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second simplicity: Aaron Housholder

This is the last post in our second simplicity series, and I couldn't think of a better way to end it. In this lovely essay, my friend and colleague Aaron Housholder, a professor of creative writing at Taylor, writes about parenthood. I wish more men wrote about parenthood this way -- with honesty, humor, and so much heart. 

 

Precious Cargo

We stood around Scottie’s clear-sided plastic bassinet and chatted with the nurses as we changed his clothes to take him home. He had spent his first sixteen days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit because he was a preemie and didn’t have all of his breathing skills figured out. I volunteered to change his diaper; the nurses had done most of the diaper work thus far and I needed some practice. And of course, after I removed the old diaper but before I installed the new one, and with everyone watching, Scottie sneezed and while doing so shot out a neon green poop bullet that splatted against the end of his bassinet. Hilarity ensued.

We laughed because children are fundamentally gross and also because poop is pretty funny. There was also the need for such a release (ha!) – this was the culminating moment for us of sixteen days of leaving our boy at the hospital, and a celebratory moment for the nurses because one of their babies got to go home (which isn’t always the case in the NICU). The mood was festive as we zipped up the boy’s new fuzzy sleeper and strapped him in his carrier and took him outside. 

We took this picture in that blissful moment of anchoring our baby boy in the van for the first time:

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 8.58.05 AM.png

 

We took this shot and a corresponding one with Mommy. I love that we took these pictures because we now have those moments preserved and because, really, this is what you’re supposed to do on such occasions. It’s a moment you want to cherish. 

I wish I had a picture of my face about ten seconds later, the moment when I sat in the driver’s seat and started the van. With the turn of the key my festive spirit vanished and I thought of that green poop bullet and the people standing there who helped us clean it up and how they didn’t get in the van with us. We were two weeks into being parents, but we really hadn’t been parents yet, and now it was just the three of us in the van, two parents and a baby, our suddenly solitary family. My thoughts took the timely and thematic form of “Oh shit.”

I backed out of the space while trying to stifle the idea that I’d never carried such precious cargo. I’d never driven with the knowledge that an accident would be so costly. I’d never been a dad before. And here I was being a dad and driving this car and what if someone hits us and did I install the car seat right and oh shit this chaotic world just got real.

I’m a laid-back sort of person. I handle things with grace for the most part. On the occasions when I’m invited to preach, I preach about stillness and our freedom to find rest in God’s grace. But I squeezed the steering wheel all the way home that day like I was holding the car together with my gloved hands, or like the wheel would attack my son if I didn’t wring its neck. It’s jarring to go from festive to frantic in such a short space, from laughing about poop like a middle-schooler to suddenly being someone’s father.

I found my way out of the labyrinthine parking lot, eased down the street, and then just barely negotiated a lovely spot where the two lanes of urban traffic merged into one and then spread into four as we joined the interstate. I sat impatiently through some road construction, feeling exposed, and managed not to scream at the freaking stupid people who kept changing lanes in front of us even though both lanes were obviously jammed. I opted to exit way before our normal exit and to take the back roads because if one more semi nearly rear-ended us in the stop-and-go I was gonna pop a blood vessel. Scottie slept through the whole ride home, of course. I wasn’t sure I’d ever sleep again.

But we made it. We picked up some Arby’s on the way. I remember this because we got home and carried Scottie’s car seat into the house and set it on the living room floor with him still in it and then ate lunch and watched him sleep and delayed as long as possible the moment when we’d unstrap him and suddenly become real-life hands-on parents. I’m typing this right now about five feet from the place on the floor where his car seat sat; I remember the angle of the seat, the tilt of his head, the way the light filtered into the room through the bay window, the taste and smell of the beef-and-cheddar sandwich I ate. And the feel of him, the floppy limbs, the soft-solid ribs in my hands as I lifted him out and passed him to Mommy, his closed eyes and sweet pursing lips as he slept through all of Daddy’s drama.

I’ve been thinking here recently of those initial moments of parenthood because I just took Scottie with me on a business trip to London. Here’s another picture, taken just two weeks ago:

 

My boy and I are sitting on the plane that would carry us to London Heathrow. Scottie turned ten on this trip. It was his first trip to London, and thus my first as a child-toting dad. We walked toward this plane while I tried to block the encroaching thoughts about all of the dangers of travel that I don’t usually think about, all the bad people out there, all the menacing buzz of the London I love so much, all the things that might go wrong. What if something happens to my boy? What if I lose him? Can I once again take care of this most precious cargo? 

