When asked of my religious background, I often say I was raised by a pack of atheists. I do this to distract people, to divert attention away. I speak of my step-parents, who were raised as Catholics and hold residual anger from being forced to wear dogma that didn’t fit. I mention my father, who says that he has heard brilliant people argue both for and against the existence of God and that both sides sound convincing. These tidbits lead to conversations about spirituality and religion but allow me to keep my heart secret.
When I was seven, Jesus came to me. His smile filled me with this incredible sense of peace, safety and courage; he filled me with God’s light. When I shared this wonderful news with my mother, her response was immediate, negative and adamant. That was the first time I stopped talking about Jesus.
Later, when I asked my father if I could go to church, he paused and then said that he would drive me and he would introduce me to the pastor, but he would wait in the car during worship. I liked the gilt and color of the Catholics; I loved the congregations that sang with their whole bodies and the Lutherans had donuts. But in all of my explorations, I didn't find Jesus. He was there, other people were celebrating him, but I couldn't see him, couldn't feel him and it made me think that I didn't belong. Years of experience reinforced this thought and I became absolutely certain: I was not a Christian.
Years passed and I eventually became a Universalist Quaker, attending an unprogrammed meeting. At some point Jesus began to sit with me in the silence. By this time, though, Jesus rode with me in the car and walked pace with my cart at the grocery store, too. He had somehow become a very PRESENT presence. He was a dear friend, a near constant companion, but I never spoke of him. I was embarrassed. My love for Jesus embarrassed me. And when someone asked me if I were Christian, I would deny it. But Jesus kept beside me, speaking the truth: in denying my Christianity, I was turning from the light.
Over a family dinner, twenty three years after meeting Jesus, I burst out: “IMACHRISTIAN” and everyone froze. “What?” my step-father asked. “I am a Christian,” I repeated, softer, slower, “and I have been going to a church that I really like.” “Christian?!? Like born-again?!?” Exclamations. “No, no, just plain Christian.” Reassurances. And then my four year old niece asked: “What’s a Christian?”
And that is the question that I have been struggling with ever since. What is a Christian? How can I be so certain that I am a Christian and yet be unable to define it satisfactorily to myself or to others? Why am I unable to fully defend it to people experiencing the strong negative emotions Christianity can evoke? Why am I unable to speak the words that would allow others understand my personal truth? But even as I struggle, I rest in gentle hands and know this: when it is just the two of us, I don’t need words.
--- Summer L. Cox