Urbana 15: Telling My Story

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend InterVarsity’s trip annual Urbana Conference.  For five days, St. Louis, Missouri, was invaded by 16,000 college students and adults seeking to learn about world missions.  This year’s conference was themed around one very important question: What story will you tell?

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Taken right before one of the large group sessions.

As a writer and avid reader, stories fuel my everyday life.  I breathe them in, soaking in the perspectives of others.  I breathe them out, letting my own experiences take shape through words.  Throughout the week, we heard countless stories from around the world.  We heard from indigenous people in the Pacific Island, refugees in Jordan, college students in Mexico.  We heard from the persecuted church in the Middle East–the stories of men and women imprisoned for their faith.  We heard the stories of our black American brothers and sisters, whose voices have been long silenced by racism and inequality.

We didn’t just hear their stories.  We entered into them.  Multicultural worship is a challenging, humbling experience.  It was uncomfortable at times.  We fumbled our way through Arabic, Korean, Hawaiian, and Swahili, to name a few of the languages.  My mouth stumbled over the strange words and sounds.  Even though it was different and awkward at points, entering into the songs of brothers and sisters from around the world gave me a larger picture of the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is for everyone, for every tribe, tongue, and nation.  I got to experience what that looks like at Urbana.

As a writer attending a conference centered around stories, I can’t merely describe what went on.  I need to take up the pen and join in, adding my words.

I suppose my Urbana story starts with answering a question: Why missions?

My whole life, I’ve felt very drawn to Europe.  Growing up, I remember reading about far-away places and having this sense of urgency.  I couldn’t explain it, but I needed to go there.  I needed to see these places with my own eyes.  I needed to walk the streets and see the faces of the people who lived there.  In 2013, I spent a semester studying abroad in London, England.  During my three and a half months there, I traveled a great deal.  Finally, I could see and experience the places I’ve been dreaming about my whole life.  Along the way, I learned a great deal.  I learned that the world is a dark, empty place, and that even though Europe is largely comprised of first-world nations, there are people who desperately need the light and love of Jesus.

Upon returning to school in the United States, it was a matter of months before I felt the need rise up in me again.  I had been thinking and praying about going into ministry for a while, but my thoughts and prayers began to turn overseas.  “What if,” I asked myself, “feeling drawn to Europe isn’t just me wanting to travel?  What if God wired me with this desire, growing it with time, into a calling?”

Eager to dedicate my life to God, I embraced the calling.  He wants me to go to Europe?  I’m all in.  But so much remained uncertain.  Where would I go?  What would I do there?  Who would I serve?  How would I find the money?  What does the missions field even look like?

Attending the largest student missions conference in the world seemed like the logical place to answer these questions.  Last week, I arrived in St. Louis, willing to go, wanting to serve, ready for God to point the way.  What I didn’t realize was that, although I was intellectually ready to take the plunge, my heart had a long way to go.

Let me pause here for a moment.  You should know that, although I feel very deeply, I’m not what one would call an emotional person.  I rarely cry.  I’m not very touchy-feely.  Emotional things don’t seem to impact me like they do others.  It’s as if my heart is sealed behind a series of walls and gates.  Within these walls, I feel very deeply and these feelings guide the majority of the large decisions I make.  But my heart and mind don’t often connect.  It takes time for the right keys to get into the right doors.

When one enters into service for the Kingdom of God, it is important for their heart and mind to align.

Going into Urbana, mine did not.  My brain was ready.  But, frankly, my heart didn’t actually care about the people I was supposed to be going out into the world to serve.  Of course,I didn’t realize any of this until after the fact.  More on that later.

The first half of the conference was extremely affirming.  To share a bit of my testimony, I grew up in a highly politicized church where one was treated differently if they held a different perspective.  My experience with the American Evangelical church is that it places certain values over others.  College was a wonderful time of exploring other worldview and perspectives.  However, I’ve been living at home for the past nine months.  Being back in this highly Republican community has me wondering if my family is crazy for caring about things like racial equality, LGBTQ rights, showing kindness to refugees, affirming women as leaders in the church, etc.  Through speakers and seminars at Urbana, God affirmed that we are not crazy and that we are not the only ones thinking about these issues.  He cares about them too.

As awesome as this affirmation was, I felt like something was missing.  “I’m at the largest student missions conference in the world”, I thought.  “Surely God brought me here to do more than affirm my perspective.”

I was right.

On Tuesday night, the large group session was dedicated to the persecuted church.  Individuals, often unnamed and unseen, told their stories of being imprisoned and tortured for their faith.  They talked about God empowering them to love their captors even in the darkest hours of their lives.  We then were given time and space to pray for the church.  Banners with different countries were raised and we could gather beneath them, praying for each nation.

It was a powerful night–16,000 people lifting their voices in prayer.  As I knelt on the hard concrete praying for Kenya, I felt God’s Spirit rising in me.  As I prayed, my words intangible even to me, I felt the keys to my heart unlock–The layers pulled back.  Finally, the deep desires of my heart were accessible and in the open.

