(Adapted from a talk at a Christian Reformed Church Classis Toronto Urban Ministry Gathering on June 10, 2010)
I am going to tell you my personal story, my spiritual journey into where I am now, and how the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) played a big part in it.
I was born and raised in Malaysia, part of the Chinese Diaspora that spans the globe. I became a Christian when I was 14 years old. I converted and got baptized in a Plymouth Brethren church. It was a very conservative church. Women had to keep silent during worship services and wore coverings on their heads. It had a very narrow understanding of salvation and of discipleship. So my early Christian years were formed within a narrow, rationalistic, rigid, literalistic and legalistic framework.
When I came to Canada as an international student, at the U of Alberta in Edmonton, I got involved in an evangelical Chinese Christian fellowship campus group. I went to a Christian & Missionary Alliance Church. I was heavily involved in both those communities, becoming a devotional leader in the one and a choir member in the other.
But as I got deeper and deeper into my studies as an English Literature major, and studied more and more the critical theories and philosophies that were flooding the literature departments at the time – theories like deconstructionism, feminism, Marxism, queer theories, various forms of postmodernism – all of these were starting to somehow cut away at my narrowly prescribed faith. Today, I tell people that your faith doesn’t usually die with a fatal blow. Rather, your faith usually bleeds to death by a thousand little cuts. That was how I felt. There was no one major thing that created a crisis in my faith. It was a whole bunch of little things that added up into a general spiritual malaise or spiritual ill health.
I was an intellectual, and as I studied the critical theories, I found I liked a lot of what they said. And some of the things that I liked did not fit with my narrow, rationalistic and legalistic Christian faith. I liked the ethical dimensions of feminism and Marxism. I liked deconstructionism’s cutting reason or rationality down to size from its lofty pedestal. I sympathized with queer theory’s questioning of the cult of “normal”. But as all these little pieces of new information and new appreciative horizons became part of me, I found that my narrow and rigid faith was being stretched uncomfortably to a breaking point. As it got stretched, I also realized how equally shallow my narrow rigid faith was.
I didn’t know what I need. And I got into depression. This was near the end of my second academic year. I was depressed and almost flunked university. I was this close to failing because I didn’t show up for class, and I didn’t hand in my assignments. I was spiritually depressed, and I didn’t quite know the source of it – because as I said, there was no one thing but a thousand things that was both bothering me and exciting me – and I didn’t know what to do. I was torn between my studies, my new ideas, my new intellectual growth and my narrow rigid faith – both which are big parts of my life, and big parts of my identity, of who I am. I couldn’t let go of one or the other. My narrow rigid faith was stretched to a breaking point. I ended up in an emotional and intellectual paralyzed state.
My two evangelical communities – the Chinese Christian campus group and the Alliance church – though well-meaning and supportive, did not have the spiritual resources in their tradition to help me deepen and widen my faith framework. It was at this time, that I went to talk with the Christian Reformed Chaplain at the U of Alberta, who was Tom Oosterhuis at the time. Tom gradually showed me a different kind of faith framework. A framework that is more flexible, and also wider and deeper than the narrow, rigid and shallow spirituality I had before. The Reformed faith, with its deep world and life view, with its comprehensive view of God’s mission, with its emphasis on the whole gospel for a whole life, with its expansive view of God’s kingdom, with its wider understanding of kingdom service – from evangelistic activism to social justice activism to intellectual scholarly activism, the Reformed faith gave me a deeper and wider framework of faith that allowed me to fit in more comfortably the pieces I gleaned from my academic studies. In short, the CRC Campus Minister may have very well been God’s instrument in saving my faith. With Tom’s help and some short term therapy, and being part of a new Christian community, I eventually got out of depression. I recovered my academic studies to the point where I eventually got into grad school and finished my MA in English Literature. It was quite a remarkable turnaround that I could only thank God for.
I ended up joining the CRC. I fell in love with the CRC and its deeper, wider Reformed faith. And that is how I find myself now as an ordained Ministry Associate CRC Campus Minister. Of course, I have no illusions that the CRC is without many flaws. In fact, I find that many CRC Christians and churches fail to appreciate its own deeper and wider faith framework and opting for the run-of-the-mill North American evangelicalism.
Is a deeper, wider faith the CRC’s spiritual contribution to struggling or wayward Christians? I don’t know for sure but it definitely was for me. And I also know that there are many young people today who are searching for a deeper and wider faith.
At my last birthday, I got a birthday card in the mail from one of my former student leaders and her husband. In the card, they thanked me, for the positive way in which I’ve influenced their lives and others through my ministry. She was a graduate student, who in her undergraduate days was heavily involved in an interdenominational evangelical campus group. But by the time she met me, she wanted something deeper. She was “looking for a study group that went beyond scratching the surface of Christianity,” as she wrote in her public testimony. She appreciated the fact that my studies “dig deep”. She also appreciated that I created “an environment where [people] do not feel intimidated to ask questions and discuss the content”.
This sentiment is echoed by another student leader, a Law student, who wrote that, “In these [study] groups, people are free to ask difficult questions, confront contradictions between what they thought about Christianity and what is written in the Bible. People who want to go beyond Sunday School lessons, who want to learn more about Christianity than what popular culture tells them, have a safe space to express their thoughts, doubts and experiences.”
I believe there are many more young (and not so young) intelligent people who are looking for such a deeper and wider faith, a deeper faith that goes beyond scratching the surface of Christianity, a deeper faith that goes beyond Sunday School lessons, and a faith that is wide enough to invite a whole world of difficult questions, wide enough to confront contradictions, wide enough to safely welcome people to express their thoughts, doubts and experiences. Perhaps you are one of them. I pray and hope that there are more and more ministries, churches or faith communities that can help people like you to dive into a deeper and wider faith.