We all experience life in relation to the elements. On my journey through life thus far, certain elements help me to tell my story. Before I begin I would just like to say what a privilege and an honor it has been to share these reflections with you, to grow with you in pursuit of what is good, and to learn and experience some of the most terrible and most lovely parts of life within this community, growing, blooming, being cut down and starting again.
I first visited Olivet just a few months before the beginning of my freshman year here. After a few hours on campus I knew this is where I was supposed to be. There was this peace about making the choice. But before talking about my experiences at Olivet, we should begin with the summer after my senior year of high school, a summer I will always remember…
There is a special place for me, down by the docks of a small lake off of 80th Avenue and 171st Street. I’ve never really told anyone directly about this spot, only sometimes jokingly of what happened there. When the weather was warm I would ride my bike to a place beneath five big Weeping Willow trees—they were surrounded by tall grass and beneath them was a small clearing. I would climb one of the trees and sit there for long periods of time, reading my Bible, praying, and journaling. This place was heaven on earth for me. God was real to me here, as real as if I could reach out and touch him, I could whisper and he would audibly hear, I could sing and the nature around me would join in the music.
Two days specifically stand out in my memory of this place…
The first: I had gotten back from a youth retreat about a week ago where we played Ultimate Frisbee pretty much every day. I missed it, and I told God that. Then I looked over into the tall grass about fifteen feet outside of the clearing and saw a bright object. I climbed down to go examine what it was and found a yellow Frisbee with the initial G. on it. I still believe this was a gift from God to me.
The second: I was in the tree and the winds began to blow harder than before. The air that day had been hot, and now the sky was growing dark at a terrifying speed. The huge thunderclouds rolled in and lightning began to flash. I climbed down from the tree and pulled my bike up the hill to the path as fast as possible. The rain began to plummet down. I was scared. Every bold soul is like a child in the face of magnificent elements. The ride back to my house would take over twenty minutes, and the way things looked I wouldn’t make it. Thoughts of tornadoes filled my head as I raced for the street. Instead of heading home I did the next thing I could think of. I rode my bike to a guy Bill’s house a few blocks away. Drenched head to toe, I knocked on his door and asked to use the phone. He was shocked to see me and asked me what I was doing outside. I didn’t want to tell him even though we were school friends, he would think I was a nut, besides I just wanted to be home. My brother came and picked me up, we pulled my bike into the back seat of his car, and before I knew it I was inside my house drying off, and looking in wonder at the weather outside. The guys at the house asked questions, not understanding why I had been so flipped out about riding home, about why I was at the park in the first place. They had been safe inside the whole time, so I didn’t expect them to understand. And the second question I skirted around, that was a secret place, like the secret garden; so special that to speak of it outright would be to vandalize the wonder of the relationship I had there.
My freshman year at Olivet was a different story. Comparatively it was like being in a desert. God seemed so distant. The girls on my floor that I shared this with at our Bible study weren’t exactly comforting. They would nod in such a way that you knew they didn’t care, and then look on to the next girl who had something more exciting to say. Maybe they mistook my need for simply being needy and considered me with disgust. Maybe I was needy…Nevertheless, I felt like I was wandering through a desert without direction.
Sophomore year was like this too. By the end of sophomore year never was I so starved for meaning and God’s will than at the end of the last day of lecture in Western Civilization.
Western Civ. was a general education required class that no one seemed to like. I never liked history either. So what some guy did something a long time ago? We answers for issues we face today, the past isn’t going to change anything, it’s already gone. I wanted desperately to help people in the situations they find themselves in, but the more I looked the more it seemed the solutions we offered to people only created more or different problems for them. For example, that year some students put together a water system to install for a community in Africa that was in serious need of clean water. I sympathized with their actions and the people’s need, but you could say I was not optimistic. If those people in Africa got better water, then they would have more population growth, and with that they would need more food, better waist management systems, all sorts of needs prompted by the meeting of another.
After class I talked to the Western Civ. Prof about this. I secretly wanted him to tell me I was wrong so that I could allow myself to pursue missionary work after graduation, but that’s not what he did. He sighed, shrugged his shoulders and slowly nodded his head. I asked him what we were supposed to do. He said he didn’t know, but that I was asking some good questions.
Western Civ. didn’t bring me any answers really, but it turned out to be something I never expected. Instead of dull history it was an incredible study of people searching for answers to their tough questions that led them on the paths they chose, and resulted in the flow of history from point one all the way to where we are today.
