To My Friends Beginning their Gordon Journey

Dear Friends,

First, I want to thank you all for the encouragement and inspiration you have been to me this semester. I have been refreshed by your humility, shown through the vulnerability of not pretending that you have it all together. I have been challenged by your sincere desire to fight complacency and to be agents of God’s kingdom wherever he calls you. I have been blessed by your insights into the paradoxes of the Christian life, and I feel honored that you invited me to become a part of your lives this semester.

As I write you this post, I want you to know that I don’t pretend that I have things figured out. I have had many ups and downs in my four years at Gordon, and I am far from a perfect example. With that being said though, I have seen God’s hand in my life throughout my time at Gordon, chiseling away at all the parts of me that don’t resemble him, beginning that long process of becoming like Christ that will only be completed when this life is over. I hope that the things I share will be encouraging to you as you continue to pursue Christ and his kingdom during your time at Gordon and beyond.

Loneliness

As I shared with you in class, fear of loneliness has always been one of my most crippling fears, and as a result of this fear, I have often succumbed to the sin of idolizing relationships. When I first arrived at Gordon, I was terrified that I would not make friends. As a person with a shyer, quiet personality, the prospect of “putting myself out there” clashed with who I was. For a while, I strove to make friends according to the extroverted paradigm, all the while feeling drained, fake, and…still friendless. But in spite of myself, God provided for me, showing me that he is the giver of all good gifts. One rainy day while feeling especially lonely, I “coincidentally” ran into a girl from my Old Testament class while walking down the hill. Long story short, she became one of my closest and most faithful friends here at Gordon. I am convinced that our meeting was not a coincidence, but a gift from God. As I reflect on meeting my friend Christa, it reminds me that it is idolatry to treat relationships as my primary source of strength. So often, I tend to focus on the gift of relationships rather than on the Giver. At the core, my fear of loneliness stems from the desire for intimacy, to be known completely, and this can never be found in humans. I still struggle with the fear of loneliness, but I have learned now that this desire points to a longing for God, not for humans. God will provide for you relationally, but if you are not feeling fulfilled in your friendships, remember that no matter how deep and intimate your relationships are, they will never fill that desire for intimacy that God has placed in the heart of every man and woman.

The Myth of “The Best Four Years of Your Life!”

You’ve probably heard a variation of this myth. I believed it up until this year. “Enjoy your time in college…when you get into the real world, things will be a whole lot harder!” “College was the best four years of my life…what I wouldn’t give to go back…” These statements, given by well-meaning family members and friends, are meant to be encouragements as they send you off to this magical world called college, but in reality, they place unrealistic expectations on this short period of time. As most of you have probably already realized, college can be a great place, but it can also be very difficult. What your family members didn’t tell you when they nostalgically looked back on their college days was that life is life wherever you go, and that in reality, for many people, college is the four hardest years of their lives. I came to Gordon with expectations of fairy tale proportions: college was going to be a perpetual hang-out session with friends, going on late night adventures full of carefree abandon. And it’s true, I have had many late night adventures, but I have also had late night panic attacks and early morning fears. Academics are a job, like anything else, and just because you don’t “go to work” at a nine to five job doesn’t make the stresses you go through as a student any less legitimate. So this is what I have learned: 1. College, like any other part of life, has its ups and downs, pluses and minuses. But God is faithful in every situation we find ourselves in and will work through the hard things to show us who he is and make us more like him. 2. Life does not end after college! (At least I hope notJ) I think that the assertion that college is “the best four years of your life” implies that life after college is boring drudgery. I completely disagree with this. Responsibilities may change with graduation (as I soon will find out), but as I step out into the “real world” as a college grad, I am more excited than ever about fulfilling the calling God has for my life.

The Wonderful Place Called the Counseling Center

I am a huge fan of the counseling center, and it is such an underutilized resource at Gordon! I have been so blessed by the godly wisdom of my counselor as she has helped me process my struggles and give me sound counsel on how to grow through trials. I would highly recommend that if you are going through a struggle, whether big or small, that you sign up to talk with a counselor.

Gordon: Your Overcommitted Life!

