This is the third time I have written a post featuring a work by Jacqueline Woodson. She is a celebrated contemporary author, and her work continues to resonate with me. In her short novel Another Brooklyn, protagonist and narrator August tells her coming of age story and attempts to come to terms with her mother’s suicide that occurred when she was a child. As a grown anthropologist looking back on her life, August weaves her memories with observations of various cultures’ views and practices around death and dying. From India, Korea and Mongolia to Mauritania, Uganda and Bali to the Philippines, Indonesia and Fiji and even to an enslaved Ibo tribe off the coast of South Carolina, she notes a wide array of responses to human suffering and loss.
August describes the first day of her college career at Brown when she tells the professor,
"I’m here because even when I was a kid, I wanted a deeper understanding of death and dying,” (159).
Her observations stirred a memory of my own time at Brown when I designed a project for a comparative literature course called Literature in Medicine. I had spent the semester studying depictions in literature of humanistic side to medical treatment, including reading Dr. Eric J. Cassel’s admonishment that damage and suffering contain “features that must be defined in terms of a specific person at a specific time” (from “The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine”). I decided I wanted to take a stab at noting the definitions myself, and after emailing several physicians at a local hospital I found one who would let me interview his inpatients.
Cassel instructed doctors to note a patient’s “comfort zone”, to understand how a patient is feeling and what the patient understands so he or she can know how to treat the patient, how much information to offer and how s/he can extend compassion. This humanistic outlook, Cassel argued, would assist the physician in fulfilling the twin obligations to relieve suffering and cure disease. Keeping this in mind, I designed a set of questions also based on Dr. William J Donnelly’s ideas in his article “Right the Medical Record: Transforming Chronicle into Story” in which he stresses the importance of the documentation of patients’ feelings and knowledge of their situations. I asked the patients what they knew and felt about their situations, what kind of pain was involved, whether they could describe the situation using a metaphor, how the illness affected their lives, whether they thought their situations unique from others dealing with the same illness, how the illness changed or confirmed their outlooks on life, what they learned from the experience and what, if any, beliefs helped them through it all. Each of the interviews was unique and revealed a patient’s particular needs and feelings about his or her illness and treatment. I never received a complete set of answers to my questions from any one patient, and each conversation took a different turn.
I would have loved feedback from my professor, but since I was an underclassman in the course, I was assigned to a T.A. who met me at a sandwich shop to give his feedback on the interviews.
“Have you ever considered going into anthropology?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” I admitted, surprised. “I hadn’t thought about it.”
“I think this is a great start to a study in anthropology,” he continued, “You should think about it. I really enjoyed your paper.”
I smiled, relishing the compliments.
“What are you going into?”
“Medicine,” I stated, as if it were the most obvious choice. I loved literature, but the course was Literature in Medicine. It was a good excuse to read about the field I hoped to be passionate about.
The patients I interviewed for my project weren’t near death, so my compilation of observations differed from Woodson’s character. Later, during an internship in internal medicine and surgery following medical school, I continued to gather stories from patients about what they thought of their illnesses and plenty more about what they thought of their doctors, but unfortunately, I also had more than my share of experience with death and dying.
Over the course of my one-year internship I lost twenty, mainly elderly, patients in my care. During my one month rotation in the ICU I pronounced two patients each time I was on call (every fourth night). I felt like the Grim Reaper. My fellow interns and residents sympathized with me. They reassured me it wasn’t due to anything other than being handed patients who were truly ill. Sometimes the patients had orders not to resuscitate. Sometimes we found out about their wishes after having already started the resuscitation process at which time we withdrew interventions. Other times we did all we could. I assisted with the positioning of lines to administer life-supporting medications. I felt a woman’s ribs crack under my palms as I performed CPR.
At the end, when it was time to declare them gone, I used my stethoscope to assess for a heartbeat and breath sounds. When the heart and lungs were quiet, I would look at the clock and announce the time of death.
