Today I was blessed to be able to share my testimony, a small part of my story at the informal college chapel service. Here’s what I shared.
My relationship with Jesus has been long and complicated, with ups and downs and lots of change over 30 years, but today I want to just talk about one piece of it, one moment in time, when I found God in the midst of anarchists. A bit of background: I grew up in a Christian (Presbyterian) home, wrestled as a teenager with my faith, decided I really did want to live for God, while in university thought I was called to be a Roman Catholic nun. With one semester left, planning to head for the convent after graduation, I was praying ‘Lord, if you don’t want me to become a nun, give me a sign.’ I wasn’t expecting one, but I met a man who I thought was the sign. I fell in love and thought he loved me but he decided not to and I was devastated. I was so hurt and so angry, and it was easier to be angry than hurt, and in my anger I made a lot of bad choices. I hurt a lot of people around me and myself, engaging in self-destructive behavior and doing everything I could to push people away. By 2011 I was exhausted, spent, tired of hurting, tired of the things I was using to numb the pain. Rock bottom.
That summer I’d begun to pick up the pieces. I’d moved in with friends who had stood by me through it all and were willing to keep picking me up when I fell down. I made plans to move to Singapore, to work with the missionary organisation my parents were a part of. I knew, intellectually, that I wanted to make different choices. I knew I wanted a different life, and as my anger had burned out, I knew that God had not abandoned me, nor had He betrayed me. The foundation of faith I had was still there, it was just under a lot of ruble, and I didn’t really know what to do about it. Going to church felt weird. I knew that the Scripture readings and words to the hymns were true, but I didn’t really feel it. I was still kind of numb and also so empty.
While I wrestled with my faith and life that year, the world had wrestled too. The Arab spring swept through the Middle East and inspired protests in solidarity and in kind around the world including in Western countries. Occupy Wall Street began and in Toronto, where I lived, the Occupy movement arrived in October.
I had heard about the protests, I was off work and headed home and I decided to go a round about way, past St. James Park, where the three thousand protesters had marched to earlier that day. I was curious, a spectator. I intended to walk past, maybe subtly ogle a little and then be on my way. But I was drawn in by the crowd, by the energy, the diversity of people, signs, opinions. People were starting to set up tents and a food table, and the doors of St. James Cathedral were open. I was one of many who stopped in for a moment to pray. When I went back out, I found myself near the front of the first General Assembly.
The park went dead quiet. And a single voice yelled out ‘Mic Check!’ A dozen voices echoed the call – and it was echoed again and again and suddenly more than a thousand people had gathered together as tightly as they could to be heard and to listen.
That first meeting was astonishing to me. Guidelines of respect, inclusivity and non-discrimination were laid out. Hand signals were taught and relayed. Questions were asked, repeated, answered, repeated. Objections to any point were noted, repeated, discussed, resolved. The facilitators worked together to ensure every voice was heard, every question answered, every concern addressed, every objection resolved. I began to wonder what I could do, where I could volunteer, but even as I wondered, I thought about what I could do that would have minimal impact on my life. What would be the least disruptive?
Well, I ended up staying. For days that turned into weeks I camped out in St. James Park with Occupy Toronto. Remember it was mid-October, in Canada. It was cold. And wet. Snow was constantly threatening. The park was surrounded by police and media and onlookers and counter-protesters. It was not comfortable or easy. Communication and getting things done as a group was hard work. Everyone had a different reason for being there.
So what was mine?
I was there because I met Jesus there. I experienced more grace, peace and love in those few days in a tent city in a cold October rainstorm than I had ever experienced before. Nothing in my experience (and I’m a pretty optimistic person) had prepared me for the incredible generosity of others, in the their finances and material donations and, more importantly, in their gifts of self.
I went at first because of the politics. I believed there were deep, serious flaws in our economic and political systems, and that the root of those flaws lies in how we see and treat one another as human beings. After that first walkthrough I was convinced that something special and important was happening there and I wanted to be a part of it.
But I stayed because I saw the face of Christ in the faces of the people at the park, and in the faces of people everywhere else. I was so inspired by all of these people who cared so deeply about people. In solidarity with the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, we begged for blankets, ate from a camp soup kitchen, and slept on the ground, all while dealing with pressure to shut up and go away from society, police, government. It was an incredible crash course on grace and humanity.
Over those days and weeks I picked up my Bible again and began to read the book of Luke. It’s a great place to start if you want to get to know Jesus. I realized that the man I was reading about was someone I wanted to be like, someone I wanted to follow, someone I wanted to love.
Reading Luke I was reminded that Jesus was homeless, unemployed and lived off the kindness of others. At Occupy Toronto I was reminded that it is in the faces of the poor and the abandoned that we meet Christ. There I found a desire to see the Living God in others and for them to experience the Living God through me, to be in intentional community, with all of its messiness and hard work.
Something clicked for me as I realized that the vast, unknowable, all-powerful God of the universe was Jesus. The being I was so mad at was the Man who had come into the world and spoke with such love. The last of the anger I felt faded and I was overcome by the love that I knew Jesus had for me.
The Occupy protests drew to a close and we left the park. I returned to my friends’ house, I packed my things and prepared to move to Singapore. Suddenly, I wasn’t just going through the motions. Work wasn’t just automatic; it was an opportunity to see Jesus in everyone I served. Church wasn’t an empty shell or ritual and routine. It was full of Jesus. I was no longer empty, I was full of love for Jesus and His love for me.
That experience has carried me through the last six years, which have had plenty of ups and downs. Remembering that time has been a touchstone, a wellspring, filling me up when I start to feel empty. When I become overwhelmed and start to lose track of the great unknowable God of the universe, I am reminded that He is JESUS, and I fall in Love with Him all over again.