Third in series: Filling in our gaps
So I grew up in southeastern Ohio, where Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia meet. This is an area that is considered the north central region of Appalachia. And if you're not familiar, Appalachia is an area that's strongly associated with white people living in poverty. It's most widely known for its farming and coal mining communities, and the people there have a tendency to be isolated, under-educated or uneducated, it's known for high rates of substance abuse, addiction, high rates of untreated mental illness, and high rates of cancer. Occasionally a part of Appalachia will gain national attention due to an Erin Brockovich type story or because of it’s comparison to Flint Michigan. It's been referred to in the media as "the shame of America" or “Third world America”. Increased access to technology has changed the appearance of the region a bit since I grew up there, but in general it still tends to lag behind the rest of the country. The nearest town to my childhood home STILL does not have a Starbucks ;) I find the terms "white trash and hillbilly" to be hard to stomach but if the descriptions I just gave don't paint a clear picture for you then those terms should drive it home.
So, this is the culture that I was born into. I would definitely add a few positive things when describing Appalachia, like the people there are extremely resilient, friendly, and resourceful, and the wildness of the land can be breathtakingly beautiful, but overall, the stereotypes about Appalachia vs. what I experienced while growing up there are pretty much one in the same.
I was born amidst farmland in a small trailer that for the first few years had no running water, was heated with wood or kerosene even in the winter, and where I slept in the same room as my parents and my older brother until I was 11 years old. My parents were extremely hard workers- working poor- my mom worked at various low paying jobs and my dad as a craftsman. I felt very lucky to have my parents when compared with some of my classmates because my parents never abused me, but the fact that they were working tirelessly most of the time meant that their biggest crime was that they were often unaware of where I was and what I was doing. My parents were also a classic product of the 1960’s and 70’s and so the permissive lifestyle of the hippie movement was definitely carried over into their parenting style. When it came to religion or spirituality, there was a lot of mention in our house of a “higher being” or “the creator”, sometimes even of hindu gods, but none of it ever felt terribly helpful to me so in large part I just ignored it. Because of my grandmother I believed Jesus was Catholic. On the rare occasion that Jesus was mentioned in our home it was usually accompanied by an eyeroll from my mother, who herself had spent the majority of her upbringing in Catholic schools and seemed to have no real interest in revisiting the topic.
I myself started off life as a fairly sweet, bright, straight A student, but by the time the inevitable middle school challenges hit and with two busy, unengaged parents the difficult culture that I lived in began to make a real mark on me. By 4th grade I had my first (we'll call it an undesirable experience) with liquor. By 6th grade I was struggling with an eating disorder, depression, and like many prepubescent girls became absolutely obsessed with boys. By 8th grade I was drinking alcohol and smoking and hanging out with college age kids regularly. By high school I was doing anyTHING I could to get attention from anyONE I could….drugs, sex, stealing, lots and lots of lying. Because I have an easy going disposition and because most of my peers were living the exact same lifestyle as me, any poor choices I made went wholly unacknowledged. I simply blended in. Unsurprisingly depression and anxiety had a pretty good grip on me.
And so did cynicism. One thing that became true for me during this formative time of my identity is that I became very suspicious and even hostile toward anything or anyone who I saw as "good”. Anything that resembled innocent fun was a little too uncomfortable for me. I didn’t really know how to be a kid, and so I was untrusting of those who did. This is also the time that I began to develop a particular disdain for Christianity and for the bible. I have very distinct memories of openly calling Christians stupid and gullible, and of calling the bible a bunch of dumb, made up stories.
Which is one of the reasons why it felt rather extraordinary, and unlikely, when Jesus came knocking at my door. And I know that might sound cheesy, but Jesus literally knocked on my door one day during my senior year of high school in the form of my pothead brother (As a side note, my brother has since turned into one of the most amazing human beings that I know, so he’s okay with me calling his former self a pothead) So my brother, who previous to this day had led the same questionable lifestyle as I did, walked through the door early one morning looking like he was high on the strangest drug I had ever seen. He began to talk regularly about Jesus as if Jesus was right there in the room with us. And it took me a little while to admit to it, but I somehow knew that what my brother was saying about Jesus was true. I somehow knew that Jesus WAS right there with us, as if he was somehow wandering around the rooms of our house. At times it’s as if I could actually feel Jesus, just sitting at the end of our couch, perched there on the arm, just being all quiet and loving and Jesus-like while I watched tv. “What does he WANT?” I would sometimes think to myself. During those days though I remember having a distinct feeling that I had somehow moved from being an invisible person to now being watched, or better yet, seen, virtually 24 hours a day. It always felt as if Jesus was hovering somewhere nearby. And it was definitely comforting.
