I always hoped I wouldn’t be asked to ‘share my testimony’ at university Christian Union in the 90s, because I didn’t have an exceptional conversion story. And likewise, I don’t have an exceptional deconstruction story either. But in nearly half a century on this planet, the truth is there are ten thousand stories I could tell – none spectacular, but stories nonetheless. So today, this is the story I’m telling.
I grew up as a Christian, but in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s that is an unremarkable observation to make about your upbringing. It seemed that everyone believed in God, and the only difference I could see was the Catholic or Protestant telling of the same Christian stories. And we were Anglicans, so that was already shady territory in Northern Irish Protestantism, making us as good as Catholic in the eyes of some. My early faith story is easy to tell – Sunday school, church, Bible stories and bedtime prayers. Certainty.
It was when I went to high school, that I first got asked the question that opened up my first existential fear: “Are you born again?” I honestly didn’t know the answer. I asked mum when I went home, and she said it was just the way some people talked about following Jesus, but it opened up a fear for me, that I wasn’t doing it right, that what I believed wasn’t enough, that I’d be found out. This fear would regularly return throughout teenage years, as friends got baptised (I got confirmed), went to beachside missions (I went to the beach, without the mission), ‘saved’ their boyfriend (I didn’t have a boyfriend to save) or berated Catholics (I secretly thought they were much cooler, seemed to have more fun and was pretty convinced they too were Christians).
I moved to Scotland at the age of 18 to go to university, and I suddenly had relative freedom from labels and judgements that I didn’t realise were there. I was involved in the Christian Union and also volunteered with the local Scripture Union doing schools work – in other words, a model Christian young person. But still, I had fear. I didn’t seem to have the evangelising gene, so when there was a ‘mission week’ at CU, I’d studiously avoid bringing any of my non-christian friends and often avoid going myself. If I believed in the Gospel (which I passionately did) why did I not want to actively convert others? I feared that one day I would be found out as a non-evangelising evangelical.
One summer during uni I lived and worked at an ecumenical centre for reconciliation on the border between the north and south of Ireland. That summer mucked up all my neat boxes! The people there were charismatic yet ecumenical, mystical yet deeply grounded and straight-talking. They were Catholic and Protestant and they were deeply connected to the Celtic roots of the land, which was intoxicating for me. And they shared their faith through love and healing, not through evangelising. I felt like here I could be myself and not feel afraid that I wasn’t enough. When I think of ‘thin places’ in the Celtic tradition, where the divine comes close, I think of that place and that summer in my life.
I said that there are no blinding lights in my story, but in this retelling of my story, there is a pivotal moment that comes to mind.
After university I moved to Glasgow where I was part of an evangelical church. I was on the organising committee for an arts event we were hosting. We had agreement from the church leadership that, unlike the previous event two years earlier, this one would be more outward reaching, to create opportunities for the church members to meet members of the local community, and vice versa.
I had the idea of running some poetry workshops, in the few weeks leading up to the event, culminating in a poetry reading and exhibition. We were excited that connecting people with their own story through poetry could open their hearts and minds to meaning and purpose. By this stage, I was very open to what that meant, and had long given up on the idea that people would have momentous conversions – certainly not through anything I organised! I had lined up a poet from the local community to run two workshops, and then on the weekend of the event, we would run a third workshop ourselves exploring the Psalms as poetic expression. I was really excited and felt I was being my authentic self in the church I belonged to; so when, one week before the first workshop, I was told that the elders were pulling the pin on the poetry workshops, I was devastated. The reason? The local poet I had enlisted to help wasn’t a Christian. I was livid. How could this church expect to ‘reach’ its local community’s hearts and souls, if they were not prepared to allow people to find their own voice and open up to their own story – without always having to have that with a serve of the gospel on the side? My non-evangelistic faith was suddenly in stark contrast to that of my church, and it felt personal.
Soon afterwards, through a chance encounter, I stumbled across a group of people who, for the past 20 years, had been living as a faith community outside church walls. I fell in love with them and their irreverent yet deeply Christ-filled ways, and I felt almost instantly caught between worlds. I went to my evangelical church on a Sunday and this community on a Monday, and felt like they were worlds apart. Around this time I also fell in love with Paul, my now husband, a man who does not profess to any faith, and yet it felt like I’d met my soulmate. It was he who observed that increasingly I was choosing my Monday nights over my Sunday mornings.
What stopped me making a decision sooner about church, even before I stumbled on this new community or before I met Paul, was my old friend fear. Fear of what my parents would say if I left church, fear that I was ‘falling away’, fear of the anxiety and concern I would cause so many others, fear that, as a (former) youth worker, I would drag others down with me who had seen me as some sort of Christian leader. Yet it became clear what the authentic me had to do, and so I left.
In 2009 Paul and I left Glasgow with our two-year old daughter, and moved to his hometown of Adelaide, in South Australia. I haven’t managed to replace that community on this side of the planet, but I think I always knew I wouldn’t. But in the last ten years, I increasingly feel I have found genuine and honest spiritual connection in new ways, including within the Nomad community, for which I am hugely grateful.
Sometimes I wonder if I have just run away from the hard stuff. It is definitely easier to be fully myself when I am a long way from the place of my birth, from a culture where I find it hard to
explore faith and alternative forms of spiritual expression. One day I want to feel I can authentically be myself when I go home. But that’s not my story yet, and for today, the story I tell is this unfinished one, where, most days, I don’t fear anymore that I’ve got it wrong.
– Melanie Lambert