Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life Undivided: Fridgidaires and Failures of the Imagination, Part I

I did not intend for this blog to become a spiritual inventory of my kitchen appliances, but after last week’s post on my crock pot, my thoughts have turned to the refrigerator.  (And for the record, I’m in good company discerning spiritual truths from domestic machinery. You can read my favorite example here). 
When I moved into my first, and then my second, apartment, I did not intentionally consecrate the front of my fridge as a place of honor. However, after spending time in the kitchens of friends and acquaintances, I realize that the items on my fridge are typical among other church-going young adults. Almost all the items fall into one of three categories: 
1) save-the-date cards and/or wedding announcements  
2) birth announcements 
3) prayer cards for women (or, less often, families) who serve as missionaries

I put these things on my refrigerator because they represent decisions worth celebrating, blessing, and sustaining.  When I see Jenn and Grant’s save-the-date card, or Casey and Caitlin’s wedding invitation, I remember that a holy choice--the choice to make one from two--can renew our tired language about love. When I see Jordan’s baby boy smiling above my grocery list, I catch my breath, amazed that my friends have produced this entirely new person.  And the beautiful woman with the rich brown eyes? She has just left the US to begin her career as a Bible translator.  Even in a secular context, these decisions and events (especially the first two) would be deemed worth celebrating, but they all have deep, beautiful roots in the faith of Jenn, Grant, Casey, Caitlin, Jordan, and all the rest who smile from my fridge door.  Most of the time, churches do a very good job of supporting people as the enter new seasons of marriage, parenthood, and ministry. 
At the same time, my fridge sometimes makes me sigh a little.  Having no wedding to announce, baby to boast, or foreign mission to claim, it would seem I have not yet made any decision worthy of the refrigerator door. I don’t really mope much about my lack of spouse or child; I would very much like to have both one day, but for now I am content knit and sew for other people’s babies.  Nor do I think I missed my calling by not following Lottie Moon to a distant land.  
Instead, I have begun to reflect on the way Christians celebrate (or fail to celebrate) the decisions and events other than marriage, children, or traditional ministry that shape our lives.  
Whether or not you have followed the recent debates about the changing milestones (or lack thereof) among young adults, you have probably noticed that many adults--young or otherwise--have built lives that look rather different from their parents’ lives.  Maybe they have married later, or not at all. Maybe they have stepped into careers which, though “secular,” they see as vocations in which we can love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with our God. Maybe they have chosen or have been unable to bear children, and exercise their love in a thousand daily, hidden ways. 
Unfortunately,  Christian communities often fail to bless, celebrate, and sustain these seasons and choices if they do not fall into a few traditional categories.   
This is a failure of imagination, and it endangers the life of the church. 
When I visited my home church after a semester of graduate school and half a year of living on my own, I felt this failure keenly. I was one of three young people who came home that Christmas--in fact, the three of us had once constituted our church’s entire youth group--and I was thrilled to talk to these friends, as one looked forward to the birth of her first child, and the other to his upcoming marriage.  Then, during a church-wide meal (which, in my home church, meant a gathering of fifty or so people), the three of us sat next to each other as men and women shared things they were thankful for. One woman, who had known all three of us since our cradles, stood and said, 
“I just give thanks to see our young people back with us at Christmas. We’ve known them since they were babies, and now they’re all about to start such exciting new times of their lives: I mean, just look--she is going to have a baby, and he is getting married!” 
Then she sat down.  
I was stricken. Her silence confirmed exactly what I feared: that all my work, all my anxiety, all my hopes about vocation were in vain. So what if, in the privacy of my heart, I had dedicated to God my decision to become a professor? 
Clearly, it wasn’t worth putting up on the fridge.   
Admittedly, this failure was largely my fault. I was still so mopey and miserable after that first semester that I didn’t do much to explain why I saw my decision to pursue teaching as so important, so sacred.  I didn’t try to help them understand why that year of school felt so different from every other school year.  A few difficult months had shaken my confidence, and I didn’t have the energy to convince anyone else that I had made a wise decision. 
A few weeks later, however, when a complete stranger asked me what I did, and, hearing my answer, exclaimed, “What a beautiful thing to do!  God’s kingdom needs scholars and teachers,” I nearly kissed him. My church's silence had made me think, "Well, my fears were right. My choice wasn't holy--school is simply something I'm doing because I'm not starting a family."  This stranger's words, however, infused me with some fiery tonic of hope and indignation. 
I want to be, like that kind man, the sort of person who can celebrate any decision a person makes for the sake of that Kingdom. 
Now, despite my pitiful story, it would disingenuous to suggest I’m really starving for affirmation.  Especially in my current church and social circles, my choices have been respected and encouraged. And at the end of it, I will  at least earn some fancy robes and a funny hat.  But as I write this, I have to ask myself, do I have enough imagination to see even less obvious times and seasons to bless and celebrate? Am I brave enough  to stand up in church and say, “Bless this man as he goes to his office each day, honoring God in his integrity as a janitor”? Or, “Thank you, God, for this woman who has returned to live with and care for her aging parents. Sustain this beautiful, difficult, joyful service she has begun in your name.”  
I am not arguing that we should celebrate the weddings and babies and missionaries any less.  In fact, I would be in favor of celebrating them even more jubilantly (three-day-long wedding feasts! fireworks after the baby dedications!). I challenge you, however, to think in very practical terms about when and how a church can bless, celebrate, and sustain other seasons and decisions.  What about a young man beginning his career as an attorney? What about the woman who has just purchased her first house? What about the childless couple that has decided to become foster parents? If these decisions--like marriage or the mission field--can be offered to God,  I believe they deserve a place of public consecration during worship. I believe they deserve prayer and solemn words of commission, songs and testimonies and at least one bold “Amen!”
And a party.  I would love to see the day when these new seasons carry their own traditions: 
“Oh, is tomorrow the day for Katie’s home-dedication?”
“Yes! I’m giving the blessing. And I’m so excited about the sparkling cider and pear tart! I haven’t had any since Andy set up his household….” 
“Do you know the address?”
“Sure. The announcement is right here on my fridge.” 
In my next post, I will finish my survey of the Frigidaire, offering some hopeful signs and suggestions about imagining new reasons to celebrate.  In the meantime, tell me what seasons of life and/or decisions you have seen or would like to see your church bless, celebrate, and sustain. What do or would these celebrations entail? 