The last day of class came, and the Prof closed out class with a prayer. Up until this point I hadn’t been aware of how much the class had been impacting me, and at that moment all I knew was that I didn’t want it to be over, it couldn’t be over. Most of the student left and I went up to the front to talk to the Prof. I tried to hold in the well of tears building up inside me that I didn’t even understand. I told the Prof I couldn’t believe the class was over, that I didn’t want it to be, and that I didn’t know where to go from here but I had been skimming through Olivet’s course catalog and I was thinking about changing my major, but still I couldn’t imagine switching to History. The teacher was surprised. “Really?” he said, “It’s funny you should say that because I’m not supposed to even teach this class. I’m a Poli-Sci guy.” I didn’t immediately know what that meant, but it was like a light bulb clicking on in my head and I thought, “I could do that!” Then he said, “Oh wow. Have I recruited you?” And I couldn’t help but laugh.
Over the summer I went on a Missions trip to Australia. Part of the trip was spent leading a weekend retreat on the Great Ocean Road. There I met Mr. Zanner, who knew something, I could tell. It had been a hard few weeks trying to serve the local community that was hosting us. Now, around a small fire, I sat with three middle aged Australian men, discussing, as the rest of the team and teenagers were out playing kick the can. At one point they asked me, the American, what I thought about President Bush’s war in Iraq. I told them I didn’t like that people were dying, but that our country was acting in self-defense and in a way that was best for the world. Two of the other men continued to discus the subject with me, but my thoughts were less on that than on Mr. Zanner’s response to my statement. He didn’t respond really, but I could see it in his eyes—he knew something I didn’t. He seemed pained and saddened though he didn’t quite show it by the features on his face. He didn’t fight with me like the other two seemed to intend. I could see something inside of him that I still to this day can’t define. But looking back, it changed me, and I’ve never been the same.
Mr. Zanner was a mentor for me after that. I consulted him about future careers, whether or not to change my major, those sorts of things. He advised me not to go into journalism because I could never be actively involved in changing the circumstances I would be reporting on. I followed this advice. He advised me not to go into politics, but to do anthropology or something of the sorts instead. I didn’t follow this advice. When I got back to school and learned that I could study abroad I asked him for advice in choosing where I should go. It was between Russia and the Middle East. He advised me not to go to the Middle East. But I did. Despite not following the paths he advised, he was always supportive in the sparse and long between emails that went back and forth. You might be thinking: um, Kristen, mentors are people who you take advice from, not the opposite. The thing is, I have the feeling he made the same choices in his time in his life, and his experiences taught him things I did not yet know that he was trying to protect me from. So in a way I followed the path of most resistance.
And on this path you could say I encountered the fire.
My experience in the Middle East sends shivers down my spine. Good shivers now, but at the time some felt not so good x 5. The stories are too many to contain in this paper, and so many instances too weighty to describe now. But I was challenged on everything that I held to be true. I don’t believe this is an over exaggeration. I wrote about this in a previous paper called Fortitude + Release. I hope you don’t mind that I quote it here.
“I was broken when I entered into the life of Jerusalem. I saw a people of subjugation, beautiful-giving-loving people, Arabs struggling to survive in the place that they call home because God’s chosen people of the Old Testament, the Jews, wanted the place to themselves. The weight of the burden they daily carried was comparable to that which drives so many people to flip the switch and turn out the lights, in hopes that the lack of their continued existence will do better good for the rest of the world than to continue on living. To look fondly upon the face of genocide, not out of hate, but out of a desire to make things better for somebody, anybody. Because when the world is a nightmare and there is no hope in sight, there is no beauty in rainbows or the laughter of children or fleeting moments of happiness. These are the pastimes of the ignorant in our nightmare where there is no clearly defined villain, and people are pawns in a chess game, where the one who can go out with the least amount of global repercussion should lay down their king so that in the morning when everyone else wakes up, and we are gone, there may be peace.
And so I began to wonder, if the world would just turn its eyes for a moment, and the genocide of the people I so loved and ached for would be done, and the morning would come for the world to continue on without us, would it be worth it?
I hated this question, but not as much as I hated the conflict.
In a way there was something romantic about the whole idea.
And then I remembered God.
In any other story this would generally be the point where things would start to get better. But in the Old Testament didn’t God tell the Jews to take Jerusalem for themselves? To conquer places like Jericho and leave no man, woman, or child alive? If God exclusively chose the people of Israel to be his, and promised them a land already inhabited by other people that they would need to destroy…doesn’t that make God some sort of divine instigator? And if I could look at these people suffering in Israel today and know this is wrong, how could God not agree? How could my morality be better than the God who in all ways is necessarily greater than anything we can possibly imagine?
Now for me the Bible is not something in the past, it is living and active today. The conflict in Jerusalem today is the Bible acted out in living color. The question is: What is the character, the nature of God, really?
For the past nine months this has been as much of a crippling mystery for me as I’ve ever experienced. Because everything you do is defined by who you understand God to be. And when the answers you are fed go against your basic gut nature, when the people your heart longs to free are defined as the objects of God’s wrath, you are stuck in a holding cell of your own conscience, not able to move forward or backward, because to go backward would be to shut down and to go forward would be to fight against God himself.
