Hello readers. The four months since I last posted have been incredibly busy, but in a wonderful way. As discussed in this post, I started taking seminary courses online through Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Most courses are 3-credit courses and I originally planned to take a full-time course load of 12 credits. But by the time I was able to register, two of the courses I wanted were full, and I decided maybe it would be a good idea to just take six credits anyway as I likely had some rust on the brain given that I had been away from the academic world for eight years. I am so glad I did, as I forgot how much reading college courses entail, and there definitely was rust on the brain, especially at the beginning of the semester when I found myself needing to read a sentence multiple times to retain the information. I look forward to telling you more about these courses soon.
But for this post, I felt compelled to share an essay I wrote last summer for a Spiritual Writing course I took online through the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. I thought about posting it then, but didn’t want to admit that I am the kind of person who thinks about Christmas in July. But now that it is almost Christmas, and a difficult Christmas at the end of a very difficult year for our country, I decided it is time to share it. This semester, one of the courses I took was a study of the book of Genesis. The reading for this class was challenging, but interesting, and the professor was also inspiring. For this course, I had to write a research paper on one of God’s missions introduced in Genesis. I chose the topic of creation care. The professor gave me wonderful feedback, and also told me this is a topic he could tell I was passionate about, and a topic I could chase for a long time. He recommended some books I could read to continue chasing this topic. At some point, hopefully over the summer, I would like to read these books and add to my paper, and if I do, I will share my paper here. I get the sense that as I progress in my seminary education, I could chase the ideas expressed in the following Creative Writing essay a long time too. If it is ever appropriate, I would love to show this to a seminary professor who could give me ideas for how to do so. But I hope that even as it is written today, my experience might help any Christian readers feeling weary after this difficult year to keep the faith, and that it may even offer skeptics encouragement and permission to believe.
The adult in me is embarrassed to admit this, but I believed in Santa Claus until I was twelve years old. Well, I had suspicions for a couple years, but I pushed these doubts aside, and a couple times when I would ask questions and my parents would respond with vague answers, desperately trying to preserve the innocence of their youngest child, I didn’t press them much. I knew I would need to face the truth eventually, but I also knew that once I officially heard the truth, some of the magic of the Christmas season would be irrevocably lost. Perhaps out of fear I would say something that would get me laughed at now that I was in middle school, at twelve, my parents officially confirmed what I had suspected.
In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O Hanlon posed this question to her father. A loyal reader of the New York Sun, her father suggested she pose her question to the newspaper. “If The Sun reported it,” her father said, “then it was so.” The editor published her letter, and replied that “yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Just because you cannot literally see him doesn’t mean he isn’t real. “YOU TEAR apart a baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.”
Perhaps this was the exact sentiment Jesus was trying to convey in Mark 10:14-15 when he says, “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
As a child, I absolutely despised Math. My mind just couldn’t grasp it, and I would spend hours alternating between puzzling over how to solve the equations, and fuming about how my childhood was slipping away and there were so many more fun ways I could be spending my time. My parents usually couldn’t help because it had been so long since they were in school, concepts were taught differently in their day, and when they were in school, they struggled in Math as well. Only my engrained Catholic upbringing which taught that cheating was wrong stopped me from calling a classmate who was good at Math and asking them to just give me the answers. But on the rare occasion when a concept clicked and I got the right answer on my own, it was like arriving at a spring of fresh cold water after a long trek through a desert, a trek on which I got lost several times. In those moments, I was glad I hadn’t called a classmate for the answers, not only because it would have been morally wrong, and would have come back to bite me come test time, but also because there is an indescribable joy in self-discovery, especially when it comes after struggle.
I think God recognizes this joy too, as well as the genuineness of faith that is chosen of our own free will. To that end, when we are born, it is as if we are dropped into a desert to find and accept the water of God for ourselves. The path is a little easier for people like me, born into a Christian home and raised Roman Catholic, but the genuine decision to accept Christ is a personal decision everyone must make for themselves. It is the responsibility of those who have accepted Christ to go back into the desert to find people who were not raised in the Christian tradition, people tempted down the wrong path of spiritual practices that will never give them the happiness they seek and may even harm them, people who grew up in a Christian tradition, but rejected Christ because they were wounded by a family or church that did not model Christ’s love, or people living in remote parts of the world who do not have access to the bible and may never have heard about Christ, and help them find the right path. But I think his words in Mark 10:14-15 suggest Jesus recognized that the most dangerous path people could be tempted down, and a path that does not tempt little children in their precious ignorance, is the path of skepticism.
Being totally blind and living in a suburb with no sidewalks or access to public transportation has always limited my physical freedom to leave the house independently. But intellectual freedom was another matter. Of course, I took this freedom for granted when I was a child, but the further I wade into adulthood, the more I have come to appreciate how blessed I was to grow up with a large degree of intellectual freedom and a complete lack of censorship. I was never sent out of the room when my parents watched news programs filled with stories of rapes and murders, nor when my teenage siblings watched movies full of foul language. When I was in kindergarten, my dad bought an album of music from the 1970s band Meatloaf. His favorite song on the album was Paradise by the Dashboard Light, and he would often blast it on the big stereo in the living room in the mornings before putting me on the bus. I loved this song too for its theatrical, rock opera style. The questionable morals advocated by this song glided right over my head, as my parents knew they would. If I did ask questions about a news story, my parents would simply answer my questions in an age-appropriate manner.