  1. After re-reading my post, I would like to say that I am very grateful for my home church. In many ways, the members of that congregation loved me into the person I am today. I shared my story about feeling overlooked because it illustrated my point--not because I harbor any resentment. Some day I promise to write a post about all the ways that church succeeded in celebrating the holy choices of its members.

  2. You make me smile, Bethany. :o) I want to hunt down a picture of you from our time together in Glorieta and post it with the rest of the items on my "fridge". I may just do that tomorrow.

  3. I've been so blessed and challenged by your blog in the short time you've been writing, Bethany! Makes me miss living next door to you and Rachel in Burnett.

    We belong to a church family that does a wonderful job of celebrating our young families and missionaries, but is still trying to find its identity as it ministers to young professionals. Your post brought tears to my eyes in thinking about the ways we can celebrate the many choices made in life for the sake of Christ.

    Thank you for your insights! We'd love for you to visit us if you find yourself in the Austin or San Antonio areas anytime soon!

  4. Thanks, Erin and Mandy! You two both created such wonderful experiences of community for me when I was in high school and college. Mandy, I'd love to hear more about how your church learns and grows in its outreach to young professionals.

  5. I have, in fact, been blessed to be "sent" and "received" by one or two churches in my various grad school and teaching opportunities; this has been a blessing, a rooting, and a reminding of my responsibility as well as a recognition of my vocation. However, except insofar as *I* take it seriously, that is, except as a matter of intention and psychomachy, these ideal acts have no (to crib Eliot) "objective correlative" -- they are spiritual acts in a defective sense, as they manifest right relation among God and other people only to treat that manifestation as merely a matter of intentions. The church does not seem to know how to respond to me as a scholar, except to refer my activities to the separate domain of "school."

  6. In traditional church terms, I started out right. I got married at 18, which might be a little young, but OK. I had three children, and I was primarily a homemaker until all three reached school age. So far, so good for traditional Christian mom. My decisions were affirmed by the church because I was putting my family first in a very noticeable way.

