I’m going to devote this post to the positives of my residential program experience. I feel I’ve been somewhat hard on the program in previous posts, not wanting to give a sugar-coated Candy Land picture of it, so I’d like to balance that out by just kicking back and singing its praises unreservedly for a little while. (After this, I promise I’ll shut up about the program. At least until I start reviewing Tanya Erzen’s Straight to Jesus, when I’m sure I won’t be able to resist comparing my program to New Hope, the program she studied.)
The title of this post comes from a recent post by exexgay Peterson Toscano commenting on his Love In Action residential program experience. Responding to Love In Action / Refuge‘s suggestion that forcing a child to attend a residential program really isn’t all that different from making a child go to church, he offers the following “SAT-style” analogy:
Church attendance is to participanting in an LIA/R program
Visiting an army recruiter’s office is to going to war in Iraq with no body armor.
One thing I find interesting about reading pro-gay/exexgay stories is how much we agree on. I didn’t attend the same program Peterson did, but both programs seem to have been brutally powerful experiences. I sympathize with the “going to Iraq without body armor” analogy completely.
Going to a program meant rendering myself extremely vulnerable. It meant submitting myself to people and to the program. It was drastic, radical, and invasive. It meant being stripped of my rationalizations and defenses and self-deceptive attempts to hang onto my old self and my old life. Before I entered the program my old self and my new self were deadlocked in their battle over my heart. Entering the program was like bringing in massive reinforcements for the new self. The old self proceeded to get her butt kicked something awful, and she did not like it one bit.
So yeah, it was painful. But from my perspective, at least, it was a very good thing. Anyway, here are some of the positives of my residential program experience:
1. I learned a lot about the practice of Christian faith.
The program offered me opportunity and encouragement to work on the practical experience of my Christian faith. I’m one of those people who likes to focus on the “head” aspect of things…but this experience took things to a “life” level. I learned about prayer of various sorts. I learned about different devotional methods of Scripture study. I learned about Christian meditation. I learned about fasting. I learned about solitude. I learned the value of memorizing Scripture so that one could have it available to dwell on during idle moments or labor that didn’t require thought.
Through that last practice, the Bible came alive for me more vibrantly than I ever could have imagined. There is nothing quite like picking tomatoes in the field while shouting aloud Paul’s letter to the Philippians or the Sermon on the Mount to your fellow workers, or like hiking up to a nearby summit in the early morning dark to greet the sunrise with psalms. The Word of God became so woven into the fabric of my life that my thinking, my feeling, and even my very being were shot through with Scripture.
2. I got over my “fear of man” and conflict avoidance.
One of the biggest lessons of the program was the importance of getting over one’s “fear of man” and learning to fear God alone. To put it in more secular terms, insofar as that’s possible, it was about learning not to be driven by what other people think of you or say or even do to you. I realized that although I had always paid lip service to not being driven by the need to appease or impress others (as an atheist I believed I was beholden to my ethical principles alone, as a Christian I believed I was beholden to God alone), in reality my life and my heart were somewhere else. The obvious proof of this was how mild my sorrow over my sin was in comparison to my sense of horror at having possibly upset somebody I barely cared about, or even at having merely embarrassed myself in their presence. To look bad in front of a stranger was mortifying to the point of paralysis; to displease God caused but a momentary slight twinge of regret. This needed to be remedied.
Getting over a fear of conflict avoidance went hand-in-hand with this. It was repeatedly emphasized to us that true love and true friendship sought the good of the beloved friend. Refusing to confront someone out of a fear of pissing them off, out of a fear of jeopardizing or inconveniencing the relationship, was ultimately about selfishness and not about love. Of course, it was also impressed upon us that the one who confronts must be aware of her own motives. Confrontation and accountability can be done badly, and often are. But just because they can be done badly doesn’t mean that they ought not to be done at all.
3. The program exposed (and thereby helped to wither away) my need for control.
I gave up almost all control over my life in being there. This was admittedly unpleasant in countless ways, but it was beneficial in many as well. Most importantly, it taught me how to respond to life, which is after all fraught with situations over which we have no control. It taught me not to sweat the small stuff. And it taught me that stuff is usually much smaller than I tend to think it is.
4. It got me to journal for a year.
I had always been aware of the benefits of daily journaling, but never had the self-discipline to do it. Being required to do so for a year was a great blessing. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t have the discipline to keep it up with any regularity after I left. Still, there’s a lot I’ve learned about myself looking over that daily record of my thoughts over one year of my life.
