My own there and back again
This past Saturday night as the moon rose over Newfound Lake at Camp Berea's Women's Retreat in Hebron, NH, I entered the gym for a time of worship, teaching and reflection. My mind was spinning a little from trying to absorb information from the four talks I had already listened to that day, and my voice was a little sore from singing alone in the A-frame chapel for over an hour -- an unattended piano, how could I resist?
The day had started with a warm sunrise, though my roommate and I found the wind a little brisk out on the water after we partnered up to slide kayaks into the lake. Our three new Portuguese-speaking friends followed us in but kept their boats close to shore while my roommate and I allowed ourselves to drift to the middle of lake.
“Thanks for getting me out here,” I told her. “I haven’t been in a kayak in probably twenty years.”
She smiled and proceeded to ask me questions and share her thoughts about the talk the night before, American traditions, tenets of faith and struggles in motherhood. I learned that she was a recent Chinese immigrant, a young mother and a new Christian just baptized last year. I prayed silently that I would have the wisdom to answer her questions. In her eyes I was wealthy, educated, practically living a life of leisure now that all of my kids attended school during the day. She also expected I was seasoned in my faith, having been a Christian most of my life.
“You became a Christian at age six?”
“Yes, I think so. I remember sitting in a pew at church reading a booklet on how to ask Jesus to live in my heart.”
“You could read already?”
“I think so. My memories are fuzzy though. I should probably ask my mother,” I tried to joke. “But it was sometime around then.”
“My daughter -- she’s four -- she has no interest in reading or letters or anything,” my friend shared, her slumped shoulders clearly discouraged.
I thought about my daughter who could read at age four and a half. I thought of my five year old son who was still learning his letters.
“There’s definitely a range of when kids learn,” I offered.
That thread ended there, as most of our threads finished before we got too specific. We didn’t talk about the struggles in detail, like sharing about times we lost our tempers or times we felt like failures, but those details were implied. We weren’t going to be shoulders for each other to cry on, although I knew she had been up for hours the night before, having left the cabin to cry it out by herself. We were going to bolster each other though, and be mirrors of encouragement to each other as we used the weekend to give our spiritual lives a check up.
After about 45 minutes we realized we could make it to morning devotions if we booked it back to shore. My friend’s boat glided easily towards the little beach. I, on the other hand, felt like I had to fight the tiny waves with all of my strength to try to keep up. We finally both made it, stored our kayaks, paddles and life vests, ran to grab our Bibles and headed to the Lodge for devotions (a short lesson on a passage from Scripture).
Following that, the day continued at a brisk pace for me as I sought to pack in as much teaching as possible. Breakfast, shower, worship, teaching, seminar, lunch, two more seminars, singing break in the A-frame, dinner, worship, teaching, ice cream break, and songs and stories by the campfire. At the end of all of that, the staff suggested that we get together in small groups and reflect on the day’s teaching, but right then I needed sleep. There was too much, too much to grasp. I needed to let it rest overnight.
I woke in the morning in a rush to get to the road for a quick run, but the scene over the lake stopped me short. The sun was just cresting over the mountains in the distance, and a wispy blanket of mist rose gently from the water, like newly spun cotton candy trying to take flight. The chilly scene encouraged me that perhaps I too would sort out the threads of teaching and find the takeaway points to carry me into this new year and new season in my life.
“September is such a wash,” I suggested to a friend the night before. Full of the post-summer crash, gearing up for school and after-school activities, reuniting with friends and small groups and setting goals for the year ahead. My friend suggested we would hit our stride in mid-October.
I had been anticipating September for about a year now, hoping that having all of my children in school would give me space to clear my head, recharge and discover a new vocation. But due to rolling start days, it was September 10th before they were all at school. That week my phone was turned up to full volume as I anticipated a phone call from the school saying that there had been a mistake, that my three and a half year old twin boys weren’t ready, weren’t toilet-trained enough, would for some reason have to stay at home for awhile.
