All Revved Up: Unpacking my CSM Summer Through Scripture

In my search to understand the Bible and my own personal faith better, I thought it pertinent to pick apart the parts of scripture that I held near and dear to my heart before I decided to seek further what it all means. I thought first I would start with the scripture I discussed in my small group on Tuesday afternoon. Each week, the members of the small group I lead have the opportunity to trade off who shares a piece of scripture, a song or a book that has proven meaningful or guiding for their week(s). The piece of scripture I felt drawn to share was reminiscent of my experiences in Northern California this summer, and I felt it an appropriate time to share it with the group. Our city directors gave us a little seminar during our last “Foster Family Dinner” on how to assimilate back into the world after short-term ministry. One of the visiting hosts who had done a summer in the Bay Area a few summers prior explained how she didn’t begin to process her time with CSM until months after she resumed her normal life. In the back of my head, I thought that I’d never fully process what I saw and experienced during my time there, and I carried that with me the first month I spent back on the East Coast. But there is a grain of truth to what she said to us back then in Oakland – I haven’t fully processed my experiences from Oakland/SF, despite the fact that not a day goes by without thinking about the whole summer out there. Each day I am reminded of the good times I had, the people I met, the ministry sites, the groups, but it wasn’t until more recently that I began to unpack fully my emotions, not my experiences. So here goes, unpacking my experiences through scripture, a way that does not come natural, but will be far more useful than just “talking about my feelings.” Feelings won’t help me fully process what work was done and the bonds that were formed. But the scripture that was used during my time there will help to connect the dots, glue together the pieces of my memory.

Think about this: Matthew 5:14-16

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Shout out to the CSM SF Bay Area prayer tour! If you’ve ever gone on a CSM trip or know anyone who has, the prayer tour is an integral part of the whole mission trip experience with them. In San Francisco, we as hosts gave the prayer tour on the group’s first night in the Bay Area as a way to introduce the city before they have the opportunity to serve it. Part of the tour took place at the top of Telegraph Hill around Coit Tower, which is the tall thin, cylindrical-shaped building that is a part of the famous San Francisco skyline that I love so much. Anyway, the visit to Coit tower fell in between the schpeal about North Beach and that of the Financial District, and marked roughly the half-way point of the nearly 2 hour script that made up the prayer tour. By this time in the tour, kids would be ansy from staying quiet through Chinatown, Nob Hill, etc, and were just about as excited to walk around silently in the dark as I was to wake up at 5am for shower duty the next morning. But in the darkness of a quiet Sunday Night, this was perhaps the most peaceful place in San Francisco for us to be. It was usually nearly 9pm by the time we reached this point in the tour, which meant that the sky was dark, but the city was lit up like a Christmas tree. We were told to give the kids 5 minutes to walk around and pray for the city before we gathered them back together to talk about being “lights of the world.” (Cue Bebo Norman’s “Great Light of the World…”) Once the group had peed (and most often all of them had to after sitting in the car for nearly an hour…), they would huddle together in the dark and cold summer night, when I would tell them about Matthew 5:14-16 and how they were supposed to be “lights of God in the darkness of San Francisco.” At the beginning I just read from the script, mechanically turning the pages and reading the rehearsed lines until they were memorized; at the beginning, I’m not entirely sure I understood what this all meant, because I had never heard such a metaphor used before in church, let alone in the more conservative setting that was my college fellowship. But slowly, week by week, group by group, I developed a stance of my own, a speech of my own to give to junior high kids, and then a different one for high school kids.

