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 Sustains Me

Youngest niece with her kitten

(My youngest niece with her companion). Photo by Jill Warden

 

7) At the four-way stop on the road from our house to our work there is a parade of roosters, chickens, and ducks moving from corner to corner. Often a rooster is leading the flock like a drum major. I laugh out loud every time I see them.

6) I am delighted during a chat with my 9-year-old niece as she tells me of her class report “Facts about Cats.” I’m not a cat person but I ask follow-up questions which she answers with authority and passion.

5) At The Hermitage, the contemplative retreat center where I work, we begin meals for our guests with ”Food is God’s love made edible.” Our meals are fresh and nutritious from ingredients grown at local farms. Who can compare the taste of freshly harvested beets to beets from a can on the grocery shelf?

4) At the beginning of meeting with retreat guests seeking spiritual direction, I light the oil lamp to remind us that God is with us and we do not have to be afraid. I listen with a prayerful, soulful heart as they entrust their stories to me. Sometimes the vibrational energy is strong and it unnerves me when I remember the stories of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross levitating in their conversations. I am not levitating and I don’t have to be afraid.

3) When my husband gazes at me with love and I am reminded of Julian of Norwich: “I look at God and God looks back at me.” I receive those gazes as the loving face of God.

2) Hermitage morning prayers end affirming each other with: “[Name], you are the bearer of God’s infinite life.” Some days I believe I can be a God-bearer and other days, not a chance.

1) What sustains? God. God is in all, through all, is all.

 

Life Transitions

 return slowly

(The Hermitage sign along the driveway for departing guests).

 

Greetings from Three Rivers, Michigan! My husband and I moved here almost a month ago—sold our home, sorted, packed, donated (and donated, and donated), and moved to join the residential community of The Hermitage, a contemplative retreat center.

At one point we seriously considered joining the residential community but it never seemed the right time. During a conversation with the Hermitage board someone asked Kevin is he was finished his library career and he realized there was more he wanted to explore. Within the past two years he sensed an inner restlessness and began to discern that he was ready to move on from library work. After pondering and praying we approached The Hermitage about joining the residential community. And here we are.

We are settling into our new home, new work, new schedule, new life. We are learning what it is to pray together as a community six days a week which includes weekly celebrating the Eucharist with one another. We are learning to work together which involves explaining and absorbing details such as which towels and sheets go into which guest room. Working together involves discussing and challenging and yielding and releasing of “my way.”

As Benedict stated in his rules for monastic life: Ora et labora. The literal translation is “Prayer and work.” It can also be translated as “Our work is our prayer; our prayer is our work.”

I discovered this prayer from the Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals which describes my inner restlessness and reflection these past several months:

Prayer for Major Life Transition

Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity.

Lord, teach me to listen to my heart, teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it.

Lord, I give you these stirrings inside of me. I give you my discontent, I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longing I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door.

 

Befriending My Depression

befriending depression (2)

 

As I meet with a new doctor she reviews my list of prescriptions.

“Do you still need this one?” she asks while pointing at my anti-depressant medication.

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell her my history with depression: “I had my first depression when I was 13 years old, the next one at age 19, another one in my mid-20s, then again when I was 40,” I said. “That last one was deeper and longer than any of the others and I started the medication.”
“Okay,” she said while nodding. “Sounds like you’re a lifer for meds.”

“Yep, probably.”

***

I’ve had this conversation with a variety of physicians, including a dermatologist who said, “You look fine to me!” To which I replied, “That’s because of the medication—it helps me not to be depressed.”

Another doctor suggested I see a therapist and I said, “I’ve done years of talk therapy and have met with four different therapists during my life. I know my depression well enough that if I need a therapist, I see one.

***

My depression is part of who I am and I am well-acquainted with it. When I notice the inner flatness I take a survey: how have I been sleeping? Do I need to increase my vitamin D and/or B12? Do I need to get out of the house and move more? And, as an Enneagram 4, am I veering toward the unhealthy attributes? If so, do I need to do a life correction and move toward the Enneagram 1? Or, is this the return of “darkness, my old friend?”

