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Which church?

A few years ago, I took a well-known internet quiz called Belief-O-Matic. It is a very clever quiz designed to determine which religion or religious branch best matches your personal values. My top results were Secular Humanism, Neo-Pagan, and Unitarian Universalist. Today, I am a faithful disciple of Christ and I worship in a small AME congregation. How could this be? I will try to explain the turnaround… and then I will share my Belief-O-Matic results today.

Until my relationship with Jesus began, I simply did not understand Christianity properly. I was under the misconception that Christians labor under the watchful eye of an overseer (either wrathful or loving) who they strive to please by doing right and staying away from sin. Because I thought that God was basically a boss, I came to the conclusion that I would rather be my own boss. As it happens, in my worldly life, I have been self-employed, I have worked under a wrathful boss, and I have worked under a loving boss. But all the while, I have worked hard, stuck to deadlines, and generally done my best.

So, there would be no boss for me. I did not need someone sitting in the clouds reminding me not to smoke, not to drink, not to steal, not to lose my temper and so on. I would do all of this of my own volition, and I did. I had a fine career, no police record, a good credit rating, gave a lot to charities, served on non-profit boards, and even my cholesterol was under control: a perfect Secular Humanist, Neo-Pagan, or Unitarian Universalist candidate. And an empty shell of a man too, in many ways.

This is not how Christianity works, fortunately. Having opened my heart to Jesus, accepted him, welcomed him and surrendered to him, God is now inside me. He is not my boss, he is my guide, my driver, my battery, my life. At my best, I do His work through the talents that He has blessed me with. My former self, presumptuous, fearful and prideful is now tamed. God decided which church and which congregation I would join: He saw an opportunity for that church and for me to get somewhere together. Where, I do not know yet, but I trust Him every step of the way.

Amusingly, I took the Belief-O-Matic quiz again after my conversion. Now my top results is Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a 100% match, with Jehovah’s Witness and Liberal Quaker following closely. Bizarrely, Belief-O-Matic matched me – according to the Pew research Center – with the most Republican leaning religious denomination of all in the US, whereas my Church is the most Democrat leaning of all. Be that as it may, God knows better than algorithms or man. As a budding believer, you will be tempted to make up your inner version of Belief-O-Matic, and to pick and choose: “Yes, Catholic’s good: good architecture… check; generosity to the poor and to refugees… check; mindful of the environment… check; equality for women… uh-oh” This is tempting, but absurd. This is not a political campaign. We do not get to decide who made us or who is inside us: it is already decided. We do not choose our religion either: it chooses us. I am so thankful that God persevered and worked on me until I was capable to hear His glorious message.

 

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Intolerance and hypocrisy

This was the big one. God I could take, but Jesus? My problem was not with Jesus but with some of the loud Americans who have co-opted him. I was appalled at the way some Christians use their very Christianity to justify some aspects of American life. How could I worship the same God as those people who profess to know better and to be better than everyone else?

This faulty logic of mine started leaking at the same time as the Duggar family’s reputation (as you recall, they were reality television personalities promoting a blend of fecundity and godliness). On a lunch break with a friend at work who qualifies as one of my top angels, I shared with him that I had visited Turkey in order to perform a reality check after hearing such a negative message about Islam from the media. I described how I walked through the streets of Istanbul for days and didn’t find a single suicide bomber. Instead I was awed by the spiritual richness that hung through the city, the wonderful closeness of men washing their hands and feet before going to prayer, the palpable charity, and the magnificence of the sacred architecture.

But then I went on and told my friend – a kind, chaste, altogether admirable servant of God – that I couldn’t see myself as a Christian since that would make me like those dreadful Duggars (who were in the news at the time, for the wrong reasons). My friend cracked my logic like a walnut: “so, suicide bombers aren’t representative of Islam, but the Duggars are representative of Christianity?” he asked. He had me there, and I suspect today it was God talking to me through his mouth. I realized that I had been following a pattern: looking for reasons not to go to church instead of following my increasingly stronger urge to go.

Now that I have established a relationship with Jesus, I understand that faith exists at a different level from the world of politics and celebrities. At work and on Facebook I enjoy engaging with individuals whose politics are very far from mine, yet who are fine Christians and decent people. What binds us together is much stronger than what separates us. These days, I worry less that my pastor will utter a sermon that will shake my faith because it doesn’t match my opinion on a hot-button issue. And I find solace in the fact that within the Christian world, for every Kim Davis in the spotlight there is a Sister Helen Prejean too.