Sunday nights in San Francisco came with mixed emotions. Chances are, I spent a tremendous weekend with my Aunt and Uncle traveling the state either to Napa or Yosemite, or any amazing and picturesque place in between. As I didn’t always have constant contact with my Aunt and Uncle growing up, spending any one-on-one time with them felt like Christmas on steroids, the kind where you run downstairs and every time you think of something else you want, it just appears under the tree for you to unwrap. Every moment spent together seemed perfect, and it was these moments that made coming back on Sunday afternoons to start my long week all over again all the more challenging and at times, heartbreaking. Each weekend marked one weekend closer to leaving a place I felt was more like home than home itself at times. So come Sunday afternoon, my weekend would end and by 2pm, I’d be back at work in a staff meeting, preparing to welcome yet another group to my city. After each weekend, my enthusiasm to return to my one-bedroom apartment with my 8 amazing roommates dwindled, despite the fact that I loved the ministry sites and the work that I was taking part in. Being a leader week after week with only 24-26 hours off a week grew stressful and draining as the weeks dragged on. Getting only 5-6 hours of sleep a night if that began to catch up with me, as well as my roommates. Eating out 5-6 nights a week was perhaps the most amazing part of the job, but after a month or so, I craved a good bowl of pasta or a plate of pizza. Going home to be with my Aunt and Uncle for even just 12 hours meant that I could have pasta, salads, whatever I wanted and needed.

Groups would arrive around 5pm, and their first hour would be spent claiming what little floor space they could for their own, competing with the other potentially as many as 4 groups for the few beat up bunk beds before pulling down floor mats to cover the concrete floor of the basement. Then the leaders’ meeting would begin, where the city directors would lay out the responsibilities of both CSM’s city hosts and the youth directors and their chaperones during their stay. Next came the long, drawn-out discussion with the groups about what they could expect during their week in the Bay Area. Then we would drive the groups into San Francisco for dinner, when finally, the prayer tour would begin.

So it all comes back to the prayer tour, and eventually, all returns to Telegraph Hill and Coit tower every predictably chilly San Francisco Sunday evening. Each time, a new group, but the same old message. We are the light(s) of the world in the eyes of God. By presenting the message this way to groups – by using the tiny lit-up windows of each building in San Francisco as a metaphor for each teen, we could better explain that a small light is nice, but when it unites with other small lights, the light becomes brighter and shines over more and more territory, and in the end, makes a greater impact upon the world. The part about being God’s light is all good and wonderful, but the part of this scripture that touches me more today than it did back when I was in San Francisco is that it alludes to precisely what the city’s namesake stood for. As I have mentioned countless times prior, St. Francis (For whom San Francisco was named) was known for his emphasis on deeds and actions over words. 5:16 emphasizes that we are to let our “light shine before men” but more importantly, that we are to let our good deeds be seen by men, and praise our Father in Heaven. This verse is so appropriate for how I feel now theologically, but also how I think back upon my experiences in the Bay Area. For me, ministry (especially short-term and college ministries) is not about the number of people saved or lives changed for the better, but rather about the impressions made and the work done. Many groups came to California to “save” or “change the world,” and would leave disappointed when they didn’t see the world any differently from when they first came. But the thing about urban ministry is that they real changes occur over time, and at the expense of countless numbers of hands, not just a few over the course of a week. The work without a doubt begins with 10 or 15 sets of hands, but it is by no means concluded with those hands. The relationships necessary to make changes aren’t just forged by a single group in a week, or a month or six; this is especially true when trying to gain the trust of the houseless population in San Francisco, let alone any city. The homeless (or as I prefer to say, houseless, as many of them are lacking only a physical structure to live in, selecting rather to call the street their home because they live amongst those that they have bonded with and trust most…) do not trust easily, especially given the abuse and ignorance they have been shown on the part of other humans and the city legislature; so when it comes to trying to serve their needs as effectively as possible, they don’t just walk up to you and extend a hand out first. The trust must be earned over time, and the trust begins with the way that we act, not the way that they act. We are the source of the abuse and neglect, we perpetuate it day in and day out, so the trust and respect must start with us. And it starts with our actions, not our words. My mom (and I’m sure yours as well…) always said, “actions speak louder than words,” and the same applies here too. The way we act gives off more of an impression than the words out of our mouths most times, and that is precisely how we are commanded to act by God.

