I’ve recently reconnected with someone who played a critical role in my spiritual formation. For many years, I considered that role to be a negative one, but I feel now that is was perhaps one of the most transformative in my life.
When my parents divorced during my adolescence, we moved back to Arkansas and my mother reestablished a friendship with someone from her college years. The woman was married with two children, a daughter who was my age and a son who was a few years younger. They were, I came to find out, “born-again”, Evangelicals – something with which I had ZERO experience. I had been raised in a mainline Protestant church – but I had not had what you would call a deeply spiritual upbringing. Our friends lived a few hours away and we would visit them frequently on the weekends. I have fond memories of those visits – riding ATVs (without helmets or any safety gear), running through the woods, playing those hand games, and laughing A LOT! I felt loved and embraced by our friends. During these visits, we also would attend church with them on Sunday morning before leaving that afternoon. Although it was completely different than what I experienced at our home church, there were aspects of their worship service and faith community to which I was very drawn. The people were warm; they spoke openly of their faith in God, their love for Jesus, and the importance of sharing those things with others. They also didn’t have Sunday School, which, I confess, was a BIG BORE to me at my own church, and so the worship service was all that I experienced for a number of years.
One summer, I went to stay with our friends for the better part of a week and had the opportunity to go with Beth (the daughter) to their youth assembly that occurred every Wednesday night. They were watching Part 6 of a 7-part series that was an interpretation of the book of Revelation. I’m not sure what I had missed in the first five installments, but I will tell you that what I saw that night scared me to my very core. I was shaken on such a deep level that I remember feeling as though I needed to get up and leave, but I was afraid to do so. I think parts of it made me cry – not because it was spiritually moving, but because I was sad – grieving for something I couldn’t see; afraid of something I couldn’t understand. This film presented an image of God that felt inaccessible to me.
For one reason or another, primarily our busier schedules as we became teenagers, we didn’t see our friends as much once I entered high school. And I was thankful, not because I didn’t want to see them – I actually missed our time with them a great deal — but because the experience of watching that movie made it very difficult to sit in worship at their church. Looking back, as a more faithful believer than I was then, I consider it a blessing that the experience didn’t cause me to turn my back on God, religion, church, and spirituality altogether. I think, oddly enough, that it may have actually been what compelled me to search for who I believed God truly was and what path he was laying before me. This may have been, in many ways, the beginning of my faith journey.
Because my initial experience in this Evangelical church was positive – and those positive feelings were directly connected to the people I met – I had begun, without knowing it, to understand God as an embracing, vital, and loving Creator. God can come to us in many ways, but so many times it’s through the people that we encounter, whether briefly or deeply. That is how he had begun to reveal himself to me at a time when I was receptive to this revelation – when I first started visiting this church. He had already planted a seed of faith in my heart and it was growing, thankfully, without me doing too much to help it along. The film, with its violent, vengeful and visually disturbing representation of the rapture and all that the creator of the film suggested would follow was like a catastrophic storm hitting the fragile seedling. How was it not annihilated?
Some might call it luck. I call it grace.
Whatever plant the seed was growing into would not allow me to see God as spiteful or indifferent. I could not accept that the God I was coming to know would ever abandon his children. Right or wrong, that was my perception of the film’s message. That realization — which, if there was a moment in which it occurred might be considered the moment I was “saved” — happened in what is referred to as liminal space. Psychologists define liminal space as “a place where boundaries dissolve a little and we stand there, on the threshold, getting ourselves ready to move across the limits of what we were, into what we are to be.” That those places exist, and I believe they do, is a sure sign for me that God is real and with us in every moment.
As I mentioned, I have recently reconnected with these friends, specifically, the mother in this family. We are engaged in, of all things, a debate about healthcare reform. It is lively. It is, at times, intense. But it is, more than anything, loving because the genuine love that I felt from her and for her in my youth apparently hasn’t diminished. Throughout my faith journey, which in some ways, began with her church and, specifically, “the film”, my quest has been to understand and know God and what He expects of me. I will, until the day I die, feel like a novice in this endeavor. Right or wrong, my journey has led me to an understanding that is theologically more liberal than my Evangelical friend (though, I consider myself to be evangelical too) and this theological understanding has shaped my political views as well. They too would be classified as left-of-center. As one might expect, my friend’s politics are to the right-of-center (right being directional, not qualitative.) I know that my views are biblically-based and, beyond that, they are guided by my conscience, which I believe to be the voice of God. However, I do not consider myself a biblical scholar, much less an expert on God’s will – for me, for my neighbor, or for my nation. I accept that my friends’ understanding of God and, thus, her views that are shaped by that understanding, are also biblically-based and guided by her conscience. Even when they seem diametrically opposed, they both possess validity. So I’ve been telling myself.
As I was preparing my most recent response, I was as concerned with not coming across as angry, snarky, or cynical, as I was with making sure my facts and figures were accurate. I wanted to explain my views from a political perspective, but not in a way that negated the validity of her point-of-view. At first, I confess, I felt magnanimous and a little self-righteous, particularly with regard to how I was defending people in poverty. As I continued writing, I could feel little “pops” in my faith plant – not like something was trying to harm it, but like something was just flicking the leaves, so to speak. As I wrote more, I found myself, really examining my words – comparing them to my principles to see if they were consistent with one another. I became very concerned about there being integrity without judgment. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I gave it a good effort before sending it on to my friend. But as I’ve continued to ponder my response this week, I’ve realized what a truly wonderful gift that his dialogue has been for me. It’s made me really look beyond whether or not my words reflect my beliefs — to examine if my ACTIONS reflect those words and beliefs. It hasn’t made me change the way I feel about this issue, or any other issue, necessarily, though I have felt an openness to opposing views that I’m not sure I’ve ever truly felt before. I think, perhaps, that I’ve behaved my way to success in terms of being open to others and THAT is how I become open to the Holy Spirit moving within me. Isn’t that how this all began? By placing myself (or allowing God to place me) in the path of people who were willing to share their faith, isn’t that how the seed was planted? And wasn’t THAT the true beginning of my journey? Aren’t these the liminal spaces that have helped my faith to grow stronger and resistant to the storms that I encounter? I think that instead of something flicking the leaves of my faith, those “pops” were blooms, opening to the possibilities, preparing for the fruit of the vine.
So it is with gratitude and joy that I praise God for His gift of reconnecting me with my friend – of reminding me of the extraordinary path on which he has led me and will continue to lead me. It is with excitement that I await my friend’s response, no matter what it contains, so that I may enter that liminal space again and continue this miraculous journey.
ELISE McKINNON is a wife and mother who, as she says, procrastinates from housework by writing essays on faith and politics. She was a legislative aid to former Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, and is a deacon at Idlewild Church in Memphis, Tenn.