I spent the summer in Virginia standing on mountains.
I came for an internship, and when I applied for it, I had some hope of it jumpstarting my career as a world-savvy international journalist writing stories that matter. Instead I wrote a bunch of brochures and read a lot of heartbreaking articles (by actual world-savvy international journalists).
At some point in early summer, I started wondering what exactly I was doing in Virginia. The series of events that led to my taking this internship in a city and an organization I’d never heard of seemed somewhat unlikely, so I figured it was a God thing. But I spent my days writing brochures and scheduling Tweets. It wasn’t exactly my dream job, and I hadn’t really made any friends in Virginia. My presence there didn’t seem to be doing anyone much good.
Then there was another frustration—working for a Christian organization brought out some of my pent up anger at Christians. Closely following the Christian sector of Twitter can be incredibly disheartening. It feels like everyone is trying to out-holy each other in 140 characters or less. Bible verses are used to shame everyone about how complacent they are. Everyone yells at everyone else about their heretical theology or they simply mock each other’s opinions to avoid real dialogue. The internet is rarely a grace-filled place.
I took some angry walks on the Monticello Trail to tell God how irritated I was with these representations of him offering only shame and judgment to the world, how tired of the false Jesuses I myself carry around to get angry at, and how frustrated that a God who claimed to love us would leave us to guess at what he really wants from us, ultimately disagreeing and tearing each other apart. If Jesus wanted us to follow him, why couldn’t he stick around to answer a few questions?
My prayer beneath pine trees, on the boardwalk winding across Carter Mountain was: let me know you as you really are.
God didn’t answer with a clear-cut theology or a reason for the rather confusing set of scriptures we’ve been left with.
Instead he let me scramble up rocks and climb toward the clouds to gaze at a vast expanse of blue mountains. Here at the top of the world, tadpoles swam in puddles on the rocks and flowers grew through cracks; life sprang up in the unlikeliest of places.
I went to a church where the pastor read poems to bless the congregation and said things like, “May you hear today’s message in your native tongue.” We recited prayers and creeds in unison and came to the Lord’s table as pilgrims, together finding the way home to our God. In the small group I attended, we admitted that none us see the whole picture; and that is why we need community. I’ve written before about struggling to fit in at church, but here I felt I belonged. Here our spiritual differences were strengths; we celebrated the fact that we each reflected the image of God in unique and diverse ways.
At work, I learned about the Rohingya people, unwanted by both their home country and neighboring ones, an exile people coming to know Jesus for the first time. I read updates from a ministry leader working among them and looked at the smiling faces of Rohingya children holding their first school books. I thought of Paul’s words in Romans quoting Hosea:
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ (Romans 9:25)
This is their story, and this is all of our stories: resurrection and renewal, that we are beloved who were not beloved, that life is growing in unexpected places.
I am back in my home state of Iowa now, and I don’t know what will come next, but I know I went to Virginia for a reason–a breath of fresh air, a view of our God who is expansive and unpredictable, bursting through every carefully constructed box in which we would try to contain him.
I think perhaps a theology of place is more important than we might think. It was land that was promised to the Israelites–land overflowing with milk and honey, and it was a desert they wandered through learning to trust their God. Perhaps I needed the Blue Ridge Mountains to see that God is both high above earth and down in the valley, that beauty and love is wrapped over and around me like velvet from head to toe. In the vastness of earth and heaven, I have a home.
There is more I could say, but I’ll leave you with David’s words in the Psalms, which is perhaps the simplest thing I could say about my summer:
He brought me out into a spacious place;
he rescued me because he delighted in me. (Psalm 18:19)