What I like about this selfie is that I’m already feeling all these things, but from the look of the picture, you can’t tell. In the van picture above, I’m not aware yet that there’s anything to feel. Maybe that’s progress. I now know the panicky moments will come, but I can still enjoy the moment. That’s a real smile in the airplane picture. It was both a festive and a nervous moment. 

The trip to London went well, I’m happy to report, as did that first day at home with baby Scottie. On both occasions the initial frenzied panic disappeared in the joys and challenges of the immediate. We’ve had a great time raising this sweet boy, even as he and I had a great time in London. 

I get the sense that these moments of frantic (though stifled) anxiety will keep coming as long as I keep being a dad. It’s possible that I’ll keep growing, keep getting cooler; maybe I’ll evolve into one of those parents who appears to take everything in stride and never seems overwhelmed. Anything’s possible.

In the meantime, I’ll admit that every time Scottie and I walked down a crowded London street last week, I took a firm hold of his hand, and I didn’t care if he liked it or not. No sense taking any chances. 

 

Follow Aaron Housholder on twitter, and read more at his blog.

second simplicity: Kinsley Koons

Kinsley Koons is a grad student in English in Chicago, and a kindred spirit. She's young to be writing about second simplicity, but I love what she has to say here - and today of all days, I needed a reminder that there are moments of light and beauty in the world.

 

God, Ryan Adams, and Moments of Being: Searching For a Second Simplicity

I was working as a waitress at a summer camp, and on this particular night I found myself sitting right outside of our staff housing building on a picnic table that was barely covered by the porch roof. It was storming, and I was watching the lightning and ignoring the raindrops that were bouncing off the ground and hitting my shins. I was accompanied by one of the older boy staffers, who I undoubtedly had a crush on, and we were talking about music. I was trying to impress him by asking if he listened to The Strokes or if he had ever heard of Rilo Kiley. And I am pretty sure he was trying to impress me with indie bands that just so happened to include Swedish exchange students from his college.

But then the conversation shifted into this fairly earnest desire to share our favorite songs with one another and in the middle of trying to explain to him why the song “Lua” by The Bright Eyes changed my life in the 8th grade, he interrupted me and said, “Wait- have you heard of Ryan Adams?” With a quick shake of my head, he ran inside to grab his (second generation) iPod and said, “You have to listen to this. Now.” He turned on the song “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and for the next 4 minutes and 57 seconds, I was filled with on overwhelming sense of peace. A realization that I was tapping into what was most beautiful in the world. That in this moment I was granted the ability to tell the difference. 

I didn’t care where I was, I didn’t care about the boy sitting next to me, and I didn’t care that I was, most likely, late for curfew. Before I realized exactly what was happening, I started to cry.

 

I started to cry out of some sort of reverence. Some sort of recognition that sometimes things are just so beautiful and moments contain each and every one of the desirable elements that make a moment perfect— that there are moments ushered in by beauty that make us feel like we are beautiful and loved. 

 

A moment of true being. 

 

I think there is part of being asked to write a spiritual “coming of age” story that feels silly to me presently, simply because I still feel like I’m in the middle of it. But if I don’t tell the stories, I so easily unlearn them. Beautiful moments of clarity made cloudy by time, distance, or sometimes a poor use of space, a lack of storytelling. I truly think that one of the best ways we can experience God, and keep those experiences clear and accessible is by telling the stories that surround them— give them new life. There is a beauty in reconciling our pasts with our presents so we can make them new. 

 

My relationship with Christianity has been a strange one filled with lots of “oh no” moments, lots of confusion, and lots of reasons and people that have pushed me to the very edge. There are and have been moments where I have truly asked myself why on earth I am still subscribing to this religion. And it is those stories that I feel like I have too many of. Stories that can still make me boil with anger or cry with sorrow at the drop of a hat. I grew up confused about the messages that were being presented to me by an Evangelical culture that seemed to be void of beauty, void of sincerity, and also void of intellect.

 

But, I don’t want to write about those moments, because they are the ones that I think about and talk about on a daily basis. Those are the moments that make me feel like I am in constant defense of the people in my own religion. Those are the moments that make it sometimes impossible to see the bright ones. 

 

Instead, I want to tell a story of a rare and bright moment. A moment of being. A moment when maybe words fell short, but so did confusion. A moment where there was nothing to be seen but the beauty and newness of God and love love love. 

