God In The Ceiling
My name is Malialani, which translates to "Heavenly Calm" from Hawaiian. It's a family joke. I have never been heavenly or calm - and while I may learn to live into my name, odds are low. My Uncle, bless him, misread the translation of my name and thought my parents had named me "Heavenly Clam." While preposterous, that description may have fit me better.
I was born a Presbyterian. My people were “The Frozen Chosen,” relying heavily on logic, program, and sarcasm (to mask passive aggressive tendencies). I grew up hearing “Fake it till you make it” and “I’ll be praying for you” and “Speak the truth in love” and “Hate the sin, not the sinner” just as often, if not more than I heard scripture. We were intellectuals following Jesus because it made sense, devout readers of CS Lewis, and stealing just enough tradition from Catholicism to maintain status while still being able to snub Catholics because we were making such great strides into the modern age with our guitars and pastors in slacks on Sunday mornings.
My parents were quiet rebels, politely challenging every cliche of their generation. Marrying interracially, fighting for the rights of low income families and the disabled, playing every loud instrument they could fit in our home, never dressing the part, and refusing to “fake it until they made it.” But these rebellions were deeply personal and private. And we didn’t talk about them. So when my parents left our “home” church, there was no explanation. Just my parents deeply personal rebellion that I wouldn’t see mirroring my own until years later.
Being born and baptized Presbyterian, I didn’t know there was another way to live life other than with Jesus. He was always with me and me with Him. It was described as “a personal relationship,” but for me it was more like fact. My hair was brown, my eyes were green, and Jesus lived in my heart.
In everyone’s heart.
When I was young, I believed God lived in the ceiling of the sanctuary of our church. Not that we had a special corner on God. God lived in the ceiling of any church - every church. Dancing in the vaulted beams on the echoes of our praise, a joyful witness to our ridiculous attempts to capture the members of the Trinity in mere words. People crowded together over ancient maroon carpet with the glitter of every Christmas past and remnants of scotch tape - it was exactly where God would be. I refused to close my eyes when I prayed, because I was convinced that I could catch a glimpse of God delighting at us if I peeked. When I was about eight, the church built an expansive addition. A beautiful, large, modern sanctuary. I remember being confused as to why we would leave the room where God was. I never felt God in that space where the church proved they were growing, but I would return to that filthy old chapel for years to chat with the Lord on High.
My brothers and I grew up poor, three kids raised on one teacher’s salary. My parents taught us to be self sufficient, brave, content with what we had, but never satisfied. We were given a love of nature and books - because they were good, and free. God was in everything, Jesus was love in action, the Spirit was that love living out through us. Love looked like justice and mercy flowing through our veins with a heavy dose of grace every chance we could get. My parents instilled in us their passion for learning and the inability to accept the things they could not change. Quiet rebels raising loud revolutionaries. Their fight being the greatest and most difficult gift they could have given us.
The sanctuary addition was a symptom of bigger problems, not just at our church - though I would experience those personally - but of the institution of the church as a whole. A movement that said bigger was better, pressuring people to look put-together, affirming if you really had Jesus in your life things would be simple and clean.
That just wasn’t going to work for my parents the quiet rebels. So they left. First my mom with my brothers, then my dad. And they let me choose to stay, angry that they could walk away from our “family,” until the day I understood.
My husband says I am a beacon for the broken. I think we are all a bit broken, so I don’t know how true that is, but I certainly had a knack for befriending “outcasts” as a young person. I was 14 the first time I sat with a friend waiting for an abortion. We just sat together, she cried. It wrecked her soul to sit there, but she did it. And I sat there with her. Later that week we went to youth group and heard a girl share how Jesus had changed her life - right after she called my friend a whore.
That was the beginning of the end for me. There were other things, signs of the apocalypse, but what finally pushed my teenage self out the door was the rumor that I was sleeping with my boyfriend. More specifically, that I had slept with him in the church closet. My rumor self was impressive to say the least. Youth leaders gathered around me to let me know how disappointed they were in me, that Jesus was so sad, that my boyfriend was a bad influence, peer pressuring me, and that they felt it would be best if I didn’t bring him around anymore - never asking that crucial question “Is it true?”