“Lord, I want to go,” I prayed.  “I want to go.  I want to go.  I want to go.”  It was a prayer of frustration.  I came to Urbana hoping to find direction from God that would empower me to take the next step.  Where was my direction?  Where were my answers?  As the dust from my prayer settled, I felt God’s voice: Not yet, Amelia.  Wait.

I was confused.  “What do you mean I have to wait?” I asked God.  “I’m ready!”   But, up until that point, I was ready with my mind.  But my heart was sorely lacking.  That night, God opened the floodgates to my heart and prepared me to not only hear His voice in my mind, but in my spirit.

If I had to describe Wednesday in one word, I would say it was humbling.  With my newly opened heart, I came repeatedly before the Lord and listened to the words He had for me… These words were not comforting.

That morning, our passage in Bible study was the end of Matthew 25, where Jesus divides the sheep from the goats and says, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me”.  As a large group, we studied the intricacies and implications of the passage deeply.  I emerged with the sense that, despite my readiness to go abroad, I hadn’t given much thought to the people I’d actually be serving.  I realized that when it came to serving others, I didn’t know how.

One of Wednesday’s speakers was David Platt, pastor and author of the books Radical and Follow Me.  His books were the catalysts of my decision to go into ministry.  I read them during a very spiritually challenging season and they pushed my desire to serve God with my life.  It was incredible hearing Platt speak.  The power, authority, and incredible love of God is so present in his voice and words.  He talked about the woman in Matthew 26 who pours a very expensive jar of perfume on Jesus’ head as an act of love and submission.

Platt’s words cut me like knives.  One statement hit my spirit like a ton of bricks: 1425524_1044940998901836_7089898850993416208_n

I see myself in that statement.  Here I was, trying to figure out how to get going when my heart and spirit had completely forgotten why I’m called to go in the first place.  In my ambitions to go abroad, I lost my heart for Christ.  Platt went on to say, “Missions is not meant to be your life.  Christ is your life.  Jesus is worth losing everything for.”

These words are so simple and straightforward, but my heart forgot.  I forgot what it feels like, what it means to love Jesus unconditionally.  My spirit churned and I felt God’s voice rising again, with words that were not comfortable:  Amelia, how can you go into the world and represent My Kingdom if you love yourself more than you love Me?  You want to serve me, but don’t know how.  The answer is simple: love My children.  Care for them.  Give yourself for them.  What you do for them, you do for Me.  Go, Amelia.  Feed My sheep.”

I left large group that day feeling burdened with God’s Spirit, wondering what living out this command looks like in a practical manner.  What does it look like?  How am I to care for others?  What skills and abilities do I have to contribute?  Where do I fit in the grand scheme of things?  How can I serve others with the gifts I have?  As I meditated on my questions, God slowly revealed answers.  I attended more seminars and large group sessions and began to receive smile answers.  I could go into what those answers were, but that would end in lots of tangents.  So I’ll start wrapping this up…

I went into Urbana feeling confident and ready.  I left feeling the opposite–small, weak, and inadequate.  There is so much to process.  There’s so much I don’t know.  Amid a big, dark world… I’m so small.  So unsure.  I’m leaving for England in less than a week and I don’t feel ready.  I’m stepping into the vast unknown with a one-way ticket and have no idea what is in store.

The most terrifying thing is that I honestly don’t know if I’m ever coming back.  At least, not permanently.

But maybe that’s the point.  God isn’t looking for people who are ready.  He’s not interested in how prepared I feel.  He cares about my heart.  He wants me in a position of weakness and humility, for it is then that I need Him most.  At Urbana, He showed me that my prayers need to shift from “Where will I go?” to “Show me how to love others the way You love me”.

I don’t need to have all the answers.  What I need is a heart for Christ.  Like the woman in Matthew with her alabaster jar, I need to place myself under God’s authority.  I need to relinquish control and let my story align with the beautiful story God is writing all across the globe, trusting that God knows what He is doing and that He will provide the next step.

I suppose the title of this post is a bit misleading.  Yes, this is the story of how my life was impacted by attending Urbana.  Additionally, it’s also the beginning of a new story–a story I don’t know the end to–a story in which I don’t hold the pen.  There is still so far to go in the journey of cultivating a heart for others.  But this is a start.

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Gateway Arch at sunrise.  Taken Friday, just before we headed for home.

On the Shelf: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This book was a lucky find and Goodwill.  Normally when I buy books secondhand, they sit on my shelf for years waiting to be read.  I picked this one up right away and am very glad I did!

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman of color while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better.

My Thoughts:

This is not a perfect book.  The cover says it’s a collection of essays and, in a way, it is.  Each chapter gives Gay’s thoughts on different subjects.  If you’re looking defining essays by formal, academic standards however… this book falls short.  But falling short of academia does not mean that it has no value.

I loved this book.  My time within its pages felt less like reading a book and more like having a conversation with Gay over a cup of tea.  Her voice is informal and engaging.  She covers a wide variety of topics in this book, some relating to feminism and others not relating to it at all.