 

There are many moments of darkness that I have experienced and so many glow bugs of light that I have seen scattered throughout my earthly existence, all of which play a role in my present. My heart has been permanently softened to hold these moments, to record them, and to allow them to come into a space beyond that in which they originally existed. These moments are resurrected again and again as I grant them existence within the context of new stories, as I look at them in the context of grace, of love, and of beauty. As we allow space for the old to inspire the new, we live with a constant reverence for life. With soft hearts we experience beauty over and over again, each time allowing it to be new. Because that is why we are all here- right? We are agents by which He is making all things new. 

 

Now isn’t that incredible?

 

Kinsley Koons writes occasionally at Conveniently Disconnected Paragraphs and tweets @kinsleykoons.

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: Melynne Rust

I liked Melynne right away when I met her on the shuttle from the airport to the Collegeville Institute this summer. She was quiet and bright-eyed, like a sandpiper, deceptively small and unassuming.  Over our week together, I began to see how much depth of experience and wisdom lay beneath that quiet exterior. Melynne does not have a blog yet, but if you like this (and you will) you should also read her recent post at the Collegeville blog.

A Thousand Miles Away

When I was a little girl my family didn’t go to church, but almost every summer we traveled back home to my grandmother’s farm in north Louisiana, where I went with her to the old country church down the road. It was a small white clapboard building sitting next to the graveyard, keeping company with the departed members. It was a humble structure, unassuming, and with no steeple a visitor passing by might have missed its ecclesial identity save the sign declaring it so: Boeuf Prairie Methodist Church. Inside, the worn wooden pews, faded hymnals, and ancient scent bore witness to the hundred-plus years of its existence. 

I thought of that church as God’s house, but I knew God didn’t hang out only there; she followed my grandmother everywhere she went. Mamaw is my first memory of God; someone who kept me safe, wrapping her warm, loving arms around me and enfolding me into her bosom just because she delighted in my presence. I used to think I was her favorite until I realized she loved the other eleven cousins the same way she loved me. I considered myself fortunate that her love was big enough for all of us. 

Mamaw’s God was an up-close-not-afraid-to get-her-hands-dirty kind of God; she fed me biscuits and fried chicken, saved me from the black snake slithering too close for comfort, and forgave me when I hid my black-eyed peas—the ones she had grown, picked, shelled, and boiled—in my iced tea because I didn’t like the mealy way they tasted. She even cared about the dogs, gathering scraps from our plates and setting them outside in a pie tin for the strays that came around. I knew in the marrow of my bones that Mamaw’s God loved me.  In the deepest part of my spirit, I knew I was lovable.

*****

Not long after I turned fourteen, I went with some kids from my neighborhood to a church youth group and heard about a God who had to kill his son because of me. A God who could not be in my presence and was not delighted in me. They told me I was bad and that only Jesus dying on the cross could make me good. Only Jesus could bring me back to God.

This did not sound like my grandmother’s God, the God who showed up everywhere, even on Mamaw’s back porch; the God who wrapped her arms around me and drew me close. This new God sounded harsh, sounded like a judge. If only I did the right thing and accepted Jesus into my heart, then I would not get punished and end up in hell. 

There was a palpable difference to me between the unconditional love of my grandmother’s God and the conditional love of the youth group’s God. It didn’t make sense to me that if I said a few abstract words, a simple prayer, then God would accept me. I didn’t have to say anything to be accepted and loved by Mamaw’s God. 

However, Mamaw’s God was a thousand miles away and I wanted to be a part of the youth group. I wanted to belong. I wanted to feel safe. I wanted to feel loved. I wanted to know I was lovable. And so, I kept my questions to myself and said the right words, the words I had been told to say. I accepted Jesus into my heart. I was told I was now acceptable to God. I could enter his presence; I could go to heaven after I die.

I had hoped against all hope that once I said the right words, I would feel the same way I had felt back on my grandmother’s farm. But I didn’t. My suspicions were confirmed. Saying the right words might be enough to get into heaven, but it wasn’t going to be enough to get back to Mamaw’s God.

Now that I knew God set conditions, I recognized I would not only have to say the right words, I would have to do the right things if I was ever going to get God to love me the way she loved me back at Mamaw’s house. I was going to have to figure out what pleased God and make sure I did those things. Things like reading my bible, saying my prayers, attending church, and being good. 

This was nothing new to me; it was the way the rest of my life had already been laid out. My parents were satisfied with me when I behaved well, not so placated when I rebelled. My teachers were pleased when I made good grades, disappointed in me if I let them slip. My friends included me in their activities when I went along with their plans, but shunned me if I questioned too much. And, I had a hunch that perhaps my youth group leaders may not be as interested in me if I were not interested in their God. My young self was perceptive enough to understand that love and acceptance by others is naturally conditional. Why would I have ever thought that God was any different? 

