Reflecting on a Life, Missions, and Faith

throwbackthursdaybuttonThis week’s Throwback Thursday topic is summer vacation. My family didn’t go the traditional “summer vacation” route, but we did have some traditions. The one thing I could count on every summer since I was 11 was our church mission trip to Tuba City, Arizona in the Navajo Nation.

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We would spend a week each summer in Tuba City with other Youth Groups from churches near ours, offering our service to the Navajo people – everything from supplying and installing a much-needed swamp cooler to cleaning up the cemeteries they culturally could not keep clean themselves.

When I was younger, these trips would reinforce the Christianity I was raised to follow. I saw the good we were doing and felt good about myself. I can’t tell you how often I gave myself a mental pat on the back and told myself how selfless and great I obviously was. I believed the only way the Navajo people could improve their lives was through finding Jesus and I was going to be the one to help them do it.

The missionaries living in Tuba City and leading the work are, to this day, some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met – Paul and Ann Ghee. Paul was a bit of a rough diamond. His skin was hard and tanned from years spent in the sun, working hard, and dedicating himself to who he was working with. He believed in his convictions and would never give up on achieving the very best for those around him. He could inspire a group of wayward teens to work hard for nothing more than a spiritual reward. And he was a total softy – a real teddy bear.

For the past number of years, Paul had been in poor health and just recently passed away.

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Everyone has someone in their life who is indestructible – infinite. When they fall ill, you tell yourself it’s a fluke and they’ll obviously defeat whatever plagues them. When they get better, you smile knowingly to yourself saying, “I knew it was going to be fine.” But when the worst comes and they’re gone, the world feels hollow somehow. Even if you haven’t spoken to that person in years. You feel their loss somewhere deep inside that you can’t quite place.

Paul’s death left me feeling empty – like something was inextricably missing.

When we were in elementary and middle school, my dad would allow us to build a small savings account with him that he would contribute to based on our grades. One year, I worked hard to get the best grades so I could save up enough money to donate to the work Paul and Ann were doing. I earned just over $100 that year (a huge amount for a 13 year old), had my dad write a check, and handed it to Paul myself. I explained how I earned the money and why I wanted him to have it.

I’ll never forget the tears in Paul’s eyes as he took the check from my hand, took a breath to steady his emotions, and said he almost didn’t even want to cash the check but frame it as a reminder of the honest giving nature of children.

I didn’t understand what he meant, so I told him in a serious voice that he should cash the check because I wanted him to use the money. He smiled, got down to a knee, and gave me a huge hug.

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When I was 12, I asked my dad to baptize me while we were on our mission trip that summer. My faith was never stronger (and never would be again). For the following few years, I was still a believer in Jesus, God, and being evangelical. But it wasn’t quite with the same gusto that inspired me to be baptized.

When I was 15, I became interested in the concept of Wicca and started doing some research into various religions in my free time. I was curious about what caused different people to believe different things.

I learned that all the major religions come down to the same moral concept – don’t be a dick.

wil wheaton dont be a dick

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I started questioning the importance of believing in the specifics. Most particularly, I wondered about Jesus and God. There is enough historical and scientific evidence concluding that Jesus was indeed a real living, breathing human. He was an awesome dude. He did a lot of great things for the people around him and inspired people to be better people. And he was crucified by the Romans.

But was he the Son of God? Did he really rise from the dead? I’m not so sure about that.

With more time, thought, and research, I came to a conclusion – I was glad to be raised Christian because I had learned wonderful morals, but I no longer believed that it was right for me. To be frank, no religion is right for me. I believe there is a higher power of some sort, but I’m more likely to think of it as a collective consciousness than an omnipotent being. But when it comes down to it, I really don’t think about it that much in general. It’s just there.

Go with your heart

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So I lost my faith in Christianity, but still believed in the good we were doing down in Tuba City as a group. I continued to attend church with my family and never told them of my change of heart out of fear. I continued to travel to Tuba City every summer on the mission trip, but carefully avoided conversations in which I would have to talk about faith. I didn’t want to lie, but I also didn’t want to bring it up myself.

I felt like a fraud.

Like I was attending church and going on mission trips under the guise of a religious teen, but harbored ill-feelings toward the concept of evangelism and had an overall lack of faith. I was still a good person, but I couldn’t be honest with many of the people around me.

The summer I graduated from high school, I decided to spend a full month in Tuba City with Paul and Ann instead of the typical single week visit. I didn’t know the next time I’d get to go and wasn’t sure I wanted to. I loved the trips. I loved the work. But I hated feeling like I couldn’t be myself.

That summer, 8 years ago, was the last time I saw Paul Ghee. He told me his thoughts on watching me grow up and how proud he was of who I had become. We reminisced on the amazing amount of change in Tuba City since I first started volunteering. He answered my questions about how I might adjust to college life and how my independence would affect my day-to-day experiences.

And he helped me feel more confident in who I was.

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We didn’t discuss religion. We didn’t talk about Jesus or God. But his confidence in me and his belief in my ability to make the right decisions did wonders for me.

Yet I was still terrified that he would be disappointed in me if he knew I was no longer religious. So years later, when Paul found his way to the world of Facebook, I did not add him as a friend.

I was afraid he would feel like he had been mistaken in his trust in me. I knew I still lived a good life and did everything in my power to be a good person, but what would he think when I saw my clearly non-religious posts?

I never did get to find out and I never will.

But that’s part of life, isn’t it? I knew an amazing man who lived his life with purpose and absolute confidence that he was doing good in the world. And he certainly was. He inspired countless people over the years to be their best. So what would he think of who I am today?

I think he would be proud of me for staying true to my heart, following my dreams, and constantly working to be the best person I can be.

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Comments

  1. Its always find it difficult when you meet someone of any faith who is a really wonderful person and SUPER excited to share their interpretation of the meaning of life with you…and you know that you just wont agree. It´s like your letting them down in a way. I was once approached by a man on a bus who wanted to talk to me about jesus. In the end I just agreed that jesus was an all round spiffy dude because I didn´t want to spoil this mans uncontrollable happiness.

    I try to be understanding, but I am also non religious…I love science and find physics more awe inspiring then any ´parental figure´ in the sky. I suppose I am a fanatic in my own way too..a science fanatic!

    • I know exactly what you mean, Celeste! I’ve done much the same sort of thing many times over the years. I love to see people being positive and working hard to be good people, so I’m not going to judge what leads to that behavior. I just don’t want them telling me how I should be positive and what should inspire me to be a good person. Haha.

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