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.” Roxane Gay

I love the honesty of this book.  Gay openly acknowledges her contradictions because that’s part of being human.   She’s not consistent at many points, loving aspects of pop culture that directly oppose everything feminists stand for.  But she doesn’t shy away from her contradictions.  She embraces them.

I didn’t always agree with everything Gay said.  At times, she even had me squirming in my seat with discomfort.  But this isn’t a bad thing.  I’ve learned to see challenges to my opinion as extremely valuable.  They teach me to see things from a perspective may not be my own, but is still valid.

Many of the chapters in this book are dedicated to culturally relevant topics like race and privilege.  As a protestant white woman, I’m privy to all kinds of cultural privileges that, most of the time, I’m completely blind to.  Reading Gay’s words about her life, her various experiences, and her responses to certain pop-cultural icons, it hit me for the first time just how deeply the issues of race go.  Which is ridiculous because I’m not uninformed about the shootings in Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Charleston shooting, or the Confederate flag debates.  I gave my senior seminar presentation about racial issues regarding the figure of the artist in Barbara Chaise-Riboud’s Sally Hemmings.  But what I’ve got is all head knowledge.  Gay’s words pushed through whatever barrier exists within my consciousness between what’s in my head and what I feel.  I know that I will never truly understand these issues because of my privilege, but this book brought me closer.  Gay writes:

“You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about.”

This is what this book did for me.

This book was, at points, incredibly serious.  But, at other points, it was fun.  I appreciated the chapter about Gay’s time playing competitive Scrabble.  I also liked her discussion of The Hunger Games, even if it was relatively shallow.

All in all, I really enjoyed Bad Feminist.  It took several weeks to read, but was well worth the time.  This book challenged and pushed me to see the world from an individual who is very different from myself.  But it also had me nodding, agreeing, and even laughing at points.

You Will Like If You Enjoy: cultural discussions, racial issues, feminism, women’s rights, gender equality, GLBT rights

Weekend Coffee Share: The Last Summer Day

If we were having coffee, we’d probably be lounging on a blanket in my backyard basking in the sunshine.  I’d be favoring something cold–an iced mocha or frappuccino–behind my floral sunglasses.  An occasional leaf flutters from the maple tree above us.

In Minnesota, we usually have one last day of summer before the season shifts.  I think it’s today and am very thankful it fell on my one day off.  I’ve been ready for Fall to arrive for the past month, but can’t deny that today is absolutely perfect.  The air is fresh, no humidity whatsoever.  The trees are just starting to change colors.  I actually spent several hours on the aforementioned blanket alternately reading and napping.  It was absolutely glorious.

If we were having coffee, I’d tell you all about the concert I went to last week in Minneapolis with a friend.  Maddie and I met during our semester abroad in London and she recently moved to my area and has been aching to go to a show ever since.  We went to see Ivan & Alyosha and Noah Gundersen.  I wasn’t overly familiar with either band, but it was a wonderful show.  Musically, both bands were a real treat.  Ivan & Alyosha were my favorite act (I’ve been listening to them nonstop ever since).  They’re really peppy with a California vibe.  Noah was much more serious–his whole band wore black and oozed angst.  I like his earlier music, but he mostly played stuff from his most recent album which is really existential.  It was hard not to be depressed after the show as I drove the hour home well-past midnight.  But I cured the overflow angst by listening to peppy pre-pop Taylor Swift songs.

If we were having coffee, you would know that I’m frustrated.  For the most part, things are going very well for me right now.  I have a job, a roof over my head, and get to spend lots of time with family.  But a big portion of my life, my Christian faith, hasn’t been doing well.  I’m not struggling, but I’m not thriving either.  One of the problems is that I feel like I have too much history with the churches in my area.  Most people my age go to the church I grew up in, which I no longer attend for some very painful reasons (which I discuss in this post).  My family usually goes to a mega-church in the cities, which was great for in college for weekend visits and long breaks.  But it’s not the kind of church I actually want to go to long-term.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just not the right fit for me.  I’ve looked into trying some other churches, but I either know too many people who go there or have been turned off by hearing about people’s bad experiences.

The thing is, Christian culture tends to be extremely conservative.  And I tend to be more liberal.  When I’m around other Christians, even those I love and admire, I generally keep my opinions to myself.  Usually, this is because it’s not the time or place.  But another factor is that most people will strike up an argument.  I really dislike arguing–it does more harm than good.  In arguments, people tend to spend most of the time defending their own perspective without actually caring about what the other person has to say.  I don’t mind if someone thinks differently than I do, but it bothers me when others don’t respect my perspective in return.   So I don’t go there.

I’m in a bit of a rut, you see.  My relationship with God is one of the most important things I have.  I long for Christian community who will accept me without judging me based on the way I think.  I long for supporters who will spur me on in faith.  I known it exists–I’ve had it before in Morris and at camp.  Here, though, I feel very much alone.

If we were having coffee, though, I hope we don’t argue.  Because I’d love nothing more than to spend the afternoon sipping cool drinks on that blanket with you.  How has your week been?  Anything you’d like to share in return?

This post is part of the Weekend Coffee Share link up at Part Time Monster.