The Religion Chronicles—Part 6: That Blank Tile in Scrabble

“So that’s it. She reached Enlightenment,” you say, closing the book.

Not so fast! That was four years, two moves, and 1.5 extended periods of unemployment ago.

A month or so after finishing grad school, when I got to the second interview for a job overseas, they asked me about my faith and how it played out in my day to day life. They were wary of my motives in seeking employment there because I had been a missionary before. They wanted to know if I was planning to use that job as a cover and I don’t fault them for their suspicion.

I don’t remember what I said verbatim, but I do remember the gist.

There’s more than one way to serve God. Before, I focused on telling people about Him but I think there’s also value in being His hands and feet in ways that don’t only, or even, involve our mouths—we are to love others, seek justice, and help the poor. God’s design for the world goes beyond just having more Christians in it. (What good is a world with more Christians in it if it doesn’t lead to a world with more justice and love anyway?) Poverty alleviation and celebrating the human diversity God created are, to me, just different ways I can be a part of God’s work.

I’d come a long way. The desire to do God’s work was not something I abandoned, but what that meant had taken new shape. My college church had said if you do missions and don’t tell anyone about Jesus but only meet physical needs it’s not a real missions trip. My Boston church said the exact opposite. Somehow, by this time I’d arrived at thinking that for the Christian, whatever you’re doing, provided it’s not unethical, is missions to the extent that you have the mindset that it is. There are no ‘secular’ jobs.

I was offered and accepted that job on the other side of the world. This time, it really was the gem in a box situation as I was effectively out of Christian community for two years.

Even though I was not allowed to share my faith with my co-workers, for several months I fasted for them once a week and sent letters to friends back home to pray for them. On my day off, I’d ride around town listening to the song God of this City and pray for its residents. In the absence of a small group, I set up Skype Bible studies with my sisters and accountability time with an old friend until my poor internet connection made those hard.

Christian expats in Laos disagreed on whether it was right or not to participate in the popular local ritual performed as part of weddings, births, and other special occasions. Lao believe all bodies are composed of 32 protective spirits and that things will go best for you when all spirits are inside the body. They will have these ceremonies for those they respect to call the spirits back to their bodies. My staff threw me one before I traveled to Korea for a conference (and before I returned to the US) to wish me safe travels. Monk chanting is followed by everyone going around tying white string around the guest of honor’s wrists while saying blessings for them.

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I could understand why people refrained. I used 1 Corinthians 10:23-25 as my guide.

Everything is permissible,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible,” but not everything is edifying. No one should seek his own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience.”

I often thought about what it meant to be an American and a Christian outside of my culture and how to engage. For example, I normally don’t drink unless I’m overseas and I only do so when it would cause someone from the host culture to lose face or feel disrespected if I didn’t. In Laos, I decided to participate in this ceremony, and as each of my colleagues came around with their well wishes, I said a prayer to bless them in my head even though I don’t believe that bodies are made up of 32 spirits. It was meaningful to them and I considered it a way to show that I cared about them.

My second year, I lived with two Christian women (one Vietnamese, one Canadian) in what was considered a small mansion by Lao standards. There were more frequent church gatherings and a couple months before I left, some Christian women finally formed a small group. Discipline, without accountability, was a struggle.

If I had to sum up what’s remarkable about my time in DC so far, I’d say “everything”—from how I found my church and small group, to doing ministry again, to being in rich Christian community, to how happy I am here. All of it. Everything.

I returned to the US optimistic I’d find work quickly with an MA, two more years of experience and three more languages on my resume than I’d had after China. After five months and still no job, I inched closer toward the despondent state of mind I had after my first return from abroad. I tried not be anxious, but pessimism about the future loomed. When I returned from a networking trip to San Francisco in September 2014 with no leads for a job, I was a mess. I cried hours a day for two weeks straight worried about my future. I was also going stir crazy. Being at home felt a little like house arrest: I don’t have friends from my hometown, a car is required to get anywhere and I don’t drive, and I didn’t have my own church community there.

My next stop for finding work was DC in October. While visiting, I checked out the church I still attend today. My friend whose couch I was staying on lived in a neighborhood adjacent to the church so, at least partially out of laziness, I checked that one out first.

After service my first week, I walked up to a group of people standing around mingling and they invited me to dinner. At dinner they invited me to their small group. One thing led to another and I ended up on their rooftop the next Tuesday. I learned over that evening that many of them had previous international experience. I remember thinking, “I found my tribe.” I returned home at the end of the week hoping to make DC my new home. A week later I found temporary employment here and two weeks later on November 1 I was back on my friend’s couch.

I reconnected with the church and small group and someone suggested I go to their fall retreat the following weekend even though I was brand new and had no money. I went, thanks to a scholarship, and met a bunch of people, several of whom are now among my closest friends in DC. I decided I liked the church and the small group and would settle there. Two and a half weeks later, my fearless small group leaders sent me an email: “We were wondering if you’d consider becoming the new leader in February.”

