Sunday, May 18, 2008

SPIRITUALITY AND MISSION // A portion of my spiritual autobiography

For my Spirituality and Mission class, we had to write a 5-7 page spiritual autobiography. I found it very difficult to narrow it down to 5-7 pages. I have so much to write, so many stories, so many important people that need to be honored for their role in my life. Leading up to this assignment, I had been thinking about writing a book - and now I'm certain it should happen, someday.

In the meantime, here's a portion of my paper:

It was July 1977. My family stopped to visit my dad’s parents when returning from vacation. During the visit my grandparents’ dog attacked me as my 6-year-old sister Jennifer and I (only 18 months) pet it. It pushed me over and grabbed my face (picture small face in dog’s mouth). The dog clamped on so tightly that my dad had to quite forcibly yank the dog off me. “He was so upset that he wanted to rip the dog in two,” remembers my mom. “It was a pretty wild scene.” As my parents raced some 30 minutes to the hospital in Grand Rapids, I fell asleep in my mom’s arms. She remembers thinking that I was dead. I was not. Sixty stitches and reconstructive surgery around my mouth and chin left permanent reminders of the close call though. I was hospitalized for a week until doctors removed the stitches but it was a year before the swelling disappeared. Today I look in the mirror and see the scars. The event won’t replay in my mind; I was too young for the memory. But when I see the scars, I absolutely know that I am in God’s story.

Western Michigan – a Midwestern Bible Belt. Grand Rapids, Michigan – a Mecca for all things Christian. Zondervan Publishers, Family Christian Bookstores, Mars Hill Bible Church and Rob Bell, and Calvin College to name a few. Churches abound here. Seemingly everyone follows some faith tradition. In the South the Christian culture is heavily Southern Baptist, while in West Michigan it is heavily Christian Reformed. Families of Dutch descent (Van-this or Vander-that) are prevalent, including my maternal grandparents (making me half-Dutch). The Dutch are a conservative, religious group of people with a penchant for tradition. Metropolitan Grand Rapids reflected that. The culture in which I was raised was always attend church and always vote Republican. (It has literally taken me 31 years to finally become a Conservative Moderate.)

Both of my parents were raised in Grand Rapids but not raised in Christian homes, strangely enough. My dad and his six siblings were left to their own devices. Grandma Chapman was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and Grandpa Chapman was a devout alcoholic. Christianity and church going were not forced on my mom and three siblings. Grandpa Timmers did not have much use for organized church, and though he allowed Grandma Timmers to go, it was not something that stuck with the family.

Still, my parents were saved September 4, 1971, in their early 20s at a little Assembly of God church named Calvary Memorial. The church was a few miles down the street from my grandparents’ house where my mom grew up. My parents never looked back. My parents were saved in an AG church, in the charismatic tradition, and that became the tradition they followed. Our family left Calvary Memorial when I was almost four. Our new church, First Assembly of God, was all the way across town. It was late 1979, before the term “mega-church” was common; but even so, First Assembly was becoming that quickly. I don’t remember anything but it feeling normal from the start. I basically grew up at a mega-church in the Assemblies of God denomination. I was saved there at six and spent my elementary school to college years attending twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday, joining children’s choir, youth choir, youth trips. I was baptized by immersion in water at 13, prayed to receive the gift of tongues right after (which, according to the AG, should happen as “initial evidence”; mine took a week) and began to use tongues in private prayer and corporate worship.

By default, I am a Pentecostal Christian. I never questioned it growing up because I trusted my parents and I liked my church and the friends I had there. What I saw and learned made sense in the little Grand Rapids world that I knew. The conservative values and Christian faith fit in the mold of conservative West Michigan. I am still a Pentecostal Christian involved with an Assembly of God church because I studied and experienced the charismatic tradition on my own as an adult and I believe “being led by the Holy Spirit” brought me through every decision (good or bad) since leaving the “default” zone of my parents’ home.

Much of my spiritual journey can be traced to an interesting characteristic. I am a rule follower. Something inside me forces me to do things (except the speed limit) by the book. Part of that is the influence of my parents. In the Chapman house, there was no dating until college, no movies, no secular music, no Halloween, no school dances. Drinking, smoking and drugs were on the unspoken list. Some might call this upbringing na├»ve or sheltered. I used to call it that until I thought about it. In retracing these steps, I realized that my life wasn’t sheltered in a negative sense, but in a positive sense. My life has been protected.

I can almost trace my decision for rule following to one night in junior high. I lied to my parents about going to a school dance. I was caught the same night. The expressions on their faces and their words of disappointment did me in for life. I made the decision right then to never lie to them again. And I haven’t. For real. How is a good question? I do not think that I could carry out a decision like that as a teenager without something or someone else at work in my life. I believe as my charismatic tradition informs me that it is the Spirit of Jesus at work in me, God’s child, to live out a life worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice for the glory of God.

I think my parents knew what growing up without protection was like. They didn’t allow that for their children. More important than the rules they established in their house was the prayer. Every morning from Kindergarten to 12th grade, before we walked out the door for school, my parents prayed for us with us. “Dear heavenly father, we love you. You are to be praised. Be with these children today. Keep them safe. Let them be your light to the world, to bring glory to name. Amen.” How clearly I hear those words. Every morning for 13 years. I am convinced that is how my parents raised three children who only very occasionally got in trouble, never rebelled and are all serving God in various vocations. I am convinced that my journey, living by the book, by God’s word, goes back to the protection of the Spirit and the audible prayers of my parents.

Something in me wanted to move away from home and West Michigan for college. I ended up 45 minutes from home at Hope College in Holland, Mich. The most western part of Western Michigan. Even more Dutch people, including my roommate Jennifer, born and raised in Holland herself. A four-year private liberal arts college, Hope is affiliated with the Reformed Church of American (RCA). It is a conservative Christian college. It offered me the most financial aid. It was absolutely where I needed to be.

My faith finally proved to be my own in one my final courses at Hope, my senior seminar on pluralism. There I discovered a classroom of Hope students that could not say or did not want to say that confession of Jesus as Savior was the only means of salvation. I mistakenly thought the course would be more apologetics, rather than it be non-apologetics. For all the tears I shed in that class, that class was the key to my awakening. There were Christians in the world that thought other religions were just as valid for eternal salvation. That was news to me. My West Michigan church bubble popped. My faith in Jesus, my perspective on the church, my belief in who God was – everything I had been taught was challenged. It all suddenly needed to become my own. And it did. I learned to stand on my own two Christian feet in that class. I graduated in December 1997. One month later I moved to Nashville, Tenn.

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