Vol 6, Num 20 :: 2007.11.02 — 2007.11.16
“So, I’m still not sure I understand, tell me again what justification means.” I looked over at Melinda, our new youth group leader and my mentor. She was nearly eight years my senior, but in our little town, that didn’t matter—the winters here are so lonely and desolate that you learn to make fast friends with whoever sticks around after the Fudgies go back home for the fall, leaving their boarded up lake cottages and empty boat launches behind to sag into the oncoming cold. There’s nowhere quite like Northern Michigan in the winter; the communities that form underneath those meter-long icicles are the makings for many a sociological study. The snow forces you to get to know people in a way that not much else can; and, depending upon the people you find yourself in close quarters with, this intimacy can either be invigorating or smothering—much like the nature of snow itself.
“Justification. Just-as-if-you’d never sinned. That’s an easy way to remember it, that’s how I think of it.” Melinda had come to our little Nazarene church from Georgia, and her accent remained covered in deep southern icing. As a newly “Born Again Christian,” myself, I admired her gusto—the way she just took theology and danced with it. From my thirteen-year-old perspective, Melinda had it all figured out; at least as far as the doctrine of the Nazarene church was concerned.
“Have you been baptized yet, Katie?” I blushed at this question, concerned that my response would determine her approval of me.
“I, well, no. But I didn’t know what I believed before, and, now I do. So maybe this summer, or next time Pastor Marc does one in church.” Melinda nodded her head in support. Pastor Marc was Melinda’s brother-in-law, and he had turned our little congregation up on its heels. Besides receiving a spiritual vision that our twenty thousand dollar debt would be paid off by July, he also brought a new fire to the pulpit. At only 23 years old, Marc already sensed his true mission in life, and his confidence in the pastorate made us the lucky recipients of such a fresh-faced minister.
Amidst the hullabaloo of tri-weekly church services and bi-monthly potlucks, I was beginning to gain an understanding of the Christian religion. My family, with the exception of my elder sister Carla, went to church only on Easter and Christmas Eve; and even at these times, never to the same church. I myself had often pondered the spiritual reality of life, and had come to the conclusion that what I could physically see around me in the world, the tangible things, was only a thinly veiled theater, through which the true movement of God was happening on an intangible level. I didn’t have the theological jargon for this concept yet, and I didn’t understand all that I was feeling either, however when my sister and brother-in-law gave me my first Bible three months after my conversion, I started to realize that what had happened to me was being described in the text. The overwhelming feeling that I had had when I said, “Okay God, if you’re real, I’ll follow you—but only if you prove it to me somehow,” was called the Holy Spirit. And the release I had felt when I formally confessed myself a sinner to Him was called repentance. All these new words! The only thing that had allowed my skeptical heart to believe in the meaning of these new words was the fact that I had already experienced the things that they represented or described, before I read them. So when I started to encounter terms externally that I had no prior knowledge of internally, I began to doubt.
What I doubted, however, was not so clear. I asked Melinda about justification, a term often used in the Nazarene church, but the meaning of it remained abstract—even with her linguistic assistance. And there were other words, too: sanctification, baptism (not to be confused with baptism in the Holy Spirit), salvation, Born Again, vision, calling, God’s will, secular, nonbeliever, age of accountability, conviction, witnessing, slipping, backsliding, and apostasy, to name but a few. These words at first made me feel as if I were a student learning amidst scholars of the faith, but soon I began to see them as terse statements used to define vast theological notions, and later I saw them as tools with which to effectively communicate with the body of believers.
In some circles, however, these words did nothing in the way of assisting my faith at all; in fact, the same words that brought me closer to other church members seemed to push me away from those who did not attend. The funny thing was, although my two best friends went to the Congregational church up the road (the one my parents were married in), and although they had attended church in that same community all of their lives, we did not speak the same language. In fact, when I tried to talk to them about the importance of witnessing and of the movement of the Holy Spirit amongst our generation, they just stared at me blankly. Although I continued to speak this abstract “nonsense” to them, they continued to support my ripening faith, simply because they loved me as a person—even though to them I might’ve been reciting Jabberwocky. This is not to say, however, that the proverbial “walls” between us were not put up; and sadly I have no one to blame but myself and my white-knuckled approach to theology.