To say I had some reservations would be an understatement. Being new to the church, I was afraid that being put in a leadership position that early might feed the beast known as my pride. Second, since I hadn’t been in community for a while and had gotten a bit lazy with reading my Bible and prayer, it felt fake to accept that position and just slide right back into old habits as if the past six months hadn’t happened. I didn’t want to be that gem in the box that only lit up in the presence of others. Then there was the matter of gifts. Last I’d checked, mine were still malfunctioning. The only thing I brought to the table was willingness. Then there was the fact that after almost six months unemployed and isolated I wasn’t feeling my strongest.

I consulted a few friends and family and they all thought perhaps it was just what I needed so I emailed the leaders back to say I was open, but wanted to be transparent about where I was spiritually. I wasn’t sure what the correct heart space was for a leader to be in. The following Sunday, I met with the female co-leader and was upfront about my concerns. She conferred with the male co-leader and before Monday arrived, they’d determined they were comfortable with me taking over in February. At the small group leader retreat that February, a recurring theme was leading through brokenness. If brokenness was de rigueur, I’d be ok.

Since I was new, I asked if I could share my story one of my first weeks leading. What I shared with them formed the skeleton of this series. After sharing, one of the guys came and gave me an obnoxiously huge bear hug and told me about the book Dark Night of the Soul. I wish I’d found it before. If I’d have known it was just a season perhaps I would have felt less desperate in the middle of it. But that must’ve been exactly what I needed.

Leading hasn’t given me a big head (yet, though I still have at least one month to go so I wouldn’t put it past me). It sounds a bit like a Hallmark card but it’s true: leading—and being involved in the church in general—has felt more like a series of small miracles, like a man who after becoming paralyzed regains use of his legs. Each step is a gift and none are taken for granted. I never thought I’d do ministry again. I never thought I’d lead a small group again. I never thought I’d be the temporary custodian of wisdom again.

All of my ‘never thoughts’ were being turned on their head; they were coming true! It stunned me—it still stuns me— and I hope this sense of awe and wonder at being used never fades. I pray I keep the same posture of humility that Isaiah had when he cried, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King,” and that I always remain available as when he said, “Here am I. Send me!”

I was grateful for each person in the group wiser and more “mature” than I was. They helped keep me humble. I also wondered how God might want to use me specifically as a person of color in the group and in the church since I don’t believe He calls us irrespective of our identities but rather because of them.

As a relatively contented single 30-something trusting God for a husband if that’s His will, how I can encourage others in similar seasons? As a Christian woman of color, how might I somehow be a bridge builder between white and black communities (and even black and Asian communities)? As a former missionary, how can I maybe help American Christians see our plight within the country in a more nuanced way? As someone who went without community for two years, how can I help others not take it for granted? But, really, the thing I’m most excited about God using is my brokenness. It’s like that blank tile in Scrabble; you can use it anywhere.

**

Here are some of the changes in how I approach my faith as a result of my experiences:

  • I don’t obsess about being mature. I don’t even know what that looks like apart from Jesus. I just try to be faithful to what I’m called to and to love people well.
  • I try not to compare myself spiritually with others. Things are never what they seem. We all have different starting places, different motivations, different histories. What looked healthy for me from the outside was snuffing out my fire. I praise God for how he works in others’ lives. All of His work, wherever it is, is worth celebrating. Christianity isn’t a race to the top; if anything, it’s a race to the bottom.
  • I care a lot more about loving people in relationships. In the past, my delight to share the gospel significantly outpaced my delight to share my life with people as well, contradicting Paul’s stance that we do both.
  • I’m hypervigilant about Pharisaism as I consider myself at an increased risk of remission. I refuse to underline anything in my new Bible. I am not as disciplined as I was in the past but I honestly think this is for my own good. A part of the counterbalance to this for me is to focus on justice, mercy and faithfulness. The verse I referenced before about straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel comes right after this rebuke from Jesus: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
  • Similarly, I am always on the lookout for pride. It’s my biggest fear. I hate it. The most frequently uttered phrase from the Bible for me is pride comes before a fall.  When I think I’ve figure out something others can’t? Pride comes before a fall. When I’m winning at a game with friends? Pride comes before a fall. I used to joke that God kept me proud to keep me humble. It feels like the thorn in my flesh. It was a sin I couldn’t master. I could not fight it with discipline. Only a big cross can defeat it.
  • I have suspended my quest to be special. I have made peace with being what I am: dearly loved. There’s more than enough there to bring joy and contentment.
  • I revel in the full and undiminishable love of God that remains constant totally independent of my performance.
  • I never think I have it right. History has shown me that this always precedes my being proven wrong.  Proverbs 26:12 says, “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.” Even all this could be wrong.
  • I think a lot more about Jesus. The two non-commentary books I read most often are If by Amy Carmichael and the Imitation of Christ. Both 100% about Jesus.
  • I remember.  Psalm 78 (my favorite!) recounts how the Israelites habitually forgot God’s goodness to them. After I shared my testimony with my small group I printed it out and kept it on the stand next to my bed until I moved this May. Every couple months I’d reread it, listen to the songs and be freshly amazed at God’s work in my life.
  • In thinking about means and ends, I examine my motivations more closely than the actions themselves.
  • I appreciate community. Man, do I appreciate community. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

 

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