I don’t know if they still use this motto on admissions advertisements, but when I was applying, the mantra was “Your Adventurous Life.” Sometimes I think that “Your Overcommitted Life” would be a better description of Gordon, but this probably wouldn’t attract as many students. I have found that at a small, competitive school like Gordon, it is easy to get caught up in the “compare and overcommit game.” Now don’t get me wrong, there are so many amazing opportunities to serve and get involved at our lovely little school on the North Shore, but with the load of activities that the average Gordon students takes on, I am surprised that more students don’t completely burn out. I have found that when I overcommit myself, I am not able to enjoy or do a good job at anything I do. As an example, I was an RA last year and also the leader of the Linguistics club. Now some people might be able to handle both responsibilities well, but I found that although I loved Linguistics, I dreaded planning for club meetings because I didn’t feel I had the time to do a good job at it. This is where not comparing yourself to others comes in. Like I said, some people might be able to take on two responsibilities like this, but I am just not wired this way. After doing one 18 credit semester, I realized that it was hard for me to handle, and since then, I have only done 16 and 14 credit semesters. For me the key is being able to fully invest your heart and time into whatever you do, and this might mean cutting back on a lot of great activities.

God’s Presence versus His Plan

I want to close by sharing with you something Professor Barthold (a philosophy prof.) shared at an event I recently attended. She talked about how it was important to seek God’s presence over his plan. This has always been a struggle for me, a planner who likes control a little too much. In seeking only God’s “plan” for us, in the sense of “what job should I take?” and “what should I do with my life” completely misses the relationship between us and God that is meant to be the centerpiece of the Christian life. I was challenged by Dr. Barthold’s words to reframe my view of the future. The future’s many possibilities and my lack of control in what happens to me somehow doesn’t seem so scary when I know that I can have the constant assurance of God’s presence with me.

So friends, these thoughts only scratch the surface of all that God has been teaching me through these past four years at Gordon, and I am confident that he is working in each of your lives in the same way even if you can’t see it right now. If you have any specific questions you would like me to answer that I didn’t address, please leave me a comment and I will do my best to answer. As you continue on your journey with Christ, be encouraged that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. So wherever you are, joyful or in despair, peaceful or struggling with confusion, know that he who has called you loves you with an everlasting love and is faithful to finish the beautiful work of his grace that he has begun in you.

In Christ,

Hope

603611_598795720132890_1028338503_n

Our Amazing TGC Class

Photo Credit: Janine Sirois

I Am (Not) My Writing

I am my writing. I have been told this is a lie, yet every tap on the keyboard feels like a needle invading my finger veins, draining drops of blood. I am my writing.It is not hard to understand why this statement seems so much more like truth than a lie. Since childhood, I have felt closest to God with a pen in my hand, outpouring my reflections and prayers in a cozy journal that never made me feel unsafe or misunderstood. When I pray out loud, my sloppy words waddle around in distracted circles, but when I write to God, it feels like he takes over my pen and guides my hand to record the truth that gets lost in the wind when I try to speak. For a glorious stretch of time between my first journal entry and the end of high school, I was not my writing. Writing was a joy, an escape to exotic locales and vivid characters. Writing was a gift, a bowl into which I could pour all my messy emotions and observe them to get a proper perspective. But when college began, something changed.

