catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 16 :: 2004.10.08 — 2004.10.21


Faith pilgrimage

The following was originally presented in a chapel service at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

Last week, humbled by a recent, rousing rendition of the alma mater song and my other Bible and Religion colleague Jo-Ann Brant?s perky pop culture convo, I went to Paul, [the chapel coordinator], and expressed my anxiety about talking about my spiritual journey in this context. ?Would I be perceived as the humorless slug in the department?? I wondered. Paul?s sensitive response to me, which I will cherish in my heart forever, was, ?Don?t worry. They won?t think badly of you

. Faith pilgrimages are inherently boring.?

One of the most eventful times I reported on my story of faith was nearly two decades ago, Father?s Day 1986, at Howard-Miami Mennonite Church, where I was a pastor. Ann Graber, who?s now my significant other, was there that Sunday, visiting from Scottdale, Pennsylvania. In that faith pilgrimage I told some of the stories I?m going to tell you, weaving together themes of trust and fidelity and fear and hope. And at the end of the religious autobiography, right there in front of God and 240 witnesses, I proposed to Ann from the pulpit. It was a phenomenal event?my grandmother audibly gasped, and then there were five seconds of pregnant silence. We ended up walking out down the center aisle singing, with the congregation, ?Blest be the Tie that Binds.?

Today?s journey of faith will not be nearly as eventful.

Ironically, the Scottdale Independent-Observer, Ann?s local paper, printed a brief write-up of the faith pilgrimage incident, but botched the final line by leaving out a critical word. The article said, ?The proposal was the conclusion of Keith?s faith that day.? It wasn?t.

Today I want to relate several faith-forming incidents, giving some general historical information along the way. But before I get ahead of myself, let me go back to the beginning. I was conceived in September 1958, and born nine months later on May 8, 1959. I was the third child and only son born to deeply committed parents, people rooted in the Mennonite Church and people who loved their children well. My childhood was healthy and happy and grace-filled, for the most part, even though the stories I?ll tell from those days may make it seem not so. First, two traumas from my earliest days:

The first occurred when I was only one year old and riding in a car with my grandparents and other relatives. Grandpa and Grandma were taking care of me that weekend, and on the way home from church we had a tragic accident. A car crossed our intersection going about 50 miles per hour, slamming into our station wagon and flinging it into the ditch. My great-grandmother was killed in the crash, and my grandfather and teen-aged uncle and two of his friends all were ejected from the car, with exotic combinations of broken legs and arms and ribs.

As this was back in the days before seatbelts, one of the teens in the backseat had been holding me in his arms, and somewhere in the cars? spinning I was catapulted over a fence and 30 feet farther out into a beanfield. They couldn?t locate me until they heard me crying, and when they found me I had only three tiny scratches on my forehead.

Two years later I nearly drowned in a well on my aunt and uncle?s back porch. As a three-year-old, just a little younger than our youngest son Simon is now, I was curious about the round wooden cover on the porch floor, so I pushed it back and peered into the darkness it concealed … and then tumbled into six feet of water. I was drowning. Fortunately, lying on her belly, my aunt could just reach the tip of my middle finger as I stretched it out of the water.

I know that hearing these stories repeatedly during my childhood and adolescence gave me a strong sense of purpose, a deep appreciation for God?s goodness, and a feeling that God had spared me for a reason. I now struggle with the theology behind that, given the reality that not all children who fall in wells or who fly out car windows live. But I know that those incidents gave me an early, embodied perception of a gracious, protecting God, and a sense of calling to serve that God who, I believed, had saved me.

Later in my childhood our entire family lived through the hell of anorexia, an illness that is shared by all in the household. My oldest sister developed anorexia in the late 1960?s, before it was easily diagnosed. Meals became battlegrounds for nearly two years, and almost all of the family energy from the time I was eight until I was about ten was spent caring for and dealing with the crippling illness.

And then, near the end of that period, my friend and same-aged cousin suffocated while playing in a bin of shelled corn in a barn loft. Ronnie slipped into the middle of the bin, and was dragged to the bottom by the rush of outflowing corn, and he was buried below tons of kernels. We arrived at the family farm just in time to see them loading his blue body onto a gurney.

I was 11 then, and just after that I made an initial faith commitment in the midst of a revival service at my home congregation. (I?m conscious that most of you now have never experienced a revival.) At that point in life my Christian commitment came out of a fear of death and hell: I found myself being frightened backward, a kind of breech, butt-first birth into the kingdom of God. No matter what the motivation, though, I did experience a new freedom out of that confession and consider it a valid and valuable expression of my faith at the time.

I had an extraordinary group of intimate friends during my junior high and high school years, friends from the church who developed in me a strong sense of community and who kept me accountable. Through the usual struggles of late adolescence, I learned to know, in greater measure, God?s grace (which, at the time, simply meant not getting caught by parental or civil authorities).

But I want to leap ahead to my sophomore year at Franklin College, an American Baptist school just south of Indianapolis, where I had gone to study journalism. (At the time, my parents and my congregation were a bit leery of the liberalism of Goshen College, and I received little encouragement to come this direction. I feel fortunate now to be at a place I really should have been back then, although my years at Franklin, where I was the only Mennonite, also were significant developmental ones for me.)