I turned the ringer down to a reasonable level sometime in the second week as my boys proved they were trying, and as the teachers showed they are full of grace. But my mind remained cluttered. What projects should I finish now? How can my house be organized better? How much time should I really devote to housework? How often should I get together with friends? How much time should I devote to serving in church? And how do I approach a writing project that has no deadline?
As busy as I kept myself during the retreat -- I didn’t even participate in the crafts and other outdoor activities like the high ropes course or giant swing or archery tag -- it was restful in the sense that I had the chance to step away from home and regular responsibilities. Meals were cooked for me. Dishes were washed for me. Children were taken care of for me -- thank you to my husband and mother-in-law and sister and sister-in-law and the Sunday school teachers and piano teacher and swimming instructors and friends who kept them going this weekend!
But I didn’t come here just to rest. I also came to learn and to revisit timeless truths, starting with remembering who God is and what he has done for me.
The theme of the weekend was “Within Reach: Connecting with the things that matter”. In this culture of being able to have anything you want on your doorstep in two days or less, why do we feel sometimes that God is far away? Crystal Kirgiss, author, speaker and teacher from Purdue University, spoke on four stories from the New Testament and explained how they show that Jesus is always within reach.
Like Zaccheus, if we take the time to reach out to Jesus, we will be changed too. Like for the woman who had bled for twelve years and sought healing, Jesus stops to listen to us as well. He heals us and gives us our identity as daughters in Christ. Like the prodigal son, we have been on the wrong path at times. We need only tell Jesus that we want to come home, and he forgives us and welcomes us. Like the prodigal son’s older brother, we have been prideful and self-seeking, and Jesus reminds us to be grateful that we are already home and to cultivate a heart of service. Like Peter, we want to be called to do amazing things like walking on water, but Jesus reminds us to keep our eyes on him, that we are called to be humble and obedient to him.
In another seminar, Crystal Kirgiss gave suggestions for “creative ways to read the Bible”. She pointed out that when we read the Bible, often our first question is, “how can I apply this passage to my life?” but she urged us instead to look for who God is in each passage. I had to chuckle to myself because when I teach my kids about the Bible I explain that it is God’s story. I have tried to drive home that point with them, but I normally forget it for myself. How many times have I scoured the text looking for ways to apply it to my personal life before first dwelling on God himself? For sure, the Bible is also the handbook for Christian living, but it is first and always God’s story.
Still, meshing the two goals, Crystal gave us an opportunity to practice looking for God in the form of personalizing the text, meaning, as she phrased it, “take a passage and amplify it to apply to your specific context, life, situation.” She directed our attention to Psalm 23 and pointed out that while we don’t have shepherds in our life the way David could relate to shepherds, we could describe God in our personal context. She asked us to copy the following rubric and fill it in:
“The Lord is my ____________. I lack nothing. He:
After a few minutes she asked a few women to read their responses aloud. There were a couple of tentative volunteers at first, but after one woman became emotional and had trouble reading hers aloud, we heard the power in this exercise as women were humbled and grateful for the ways they had seen God in their lives. Hands went up all over the room to share their God in metaphor.
My roommate who was sitting next to me volunteered to read, and she choked out her words as she described God as the lighthouse that brings her home and gives her connection.
I glanced down at my own attempt and immediately wanted to edit and revise. That is the writer in me, I suppose. This is what I wrote:
The Lord is my library. I lack nothing. He gives me material to learn from, stories to delight in, and community to share in. He gives me a safe quiet place to rest.
At another seminar staff member Susan Cabana spoke on “Identity Amnesia” in a seminar, carrying forward the idea of remembering your identity in Christ. Words like “loved”, “created with purpose”, “known”, “chosen” are words used in the Bible to describe me.
I was grateful for these ladies’ teaching that reminded me I am a changed, forgiven, humbled and grateful daughter of God.
And of course, the mother in me then wondered, how can I teach this to my children? How can I show them what God looks like?
