What I’ve Learned in the Last Twenty Months.

I am a good Christian girl, I suppose.

I’m a pastors daughter, I got saved when I was four. I went to a Christian college, and twenty months ago I moved from one coast to the other to help start a church. Also I was homeschooled, which I think gives me 10,000 good Christian bonus points automatically. I own at least three study Bibles, I’ve read Augustine and Piper and I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I can explain and defend my thoughts on all five points of Calvinism, and I know what “Christian worldview” means. (Also, I know all about “lifeworld,” or “lebenswelt,” worldview’s sister concept. Thank you Dr. Bruce, for making me waaaaay too into philosophy.) If you can think of something else that would make me more of a quintessential “good Christian kid,” e-mail me post-haste, but I’d bet you my Awana’s vest I’ve got that base covered too.

I’d never thought much about my inherent Christian-ness until college. Growing up in the Midwest, Christian’s weren’t the majority, but we weren’t uncommon either and no one judged you. If you wanted to you went to church, or if you didn’t then you didn’t, and only the church-goers themselves made a fuss either way.

Then, I got the bright idea to go to college in the Bible Belt. I am convinced that even the Devil himself goes to church on Sunday morning when he’s staying in South Carolina. And everyone is watching everyone else closely in an effort to gauge their neighbors over-all spirituality. How much does she dress up? How big is his Bible and what translation is it? Does she get into the music too much or not enough? Does he eat enough fried chicken at the luncheon afterwards? All these components are then calibrated to determine the exact percentage that one really loves Jesus, and if you are found wanting beware of the evangelizing that will ensue!

I may be exaggerating some, but honestly, Southern Christianity is a tough game to play, especially for an unsuspecting Midwestern college student who just wants to get her degree and read a few books in the quietness of her dorm room in peace. Instead of peace I discovered that I was one of the ones found wanting. All sorts of things counted against me. I read books by un-Christian authors and had the audacity to like them. I enjoy white wine; I do yoga sometimes; I still don’t understand why martial arts are apparently evil; and I am passionately devoted to a college football team that is not in the SEC (O-H! I-O!)

For a little while these things had me in a tizzy. Had I missed something?! Was I interpreting scripture wrongly? How could I have miscalculated so drastically for so long?

And then I figured it out, the key to my confusion. In Ohio, and I suspect in much of the Midwest as well, Christianity is an element in the culture but not a dominant driving force behind it as it is in the South. And when a religion, or anything else for that matter, becomes a cultural zeitgeist, it has a tendency to become a competition. I woke up one morning and realized that I had stumbled upon a religious community where even the most sincere believers often found themselves scrambling to keep up- to make sure that they too had read the latest theological best seller, and had downloaded the newest worship album, to make sure they remained relevant.

Relevant. I haven’t decided for certain yet, but I’m fairly sure I hate that word. (But I love the magazine. Thus my uncertainty.) It has come to mean so many things in this generation, in the South and outside. It’s that illusive catch-phrase for the modern church that everyone seems to throw around, but no one can ever concretely define. Everyone is abuzz, trying to make their services and programs “culturally relevant,” but what does that even mean? Does it mean we update our music and have neat, modern graphics and our own i-phone app? Does it mean that we curse and start evangelizing in bars, buying a pint for anyone who will hear our case? Do we hire a hipster band and start selling coffee in the back, our deacons doubling as baristas?

I’m not necessarily down on any of those suggestions, but I am questioning the meaning behind it all. If you can’t define it (“it” being relevancy), is it worth striving for? Why not just pray about it and do church the best way we know how? If relevancy is something to be sought after and obtained wouldn’t it happen organically as we lived in our culture and Christian community simultaneously?

I don’t really have answers to these questions, but I do know what’s working for me. I quit.

The tenants of my faith: read the Bible, study it, practice it, and always bring the cat along.

I quit trying to be a good Christian kid. It was exhausting, and I’m far too free-spirited and messy to get it right for very long, so these days I just try to focus on following the tenants of my faith instead. I’m not naturally very cool (Remember the homeschool thing? Plus, I grew up Baptist.), and I can never seem to keep up with the cutting edge. I’m always a few trends behind. But I can read those three study Bibles and try to live out what I’m learning with sincerity. It’s not pretty, but I’m giving it my best.