But during my sophomore year of college, I lived about five years of life in one eight-month block. The turbulent period began when I left for a six-week backpacking tour of Europe, my first extended spell away from home. While in Italy I prayed in the underground catacombs where early Christians met in secret, and saw the Roman coliseum where our faith ancestors suffered for their convictions. It was tremendously moving to visit these sacred and terrible sites.

The month after my return to the States, in early March, I experienced a lung collapse, a pneumothorax. The morning after I had been admitted to the hospital for observation, I had just had a series of chest X-rays when a team of physicians and nurses rushed into my room. The medical personnel chased my friends from my side, pulled the curtain around me, and somberly said, ?The lung isn?t reinflating. We need to go in there.? Two minutes and one local anesthetic shot later, the primary physician took a metal rod pointed like a pencil and about half again as large as your typical number 2, placed it against the side of my chest, and rammed it into my body. Then he shoved a tube into my chest and hooked me to a machine that then pumped excess blood from my body cavity. And then my ?assailants? left the room.

Just like the poor biblical man who was attacked on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, I felt as though I had been stripped and beaten and left for dead?and with insufficient painkiller. But what happened next was a critical learning experience. There in a foreign town, without my family or friends around me, I suffered and waited for someone to minister to me. And then in he walked, my atheist logic professor, the one who had spent the term intellectually stimulating me and scaring the hell—and the heaven—out of me with his God-less worldview. And Dr. Howald, recognizing my pain, was silent: he simply grabbed my left hand, allowing me to squeeze some of the agony into his flesh.

And then, moments later, in came Father Mazola, the campus?s wandering Catholic priest, whom I despised. And Father Mazola, also sensing my trauma, came to my right side, reaching for my hand and tightening his grip. And there I was, the holy Mennonite boy, wedged between my enemies?the atheist and the priest. And it was those two who showed mercy on me and who bound up my wounds—and who called for more painkiller. I learned a good deal about self-righteousness that day, and about acceptance of those with whom I differed, and about the love of Jesus. Later that spring I developed a close friendship with Dr. Howald, and I toyed with his atheism but eventually rejected it. (Ironically, Dr. Howald himself has now come back to faith, due partly to his friendship with monks who moved in across the street.)

Yet later that spring (this is all still in the same year) I experienced sophomore uncertainty, a disease that sometimes also strikes on this campus, and decided to quit college, with no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I returned home in May and began working for my brother-in-law and his family in their construction business. And I confess to you that I stand before you this day, as a teacher at Goshen College, partly because I recognized that?unlike Jesus—I have almost no carpentry skills. Failure in that arena drove me back to the academy.

But not before I?d had a stressful summer and fall of construction work. Just three weeks after I began working with my brother-in-law, riding to and from the sites with him each day and spending 40 hours a week with his entire family, my sister left him, and later that fall they were divorced. Three months after my sister left her husband, my uncle next door abandoned my aunt after a quarter-century of marriage.

Out of the crucible of that year, the intellectual and emotional and physical and spiritual wrenching of my being, I made a forward commitment of faith, an adult decision to follow in the way of Christ. And at the same time I began to sense more clearly a calling to and desire for ministry of some sort, whether in pastoring or writing or teaching or whatever, a commitment that continues for me. I realized that such a shift would require formal education, so I returned to Franklin and finished my B.A. After school, when a job fell in my lap, I began working as a journalist, editing and writing for two newspapers over the next two years.

During those months after graduation I kept in touch with several college friends, one of whom was a fellow journalist. Tim was the campus?s unofficial model Christian in a humble sort of way, the kind of person you would want for a son or brother. ?I?m busy finishing up this year,? he had written to me on May 6, 1982. ?I still plan to go to England next fall … I?ll try to write you later in order to be more complete.?

Less than two weeks later, Tim drove his Chevy truck 90 miles an hour down a country road, steering it into a boulder which then catapulted the vehicle and its driver 160 feet through the air. The pickup landed on its top and burst into flames, burning Tim beyond recognition.

It was suicide. (Tim had left a note in his dorm room, and had also thrown one out at the site apologizing just in case anyone else was harmed as he took his own life.) The word tragedy was incarnated for me on May 19, 1982, in the death of my friend. The following day I went to Franklin and wandered around campus, talking with friends, being the strong one, helping them to cope. And then, at the end of the day, I drove to the field and knelt by the ashes where Tim had died. In the midst of that charred upholstery, I could see the scorched soles of his tennis shoes, the shoes he had been wearing during the crash. And I cried and I cried and I cried. And I screamed at him, and I swore at him. And I interrogated God. I wanted to know why, why Tim had to die?

Out of that experience and others I came to believe that not all that happens is God?s will, not all that occurs among us is part of God?s purpose and plan. I can only believe that when Tim died, God?s heart was the first of all of our hearts to break.

When Harry Emerson Fosdick was pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, he had many opportunities to counsel students. One evening a young man came to Fosdick and announced that he could no longer believe in God. So Fosdick said to him, ?All right, but describe for me the God you don?t believe in.?

