I grew up in the church and was baptized when I was 11. Both my father and grandfather are elders. Church has always been a major part of my family's life, so I was in Bible class on a regular basis and I enjoyed it a lot. From the time I was little, it was important to me to do what God wanted and wanted to please Him, so my actions reflected that. This doesn't mean, however, that I haven't had my ups and downs.
When I was little, I could not wait to go to church camp. I watched the kids go every year and couldn't wait to be among their ranks. From third grade, I went every year and had a blast. It was great to be in a place with kids my age who believed the same things I did. Church camp also brought me closer to God. I remember one year, when I was in middle school, I started the week off and wasn't really into it. I felt far away from God, and that my faith was suffering. The first night I prayed before going to bed, asking God for stronger faith. I'll never forget how he answered.
During the middle and high school weeks of camp, the girls always did secret sister. This particular year, I made a little beaded necklace for my secret sister at craft time and wrote her a note explaining the meaning of the beads I'd chosen. I didn't really think much of it when I sent it off, I felt like it wasn't a big deal. That night she decided to get baptized and I found out that part of the reason she'd made the decision was because of the note I'd sent her. My world was rocked and I was humbled. It amazed me that God could use someone as insignificant as me, as simple as a note I had spent fifteen minutes on to change someone's life. I learned that even when I feel like my faith is failing, it still can have the power to move mountains, and I understood that you never know where you've planted seeds.
Just before I started high school, our congregation hired a youth minister. Before Matt and Stacy came, we were a group of kids around the same age who happened to go to church together. After their arrival, we became a youth group. They brought us together and we became a family. We spent a lot of time together worshiping, singing and just being teenagers. It was a time that is embedded in my memory as one of learning and growing. Through our mission trips, youth rallies and bonding, I discovered how important it was to be with other believers. It was comforting to know that no matter what happened, no matter how I'd messed up or whatever problem I was having, I could go to my brothers and sisters in the youth group and they would love on me, support me and pray for me. It was an awesome feeling! It was at this point I understood that it takes a lot of different people to make a congregation. We came from extremely diverse backgrounds; some of us had grown up in strong church, others of us hadn't. We were from all different social sectors at school, yet we found friendship through the common bond of Jesus Christ.Unfortunately, this solidarity did not last. There was some shuffling of leadership in our congregation and Matt became our pulpit minister. High school progressed and we began to drift apart.
High school is a rough time for a lot of young people. There are many temptations and life can be confusing. We were caught between childhood and adulthood and sometimes we acted out, trying to deal with things. In our teen Bible class on Sunday mornings, we began to talk a lot about some of the issues facing us as high school students. People in our youth group began to struggle with these issues. Not only that, but even the adults in our church were struggling with these same issues. I began to see the world with more adult eyes and I became jaded.
From the pulpit we were told to be better people and in Bible class the teens were warned about drinking, smoking and sex. Yet I felt like all of this talking didn't matter. People were still going to do exactly what they wanted. So what was the point?. I felt like the church was full of hypocrites. People who just sat in a pew on Sunday morning and did whatever they wanted the rest of the week. I felt a lack of sincerity and it made me wonder why I had ever bothered to try to follow God. I was tired of being the good girl. Everyone else was going out and doing these things so why couldn't I? I was tired of trying.
Looking back on it, I realize that I was just as wrong as anyone else in that congregation. I was being extremely judgmental with the same kind of contempt the Pharisee held for the tax collector. So while I thought I was so much better than everyone around me, I was still wrong. At the time though, I couldn't see it and I began to withdraw. I stopped caring about worshiping and only went to church because my parents expected it and because that's what we did in my family. This low point continued until about half-way through my exchange year to Russia.
While still in high school, I decided that I was going to spend ten months in Russia as an exchange student after I graduated. When I arrived, I didn't even bother to find a church family; I decided that I didn't want to deal with it. Instead, I just focused on being in Russia. A funny thing happened though. My exchange was extremely difficult and while I wasn't really paying attention to God, there were points when it seemed like He was definitely paying attention to me. There were times when it felt like He was just reminding me that He was always there and even though I was alone in a foreign country, I was never completely alone. I'm not sure when exactly the change came. It wasn't one of those sudden epiphanies, rather it was a gradual thing. There is a point where things began to turn around.
I am an avid reader and had brought several books in English on exchange, I finished them all about halfway through my exchange. I missed English so much that I was desperate for something, anything, to read. The only thing I had left was my Bible. So one day I sat down, opened to 1st Kings and started reading. I was hooked. I had read bits and pieces of the Bible before, but not in huge chunks like this. The more I read, the more I learned and the more I learned, the closer I felt to God. It was around this time that I realized I missed being with other people who believed in God. I wasn't sure what to do though. There were two Orthodox churches, a Catholic church and an Apostolic church in my city, but I wasn't sure I felt comfortable at any of these.
A few days after this realization, I was sitting in my social studies class and my teacher was talking about all the different types of religions and groups in the city. She mentioned Orthodox, Catholic and then Baptist. After this last group, I didn't hear anything else for the rest of the lesson. I knew slightly more about Baptists than I did about the other churches in my city. I knew they were somewhat similar to what I believed, at least in the states, and that was enough for me. After class, I asked her about it and she put me in touch with a girl at my school whose father was the pastor at the church. We met, I found out where the building was, and I decided to go the following Sunday. The first morning I went, one of the songs we sang was Amazing Grace as soon as I realized it, I started crying because even though the song was in a different language and the people were strangers, we had a common belief in God. I had come home.
In Russia I had some of the greatest spiritual growth I've ever experienced. I came to realize that it didn't matter whether other people in my congregation were worshiping God, didn't matter what was in their hearts. I realized that it isn't my place to judge and that I needed to make sure that I was right with God and a true follower of him. It was also at this point that my relationship with Him became my own. Sure, I had a relationship with Him before, but in Russia I realized that if I were going to be a Christian it wouldn't be because of my parents, my family or my friends. It had to be because I was making that choice.
There are other events in my life that God has used to strengthen me, conversations with strangers, attending a state university and friends who have offered counsel, but the events I have related here are the ones that have made the biggest impact on my spiritually. While they were extremely difficult at the time, and often I didn't know exactly why I was going through them, In retrospect I can see how they have strengthened my life and relationship with God. I pray that He gives me more such opportunities.