We are supposed to preach the Gospel using our bodies as instruments, rather than our voices. I think that is exactly what is being said in Matthew 5:14-16; we are the lights of the world for God – we are supposed to preach His Word using the gifts He gave us, not the voice He created us with. More good can be done in this world using our hands as opposed to our words; our hands can build relationships and gain the trust of those who don’t trust easily. But this is what we are supposed to do; Jesus didn’t come to help those who were righteous, like a doctor doesn’t desire to heal those who are already well. Jesus wanted to meet those who needed to be healed and cared for. So rather than spreading the light using our mouths, which can easily get us into trouble, lets use our hands to do good in our communities, and in the meantime spreading the Love of God in the process.

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Prayer: Personal or Private? Quiet or Loud?

In the Christian “community,” one major aspect of the lifestyle is prayer. As some of y’all know, I have recently begun to “tweet” stuff out there in the big internets, and one question I posed this week was, “What does prayer mean to you?” I sent that question out there into the wide universe of technology for all to respond to, hoping that different people would provide thoughtful responses that I could use here.

Prayer has always been a tricky and tedious part of my church-going existence. (**For a while, I am going to refrain from calling myself a Christian, I’m still struggling with what that term means to me, and more importantly, if my conception of that term applies to the person I want to be/identify with. And plus, in general, it is a loaded term that I don’t fully understand at this moment in time…) I understand fully that it is a way to personally speak to God and tell him what is going on in my life; it is also the means through which I can confess of any sins or repent for any wrongdoings. However, the most challenging aspect of prayer for me is that I struggle to sit still and have a long-winded conversation with God. Much of my resistance to prayer at times has to do with the fact that I am unsure how I fit into the “Christian” community. So, all this seems extremely contradictory, right? None of this makes any sense right now, right? Welcome to my existence!

Prayer has been explained as “something very beautiful, God’s way of saying, ‘I love you all and bless anyone who kneels before me; its his way of letting us know He is always there to talk to, and finally, a way to show our gratitude to God for everything He has done for us.” (Thanks to a Twitter connection…) This was a random submission that came along after I tweeted none other than Beth Chapman (Dog the Bounty Hunter’s wife…yes, I did that…laugh it up…). I thought this was an extremely simple, yet eloquent way of describing the power and purpose behind prayer. For me, when I do pray, I pray for things that are of utter importance, things that are life or death, or something that needs to happen for the betterment of the world. (Well, at least for a community or person…)

As with every blog post I have put out thus far, I also address the issues I find with a particular issue. For one, the Christian community feels the need to pray for every single little thing done in everyday life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with praying for safe travels or a successful exam, but sometimes I worry that there isn’t enough time spent on simply thanking God for paying attention to us. Yet again, I am not without fault in this case, but I worry that we spend too much time asking for specific prayer requests and praying for every little thing and every person we meet, rather than spending time THANKING God for all the little things and big things he has done for us. This may sound incredibly hypocritical, and I’ll take that as it comes, but I worry about that. Like for example, in my small group, we spend time at the beginning taking prayer requests from everyone in the group. This is a great way for us to discover little things about the other members of the group; at times, though I worry that this is just a false act, a silly little waste of time. Further, I have no interest in this part of the small group, but it appears important to others in the group, so in order to serve the larger interests of the group, I silently smile and nod, adding my own prayer request in turn. I think there is nothing wrong with taking prayer requests, because several voices praying for one thing is potentially more effective than one single voice; but the biggest problem I have is that our attention is stretched too thinly over several prayer requests when we could pray for just one thing every day. I don’t think God is like a vending machine, where you can feed in as many prayer requests as you want into him and in turn receive a corresponding answer to each request upon demand. I was raised to believe that God reveals little bits to us when it is the right time, not simply because we want to know NOOOOWWWWWW.

