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second simplicity: Kelley Nikondeha

Kelley is a dear friend, a deep thinker, a voracious reader of nonfiction, and a practical theologian. Here she writes about a foundational shift in her own thinking about the cross and atonement.  I especially appreciate her willingness to wrestle with mysteries and to move slowly through them.

The Cross

I came of age in evangelical circles where the cross was the high ground, the holy pinnacle of faith. The cross was the symbol above all others, the metaphor not to be desecrated with any understanding other than blood spilled as a sacrifice for my sin. My personal salvation clung to that old rugged cross where Jesus died for my sins.

Everything I knew about salvation was moored to that cross, that sacrifice for me.

Years after graduating from a Christian liberal arts college, years after completing my Masters of Divinity degree from an evangelical seminary, even years after leadership in my local charismatic church I noticed a shift.

I was reading a book about Jesus written by Marcus Borg. (This was my first foray into any scholarship stemming from the Jesus Seminar, which my evangelical colleagues convinced me to be wary of.) 

“According to the Gospels Jesus did not die for the sins of the world…He was killed because of the sins of the world.”

I underlined these words as I read the fuller chapter on the personal and political meaning surrounding the death of Jesus. I underlined them in a spirit of agreement. I kept reading.

It took me about three or four pages to realize what I just did. I stopped. I thumbed my way back to that page and read the words again. Jesus died because of sin, not for sin. Do I really agree with this? – because if I do then my understanding of the cross has just moved into uncharted territory.

But I did agree with this understanding of a domination system that killed Jesus, a man after peace. Jesus was crucified because He troubled the political system of the day, challenged the culture of violence and power with His perpetual insistence that the vulnerable ones mattered, that actual enemies of the state needed to be absorbed by love and the empire could not provide ultimate security or salvation. 

Jesus suffered the violence of crucifixion because the system would not tolerate His terrorizing ways in their homeland. Even at the hands of the powerful, He refused to resort to violence. Instead Jesus spilled His blood absorbing the violence, the hatred and the ugliness of our sin-shaped ways that governed the world.

My recognition of agreement with those words signaled to me that a paradigm shift had already occurred. Somewhere over the last set of years I’d moved from the evangelical view of substitutionary sacrifice. My understanding of the atonement veered from the more simple claim of my youth. 

And yet I was still standing – I remained devoted to Jesus and even more committed to His words and ways. I found myself in the thick of social justice practice. I never felt myself a heretic, only hell-bent on following Jesus with more vigor and less veneer. 

But as my gaze rested on those words in typeface staring back at me, I wondered what this meant for future engagement. I thought about all the ways that penal substiutionary atonement theory saturated my evangelical worldview. The songs I sang, new and old, about the cross. The Good Friday service fixated on the graphic suffering of Christ for my sins. Even the words of reflection offered before communion sounded different in my ear. How would this wider understanding of the cross impact my practice of faith, especially within an evangelical house of worship where the cross was the high place?

I felt somewhat twisted, trying to unknot the language and symbol of blood spilt for my individual sins from my years of church engagement. But I also felt free. I felt free to see that the death of Jesus was both personal and political, that the implications of His death were deeper and wider and more relevant than I’d ever imagined (or been taught).

A great blessing came to me weeks later when I sat with two mentors over lunch. I shared the sentences, now committed to memory, over sandwiches and cans of Diet Coke. “Should I be worried about my agreement with this understanding of the cross?” Their response, as if in stereo, began with gentle smiles. 

They spoke of church history, atonement theories of Patristic fathers and mystic mothers, of wide vistas of thought on the mystery of the cross and its salvific power. They assured me I was moving deeper into the mystery, not dancing on the edge of heresy. They also counseled me to not swap one binary for another – but allow both (and more) understandings of the cross to shape my own praxis.

And so I moved into the space between the binaries. It is not a simple space to inhabit. It makes some uncomfortable, my own conviction that Jesus died because of the sins of the world. It makes me uneasy - I still can’t sing songs about the blood shed for my sins, I haven’t gone to a Good Friday service since or ever seen The Passion of the Christ.