At the end of first grade, my teacher gave me some braille books to read over summer vacation. One of the books, The Rainbabies was a folktale about a childless couple who finds a dozen tiny babies lying in the grass in the magic of a moon shower.
“You should ask your parents’ permission before reading this one,” she said. I was kind of surprised she would say such a thing. Were there really parents afraid of a children’s book with a little magic in it? Knowing my parents weren’t afraid of such things, I started reading that book before my parents even got home from work that evening. I think out of a guilty conscience I confessed to my parents a couple days later how I was supposed to ask their permission, but I was correct in my assumption they would have absolutely no problem with this book, nor the Harry Potter series, nor The Da Vinci Code when I was in eighth grade.
The only time intellectual freedom was denied during childhood was when I longed to spend more time with the Jehovah’s Witnesses that came to our door. I was a curious, nosy child, the kind of child who got reprimanded a couple times at school for eavesdropping on private conversations between teachers. Because we live in a suburban neighborhood where houses are spread out and difficult to find, our doorbell doesn’t ring very often, so naturally any time the doorbell rang, I would run to the door excited and curious to see who it was.
My mom was open-minded about religion because she was exposed to many Christian traditions in the small Indiana town where she grew up. Her mother’s side of the family were Quakers, and her father’s side were Baptists. She usually attended the Friends church, but sometimes went to the Baptist Church with her grandmother, and as a teenager would sometimes go to church with friends of other denominations. Neither of her parents could afford to go to college, but they were well-read, open-minded people who encouraged intellectual exploration. There were no Muslims, Jews or Hindus where she grew up, but if there had been, I get the sense her parents would have allowed her to explore these religions too, especially if invited by a friend. In college at Purdue University, she became friends with a student from Iran, and in her 20s, she even studied briefly with some Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Dad’s parents on the other hand were not open-minded. The Catholic Church was the only true church, and if you weren’t Catholic, you weren’t going to heaven. So they were very upset when Dad decided to marry a girl who wasn’t Catholic. Mom now says if she could do things over again, she would have exposed us to other religious traditions, but for the sake of family peace and unity, Mom agreed to become Catholic and my parents raised us kids Catholic. To that end, whenever Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door, Mom and Dad would hurry past me, and be polite to them, but make it clear they were not interested in learning about this faith. A couple times when my mom didn’t feel like talking to them, she made me be quiet and stay away from the windows until they left. But something always intrigued me about them. Maybe it was how compassionate they were to me when I beat my parents to the door. They even told me they had literature available in Braille. Maybe it was their passion and dedication to their faith. Catholics didn’t go door-to-door in all kinds of weather sharing their faith. One day when I was in high school, my grandma on Dad’s side came to visit and mentioned how a couple she was acquainted with ended up getting a divorce because the wife and children became Jehovah’s Witnesses and the change in lifestyle, especially the abstinence from Christmas and birthday celebrations, was too much for the husband to take. This story only deepened my intrigue.
My parents agreed to raise us Catholic for family peace and unity, but once we reached adulthood, my parents were determined to respect boundaries better than Dad’s parents, treat us as the adults we were and let us make our own decisions regarding religion. So one summer night in June 2015, my dad and I were taking our dog Gilbert for a walk when we met a new neighbor who was a Jehovah’s Witness out for a walk with her dog Buddy. When she asked if she could come to my house, the curious child in me awoke and I responded with an excited “Sure!”
That conversation was the beginning of what would become a weekly ritual I looked forward to all week for the next two years, especially when I went through a difficult season with my first job. At 11:00 every Saturday morning, this neighbor whose name was Eda, and her friend and fellow Witness Jane would come to my house for bible study using the organization’s book “What Does The Bible Really Teach?”. Ultimately, I did not convert to this faith, as my heart could not accept some of their beliefs which differ from mainstream Christianity. They do not believe in the Holy Trinity for example, and they believe in soul sleep after death, rather than Heaven. In 2013, my mom and I switched to a nondenominational church to which we still belong today. But contrary to what my grandma, and even my parents to a small extent feared, studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses did not weaken my faith: it actually enhanced it.
