A Theological Education

For the past year, this has been my
neighborhood: the Aldi grocery store
two minutes from my door, the Korean
families having picnics on the grass, the
Christian Reformed Church headquarters
at the intersection of Kalamazoo and 28th
Street. I live with one of my best friends,
who currently attends Calvin Seminary, the
institution that shapes and makes ministers
of the Christian Reformed Church. We
joke that I am an “honorary” seminarian
because I live in seminary housing, paying
cheap rent and listening to my friend’s
papers on atonement theory and pastoral
care. But coming here has been a continuation
of my own theological education. I
have only professed Reformed faith for a few
years of my life, but living here has been a
continual kind of homecoming, a reminder
of where I’ve been and where I’ve wanted
to be, which is a place like this: An apartment
with a workable kitchen. A bedroom I
painted apple green. And friends who have
become my family, helping me make a life
of my own.

***

I did not grow up in the church. I became
a Christian when I was sixteen, and
was the first in my family to do so. My conversion
came in the midst of a long family
crisis; my family suffers from alcoholism,
and when I became a Christian, my mother
was dating a violent alcoholic. I attended
a charismatic church with a large youth
group. They had me give my testimony.
They clapped and cheered. They laid hands
on me and prayed. I had a sense of belonging
there that was new to me, intense and
immediate and promising. They told me
that I was going to break the chains of addiction
in my family. That my prayers for
my family were righteous.

It was euphoric. In the midst of chaos,
I was given purpose: save my family. Witness
for Jesus. Channel the Holy Spirit.
 
I had been powerless before, watching my
mother get beaten, or drunk. Watching
my family suffer.
 

I locked myself in my bedroom and prayed
for each of my family members by name for
hours. I walked with confidence. I had been
powerless before, watching my mother get
beaten, or drunk. Watching my family suffer.
But now I had God on my side. Now
things were going to change.

I read a devotional book which had a
special section for people who dealt with
alcoholics. It included the testimony of a
woman who started thanking God for her
husband’s alcoholism. She pointed out her
own weaknesses, her self-righteousness,
her pride. She confessed. As she prayed,
her husband starting going to AA. Their
lives were renewed. “And for this woman,”
the book’s author claimed, “praise helped
to change both her and her situation.”

So I did the exact same thing. I thanked
God for my mother’s drinking. I thanked
God for how it revealed my anger, my cynicism,
and my disbelief that she would get
better. That we would get better. After I
prayed this, I found my mother sitting on
the front porch by herself, weeping and rocking her body back and forth, drunk
from a whole day spent at the bar. I took
it as a sign. I helped her into the house,
made her dinner, put her to bed. She wept
in my arms. The next morning, she got up,
showered, put on her earrings. I asked her
what she was doing. “Going out,” she said,
which meant the bar. My eyes blurred, and
my chest tightened. I asked the Holy Spirit
to give me the words to say. To help me be
thankful. I turned to my mother.

“God must be so angry with you,”
I said, “because he’s given you so many
chances, and you just throw them away.”
The words were a shock. I did not expect
them. My mother glared at me and walked
out the door. And I sat at the kitchen table
and stared out the window, asking for forgiveness.

***

When I explained this situation to
some of my Christian friends, they nodded
with sympathy. Told me to keep praying.
But the sense of anger remained: Why
did my mother keep drinking? Why was
my family life a wreck, and why did I feel
so guilty all the time? Why didn’t God do
anything? I assumed that once I believed
in Jesus, all my family’s problems would
go away. I assumed that redemption was
immediate and instant, that everything
would fall into line as soon as I welcomed
Jesus into my heart, as soon as I said yes.
I thought that God owed me this: a family
made right. Life that was abundant and
everlasting. But when I moved to Trinity
Christian College, my assumptions met
with a different truth: God was the one
to welcome me. God was working for my
good. God was making me family.

***

It wasn’t until I went to college that I
understood the scope of how much I was
affected by my family’s history, how deeply
the pain was rooted. How much healing
was truly necessary. I took the right steps:
I went to counseling, tried out an Al-Anon
meeting, cried in the arms of my friends. It
was intensive, and it was one of the most
difficult things I have ever done. What
was surprising about it was that I had no
sense of pride or accomplishment; at my
old church, people congratulated me when
I told stories about my family. They told me
how strong I was, how I was empowered
by the Spirit. How I was
a witness to the power of
the Gospel. And, truth be
told, I loved every second
of it. It was affirmation, a
recognition of something
good within the mess of
so much badness. It fed my sense of self-righteousness,
the sense that God owed
me for the suffering I had endured. If there
was anything true about the book I read on
prayer, it was that I, like the praying wife,
knew the sin of pride.