Since I am talking about prayer, I also want to stress the importance of prayer in all faiths, not just prayers directed toward Jesus Christ. A Jewish friend of mine told me that the most incredible thing he does every day is that his first and last thoughts of the day are directed at God, lifting prayers of thanksgiving up to Him for all that has happened during the day, and also prayers that he would wake the next morning to do it all over again. It appears to me based on his experiences that prayer for him is far more intimate, as though he is exalting God for waking him every morning and allowing him to take rest every evening. He thanks God for his very breath and words, and the ability to serve every day. Prayer for him isn’t as nuanced and complicated as it seems to have become for the average Christian; it focuses on the important things – the fact that he remains alive.

The best definition or way that I’ve heard prayer described has to come from my friend Grace. She said that prayer means connection. What I loved most about this description is that it wasn’t caught up on language or overly wordy. Sometimes I see that Christians and churchgoers are too concerned with how we phrase or describe our faith, when in reality, it doesn’t matter how we justify or depict our faith, as it is a personal decision, unique to each and every subscriber. Along Grace’s lines, prayer another way we can connect with God, or make a connection with Jesus. It isn’t about making bargains or negotiating the latest desire with the Divine, or even about making one voice louder than the infinite others trying to appeal to God’s innate sense of fairness (also known as grace…God’s grace…). With this in mind, I really want to discuss the pros and cons of the different types of prayer. I am under no circumstances placing any value judgements upon anyone’s prayer preferences, I’m merely speaking from my personal experience as a 22-year-old college, soon to be PTS student. I have experienced in my 4 years of college a wide variety of different prayer styles that span denominations and traditions both nationally and internationally. Some pray out loud in a group, others choose to pray silently. What makes one a better way to communicate with God over another? I was raised to pray silently at all times other than at meals, where we prayed a short prayer together. But as I entered college, it dawned on me that you could also communicate with God aloud. My experiences with this form of prayer, however have been mostly negative. I’m not entirely sold on the idea. Personally, praying out loud forces me to focus on words, rather than on thoughts and the reason why I’m praying in the first place. I worry about sounding dumb or idiotic, rather than focusing on my prayers directed toward God. In general, I find that praying out loud becomes a contest for who can pray the best or the most; for me, it takes away from the point of prayer in the first place. I know there are people who love it, as it tends to add a community feel to prayer, as everyone can hear their requests prayed for or even themselves prayed for. All this aside, however, I find it extraordinarily distracting for me personally. I love nothing more than sitting alone in the privacy of my own room and having a nice little conversation with God….Because my interaction with God is private and personal, and something that I share only with Him. That for me is where the problem lies with praying out loud…the prayer becomes about more than you, and all the private moments you could have with God are brought out into the open for all to see and critique. With all this said, I plan to keep to my quiet private prayers, rather than spread them out into the open for all to hear and judge.

But maybe I am tremendously off base, and none of this is substantiated. But ultimately what I am trying to say is that as followers of Christ or church-goers, or whatever you select to call yourself, we shouldn’t be so eager to prayer for 60 or 70 people or things when all we need to do is thank God for making us as we are. My mom always said growing up that you get a lot further in life by saying please and thank you, and I believe the same applies to a life lived according to any faith system you choose. God is always willing to hear you out, but you can’t always expect him to sit there and listen to you read off a list of 1000+ wants for your life. God’s like any guy, He needs to hear how awesome and incredible He is on a daily basis. He’s like your boyfriend, who needs to be told how cute he is or amazing or whatever. God has feelings and emotions the same as we do, and at times, we need to encourage Him along the way much in the same way He encourages us. If we take the time to support and encourage Him, without a doubt, we can expect the same from Him on our end. All it takes is a few extra minutes each day, but in the end, it is all well worth it. Its like we are dating God. The more effort we put into our relationship, the longer it will last and the brighter it will shine!