The student proceeded to describe this God he was rejecting—an angry God who was off in some distant sky, one more concerned with judgment than grace, one who always condemned and never embraced. And when the student finished, Fosdick replied, ?Well, we?re in the same boat. I don?t believe in that God either.?

Some of the gods we?ve created over the years I no longer believe in. I do believe in the God we see through the servant life and authentic witness and peaceable way of Jesus the Christ.

Since the mid-1980s, in one way or another, I?ve been involved in the academic and experiential pursuit of God and of the vocation of ministry. My faith has been blessed by fellow members at Assembly Mennonite Church, where we are ever-so-slowly being transformed into better people. Assembly is a congregation with open theological hands, and with a doggedly faithful spirit. My Christian understanding and commitment has been broadened and deepened by encounters with feminist theology and Latin American liberation theology. It has been challenged by my ongoing commitment to nonviolence in a world prone to violence. My journey has been nourished by seeking to live with Christian hope, and with faithful integrity. It has been enriched both by academic rigor and by stories of faith and faithlessness I?ve heard from my students and my friends. My recent friends and interlocutors have included a couple of agnostics, a good number of faithful Catholics and Methodists, and many a Mennonite.

At times in my search I have lost faith in God. At times I have wrestled with God to the point of exhaustion, and then God has, in that closeness, embraced me in love. At times, in a hymn or a prayer or the hug of a caring friend, I have known God?s presence, felt the tingle of a God-moment.

I?ve overcome my fear of asking questions, of wondering what terrors may be lurking behind every theological door I crack open. My last two decades of faith—of pastoring and teaching and seminary and doctoral training and counseling and laughing and loving and marrying and relating and fathering—have been motivated by the desire to better know God, and to engage in faithful living alongside other companions on the way. As a parent I now learn much about the love of Jesus through observing and listening to our three children, who have taken hold of me with their joy, and their trust. They also challenge me with tough theological questions: ?If Jesus lives within us, does he also live in Barney (the purple dinosaur)??

Two life themes have been important for me during these years. One of those is honesty or transparency or truthfulness or vulnerability, and I?ve tried to be some of each of those this morning. The other theme for me is faithfulness, and it emerges out of my own and others? experiences of both fidelity and infidelity with God. Although limping, faltering and stumbling with every move, I am intensely committed to the search for active, authentic, life-giving Christian faith, and I hope I never lose the spirit of that quest. And, as our opening hymn so eloquently said, I know that as we seek God, ?it is not we that find, O Savior true; no, we are found of thee.?

I want to close, then, by encouraging you in your pilgrimages of faith, by offering several words of unsolicited counsel:

  1. First, if you haven?t done so here already, seek out a community of believers. Although in the past I?ve experienced some pain caused by the church, as some of you have, I know how much I need other believers around me to keep me accountable, to function as a community of memory, to stumble along with me. Somewhere in my conception and socialization process, the ?church gene? was infused in me: I?m genetically predisposed to love the church, and I do?I love my local congregation, Assembly, and I love the larger Mennonite fellowship, and the church worldwide. And I truly believe the church is a treasure, even though a treasure in ?earthen vessels,? carried forward by fallible people like you and like me.

  2. Secondly, nurture and express your spirituality. I teach ethics, and I believe with all my soul that an authentic faith must be a lived faith. But ethical practices such as peacemaking and service and compassion also must remain rooted. An image that has been deeply influential to me in the last decade is that of the “cut flower,” a metaphor once used by Gandhi. The notion is that those who involve themselves deeply in peace and social justice activities, for instance, without maintaining connectedness with the faith and spirituality that prompted such action are like cut flowers. They have an impact on the world because they are still beautiful, and their striking appearance and aroma are needed to change hearts and lives. But because they are cut off, severed from their roots, they are also doomed to wither. We need ongoing nourishment in faith throughout our college years and beyond.

  3. Thirdly, sing with gusto. This third point draws together the two previous ones about seeking a community of believers and nurturing and expressing your spirituality. For me this comes primarily through congregational hymn-singing. Our four-part singing in chapels embodies the reality of interdependence: all parts are essential for the blended, rhythmic passion of the hymn, and we carry each other into this God-embracing, self-transcending, communitarian moment.

And finally, listen for your God-given callings. As you take classes and go on SST [Study-Service Term] and reflect on your faith, ask yourselves, ?What does God have in store for me? To what is God calling me? Where do my passions intersect with the world?s needs? Who will accompany me, and mentor me, on my vocational journey, and my journey of faith??

I want to close by paraphrasing one of the confessions found in the back of our hymnals, and I want to make the statement my own confession, and our benediction for today:

I believe God has made us God?s people,
To invite others to follow Christ,
To encourage one another to deeper commitment,
To proclaim forgiveness of sins and hope,
To reconcile all people to God through word and deed,
To bear witness to the power of love over hate,
To meet the daily tasks of life with purpose,
To work for justice where there is oppression,
To suffer joyfully for the cause of right,
To the ends of the earth,
To the end of the age
To the praise of God?s glory. Amen.

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