Book review: Once You Go In

Dangerous Readers-A

Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith

By Carly Gelsinger

(She Writes Press, 2018)

 

When God created Adam God declared it was not good for man to be alone, so Eve was created to ease Adam’s loneliness. The Old Testament is the story of individuals creating community with God and with one another. It is natural for us to long to belong to others whether this is within families, neighborhoods, sports team fandom, or within a faith tradition. We want to belong.

In her memoir, Once You Go In, Carly Gelsinger describes her adolescent longing to be part of a group, especially a particular church group in her small Northern California town, the Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church. She grew up in a loving family of four living in the country, singing Beatles songs and Broadway tunes together. “We sang ‘All You Need is Love’ as the sun set behind the wall of pine trees next to us ….My heart bubbled over with the sense that love filled our longs, and that love was bigger than the canyon surrounding us.” And because of this love Gelsinger sensed a Love beyond and greater than the love experienced in her family. “…I had an inexplicable draw to be near to God from a young age.”

One day, while bicycling around town she spots a vinyl banner hanging in front of the Assemblies of God Church with the announcement: “Voice in the Desert Youth, 7 p.m. Thursdays.”

Youth. The word makes me picture slumber parties and pepperoni pizza and group photos and matching T-shirts. The Baptist church I’ve been going to off and on for years doesn’t have Youth. They have babies and old people, and Vacation Bible School, which is for little kids. I wonder what it would be like to have a group, a place to belong.

And Gelsinger joins the youth group. Her well-written memoir tells us of her efforts to belong to this church and what it cost her in terms of her relationships with her family, herself, and with God.

Throughout Gelsinger’s story she tries to understand what the group norms are, to tease apart the religious language, and to guess at the expectations of the church. Despite her efforts she apparently falls short of understanding the religious culture of this small Pentecostal church. Gelsinger attempts to live the kind of godly life the church teaches.  What she doesn’t realize until she was a young adult was no matter how hard she tries to fit in, to fully belong to this congregation, she will always fall short because the god this church worships is mean-spirited, angry, and frequently punishes those who disappoint him. When she disappoints her pastor, his wife, and the youth leaders, she is, in effect, disappointing God and lives in fear of being excluded from the church.

Gelsinger tells several stories of how the church leaders would distinguish church members as separate from non-church members by underscoring their belief that “we are special, we are the faithful ones that God will use to save the world.” The leaders emphasize that “we believe and practice our faith the correct way because we are on fire for the Lord while other people are lukewarm in their faith.” The people were continually exhorted to convert the lukewarm believers and non-believers but “if you can’t convert them then you must separate yourself from those people because they will be an evil influence on you.” Of course, the leaders use the language of “encouraging one another, exhorting for good, and offering godly discipline” to control the group rather than focusing on God’s mercy and love.

Gelsinger remains a part of the church throughout her adolescence in which she genuinely loves God and wants to be God’s faithful servant. She speaks in tongues, prays for miracles, witnesses to her peers, while experiencing life as an American teenager. The church’s emphasis on salvation on their terms puts a strain on Gelsinger’s relationship with her parents, enduring pressure from church leaders to “save” her father who grew up Catholic. She is encouraged by the youth pastor and his wife to refrain from the family activity of listening and singing to the Beatles and other forms of secular music. The same youth pastor and wife routinely suggests that Gelsinger’s family carries generational sin which prevents Gelsinger from becoming a great woman of God. Ultimately, after a confrontation by the youth pastor and wife for having a “Spirit of Rebellion” Gelsinger’s mother tells her, “You are brainwashed.” They do not speak for a few weeks afterward.

The confrontation propels Gelsinger into understanding that she needs to get away from Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church and even Pine Canyon itself. She transfers from the local community college to a small evangelical college thirty miles away. The physical distance provides room for Gelsinger to begin healing from the psychological, emotional, and spiritual wounds inflicted by the small congregation. She begins to find new friends, groups, and her future husband who do not wish to control her or her relationship with God.