I believe the cross is more, not less, than blood spilt for our individual sins. And I believe that following Jesus does put us, like Him, in the cross hairs of the empire. People of peace always stare down the barrel of possible crucifixion, but Jesus has traveled that road already and given us hope in the shape of Sunday resurrection. The cross can never be divorced from resurrection at the hands of a loving God.

 

Kelley Nikondeha is a lover of God's justice & jubilee. She is the co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. Read more at kelleynikondeha.com.

second simplicity: Christiana Peterson

Christiana's life sounds dreamy to Wendell-Berry-loving-Christians like myself - intentional community on a farm, strawberry picking, freshly laid eggs, magic around every corner. But it turns out that such a life is a bit more complex than we imagine it to be.  

The banging gong     

James* came bounding through the heavy wooden door of the common building right before church one Sunday morning in the middle of the growing season. With his stained teeth, bleached hair, and funky floral shirt, he appeared to be an ex-hippie, a recovering addict, or both. He had the personality of an enthusiast, one who loves people, loves storytelling, and seems to love it when people love him back. In our small Mennonite intentional community, where we are nourished by hospitality to the stranger, one extra was noticeable and welcome.

That first Sunday, James felt free to chime in during teaching, offering up examples from his own life of working with the homeless and growing up in an Amish community. His stories were fascinating and foreign: divorced parents who left the Amish, several siblings who had ended up in strange messianic cults, a son from a previous relationship, a radio show where he interviewed the likes of Jennifer Knapp.

James spent his days helping on the farm with my husband.  We welcomed him into our home for meals. My husband lent James his old computer to use in the apartment he was staying in up the hill.  He read to our children and talked about his own young son from a divorce.  He talked about his upbringing in an Amish community and answered our questions about the quirks of such a life.

A few things were odd. James said he was keeping a blog about his time here and when I found it online, he had posted pictures of actual Amish folks, claiming he was ministering to the folks at our community (the folks in our community do not dress like the Amish or Old Order Mennonites). When my husband confronted him about the lie, James was quick to say that he and his editor had miscommunicated and it would be fixed. I didn’t believe him but we’d become so accustomed to odd ducks in this intentional community that we forgave a few white lies.

One evening, my husband received an email from a woman claiming to be James’ sister, one of the sisters who had been involved in a messianic cult.  James’ sister wrote that their mother had died and she’d not been able to reach her brother: could my husband have James contact her?

My husband, who was wondering at this point how to tell a virtual stranger that his mother had died, called another man from the community and they went to talk to James.

James reacted as one might expect when you hear your mother has died unexpectedly: tears, questions, deep emotion.

But something didn’t ring true.

When my husband went to fetch the computer he had lent, he discovered that James had recently created an email address, the very email address that had sent the message about his mother’s death.  At nearly the same time, while sitting at home and feeling strange about the whole thing, I found an online article sending James off from a job to care for his ailing father after his mother’s death. The article was several years old.

When my husband confronted James, our visitor grew defensive and the cracks began to show. The next day, James was driven to the bus station and given a one-way ticket back to his home state (if that really was his home state).

Initially I felt violated and fearful for my children. We were new to intentional community and probably prided ourselves a bit that we welcomed strangers into our home. But after James, we felt naïve, unprotected, and angry that someone had duped us so easily. And while I don’t think the kids were in any real danger, my husband and I began to feel a little shell-shocked about having strangers in our home.

After a few more strange visitors, I began to feel hostile to the idea of hospitality in general. I wondered if we should allow strangers into our home anymore. I felt wounded by rudeness, fear, lies, and odd ideas.

These visitors during our first years in community led me to question my naïve ideals about hospitality and my prideful, childish views of love for one’s neighbor.

As we live longer in community and experienced the often chaotic, stressful happenings, I feel an unpleasant sense that the hostility I was feeling toward James, extended not only to strangers in our community but to some of my neighbors as well.