***

For decades I’ve been ashamed of my mental illness.My friends remember my depression at 19 and describe me as sitting in the corner at Bible Study with a pullover hoodie and greasy hair. I’m ashamed by that description. A few months after I began anti-depressants I wanted to stop because I was “feeling better and don’t need them anymore.” My husband wisely said, “You feel better because of the medication. You have a disease—the mental illness of depression.”

I don’t like the phrase “mental illness” because of the portrayal of people mental illness in popular culture—scary, erratic, irrational. I want to appear normal, steady, and have-it-all-together, not someone who lives with a mental illness.

***

When I first learned of the “dark night of the soul,” I wondered if that’s what I experienced. I asked one of my seminary professors and he quickly responded, “No, that’s depression, not the dark night.”

“How can you tell the difference?” I asked.

In the dark night you still function in life and you have full expression of your emotions,” he said. “With the dark night God is silent. God’s silence is leading you into a deeper or newer form of prayer.”

***

A wise friend suggested that I “befriend my depression” which seemed ridiculous to me. Nevertheless, I’ve pondered this idea and I have come to understand that to befriend my depression is to accept it as an essential part of me as much as my delight at a good joke. To befriend my depression means not disowning and heaping shame on this part of me in an attempt to appear normal. I will never be cured of my depression but medication helps me manage it. I know I will need to introduce this friend to future doctors as “my friend.”

I consider my daily pill as a gift from God. And because that pill is a gift from God it is a daily reminder of my dependency on God. I cannot make myself whole, only God can and there is the grace which allows me to befriend my depression.

befriending depression (4)

Listening as an Act of Love

listening (3)

In the late 1980s, in a small group gathering, Dallas Willard said: “Listening is an act of love.” I had chills as I recognized the truth of his statement and I quickly wrote it down. I’ve been ruminating on this phrase for thirty years now. And I try to listen lovingly as a spouse, a family member, a friend, a spiritual director, and a church member. When I listen with love or am listened to with love, the competing, clamoring internal voices are quieted down and God’s own voice can be heard.

 

During the recent Christmas holiday my husband, Kevin, and I traveled to Southern California to be with my family. We live in Michigan and don’t often see my family but connect via phone and/or social media and had not visited my family for a few years. I was anxious because I’m not always certain how we will be received—will we be in the way of everyone else’s plans? Will people make time for us? Will people be interested in our lives? Will they listen to us and our stories?

 

My anxiety is grounded in my (unhealthy) desire to not be a bother to people. I don’t want to make presumptions on others because what if I am rejected? I am not certain that people are interested in me and my life so I fret before a visit home.

 

I did make plans to for us to visit Dennis, Susan, and their sons on Susan’s birthday. I’ve been friends with them for forty years while their friendship with Kevin is briefer and as my spouse. I wondered: will they be interested in Kevin? Will my friends talk with Kevin or only to me? Will they ask him questions about his experiences, observations, the state of his soul?

 

As our time together progressed, Susan began asking Kevin about his work. As she talked with him, she leaned toward the dining table and rested her elbow on it with her chin cupped in her hand. She was listening intently to his story of vocational discernment. And the more she listened the more Kevin shared. As she asked follow-up questions about his discerning process he moved into deeper descriptions of his conversation with his spiritual director. Susan listened carefully with a caring heart and his story unfolded. He was feeling heard by Susan. He was feeling loved.

***

When I lovingly listen to another I am giving of myself to that person. I am giving of my time, my mental, emotional, and my spiritual energy as I clear away my own concerns in order to give full attention to the other person.

As Jan Stairs wrote in Listening for the Soul, “Listening happens best when we pause and take time to hear more deeply and reflect upon the depths we hear. Our souls simply cannot thrive in a fast-paced life without claiming some time to take things in, uncover what lies deeply within, and mull things over … listening for the soul requires ongoing attention and sustained habits of reflection,” (p. 21).

In the conversation between Susan and Kevin, they both paused at moments to reflect—either in response to a question or in the answer itself. Both of them were reflecting on the unfurling of love within the conversation.