Always the eager student, I made sure to attend the seminar on “parenting with grace” given by Karen Brits, a soft spoken native of South Africa whose powerful words were a beautiful reminder that just as God’s mercies for us are new every morning, we should practice forgiving ourselves, apologizing to our kids when we mess up, and then go and discipline them with grace. She left us with incredible reminders like that from Phillip Yancey:
“Grace says, “there is nothing you can do to make God love you more and there is nothing you can do to make God love you less.”
From Everyday Prayers: 365 Days to a Gospel-Centered Faith by Scotty Smith, she highlighted the lines:
“Oh, the arrogant pride of thinking that by my “good parenting” I can take credit for what you alone have graciously done in the lives of my children. Oh, the arrogant unbelief of assuming that by my “bad parenting” I’ve forever limited what you will accomplish in the future.”
How can we remember that God is bigger than our fears? How can we have the confidence to believe that what God says is true?
As I reflected on what I wanted for my children, for their growth and for our relationships, I delighted in the realization that I missed them. I did! Absence really does make the heart grow fonder! Being away from crying and demanding really helps, and I could spend time celebrating who each one of them is.
When I first took trips away from my children I made sure to tell every stranger on every bus and airplane that I was a mother of four. Sometimes I wanted them to cheer with me that I had time to myself. Sometimes I wanted them to worry about my kids with me and reassure me that all logistics would work out and that it was okay for me to step away. Over the years I have stopped forcing my story on people, but the feelings remain, the weighty feeling that my full identity including my mom-self is packed up in my luggage along with my reading material and toiletries.
Last weekend I attended a baby shower for a friend in Denver. As the plane touched down in sunny, hot Colorado I decided I felt like Elastigirl from the Incredibles. Not in the superhero way. Far from that. But in the sense that I knew some part of me would remain with my children no matter how far away I traveled. And somehow, even though Elastigirl’s feats and tricks look frighteningly painful as she stops runaway trains or transforms herself into a parachute, I know the only pain of being stretched by travel is the beautiful heartache that comes from knowing I have other parts of me out in the world. This connection to my kids will remain, despite being stretched by any distance.
Like I mentioned: so much to process.
Following a brief run, shower and session of devotions on that last morning, we entered the gym for the final session of worship and teaching, this time to be followed by communion. We were also asked to fill out an evaluation of the program. The paper form included this question: What did God do in your life this weekend? During worship that morning we were asked to “distill it down to one word” and call it out. Women called out praise, hope, fellowship, be still, trust, redemption, and other words that reflected the important lessons and reminders from the messages and experiences we shared.
And me? I was reminded of who God is, how to find him, who he says I am, and tools for how to live the life he wants me to live. Or, putting it this way: I was reminded to praise God, to be grateful for all of the blessings in my life, and to have courage to take next steps as I follow where he is leading me.
Incidentally, our main speaker Crystal Kirgiss is a huge Tolkien fan, and as the retreat coincided with Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthdays, she bid us a “Happy Hobbit Day” during one of her talks. And in a way, the weekend did feel like a rebirth as I said goodbye to new friends and hopped into my rental car, having been there and now heading home. With each mile covered I could feel my stretched self relax until there was no space between me and my children who hugged me in turn and welcomed me back home again.
My friend asked me this. Over email. And continued, “does it mean you try to convert people?”
I stared at the computer screen for a few moments, wondering what she already knew and believed, what she wanted to know, and what kind of answer I could possibly provide her. Would my reply jive with my church’s official definition? Would it meet my Evangelical friends’ approval? I felt a sudden chill and a gut-wrenching feeling of responsibility to give a brighter face to a word that has grown so tainted.
And then I told myself to get over it, to answer her question honestly from my own experience and then later conduct massive internet research as well as quiz my Evangelical friends about what they would say.