Frankly, sometimes I think we are more likely to be willing to extend hospitality to the stranger than to our own neighbors or our own brothers and sisters in Christ. In my community, strangers and visitors are not usually permanent. We can present to them our best selves for a while, offering good meals, clean beds, and unchallenging conversation. But even if those visitors are unpleasant or offer strange experiences like James, in the end, they will leave. And once the shock has worn off, they have at least left us with good stories to tell.

But to live beside others day after day, to be confronted with their flaws and to be shamed by our own, to offer love in the midst of continual hurt or annoyance: this is another challenge.

As someone who used to consider herself a relatively nice person, I am relearning what real love and hospitality mean. The daily discipline of loving my neighbor is often ugly and painful. In our larger churches, we don’t always have to face these unpleasant people every day. Once we are home, we take the memory of them off as we shed our Sunday dress. But intentionally nurturing neighborly love means a recognition that this love cannot be taken off.

In his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen says that “when we have seen and acknowledged our own hostilities and fears without hesitation, it is more likely that we also will be able to sense from within the other pole toward which we want to lead not only ourselves but our neighbors as well.” This other pole Nouwen refers to is hospitality. He says that our hope is always to move towards hospitality. That these angry feelings are normal and that what we feel might always be a bit uglier than what we show but that we can take comfort that moving toward openness is a journey.

Admitting that we don’t always feel open to loving others is a first step. Converting hostility to hospitality is a spiritual discipline, one that began for me with a visitor named James. I realized that I didn’t really know what it meant to love another person, especially an unpleasant person who felt more like an enemy than a friend.  And without love, I was only a clanging symbol or a banging gong. I hope now that I am on the journey toward hospitality, daily crawling up on the altar of sacrificial love and staying there even when it gets hot.

 

 

Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published poetry in Catapult, Literary Mama, and Curator Magazine as well as articles on fairy tales and farm life at her.meneutics and Art House America. You can find her blog and links to her other writing atthebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @renewsustain.

second simplicity: Christie Purifoy

I didn't go to the Festival of Faith and Writing in 2012 to meet people.  I don't generally talk to strangers.  But when I sat next to Christie Purifoy, she introduced herself, and in short time we discovered that we had attended the same school, studied in the same department, and worshipped at the same church,  just a few years apart.  

Here she's written her story of coming into adult faith, and I find that the story she has told is mine, as well. Substitute infertility for whatever your first encounter with suffering was, and maybe it's your story, too.  Read this!  And absolutely add her blog to your reader.

This I Know

Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so. I imagine I’ve sung those words a thousand times.  They were a constant refrain in the Baptist churches of my childhood. They echoed down the tall, open staircase of our Sunday School building. I was so afraid of that staircase, I refused to use it or look at it. I looked instead at the white, lacy socks in my buckled Mary Janes. I looked at the shifting sea of legs, all clad, at least in recollection, in the same shade of brown polyester. The color of time-worn photographs and faded memories.

My grandmother’s church in rural west Texas did not have a fancy education building. It had low ceilings, brown paneled walls, and a view of brown fields through every window. Fields for cotton and cattle. Peanuts and watermelon. I carried pennies for the offering plate in the tattered remnants of my baby pillow. Emptied of its stuffing, I used it as a purse, but the zipper was faulty, and my precious pennies were scattered beneath the pews. 

Though my memories of these churches are small and strange, I know that something precious accrued during the years I spent in them. Years of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. Years of Wednesday nights and Sunday nights. In those churches, I was given the gift of a faith to lose. Like scattered coins. Like the diminishing echo of a familiar song. I was given a beautiful old wineskin, and, eventually, I would discover a great thirst for new wine.

*

Perhaps pain is easier to recall than pleasure. This may be why I remember so much about the year I was twenty-five. I had traveled far from west Texas. Skyscrapers, rather than water towers, were the highest structures in the landscape. Yet, some things remained unchanged. I still spent a fair portion of my week singing songs in church. 