I, along with my husband, Tyler, and several friends, recently left the South. I didn’t get my dearest wish, to go back to the comfortable Midwest to live out my life among the corn fields, but God did grant me something pretty cool. After uprooting ourselves and moving to the desert region of Southern California, we’re getting to help start a church. Here again is a whole new spiritual atmosphere.  Most people here don’t go to church, at least not regularly. Some think we’re crazy. Many are interested in the same way you’re politely interested in your neighbor’s tomato garden and grand baby pictures, which is to say you’re happy for them, but you really don’t care that much. Some are completely apathetic without the pretence of being happy for us at all. And a few are very interested, which is why we’re here.

Unbeknownst to us, we’re also here to learn a few lessons. This new spiritual climate has really taught us a lot about sincerity, or maybe it was the sudden onset of near-poverty that did the trick. We’ve struggled to make ends meet our whole marriage, mostly because we’re young twenty-somethings just starting out in a dreadful economy and not from lack of trying. But our first year out here was by far the worst. We got jobs that helped us scrape by, and the Tyler lost his job, and my book store clerking paid the rent, sort of. But food and gas came from an unemployment check, and most of the time it was food or gas, not both together. I know there are people around the world who have it much worse than we ever have, but you don’t realize just how brave those people are until you realize that unless someone takes pity on you, you won’t eat until Friday and today is Wednesday.  We’re not the type of people to beg for food, but I had to get over that in my prayer life. God was teaching me sincerity, and it started with the most sincere versions of, “Give us this day our daily bread,” that I knew how to pray. We had to learn Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego  prayers. They promised not to deny God even if He let them burn, and I was learning that God was still good even if I went hungry. He was still good when I was tired, when I had to walk to work, and when the skin of our teeth was all used up last month and we didn’t know what we were going to make it by now. God is good. Period.

Once I began to ingest the truth of His goodness funny things started happening. Friends we hadn’t spoken to in years would send money. Families from church would ask us over for dinner on the exact day that our supply of ramen noodles, rice, and beans ran out.  I found money in our medicine cabinet once. Our parents became a safety net around us, even from 3,000 miles away, and even though we didn’t ask.

If you look back in the Old Testament, it was in the desert that God rained down manna and brought forth water from a rock. It was in the wilderness that ravens brought meat to God’s prophet by His command. And it was in a desert just north of LA that we learned God really is our provider, the author of our lives. Before we were asking God to shine a light on the path so we could see, but now we were clinging to Him, like a koala on His back, and letting Him do the walking. Like being in the back seat when your dad is driving you in a storm, it was comforting. We were able to rest, and we passed through the season unscathed.

Unscathed, but not unchanged. My faith flows from a deeper place these days. Though life is more predictable, and neither my tummy nor my gas tank have been empty in a while, my faith is a little tougher, a little weather-beaten, and a lot more sincere. It’s couched these days, not in memorized idioms and regurgitated catch phrases, but in the terms of the deep thankfulness of someone who had the rug pulled out from beneath her feet unexpectedly.  Now when I give the man on the street corner money it’s not because I feel an obligation, or because that’s what good Christian girls do, but because someone once gave me money for lunch when I would have otherwise had none, so now I understand a little bit better what Jesus meant when He said that to feed and clothe the destitute is to feed and clothe Him. Grace and love feed and clothe us all. To be truly Christ-like, I must also feed and clothe out of a place of grace and love. His hands and feet saved me both by the nails they took and by the tender care they gave in my darkest hour, and to be a Christian who’s faith is relevant to the world around me I must in turn be His hands and feet to others who are in darker hours.

Well, there’s that tricky little word again. Maybe in the midst of life I did find a few answers. At the least, I’ve figured out how to translate my long-held beliefs into something truthsome and organic and mine; something with wheels that can carry me over smooth roads and rough patches alike; something that I know deep in my soul like the sound of my own name or the feel of my own skin. My faith has become relevant to me, and that, I believe, is the first step, the first shovel full of dirt as I dig for my answers in this garden of questions.

1 Comment

Filed under Christianity, Some Thoughts

One response to “What I’ve Learned in the Last Twenty Months.

  1. Thank you for this. For time to time I stop by your blog to be entertained but today’s post brought tears to my eyes. And today is when I needed this post. So thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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