I wrote her back within minutes of reading her email. This is what I said:
“I really admire your open curiosity. I will get to work on a piece to answer your question on evangelicalism. I know you aren't the only person who wonders that. In a nutshell, Jesus called Christians to share the gospel and love others. The conversion piece gets muddled because of that great commission. There have been a wide variety of ways people have interpreted the call to share the gospel -- anything from blatant war to faithful service like that of Mother Teresa. I believe the Bible says only God can convert hearts, but that Christians are supposed to have a positive influence by living out their faith.”
A few days later I told her in person that I had spent some time fleshing out my answer to her question and that it was taking a turn into trying to also answer the question, “What is a Christian?” My friend suggested that different Christians would answer these questions in as many ways since there are so many branches to Christianity. Beneath those comments I felt another unspoken question:
“How can I believe anything anyone says when Christians can’t even agree among themselves?”
After that conversation I felt completely deflated. What authority could I possibly have to answer anyone? Should I even attempt to answer these questions?
Yes, I decided. Even if only for myself. I was going to work through this.
Speaking to my friend reminded me of another conversation I had earlier this year, just before Easter.
While at a playspace near my house I ran into a neighborhood mom I only know in a cursory sense. She was there with her young daughter and new baby. I was there with my four kids. While our mobile children constructed obstacle courses and forts out of foam mats we made a fuss over her baby and shared updates from our lives. I was anxiously anticipating having all four of my kids in school, a reality still over five months away, but was keeping busy in the meantime organizing events and discussions for moms and families in the neighborhood. She shared that she had recently returned to part time work and was now in charge of events for a branch of the Jewish Community Center. We talked about the ins and outs of project planning, and she felt compelled to share that she was secular Jewish, and that these events are open to everyone. I shared that while I help run a Christian after school club for my kids and classmates of theirs, which is open to everyone as well, it isn’t always perceived as being inclusive.
“Oh, you go to church?” she asked, surprised.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I mean, I know there are churches around here but, well, not those churches, but you know, other ones.” She waffled, landing on the safe local assumption that the churches around here must be okay because this is the land of the tolerant and okay.
“We go to an Evangelical Church,” I clarified, not wanting to call her out but not wanting to hide either.
Pause. Her mouth opened. She waited.
“Oh. I didn’t know there were churches like that around here.”
“There aren’t many. There are three main ones. We go to one in Arlington.” I swallowed, considering what to say, what she might want to know. “It’s not political. It’s just about people trying to live out their faith.”
She nodded, and I could see her wondering if we were still meant to be friends, perhaps wondering if she should still consider me a sane person. But then she said,
“I was going to take my daughter to an Easter egg hunt this weekend because Easter is coming up,” she smiled weakly with a glance at me, “but I guess you know that. And I was trying to tell her that Easter isn’t really about the Easter Bunny and eggs but then I couldn’t remember what it really was about. It’s not Jesus’ birthday, right? That’s--”
“That’s Christmas,” I supplied.
“Christmas. Right. But it’s…” She trailed off.
“Good Friday is when we remember Jesus’s death, and Easter Sunday is when we celebrate his resurrection.”
She nodded but there wasn’t much recognition on her part and as she wondered aloud why Easter coincides with Passover we were interrupted by the need to rescue a child from a collapsing foam tower. Our time moved on, but I continued to mull things over. I found myself coming to a slow understanding of how she could have grown up in this country and have little knowledge of the Christian story.
Over the past forty or fifty years Americans have worked tirelessly to brush Christianity out of schools, and some who wish it gone have told me personally that the work is far from finished. How does this affect us? At my children’s school families are invited to present on a holiday and share family traditions. The Christians I know don’t dare present on Christmas or Easter for fear of offending someone. Christianity began as a cult following and is once again a taboo religion. Unless you seek it out you aren’t likely to learn the Christian story. I worry that in the absence of education Christianity has been reinvented as loud extremist voices and antagonistic political views.
Later that evening I emailed my neighbor the following information:
“Easter coincides with Passover because Christian believe Jesus is the ultimate sacrificial lamb, that his death was the fulfillment of the Jewish law to take away the penalty for sin forever...but that the death wasn't the full story because as he rose again, Christians also believe they can rise to new life to be with God forever (which some call Heaven) when they choose to follow Jesus. That's the faith in a nutshell! The eggs and baby animals in commercial Easter I think just serve to symbolize new life. Who knows where the bunny comes in.”
