Ten years ago – has it really been that long? – I found myself in a remarkably similar circumstance to the one I am currently facing. Out of work, in a place of personal, spiritual and professional transformation, I decided to take the plunge and spend a year at a small unaccredited Bible college. My choice was made because of a complicated combination of financial and theological crossroads, and it’s a decision that I have never regretted.
So why am I writing this now, a decade later? A combination of reasons. One of the benefits of being out of work is the ability to read books by a wide variety of people – those who have embraced the Christian faith wholeheartedly, those who have abandoned it due to pain or abuse, and those who struggle to believe. It’s beautiful and tragic and messy, seeing those who share my faith embrace some fellow earth-dwellers and reject others, those who no longer share my faith who cry and wrestle with those who do and whom they love, and those who never shared my faith – or those whose departure from it was particularly traumatic – who become furious at anyone who professes any form of belief in the divine. Such literacy and conversation has rounded out my worldview in ways I never anticipated, and it started at that small Bible college ten years ago. Another reason I decided to write about it is that a friend and classmate wrote of his experience in an articulate, moving reflection (though one that’s more theological than I’m going to get into here).
I remember the day I dropped off my application form. The journey to that place is too long to get into here, but I remember thinking that it was foolish for me to be out of work and wanting to spend money to study the Bible… but I had to do it for reasons that I still can’t quite explain. I remember calling the school, being so lost in a residential area, expecting more foot traffic than I got, and having one of the instructors come out and meet me. I was so embarrassed, but I put in my application (and, not 3 hours later, received a part-time job offer that would work around my class schedule). After being accepted, I wondered how my classmates and instructors would accept me as a blind student – I worried for nothing.
Our courses were a combination of Bible study, interpretation, and practical Christian living. We read the whole Bible during the course of that year – when I discovered all the passages about justice for the oppressed that I had never encountered in my previous church experiences. We discussed living on earth and a home in heaven and how to emphasize both and neglect neither. We volunteered in organizations that challenged us, that showed us poverty or illness or disability. Along with classes and short-term missions trips and volunteering and working, I found my faith changing from a loud, boisterous show of enthusiasm to something quieter, something stronger, something harder to describe. Along with that spiritual struggle – because that’s what it was – came the most complete exhaustion I have ever felt in my life. I was in many ways happier and busier than I ever had been, but my schedule was so hectic that I would go to my little basement apartment after a day of classes and/or volunteering and/or working, say hi to my roommate, and fall exhausted into bed… only to do it all over again the next day.
But it wasn’t all hard work; in many ways it was a ton of fun. My classmates took me in as one of their own – pushing me beyond my comfort zone, asking questions, all but stapling my pants to the piano bench during chapel because I was the only student who was even remotely willing to play the piano publicly. I fell in love with the piano again during that year, frequently taking time alone in the chapel to decompress and play that out-of-tune upright that belonged in a 1900s saloon. I found out later that the entire school could hear me, and more than once someone would slip quietly into the chapel and hear me sing hymns or write chord progressions or just make up little ditties where my fingers would dance across the keys.
I not only learned a lot from instructors, but many of my classmates taught me about openness and generosity. Within two weeks of starting classes, I moved from an apartment into a basement suite, and no fewer than half my classmates helped move my stuff (in the rain) and helped clean up my old apartment. Over the year, many cried with me, some sang with me, even more laughed with me, others encouraged me to jump off a roof into a snowbank (my other option was to climb down the ladder after 20 minutes of panicking). I hated to feel like I needed help with anything, ever, but both classmates and staff patiently helped me realize that everyone needs help sometimes, and that’s OK.
Instructors were accommodating in most ways. Even the one who seemed to never get me assignments or tests on time – due to his reluctance to use email – let me explore with my hands a model of the Old Testament Tabernacle. Another instructor shared of his faith journey with such vulnerability that I related to him so completely. Another listened to me obsess and worry when my feelings for this guy who was “just a friend” had morphed into something I didn’t even recognize or want to acknowledge as romantic intentions. Still another gave me a ride to class once a week, allowing me to sleep in an extra thirty minutes; that thirty minutes was so small in the grand scheme of space and time, but it was inestimable in its impact. Looking back on it, I learned more about self-care at Bible college than I ever learned anywhere else. It’s a term that doesn’t appear in the Bible, though the concept certainly does.
2006 – looking back on it – was truly a pivotal year in my life. I moved in with my first roommate (the first time I ever shared space with anyone as a contemporary), I met the man who would become my husband, I grew (as many people that age do) in maturity and life experience, and my faith morphed from the experiential into something more systematic and sustainable. It was the year I learned to carve out my own identity, discovered it was OK to not be OK all the time, and that sometimes quiet reflection makes you stronger than just faking it. Maybe I would’ve learned those lessons in other ways had I not attended that small Bible school, but I didn’t learn them elsewhere, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.