Gelsinger marries, moves across the country for graduate school, finds new friends who love her and love God. She starts the painful process of deconstructing her youthful faith while cautiously reconstructing a faith in a loving and merciful God. Eventually, she and her husband visit a number of churches or not attend at all until they wander into an Episcopalian church on a Sunday morning, which was the denomination of her now-deceased loving and merciful grandmother. Gelsinger concludes the book with this description of her faith:

My fire for God changed me, and while I never want to go back, I can see hope is leading the way to something good. It has led me to the slow growth of faith, of small shoots of life pushing up from dead stumps, of expansive views of hope I may have never seen otherwise…I will keep questioning and thanking and running and falling and searching and rebuilding, because this is the process of being alive.

 In her acknowledgments, Gelsinger states: “I am grateful for every person in this story who led me to where I am today …. There are no villains or heroes in this story—just muddling through.” This is a loving and merciful spirit toward her life and the people of her youth. While Gelsinger doesn’t explicitly state it, she now belongs to her family, to God, and to herself.

(This review first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books, November 1, 2018)

What has been capturing my attention

Reading

*My friend Eric Massanari is a chaplain at a retirement center in Kansas. He recently wrote about an interaction with a resident here.

*Another friend, Rachel Miller Jacobs, is an associate professor of Christian formation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) wrote an powerful reflection on Psalm 146 here.

*The book, The Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. You can find my review here.

*Reflections about Michael J. Sharp, a Mennonite man working in the Democratic Republic of Congo with UN and human rights violations. He was kidnapped on March 12 with his colleague, Zaida Catalan from Sweden, and their bodies were found earlier this week. From Mennonite press and from mainstream media.

 

Watching

*The “George Gently” series on Acorn. I love British mysteries!

*The Trevor Noah stand-up special on Netflix. His impression of Nelson Mandela is riveting. Warning: some language.

*The documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” about writer and activist James Baldwin. I saw this in a full movie theater where everyone was silently engaged with the film. Very powerful film and necessary viewing for everyone.

 

Pondering

*We placed this sign in our front yard about a month ago and I am pondering how I can support local refugees. I’ve been reading D.L. Mayfield’s blog and she offers many suggestions for developing friendships and supporting refugees. Also, her book Assimilate or Die is excellent and you can read my review here. (You can read the backstory about the signs here).

Glad You are Our Neighbor Sign

*Lent. I’ve been reading Paula Huston’s book, Simplifying The Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit for daily reflections. I’ve also been participating in the Lectio Divina Lent study with Abbey of the Arts.

We are quickly approaching Palm Sunday (April 8) and Easter (April 16). I am enjoying my gospel lectionary study as well. Here are my reflections for Lent 2 and Lent 4.

Celebrating

*Kevin and I celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary this weekend. This photo was taken a few years ago at Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia when we celebrated his parent’s 50th wedding anniversary with Kevin’s family. I love this photo of us.Kev and June at Peggy's Cove

 

What is captivating you?

Attentive Living: A review of Liturgy of the Ordinary

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren  (InterVarsityPress, 2016)

liturgy-of-the-ordinary-side

It is easy for me to zone out while doing tasks by listening to a podcast, or a recorded book, or NPR. I dislike doing chores without distraction. On occasion, I practice the discipline of silence and  imbue my chores with sacredness. I remember Brother Lawrence, the Carmelite brother who worked his adult life in the monastery kitchen and while cooking, washing dishes, and sweeping the kitchen floor as a time for prayer: “It is not necessary to have great things to do. I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God,” from Practicing the Presence of God.

But usually, well, my chore practice is to be distracted, and will organize my chore schedule to coincide with the NPR schedule so I can be absorbed in something not related to the task at hand.

In her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, writer and Anglican priest, Tish Harrison Warren suggests that all our tasks can be imbued with the sacred. And, truthfully, she is making a convert of me. She reminds the reader that spiritual formation is taking place in us during these daily activities: “Is it in the repetitive and the mundane that I begin to learn to love, to listen, to pay attention to God and those around me.”