 

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Science

This stumbling block looked impregnable before my conversion, yet it vanished altogether, much quicker (and more permanently) than my concern about intolerance. Since I opened my heart to Jesus, I have listened to many great podcasts from outstanding scientists who are religious (and also from brilliant clergy members who are scientifically inclined) about the coexistence of science and religion. Today I think that it is a non-issue. This non-issue, however, is constantly re-ignited by militant atheists and by militant anti-atheists, two groups that have a lot in common. In my view, there is no conflict. I do not see, for instance, any necessity to be a doubter of the theory of evolution if you believe the story of Adam and Eve’s fall to be immensely significant. Of course, the hottest potato of all is the issue of man-made climate change, but this scientifically irrefutable potato belongs in the above paragraph as it has become – to mankind’s great peril – a political issue in the country with the largest carbon footprint.

 

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Losing my edge

Before my own conversion, I used to watch believers walk to church on Sunday mornings and think that they looked so bland, so beige. I also used to quip (I am ashamed to say) that I wouldn’t mind going to hell because I was sure the food there would be much better. I could imagine a heavenly buffet of dreadful Betty-Crocker-type casseroles, whereas the barbecue in hell would likely feature interesting flavors, bold colors, and intriguing spice combinations. I understand now how stupid this thought was… and yet there is some substance behind it.

Many years ago as a late teen, I watched Roman Polanski’s brilliant satanic thriller Rosemary’s Baby on television with my grandmother, who was far from a prude and not a believer either. Afterwards, while praising the magnificent direction and acting, she remarked: “still, this sort of movie leaves a drop of poison in the mind of everyone who watches it.” I never forgot what she said, and as the years passed I lost interest in violent thrillers, gratuitous sex scenes, lewd jokes, and especially offensive language. As for sarcasm, I have long considered it a major environmental hazard, especially for young minds who get exposed to it from the cradle on. This change in taste happened mostly after my 40th birthday, and accelerated during the last years before my salvation.

Today, I am a faithful Christian, and yes, I confess, I am far less edgy than I used to be. My main – no, my only interest is human relationships and sharing a message of growth and hope (not necessarily religious). At work, I strive to achieve goals with total transparency and to brighten the day of everyone I encounter through words or through actions: I consider this my most important responsibility. From the outside, I may seem duller and slower than I once was. But my life is not beige in the least. There is much passion, color and flavor in trying to walk a righteous path.

 

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The Enemy

While being relatively open to the idea of God, I had always thought of the Devil as a kitschy figure, a symbol mostly. On the day of my salvation, July 5, 2015, my Pastor warned me that every time a non-believer or a mild believer opens his heart to Jesus and becomes Born Again, the Enemy gets very angry. She told me to watch out for moments of doubt, temptation, pain and despair in the months to come, all of which I did eventually experience.

To my surprise, I have been keenly conscious of being at risk of being led by the Devil more than once since my salvation. There have been moments during which I have felt like a mere pawn pulled apart during a struggle much bigger than myself. There have been moments of such emotional complexity that I couldn’t tell for sure which side was which. In September, I was faced with an unexpected, painful family situation and I couldn’t tell how to proceed in a righteous way. In the midst of it, I emerged from a disturbing Bible Study session in a state of acute distress: As I was unable to drive home safely, I called my best friend, a dear, generous and understanding man who is also a preacher, now semi-retired in Florida (we were coworkers when I started my career in senior living). I was a wreck, crying in my car with the flashers on, totally overwhelmed and with nowhere to go. He calmed me down and gave me a simple prayer, but he told me to go and repeat it in every room in my house where I suspected the Enemy may be hiding. That prayer gave me direction and hope.

With the help of my friend whom I called every day, and that of several angels nearby, I regained my confidence little by little. The Holy Spirit reconquered my heart where despair and wrath had threatened to indwell after sleepless nights and way too much coffee. As I write these lines today, I believe that God knew that the Enemy would wage an attack on my family  in September and that he came to my rescue in July to prepare me for this trial. With the understanding that my faith has brought me, I will never take the Devil lightly again.