I was two weeks late. I was supposed to arrive on the scene a scosh before Christmas in 1970. Instead, I inhibited my father's ability to claim me on that year's tax return by three days. Plus, I missed my first Christmas. So it was bad news all around.
Except that it wasn't because I did eventually arrive on a Sunday, when Grandma's water broke during evening worship at a church in the San Francisco bay area. There's something in her story about the anesthesiologist not showing up on time and then when he finally did he was apparently feeling the influence of some significant holiday weekend partying. Birth stories are the greatest.
Essentially, I was practically born in church. And from then on I was there every Sunday and Wednesday. I went to classes all the time. I sat through my parent's choir practices, narrated the Christmas contata, picketed the adult bookstore and worked with puppets. I knew the nooks and crannies behind the baptistry. My mother taught my preschool class and my father taught my fifth grade Sunday school class. I did summer camp, snow camp and Vacation Bible School. It was the water we swam in all the time.
Here's a little of my story from a blog post I wrote last year:
I was seven years old on an Easter Sunday when I leaned up to my mother who was standing beside me in the worship service, singing better than I ever could the hymn of invitation, Just As I Am, or something like that. She bent her perfumed head down, my hand touched her flowing skirt as I said into her ear, "I would like to make that decision. I think that Easter Sunday would be a good day to do it." Of course, that decision was to begin to formally follow Jesus.
So in that way my greatest journey began...I did a lot of sin management growing up, trying to be good and to not be bad. I think, generally, I did okay with that. But we both know that outward behaviors aren't everything. The heart needs to be engaged for real transformation to happen. During my young life I operated with the view that God was the standard of truth; obedience was mandatory and questioning God wasn't acceptable.
When I was about 19, living with Mema while I was in college, I found a church to join right away. It ended up being just the right place for me, with old family friends there to guide me and preaching that I could follow. Turns out that I met Dad there, but that's a different story. At this time, I experienced a moment of maturity. In that moment I decided that this faith that I said I adhered to needed to be real, not just practiced. That one Easter Sunday when I was a child I understood what it meant to make Jesus my Savior. However, when I was 19 I made a move toward exploring more of what it meant to make him Lord. There's a difference; one enables you to die well, one enables you to live.
I believe that Jesus came to show us a new way to live, not to show us the way to heaven. He never said, "I came to get you out of Hell." He said, "I have come that you may have life and life abundantly."
I began to open my eyes to the things going on around me that might indicate God was present and interested. It started when I was asked to begin a student ministry on my community college campus. By saying, "yes" I was beginning the adventure of taking my faith seriously. I collected signatures to get officially recognized as a club, set up a book table where I could talk to anyone about our group meetings, prepared and led Bible studies and hosted events. I was mentored by one, then two, then three people who led these ministries through our denomination and I grew and grew and grew. In this time I was surprised to discover that I had value and that I could even be used for greater purposes.
I transferred to the University in Long Beach where I joined the student ministry there and led students in more studies and began to be mentored by a wonderful women who encouraged and challenged me. She was committed to helping me become who I thought I should be and I credit her with helping to keep my feet on the ground when I was all googly over your dad and preparing to marry him.
Dad and I married in 1994, just two months after I graduated college, and the day before our wedding we were voted into a church in Fullerton, CA where Dad would be doing youth ministry. I helped with the youth, played the piano sometimes and I eventually joined the staff as well to work in the office. Pretty quickly in, we discovered that we were in a very broken church with some questionable leadership and it all turned into a huge financial mess for us. Just a year and a half in, we resigned and eventually received all of our back pay and other expenses we had fronted. It was an unfortunate way to begin our life together, but at this point I operated with the view that God was an omnipotent creator who had everything under control, even if it didn't make any sense to me.
I entered into a period of deep trust. Dad began seminary. I hopped to a couple jobs before I settled into another church office job and then I began seminary a year after dad. We found ourselves volunteering at a little church several of our classmates attended and everyone seemed to be pretty excited to be living in the way of Jesus. Dad and I were on volunteer staff there. It was probably my favorite church experience where we helped one another, dreamed together and shouldered burdens alongside each other. It was while we were in this church that you were born and that event entirely shifted my purpose.
Soon after your birth we were called to another youth ministry position in northern California. When we moved I stopped working and stayed home with you from the time you were six months old. I was very happy to be available for you and felt like God was attentive to our needs. We worked with a wonderful church staff and the other pastor's wives and I were very close. This is where we met Mama Sue and Papa Lee who were such wonderful encouragers and who stayed with you while Benjamin was born.
About two years in, the Senior pastor resigned to take his dream job and Dad was the interim preaching pastor until some people started making trouble for him. The whole process of calling a new pastor was very hard on that church. After a long search where they had to back to the beginning at least once, we knew that the man they chose he wasn't a good fit for our church or for us. The differences between us grew more evident all the time. God began to give us a restless feeling and we wanted to keep doing the work we were involved in, but we knew that ministry could and should look differently than it did. After about a year, rather than talk about our different ideas, that new pastor simply asked Dad to resign. About a year after that, the church fired him.
When we left that church we were excited to follow God into a new chapter. We had found Vintage Faith in Santa Cruz and had been driving out to their leadership meetings every week. We decided that God was releasing us to move there and help plant that new work. So we did. While looked hard for work that would support us we couldn't find any and we had to make the very painful decision to leave.
This was our darkest time. We packed everything into storage except what we could fit in the car. We were homeless (we moved in with Grandma and Grandpa), had no community, no job and no real direction and God was silent. Very silent. For five years. It was at this point in my life that I no longer had mentors, Dad slipped into a depression, you were in a very difficult season, and in spite of every effort to find meaningful work, it just wasn't happening. Dad worked at Target and we lived off of your Uncle Scott's good graces in his extra house.
During this time we found our church in Portland and we grew to love it deeply. This was a church that understood what true community was, took a humble approach to Scripture and gave me a chance to move some things from my A list of beliefs to my B list. For instance, tt was here that I found freedom in being a woman of God and not a second-class citizen in my faith and giftings. It was here that I pressed into social justice and made being a helper for others a primary posture of my life. And it was here that I grasped onto a whole new perspective on what our purpose in life was -- to be an agent of God's transformative plan to renew all things. Eventually, God spoke again and in that moment I viewed him as a helper who didn't let my cries go unanswered.
When we moved to Denver I felt like I could really move into a place of becoming my true self. It felt kind of like an opening up of my personality and my courage. And I've been on that trajectory since that time. What I've found in my journey to follow after Jesus is that he treated people as individuals. I've learned to do that with the three of you as well. There was a time when I treated you all like a package deal, but you're each unique and I'm honoring those differences.
I've also learned that God is not something to be put in a box. He is Spirit and he is truth. But he is not truth the way our human brains want to define it. If we truly seek to be more like him -- and we know that we're on that path when we're showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control -- we will know him and know truth and that truth does set us free. But it doesn't set us free to follow our own desires, it sets us from from the power of sin so that we can truly follow him in a risk-taking, trust-filled kind of a way. Plant a new church? Why not!
Every stage of my story is a leap toward life. Even in the dark times, when it felt like I was falling backward, I was being transformed, painfully so, into something new in order to take the next step. We can't control what comes, but we can manage to respond well, to give people the benefit of the doubt and to avoid situations and people that will lead us into harm. Ultimately, it's God who writes our story so we don't need to keep running away trying to find an easier one.
“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He's a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn't change, the story hasn't happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another. ” ― Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My LifeWrite a story of life. Tell that story to others.