June 1, 2023
A Note from Deborah Mitchell
It’s Been There All Along, Waiting for You
What does it mean to “grow”? What does it mean to grow as a Christian? To grow as a human being?
In many ways, the idea of “growth” has been central to how I’ve tried to understand and interact with the world throughout my life.
When I was a little girl, very early on I gravitated toward the idea of growth as mastery, as achievement. I adored school, and more than anything I loved being curious, asking questions, reading, gaining knowledge, learning more and more about all kinds of topics and domains.
I was the nerdy child who, when there was nothing else to read for entertainment, would gladly choose a random volume from the encyclopedia and start consuming it page by page for fun. I loved striving for knowledge and mastery in whatever drew my attention, including learning to be a musician.
I loved competing, to prove (mostly to myself) that indeed, I was growing! I was achieving! Look Ma, I’m Flyin’!
At some point as a little girl I carried this same mindset over to my involvement with Sunday School and church, at the Southern Baptist church my family attended every Sunday. I was nine years old when I figured out that the next thing I needed to do, to show that I was growing in this area of my life, was to “accept Jesus as my personal savior,” go forward to the front of the church during the altar call at the end of a Sunday worship service, and then be baptized by immersion to signify that indeed, I was now a Christian and ready to really dig in and “grow in the Christian faith.”
Like in everything else, at church I studied and memorized whatever I was assigned. I was killer in competing at “sword drills,” which were Bible drill competitions where an adult would yell out an obscure verse and kids would compete to see who could be the first to look it up accurately.
I worked really hard to be “the best little Christian” while continuing to focus on achievement in school and music. By the time I graduated from high school, I had a music scholarship to attend college and had been voted “Most Talented” in my senior class.
The yearbook photographer thought it would be funny to photograph each senior superlative in an ironic pose, so my picture was of me playing a saw with a violin bow. Our “Most Likely to Succeed” classmate was photographed shoveling coal in the high school’s boiler room!
But by the end of my teens, a big shift came. In my professional life, I decided to change my career focus from music to business. This was big for me.
In my church life, an even more fundamental, life-changing shift occurred. I found that I couldn’t just accept the Bible as an inerrant rule book anymore, and I rejected the patriarchal conclusions that were being taught by men at church as Truth.
Most of all, I chafed at not being able to ask questions about those Bible texts or those men’s conclusions. And by my 20s I left the church. To use a phrase that’s become popular these days, I became (and am) an “exvangelical.”
I didn’t leave God, but I definitely left the church.
After shifting my career focus, I chose to study for an advanced degree in business. Those years were ALL about growth, in terms of acquiring but also creating new knowledge. When the day finally came and I earned my degree, the president of the university shook my hand as she handed me my diploma, looked me in the eye, and said “Welcome to the Ancient and Honorable Community of Scholars.”
I will never forget that moment. It seemed like I had finally reached the mountaintop. Little did I know at the time, “community” would come to mean something very different to me.
But I knew I still had a very long way to go to become a master teacher and researcher. I spent many professional years focused on further developing expertise and achieving in these areas as well as starting my own business.
Along the way, I also somehow knew that there was a huge part of me that was NOT growing, that was, if anything, very underdeveloped, crying out to be included in considering “growth.” I tried to ignore that feeling, or tried to address it with all kinds of “growth” solutions like taking classes, going into therapy, and so on. Those activities were helpful, and I still recommend them.
Self-Awareness & Self-Acceptance
But while I was attempting to address that feeling of inadequacy, of not being whole, part of me was still dying to scream out, “Deb, life is not about self-improvement; it’s not about mastery, and it’s not about achievement, even in service to others. It is about self-awareness, self-acceptance, and sharing your real self in community, in service with others as part of expressing God’s love.”
In the last year, that huge part of me that had been walled off, kept silent, has finally been given the space and encouragement to speak. I have finally learned what growth really means, and what life is really about!
The catalyst has been me coming back to church, literally.
Coming Back to Church
It has been through joining HUMC with my family, and in particular, through participating in Deeper Waters, the program led by HUMC for those looking to connect with the divine, the heart, and one’s whole self in community with others. (The photo above is the day my family joined HUMC, surrounded by other new members as well as HUMC members ready to walk with us on this journey in community!)
HUMC is definitely a place that encourages us all to ask questions and wrestle with uncertainty, as well as lift each other up. Deeper Waters is an experience that has transformed me in ways that individual study, Outward Bound experiences, life experiences in the professional realm, therapy, and a host of other interventions have never come close to approximating. (Below is the Deeper Waters 2 cohort at our Fall 2022 retreat.)
Recently I had an experience in my professional life where I needed to become involved in a situation full of conflict. For the first time, and after nearly a year of experiencing Deeper Waters as well as HUMC more broadly, I realized that my thinking has now truly shifted, in a much more life-affirming, 360-degree, wholehearted way than collecting achievements and developing mastery ever accomplished. Based on the transformation I’ve already experienced in this last year through my involvement with HUMC and Deeper Waters, I see the world differently now, and I respond to conflict or other challenges as opportunities for true growth — coming home to oneself and in community with others.
I have real encouragement for anyone who feels like there is something missing, that there is more than “this” in our routine lives. For anyone who fears that if they reach the end of life and don’t discover or experience it, they will have missed out on the most important aspect of life: fear not.
There All Along
You can discover it. You can experience it. It’s been there all along, waiting for you.
And in community, with others at HUMC and through HUMC’s various opportunities for true growth, you will be transformed.
If a nerd like me, who chased one-sided “growth” throughout her life, can be transformed in the “third Third” of life through the discovery of what growth really means, then I believe it is there for us all. This kind of transformation is mysterious, but it’s very real. And it’s available to all, just like, and as part of, God’s wonderful grace.