A year ago I'm not sure that I knew what to expect. I remember being nervous and a little bit afraid, but mostly excited. I had never been out of the country, nor had I flown. This trip would yield many "firsts" for me. This was the first time I would be away from family longer than a couple of weeks. I would leave behind a supportive, close-knit group of friends, a couple of pastors, whom I loved, and a church where I found my home. I just finished my first marathon a couple of months earlier. I was in shape. I had conquered my compulsions. Life was on the upswing. I wanted simply to enjoy life in China and experience every single bit of it. I wanted to eat, drink, run, walk, and ride across town as many times as possible. I wanted to put China into my mouth, swallow it, and store it in my stomach for safe keeping. I wanted to lie in China's waters and let her soak into my skin. I desired China more than I had desired anything in a while.
Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine that I am in Nanjing, making my way back to the dorm from Homeway, my favorite coffee shop. The sky above is a brilliant blue and the sunlight is shining through the leaves. There's a light breeze which keeps my sweating to a minimum. I am comfortable in a tank top and shorts. I admire the sycamore trees as they stretch out their arms like no trees I have ever seen. There are white stripes painted at the bottom of each tree so that they can be easily seen when visibility is poor. Cars are parked along the side of the street and it is likely that someone will back out in front of you at any given moment. Students walk back and forth to their classes, some ride bikes, others speed by on mopeds. Short, gray-haired grandparents walk their grandchildren back home from school, hand in hand, and discuss the events of the day in their native tongue; one I do not understand. I stop on the way back to say hello to the ice cream lady and buy from her a strawberry and vanilla swirl cone. I savor the beauty of her smile as she hands it to me and says thank you. Life is beautiful.
When I allow my mind to wander and I reflect on the past year of life, I am brought to tears. After returning from China, slowly my blacks and whites began to fade to greys. I spent a month around people who were vastly different than I was. Things I once understood and believed strongly, I began to doubt. My frameworks were crushed. Everything was called into question. It's no surprise that my middle name is "Grey."
It's as if my worldview, my God, and I were caught up in a tornado, spun around in the cloud of dust, and thrusted back down to the earth, landing in a foreign town. After stumbling to and fro in my disoriented state for a while, I beheld the trail of wreckage left in the twister's wake. My old compulsions and struggles returned. Friendships were irreparably damaged. I left my church because there were things I just couldn't, with integrity, go along with anymore. Suicidal thoughts were had. Counseling appointments were made. Meds were prescribed. Books were read. Prayers were prayed.
After a while, I began to regain enough strength to rebuild. That's where I'm at presently. I'm still dealing with my compulsions, I'm still in counseling, I'm still doubting, I'm still a bit dizzy, and I'm walking with a limp, but I'm rebuilding. I'm getting my grip on life again, but every time I clean my ears or blow my nose, dust still comes out.
In the year since, I've changed my major from Geology to English, which is fitting. I guess I wanted something a little bit more fluffy and abstract. I would rather interpret Lord of the Flies through a psychoanalytic lens than gaze into a microscope and determine a rock's composition. I stumbled into a new church and an entirely new denomination, which I initially knew little about. With their welcoming hearts, smiles, hugs, and prayers, the Episcopal folks have nursed my wounds and provided me with refuge. I've begun to think twice about my vocation and what I've always thought I was called to do. I'm dipping my toes into different waters. New friendships have been forged. Somehow along the way, I've become pretty liberal, both politically and theologically.
What's surprising and beautiful to me is this: I thought I was starting from scratch, but I'm not. A lot of what I used to believe about God and life, I still believe. However, it's like I'm seeing them both from a completely different angle. It's as if everything I've ever known and embraced has been flipped on its head.
As I've been reading through Genesis over the past few days, I've been a bit uncomfortable with the amount of chaos in those chapters. Worldwide floods happen, a brother is murdered, another brother is sold into slavery, dozens of lies are told, daughters get their father drunk so they can have sex with him, blessings are stolen, people are cursed, one woman turns into a pile of salt, and one guy even claims to have gotten hit in the knee while wrestling with God Himself. Whenever I imagine God coming onto the scene in a story, I imagine imagine peace and serenity coming with him, but in light of my past year, I'm beginning to think a little bit differently about the nature of God. I would like to think that God doesn't cause calamity, but always uses it for good. There are some days when I'm not so sure about that, though. I believe God means well for us, but I also believe sometimes the process of becoming who we truly are might be grueling. As Father Richard Rohr says in Falling Upward: "By definition, authentic God experience is always "too much!" It consoles our True Self only after it has devastated our false self."
I believe sometimes God wrestles and throws punches before he blesses. I believe sometimes God flips us on our heads, and as the blood runs down and our faces turn red, we look around and say "I've never quite seen it this way before." I believe sometimes God ruins our knowledge and leaves wondering if we know anything for sure anymore. For me, it took a trip to the other side of the world to spark this process.
It has been a journey I am ever grateful for and marked by.