In the dingy gymnasium of our neighborhood’s community center, I sang the words of some now-forgotten praise chorus. The lyrics spoke of God’s love for me, but I stopped singing along, my mouth sealed shut by a devastating epiphany. I realized that while I had always believed in this love in theory, I did not know this love. I did not feel it. It seemed to make no tangible difference in my life at all.

At twenty-five, I was a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Chicago. Every day I passed through a graffiti-splattered viaduct to emerge within the quiet shelter of neo-Gothic quadrangles. Yet my sudden skepticism was not an intellectual crisis of faith. I was not overly worried by the distance between the religion I practiced on one side of the viaduct and the theories I studied within university buildings that looked, ironically, a great deal like cathedrals. 

Instead of the Bible-belt’s easy assimilation of religious faith and everyday life, there was the university’s determined emphasis on “the life of the mind.” In this place, I recognized how much my faith in the love of God had always been restricted to my mind. And a book. Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so. It was another theory (a lovely theory), but theories, I discovered, cannot see you, they cannot hear you, nor can they wipe your tears away.

*

At twenty-five, I wanted to be a mom, but I could not get pregnant. Infertility would be my constant companion even as our family grew. For ten years, from diagnosis to the birth of my fourth child, I could never quite escape the label or the heartache. But over those ten years, the thing that had been a wound and a weakness became the means by which I encountered the overwhelming, life-altering love of God. 

I’ve never been able to capture those encounters in words. As much as I desire you to know this love that I have begun to know, I accept that you will not find it, at least not completely, through any written word. What we need is the Word who comes to us in our sickness and in our pain. In our doubt and in our suffering. The Word who sees us, and who catches each sparrow tear. The Word Hagar found in the desert, prompting her to exclaim, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”

Job is another who saw: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Because that is what suffering does. It makes words, books, and theories inadequate. It makes you desperate enough to consider every option, even to accept that you may have been fed a lie, a story of no real worth. Because you can study and you can learn and you can sing without ever truly seeing what it is that you know.

*

The setting of my Christian faith has changed as dramatically as the geography I inhabit. I have not seen a field of cotton in years. And I imagine my Southern Baptist grandmother would have been troubled to know that I would one day stand in an Episcopal church while my four babies were sprinkled in baptism and anointed with oil. Even some of those I worshipped with as a twenty-five-year-old in that run-down gymnasium might wonder to see me rising and kneeling to the rhythms of the Rite II liturgy. 

Yet these outward forms, while significant, are not the sum of my faith journey. The truth of my story is not found in rupture or disagreement. It isn’t found in some fine point of theology at all. Instead, I find my own story in the words Julian of Norwich heard so many years ago. Asking God for the meaning of the visions she had received over fifteen years, she heard him say:

What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.

The truth that matters most – the truth that we are, each of us, intimately known and loved by the maker of the universe – is my story’s before and my story’s after. All that has changed is the substance of my knowing.

Today, I sing that old song to my babies. Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so. Partly, this is because my repertoire of lullabies is limited. Partly, this is because I still love that old song. Singing it, I hope to fill the hearts of my children with a truth they will one day lose. Oh God, I pray, meet them there in the losing.

 

 

 

Christie Purifoy lives in southeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and four young children. After earning a PhD in English literature, she traded the university classroom for an old farmhouse and a garden. You can find more of her stories at www.christiepurifoy.com and www.deeperstory.com. Her first book is forthcoming from Revell.

second simplicity: Karissa Knox Sorrell

I don't remember the first time that I found Karissa on the internet, but we had Thailand and ESL and heartbreak in common, and her writing resonated with me.  In this piece, I think she picks up on a theme I'm seeing a lot among evangelical women - a movement from adolescent desire to be radical and on fire to adult understanding of the deep, deep love of God.