But ultimately I didn’t know what to do with Jesus in my life. There weren’t many Christians around that I was aware of, and embarrassingly I wasn't a very good reader, so the bible overwhelmed me and usually I fell asleep when I tried to read it. So for a long time my life with Jesus mostly looked like me talking TO Jesus about anything and everything, or me getting drunk and talking ABOUT Jesus to a bunch of my uninterested friends. I think I would say things like “You guys, Jesus is so amazing, he’s like my best friend or something” and then they’d stare blankly back at me.
And this dynamic between Jesus and me went on for a really long time. He would hover around being all quiet and loving and Jesus-like and I would talk to him and it was comforting. But nothing else in my life was actually changing- my life, the life that at times resembled a living hell. I caught a couple of breaks- miraculously got accepted to college, and even found myself involved with a good campus ministry. But as was my life pattern, good things just didn't seem to stick. Motivated by a strange combination of stubbornness and shame I dropped out /slash/ flunked out/ of college after my first year. And before long I returned to the old destructive habits and relationships that were familiar to me.
It was a hard and confusing place to live in. It was a place where, repeatedly, I would express how I was desperate for things to change, but then, repeatedly, I wouldn't really respond positively when change tried to come. Saying Jesus exercised perfect patience with me during this time feels like an understatement. I think of when my 2 year old is loudly resisting something good that I'm trying to do for her, like putting her in her car seat,- I have about 3 minutes of patience for her absurdity- Jesus responds differently than me. He’s much more understanding.
But, kind of like a toddler, what happened to me is that I eventually wore myself out. And in a heaping pile of my own tears one night I said to Jesus “I will do ANYTHING you want, please, just change my life.” And this time I meant it. And that was a prayer he answered, rather quickly actually. Within a month I moved out of my alcoholic boyfriend’s house and was on my way to Europe for 6 months, where I pretty much just read books about Jesus and let Jesus love me.
But the real pivotal experience for me, one that shifted my whole identity, came a bit later.
You see, I still had this habit of feeling hostile about accepting help and I still had an impulse to run from good relationships. And I would get really angry with Jesus when I prayed sometimes. So one night while I was really letting him have it, asking him things along the lines of “why do you want me to change so badly? Why do you want me to be someone that I’m not?” I audibly heard God speak to me.
From what felt like was a strange combination of inside the room and emanating from somewhere outside in the moonlight I heard him interrupt my angsty rant with 5 loud, beautiful words. God said, very clearly “I. Am. Keeping.You. Safe”. Now, the words were profound, I’ve thought about them many times since that night and they’ve repeatedly brought me comfort over the years, but it wasn't the words themselves that made the biggest impact on me. What created a shift in my identity is that I encountered God’s voice. And by the way it did NOT sound like what I had expected. First of all, my reflexive reaction was to leap up off of the floor where I was sitting, onto the bed, and silently pull the covers over my head. Some time later I actually read in the Bible that any time an angel of the Lord would physically appear to a person the first thing that the angel would have to say is “Do not be afraid”. Because the power of their presence was too much for humans to handle. That's similar to what I was experiencing. Suddenly I was painfully aware of how ridiculous and small I was, and how big and complete God was. There was a joyful fear in the room, a reverence, and I felt powerfully loved, as if I was encountering “home” for the first time ever. The presence of God lingered in the room that night for hours until I finally found the courage to fall asleep.
...And the rest is kind of history. No, not really. The rest is filled with God asking me to do a bunch of things I wasn’t completely sure about. Like going to church, signing up for a million hours of counseling, and learning to serve the poor. But it really wasn’t as difficult to say “yes” this time because, like I said, something had shifted in me. I found myself naturally trusting in who God was. Also, spending time in God’s powerful presence somehow showed me a glimpse of who I was. It felt like his presence had somehow put me in touch with my true identity, and it didn't look like the person I had been all those years.
I want to read a story from the life of Jesus for us. It’s from the Gospel of John, and it’s in your program if you want to follow along.
...Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” For Jews do not associate with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked HIM and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” called Christ “is coming. When he comes, HE will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
So, you're obviously not a first century Samaritan woman. You're also not a teenage girl living in appalachia. But that doesn’t actually matter here because Jesus is the same for all of us. And because of him it will always be true that if we are willing to put anything on the chopping block, God will take it and transform it into something better. The Jesus who took my hand and helped me walk into a new and better way of life is the same Jesus who will show up exactly where you are if you'll let him.
So here’s my question to you for this week. What’s something that you have never put on the chopping block? What’s something that’s “off limits” to God? Maybe it helps to put it like this. What’s something that you find yourself getting defensive over? Or here’s a good one…What do you find yourself feeling perpetual hopelessness over? In a moment I’m going to pray and my hope is that we can take these things and right here this morning we can surrender them to God.