Religion was a purely cultural experience for me during my formative years. It was an affiliation of people who felt a sense of belonging with one another, because they willingly woke themselves on a weekend morning to attend a service with the same people, week after week. My sisters and I would feign sickness to avoid church, or begrudgingly dress ourselves and cover the latest book we'd been dying to read with our cloth Bible covers we'd been gifted, hoping it would save us from an hour of boredom.
I was the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son for many years, always abiding by the rules. By the time I turned 16, I became aware of the hypocrisy of my peers. I saw their behavior on a Friday night, yet they sat in the pew ahead of me on a Sunday morning. Meanwhile I was the model child, always taking precaution, quite risk-averse. I grew resentful of these rule breakers, and began to question why they would show their face at church. Then I began to question why I was in church, unaware of my own Pharisaic hypocrisy. “Church is a cultural experience. It's what we've always done as a family,” I'd tell myself. But I saw that church had nothing more to offer me. I changed my own behaviors to align myself with the hypocrites; clearly, they were prospering, and I had everything to gain from this shift. I eventually recognized my own inconsistencies as my parents continued to make me attend church, and I refused to be lukewarm. So I renounced my cultural Christian faith and ceased attending church.
After several long, hard years of rebellion against loved ones and the church, I came to know Jesus through his divine providence while away at Virginia Tech. A Christian girl at my high school, in spite of my terrible behavior toward others, and much to my surprise, asked me to be her roommate. Through the intricate workings of God and the Holy Spirit in my heart--and stories I don't quite have the space to share--the Lord met me one early Friday morning before my 8 am economics class. For a decade now, I've been learning who Jesus is and what it means to be a part of a Gospel-believing, Gospel-preaching church. There is a reason, after all, why the same people, week after week, choose to wake themselves to come together and listen to a sermon.
There is a unity in Christian community that points to the unity of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is this Jesus who doesn't expect us to have it all together and who comes especially to care for the sick, poor, and outcast, the rebel sinner, and even the hypocrites--this Jesus desires that all would know him. And there is a Gospel story that never grows old--with a plot that the best book in this world can’t overshadow in its twists and turns and a Hero that no other protagonist can surpass with his genius. This Gospel is preached every Sunday morning to a bunch of others sinners like me, to set our hearts on the Lord and to remind us of the amazing grace he offers through Jesus. My Christian faith is anything but cultural; it is not something I choose to do out of tradition or obligation. It is essential to who I am, and it is by the grace of a most compassionate God that I proclaim faith in Jesus.