When Holiness Is A Piece of Red Yarn

During my sophomore year of high school I went with some friends to a youth service in downtown Nashville. We were in a large room in the basement of a building. The lights in the room were dimmed, but there were disco balls, strobe lights, and the hot white stage lights on the band in the front of the room. There were a bunch of other Christian teenagers there, and everyone was singing and dancing to the bands’ music. I looked around and saw hands raised high into the air, swaying to the beat. I saw faces scrunched in expressions of intense worship: eyes closed, brows furrowed, lips moving in whispered praise. Suddenly a blonde-haired boy in the front row collapsed. Several people around him knelt to catch him before his head hit the floor. He lay there, in a white-and-gray striped shirt, his eyes closed, breathing hard. “Is he okay?” I asked. 

One of my friends leaned in. “He’s slain in the spirit,” she said. “You’ve never seen that before?” I shook my head. I’d heard of such things, but I’d never seen them in person. 

But as I watched the scene, I realized: I wanted it. I wanted that euphoria. I wanted the Holy Spirit to hit me so hard I couldn’t stand up. I wanted God’s presence to be so strong it overwhelmed me. I wanted to be like these kids, who seemed so cool, so with-it, such Jesus Freaks. I lifted my hand in the air and waved it, just like some of the older people at church did when they got blessed and started shouting “Amens!” in the middle of a service. 

I closed my eyes and let the music wash over me. God, send your presence to us now. Let us feel you here with us, I prayed. And he did. I could almost see Jesus himself standing there in under the strobe lights, swaying to the music. I sank to my knees and sat on that cold, hard floor with tears running down my face, thanking Jesus for his faithfulness. My friends knelt to surround me on the floor. “Karissa, are you okay?” one of them asked. 

    “Yes,” I said dramatically. “Yes! I’m more than okay!” 

So it wasn’t being slain in the spirit. But it was close enough to what I wanted: To feel God so much I’d be literally brought to my knees.

* * * 

I grew up in a holiness denomination. We believed in a second work of grace called entire sanctification, which involved a deeper commitment to God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in you. It often felt like holiness was a kind of perfection in which my earthly self would be eradicated and covered up by a selfless, humble spiritual self. I felt like being human meant I was evil, and only through that deeper movement of the Holy Spirit in me could I become good again. I think I prayed to be sanctified three or four times, never sure if the time before really “took.” 

Once when I was attending chapel at college, I was particularly moved by a praise chorus and made my way down to the altar to pray. A campus employee came to pray with me, encouraging me to “fully commit” myself to God. I kindly told her that I’d already been entirely sanctified, but that I just wanted to come pray, that was all. She wouldn’t let it go, though. “You can ask the Holy Spirit to fill you and make you holy,” she said. I couldn’t get her to understand that that wasn’t what I’d come to the altar for. 

After that, I began questioning things like altar calls and emotional praise choruses repeated over and over. Had the altar just become a numbers game? Had the music just become a way to manipulate worshippers into a false sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence? How many times had I been convinced that I’d felt God, when really it might have been the chorus of Just as I Am and the worship pastor’s whispering voice persuading me into believing God was speaking to me? 

I began to doubt the legitimacy of such emotion-heavy worship, and to wonder if holiness was real, or if it was simply lip service given to a worn-out dogma. The girl who had once longed for a euphoric sense of the Holy Spirit now shrunk from anything that seemed designed to trigger an emotional response to him. 

* * * 

Years later, that questioning would land me in Eastern Orthodoxy. Each week, I enter my church to be greeted by the aroma of incense, the glimmer of candlelight, and the beautiful, silent icons. There is an icon of the Annunciation high on the front wall of my church. Archangel Gabriel holds his staff in his left hand, which is a sign that he is a messenger from God. His right hand is raised in greeting, perhaps also in blessing. Mary is seated and looks at Gabriel, listening to his message. In her left hand, she holds a spool of red yarn. My priest has explained that that red yarn symbolizes humanity. It reminds us of the Incarnation, of God becoming man, and of Mary giving that god-man a place to grow within her human body, literally threading humanity into his divinity. 