One theological element that both of our faiths share is the belief that one day, Christ will return to end this system so full of wickedness and corruption, and those who choose to follow Him will live forever on a paradise earth where there will no longer be the sickness, death or even disabilities we must live with today. Like most mainstream Christian churches, our church believes in this future paradise as well, but unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, they do not talk much about it, preferring instead to focus on how to live a Christ-centered life in the here and now. When eternity is discussed, it is discussed in an abstract, churchy way. But for Jehovah’s Witnesses, eager anticipation of this new system permeates everything they say and do. They do not vote or even say the Pledge of Allegiance because their true citizenship is with Jehovah, God. They do not worry when they watch the news because God prophesied that these things would occur, but He is in control, and they already know how it will end. They don’t get up in arms about things like higher taxes, because the bible says render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, which means peacefully obeying the laws of the earthly government they live under, a government God allows as it is necessary to keep order in the current system, so long as the laws do not conflict with God’s laws. And they talk in concrete terms of how wonderful life will be on the Paradise earth. The day we got to the chapter on what the paradise earth will be like, they told of an autistic girl in their congregation who has difficulty speaking, and laughed as they imagined her talking all the time in the new world, which prompted me to imagine myself dashing out the door, sight restored and running free, both arms swinging at my side, no longer in need of a cane, guide dog or sighted person to get around safely outside the house.
After this conversation when Jane and Eda went home, my parents and I decided to go out for lunch. Usually, I did not share what we discussed in bible study out of respect for my parents who had no problem with my spiritual exploration, but were not interested in this faith themselves. But that day, I was so giddy thinking about this future that I couldn’t help launching excitedly, child-like into recounting what we had discussed. But before I had even finished, my dad shut the conversation down with a firm, “that’s just one interpretation.”
At first when I heard this statement, I felt a similar sense of loss to when I learned the truth about Santa, but on a much deeper level. Maybe Dad was right. Our church never had conversations like this, so maybe it was a theologically incorrect interpretation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But at a time when my job was particularly difficult and I needed a joyful place for my mind to wander to, how I wanted to believe this interpretation was true. To my delight, about a year and a half later, I discovered a book written by John Eldredge, a Christian author referenced fondly by a teacher in a church class I was taking. The book, was called “All Things New: Heaven, Earth and the Restoration of Everything You Love. This book confirmed that the Paradise earth isn’t just one interpretation. It is the truth, and one he agreed with me that the church should talk about more concretely.
Even the most renowned scholars in the field of Christian Apologetics cannot definitively confirm that God exists. But unlike Santa, God gave us enough clues to entertain the possibility that He is not just a fairy tale. There is archeological evidence supporting stories from the old testament, compelling evidence that Jesus existed, and that his death and resurrection could have occurred exactly as portrayed in the bible. There are also convincing apologetics arguments explained by scholars like Dr. William Lane Craig, supporting the possibility of God’s existence. The most fascinating and compelling of these arguments in my opinion is the Finetuning Argument which says that the earth is positioned so precisely to support life that if anything like the gravitational force, or the distance from the sun changed by even a hair’s breadth, life would cease to exist. The odds that this could happen by random chance, without the involvement of a transcendent creator are incomprehensably miniscule. And a few people alive today believe they died and briefly went to Heaven.
One of these people is Dr. Mary Neal, an orthopaedic physician who had been a lukewarm Christian most of her life, until 1999 when she drowned in a kayak accident, died and briefly went to Heaven before being resuscitated. While in Heaven, she saw Jesus and experienced a sense of being loved, and even after she was resuscitated, an angel would visit and talk to her during recovery. One day she asked this angel why everyone couldn’t experience what she had experienced. After all, if everyone could experience God as she did, more people would believe, and we would all treat one another better in this life. She does not remember the angel’s exact words, but his point was the same one Jesus makes in John 20:29 when speaking with “doubting Thomas.” “Because you have seen, you believe. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” Little children don’t demand proof of Santa’s existence before they believe. They just believe, which I think is how God wants us to respond to Him.
When I was a child, one of my favorite stories was The Polar Express. The story, narrated by a little boy, begins with a friend at school telling him Santa isn’t real, but he still wants to believe. Then on Christmas eve as he lay in bed listening for sleigh bells, a train stopped outside his window. He tiptoed out of the house and boarded the train, which was full of other children and was headed to the North Pole. There, Santa would choose one child to award the first gift of Christmas. The little boy was chosen by Santa for the first gift, and although he could have asked for any toy he wanted, all he really wanted was a bell from Santa’s sleigh. The story takes a sad but brief turn when he gets back on the train and finds a hole in the pocket of his robe. He lost the bell. But the next morning when he and his sister are opening presents, the bell is under the tree with a note from Santa. Reading this book as a child, I only saw it at surface-level, a sweet, joyful story about taking a train to the north pole and meeting Santa. But when reading it as an adult, it occurred to me the spiritual implication of this story is chilling and beautiful. You see, this bell wasn’t an ordinary sleigh bell. For those who believed in Santa, the bell rang, loud and sweet, but for those who no longer believed, the bell was silent. The little boy could hear the bell all his life, but even his little sister found one Christmas that she could no longer hear the bell. Just as Santa does in this fictional children’s story, Jesus chooses a few people whose hearts are open to meet him in a tangible way during this life, and yet is saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Dr. Mary Neal will always “hear the bell” because she had the privilege of experiencing Heaven, but I wouldn’t be surprised if even people close to her are skeptical of her story, and do not believe in God themselves. Lord, I pray that more people will abandon the path of skepticism, and like children, believe even if we have not seen. May we always hear your bell.