          As I was thrust into the world of discussion-based classes alongside students who seemed to know what they wanted to say and how to say it, I began to feel painfully incompetent. When I tried to contribute in class, my sentences seemed awkward and broken, filled with stops and starts and misused verbs. I would chastise myself for answering a question with “yeah, it’s pretty cool,” when the guy sitting across from me threw around words like “Aristotelian” with a yawn. I had thoughts, I had ideas, but when I opened my mouth, I was as articulate as a caveman, and as I compared myself to my classmates I wondered if I was somehow mentally deficient. Outside the classroom, I felt caricatured by those around me, carelessly squished into a box labeled “quiet, responsible, and a little boring.”  In this new school where I desperately wanted to find friends, I didn’t feel perceived as who I really was, the goofy girl who loved people and adventures and traveling to foreign countries.
          It was with a pen that I found the power to fight back against the one-dimensional identity that I thought was being forced upon me. When my TGC class was assigned a “This I Believe Essay,” I lit up when I realized that the assignment offered me the opportunity to share about my experiences in Russia, which were adventurous and daring and anything but quiet and responsible. I felt immense satisfaction as I passed in the finished product, knowing that whoever read it, even if it was only my professor, would see who I really was.
          But to my delight, it wasn’t only my professor who saw it; I was assigned to have a conference on the paper with my TGC fellow. It was an understatement to say that I had a crush on this senior T.A. I was convinced that he was everything I wanted in a man; with his intense gaze and depth of insights into suffering, love, and the good life*, it wasn’t just three flights of stairs that made my heart race on my way to class. But alas, I was cursed with the freshman-ness and inarticulateness that made me invisible to this intellectual demigod. I trembled in nervousness as I hiked my way up to the third floor of the chapel to meet him, and four years later, his words to me still resonate: “it was one of the most polished essays. It had an enthralling tone! And I know I shouldn’t say this…. But, it was my favorite.” I’m sure my eighteen year old face was glowing as if he had just asked for my hand in marriage.  I am my writing, I thought.
            My sophomore year, I stood before my creative writing class and read a poem that was my masterpiece: it perfectly articulated all that God had been teaching me, and the form and structure reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. I will never forget the bewildered, confused look on my professor’s face after I finished reading. His wide eyes and open mouth seemed to betray that he absolutely hated it but was trying not to let it show. An awkward silence lingered for a few seconds and I took my seat, defeated. I am my writing. This summer, a friend read the same poem and he loved it, expressing amazement and appreciation for my thoughts and the way I had worded them. He “got” my writing, therefore, he “got” me.
My experiences in college have shown me that the belief that I equal my writing is a dangerous equation, a mode of measurement as capricious as New England weather.  Sometimes the words flow effortlessly, but most of the time, I feel like I can’t string together sentences worthy of a third grader. Nonetheless, writing has become a defense weapon, a shield against my fears that I do not measure up. It has become an advertisement for myself, trying to convince others that I am worth their time. And after four years of striving to prove myself through two dimensional black and white pages, I have begun to realize that my idolization of writing has squished me into a smaller box than the one I was trying to escape.
            Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God’s workmanship, a word that comes from the Greek “poiema,” where we get the term “poem.” We are God’s poems, masterfully sculpted works of art whose stories cannot be constrained to something as paltry as a page. To try to wrest the pen from my Creator in a small-minded attempt to make a name for myself blinds me to the breathtaking story he wants to write my life into. So as I graduate, I want to transform this pen, to use it not as a weapon, not as a billboard promoting Hope Johnson, but as a gift, remembering that though writing is a tool God has given me to process this life, it is not life itself. Taking my eyes off myself and fixing them on the author of a much greater story than could fit on a page frees me with truth that I am not my writing. No, I am His writing. 

*love, suffering and the good life are three things Gordon College’s first year seminar really likes to talk about. Alot.

Remembering the Future

Dedicated to my Beloved Grandmother, Marie Ann Tingley, 1935-2013
“She loved.” The past tense is cruelly abrupt. There is no apparent beauty in the transition from the smooth, continuous sounds of the present to the hard stops of the past. “She loves” loses it infinite, unfettered s and replaces it with an uncaring, blunt d. You can’t hold the sound of a d. Try it. It’s impossible.
~
There is a little house tucked away in a grove of pines, far away from the road. Knick-knacks decorate the wood-walled living room, and there is always hard candy in the colorful porcelain box on the coffee table. We don’t go there very often, but when we do, there are usually lots of sweets and cable TV and relatives I’ve never met. We always go there on Christmas Eve, where we open presents around a fake pine tree with jewel toned glass balls. The living room is toasty, and I feel happy and full. The roaring vent at the foot of the plushy carpeted stairs is my favorite; I like to stand on it and feel it puff up my forest green dress like a hot air balloon. I don’t know her yet, not really.
 