It’s also much easier to see God working in my life that way. “In the moment,” my program experience was often just a mass of weakness, pain, confusion, and chaos. The journal allowed me to step back months or years later and look at what was really happening. It showed me that while day-to-day I felt pretty much exactly the same (i.e., absolutely terrible) during almost the entire program, there were huge changes going on that I simply couldn’t see at the time. And so it’s helped me understand that what is really going on in my life is always much bigger than what’s immediately in front of me. Which makes it easier to put up with things like weakness, pain, confusion, and chaos, which still present themselves in my life from time to time, although thankfully in much smaller quantities than during that one year.
5. It helped me put down Christian “roots”.
This might not make sense to those raised in Christian families or from strongly Christian areas. I became a Christian and spent my early years as a Christian among family and friends who neither shared my convictions nor supported them. I knew next to nothing about being an evangelical (or being any kind of serious Christian for that matter) when I started out. And I spent my early Christian years in some of the most inhospitable geographical regions and sociocultural climates for evangelical faith. In the program, although I found the “total” Christian environment a little unnerving and somewhat stifling at times, it was a blessing in that it constantly nurtured and encouraged my faith. In a sense it was like transplanting a tiny, beleaguered shoot to a greenhouse. A year later, by God’s grace bigger, tougher, and far more tenacious, I was ready to go back to my old stomping grounds and take on the world.
6. It taught me a lot of about the fundamental sameness of people.
One thing I learned was that the struggle with sin has a common, universal, nature. Nothing brought this home like the warm comradely relationships I developed with the other people in the program whose sin struggles were superficially nothing like mine. The surface details differed, but deep down we were all the same. My best friend in the program had a problem with hard drugs, while I had never even smoked a cigarette. But we both knew most of the same spiritual frustrations and fiercely strove after the same hopes.
Another thing I discovered was the relative insignificance of intellect. Before this point, all of my friends had been relatively smart people. I remember once having a lengthy discussion with one of these smart people about whether meaningful relationships with the cerebrally less-well-endowed were even possible. (I was rather skeptical.) In fact, my biggest fear about entering the program had nothing to do with what they might do to me. It was that the intelligence gap would keep me from being able to relate to anyone.
There were differences in intelligence and education. But neither posed a barrier to deep relationships. I came to appreciate—not just acknowledge with my words, but appreciate—that there is a thing called wisdom, and it doesn’t have much to do with intelligence. Sure, I could argue and conceptualize far more adroitly than most of the other people there, and my brain housed more bits of trivia than theirs did. But when it came to knowing the things that mattered, when it came to understanding the basic principles of living out Christian faith, of knowing God, I was utterly outclassed by many of them. And so I came to learn of the joys of spiritual conversation and fellowship that can be shared between any two sincere believers eager to glorify and enjoy their Lord, regardless of their background or level of educational attainment.
7. On a lighter note: Miscellaneous discoveries I made during the program, not quite as deep, but valuable and enriching in their own ways:
- Knitting. Knitting was the number one winter recreational pastime. I resisted for a while but caved when I realized that if I was going to give my family presents for Christmas, I was going to have to make them myself, shopping excursions being out of the question.
- Hymns. I had spent all my previous years in “contemporary worship.” There was some of that in the program as well, but there were also lots of hymns, with a lyrical intelligence that blew away 99.5% of all the contemporary praise songs written in the past 20 years.
- Chaim Potok. Ok, so ultra-Orthodox Jews are not the same thing as evangelical Christians. But I found myself over and over again in the spiritual struggles of his characters.
- Quick breads
- Working outdoors
- The Eighth Day Books Catalog. Eighth Day Books is a bookstore apparently run by Eastern Orthodox people. They have the best book catalog ever. I don’t care what kind of Christian you are or if you aren’t a Christian at all: get it. You won’t be sorry. Between their eclectic, outstanding selection and their magnificent review-blurbs of each book…*ecstatic moan*.
- Thong Underwear! I had ignored thong underwear my whole life because I thought it was a girly thing. What a mistake! Under pressure from my fellow program participants who made fun of my Hanes-Her-Way briefs every time they had laundry duty, I decided to explore the world of the thong, and it is a marvellous world indeed. In reply to the inevitable skeptic’s objection, that they give one a perpetual wedgie, I can only intone the oracular bit of wisdom that one of the other girls passed on to me: “Yes, but it won’t bother you, because you’ll know it’s supposed to be there.” Which has a profundity to it that continues to astonish me.