However, I discovered that sometimes the organs would seemingly continue to function beyond when we would accept the person as gone. On one occasion, with close family at the ICU bedside of their loved one who had clearly passed on, I detected delayed electrical charges as the patient’s heart squeezed out one beat more. With the nurse glaring at me to call time already, I felt stuck between my obligations to make sure his heart was truly still and to give the waiting family some release. In another ICU case, after I had already called time of death, the patient’s chest heaved two last agonal breaths. I placed my hand on the dead man’s arm and willed myself to speak words of reassurance to his twenty-year-old son who had witnessed them.
“This is normal. The muscles can contract after a person dies to give the impression that they are taking a last breath.”
The son was terrified, but then again, having lost his mother to cancer the year prior and then to observe his father struggling in the ICU at his end, well, it would be too much for anyone.
You can guess how this affected me. How sometimes I would be alone in a room with the deceased and fear them coming back to life, grabbing my arm, shaking me that I had made a terrible and incompetent mistake. Of course each death was upsetting. And the effect snowballed.
I remember one woman in a regular hospital room who, not having been sick enough to require the ICU earlier in the day, began struggling to breath overnight while I was on call. She had a DNR order. Perhaps she also had a “Do not transfer to the ICU” order as well. I don’t remember, but that would make sense looking back on this. She wasn’t one of my patients, only one I was covering for the night. I had a vague understanding that her family was aware of her situation, although she was alone that evening. I can’t remember any details of her case, only that she must have had some underlying lung disease -- cancer or otherwise -- and as her oxygen demand increased that evening, the decision in front of me and the rest of the team was to give her morphine and make her comfortable while she passed away.
I ordered an ABG -- an arterial blood gas. It’s a painful blood draw from an artery that can give insight how much her lungs were struggling to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide.
“Who ordered this ABG?” I heard a nurse exclaim from across the workstation where I was sitting. “Why put her through this?”
“I ordered it,” I spoke up. I knew the nurse hadn’t expected anyone to answer. She just wanted to share her exasperation with the nurses around her.
“But she’s dying,” the nurse laid into me.
“I know,” I retorted. “But I’m the one who is going to let her go, and I need to know that there was nothing else I could do.” Our patient wasn’t going to make it through the night, I was fairly sure, but I also needed to be able to live with my decision. I didn’t want to call time of death before it was really time.
I think she passed away just after change of shift in the morning, after the rest of the team arrived, because I don’t remember pronouncing her, although it’s possible that I blocked it out.
This past fall, as my husband and I struggled through treatment and end of life decisions for our English golden retriever, I realized it was the first time I was deciding to actively end a life. I had seen death and dying so many times in the past, in expected and unexpected situations, but this was the first time I was choosing to end suffering through euthanasia.
I made the phone call to schedule a vet to come to our house while my husband and I were out to breakfast during a vacation that we would cut short in order to spend three precious last days with our pet. It was the hardest phone call I have ever made. I cried openly in the middle of the restaurant where I forced myself to hold it together enough to ask my questions and take notes on the vet’s name, the time of the appointment and the procedure involved.
The appointed day came too quickly, and wouldn’t you know that after an entire morning of sitting with our dog and staring at the clock, counting the minutes we had left with her, the vet ended up running late. And then we started to worry that we wouldn’t be finished before needing to get the kids at school. The situation felt absurd. But at least Sanibel was at home, we decided.
I greeted the vet in our driveway, and she immediately gave her condolences along with a warm hug. I shrugged off her medical interpretations of the Lyme disease and the attempted treatment plans. Knowing we were short on time but being all too aware that this was the last time I would introduce someone to my dog, I tried to put a face on things and remember what joy our dog had brought so many who had met her.
“Come on inside,” I waved her along behind me as I climbed the back steps, “There’s someone I want you to meet.” My voice cracked at the last word as I considered how many people would never get the privilege.
I wanted this last experience to go well for our dog who was usually extremely shy of strangers, so I slipped into the voice I used to use when she was a puppy, a higher-pitched voice usually reserved for puppies and babies. As we entered the living room where she lay in her spot next to the sofa, I announced cheerfully,
“Sanibel, there’s someone here to see you!”