~
The past tense is unacceptable. Mom and I walk by her car, and “her tires need air” slows into a little cry at the realization that we have to alter a lifelong grammar. “She is a wonderful- was a wonderful woman.” “She is- was so gentle.”
~
Grammie lives with us now, and I am nineteen. There is a little thrift store down the road, and it is our tradition to go out on weekends when I’m home, “messin’ around” as she calls it. We love to paw through piles of musty garments, determined to find a hidden treasure. When I’m not there, she likes to fill up her bags at Marshalls in thought of me. One time she brought me home a dress that had been marked down to 89 cents. We both know that that is a great victory. Most of my jewelry comes from her. Whenever I get a compliment on my black and white pearl necklace or on my chunky jeweled pendant, I proudly respond that my Grammie Tingley gave it to me. She has an eye for pretty things.
She complains about getting unwanted attention when we go out on the town. “Do you have guys starin’ at you all the time?” I smile and shake my head. “Well, I’ve got guys starin’ at me all the time! Golly! It’s the red hair…” She feigns annoyance, but I can see past it to the mischief in her light green eyes. When she is at home, in the little in-law apartment connected to our guest room, she plays with her big Persian cat, Caesar. “He’s just an old love bug,” she likes to repeat as she strokes her faithful pet of fifteen years. And when he jumps on the table or lets out the occasional snarl, the loving look remains on her face. “You little donkey!” she says as she wags her finger. In the summer, she sits with us on the deck and tells the story of how her mother had to hide the grapefruits from her father when she was a little girl. He loved grapefruits, and he always ate them up right away. It drove her mother crazy.
 
~
“Marie, who was a devoted wife, mother, grandmother and friend, will be remembered for her love of gardening, her sparkling green eyes, her flowing red hair and her gentle friendliness. She had a knack for making friends wherever she went. She loved with a generosity that is rare, lavishing gifts, time and kindness on her family and friends without a thought of receiving anything in return. Marie brought beauty and life wherever she went, and her quiet love will never be forgotten by the many people whose lives she touched.”
 The obituary seems obsessed with persuading me that the present reality doesn’t line up with the present tense. The thing is, I wrote part of the obituary, but my own words still haven’t convinced me that my grandmother needs to be shoved into an ending that she is not yet ready for herself.
 
~
It is the February of my senior year, and Grammie has just gotten home from three months of cancer treatment. She still puts on vintage jewelry and a coat of red lipstick every morning, even though she is too weak to hang up the dozen dresses she bought in Florida. We talk about graduation, about how nice of a day we hope it will be, about how her arm hurts.
“This stuff, yuck!” She motions towards the potassium powder drink she is reluctantly sipping. “Your mother says I have to drink this stuff to get better, but yuck!” She makes a face. I laugh softly, and I believe her with all my heart.
She lets me go through her closet and I find a flowy, golden dress that is perfect for Gordon Globes. “Doesn’t it just look beautiful on her,” she says to Mom, then reminds us that her arm hurts. Grammie sits on her bed with me as I splay her antique jewelry on the coverlet, and I can’t choose between pearls and a golden pendant. “Why don’t you just wear both?” She suggests. I look in the mirror and see that she’s right.  
Her arm hurts, and we’ve worn her out, and we pack up the jewelry. I hug her goodnight and I am shocked by her sudden frailness. Early Monday morning I go over to her place and give her a quick goodbye. “I love you Grammie. I’ll see you later.” She smiles softly, and I am sure that later will be soon.
~

The past tense is harsh in its reality, but hope tells me that it is malleable, somehow temporary. Hope urges me to press an ear to the wall and eagerly eavesdrop, waiting for the moment when а new language will flood the senses with an understanding that outshouts the tyranny of time. For now, the phantom pains of losing her strike at the most unexpected moments, in the most unexpected ways, but the understanding that I don’t truly understand gives me a gentle peace. So I will believe that “she loved” can turn to “she loves,” and then finally, to a heavenly form that I can’t yet articulate, but will someday roll off my lips with ease.

For Whom the Bell Doesn’t Toll

This piece was published in the spring 2013 issue of the Vox Populi, a publication of Gordon College.