All Revved Up: Breaking Away From The “Christian” Mold

A few months ago, I wrote this: “As I stand on the verge of a huge life chance, I wonder what my life will become. Packing up my most valued possessions has made me think a whole lot about leaving my past behind and taking the next step toward my future, into ministry; the dream I’ve had for many years now has the great potential to come true, but at the same time, nothing scares me more than the possibility that I will face some rejection from people who have never met me along the way. I envision the days when I will be without my safe community of friends who have know me, and who know the small things about me, like the fact that I prefer Pepsi to Coke, and Dunkin’ to Starbucks. But in every book, there is a beginning and an end, a start and a finish. And thus, with this novel that is Smith, I am afraid that I am closer to the end than the beginning. But this most certainly does not indicate an end to the fun and love I have experienced during my short stay in Northampton, Massachusetts, where everything goes, and you can be whoever and whatever you want to be. Instead, I hope that going to seminary next year will be the beginning of a new chapter, rather than a new book – the continuation of the same, amazing story, rather than the beginning of an entirely new one.”

But now that my life has been decided and settled, and everything that was uncertain has fallen into place, I think back and wonder what I bought into – what things I said just to say them, or better yet, what I believed just to believe what others say they believe. Faith is supposed to be the belief in things unseen, and even of things unprovable and unbelievable. Without any uncertainty, I have faith, but for the longest time – most of my college days in fact – I believed what my classmates believed just to feel like I was a part of their community, not my own. Leaving Smith, I feel the strongest conviction to separate what I believe from what I can’t. But I’m not going to waste time doing that in this post – I’ve already done that in the past. But after attending meetings with just Christians, I see the excitement over bringing people to “know Jesus,” or “away from Hell and sin.” Or what is worse, I see them saying, “oh well my parents say they are Christians, but I’m not sure that they know Jesus.” Before I came to Smith and immersed myself into a smaller Christian community within the college, I had never heard of such things mentioned. My church never EVER discussed saving people or that people didn’t have a relationship with Jesus. What is more, they never judged people’s walks with God, or questioned the depth of their relationships with Jesus. I was raised to believe that religion (and within that, faith, belief, devotion, etc) is something that is personal and unique to each individual, and therefore should not be subject to people’s judgments. Sometimes I wonder what I learned from my encounters with Christians – is judgment a part of being a Christian? Like a secret handshake or a decoder ring might be? I mean, the Bible preaches, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” yet we as Christians find ourselves the presidents of the Judgement Club of America. All confessions and self-examinations aside, I seek to find the answer to this question: what has happened to the message of Jesus in 21st century America, and on college campuses in particular? I know this analysis might anger some, but I cannot continue to say the right things and skirt around issues, sayings and behaviors that have bugged me all along. Especially since I only have 3 more months on campus before the door to this chapter of my life slams shut behind me.

I don’t understand the necessity to and pressure that is placed on “spread(ing) the word of God” sometimes on college campuses. I think a lot of this confusion comes from a single idea: that those who don’t “know Jesus” (yet again, a phrase that I despise) are destined to burn in Hell, regardless of what type of person they are. I remember this summer a question that someone I was working with asked me. She asked, “Are your parents Christians?” At the time, I was still stuck in the haze of wanting to believe the right things in order to be seen as authoritative and mature, so my answer at the time was fairly predictable. I knew that to have parents who would be deemed “unChristian” would mean that I would have to sit through a painful lecture about how it was my duty to convert them and help them see the light, or else risk having them go to Hell for their unforgivable sins. BS, I’m sorry. People that know my family would be outraged to hear such blasphemy. My church never uses the term “Christians” in the context of describing the congregation. From my memory, we were always referred to as a congregation, not the body of Christ, not Christians, none of that. The term “Christians” strikes me as a 21st century invention to separate and identify those who are “in Christ” and those who aren’t. As if any of this matters to the average American or human being in general. But at the time, I said yes, that my parents were Christians. I don’t think that I could name a specific definition for the term, but I said so anyway. My parents might not identify as “Christians” but they are most certainly followers of God and churchgoing people. Labels are not important to them, as they believe (the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi) that we are supposed to follow God first through our actions and if necessary, use our words. In other words, my church teaches that we must first lead by example – lead through our actions and our ways of life what Jesus taught in the Bible. It is not our duty to walk up to people and ask them if they are going to Heaven or Hell, if they are “saved” or not. Lets face it, that is none of our business. It is not my job as a follower of God to walk up to someone and place judgement on their previous life choices. If they want to come to church, by all means I’ll take them. But they need to come to that on their own. I want no hand or role in bringing them if they are not ready or if it not their well-thought-out choice. I will not pray that people’s souls will be saved, or that they will come to know God. Instead, I will pray for those around me who are suffering, or who have cancer, or who are applying for competitive jobs or graduate school programs. It is not up to me as to who decides that they want to seek out going to church. God touches people’s hearts all at different times, and when He does, hopefully I will be around to answer questions and chat about faith, and eventually, bring them to church.