I was 15, the daughter of quiet rebels and while I would follow in my parents footsteps, I would not be going quietly. I did what any 15 year old girl would do, I chose the boy.
People told me they would pray for me.
When my parents left, they found a new home. I? Did not seek God out elsewhere. I was angry. Church was the enemy. I didn’t want anything to do with a God that would be represented by such hypocrisy. And in this season marked by seething hatred for the Church, God assembled my tribe: The mentally ill, the sexually assaulted, the druggies, the straight edge kids pouring out of alcoholic homes, the self mutilators, the diseased, the poor, the abused, the angry and the rebellious. I wish I could tell you that this tribe of miscreants was where I rediscovered my love of God, but it isn’t.
It is where I learned to wrestle.
Dear God, how could you allow my people to suffer?
Dear God, how could you let my beloved ones to die?
Dear God, what did we, mere children, do to deserve such scathing judgment wrapped up as “the truth in love?”
As I fought with God, I was also battling for my sense of self worth. Caught up in the lie placed on my head by the Bride of Christ. “Hate the sin, not the sinner.”
But what if you couldn’t separate them? What if you WERE the sin and the sin WAS you?
I only had enough energy and self awareness to be angry for my tribe and wrestle with God, not to help them heal.
When God and I met on civil terms again, it was in the dirt in Mexico. My questions were not answered with the logical response my Presbyterian heart desired, just "Jesus." It was never the church that I was to follow, it was Jesus. The first beacon to the broken, friend of sinners and outcasts, a rebel too wild for the church of His day. Of course it was Jesus. From where else would I have been given such a fierce heart, but from the one who lives in it?
When we returned to the United States, I threw up. When I returned to Youth Group, I walked out after another testimony of a life changed from a girl who threw pizza at overweight kids in the lunchroom earlier that day. When I turned 18 later that week, I was crowned prom queen and went home and attempted suicide.
The story of God, the path of Jesus, the work of the Spirit is not simple and it is not clean.
I lived, much to my chagrin, but the lie died.
I didn’t need to hate the sin, Jesus already fought that battle, and once hate was gone?
There was only love left. Love for me, love for my tribe, love pouring over everything.
But I was not ready to forgive the Church and it would be years before I darkened it’s steps again. Instead, I left. It was a slow process of shedding habits and people and fears, but when I saw God again? It was in the mountains of Peru, in a cynical Dutchman and apathetic Argentinian, wandering in an ancient Catholic cathedral listening to Quechuan songs, in a disbelieving Australian and a suicidal wreck of a best friend, in Polish Christmas traditions, in caring for tiny triplets and conversations with skeptics, in Italian hillsides and Montreal streets, in Vermont fields and on long train rides, in the deaths of friends and the births of new ones.
For the first time, God was more real to me in the world than in the ceiling.
I consumed God with the same fervor that the Spirit consumed me. I took theology courses, devoured literature, talked nonstop with saints and sinners - who, it turns out, are one in the same. Still Presbyterian at the root, deeply logical, but now focusing that logic, that seeking heart, on Jesus. My rebel heart broke all over again as I saw my own battle mirrored by a table flipping homeless middle eastern man, friend to the outcast, defending the sinner and questioning the self-righteous. Of course, of course, of course. It was always Jesus.
After all, He was living in my heart.
When I met Mark, we were both so broken and so ready to heal. I think we healed together, like grafting a tree. God was in it, the wrapping binding us together as we grew, adding more branches, Rory and Jinora, giving us the shelter and aid of a new home a new church, within the ECC, planting other trees nearby to cross pollinate with, friends and family. A beautiful orchard.
This is where is gets hard, sorting through this next part. I made sense of the first part, I labeled the whys and hows and whats. “God had a plan” or whatever. But the story of God, the path of Jesus, the work of the Spirit is not simple and it is not clean. And I think when we trivialize our circumstances to a neat and orderly plan that God will use, it takes something away from us, from God and the complicated nature of who God is. It isn’t simple, it isn’t clean, it certainly isn’t linear. While I have wrapped my mind around the first piece of my story, it doesn’t mean I understand it really.
I definitely don’t understand the next section.