Right above the Annunciation is the icon of the Ascension. Jesus is floating in the midst of clouds, while several disciples and followers look up at him from the ground. In his left hand, Jesus holds that same spool of red yarn. What that means is that when Jesus returned to heaven, he took his humanity with him. Orthodox theology says that Jesus remains completely divine and completely human today. 

I had never heard that before. I had always assumed that when Jesus ascended back into heaven, he just went back to being divine and left his human side behind. Instead, he treasured his humanity so much that he refused to discard it. That tells me that we are not just a sinful, depraved race. There is something good and beautiful in us. 

This new knowledge has challenged my former definition of holiness, which felt much more like ditching humanity for divinity. Yet maybe holiness is simply wholeness, and maybe Jesus is where we can look to see that: fully human and fully God. He experienced every human fear and joy. He got angry, he felt frightened, and he mourned the death of a friend. He dined with friends, rejoiced at weddings, and loved children. Yet he also embodied divine love: he offered forgiveness, lifted up the lowly, and had tenderness toward the underdogs. 

It seems strange to simply redefine something on my own. Yet there is a prayer in one of my Orthodox prayer books that begins, “O Lord, you have honoured us with your own image and give us free will.” I wonder if that is what holiness is: the blending of divine and human, godly and worldly. Maybe holiness isn’t covering up our humanity with God; maybe it’s a perfect joining of our free, earthy human selves and God’s loving image and energies. 

While I wonder, I keep a piece of red yarn on my memo board above my writing desk, just to remind me that God didn’t cast off his humanity. 

 

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Karissa Knox Sorrell is a writer and ESOL educator from Nashville, Tennessee. She writes about faith-wrestling, family life, and cross-cultural experiences. Check out her blog and find her on twitter and Facebook

second simplicity: Stina KC

Stina is a writer-friend I met at Collegeville this summer. We bonded over birth-stories, evangelical colleges, and overseas trips that left us both limping. Everything I've read from Stina has been thoughtful, careful, and beautiful, and what she's sharing with us today is the absolute perfect way to begin our Searching for a Second Simplicity series.  Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

There was a time when I didn’t know if God was good. 

It was the summer I fell in with a group of fire-breathing Pentecostals and the summer I questioned the salvation of nearly every Christian I had ever met. It was the summer I interviewed migrants in a Kenyan refugee camp as an intern with the United Nations and the summer I nearly lost my mind from secondary trauma.

It was the summer when everything unraveled. My ideas of good and bad, true and untrue blurred into a swirling mess, a cyclone that ripped through the faith that had been growing steadily since childhood.

Some days I peer at the landscape of my faith and see the devastation that lingers even now, nine years later. It looks like the path a windstorm can wrack through an old-growth forest. It looks like a trail of downed trees. Sure, I can see regrowth among the broken limbs on the forest floor; I can see new saplings poking upward in sunlight. But I can’t help staring at all those snapped trunks and exposed roots, wondering at all that I lost in that storm.

 

***

 

Before that summer, I was just another earnest Jesus-girl. 

My heart was unguarded, my hands eagerly searched for God during worship songs in chapel, my prayers were often and my “quiet times” regular. My Bible was always in my purse, passages underlined, its pages marked with dates and stars. A well-thumbed Book of Common Prayer sat on my bedside table, alongside journals scrawled with written prayers and emotional pleas to God, asking him to use my small life for his Kingdom.

Though I was a serious young Christian, I didn’t compare to the spiritual elite on my evangelical college’s campus. You know the ones: they led discipleship small groups, were selected as student chaplains, and majored in youth ministry. A few started hosting Holy Spirit meetings during my junior year and the whisper of revival started to spread. People were talking about speaking in tongues, about prophecies and miracles. 

I wanted it all, this mysterious supernatural part of God that I never encountered in my mainline church upbringing. I wanted to be known as a highly spiritual person, an elite who knew the power of the Holy Spirit. And I wanted to serve God in the most despairing of places, in the hardest of soil.