Something I love so much about this world is how diverse it is, and how people can be diverse without standing out and being separated from others on purpose. Further, one thing I have embraced about my time here at Smith is how diverse the student population is, and how completely different people can come to be the best of friends and no one knows differently. Or rather, no one notices if people make friends with those who are their polar opposites. What I will never be able to grasp is why I have been told that my Jewish or Muslim friends will go to Hell if I don’t help them “come to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.” Why is it so important to walk around telling people that their faith and beliefs are not as good as (ours or) mine? In fact, at times, I have gleaned more from my friends of different faiths about the importance of faith than those who share the same beliefs. From my Jewish friends, I have learned to stay faithful, because one day, God will show Himself and recognize our devotion to His teachings and commandments. Further, I have been taught from different religious traditions the importance of finding joy in the small glimpses of Heaven God gives us. But more importantly, I have learned to love the way I think God loves us through my friends of different faiths. They have not said, “well, you don’t believe exactly what I believe so therefore we can’t be friends.” Rather, they have shared with me the nuances and intricacies of their beliefs openly and with love, hoping that understanding will breed acceptance.

Ultimately, I understand why Christians feel the need to “help others see the light,” but as for myself, I personally can’t condone it for myself, for my own life. I am not sure what the light is, or if any of us can really see it yet. But as for myself, I feel that the best justice I can do for others is to work on myself and better my own relationship with God before I can assume that I know what is better for others. As almost everyone knows by now, my relationship with God is like the waves of the ocean – it comes on strong and lingers, but eventually it retreats back into the greater ocean. Eventually, however, the waves always lap back onto the sandy shore with strength and courage, showing themselves to those soaking up the sun – like me. My faith is not always a constant thing – strong and certain all the time, never any doubts of why I believe in the first place. But never in my mind have I said, “Today, I need to go out and make other people believe what I do.” Faith is not universal, and is never the same from person to person. What someone else at Smith might believe won’t ever be precisely the same, no matter what. That is precisely why I can’t “help others come to know Jesus” or “convert the heathens” as many Christians think they need to. I can only work on my own faith and beliefs, allowing it to strengthen and evolve in turn as my life grows and evolves. I understand that some Christians think that they need to “save” people from going to Hell, and I hope and pray that none of my friends end up there, but IT IS NOT UP TO US who goes to Heaven and who must face Hell. I think that God decides who goes where not based solely on who “got saved” or “believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior,” but rather on who treated those they encountered with loving-kindness and respect; those who looked after others before themselves, and who gave people the credit they have earned and was due to them. Just because you accept Jesus doesn’t mean that you are off scot-free for anything else you might do in the future. Jesus or not, we as humans are expected to treat those we meet and interact with the way that Jesus teaches – with genuine kindness and respect because that is how we are to act, not because we think it is what is expected of us.

I guess the message I’m trying to get across from this whole “rant” is that we should do things because they are what we do, not because we think we have to do them to fit in. Jesus taught us to act with loving kindness because that is what God does; and since God created us perfect beings, we are capable of doing exactly what Jesus preached. We just have to try harder to be ourselves, not who we think we should be to be deemed acceptable to a specific community, such as the Christian “body of Christ.” Because ultimately faith shouldn’t be adopted and explored simply as an initiation rite into a community; the community aspect of faith is a lovely bonus, but not the reason we should choose to believe. If we believe in God and Jesus because of the community, then aren’t we placing our eggs in the wrong basket? Or rather, aren’t we believing for the wrong reasons?

