April 20, 2015
In the Little Church Where God Found Me, I was surrounded by the most generous, caring people I’d ever come in contact with in my entire 14 years of life. And when I was a new in my faith, without a family to model what it looked like to live in grace and truth, they stepped in as my family and modeled goodness to me.
I was a newborn protected from the cold and swaddled in big blankets as they carried me on their back. I was an enthusiastic, curious toddler and they put up gates on the stairs so I wouldn’t fall down and covered the electric outlets so I wouldn’t shock myself. They taught me to tie my shoes and ride a bike, not allowing me to give up when I fell, shouting encouragement and praise when I did it right. They let me turn the living room into a stage, perform little songs and dances—all the while applauded in a way that made me believe I was the best tap dancer in the world.
They nurtured me, that Little Church Where God Found Me, in all the essential ways good parents should.
In the middle school years of my faith I experienced a rude awakening. You see, I had come to believe that because the Little Church Where God Found Me was so good, that all churches of the same denomination, all people of the same denomination, would also be good. So I set off, from 19 years old to 22 years old, volunteering in Southeast Asia with the same denomination my little church belonged to.
At 20 years old I moved to the Philippines to volunteer as a “Missionary Associate.” The missionary couple who I worked under moved back to the United States a month later, because the wife was having a nervous breakdown and they needed help. But before they left, in no uncertain terms, they made sure to inform me that I would not be involved in any type of decision making for the ministry, no leadership whatsoever, in any department, ever. I was there to play with kids and pay rent that would help keep their ministry funded.
Here is what I have come to believe is true– when most people are in middle school, they are still living with the same parents who taught them to tie their shoes and ride a bike. They learn that their parents are not perfect, and they wrestle with that, but they also have a foundation of love and nurture in which to work through that harsh realization. But I had moved on, expecting to be encircled in love by everyone whom I encountered. Why wouldn’t everyone who belonged to this denomination love me like my little church did? Why wouldn’t they want to nurture me like my little church did?
After a few months, stripped of all the things that I had been built up to believe were essential to who I was, cut off from encouragement and support, I began to get a little disillusioned. But I was a good kid, and good kids don’t blame other people, or gossip or criticize. Good kids trust their parents and obey.
So in light of my frustration with misguided parents, I blamed myself.
Two year later, when I left the Philippines, I was noticeably more broken than when I had arrived. But I convinced myself that I was the problem, and I just needed to fix myself and keep going.
So I moved to Texas, to attend a Little College. I was convinced this Little College would be able to nurture me the way my Little Church did. But that wasn’t the case. I lived across the street from the school, but was technically off campus and found it very hard to get involved and make friends. What topped it off was when my favorite professor was un-ceremonially fired for speaking out about some issues in the school. My Little College, spiritual “parent” proved to be as immature as any of us.
At that moment I ran away from home; I started attending a “non-denominational” church.
The teenage years are a dreaded and mysterious time. Some teens make it through to their 20’s relatively unscathed by the peer pressure and temptations that await, others are not so lucky. But every teenager learns things, in those years, that are nearly impossible to learn without testing the limits of yourself, your parents, your society, and your humanity.
My actual teenage years were not typical. I didn’t go through much testing at that time, I was too busy being a newborn in my faith. The teenage years of my faith on the other hand—well, that’s an entirely different story.
A few years ago, far from the Little Church Where God Found Me I was questioning if I could still serve God. This was a terrible position–filled with anger and fear and masks. But I was there, and there was only one way to get through—waiting and wrestling and waiting some more.
The thing is, I never stopped believing in God. I knew he was true and good. But I also found out, in those teenage years of my faith, that God didn’t promise as much as I had hoped. In fact, short of eternal life and being with us on this earth, I was starting to see that God really didn’t promise much.
As a child, everything is black and white: 1+2=3. As a teenager, the whole world turns gray. Various shades of gray in immeasurable textures creating countless patterns. I didn’t like the gray. I didn’t know what to do with the gray. I didn’t want the gray! And I wasn’t sure I wanted to serve a God whom I no longer believed could promise me the black and white.
I am so thankful God is secure enough in himself as a parent, as our father, to sit back and wait for our teenage years to play out. Never far, never letting us leave his sight, he sits back, at the edge of the playground watching us push the limits of the swings and monkey bars out of the corner of his eye. I wonder if he is reading a book or talking on the phone while he waits; calmly stifling his anxiety at our poor choices. We swing as high as we can and jump as far as we can and look around for a reprimand, and God sits patiently on the edge of the playground letting us work out our limitations.
It’s possible we might break a leg jumping from such heights, or scrape a knee at the very least. And still God waits, patiently waits, until we decide we are ready to take his hand, crutches and all, and go back home. I like to think that although he’s played it cool, not rushing to rescue us when we get scrapped up, he gets really excited when we are ready to go home. So excited, in fact, that as soon as he sees his prodigal children limping towards him, he rushes to meet us half way, wrap us up in his arms and carries us at least part way home.
Perhaps churches are not our parents. Churches are for broken children—broken children who will spend most of their lives trying to make sense of the world. Some of those children will find out that it’s impossible to make sense of the world pretty quickly. Some of those children will spend their lifetime trying to figure it out. Some of those children will leave, frustrated with the lack of answers. Some of those children will stay, because nowhere else has answers either, but at least here, there is a God who listens.
I know a lot of people who have been hurt by the church. I used to think I was one of them. But maybe the church isn’t supposed to be a parent. Maybe the church is supposed to be an older sibling who, in his limited experience, gives us the best advice he can. Maybe the church is made up of millions of people in different stages of their childhood and teenage years, desperately trying to work together because it’s the only thing that makes sense to do.
Children aren’t always very good at playing together. And teenagers are sometimes downright cruel.
In my current role, one of my primary responsibilities is fundraising to ensure that the work of our ministry and the lives God has entrusted us with will continue to be cared for.
A few months ago, we were running out of money. Typically, we send money to our office overseas quarterly, but I knew based on the numbers , that we didn’t have enough for the quarter. So I asked our accountant if we could make a monthly payment for the time being. When I got the monthly request, I was devastated. We barely had enough in the bank to fulfill the monthly payment.
I worried. I lost sleep. I made a list of people I could petition for help. I got a few anxious emails from my board. I worried more.
I finally confided in a friend, but all we could do was to say a little prayer, nervously.
That night, I checked my email. We had received a donation that day. A big donation. A donation that would meet all our needs for the rest of the quarter. perhaps even until the end of the year (which is when around half of our yearly revenue comes in).
The donation had no note, no explanation. The donation had no person’s signature, with only an offices name attached to it.
The donation was from the international headquarters of the denomination of the Little College I attended and the Little Church Where God Found Me.