 

I have learned that I am able to listen to others because I have been lovingly listened to: by my husband, family members, my former therapist, different spiritual directors, and friends like Susan. Because I have been “heard into speech” (as Nelle Morton described loving listening), and have been accepted as I am, I can, hopefully, lovingly hear others into speech. I can lean in toward the person with open-hearted freedom and hear their hearts just as Susan leaned toward Kevin across the dining table.

***

Several hours later, after we hugged Dennis and Susan goodbye, we left our time with them feeling loved. We described it as “our hearts were warmed” by the attentive, compassionate, open-hearted listening we received.

Where is God?

Wise men with Jesus

The Christmas pageants, nativity plays, and carols all seem very distant as we watch the news, as wars persist in Syria and Afghanistan and Congo and South Sudan, as we watch North Korea and the United States fire words at each other. We do our best to keep these tragic stories at bay and social media and popular culture work hard to collude with us.

Last month we heard, told, sang, prayed a Christmas story of love and peace, of a God who came to save the world.  But there are many who justifiably ask when tragedy strikes, “Isn’t this Christmas stuff absurd in the face of all this conflict?” Where is God in the mess of the world? Where is hope now? The safe, beautiful, idyllic scenes of the Christmas cards seem a million miles from the reality of the suffering people are facing.

But if our faith seems irrelevant or inadequate perhaps we need to share some of the responsibility. Christmas has become tame and domesticated–treated as either a cozy source of emotionally uplifting platitudes or as a way to help our American economy thrive through extravagant Christmas purchases. Perhaps we have neglected to take the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth seriously. It’s hard for us to appreciate the full impact of the stories about Jesus’ birth without entering into the brutality he confronted as an infant and the vulnerability of a peasant family like Jesus’ family encountered.  Jesus was born into a world ruled by a Caesar who spent resources glorifying himself as “savior of the empire” that should have been spent in saving his subjects from poverty, famine, or from Herod himself.  Jesus was born to a people who were delivered from slavery in Egypt, but ruled by a king who drove him and his parents back there as refugees. The gospel stories are very clear about just how great and how oppressive the powers and principalities were at the time of Jesus’ birth.  And when we read the story of the wise men, of Herod’s fury, of the slaughter of innocent babies, and of the fleeing of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to Egypt, we know life after that first Christmas was not the safe, beautiful, idyllic we prefer to portray about Christmas.  The “peace on earth” sung by angels is followed by death, destruction, suffering, and evil.

Where was God?

Last Sunday, we celebrated Epiphany, remembering when the wise men met and worshiped the Baby Jesus. They brought with them on their journey three deeply symbolic gifts. They came prepared to make a particular sort of response to the Messiah. They came with a set of expectations which make it much more likely that they would recognize God when they find him.

First, the wise men came with gold.  If we are serious in our discipleship we will let Jesus impact the material things of our lives. For instance, the way we earn and spend our money. Or, the way we spend our time, use our talents. Or, what we are prepared to let go of, give up.  It’s interesting that people’s first response to a tragedy is to give money—millions and millions of dollars of aid for hurricane, wild fires, and flooding relief. Our urge to be generous is a sign of God at work.

Second, the wise men came with frankincense. Frankincense–incense–was, and still is, used in prayer. It symbolizes openness to a world beyond the material, a world we can see and touch. Frankincense symbolizes our openness to mystery, an openness to the God who is infinitely greater than we can comprehend. We often feel–we often are–helpless in the face of tragedy. Our understanding fails. Our ability to act fails. If we are serious in our search for God we need to accept that we don’t already have the answers. Wise women and men searching for God today bear the frankincense that leads them into prayer, that says, I don’t know it all, I’m open to God’s unknown future, to what God may do next, not just what God has done already.