In reply, she thanked me for the information, went on to describe Passover itself and noted how interesting how there was so much “overlap...with symbolism” in Christianity and Judaism.
In the end, I was disappointed by this gap in knowledge, but I saw hope in my friend’s patience in learning something new and her desire to educate her daughter on the traditions of another faith. I have discovered many other mothers in the community who share similar hopes to raise their kids in a religious tradition as they seek to understand those around them. Our interfaith gathering this past spring helped us grow closer in that vein.
One of the questions asked at the gathering was this:
“Can those who are Christians here please explain which sect of Christianity you are affiliated with and how it compares to the others?”
As mothers boldly gave answers reflecting their personal experiences, I felt daunted by the bigger task of explaining it all.
In the beginning, it was really very simple. Jesus gave a command called The Great Commission to go and share the gospel with people of all nations. People did that. And the church grew rapidly. But then something happened. As time moved on people interpreted Jesus’ command in different ways. The Christian Tree is now a dizzying spectacle of disagreement. Check out this example from Nate Bostian’s blog. I believe it’s the same diagram my church uses to talk about church division. As my pastor once suggested, when you tell someone what kind of church you attend they immediately place you somewhere on this tree. I’m not the only one bothered by what appears to be great division. Right here in Boston there is a small group of Christians called UniteBoston dedicated to reuniting the church by creating spaces for different congregations to share their experiences and gifts.
As for me, I was raised in a Covenant and later an Evangelical Free Church, both north of Chicago. We didn’t discuss politics or current events at home, and the only national movement I heard about at church was the True Love Waits movement that encouraged waiting for sex until marriage.
And now in this country the word evangelical is easily associated with all kinds of political movements that are generally considered antagonistic.
Earlier this year yet another friend (number 3 for those counting) mused over email that:
“Your typical religious Christian is conservative. Conservatism in this country is stereotypically anti gay, anti abortion, pro guns, anti immigrant, anti welfare.”
She could spell it it out easily, as a simple description of the way things are.
I have felt blindsided time and again over the past few years as I realized I never had a finger on the pulse of our country myself. When I read other people’s experiences with evangelicals, like in Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance and Faith Ed by Linda K. Wertheimer, I feel two things: first, like I’ve been living under a rock, and second, angry that there could be so much misunderstanding.
The history of evangelicals in this country has affected me personally. In my discussions on my webpage on interfaith conversations I talk a little about my experience with sharing my faith in junior high and how that damaged friendships. In high school, with the invention and later widespread use of email, I found another outlet to write about my faith. For several months I regularly sent emails with short devotions to a broad list of friends from school. One friend politely asked to me removed from the list, describing himself as an atheist. Others thanked me for my writing, so I kept it up for awhile. College was a time of falling away from God, followed by a long time of seeking to return. While my husband and I had tried on and off to find a church where we could grow, it wasn’t until our second child was about to be born that we pursued the quest in earnest. We started attending Highrock in Arlington, MA in February, 2013 and came to consider it our church home. Highrock is an Evangelical Covenant Church.
In my current community, friends and neighbors have shrunk away a little when I share that I attend an evangelical church.
“And do you still think you belong there?” one friend (number 4) asked me last Christmas.
“Yes,” I said, while thinking, I am an Evangelical. You can’t take it out of me.
“Okay,” she said slowly, pursing her lips and trying to retain a sense of polite tolerance that common culture demands. I could sense her anxiously waiting to change the subject.
I left that conversation feeling misunderstood and not accepted.
For the record, my church’s denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, defines their identity this way:
“We are united by Christ in a holy covenant of churches empowered by the Holy Spirit to obey the great commandments and the great commission: to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to go into all the world and make disciples.”