So I stopped being fed the answers. I turned off the morphine of the Scriptures. I isolated myself from what must be corruption. I needed to hear from God, and nothing less than his direct, unfiltered revelation was going to do.”
That is where I was when I got back from the Middle East, and I stayed there wreathing for answers for quite a while. Now I can say that this seemingly all-consuming wildfire from Hell was more of a necessary burn-off for me. That might seem like a huge jump right now, but hopefully it will become clearer as we continue on.
When wildfires are burning the greatest enemy to those seeking to put out the flames is a strong wind that spreads the fire further and causes it to lash out, consuming more, burning away what was there, leaving no identifiable signs of life.
Back in the United States, at home and at the beginning of a new school year the great winds were blowing. Luckily for me I had been through the whole culture shock thing last year after getting back from Australia. I expected it to come again this time but it didn’t, and so I could think clearly, thank goodness.
I started my junior year back at Olivet not knowing how I could possibly make it through a whole year confined to a perfect prison of Christianity apart from the real world that called me. I started my new classes in the Political Science department and braced myself for a rough year amongst the holy.
History of Political Philosophy turned out to be my favorite class. Again it traced the flow of history through the thought processes of people trying to answer the tough questions of their time, only unlike Western Civ. I started to be able to identify patterns, rationalizations, likely conclusions, and things like that. The Prof challenged us to think, to really grapple with the tough questions—and this study of rationalism began what was for me a slow opening up of the vents, allowing oxygen into a room where I had been holding my breath for a long time. This invitation to explore balanced out the condemnation I had received over the past few months for doing just that. So I followed the questions, which were really my questions written out on old (sometimes ancient) manuscripts. This was the wind so many onlookers believed was consuming my soul. People believed I had lost my morals and my faith (sometimes I would have believed them if only I could let go of the beautiful idea of Jesus).
Although she probably would not admit to it, my mother was ashamed of what I had become. And my father regrettably saw me choose a similar path to what he had up to only a few years ago. Reason was not leading to God as the Christians I knew saw fit (not that I ever seemed to please the churched anyway). But I knew I was doing what I needed to do in order to be true to myself, true to the questions, and if God was not bigger than them, if he could not handle them, then he wasn’t God anyway. So I pressed on, through the literature of Gilgamesh, Dante, Machiavelli, Plato, and others, all the way to the nothingness of Nietzsche by the beginning of the next semester,
And then it stopped.
Part of me felt like I was a million miles under the waters of a tumultuous flood. And part of me knew that this was exactly the place of liberation.
That reason ultimately leads to nothingness is not, at least in my opinion, a debatable point. But because nothingness is reached through reason does not mean that there is nothing else. As it turns out “reason” is merely a product of modernity that sets sail on a Gnostic quest to know and control all that is. It is a plausibility structure that, as members (or remnants) of a modern society, we unconsciously buy into. The problem with rationalism is that in employing hard questioning to discover whatever truth there is to be found, one necessarily holds some unquestioned assumption upon which to make all other judgments. This immediately relativizes the basis of rationalism, sweeping it back to the level sands where moderns had abandoned mythology and mysticism.
At this leveling point rationalism is no more rational than revelation.
It is here that the journey down into the trench met its deepest point, the Challenger Deep, and my feet continued on to find the base of another crust and begin a new journey upward out of the pit.
Stepping from the old crust to the new, and beginning the climb back up to new heights, I am still underwater (and new depths lie ahead to be descended on this journey, for sure) but beyond modernity.
But what comes after modernity? It won’t be perfect either, but it is a new shelf to be explored. So now we can either go back to where we have nothing, or we can press on in hope. As for me, I chose, and continue to choose the second.
Some freedoms come in this new place that were denied the honest seeker in the previous era: faith, hope, and love. After modernism, the heart is released from its shackles and chains, emotions are no longer banned, all that comes with being a human is no longer a hindrance to the quest for truth, but clues to the mystery of its originator.
The heavens become more beautiful than before, not as distant stars beyond our reach, but as present lights of wonder decorating every night sky. (I mean this figuratively about Heaven as well.)
Our pathways are opened to new growth, and churches can be seen as marvelous veins and patterns in a single sheet of wood that is the symphony of God’s revelation, rather than the splinter beneath the Church’s skin.
And in embrace of our brothers and sisters, of our neighbors and our friends, we can be like metal—conducting the heat that is the Spirit of God and sharing it with all those who come in contact with us, as well as reflecting the Light of the World from wherever we are.
So this is where I am. And this is the direction in which I see myself going. I don’t know what my life will be like two days from now. Attempting to look beyond the curtain reveals something like an infinite expanse of possibilities. But the relationships I have developed throughout this course of my life are the kind that I will carry with me to the end of my days. It is to these people that I dedicate this paper.
You know who you are. I love you guys.