So what am I saying? What’s the point of all this? I have faith in God and the plan He has for my life, but I also need to see that my life doesn’t include “saving” people or telling people they’re destined to burn in hell for their mistakes unless they believe. My faith is just that – mine – and what I do with it is nobody’s business. Just because I’m heading off to seminary in the Fall of 2011 doesn’t mean that I am eager to stand on a street corner preaching the Gospel to the “less fortunate” or the “unsaved.” I won’t even be with people who believe this is the only way to touch the lives of others. God touches our lives in different ways every day, and it is nobody’s business when or how He does this. It is no secret that I believe in God, but I don’t think that I should have the word “CHRISTIAN” tattooed on my forehead because of that. My faith is personal and for the most part, private. I wear a cross around my neck because it symbolizes a set of my beliefs, but it does not fully define who I am, and it does not mean that others have to feel the same.

I honor the faith of others, acknowledging that it is just that – theirs. Why can’t everyone respect that faith is individual and personal, and not something that is cookie-cutter to all Americans or all humans. Lets stop forcing people to believe what we believe. Lets let God touch their hearts and awaken their desires to believe in Him. Because until that happens, religion is just pushy. And in my opinion, that isn’t the purpose behind faith, belief and religion to begin with.

All Revved Up: Coming Clean

I have been thinking a lot more recently about the relationship between words and actions. There seems to be a running conversation about such a relationship everywhere I turn, but most especially within the Christian community. Every Christian that I know finds themselves pulled in a thousand different directions, especially between evangelism and leading by example. Much of this, I can completely relate to. My stance on outward evangelism isn’t by any means hidden from the public, but at times, I feel as though the lines between preaching and leading by example get seriously blurred in ways that I am not sure I can tolerate any longer. My summer in California taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson that I will ever learn in my lifetime – that being a Christian isn’t about saying the right things or having a record number of converts to your name. In fact, I’m not sure that these things will get you anywhere in the long run. I can tell, from personal experience, that saying things that might be perceived as the right things really don’t matter in the end. Or rather, saying that you believe something just to fit into a certain crowd ultimately will come back to haunt you. Not saying that such a thing has happened to me, but I feel that during my time at Smith, I have done two things – explore my faith in ways that I would never have had the opportunity to back at home, and as a result of these explorations and experiences, I have made conclusions about what type of Christian I don’t want to become in the years to come. I am not going to make a list of the statements that belong in either category, but I feel it necessary to make the point that college, without a doubt affects one’s faith and also how they relate their faith to the rest of their lives. This leads me to say something that many might find risque or ridiculous. Over the last 3 years, I have had the tremendous opportunity to explore my faith and beliefs, growing up and out in various directions as a result. At times, I find myself falling prey to saying what I think should be said, rather than what I believe in order to appease others or, as I thought earlier, to appease myself. I know this may seem unpopular to some, and for that I apologize. But I find it completely necessary to come clean about faith, and specifically what I believe, especially since I am approaching the end of my time at Smith College, and the beginning of another greatly desired and long-anticipated chapter of my life.
Back in the 9th grade, my RCA church required us as confirmands to write a faith statement. You might ask, what is a faith statement? It is exactly what it sounds like. My faith statement was probably the first time I knocked personally on God’s door without the help and prompting of others. In this statement, I described what I believed in explicit detail as a 14-year-old. I probably should have done another faith statement at the end of my high school years, as much changed in my spiritual life between the 9th and 12th grades, but now is a better time than any, as I am going to enter a new environment in July. Over the last 8 years, I have learned that a faith in God is not like swimming in the shallow end of a swimming pool, where the bottom is always within reach. Rather, having faith in the divine is like swimming amongst the waves of the ocean – it ebbs and flows, comes in and eventually goes out, but no matter what, the “waves” always come back in to shore. My