    However, at the same, I had this feeling that we really need Christian college professors--people who could affirm to students that questioning, the primary academic purpose, didn't have to mean throwing away everything your parents taught you in favor of the professor's worldview. And I felt like I should do something about this. Just like the people who were called to be youth pastors or missionaries in Africa, I felt I had a call to a mission field. But because that field is in the US, and because preparing for it required me to stop being a stay-at-home mom, I ceased to feel completely affirmed by my church.

    My current Sunday School group, I must add, does affirm me. Several of the members are teachers or even professors, so they understand the need and respect and affirm my decision to try and be a part of the need's fulfillment, even though most of them are men. But I have felt the sting of disapproval from the home schooling crowd, and I wonder why we so often have a very narrow opinion of what a mission field really is. So many people are hurting right here, and we are called to shine God's light into EVERY place, not just the ones that are far away. Imagine the revival that could begin if we all lived out Christ's love right where we are. And I don't mean EE style evangelism, though that works for some people, but living a life mindful that the fields are white unto harvest, and we work--all of us--in those fields every day.

  7. First, your most recent letters/cards are always on my fridge. Your words inspire and uplift. That deserves recognition and celebration. :)

    Secondly, I think this largely has to do with the size of churches and the fact that life is done better in small groups. This has been supported by scientific research and is clearly exemplified in the Bible. Churches are now starting to re-realize this fact and many of them are moving toward a "small group" model of ministry.

    I believe these small groups will help in many ways: In a smaller, more intimate group, you would have felt more confident (maybe) to say, "I have dedicated this professional decision to God. Will you please pray for me, as I try to honor that dedication?" And, hopefully, those around you would know you well enough, love you well enough, to understand the weight of your announcement and properly recognize and celebrate it. :)

    I think you're absolutely right: We need to open our eyes (and, daresay, our hearts) to see what God is doing in and around us. Because once we see what He's seeing, we won't be able to do anything other than these two things: repent for the lack of what we're allowing Him to do in us or REJOICE at the wonder of what He's doing despite us. :)

    Me? I'm rejoicing and celebrating the fact that you've begun a blog. To get a "letter" from you on a weekly (or more frequent) basis is WONDERFUL! (I might even announce it from the pulpit the next time we're all home together...) :)

  8. In graduate school, the church I attended was just sure I was going to grow up to be a preacher. I appreciated their appreciation of me, but somehow they couldn't accept my vocation being that of a professor. (It DID used to be a monastic vocation, after all.) Admittedly, it was a little disheartening, though I knew then as well as I know now that the pastorate is not my calling.

    I wonder if the failure to celebrate other crucial life events is partly a failure in our churches (and I'm guilty of this myself) to really know each other. Why should we celebrate graduate school if we don't know why one of our church members is going, or what graduate school means for that person? How can I celebrate the decision to become foster parents if I don't know the couple was considering it? To be honest, I don't think that I know many people in my own church well enough to be able to quickly identify a celebration-worthy event in their lives. Sure, I go to a relatively big church, but this is still my problem as much as it is anyone else's. Now, what to do about it?

  9. Knowing one another is definitely crucial to learning how to celebrate better. In the follow-up post to this one, I talk a little about how my lifegroup was able to know me well enough to find ways to celebrate. One thing we did in lifegroup to help that process of knowing was to have members share their stories. Most weeks we were working through a book or study, but every month or so, one person would share a narrative of his or her life. Sometimes it followed the traditional Baptist "testimony" narrative, but often it was an account of "life to this point," or "life in the last five years, and the questions those years have raised."

    I was always amazed and humbled to hear these stories. I learned so much about the desires, concerns, motivations, and aspirations of those men and women through those stories.

    That kind of sharing works best in a small group, but because of those stories, I have (I hope) learned to listen more carefully to the things my fellow church-members consider sacred.

    And my father would sympathize with your situation in your grad-school church. He even is a "real" minister--a collegiate minister--but because he wasn't a head pastor somewhere, I don't think my grandfather ever really figured out what my father did, or how it was real work.