She shapes the book on themes which we find in ordinary life: checking email, sitting in traffic, fighting with her husband, calling a friend, and sleeping. She reminds us through an Annie Dillard quote that, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So then, how do we spend our days—distracted and not fully present to our lives or mindful of God’s presence in and around us? Harrison Warren confesses, “It is hard for me to believe that checking email could ever be a place of prayer.” Nevertheless, she hopes her work, her tasks, will be blessed God.  Additionally, Harrison Warren suggests being mindful of God’s love and presence during the repetition of our daily life is similar to the repetition of our transformation, or, our sanctification:

Daily life, dishes in the sink, children that ask the same questions and want the same stories again and again, the long doldrums of the afternoon—these things are filled with repetition. And much of the Christian life is returning over and over to the same work and the same habits of worship. We must contend with the same spiritual struggles again and again. The work of repentance and faith is daily and repetitive. Again and again, we repent and believe.

Importantly, Harrison Warren reminds us that bringing the sacred into the everyday is not a mental effort but it involves and engages our bodies:

If we don’t learn to live the Christian life as embodied beings, worshiping God and stewarding the good gift of our bodies, we will learn a false gospel, an alternative liturgy of the body …. Our bodies are instruments of worship.

Her reflections are robust, and, truthfully, convicting (especially about checking her social media the first thing in the morning). The book includes discussion questions and practices that could be used for personal study or a small group study. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life is well-written and accessible for readers who are seeking more meaning into one’s everyday life, especially while doing chores.

 

 

 

In Review

blogpost-assimilateorgohomeAssimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith

by D.L. Mayfield (HarperOne, 2016) 207 pps.

In Assimilate or Go Home, D.L. Mayfield recounts her college-age desires to go to the mission field and save all of the lost souls to Jesus Christ. She describes her Christian college classes which focus on missions and how she earnestly engages with the assigned readings, professors, and classmates. She volunteers to teach English as a second language to Somali Bantu refugees who recently arrived in Portland, Oregon. As she begins to spend time with them she experiences internal dissonance and external resistance from the people she was “ministering to.” Eventually, this dissonance leads her away from missions, per se, to a life of living with, alongside the people she was initially planning to convert.

 
The book is organized by essays which highlight Mayfield’s journey from a naïve, eager would-be overseas missionary to a wiser, experienced Christian who lives in a poor, multicultural neighborhood. Many of the essays were previously published but are gathered here for an effective memoir.

 
In the essay “Vacation Bible Schools” Mayfield describes taking some of the refugee children to a week-long program popular in many evangelical churches. The theme for the VBS was “The Serengeti” with suggestions to decorate the church rooms with African-themed images.

 
Mayfield took a van full of children and “they stared in silent amazement at all the large cutouts of giraffes and elephants decorating the stage.” As she directed her children to a drinking fountain she overheard a small child exclaim, “Oh! They brought us kids from the Serengeti!” She realized that the church children thought the refugee children were props:

I wanted to self-righteously shake my finger and rant about “othering” people, but I was supposed to be the exemplary volunteer. . . . I glared at everyone around me. I felt smug, secure in my own saintliness as I bustled around my group of exotics, the only diverse kids in the large, pale bunch. I drove all the kids home, but decided not to bring them the next night.

Yet, as Mayfield reflected later on this experience she realized that her refugee friends were sort of a prop for her own life. “When I finally started to believe the opposite, to see them as complex, flesh-and-blood people, everything got much harder … And my view of myself was irrevocably changed.”

 
Mayfield is a skilled writer, bringing the reader into her life while revealing her thoughts, questions, and struggles.

 
I first read this book last fall, shortly after it was published. I began re-reading in early January before the inauguration and before the executive order banning refugees from seven predominately-Muslim countries was issued. In response to the ban, Mayfield posted on her blog, “Ten ways to support refugees.” This list is very helpful with practical suggestions.