(Blogger’s Note: If are you uncomfortable with the topic of religion, feel free to pass on this post. I have debated sharing this part of my life on this blog, knowing that this can be a sore spot. But I’ve concluded that avoiding this would amount to sharing an incomplete version of my life. Even though my views and beliefs have changed over the years, they continue to shape my worldview and perspective. In my desire for transparency and authenticity, I feel compelled to share my spiritual journey.)
If I had to describe myself in just one word, I would use passionate. Ask me about my love of the San Francisco Giants, and I’d regale you of stories of going to 60 games my senior year of college. Need a good restaurant recommendation? Check out any of my 300+ Yelp reviews. Have a need for some dating or relationship advice? I have many strong opinions that I would be willing to share in person (or over IM/email).
As a young man, I was most passionate about Jesus, though my journey to faith was very circuitous. I grew up in a Roman Catholic household (common among Filipino families). I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school and went through all the various sacraments (Baptism, Confession, First Communion & Confirmation). Even though I was immersed in Catholicism, I really didn’t see the point. My parents did not appear any different than the parents of the neighborhood kids who didn’t go to church. In some ways, I felt I was wasting my Sundays, which should be reserved for football! In my first true act of teenage rebellion, I declared that church was a waste of my time and refused to attend. As expected, this did not go over well with my folks, and we had many screaming matches over several weeks. My 13 year old self did not back down, resolute in my beliefs (I was a teenager and knew everything about life already… duh!) and stubborn beyond anything. Eventually, my parents relented, leaving me to my own devices at home for an hour each Sunday, usually spent watching sports without being interrupted by homilies and hymns.
As most parents know, give a child and inch, they will take a mile! That’s what I did with my parents, and my behavior deteriorated. I figured that as long as I got straight A’s in school, I could do whatever I wanted. Boy, was I wrong! All the back-talk and bold statements did not go well with my family, especially my father. Over the next 2 years, my relationship with my father got worse and worse. Eventually, my dad called my family together for a meeting and announced that they were sending me off to boarding school in the Philippines, as they could not deal with me anymore. That declaration floored me and literally brought me to my “Come to Jesus” moment. I remember crying and bowing my head amidst all the yelling and screaming from the rest of the family and surrendering my life to God if He could get my father to change his mind. Miraculously, my father relented and allowed me to stay in this country and continue going to school with my friends.
I really didn’t know what happened. These moments are not part of the Catholic lexicon, so I shared this story with a few of my classmates. My best friend Gabe recognized this and explained to me that by giving my life to Jesus, I was born again. He invited me to attend youth services at his church, where I would meet other teens that had come to the same place in their lives.
For the first time, I met other kids that had a greater purpose in life. I was always told that school and education were the highest goals, but no one ever talked about what happens after school ends. In this new fraternity, I was encouraged to think beyond myself and strive for excellence, both in my personal life and in service to the larger community.
With a renewed perspective, my personality became to change. Before this awakening, I was a shy kid, very self-conscious of my diminutive stature and status as a class nerd: honors student and resident computer dweeb. I had rarely talked to anyone outside my immediate clique. But with a new sense of self, I became more gregarious, not afraid to be myself around the non-geek crowd. I came out of my shell, open to new people and new possibilities. Along with my regular studies, I participated in extra-circular activities (working on the school newspaper and year book) and took a job as a busboy at a local restaurant. On top of this, I was going to church, willingly this time, making tons of new friends outside of my high school.
Despite the changes on the outside, I still had turmoil within. My initial refusal to attend church bothered my parents, but seeing me attend another type of church increased our divide further. Eventually, my parents begrudging accepted my new beliefs, though they never reached out to see why I did what I did. I was just the rebellious one in the family, but instead of dropping out of school and dealing drugs (what other “black sheeps” do), I just went to a different church. Go figure.
Eventually, I was able to break out of my parents’ shadow when I moved out for college. Living away from home for the first time was both liberating and terrifying. Thankfully, I met a lot of great people in my dorm. We found a wonderful church and an awesome Christian community. I volunteered as a youth mentor for junior high kids, traveled to Mexico and Morocco on mission trips, and even took time off school to work in the inner cities of Los Angeles and Chicago. In between volunteer work and hanging out with friends, I even received a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies, with the intent of attending seminary and becoming a pastor.