And then it fell into my lap, like a direct response from God himself: an opportunity to work in Kakuma Refugee Camp in a desolate part of Northwestern Kenya. I jumped. Yes, Lord, I will go, I prayed. Please God, teach me more about your Global Church. Teach me about your Holy Spirit. 

Soon I was packing missionary-length skirts and loose cotton shirts. I got vaccinated for yellow fever and printed out copies of my immunizations from the student health center. I took new passport photos at Wal-Mart; I started malaria pills and bought mosquito netting. My suitcase was packed and weighed, then reweighed. 

I was ready for what God was going to teach me. It was the perfect mindset, that aching vulnerability, for a spiritual abuser to prey upon.


***


I’m finally here, I thought, my eyes scanning the arid scenery. Acacia trees dotted an otherwise empty horizon. I remember watching men on bicycles kicking up red dust as they pedaled, yellow jerry cans strapped to the back of their bike frames. The dry heat was smoldering, creating crescent sweat-stains under my Henley t-shirts.

I spent those first weeks of my internship in the United Nations compound, a compact fortress amidst the sprawling miles of corrugated tin roofed shacks and tents in the refugee camp across the dirt road. Located in the northwest corner of Kenya, Kakuma Refugee camp was home to an estimated 85 thousand refugees from neighboring countries. (Today, the population has more than doubled due to renewed war in South Sudan.) 

During the workday I would interview refugees about the worst moments in their lives. I typed their stories of rape, starvation, torture and military raids on my laptop computer. And, after the interview was over, I made a decision about that refugee’s fate. About whether their story of displacement met the UN’s definition of a refugee. About whether they had a shot at leaving the refugee camp through a resettlement program. It was a humiliating power for a 21-year-old intern to wield in the lives of vulnerable people.

The traumatic stories I absorbed each day hit hard, nearly knocking me off my feet. I needed my faith to ground me, so I started attending a Christian fellowship meeting among aid workers in the compound. 

I remember that I was the only non-Kenyan at that first meeting, and I remember meeting Andrew. When I heard him share his testimony, claiming that the Holy Spirit was alive and well today and performing many of the miracles described in the book of Acts, I knew that God had led me there. Here it is, I thought, this is the sign that God is giving me. I need to learn from this man.

Over dinners in the cafeteria, Andrew would entrance me with tales of spiritual warfare, witches and curses. About how the Holy Spirit would give him audible directions: talk to the person in the red hat, give them this message, cast out that demon, raise this person from the dead. These were not topics covered by my church upbringing or even my Evangelical college courses. I would sit there transfixed as he told me how narrow the true path was, how American churches were brimming with false teachers and demons. 

I started to believe that most Christians, including my pastor mother who taught me the words to “Jesus loves me this I know” when I was a small child, were on the outside of God’s salvation. I thought that people I knew and loved were perishing in droves. They didn’t know the real truth, the secret truth that God only reveals to those who receive supernatural gifts of the spirit.

At the end of the summer, Andrew prophesied that I would soon receive these gifts, these powers. He prophesied that I would go back to my college campus and lead a Holy Spirit revolution, bringing people back to the true faith, to the narrow path.

 

***


To this day I have never spoken in tongues, heard a direct prophecy from God or raised anyone from the dead. Instead of returning to my college to lead a Holy Spirit uprising, I limped home with a warped, damaged psyche. I was a mess.

I questioned the very goodness of God. I raged against God for the horror movies that some refugees actually live; I wept over scars and mutilated bodies, I had flashbacks and nightmares about militias and underground prison cells. And I despaired that I wasn’t good enough, or spiritual enough, or faithful enough to receive the spiritual gifts that Andrew promised I would receive.

But now I have a name for Andrew’s manipulation and warped teachings: spiritual abuse. Those two words put together have brought some semblance of meaning, of understanding to my story. I have had time and space to dissect Andrew’s theology and uncover the pseudo-Gnosticism that lurked there all along. 