Unexpectedly, Sanibel raised her head and wagged her tail (two movements that had become an extreme effort for her) and in a last burst of joy greeted this stranger. The vet offered a warm smile and immediately sat Indian style on the floor close to our dog, letting her sniff her hands before petting her.
“She’s here to help, Saniel. She’s here to help,” I continued to try to soothe her as she lay her head down again between her paws.
“Oh, she is so sweet!” The vet flashed a tragic smile, and my heart broke as she continued more slowly, “but you can tell she’s not feeling that great.”
True, her breathing was haggard, her lips hung from her mouth from the protein loss, and her legs were edematous from the fluid accumulation. She barely had the energy to move. My husband had been carrying her outside to pee where she would walk only a step or two.
She was dying, but for some reason it took me until that moment to see it.
After the vet administered a sedative, Sanibel seemed to breathe easier. My husband commented that it was the calmest he had seen her in weeks. She was peaceful.
After the vet administered the second medication to let her pass, my husband continued to stroke her side and I clung to her ears. I kissed her then and picked up my stethoscope which I had placed next to me earlier that day. I checked for a heartbeat, and there was silence. No stray electrical activity. Nothing. There was no doubt that she was gone.
For the first time in a situation like this, I didn’t look at a clock. It was sometime after one in the afternoon. I knew we had to go pick up the kids soon from school. But I don’t know what time she passed away.
We had stopped her medications a few days before she passed. She had been refusing them anyway. She had been refusing to eat. From the time she had come home from a two day hospitalization the week before she had been signaling that it was time.
I had wanted her to pass on her own. I didn’t want to carry this burden of deciding the time of her death. In stopping her medications, we let her disease advance. She was suffering, and I have to remember that letting her go was an act of compassion.
A week later I opened multiple letters and cards of condolences from the three veterinary teams who treated her at the end. Each attempted to reassure me that I had done all I could to help her.
Sanibel was terrified of thunderstorms. She would come and find us for comfort even before the first rumble -- she could sense when a storm was on its way. There have been three thunderstorms since she passed away. I have cried each time she failed to appear at our sides. I have longed for a chance to reassure her that it is okay.
As the protagonist of Woodson’s story notes rituals and attitudes surrounding death in different cultures, one common theme surfaces. Many of the groups of people try in some way to preserve their family -- either by keeping the dead in the house long after they pass or by killing the rest of the family in order to be buried with the deceased or by exhuming the deceased sometime later to wash and perform rituals over the body. Many of these examples unsettled me. Yet, while I can’t say I accept the practices themselves, I instinctively understood the sentiment behind them. As my husband carried our expired puppy out to the vet’s waiting car, I found myself desperately wanting to save some part of her. I wanted her to be with me always. If we could have buried her in the backyard, I would have wanted that at least. Instead, I clung to her head, now limp over my husband’s elbow, and kissed her goodbye.
And perhaps as I move through the stages of grief, I will one day cease to relive the steps of the process and come to accept this as true, that she was loved and we did all we could for her. When I think back on the patients I knew during my time in medicine, I have come to peace with their passings, just as, fictional as she was, Woodson’s protagonist marched towards acceptance of her own story. We may act on it in different ways, but the process of letting go is one we all must march through on this side of eternity.
This month when I made my sandwich meal delivery to an elementary-aged tutoring group through Community Cooks, the facilitator receiving the bags from me smiled and then asked,
“No kiddos with you today?”
“No,” I admitted, “they have been protesting going on outings with me,” shaking my head in regret at their choice -- and mine.
“Well, tell them they were missed. It’s always a joy to see them,” she added before we waved goodbye to each other.
How kind of her to remember my children! I suppose we are a bit of a conspicuous cluster of activity anywhere we go -- one mom attempting to hold the peace while four rowdy young children who collectively regress to toddler behavior swarm around her. Anything but meek and mild, my boisterous children are a noisy and colorful bunch.
