Surprised by Jesus

The perspective of someone willing to give church ‘another shot’

By Lillian Faith Ruark

God must have given my parents a nudge when they named me. “Faith” has played a key role in my life as both my greatest struggle and my saving grace. Early on, I became aware of a powerful but peaceful energy I could connect with through nature: walking through the woods, watching a sunrise, listening to waves, or hearing a bird’s song. The stillness of those moments provided a sense of comfort, safety, and peace I could only describe as being embraced by a powerful, loving, invisible force. Creating art or listening to music could also stir this feeling. What was this? My mother said that I was experiencing the love of God, of Jesus. My young brain couldn’t help but wonder, “If this is what it feels like to connect with Jesus and feel his love, why don’t I feel this way at church?” Thirty years later, I find myself still asking that question.

My early childhood years included a fear-based commitment to Christianity that stemmed from the teachings I received in Sunday school at an evangelical church my family attended. Who wouldn’t want to avoid persecution and torture and even death at the hands of the antichrist? I was just five years old and already terrified by the idea of burning in hell for all eternity. Of course I wanted to be “saved!”

Later on, my family joined another church where I made some friends and was hopeful for a better experience. Difficulties at home escalated and eventually led to my parents’ divorce when I was twelve. I watched in painful bewilderment as members of the church took sides, gossiped, and passed judgment on my family. Going to church became increasingly uncomfortable, and I dreaded Sunday mornings. I was also starting to question what it really meant to be a Christian. Who were these people who spoke of compassion and discouraged sin, but didn’t seem to live according to their own rules?

I found my way out of going to church when one of my parents was essentially banished, but I still attended a Mennonite high school. Looking back, I feel deep gratitude for the quality of education and care I received there. Mennonites were my favorite brand of Christian, but lacking a Mennonite last name and coming from a broken home seemed to count against me. Unable to relate to the heritage and history that so many of my fellow students shared, I sometimes felt left out or overlooked. There were even times when my presence and background seemed to be an inconvenience to the image of what the school was supposed to portray.

By the time I graduated from high school, my feelings of resentment and distrust toward the church and Christians were firmly established. I distanced myself from the people and religion that had so often disappointed me. I didn’t realize the crucial mistake I made when believing that resisting the church and Christians meant I must also resist Jesus. His message of unconditional love, compassion, and forgiveness had always resonated with me, but doubt overcame my faith after seeing few of Jesus’ proclaimed followers living and acting according to the message of Jesus.

Church pain and family stress, combined with other trauma, sent me looking for ways to numb my pain, and I fell into an addictive orbit with alcohol that wound up lasting over a decade. On New Year’s Eve of 2015, with very little hope for my future, I found myself in desperate prayer. Despite the efforts I’d made to disconnect so many years ago, I was surprised to find that Jesus was still the one I instinctively cried out to in moments of great pain. I believe my prayer that evening changed and saved my life. There’s no other explanation for why the very next day my craving and desire to drink completely vanished, and other aspects of my life began to fall into place with ease. Two years have now passed since my last drink which truly is a miracle, and now I recognize miracles happening in everyday life on a regular basis.

Convinced that Jesus is real and active in the world, I’m ready to give church another shot. I’ve visited several, but have yet to find one that feels right. Being a part of a supportive community appeals to me. I’d like to find a church where people aren’t afraid to ask and discuss tough questions. A church that doesn’t judge persons based on what they wear, how often they attend, or how much money they give. I want to join with people who serve and give freely to each other and the greater community. I hope to finally establish relationships with Christians that enable and build mutual trust. I’d like to find a place where people gather because they want to, not because they feel obligated. I’m looking for a church that does not exclude or discriminate against people because of whom they love and embraces people with complicated stories like mine. I want to find a place where I feel accepted for all I am, including my past which, unfortunately, sometimes seems to count against me. Why is that? Why does making myself vulnerable and honestly telling my story cause some Christians to feel uncomfortable? Isn’t the main duty of a Christian to practice love, forgiveness, and acceptance? Love, forgiveness, and acceptance shouldn’t feel uncomfortable.

Am I asking for too much?

Lillian Faith Ruark is an artist and Medical Massage Therapist in Lancaster, PA. She was referred to LMC through a pastoral connection to write an essay giving the perspective of someone from outside the church looking in.