catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 2 :: 2005.01.28 — 2005.02.10


My spiritual heritage

I’ve always been someone in awe of great teachers and great leaders; I was impressed by how they seemed to have all the right answers. I’ve never had the attention to detail to be able to lecture on church history or Biblical studies. My own leadership style, now that I’ve been forced to develop one, has more to do with asking the right questions.

Our small group was recently confronted with Genesis 10 in our church-wide trek through the Bible one chapter at a time. Out of all the exciting things in Genesis, this chapter is essentially a genealogy of Noah’s descendants. I was afraid it would end up a rather dull discussion, but instead it turned into one of our best meetings. Somehow I was prompted to ask a question about the text that I had never even answered for myself: “What is your family heritage? And what is your spiritual heritage?” If it was so important for the Jewish people to include genealogies like this one, then it must have been important to God that we recognize and honor our spiritual and familial forebears.

I had posed the question as two separate pieces, figuring we’d talk about our ethnicity first and spirituality second, but was surprised to find that the two were intertwined more than I’d figured. Both my mother and father did not grow up as Christians, and on my father’s side the four brothers chose Mormonism, atheism, Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity. I had thought that very little was passed on to me from that lineage. But the more I spoke, the more apparent it became that I’d come from a long line of people who want to decide things for themselves, who go their own way. Going back to the family split when the majority of the Lansinghs dropped the “h” from their name (that half founded the capitol city of Lansing, Michigan), my side has always been kind of stubborn and willful. Most of my family members on both sides have been big travelers and pioneers, including some of the first Mormons to trek out to Utah. I have cousins of several nationalities around the world, and very few of us live near each other. The more I talked about how we make our own way in the world, the more I could see that my spiritual journey indeed pulls from that heritage. My spiritual life has been marked by seeking, traveling, moving forward.

It wasn’t always so. I grew up a kind of goody-two-shoes whose spiritual life began and ended with fulfilling whatever obligations my parents and teachers put before me. But when I was in high school, my brother Greg went to Wheaton College. When he came home for holidays, we would have all-night discussions about life, faith, politics, society, art—everything. They were my college dorm-room discussions that ended up surpassing any of the ones I had when I actually made it to college. I suppose Greg was always like that to me; I remember we would sing hymns together under a tree while one of us played the kazoo. Faith to him was never an obligation but a privilege, and his attitude of meeting God on one’s own and wrestling for oneself what living as Christ really means—that shaped me more than I’ll ever really know. He has been a primary branch in my spiritual family tree.

The second branch has been (and continues to be) my wife, Amanda. One of my greatest questions about Christianity has always been: Does it really make a difference? Whenever I looked at the church I saw such hypocrisy, particularly when it came to relationships. Being a Christian seemed to have more to do with saying the right things than in truly sacrificing oneself for one’s spouse. There seemed to be all the same games and power struggles in my dating relationships as there were for the rest of the world. I began to wonder if Christ’s words to love our enemies, to consider others’ needs more important than our own, were really possible if we couldn’t even get along with the one we supposedly love the most. What Amanda showed me is that it is possible to surrender a relationship completely to Jesus. We have given up our own pride and what we think we are entitled to and look for ways to develop and enhance ourselves spiritually, as a team. It’s in the mundane things—in my taking care of the cooking and her the laundry, for instance—that free us up to concentrate on what matters, that give us time to write and think. More than anything, it’s agreeing on what the important things are in life, through Jesus, that makes the typical fuel of conflicts evaporate. I would have never thought such a thing possible before we met.

I suppose it’s impossible to catalog one’s entire spiritual heritage—every person we’ve encountered, every author we’ve read, every service we’ve attended has probably had some effect on our heart. But as I spoke, I found I limited the scope to those people who have had a day-in and day-out mentorship relationship with me, who have invested their time and nurturance in me. If the point of a spiritual heritage is not simply to give thanks to God but see it as a model of passing on your faith to others, then it seems there is something there to learn from. The third branch in my tree would be Steve Elzinga, my boss of seven years at the Bible League. When I came aboard I was doing strictly graphic design, but over the years he allowed me to do much of the marketing, writing, and conceptualizing for our products. This was all stuff that I was fairly comfortable with as a communications major in college. But the last stage he pushed me toward was to use the products. He wanted me to come out from behind the computer and be active in helping other people with their spiritual walks. This is something I resisted desperately. Like I said, I always imagined a leader as someone with all the answers, and as long as I was behind the desk and had all the reference materials I needed, I could handle providing leadership materials. But I did not want to do it. It was not in my job description, I told myself.

Every week, year after year, Steve chipped away at my defenses. He asked us to use our Scripture-a-day planners, and I told myself I was too disorganized. He asked us to memorize Bible verses together, and I told myself that was too legalistic. He asked me to do interview stories of average people making a difference with our products, but I told myself I was too introverted to be one of them. He tried rewarding, peer-pressuring, modeling, cajoling, arguing, nudging, and everything in between, and in the end what won out was just his sheer persistence. I came to a point where I realized that helping others grow as Christians was not an act of hubris, of thinking I was good enough to be in charge—but an act of faith, of being willing to trust that God could somehow enter the spaces of our conversations and do His work there. Chances are that I would learn as much as those I was supposedly teaching. The point was not imparting information but believing that God is truly among us when two or three gather in his name—to create spaces for catalyst.

After the meeting, I heard from several people how much they enjoyed the conversation—which wasn’t actually much of a conversation, but a group of people connecting the dots between the seemingly random moments of their past and the seemingly dry history of their families and discovering that there is a story to be found there, a story that tells us who we are and where we are going. I believe we were finding out something that night that the Israelites were keen not to forget—that we each have a rich history with God, a story that stretches back generation after generation.

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