“Getting to where we need to go often means finding a new language for where we’ve been.” Belden C. Lane, Backpacking with the Saints
I woke up to the sounds of the rocky river, crawled out of my sleeping bag, across the tent, quietly unzipped the door flap so as not to wake my brothers. It was the summer before my 10th birthday. I poked my feet out, slid my toes into my damp shoes, and worked my way out of the tent into the cool stillness of the morning. Our campsite sat along the Housatonic River in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. My three brothers and I spent hours walking the river, our sneakers soaked, shins peppered with bruised badges of our adventures. I don’t remember tracking time, other than when our bodies told us it was time to eat and we had to find our way back. We spent two weeks every summer camping in these untamed wild places. I felt at home among the trees, rivers and rocks and trails. My language of God was rooted in these adventures in the woods, getting lost in space and time and finding my way back again.
The world beyond the wild was much more complicated to navigate. So I paid close attention and learned how to fit in.
My mom was married at 18. She had my brother, and then me a year later and became a single mom at the age of 23. I don’t remember much about my father as we didn’t see him often after they divorced. (It was not until my twenties that I would see him again, and only two times before he died of a drug overdose.) My mom remarried when I was 8 and I became a sister to two more brothers. My stepfather, a firefighter and electrician was loving, hardworking and strict. I loved him, this guy who had chosen to be my dad. I also feared his anger and disappointment. I learned how to build things and fix things and work with my hands. And I learned to love the outdoors. We spent hours working but mostly playing in the back field and the Town Forest that bordered our yard.
My first formal understanding of God began at Walpole United Methodist Church, the white steepled church in our town center, walking distance from our house. I sang in the choir and attended Sunday School. Every year we had a church fair with ring toss games and strawberry shortcake. I would not have used the word faith to describe my understanding of God in that place. Words like community, picnics, scratchy choir robes, and hard pews come to top of mind. God was more of a distant observer, a fair but strict judge.
By middle school, my mom and I began attending a more evangelical church. Those years were filled with youth retreats, family camp, Bible quiz team, Sunday suppers in the basement. We were immediately welcomed into this community. It was a ‘come as you are’ kind of place. On my first retreat, we piled into an old 10 passenger van and drove to New Hampshire, back to my beloved woods. I gave my life to Christ that weekend. When I returned home, I told my parents I was “born again.” I excelled in church, taught Sunday School and led my youth group. I felt a part of something bigger than myself. Meanwhile, my family struggled. My brother Dan followed my first father’s footsteps using alcohol and drugs to cope with his own wild heart. Things got messier as my step-brothers stopped talking to our dad. All of this reinforced a desire to be the good girl, which came pretty naturally to a pleaser and conflict avoider. But my best efforts couldn’t fix my family. My dad came in from the barn one afternoon with a softness I rarely, if ever, saw on his face. He said, “Keri, I told God I couldn’t do it alone anymore.” That was it. That was his prayer – in the field – by the barn. God was present.
With no real idea where I wanted to go after high school, I found my way to Calvin College, a Christian Reformed school in Michigan. It checked three important boxes for me. I could play Field Hockey. It was a flight’s distance from home. I would meet Christian guys. I took religion class and went to chapel but what really stuck with me through those years was my involvement with an organization called Young Life. I felt like I had found my people – a community of leaders spending time with high school students and a ministry that focused on relationships over rules. It seemed pure in its approach to share the Gospel in a way that was lived out loud. And I chose to go on YL staff out of college as a “church partner”. At a new staff retreat, a guy spilled my milk on my tray and I guess I found middle school humor endearing because I married him.
Relationship and community. Would I call them the fruits of my faith during the early season of my life? Or were they the foundations… I’m not sure which. And I am not sure it matters. Either way, the language felt true.
The transition from youth to adult certainly transitioned my faith as well. From Michigan, we moved to Boston and then to Amsterdam with our two-year- old son, Sam during 9/11. We had our son, Jack the year we returned, and moved shortly after to Connecticut, then New Jersey and finally to Texas where we have been for 8 years. Through those years, we sat side by side with Methodists, Presbyterians, Christian Reformed, Reformed (I discovered there’s a difference:), Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians… each with their own doctrines, practices, cultural context, rhythms and flow.
Our last move to the Great state of Texas, I could describe in many ways. Great is not one of the words I would use. Moving to Amsterdam was, in many ways, easier than Texas. Our first years were filled with the newness and getting connected and I had become pretty good at it. Finding a church became much more challenging. We had always looked for a community, neighborhood church where we knew other families. Out of curiosity, we tried the Mega church with the amusement theme park for the kids and the prize station. We spent time at two other churches. The Baptist one spoke often of works and felt short on Grace. The Methodist church was grace filled and fun even if a bit shallow, maybe in an attempt to not offend anyone. I didn’t like feeling like a church shopper. And maybe it wasn’t the churches but me, us? Everyone’s first question in Texas, is “Where do you go to church?” It would have been an intrusive question in the Northeast but here it was assumed. When we tried to grow a Young Life program here, we heard whispers of it being “Christian Lite.” It never got off the ground.
I can’t separate my evolving faith from politics as much as I would like to. Maybe it was that it just revealed something I had not seen. I’ve heard the word apocalypse used recently. When I look back at the Greek roots, meaning to “uncover or reveal,” it sounds about right. Even before the 2016 election, I was watching an Us and Them tribalism develop and I did not like what I was seeing, especially from my Christian brothers and sisters. We attended church less and less until I couldn’t see the point in making our teens go. And so, I went on my own journey.
I put down my favorite historical fiction novels, and began to pick up mostly women writers on faith and justice. I devoured their stories and applauded their voices, and began to find my own. I started listening to podcasts, interestingly by mostly men at that time. They introduced me to theologians, & philosophers, thinkers and mystics. I found all of my questions and doubts were echoed and no answers were given, just more questions. And I started to feel like I could breathe again. I was slowly letting go of old rigid certainties and venturing into the divine mystery of God. I found that this journey to the edges of my faith felt more real and intimate than the one I was leaving behind.
Exploring new faith trails and embodied practices has been a renewing and invigorating experience. I have gone back to my wild places, the deep woods of my faith and in some ways returned to the curiosity of my child self. Maybe I am being born again, again? I am untethering weighty beliefs and releasing them downriver. I am wading through thickets and branches, clearing paths. I am exploring dark caverns of doubt and finding gems of hope. I am digging at the roots of teachings, and weeding out language that was choking new growth. I am rediscovering God in God’s playground. The journey has brought me back home to the Wild where wonder and curiosity are my guides.
– Kerin Beauchamp