They are also a bunch who collectively groaned multiple months in a row at the thought of needing to deliver the sandwiches. Their protests had a lot to do with the timing of the work -- we would usually drop off the food after I picked them up from school, and they preferred to head straight home after a full day. Transitions are tough, I understand that. And I’ve already written about how this type of delivery work can feel so unrewarding, but at least I was able to attend the Community Cooks Welcome Dinner this past fall to receive some encouragement. My kids haven’t received that encouragement. None of us have met the kids who receive the food, which would help make it more concrete. However, seeing the kids’ faces could enhance selfish thoughts, as in why are we giving these kids cookies and keeping none for ourselves? Why isn’t everything in the fridge up for grabs? (I have dedicated the bottom drawer of the fridge as my holding zone for any food that will be donated that week to people outside our house -- like classrooms, after school groups, meal train deliveries for new moms. It helps eliminate confusion about what is fair game and keeps unavailable food out of sight.)
Should I force them to deliver the sandwiches with me? I decided a few months ago not to push the issue. But in consolation, I decided I would remind them when I delivered the sandwiches. I would share it as part of my day and in doing so, invite them to share the sense of giving.
This technique can be effective with tithing or any kind of monetary giving as well. Since it’s more and more usual to make monetary donations online and even to set up automatic monthly donations, it is possible for even the one donating to lose track. In these cases as well, it’s helpful to talk about them together, perhaps around the dinner table, to remind each other that yes, we donated to the church this month, that yes, we donated to our sponsored child this month, that yes, we donated to that cause our friend is running the marathon for, that yes, we sent provisions to help that family in need. Perhaps then, even if our kids never see the sandwiches or the dollar bills, they will become aware of our acts of service and accept it as usual culture for our family.
But the other question to ask is, how else could they serve? Perhaps the sandwich delivery isn’t the right kind of service for them. There might be other types of service that resonate more clearly with them.
If you need fresh ideas, check out this Boston Globe article from a few years ago which features 11 ways to volunteer with your kids. In Cambridge, families can participate in the MLK Day of Service on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day each year. A couple of my friends (one Christian, one non-Christian) take their kids to serve at the Harvard Square Churches Meal Program. These are all great hands-on programs where the kids can see the results of their efforts.
In the meantime, while I consider where to encourage my kids to serve next, I reminded them recently that we are surrounded by need and that they can serve daily in small ways -- like by NOT making fun of the school lunch. (Do your kids say, “Ew, gross!” to menu options the way my kids do?) Half of all of their friends are receiving free or reduced price lunch at school (breakfast is now free for all kids in Cambridge) in order to meet their nutritious needs -- and they don't get a choice of what their mom packs them for lunch. I wouldn't want to eat something that my friends said was gross! So I remind my children to remember that, to remember the needs of the kids around them and realize they won't ever know who has choice so to treat them all well.
Sometimes service work can feel burdensome. It requires sacrifice. But perhaps we will gravitate to one form of service over another. There are many options out there. We all do what we can. And we can all do something.
In a recent conversation with friends about books and movies I shared that I watched a movie my dad had recommended called Hacksaw Ridge -- the story of Desmond Doss who served in WWII as an American Army Medic and saved dozens of lives all the while refusing to pick up a gun. His bravery and service earned him the Medal of Honor, the first ever awarded to a soldier who never fired a shot. I described the movie as a beautiful depiction of faith and sacrifice.
My Korean-American friend sitting across from me nodded gravely, willing himself to remember the title and give the film a try. Then he offered his own recommendations, including the recent Korean film called My Way which depicts the rivalry of two marathon runners, one Korean and one Japanese, and how their relationship is transformed through their service in WWII, first in the Japanese Imperial Army and then as conscripted soldiers serving in the Red Army and later in the Wehrmacht. My friend asked me what I knew about Korean-Japanese rivalry, and he seemed impressed that as young and American (naive) as I am, I had some understanding from reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (which we discussed in book club) and Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin. He told me to give the film a try and let him know what I thought.
My friend also had a book recommendation for me -- Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King. He said it was one of the most powerful books he had ever read. Well, a comment like that makes me take notice, and the brief description he provided -- of shipwrecked American sailors being enslaved in the Sahara and how it influenced Americans’ view of slavery -- seemed like a unique point of view to add to my ongoing study of race and culture.