Third, the wise men came with myrrh. Myrrh is for embalming the dead. It is a bitter herb, a foretaste of the suffering that this Christ child, and those who follow him, would have to face. If we are serious about our search for God at work in the mess of the world, it is no good thinking that the journey will be without pain. Sometimes we feel the urge to turn away from the news. Sometimes we turn away from those in our communities. And sometimes we turn away from our own pain because we’d rather not “go there.” But the message of the wise men is that myrrh is an inescapable part of life. If God is to be found in war-battered places it will be by those who live already live there, the people who have the courage to go there and to stay there, who find the strength to rebuild and hope again.

If God is to be found in the painful places of our lives it will be by facing our suffering, sticking with the questions, not hiding behind platitudes and hoping it will all go away. We won’t find God in the mess of the world if we try to leave the myrrh behind, to avoid the death, to take the easy route.

Where is God?

God is present wherever love is expressed, in the tears of those whose lives are forever impacted by tragedy, and in the hearts and minds of those who respond with compassion, mercy, and devotion.

Our Advent Longing

Advent wreath 2--Blog

 

We are in early Advent and we wait for the new Light to transform the whole world.  As Advent began, we wept over our preoccupation with ourselves and self-indulgence in our lives.  We long for the time when God will judge with righteous, and all the nations of the world will beat their swords into plowshares. Injustice, oppression, and broken relationships abound in our world, in our churches, and in our families. We cry out to God to restore creation to wholeness.  We beseech God to act.  We desire for God’s mighty streams of justice, healing, and mercy to come and to flow.

When we say the day of the Lord is near, we are saying that our reality is about to change. When night becomes day, the landscape itself is altered. Things look different when seen in the light of day.  And just as a driver traveling through the night is revived by the first light of day–however dim– our souls are revived by the first signs of God’s coming.

At the beginning of Isaiah, the prophet, delivers a series of stinging condemnations on Jerusalem for the unfaithfulness of the people. Yet, interspersed with these stinging prophecies are messages of hope as we see in Isaiah 2: 2-5, a hopeful passage filled with a glorious prophecy of peace and wholeness brought about by the coming of God–the Day of the Lord.

In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised about the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword again nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah was writing in a time of conflict and uncertainty in Israel’s history as the armies of Assyria threatened the nation in the second half of the 8th century B.C. Samaria, the capital of Israel to the north of Judah had already fallen. Would Jerusalem, in the little nation of Judah, be next?

We too live in a time of uncertainty and fear.  We are challenged to keep abreast of the news out of Washington, let alone news from around the world. Daily we hear reports on the news about the deaths in war-torn countries. We hear threats with North Korea regarding their burgeoning nuclear weapons program. The current American administration persists in scaring us with talk about imminent attacks.  Perhaps we share some of the thoughts, feelings, and struggles as those to whom Isaiah was speaking?

It is God who brings the people together, by teaching the people of God’s ways, of God’s shalom for all humanity.

What is important for us is the message of hope and the expectation of a new life as all the nations gather to worship God. The prophet does not speak of a great battle victory that will result in all nations coming together in peace. Instead, it is God who brings the people together, by teaching the people God’s ways, of God’s shalom for all humanity. Weapons of war will be converted into tools for food production, swords and spears turned into rakes and shovels.

In Matthew 24: 37, Jesus says, “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Chosen One.” When we hear the name of Noah and we think of the 40-day flood, we assume the worst: Jesus is going to return breathing vengeance. I saw a bumper sticker that said: “Christ is coming and boy is he mad.”  The quippiness of the bumper sticker makes me laugh but its theology grieves me.  It belittles the Christ that lived and loved on this earth and continues to live and love through us daily.  Repeatedly Jesus shows us that the law of love is the supreme law.  Perhaps then, the reason for the Noah reference is to say that the flood came upon them while the people were eating and drinking and getting married and living their ordinary, quotidian lives. When Jesus returns it will be in the midst of our ordinary lives–where we live and work and struggle and strive and play and love.

God is with us in our Advent waiting, in our Advent preparation. We are not preparing for the way that God will be one day in the future, rather, we are preparing for the way that God is, has always been and always will be.  As Christians, we place our hope in the fact that God is a God of peace, of justice, of love, and of grace. Our hope is grounded by the transformation around us and in us that causes to grow us into a deeper experience and relationship with God.