While my friends and family continued to treat me with respect despite my “new language,” such unconditional lack of judgment was unfortunately not reciprocated. Although I loved my family and friends so much that my heart felt like it was sopping, I still questioned their rightness with God. Whereas months before I had no religious category in which to put them (and wouldn’t have wanted to), my new community had supplied me with plenty: unsaved, non-believer, backslider. This is not to say that my church encouraged me to judge them, on the contrary, to their benefit I will say that the Benzie Church of the Nazarene strove at all times to bring unity amongst people. There existed, however, an underlying fear of the secular within the church that persistently led me to question the faith of my best friends, and even, my entire family. If I had just barely been bought by the blood of the Lamb, and I realized it. I thought, how much closer to a death of the soul was the rest of my family, who seemed too preoccupied with other things to be consumed with spiritual fitness? If I was just barely shooed into the gates of Heaven, as my new friends reminded me, what was the state of my mom’s heart, or my dad’s—who never talked about things like sanctification or justification at all?
I became increasingly concerned with the rift between my new way of thinking and my family’s way of thinking—of which I could only infer from conversation, from words. I knew that amidst my cynical, dry-witted, cigarette smoking, occasional shot-drinking family, words like hard-hearted and without conviction would fall on deaf ears. At least, this was my fear.
It was a dark midnight at our house, and I had been up doing devotions in my room when I felt the same heavy feeling in my chest that I had come to equate with the word conviction. I was being convicted, but for what? I soon decided that it was time to talk to my mom about her salvation. Although it was late, in our family of night owls, I knew that she would still be awake. And there she was, innocently sitting on the couch, when her grief-stricken thirteen-year-old daughter, her youngest of six, ran up to her with tears in her eyes.
“Mom, I’m, I’m worried about you.”
“Do, umm…Do you believe in God?” I was nervous, but finally looked her in the eye. She smiled, knowingly.
“Are you afraid that I’m not saved?” I was completely taken aback at her response—I felt both relieved and indignant. Was my dry-humored mother mocking my attempt to broach this topic by using my own words against me? Or was she trying to make me feel better? I couldn’t tell.
“Well, are you? Do you believe in Jesus?”
“Well, honey, of course I do. I pray for you.”
“Oh, okay. Umm…” I didn’t really know where to go from there. She didn’t go to church or hand out tracts, but her quick responses thwarted my brewing evangelistic scheme. It wasn’t as scary or confrontational as I had thought, but it wasn’t as victorious as I had dreamed either. Here I was, standing in my nightgown in the living room, red faced and slightly ashamed, in front of my mother. I felt no validity as to the state of her soul after the conversation, but I did feel one thing for sure: childishly arrogant. I had doubted my mother’s wisdom, and in doing so, elevated my own presumed knowledge and understanding. Of all things secular and religious alike, I knew that this was wrong. I felt sickened by my lack of humility in the face of the woman who loved me more than anyone else, even myself.
This episode is but one among many that serve to epitomize what I consider the beginning of my journey of faith. I continued to go to the Nazarene church for three more years, where I remained to be indoctrinated into their belief system. In many ways, the church was exactly what I needed: it provided a sense of stability and structure that I had always longed for. To my parent’s credit, I am more than grateful to have been raised in a Socratic environment, where every question seemed to be answered with another question; as in: “Mom, can I stay home today? I don’t want to go to school.” Answered, “Well, do you think you should stay home today?” Thus, I accumulated both overwhelming, paranoid guilt, as well as a healthy dose of skepticism for organizational procedure.