faith has been much the same way; I have gone through periods of extreme devotion, where I have spent every waking, unoccupied moment in the Bible, in prayer and doing devotionals and worship services. But as is the human condition, I have also had moments of doubt and confusion, or as I have often called it, God and I are “on a break.” Our relationship had by no means ended without the possibility of reconciliation. Rather, I felt distant from God, when in reality, it is highly likely that God was right there with me. But regardless of God’s geographical location, I have experienced faith highs and lows, as most devout churchgoing Christians have. This phenomena is also not uncommon among college students, who are subject to constant stress and pressure. During the moments when stress is especially high, they seem to unintentionally list from God.
I suppose the topic I want to address most is the phrase, “God’s will.” This is by far the most puzzling “Christianese” phrase I have encountered since I came to college. I grew up probably not hearing that term at all. But since I came to Smith, I have been inundated with the phrase and its common usage. My favorite example is that my torn cartilage was “God’s will.” RCA theology does not believe in the complete control of God in our lives. Rather, as is a factor in Calvinist theology, we as humans have some element of freewill and are under the control of God to some extent. In response to this, I believe that my torn cartilage isn’t a part of God’s greater plan for my life, and I will never state that it is. I think that I became too eager and too zealous during a cycling event and as a result, became injured. God didn’t injure me, I injured me. I can understand why this might be a challenging bite to swallow for many of my Christian colleagues, but let me try to explain it this way. I think that God most certainly has a plan for my life in ministry, but I think that I have to step up to the opportunities that God has set out for me. I am not a passive observer to my life, I have to step up and take control of the opportunities presented to me. For example, I think (and I’m sorry to keep using that phrase…but this is my blog after all…) that God creates certain events in my life, and it is up to me as to whether I select to take advantage of them or not. However, at the same time, I do believe that certain things in my life have happened for a reason. Like coming to Smith in the first place. 4 years ago, my biggest desire in life was to play field hockey at Colby College in Maine. Little did I know that I was supposed to be somewhere else and meet different people at Smith…(seeing as at the time, Smith was my last choice school. The women’s college thing was a challenge for me at the time…) I didn’t realize that this was what was meant to be until I applied, came to accepted students’ day and saw all the opportunities Smith had for me.
I know it seems like I’m running in circles, but the biggest thing I want to lay out in this post is that my faith is dynamic – ever changing and evolving. But ultimately, what I believe all boils down to one thing – I believe in God the father, Jesus Christ, his son, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is the Word of God and has much to teach me, but is greatly up to interpretation; Not everything in the Bible is applicable to 21st century Christians, but most of it can serve to order and aid us in our every day lives. I believe in the power of prayer, and that prayers are answered in their own time according to God’s plan. But perhaps the most important aspect of my belief is that God has given me the free will to choose Him, to choose a belief in Him. I don’t have to believe, no one is forcing me to declare my faith – my faith comes from my own heart and mind. I believe in God’s purpose for my life, and that no matter what, God will have my back and best interests in mind. But it is up to me to continue to follow the signs that God is sending me. Most importantly, if something bad happens in my life, I don’t necessarily believe that it is a sign from God that I screwed up or sinned terribly. Perhaps this may be true, but it could also be that I made a dumb decision or took too risky a chance and the bad event is the result. This may be offensive to some, and for that, I’m sorry. My faith and beliefs come from the church I was raised in, and I couldn’t be more proud and passionate of what I believe in. Believe it or not, God created each and every human being with a purpose in mind, and perhaps it is a part of my purpose to state what I believe out in the open for all to hear. This post may seem like an expose of my beliefs, but I absolutely cannot continue going along with things that I don’t believe in or can’t stand for. I am a Christian and will never deviate from that. But I am also a human being, and as a human, I have the ability to choose how certain aspects of my life play out. As for the rest of my life, that is up to God. I’ll let Him take care of the rest.

For He knows best.