And so, I grew into adulthood working hard to earn and keep the approval of others, including God. As a result, I completely lost my sense of self. I also lost my memory of my grandmother’s God. 

*****

By the time I reached my early thirties, the burden had become so heavy that I finally crumbled beneath its weight. I literally fell apart.  Living a false self for so many years, decades really, had taken its toll on me physically, mentally, and spiritually. For the first time in my entire life I went to see a counselor, and together we ever so slowly dismantled myself and put me back together again. It was a daunting process, peeling off and sifting through layer after layer, all the detritus, and the dung, to get down to the core of who I am. But in the end it was exhilarating as I discovered my inquisitive, sensitive, lovable self. And that is when I began to remember my grandmother’s God. 

I remembered how I felt at Mamaw’s house, the unconditional love and acceptance of Mamaw’s God. The way she delighted in me and drew me close to her; how she nurtured me and saved me and forgave me. And finally, finally, once again, I could hear God calling me Beloved. 

*****

A year or so later I entered seminary, where I was given permission to think for myself. I was actually encouraged—even required—to formulate and articulate my own theological thoughts. How freeing! How utterly splendid! Even so, some of my classmates thought I took this liberty too far when I began to question the popular understanding of the atonement (Christ paid the penalty for my sins so I can be reconciled to God and go to heaven after I die). They alleged that I was teetering precariously close to the edge of the sacrilegious, to the verge of heresy. 

However, as I explored further I discovered others—pacifists, feminists, womanists—were questioning this atonement theory too. I learned there is not only one approach to understanding the atonement. There are various other ways my Christian brothers and sisters down through the centuries have believed in the saving significance of Christ’s death; ways that proclaim faith in the God 

who is One as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustaining Spirit;  

who loves and forgives freely;  

who draws close to us, who becomes human to be with us;    

who pursues peace in non-violent ways; 

who stands up to injustice and is crucified for doing so;  

who not only confronts evil, but also redeems and transforms 

humanity ensnared within it;

who liberates all of creation;

who conquers the grave; 

all through the power of love:

the unconditional compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness of the Triune God.

*****

    The night of my ordination service, as I knelt on my knees with the bishop’s hand on my head and his words in my ears, I became strangely aware of some kind of presence hovering nearby. I was reminded of the scripture verse about the ancestors in the faith, the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. And then, with startled clarity I knew the spirit of my grandmother was with me in that place.

I imagine that long ago in a very different time and place, she had knelt on her knees, alone and silent, to be ordained by God; pledging her life to love others the way God loved her. 

I scooted over just a smidgen to make room for her spirit to abide with me as I made my vows to continue her legacy.   

Melynne Rust, a United Methodist minister, served as a university chaplain and police chaplain before pursuing writing as a ministerial vocation. She and her husband have three grown children, two of whom live nearby in their coastal Florida hometown. When Melynne is not at her writing desk, you can find her reading, walking her dogs, or searching for seaglass at low tide.



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: Micha Boyett

When I found Micha on the internet a few years ago, it was the first time a blog made an impression on me. Before that, I thought blogs were for life-tips and recipes, not writing.  In Micha I found someone who had been shaped by the same things that shaped me, from Texas evangelicalism to Kathleen Norris, and who wrote about it beautifully.  Since then she's become a friend (and written a life-giving book). I'm thankful she's shared this story with us.

 

 

Nineteen sounds so young now. But by the time I finished sophomore year I was old in the ways of late-adolescence. In college-time, when seasons move slow and every night is a different adventure, two years is equal to five in real life. Friends everywhere, events to plan, meetings to attend, pranks to play. I breathed deep the reckless joy of my own freedom then. I wanted to do everything so I did everything (and got by with as little sleep as possible.)

Relationships felt so complicated then and my college’s culture of fiery evangelical faith made everything more intense. We were all charged electric, so of course we scorched one another and carried our burns with us into adulthood.

My sophomore year I got to know a boy who ran with a crowd that prayed a lot, evangelized a lot, and didn’t date—only courted. He visited me some mornings in the campus bowling alley where I worked spraying shoes. He sat on the counter beside the plexiglass sliding window, while I signed out billiard balls and controlled the music. One morning, sitting on that counter, he whispered: “Micha, I’ve been praying about this a lot. I’m interested in you. I’d like to court you.”

I fumbled the notebook in front of me and stared around the room for a friend to say hello to or a student who needed my assistance. “Will you pray about it?” he asked.