I brought this guilt and skepticism with me as I became a functioning member of the church. I soon became the surrogate youth leader after Melinda left and before a new leader was hired. I acted as advisor for the youth on our church board, and I began and led a prayer group at my public high school. I felt both empowered and bound by the strict moral and religious structures that I had created for myself. It was during this time that I watched my words very closely. In some ways this was beneficial, as I tried to thwart any negative thoughts about others that I might have, and learned to steer clear of gossip. In some ways, however, I simply reflected the single-minded nature of the church, to my detriment. In this case, that meant that I had ceased to allow myself to question everything fully (ironically, the essence of my state of mind at conversion) for fear that I would lead others astray in their search for Christ. I thought that if I didn’t know the answers, have all the right words to describe my faith, and I was a Christian, what would the nonbelievers with whom I associated think about Christ himself? I certainly didn’t want to be another one of those wishy-washy Christians whose actions are deemed hypocritical rather than reflective of Christ’s work in their lives.
It was at this time that I became so preoccupied with serving others selflessly that I became blind to the retroactive quality of self-awareness, i.e., in my quest to be the “perfect Christian,” I was simply worrying about what mistakes I might make that would turn others off to God. In short, I was worrying about myself. In this way I was losing out on both the joy of questioning God, and the grace we are given in light of our humanity.
I graduated from high school and went directly to Hope College, where I soon assumed a new, but similar role. Suddenly surrounded by believers, I felt safe to let a couple notches out of my belt. I felt that, since these people were Christians already, they would “get” all of the abstract stuff and I would no longer be constrained by the language problem, as I had been before. For the most part, this was true—rarely was I met with a blank stare when I spoke of the “movement of the Holy Spirit,” or the worry I had over my “backslidden” friends. Yet something else happened, something that I didn’t expect. I soon began to see that, although my friends were all Christians, they were all different from one another as well. It was at this time that I began to realize that much of what I had considered to be holy and biblical was really just Nazarene, or “Church of the Living God”ish (the non-denominational charismatic church I attended after leaving the Nazarene church). In some ways, I felt silly for having allowed my understanding of abstract Christian concepts, including the words that I had associated with them, to get in the way of my relationships with others. I also counted myself lucky for having friends and family who loved me despite the walls of words that I had put up between us. Most notably, I regretted a single incident that occurred near the beginning of my Christianity. My sister Carol and I had been discussing my newfound faith. As Carol was a lesbian, I feared for her soul, and I was surprised when she brought the issue up of her own accord.
“So you think because I’m gay I’m going to Hell.” She said, more a statement than a question. I felt cornered.
“Well, umm…” (What did my church think?!) “Yes.” I said this shakily, definitively, although my heart wavered as I looked into her eyes. I knew that I had hurt her with my words. Although the majority of my friends my freshman year might’ve said the same thing, the differences between them spoke to something that I had not allowed myself to hope for in past years: the possibility that Christians could disagree. This concept births yet another, in that: two Christians may speak two different languages about God. This notion of God-language really hit me as I went to Oregon during the fall of my senior year.
Prior to my experience in Oregon, I had been a leader in Fellowship of Christian students for three years, a Bible Study leader for two, and a Bible study leaders’ leader for one. While I tried to be a catalyst for change in my own right, seeking different avenues and words with which to present God to others, I tended to stay close to the “language path” of my fellow Christian students and friends. For instance, although I consider myself a feminist, the discussion of gendered words for God became an uncomfortable one during a particular Bible study, and while I knew that some people would have liked to discuss the idea more, others simply had that “We’re nearing a sin” look on their faces. I myself felt a little odd, as the silent rejection of such a topic had made even me question its validity for a short moment. Yet while this issue—the gendered language of God—and many others seemed worthy of conversation, the initiation of such brought a tension to the air. Even the most generally open Christians, including myself, would not sway from their stance on certain issues. Whether it’s simple doctrinal allegiance, family tradition, insecurity of one’s own beliefs, or simply the fear of making a grave spiritual mistake by questioning a particular belief, of “getting it wrong,” I’m not sure; but I do know that in my particular experience, I found that when Christians got together, there were simply some issues on which no words would be spoken. After being surrounded by such wordlessness in the face of controversial issues of the faith, I was pleasantly surprised upon my arrival in Oregon, to a program called the Oregon Extension.