     A brassy peal emanates from the corner of campus, spreading its eerie power in a shockwave throughout Gordon’s domain. For just a second, the campus stops. Chemistry majors look up from their lab work, soccer players on the quad turn their heads, studiers in Jenks lose their place in Our Father Abraham.  Some sigh, some crack a cynical joke, and some shrug their shoulders. Despite our individual reactions, for just a moment, we are united. Gordon is rich with legend, and few Scots haven’t claimed the tales of the car at the bottom of Gull pond or of Teddy Roosevelt’s horse buried under the quad as part of their heritage. The mysterious lore surrounding Gordon’s history certainly plays a role in shaping our identity as students here, but nothing seems to compare to the metal monument that lounges proudly in its gazebo throne, observing passersby under its sway. The cultural icon that has the power to bring us together for better or for worse is that wonderful, terrible old bell*.
Bell
 
      We see its power in conversations, humming at a constant din throughout the four years, first starting off wistfully, hopefully, then morphing gradually into a senior cynicism or a lifeless joke. The bell makes regular cameos at Gordon Globes, providing a source of comic catharsis for those who find themselves bemoaning the infamous Gordon ratio or the rabid desperation of Gordon girls. The bell is occasionally rung by the reckless non-respecter of its sacred power, but the rest of us know that only under one circumstance may you ring it and leave unscathed.
 
      The bell’s renown reflects the fact that Christian colleges, and Christian culture in general, is infamous for framing marriage as the cardinal goal of life. Our generation is known for pushing back against the pressure to marry young, but still, the cultural constructs of American Christianity loom over Gordon culture, encouraging unhealthy interaction between the sexes. Many people I have talked to are familiar with the awkward apprehensiveness of male-female interactions at Gordon. The vicious cycle goes like this: Christian girls have a reputation for singling guys out as possible husband material; thus, guys fear that too much friendliness on their part could be mistaken as a marriage proposal. Assuming that Gordon men hold this view of them, many women also mete out their friendliness and smiles in controlled doses for fear that they will project a message of desperation. I have seen and experienced the frustrating awkwardness of this cycle again and again, and I have also seen a striking contrast in my two times studying abroad, where I was able to seamlessly befriend members of the opposite sex without fearing that they would think my attentions were a desperate plea for a ring.
 
      Not only is the emphasis on marrying young damaging to relationships now, but it sets us up for disappointment when we actually marry. With the best of intentions, Christian culture spreads the propaganda that marriage is the answer to our problems and the beginning of our lives. As such, marriage is one of the prime idols of single Christians everywhere, an antidote to loneliness and a license for guilt-free sex. And like all idols, it doesn’t deliver what it promises.  The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 60% of couples who marry between the ages of 20 and 25 decide to divorce, 10% more than the national average. This is not to say that there should be a ban on young marriage, but it does illustrate that at least 60% of young people tying the knot discover that marriage is not the cure-all that they had envisioned.
 
      But to be fair, perhaps the lore of the bell is casting a shadow of untruth on the nature of Gordon students. Although perceptions about the opposite sex’s intentions do seem to inhibit cross-gender friendships, the quest for a ring does not define the majority of the students I know. I do not see girls paralyzed by fear that they won’t find “the one” at Gordon. I do not see lazy young men, too indifferent to commit. No, I see men and women pursuing their God-given callings with direction and confidence. I see students investing in lives in the city of Lynn, I see RAs committed to loving their floors, I see blossoming mentorships between faculty and students. In short, I see people invested in deep relationships whether or not they lead to the altar.  
      I admit that when I first heard the legend of the bell, I hoped that one day I would join the ranks of ringers. But now that four years have gone by without anything resembling that type of relationship, I can say with confidence that I have no regrets. Statistics say that for most of us, marriage will eventually come. But regardless of that fact, there is no use in spending four years chasing a fantasy when the opportunity for deep relationships is at its peak. So love the legend of the bell. Laugh, roll your eyes and pass on its magic to the classes to come. Just don’t let it take a toll on your perspective.
 
*The bell on Gordon College’s campus is only to be rung by couples who have just gotten engaged. Lore has it that if you ring it under any other circumstances, you will have 7 years of bad luck, or worse, 7 more years of singleness…