I no longer believe that God is about excluding and hiding and withholding from those who seek good things. Doesn’t Jesus tell his disciples that God gives good gifts to those who ask? Not a stone instead of bread, not a snake instead of fish?

The gifts that God has given me are less exciting, less immediate than those Andrew promised. I’ve come to appreciate that slow, hard work of the kingdom comes through cultivating the fruit of the spirit as much as through the flash and sparkle of the obviously supernatural gifts. The kingdom comes through patience as much as prophecy, through gentleness as much as miraculous healing.

Still, I keep grasping around for a faith that rings true both in the American Midwest where I live now and the dusty desperation of Kakuma refugee camp where I lived then. I still don’t know why I met Andrew. I don’t comprehend why storms come or how God allows stable trees to topple. The remaining tornado path in my spiritual landscape still confounds, still upsets. 

There are days when it’s a struggle to believe. Some days I question whether God has any purpose for my life; some days I wonder if I am floundering in darkness outside God’s love like Andrew said. I mourn the loss of that earnest Jesus-girl and the simple faith I once espoused. 

But sometimes I can see sunlight pouring through the damaged tree line. In those moments I sense God’s presence as tangibly as the bright sun on my face, I can feel His warmth. I remember that the Spirit can be like the whisper of wind in the branches, a gentle restorer of all broken things.



Stina KC is a fledgling writer who blogs occasionally athttp://stinakc.wordpress.com/. After turning 30, she decided it was finally okay to write for strangers on the internet. She is an angsty Anabaptist/Anglican hybrid who likes to write about faith, motherhood, and being all grown up. Stina lives in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter.

never such devoted sisters

she was homecoming queen. i carried a video camera.

she was homecoming queen. i carried a video camera.

Two posts about my family in two days, I know!  I actually wrote this several weeks ago when Cara Strickland asked me to contribute a post to her de(tales) series.  Writing the post reminded me of how horrible I am at noticing details. I live in my head way too much - in fact, when I first got my driver's license in high school, it was practically worthless because I only knew how to get to two places, school and church.  I just never paid attention to much beyond the thoughts in my head.

Over the last few years, though, I've grown increasingly convinced that paying attention is not only essential to good writing, but also a kind of spiritual discipline. I try to cultivate it.

Attention to the physical details and emotional realities of life has always come naturally to my sister, though, and so as I started writing about details for Cara, it turned out that I was writing about my sister.  Here's how it begins:

 

Track One: Just Don’t Want Coffee -Caedmon’s Call (1997)

I never pay attention to the details.

It’s 7:35 when I clatter down the stairs in Doc Martens and no make-up, my hair in one long braid still damp from last night’s shower. I choose an apple and a banana - lunch - and ask if you’re ready.

“Is that what you’re wearing?” you reply, wrinkling your nose. Your details are perfect, as always: your sticky notes color coded, your handwriting regular as a typeface, your mascara evenly applied and your shirt from American Eagle.  I roll my eyes and head toward the garage.  

You’d prefer almost anything, from the Dixie Chicks to MxPx, but it’s my Camry and my cassette deck, so you’ve had to make peace with my Caedmon’s Call tape.  I love the way it begins:

Though I am small, I’ve seen things far beyond these city walls

The land is flat and it rolls for miles

I don’t know much, I know I’ve many places yet to see

I know I’ve been here for a while.

 

From the acoustic guitar to the whiny vocals, it’s exactly how I feel about high school in the deep south: desperate for a wider world.

You thrive in it, though. At school, you’re Quinn and I’m Daria.  You are friends with the cheerleaders and the pretty girls.  You all obsess over crushes together and have sleepovers and pass notes in class, and I feel vaguely guilty -- it must be embarrassing for you to have a sister like me, bookish, quietly defiant, misanthropic, feminist. But I just can’t get myself to care about those superficial details.

 

Read the rest at Little Did She Know.