But that wasn’t the only thing to
blame–my family’s history was something
to mourn, something to grieve over, and the
therapy and tears brought me into a kind
of sorrow I had never experienced. Something
that had been building and deepening
within me my whole life, but that I never
had eyes to see.

***

Lament, as Nicholas Wolterstorff describes
it in Lament for a Son, is the work
of recognizing suffering, being present in
suffering as it is present to us, raw and disarming
and disjunctive. Wolterstorff writes
that the cause of our sinfulness is made
known to us, but that the cause of suffering
is less distinct, less rooted in a why: “Of
course some suffering is easily seen to be
the result of our sin…and maybe some is
chastisement. But not all. There’s more to
suffering than just our guilt.”

To lament is, in a way, to name the
wide stretch of suffering beyond our individual
actions; it was not my fault that my
mother continued to drink because I said a
hateful word. There are those who believe
that we are given trials to stretch us and
make us more usable, obedient Christians.
But some horrors are too large to name as simple tests of faith: What of the man
who loses his wife to cancer after years of
treatment? The family trapped in a refugee
camp? The young woman raped at a party?
What lessons can we gain from the ordinary
experience of tragedy?

In Wolterstorff’s terms, suffering is never
redemptive in this sense. It is not morally
instructive. It is not a chance for God to say
“I told you so.” The mode of lament allows
us to live in the reality of our sorrows because
lament names our sorrows, and the
bewilderment surrounding them, for what
they are. It echoes the words of the psalmist
in Psalm 88: “My eyes are dim with grief…my one true friend is darkness.” Lament
tells the truth: each one of us suffers,
grieves, and has lived with darkness.

Redemption in suffering comes, not
in trying to give it purpose, but in being
present to it, and in being present, opening
ourselves up to hope. Lament recognizes
that things are truly wrong because things
once were truly right, and what we desire
is that original rightness. But what we also
desire is something completely new, something
that surpasses the suffering and
wrongness that we have all known. Wolterstorff
describes us as “aching visionaries,”
as people whose mourning makes them
blessed, not because it teaches them some
lesson about God or the world or themselves,
but because the mourners “have
caught a glimpse of God’s new day, [and] ache with all their being for that day’s coming,
and who break out into tears when
confronted with its absence.” Those who
mourn do justice to the world by not only
naming its ills, but by desiring those ills to
be made right. They long. They hope. And
we, mourners ourselves, join this work of
aching and yearning, hurting and hoping.

***

The work of family is, I think, the work
of restoration: it creates the transactions
of forgiveness and amends, makes a home
that invites you, gives you people to whom
you belong. And restoration is a slow work,
not because God depends on us to fall in
line, but because God knows our brokenness
with an intimacy that is shocking
and deep, encompassing beyond words.
The Spirit hovers next to us so closely that
we cannot always see the Spirit’s movements,
the way that hope is opened to us.
In college, I attended a church where I was
treated like a regular instead of a celebrity.
I watched children and served coffee.
I read liturgy. I made awkward small talk
after the service. When I told a friend that
I liked the church, he looked at me. “Have
you thought of making this place your
home?” He served as the attending elder
for my profession of faith. He spoke to me
as a brother because he was my brother,
and he remains my brother in a sense that
is deeper than anything I could expect, or
imagine, or want. He is the sign of a transfigured
desire, something reshaped for a
good beyond my reckoning.

Reverend Karen Potter, writing for the
Young Clergy Women’s Project, introduces
the image of a “friendship family,” the collection
of friends who love and care for Potter
because she belongs to them with a line
tighter than genetics, or heritage, or even
personal preference. “A friendship family,”
she writes, “is a group of people that I will
love.” My friends, the ones who live by me
and the ones who live far away, have loved
me with an intent that is so strong, so reliable,
that I don’t know what to do with
it. And the remarkable thing is that my
friends have not replaced my family of origin,
but rather have extended it: they weigh
my family’s problems for what they are, remind
me that I am not doomed to repeat
my family’s history. Remind me to return
my mother’s phone calls. By joining themselves
to me, they have remade my broken
image of family. They have joined my lament.
They have renewed hope.

Maybe our life as the family and people
of God is a kind of theological education,
something that shapes us according to the
sorrows that fill our laments, something
that reshapes us according to the hope
that makes us desire family, and God, in
the first place. Maybe this was what God
was working for when I assumed that my
belief would wave a magic wand, answer
all my questions, make things according to
my own vision. How astounding that mercy
is actually true, that it actually surprises
us. How wonderful that God’s vision for my
life imagined such redemption: The kitchen
and the green walls. The family reborn.
The life everlasting.

Allison Backous is a recent
graduate of Seattle Pacific
University’s MFA program
in creative writing. She lives
in Grand Rapids, Michigan,
and teaches English at
Grand Rapids Community
College.