After graduation, I moved back in with my parents. While we had buried the hatchet with our religious differences, the transition home was still very difficult. I left a like-minded community at school, people who were also passionate about Jesus and doing good deeds. Over the next several years, I struggled to find my place in the greater Christian community. I attended several churches and involved myself in different young adult groups. But in each place, I didn’t feel the energy and encouragement that I was hoping for. The people I encountered were very nice, but I couldn’t connect with the majority of them. I was still an idealistic youngster, wanting to make a real difference. But my new friends had other ideas: they were more interested in furthering their careers, for finding a spouse, or just having a good time. While all of these goals are fine on their own, they didn’t match with my primary desires.
In addition, I found myself changing in other, unanticipated ways. In my loneliness, I started to become bitter and judgmental. I must have been better than others, since they were still struggling with their faith more than I was. Of course this is nonsense, as we all have our own personal struggles, but I focused more on everyone else, as I didn’t want to deal with my own pains. My temper started to flare more, and I started to become a recluse, talking less and less to my friends.
Around this time I reconnected with an old flame, and we started dating again (and we eventually married years later). She was working at a Christian camp in the Santa Cruz mountains, but was having some of the same doubts about her faith and her church community as I was. Her grievances were actually the opposite of mine; she felted judged by her peers for having doubts and questions. She was told (in not so many words) that she was not a good enough Christian and just needed to pray more to have a better life. These platitudes were repeated often since she was in middle school, so she never felt like she was good enough to be in the Christian community. As I look back, it’s obvious to see the falsities of that advice. None of us are good enough to be Christian. It is only through the salvation of Jesus can we be saved, not our own good works or speech or thoughts (Philippians 3:4-11).
So, in the summer of 2001, we stopped going to church. I had just returned from a trip to Ethiopia with a church group, and over the 3 weeks outside the country, I was frustrated by the constant complaints and whining of my fellow workers. Having been on several different mission trips in different countries and among different cultures, I knew that the work would be difficult and challenging. Our grasp of the language was wanting, and the cultural differences were great. But my travel mates seemed to concentrate solely on the negative, which aggravated me to no end. By the time we returned back to the US, I decided to cut ties with this group.
Having many Christian friends from high school and college, I find it difficult to talk to many of them about my journey. Many of them are still travelling the same path as in college: going to church faithfully and participating in great ministries, either volunteer or vocationally. Of course, my path has diverged, but I don’t know how to talk about it with them. Maybe that’s why I’m blogging about it now, to get it off my chest.
Inevitably, the question of “Where are you going to church?” surfaces. My standard answer (and not completely deceitful one) is “I haven’t found one that fits me.” That is a true answer, but a more accurate one is “I am not looking for a church.” I’m not interested in putting energy into finding a community. I know that there are good people in good churches, but both my wife & I have been burned too many times to keep trying.
I know that the Bible asks Christians to be in community, to learn and lean on each other. I also know that being in any community (family, friends, work, etc) is always difficult, as communities consist of broken, sinful people who don’t always agree or get along. (As a husband, I know first hand how much effort it takes to keep a marriage healthy.) At this point in my life, I feel too defeated to keep looking for that right church.
Ironically, stepping away from the Evangelical Christian community, I feel like I’ve starting to see the world honestly, not clouded by group thought or expectation. While the intentions of Christians are usually honorable, I find many of the methods and much of the rhetoric to be misguided. If I were to participate in Christian community, my voice would be counter-culture to the commonly held beliefs on modern life. Again, this is another reason for me to abstain from community.
Right now, I don’t feel like a good Christian. While I try to live in a manner that Jesus would approve, I know I fall short in so many ways. In addition to my lack of church attendance, I hardly pray, and my study of the Bible is sporadic at best. My attitude is terrible, as I’m constantly trying not to judge others. So I concentrate on service, either through my work or in my daily interactions with others.
In the end, I know it’s not good enough. But maybe that realization is my saving grace…