothing about the story moved me. There was something missing in the details. There was a logical leap that an analytical mind like mine just couldn’t make, and my confusion quickly hardened into skepticism.
I never refused the idea of God altogether. I just had enough questions that it felt okay to cut corners. It felt okay to let my Bible get lost under a stack of used paperback books. It felt okay to drink awful warm beer with boys on my friend’s back porch while her mom was on a business trip in Japan. It felt okay to let a boy (it didn’t really matter which one) lead me upstairs by the hand and onto a bed or couch or rug. It felt okay until I couldn’t feel anything at all.
The biggest part of the problem was that I didn’t see it. I thought I knew everything there was to know about faith. I’d sat through endless acronyms on Powerpoint slides and run a puppet show for the preschoolers. This was it, wasn’t it? What more was there to learn? It was a little bland but, I guessed, that was to be expected.
These were the things I thought then. But that was before I was introduced to the Jesus of the Bible. Back then, the only version I knew was the Jesus on the Powerpoint Slide. The god of Youth Group Lock-Ins.
I received a gold-embossed scholarship offer in the mail from Auburn University before I even knew where the school was. That fall, I packed up my tiny car and drove seven hours to a town where no one would know my name or my youth pastor or about all those late nights spilling warm beer on rugs. I joined a sorority and dropped out. I joined the SGA and stopped attending meetings. I did not join a church. I went to exactly two frat parties and ate late breakfasts in the dining hall on Sundays. And, mostly, I ached. The ache would overcome me walking the long hill back home after classes: a very tactile emptiness, as though my chest was as hollow like a drum. I ached for something that I couldn’t yet identify but knew I had not found.
Then, I met a boy and thought, “This is it.” This must be what I’m aching for. He lived one floor above me freshman year, with a laugh that could make me forget the kickdrum in my chest. I followed him to church. I would have followed him anywhere. I showed up that first morning dressed in black leather when all the other girls were wearing pearls. We were dating within a month and broken up within two.
The ache came back. It returned during the excruciating final weeks before the break-up with a pounding insistence that seemed to repeat, “You are lonely. You are lost. You are empty.” I’d tried to escape it in his truck and bed, tried to let the volume of our romance drown out that refrain. Whatever I am longing for, I thought then, Whatever it is that my soul aches for, I will find it here. He left and I found only more brokenness.
I had exhausted myself trying to hide the emptiness with all these things, and the effect was like festooning a gaping hole in my chest with feathers and beads: unsettling and ineffective. That’s when I found Jesus. It happened the way you fall in love, or asleep: slowly then all at once. I found him, finally, through the haze of what I thought I knew, what I’d learned in children’s books and college classrooms, what my preacher had taught me, what churchgoers and atheists and homeless men had told me about God, everything I’d seen on television and Sunday morning powerpoints; I peeled it all back and finally found the truth waiting there.
The revelation started, as most do, in coffee shops with close friends and thick conversation. The summer after my freshman year, I’d reached out to a friend at church with a simple, groundbreaking admission: “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
That one statement took me nine months of aching to finally utter out loud but when I did, miraculous things began to happen. It marks the point in my life when I laid down everything that I’d been using to fight the immense loneliness. Nametags, make-outs, friends, boyfriends, warm beer, beads and feathers, bible studies and Sunday morning services: none of them could heal me the way I wanted—and desperately needed—to be healed. Over a bowl of oatmeal, in the coffee shop with my friend, I finally saw that.
“I got saved.” That’s another phrase I’ve heard in testimonies before. So many, in fact, that it has lost the effect that it must have had on the people in the audience of the first guy to think it up. In my English classes, we call that a ‘word package,’ which means that a particular combination of words or phrases has been used so frequently that it no longer brings a vivid, concrete image to mind.
Another thing we talk about in my English classes is the weight that some words seem to have. On paper, they might all just be synonyms for ‘tired.’ But, as anyone who has ever been lured by pizza into helping a friend move understands, that there is a very big difference between ‘tired’ and ‘exhausted.’
If you want a word that extends past exhausted, past physical fatigue to an ache goes right down to your soul, you get the word ‘weary.’ The word ‘weary’ conjures up the image of a wind-burnt man, lost in the searing heat of a noon desert, squinting out over the endless miles of dunes ahead and then back into his empty water canister. In that moment over the oatmeal, I realized that I was weary, and that I had been weary for a very long time.
That was the first time I realized that God could be known—really known, not just from powerpoint slides or word packages but from an intimate, first-hand relationship with Him. And, on top of that, that he wanted to know and be known by me. I won’t describe that moment by saying that “I got saved.” I will just say that I was lost in the desert, good as dead, and he rescued me.