“Well, I don’t believe in community. I think its bullshit.” I was stunned. Had those words honestly come out of my professor’s mouth? Where was I? Wasn’t this supposed to be a Christian organization? But after so many years of remaining silent for fear of “making a mistake” with my words, somehow “bullshit” felt redemptive. Could a swear word really hold redemptive qualities? It seemed so, at least for me. It should be noted that within the particular Christian college community of which I was a part, the Oregon Extension is considered one of the most controversial of off-campus programs. Most who are concerned are somewhat justified in their beliefs, as much of what is done out there is very different from what is done in the typical classroom. On the other side of the spectrum, however, are those students who have participated in the program and who have, in the years and months hence, come to nearly worship their experience out there, as if it were a religious conversion in and of itself. I represent neither of these people, although I do believe that much of what each party’s distaste for, or allegiance to, hinges on the same issue: words.
My own experience at the O.E. is dependant heavily on these same controversial words. Unaccustomed to professors who would have me call them by their first names, as well as use the “F-word” in a lecture, I was of course, interested. Yet my skeptical and tired eye was on the lookout for sensationalism as well. I had had enough of the charismatic, abstract quality of some of my groups at Hope College, and I wasn’t at all interested in the same sort of inverted following in Oregon. I was too tired and religiously spent to join a group at Hope simply for their persuasive evangelical qualities, and the same applied to the anti-evangelical quality of Oregon conversation. But one redeeming quality attracted me to such heresy: whereas wordlessness seemed to surround controversy at Hope, it seemed that Oregon was full only of words.
Amidst the loud chatter of 40 students and professors who, on the whole, professed Christ, I began to find my middle ground in language. In an environment where I could swear up and down, question reality, sexuality, and even God’s existence, without anyone questioning my Christianity, or threatening to remove me from a leadership position, I found freedom. It was as if the superfluous use of language here allowed me to realize that although words are power, they are also just that: words. Simply because I say “There is no God” or “Conversion is an illusion,” my words do not make it so, and thank goodness. It’s as if this time out west re-affirmed my humanity, and thus re-affirmed God’s divinity for me as well. No longer was I worried about what kind of picture of God I painted for others, instead; I was becoming more fully aware of His already being painted—and more than that, the creator of all things infinitely create-able; including my personal understanding of Him, and my communication about Him to others.
This is not to say that my re-entry to Hope was easy. I had a new language and senioritis to boot. Those two things coupled made me resistant to mitigating myself, as I felt as though I’d been justifying my faith and explaining my beliefs for too many years already. I also found that I had a complete aversion to the very same “language of faith” in which I was so fluent prior to my departure to Oregon. I didn’t want to be another “Oregon-ized” statistic; i.e.—I most certainly had not lost my faith and I didn’t want others to think so; however I no longer felt that detailing such things was necessary. My reasoning was that to explain myself was to limit the truth of what God was doing within me. In many ways I was like those Christians who, when approached on a controversial subject, remained without words.
While I am nowhere near figuring things out, and I suspect I will become further and further away from figuring it all out throughout the course of my life, I am learning to be comfortable with a certain degree of silence on some issues of faith. This is not to say that I don’t have certain opinions on particular human issues related to faith, but it is to say that a distinction can be made between using language to describe God, and using language to describe how humans understand God. I feel that there are some aspects of faith so infinitely small and precise that words simply do not fit into such a space, and some aspects of God so vast and expansive that words simply become swallowed up within it all. This is the mystery of God, on which no church or religion or doctrine has a monopoly. There are simply some things so divine that no denominational dictionary or philosophical creed can put words to.
How do we speak about God, then, in a temporal world where we may never know the full truth? Simply this: by remembering that we are human, and that this is a blessing. God has given us symbols with which to describe him, but the symbols are not God Himself. I think of my Apostolic friend in Holland who was convinced that nearly all Christian baptisms are illegitimate, as the “right words hadn’t been spoken” (i.e. only in the name of Jesus Christ, with no mention of the Father or Holy Ghost). What a relief it is to know that it is the power behind the words, and not within them, that make the difference. If we can hold on to this, we are one step closer to viewing language as a tool of unity, rather than division; of poetry, rather than definition.