“OK, let’s sing that verse again,” the worship leader said. “And this time sing it with everything you’ve got!”
I was sitting in the back row of the church cradling a sleeping baby. I was lonely and exhausted—deeply disconnected from the upbeat music coming from the stage. A voice inside my head whispered back to the man with the guitar: “What if my everything is gone? What if nothing is all I’ve got?”
My husband and I had been doing ministry in an evangelical denomination for many years. I knew perfectly well what I was supposed to be feeling, but there was a cold dark hole where my passion used to be. Things had fallen apart at our last church for reasons outside of our control, but we left feeling deeply hurt and disillusioned. We were trying to be good Christians and continued attending church elsewhere, but most Sundays I hated it. I was completely burned out and no amount of praise choruses could change that.
If salvation is by grace through faith, which is a gift of God, then why did it feel like I had to perform my salvation every Sunday in order to prove to others (and myself) that I was saved? Why did it feel like every Sunday was a challenge to feel more, be more, and do more? Why did church ministry feel like little more than a weekly struggle to outdo the performance of last week’s service?
“If this is all there is to church,” I thought, “then maybe I’m done with church.”
Several months passed and I started a doctoral program in theology in a new city. We now had a toddler and a baby on the way. My husband needed a job and he applied for a part-time position leading youth ministry for a small Methodist congregation. We weren’t sure we wanted to be involved in church work again, but it was nearby, we liked the pastor, and the requirements fit our schedule.
I started attending church again hesitantly and mostly out of a sense of obligation. At first, I went to the early service because 1) it was early enough that my son could still get in a morning nap and 2) I wouldn’t have to see many people. I didn’t realize the early service was also the “traditional” service, which included written prayers, multiple scripture readings, and the creed.
I knew there were traditions that recited the Nicene Creed every Sunday but I had never done it myself. When I stood up to say the creed on that first Sunday, I was shocked to discover I actually felt something—something that very nearly resembled faith.
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” As I said the words, there was a dim flicker of hope beneath the layers of exhaustion. I heard my voice blending in with the voices of those around me, saying words that Christians have said for hundreds of years, reaffirming my faith in the Triune God despite my circumstances and despite my feelings. And as the syllables rolled off my tongue, my weary spirit began to revive.
While Ronnie served the youth, I continued to attend church. And slowly but surely, the liturgy restored my soul. That is to say, through the liturgy God restored my soul. At the time, when I tried to describe what was happening to others, I told them it was like the words of the liturgy were carrying me to Christ. My soul was too fatigued to walk. In fact, it was like I had completely forgotten how. But the liturgy didn’t require that of me. As long as I participated, the liturgy—the church!—cradled me in her arms and carried me to Christ.
Salvation by Grace through Faith
Eventually, our time with the Methodist church ended and we found our way to an Episcopal congregation. The priest there was kind enough to mentor two former Baptists who hadn’t quite figured out yet where they belonged. He patiently introduced us to Anglican theology, the prayer book, the liturgy, and other aspects of the tradition. He also fielded all of our questions—and there were a lot of them.
The Episcopal Church introduced us to weekly Eucharist and, even though I was sold on the liturgy, I remained leery of the possibility of “empty ritualism.” Imagine my surprise when I found myself weeping at the Communion rail week after week.
I know now that I was weeping because I was receiving Christ’s gift of himself. I was receiving Christ in a real and yet mysterious way: with my hands and into my very body. He was really with me, united with me, body and soul, just as he had promised. This was true before, of course, but now I could plainly taste and see it every time we received the Eucharist.
From the time of my conversion, I had believed that salvation is a gift of God. I had taught for many years that the gospel is God’s work and God’s alone: “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6).
I knew this truth in my head, but when we began receiving the Eucharist every week I finally experienced it with my body: kneeling, bowing my head, and extending my empty hands to receive Christ’s gift of himself. I didn’t have to feel anything, fake anything, or do anything, but lift the bread to my mouth.
This is salvation by grace through faith, I thought. It really is a gift of God.
Emily McGowin is Associate Lecturer of Theology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL and a deacon in the C4SO Diocese. Her first book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family, was recently released by Fortress Press. Emily and her husband, Ronnie, have three children. You can read more about her at her website.