As a testament to the unusual rhythms of my life, I first found time to read the book and was hooked even by the introduction. The text itself I found tedious as Dean King interweaves the first accounts of Captain James Riley and sailor Archibald Robbins who were two of the crew to become captured and enslaved by the Sahwari tribes when their ship the Commerce ran aground off the coast of Morocco in 1815. King details their plight to wander the desert for many months at the whim of their new masters, clad in little clothing, fed with meager provisions and suffering from extreme dehydration and other ailments. Paramount was their lack of control over their fate until some of the sailors, led by Riley, happened to meet an Arab who was sympathetic to their situation -- enough to bring them to the city of Swearah (modern day Essaouira) where he could sell the sailors for ransom to an official at an English consulate there.
When Riley finally returned to America he recorded his story and publicized it widely. He originally titled his work Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig 'Commerce' by the "Late Master and Supercargo" James Riley. It was later retitled Sufferings in Africa. Among his readers was a young Abraham Lincoln, who later listed Riley’s book among the most influential books that shaped his political ideology and views on slavery. Riley himself participated in other abolitionist work before returning to the sea near the end of his life.
At some point during my reading, my daughter spied the book and asked me about it. I relayed to her what I was learning -- about white slavery in Africa, about its influence on Abraham Lincoln, and about how long it took our country to begin to change -- first through the Civil War, and then through the Civil Rights Movement one hundred years after that, and through to today when racial discrimination still exists despite all of the laws to suggest otherwise.
My daughter sat next to me shocked to disbelief that people could take so long to change -- and that they could have such flawed views of humanity to begin with. Sometime after speaking to her I also read Reconstruction: A Concise History by Allen C. Guelzo and found myself sharing her frustration over the quagmire of opinions and policies that competed to advance the rights of American citizens and fell short of satisfying generations of people.
Today, if you do a Wikipedia search for Captain James Riley, he appears, but there are many other James Riley’s, and his story perhaps sinks into oblivion. The one copy of his original work within the extensive Minuteman Library Network is missing. But the influence of his writing helped shape the ideologies and passions of this country that cries out for freedom, and regardless of falling nameless, his story lives on in our lives.
Having delved into so much heavy history, I was ready for a change of pace and finally carved out two evenings to screen My Way, roping my husband into watching it with me. I was expecting a Korean version of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (which I read a few years ago with the library book club, although I haven’t seen the film). Certainly some themes were similar -- running...Olympic dreams...service in the Pacific during WWII… But by the end, I knew this story would stay with me in a different way from that of Louis Zamperini suffering in the Pacific -- or even that of Desmond Doss saving souls on Hacksaw Ridge.
Purporting to be based on a true events, the story created by director Kang Je-gyu is that of good heartfelt tragedy. A three tissue movie, my mom would say. After competing on unfair grounds his entire life, a Korean marathon runner ultimately surrenders his very identity to save his lifelong enemy, a Japanese marathon runner, who, over the course of their captivity in WWII, becomes his brother in fate.
However, it turns out that My Way was written on extreme conjecture of the life of a supposed-Korean man with Japanese features named Yang Kyoungjong who was captured by Americans at Normandy after having been conscripted by the Japanese Imperial Army, the Red Army and the Wehrmacht. Even more perplexing, there is no official record of Yang Kyoungjong existing before his capture. There is nothing in that history about marathon running. Nothing even about a rivalry let alone a friendship.
So moved by the film, I was angry at first that it wasn’t based more in fact. Still, I made myself get over that in order to understand its deeper message as it begged me to consider: How can a Korean man forgive the Japanese who dictated his life and the lives of his people? The story wasn’t meant to glorify a particular man’s name. There were no medals awarded for the beautiful sacrifices shown by the Korean soldier. After finding themselves repeatedly on the losing side of the war, the soldiers slip into legend and become a vehicle for ethnic healing after generations of oppression.
Consider viewing My Way or even taking on Skeletons on the Zahara and challenge yourself to new perspectives and the way our humble sacrifices live on, even without the medals.
