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Faith in the Upside Down

By Shannon Jammal-Hollemans

I recently counseled a couple struggling with an obstacle in their relationship. One of them had made a mistake that had a significant impact on their family. The other was having a hard time forgiving their partner. I walked with this couple over the course of a few months, counseling each one individually because they were no longer together. It was painful.

Throughout the process, I found myself wanting to take one person’s side over the other. After talking with one of them, I was ready to completely write off the other person. But then I would meet with that person, and realize that there was no way that I could do that. I could feel the tension of their relationship creating tension inside of me.

I find similar tensions in my work for the CRC Office of Social Justice. Our office is tasked with forwarding our Synod’s mandates to raise awareness, educate, and equip congregations for advocacy on issues including abortion and religious persecution. There are some people in our denomination who frequently challenge our work, and who are quite vocal about it. Being the target of accusations and efforts to dismantle the work that God has called me to creates tension.

God is teaching me how to live in that tension. I can’t say that I like it. All too often, it feels like I am stuck in between the polarities of justice and sin, grace and pride, hope and despair. When feeling stuck like this, my instincts tend to be fight or flight, to engage with a ready offense or to turn around and head in the other direction. But my instincts here are not where God leads me. In the midst of my discouragement, God leads me to what Eugene Peterson has called “a long obedience in the same direction.” Faithfulness. The kind of faithfulness that God demonstrates to us as the Church.

It was during the time that I was counseling that couple that I heard God speak through the words in 1 Peter 3:14, which literally reads in the Greek, “do not fear what they fear.” Do not get drawn into their pain. Do not become so entwined in concerns that are not God’s concerns. Do not allow others to drag you into their pain to the point that it becomes your pain, into their fears to the point that they become your fears.

So, how do we live in the tension? How do we thrive in the spaces where we are called to serve in obedience to God, engaging people in their fear and their pain, without becoming so entangled in them that we lose our footing in Christ?

I think I’ve found my answer in the Netflix series, Stranger Things.

The “Upside Down” is a dark, parallel dimension to the world of the characters in Stranger Things. The characters travel there by accident, only choosing to go there to rescue the ones that they love. The Upside Down is a place that thrives on fear and death. It is a place that rings with the echoes of a monster, and is dominated by vines–uncontrollable, destructive vines.

The vines in the Upside Down are strong. They drag, strangle and choke. They are where we find one character who has met her demise. You don’t want to get entangled in these vines.

The challenges of ministry can feel like these vines, whether counseling a couple in a broken relationship or serving in the face of detractors making threats. But we do not live in the Upside Down. We live in the world, as upside-down as it feels at times, that was created by God to be good and beautiful and kind. The world where we are called to thrive and flourish and seek the thriving and flourishing of all people.

I think there is a nugget of truth to be found in how the people in Stranger Things escape the dangerous vines of the Upside Down: they do it together. They risk their own well-being to help rescue those who have been lost. They work together to assist the person who is suffering. It’s a beautiful picture of how God intends us to work together as Christ’s hands and feet in the world today.

As painful as it was, I am grateful for the experience I had counseling the couple torn apart by one person’s mistake. Through walking with them, and navigating that tension, I gained a bit of insight into how God walks with me. I am still working on being grateful for the people who send me angry emails. But I know that God continues to call me to faithfulness, in spite of the obstacles they throw my way. Faithfulness in spite of what I see, and what I can’t see. Faithfulness because of who God is and who I am in Christ.

Shannon Jammal-Hollemans is the Racial Justice Team Leader for the Christian Reformed Church Offices of Social Justice & Race Relations 

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