Monday, 11 September 2017

It's Never Too Far or Too Late: My Return to The Church

By Megan James

Going back (or starting to go for the very first time) to church can be pretty daunting. Trust me, I know. It can feel a bit confusing, you can feel as though you just don’t belong, or that you aren’t good enough to be there. You can look around and think “I want what these people have. I want their peace, I want their certainty.” But it just doesn’t feel attainable because “well, I’m just too far gone.” This however is not true. Returning to the Church is not meant to be that way, not in God’s eyes anyhoo. Returning to Church should be like coming home.

My conversion (or re-conversion) to the faith came towards the end of my first year of uni. I was nearly 20, I had done my fair share of wandering and searching for happiness, fulfilment, and peace, and nothing had quite yet filled that hole in my heart. I wasn’t unhappy, but I was a little lost, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

My childhood had been filled with Sunday School and Bible stories, and I had loved it. I loved how simple it all seemed; there was good and there was bad, Jesus loved me, there was heaven, and the goal in life was to be kind and to love. Yup, that was the gist of everything my nan and her old pals would tell me at Sunday School, and what I would think about as I recited my prayers before bed. It was cosy. But life isn’t as simple as Sunday School made it out to be, and at 15 I was faced with a lot more mess and sadness than I thought possible, and those cosy stories about kindness and love didn’t seem to add up. When I was 15, my friend was murdered, and I had no idea how to align that level of tragedy and cruelty in the same world where God existed. It all seemed so senseless, my faith was shaken, and it was then that I walked away from the Church.

Looking back, I don’t think I ever stopped believing in God’s existence, but I did stop believing in His goodness. He existed, but He wasn’t doing me any good, so what was the point in all this church stuff? What was the point in praying to someone who didn’t really seem to have my back? "God isn't making me happy," I thought, "so I guess I'll just have to do that for myself." But still. He existed, and that small grain of faith left in my brain was enough for God to use later. 

Fast forward 4 years: after a pretty rough battle with both mental and physical health, I get to university a year later than I’d originally planned. University was a world of experience and encounter. Every day was filled with meeting new people and doing new things; constantly stimulated through new lessons in studies, but also in life, with a whole lot of partying piled on top. I was definitely seeking something, I wasn't sure what (well, I think I thought I knew what *cough* boys *cough*) but no matter how many lectures I went to, or how many lectures I skipped to go out instead, my search was still lacking something. Yet it was here where the pieces started to all fall into place, it was here is where God’s seemingly senseless plan started to make just a little sense to me.

I was so beyond blessed to be placed in a flat, in the bedroom directly opposite, the most amazing Christian girl. She quickly became my best friend, and she began to ask me more and more questions about my faith, my family, and my childhood. After a little while, she asked if I wanted to start going to church with her, and it was that simple invitation that opened the door for my return.

By taking that step back in to church, by giving that seed of "God exists" that small chance to blossom into something more, I began my journey back towards Him and all the peace and joy He had to offer me. But it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t instant. Church felt nice, it was very homely and reminded me of my nan and all the things I missed about my childhood, but I still felt uneasy, and I could still feel that hurt in my heart. Even when my friend introduced me to the most amazing people at the Catholic Society, part of me still didn’t feel worthy, and I was so sure they would smell the ‘unfaithful’ all over me. But, I was open to Him, and I was starting to ask the right questions, and He was there to provide the answers. And after that first year of seeking, I went on a whole new journey with this new best friend of mine as we packed all that we could carry and set off to interrail Europe for a month.

While we were travelling, seeing the most gorgeous places that I had always dreamt of seeing, things finally began to click for me. I remember so distinctly being half way through this adventure, in Dubrovnik (the most beautiful city in Croatia), looking out across the most awe-inspiring view, stood next to the most wonderful friend, feeling the peace that I had searched for so desperately. I knew, in that moment, that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and that all roads (no matter how dark or bumpy) had lead me here. What I realised is that although I had lost sight of God, He had never lost sight of me, and that God, if given half a chance, will use absolutely anything for His glory.

I suddenly saw that had my friend not died, had I not broken down and checked out of school for a year, had I not been challenged in all these ways, I would not be here in this place, with this person, at this time. I would not be the person that I now was, and my life would have looked very different. I would have gone to uni a year earlier, met completely different people, and had a whole different experience. And in that moment, I knew that I would not have wanted that; I would not have swapped any of those challenges for anything, because I didn't want to swap this peace I was feeling for anything. I was where God intended me to be, and my heart knew exactly what it was searching for all along. Him. And not just an empty and safe Sunday School version of Him, but a real, tangible, and life-changing Him.
My favourite part of the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32) is the line "and the father, seeing his son a long way off, ran to meet him." You see, the father did not see his son and just stand there waiting for him to come and grovel at his feet, no, he ran to meet him. Anyone thinking of stepping back into the Church should please remember this. The father of the story, that is our God. He is not waiting at a distance, cold and punishing. No, He is desperately waiting to see you make that teeniest move towards Him, and when He sees that, He will run to meet you, exactly where you are. That's the beauty of God, He meets us where we are at, and He embraces us; flaws and all.

In the story, the son was no less his son after squandering all of his money than he was at the beginning of the story, because as the scripture of Youth 2000's 2017 Summer Festival pointed out, we have an Inheritance that cannot fade away or spoil. We are sons and daughters, and the Church is our home. This is unconditional, this is our birth-right. There is no one who can take that away from you, or anyone who can tell you that you are not worthy of that (not even yourself). There is nowhere too far away or a time that is too late for you to make that small step back home, because I assure you, God is going to run to meet you and walk with you all the way back. And whichever way He takes you, it will be everything you have been searching for, and so much more.

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