In a recent sermon series called “New Wine”, my church’s pastors presented the history and practices of several traditions in Christianity. Assuming we had attended only one or maybe two types of churches throughout our lives, they wanted to broaden our exposure to a variety of ways to connect with God. Sermons included discussion of charismatic spirituality, contemplative spirituality, social justice spirituality, evangelical spirituality and incarnational spirituality. As I listened to the messages, I realized that I too had more experiences with some traditions than others. Still, as I reflected on the material later, I discovered I had encountered God through a variety of ways at different points in my life, and if I could just learn to train my eyes, I could have a broader understanding to allow me to look for him in new and unexpected ways.
For example, when I was asked recently if I had ever had a charismatic experience -- whether a vision or physical healing through prayer -- I balked and decided that I had only read about such experiences in books -- in the Bible, of course, but also in The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun (a Chinese Christian’s experience with persecution and God’s saving grace which reads, according to the book cover (and I agree), “like a modern day Acts”) and even in Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (which we read for book club two months ago in which he describes his mother’s miraculous recovery from being shot in the head, which she attributes to God watching over her).
But, as I considered the question further, I remembered that I had a recent vision in a dream. It was a nightmare, actually, in which one of my sons drowned in an unfamiliar pool. I woke up understandably shaken but also confused because this non-swimmer was always so careful around water -- fearful in fact, and I couldn’t understand how this could have happened, even in a dream. And yet, a couple of weeks after having this nightmare, while my family was in the hotel pool at the church retreat, I felt my mommy-spidey sense tingle, reminding me to do a headcount and scan around the pool. I panicked when I couldn’t quickly spot the son from my dream. I frantically scanned again and then realized that I hadn’t recognized him because I had been searching for his blue floatation vest….which he had taken off. I found the vest first, on the side of the pool, and found my son second, nearby and playing on an inner tube with some friends near the steps of the shallow end. Enraged by the irresponsible risk he had just taken, I made him leave the inner tube and get back in his floatie, reminding him that he did not yet know how to swim and we would be continuing with swim classes in the spring where he could work on that. I let him play then but walked away shaken. Would I have felt that spidey-sense if I hadn’t first had the dream? Perhaps. But I will also pay more attention to my dreams in the future.
Continuing with the series, when a pastor introduced contemplative spirituality as a way to practice stillness and becoming attuned to the presence of God, I also initially felt it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want long periods of silence. I wanted an active faith. And yet, I reflected on the benefits of the women’s retreat I attended this past September, and I knew I would really benefit from another weekend retreat. I also recalled the restorative feeling of taking a long walk along the bike path near my house. And right now, when I feel like winter is hanging on just a bit too long, I can’t wait to start running again, free of ice and snow, to feel that sheltered quiet as I leave behind all sounds save the blood pulsing in my ears and the wind rushing by. (N.B. The wind rushes by because it is frequently windy; my running pace is way too slow to create the wind itself.) And in all of these situations I appreciate stillness. Through nature and exercise I can rest and consider the mystery of God. I can imagine working on this vein of spirituality in these moments, as the sermon suggested, so I can learn to see God in all things.
When another pastor introduced the idea of social justice spirituality, I realized I approached the idea almost as an oxymoron. How could my pastor pair the fierce outpouring of human efforts towards justice (because what first comes to mind are secular, angry protesters at rallies) with the quiet servitude of seeking God’s justice? In the end though, practicing this form of spirituality involves beginning by noticing injustices around us and then moving to act with compassion for those in our sphere of influence, while trusting God to set all things right in the end. As a pastor from Chicago once put it, “I am not called to do everything. But I am called to do something.” I think of that in the context of how I respond to what I’m reading and to the needs in my community and the world, and it gives me the peaceful determination I need to continue working towards justice.