Would I pray about it? Those were the days before I realized how two well-meaning people can sometimes hear God saying two different things. This boy was godly, I assured myself. Obviously he heard God more clearly than I did. Was I wrong to feel nothing for him? Nothing?

The idea of courting seemed beautifully holy, but when I was honest with myself it frightened me. The intensity of his faith overwhelmed me. Three days later I was actually brave enough to meet his directness. I probably used some line about Jesus. But still, I didn’t lead him on. Still, I said no. I said I’m sorry, I can’t let you court me. 

He died three months later. He was changing a tire on the side of a Texas highway and a car didn’t see him. I didn’t go to his funeral that summer but everyone said his casket was white and his parents gave all his friends markers to write notes on the outside. His friends told me his mom said, “If his death brings one person to Jesus, it was worth it.”

 . . .

Junior year I wobbled. When I was around the people whose faith seemed most impressive I felt weak and uncommitted. I couldn’t force myself to use their cadence, to pray their prayers anymore. I didn’t want to be around them. Droves of students began going to charismatic prayer services and soon everyone was talking about “gold dust” and “gold teeth.” God was giving the faithful these gifts when they prayed. And sure enough, friends were soon reporting of dust settling on their hands during worship.

By then I had a boyfriend, a boy whose kindness and wisdom was unmatched by the showy faith of the boys who prayed together every morning outside the student center. I liked my boyfriend, who actually watched TV and made jokes and looked cashiers in the eyes. He also hadn’t discovered gold dust on his hands, which was just fine by me. 

He took me three hours east to his dad’s house one weekend that fall. We sat around the table on a Sunday afternoon, while his stepmother told us over chicken fried steak of how God turned her molars gold. She opened her mouth wide at the table and there they were. Three gold molars. All for God’s glory.

Later, my boyfriend said he didn’t remember her teeth being gold before. But how many times had he looked inside her mouth in his life? We laughed in the car on the way home but we were both uneasy. I wondered why God wasn’t giving gold teeth to impoverished parents in Ethiopia, where at least they could pull their teeth and use the gold for food for their kids. My boyfriend didn’t have an answer.

All that wasted gold made me furious. “What is God’s glory anyway? ” I said. And looked out the window while my chest tightened. I heard my boyfriend breathe low and long. Some questions weren’t supposed to be spoken out loud.

. . .

That year, I started writing poems. I was taking a creative writing class, one I felt might ruin every hope I had of being the sort of Christian woman I was supposed to be. My professor didn’t want me writing abstract ideas. “Write what’s visible, Micha. Write what is real and in front of you.” 

I was afraid of writing about the visible, the ordinary, the unholy. I wanted to please God. And also I didn’t. Also, I wanted to write about boys and doubt and my anger at the intensity of the faith culture I was deeply entrenched in. I wanted to scream at all the pretending and all the performing. I wanted to scream at the pretender inside me.

I didn’t write words about my unraveling faith—its slow, dangerous roll out of my life.  Instead I wrote about rain and sadness, about making out with my boyfriend. I made up stories that had nothing to do with prayer or glory. 

I was sure that my poems were a line in the sand. They were proof I was choosing to leave my life of faith. 

What I didn’t know was that God could stay with me anyway, despite my honesty, my fears, my rejection of a belief that felt inauthentic.

And slowly, though I feared I’d rejected all hope of a life that would change the world, I learned to believe that God chose me—a failure of glory-giving—despite my angry poetry, despite my irreverent questions. I encountered the God I’d always known: He was kind and gentle, big enough to hold both the beauty and the mystery.

I discovered that we’re all weak-willed humans, all of us learning to give glory. I’m learning here, in front of my computer, in the quiet, foggy autumn morning. I’m learning glory while I drive my kids to school and fold tiny t-shirts at the end of the day. I’m learning glory in my ordinary, quiet life. 

I still ask God about the boy who died and the gold molars in that sweet woman’s mouth. I still want to understand why God takes and gives in ways that feel chaotic and bizarre. And still I’m learning to believe in the mysterious God who chooses me, not because of my prayer life, my theology, or even my spiritual courage, but because I am already known and loved.

God chooses me. And chooses the boy who died and the kids who prayed for gold visions, and the boyfriend I rejected by the pond, the boy who turned and walked away and left me standing by the water, sobbing, my face reflected back at me in the moonlight.

 

 Micha (pronounced "MY-cah") Boyett is a writer, blogger, and sometimes poet.  A former youth minister, she's passionate about monasticism and ancient Christian spiritual practices and how they inform the contemporary life of faith. She recently released her first book Found: A Story Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer. Boyett and her husband live in San Francisco with their two boys. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and at michaboyett.com