I guessed she was in her fifties, but I’m hopelessly American and have no way of judging the years in the face of a Laotian refugee grandma. She was telling me her story, her testimony, conducted through a translator. She would tell me about her life, and I would write the story in a book we were doing, stories of Laotian Christians.
She had come to the moment when she was crossing the Mekong. I had heard enough Laotian stories to know that most of these folks never forgot the time they crossed the river. In fact, I’d decided to title the book Crossing Over because of the might and centrality of that experience, and its metaphoric quality — the Jordan, baptism, a new life in Christ.
She’d crossed alone, she told me, kids in tow in a dinghy that my imagination fashioned to be little more than a balsam banana peel. She spread her arms to show me how long and wide. With this tube full of kids, she waded across, frightened nearly to death to hear the rattle of gunfire. She and her family would have been little more than target practice.
It was late and dark at some unremarkable span of the Mekong, and she was in water sometimes chest-deep. “I prayed and prayed and prayed,” she told me through the translator, anguish written all over her face.
She made it. They all did.
Respectfully, I then asked her who was she praying to because I couldn’t help wondering who might have been listening. Did Christ deliver her and her family, even if the woman praying was Buddhist and didn’t even know Jesus’s name?
Those kinds of questions form inside of me because of my identity– difficult questions that nonetheless make me me.
Or this story—another.
I’d known him for years, as reverential a man as I could imagine in God’s wondrous world. He knew the grasses around him, felt the touch of seasons as deeply as anyone I knew. The house he built with his own hands was hung with woodcuts from Psalms, some in English, some in his beloved Frisian.
He was brought up in my church and educated in our schools, but during the Great Depression he surrounded himself with politics and ideals of the time and shed the orthodoxy he once idolized in his God-fearing mother.
Was he a Christian? I don’t think he’d have called himself that. In the churches I’ve attended throughout my life he would have had significant trouble professing faith, and the couple dozen novels he wrote suggest no clear answers.
But as he was dying, his belabored breathing prompted his nurse to ask him politely if she could pray with him. He said yes, please.
I felt deeply blessed when that nurse told me the story of that prayer.
My questions about my old novelist friend’s eternal destiny are created, I think, by my identity. I care about such things because of who I am.
Here’s one more story, totally different.
When my darling granddaughter was a third grader in the local Christian school, we were on Main Street for the annual Memorial Day parade when she suddenly stood and faced the opposite direction, going out of her way not to watch the high school band.
“What’s the deal, sweetheart?” I asked her.
“They don’t know Jesus,” she said.
What she wouldn’t watch was the kids from the public school.
It’s impossible for me to imagine any adult ever teaching her that kids down the block who walk to the public school are pagans, but somehow she picked up an us vs. them paradigm I recognized, because once upon a time I’m sure I had it, too. Still do, in fact, although it’s greatly loosened. Still, it’s not difficult for me to become a sheep-and-goats man, because, for better or for worse, making judgments is part and parcel of my identity. It’s what I do, part of who I am.
“What does it mean to be a Christian writer?” For most of my academic life I attempted answers to the foremost question the Board of Trustees required forty years ago when I interviewed for a job. “Go ahead and practice some discernment for us, Mr. Schaap. Tell us, please, what’s good and what isn’t. Show us good critical thinking.”
I am thankful for an education that imparted the importance of discernment. I really am. I spent most of my life in Christian education, a commitment I have never second-guessed, even though sometimes the judgments felt almost eternal in nature.
Maybe that’s why today, a lifetime later, I practice this pervasive element of my identity – judgments – with far less frequency.Does God Almighty answer the fervent supplication of a nominal Buddhist with her kids in tow as she wades through the Mekong?
I say yes, He does.
Will I meet my novelist friend again someday? I believe I will.
Do those answers make me a universalist, or are they simply a sign of sanctification’s long haul in this sinful soul? Go ahead— think critically. Discernment is part of your identity, too. Make your judgments.
What I know is I take great comfort from what he tells us in his Word, that we’re his handiwork, every one of us, his workmanship. I am and you are no more or less than what he does. And this I know – he’s still working in me.
That’s my identity.