The last tradition introduced was incarnational spirituality, and I was aware that I approached the sermon with cynicism. I had personal experience with how interpretations of communion can produce feelings of alienation and anger. While away from home one Christmas, my childhood family visited a new church for Christmas Eve services. When the pastor there made it clear that communion was only open to those who believed the bread and wine were literally Christ’s body and blood, I hesitated to partake. In the end, when my row was dismissed I decided to approach the table. I hadn’t yet heard much about the different interpretations of this sacrament within the church, and I was surprised by how angry it made my brother as he shared his strong opinions with my family after the service, basically feeling affronted that the pastor could suggest that communion was not for everyone. Several years later while attending my friend’s Catholic wedding I felt hurt and embarrassed when she, the bride herself, denied me the Eucharist, ignoring my outstretched hands and instead making the sign of the blessing on my forehead, labeling me a Protestant -- a good Protestant, but still someone outside the fold.
So when my pastor began to preach on this topic of incarnation and communion, I prepared myself to hear the same message I had trained myself to hear over the years -- that regardless of your interpretation of the sacrament, this table was for you. And yet, that wasn’t his message. For the first time in my memory, or perhaps in the first way I could listen and understand, my pastor explained that Jesus meant this bread and wine to be his body and blood as a joining of the physical and spiritual worlds. In receiving it, we take in the spirit of God and become the body of Christ. For the first time, someone was telling me that this table was more than a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins; this table was a gift of the spirit in order to have Christ within us. The gift I had felt denied by other churches was, it turns out, for me. I didn’t have to rest in my symbolic interpretation. I could accept this gift of communion as a gift from God to fill me with his spirit. I found that incredibly uplifting and cheerfully accepted the invitation into this tradition.
I learned so much from this sermon series about how to appreciate different flavors of Christianity and how to strengthen them in my own walk. But if you studied the list of sermon topics at the start of this post, you’ll notice that I skipped over one. The one that sticks out. The one with the “E” word. That is, evangelical spirituality. I was excited for this one. And we could tell the pastor was excited to preach about it, opening with, “This is us, guys!” I enjoyed listening to the history of evangelical tradition, about Swedish immigrants who originally called themselves “Mission Friends”, who wanted to study the Bible and use what they learned to love those around them. This was a great introduction, and at a certain point I expected the pastor to begin sharing how they and we could work to share our faith. But you know what? He didn’t cover that. He circled back to the importance of Scripture and Bible study because for those first evangelicals it was revolutionary. It changed their lives and remained a central tenet to their practice. The reflection questions that accompanied this sermon likewise focused mostly on challenging us to think about our own dedication to the Bible.
The Bible has always been important to me. From my first Children’s Storybook Bible to subsequent annotated Bibles, it has always been alive for me. And while I was raised in the Evangelical Church, I never imagined that other churches might not emphasize Bible study as much.
In choosing this sermon series, the pastoral staff of my church acknowledged that many of us are only exposed to one or two faith traditions, and since we all draw to God in different ways, we may feel far from God because we aren’t pursuing the faith tradition that works best for us. The sermons weren’t meant to argue that one tradition is better than any other. They all have challenges; they all have strengths. And perhaps there is something in each for each of us. But perhaps we are naturally lopsided as well, in that one tradition will draw us closer to God than any other.
For me, that tradition is evangelical. When my pastor read the original five characteristics of evangelicalism, I felt like I was reading a list of what gave me life:
I remembered the times when Bible stories had come alive for me as a child. I remembered sharing short Scripture lessons with high school friends through a periodic letter in the early days of email. And I acknowledged that to this day I enjoy talking with others about their faith journeys.
There are Christians around me who don’t enjoy labels. They don’t want to be called evangelical, even if they uphold all of the above characteristics in their lives. They perhaps don’t even want to be called Christian. But they want to follow Jesus, and they want to draw closer to him.
A church home is, I believe, a necessary vehicle for that goal, though we are blessed with choice. If you haven’t found a church home that draws you closer to God, keep looking. Consider that perhaps you haven’t yet found the method or practice that resonates with your soul. If you feel close to God today, take a moment to celebrate that and celebrate him. And if you feel far away, can I pray for you?
God, thank you for your reminder that you are the Good Shepherd who pursues the lost sheep.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.