God spoke. We heard it. Called us back to the dirt, where the answers were kept, where Jesus lived, and we responded. We did the hard work, we trained and raised money, we met new people and built up relationships, we talked and we drank coffee and we ate so much potluck food we thought we would die. We were going to be missionaries. The kind that live in that dirt, the kind that write letters, the kind that God calls. And it was hard, so hard, like wandering the desert hard. I talked a lot about manna from heaven in those days. Three years we wandered, focusing on one days worth of manna at a time, before arriving - only to discover ourselves in a new desert.
Oaxaca is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. For the high desert beauty, for the artisan everything, for the freaking tacos. For Claudia and Rosi, for Teresa and Manuel, for Cynthia and Juan, for Carlos and Mafer, for Elliah and Maytal. And here is the truth, we could have stayed there. Mark could have attended pastor meetings and young adult groups. I could have gone to women’s bible studies and written letters about discipleship happening over coffee. Rory and Jinora could have gone to school, fully immersed in Spanish and Oaxacan life.
But we would have been lying. There was nothing for us there. There was no job and no work. There was only lingering paternalistic ministry and existing missionaries trying desperately to give over control to local churches. Leaving was like ripping my soul from my body, but staying would have been giving it up completely.
Coming back to the Pacific Northwest was impossible. We were broke, a blank year on our resumes, hearts broken - we were failures. And in case we forgot? People told us so. They told us in kind ways, gentle ways, understanding ways and they told us in mean ways, hurtful ways, cutting ways and worst of all, they wouldn’t tell us at all. They would just let their actions speak. There were people who saw us, who heard us, who loved us, but the story of God, the path of Jesus, the work of the Spirit is not simple and it is not clean.
Leaning on lessons past, I sought theology. And she gave me hope, ferocity, vision. As she tends to do. Remembering my heart, I sat at the feet of Jesus and wept, begging for an answer. But we had already removed ourselves from our beautiful orchard, and we could not go backward.
I am not my parents. I am not quiet. I do not come or go softly. I am loud. I am wild, rebellious, desiring action and revolution and constant movement. I seek justice and mercy. If I have a thought, you will know it. My voice is one of prophecy and never ceasing curiosity. I have no fear. I grew up with Jesus in my heart, there was never going to be another path for me to follow.
If I am being honest? I am still not a fan of the institution of the church - it is still too focused on growth and numbers and program. It is still too focused on coming to Jesus, when in fact Jesus comes to us. It is still hurting my people with its words and actions or lack thereof. It is still empowering abusers and casting out the abused. It still has too many cliches and platitudes. It is impatient, mean, envious, proud, arrogant, rude, self-seeking, resentful, and often hides the truth. It is not love.
But - I don’t follow the church. I follow Jesus. And I don’t believe that the institution is the Bride. I believe we are. And I see Love in each of us more often than I see it elsewhere. I see us messily showing patience and being kind. I see us being humble, seeking justice and mercy, allowing ourselves to be even the tiniest bit transparent. And I hope and I pray that someday we turn away from “organized religion” and embrace Jesus. Just Jesus. Fierce and kind, rebellious Jesus. Because when we embrace the groom, won’t we become the Bride?
If I am being honest? My story doesn’t make sense, but I don’t want or need to make sense of it. I just want a story that reflects the wide Heart of God, the deep Love of Christ, the wild Movement of the Spirit. And I don’t think God will “use” my story. I don’t like that language. God doesn’t use humans, we aren’t disposable - I think God is IN my story, WITH me, IN us, WITH us.
God makes things new and invites us to participate.
And I want to be like that. I want to be in people’s stories, with them. Living life in messy seasons, in hectic seasons, in seasons of sorrow and seasons of joy. I want to participate in making things new. I don’t want to be used. I don’t want to make sense of it. I just want to participate.
These days, that’s all I am doing. I try to listen, even when I have ALL the opinions. I try to learn, even when I think I’ve figured it out. I try to be in people’s stories, in their grief and in their excitement, in their certainty and in their doubt. I try to participate, try to help make things new, whatever that looks like. It isn’t simple and it isn’t clean, but that’s okay - as long as Jesus is in it with me.