And at Highrock Arlington, my church’s vision statement is this:
“To see God transforming every neighborhood and institution in Greater Boston through locally-focused congregations who live and love in such a compelling and Christ-like way that our neighbors are challenged to seriously consider the claims of Christ, be reconciled to God, engage in Christian community, and serve others in the unique ways God designed them to, so that Boston becomes a “city on a hill” that will be a blessing to the world.”
So, you say, are you trying to convert people?
I believe only God changes hearts, but we can and should take an active step in seeking Him. The Bible says,
“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” -- James 4:8
As Christians, we are called to influence others by living out our faith:
So how does a Christian live and grow in the twenty-first century?
I have found it helpful to:
1) return to the basics of Jesus’s teaching
[Love’s Last Words series that begins with the sermon Father, Forgive Them],
2) ask the world to forgive us for the wrongs we have committed as a church
[Forgive Us series beginning with the sermon Judgmental], and then
3) go and love others differently
[BLESS series that begins with the sermon Exiles].
In the beginning, it was really very simple. Jesus gave a command called The Great Commission to go and share the gospel with people of all nations. People did that. And the church grew, rapidly. But then something happened. The church grew in power...and grew in corruption and abuses and offenses. Today, growing pockets of our country are left with a negative impression of the church. In a sermon from April of this year called Exiles, my pastor suggested that the church’s fall from grace could be a blessing in disguise. Instead of forcing others to see our views, instead of trying to "fix" others, and instead of just trying to "fit in", we can live differently. We can return to our first love; we can forgive ourselves and others; we can extend grace to those we disagree with; we can listen to those who have been hurt. And, if people want to know, we can share how following Jesus has made a difference in our lives.
What does it mean to be an Evangelical? For me it means repeatedly being vulnerable with my friends. It means taking the risk to be different. As Christians, every day in fact, we have a new chance to practice the humility we preach and to offer grace-filled, steadfast serving love as we seek to follow Jesus’ example to love the world.
A Place to Begin
I have always loved reading, particularly novels, and have always wanted to write. This book club has been the inspiration and thrust I needed to put myself out into the world and to devote myself to my writing as I continue to work as a community organizer. Beyond the book club I have sought to bring people, and particularly moms, together in different ways -- from socializing with moms from my kids’ school, to gathering runners for road races, to encouraging discussion among women of different faiths in order to support the shared pursuit of spiritual and religious growth in our families.
I wasn’t always such a people person. Introverted and risk-averse, I originally pursued a career in medicine, although when I concentrated in neuroscience at Brown University I made sure to sneak in the requirements for a degree in English Literature as well, knowing I could never fully deny my desire to become a writer. After graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago I pursued a transitional internship in internal medicine and surgery at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Newton, MA, followed by a residency in diagnostic radiology at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, MA. I always had doubts about my career choice, and four months after my first maternity leave I decided to quit my residency halfway through and become a stay-at-home mom to my six month old daughter.
With a perfect, sleepy baby at home I finally had time to write. I began to frantically churn out the rough draft of a novel. Life was perfect...except for the fact that I was disconnected from any community.
First through playdates and church events I began to form connections with those around me, mainly through my daughter. I decided to step out of my comfort zone and make friends with anyone I met, most of those people women, and most of those, moms. In less than four years I found myself transformed from an invisible radiology resident in a dark reading room to an eye-catching mother of four (a son and a pair of twin boys followed my daughter). As it is fairly rare these days to raise four children in a small city house, I became rather well known at the local park and around the neighborhood.
Back in junior high my best friend gave me a huge basket full of pencils, legal pads, journals and books on “how to write”. It remains one of the best presents I have ever received. Like sometimes happens with dreams, writing was pushed to the side for many years. Today though, I am happy to announce the launch of my own website where I can write and encourage community bonding through avenues like book club.
Wherever you are in your journey, follow your abilities. Stoke your passions. Remember that your paycheck doesn’t define you. Your worth is innate, and your joy and satisfaction stem from what you create and share with others.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.