Sunday, January 27, 2019

Full Circle: My Denver Story

Who knows what will become of us?

As children, we dream our dreams -- astronaut, famous singer, missionary, scientist. Our parents are wise enough to let us imagine the future without the wet blanket of reality. They may have ideas of their own, but no one can be sure how things will turn out. They watch and wait with us.

Denver, Colorado, was the cradle of my childhood, the fertile ground for growing up and dreaming dreams. I spent the first 18 years of my life in the same zip code, longing to travel to the ends of the earth. I remember the children's sermon one Sunday morning. Rev. Kok asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I don't remember what I wanted to be at that age. I just remember how his offhand comment hit me. "Of course, none of you want to have my job when you grow up." I was floored. Was he serious? Who wouldn't want his job?! I knew no female pastors then, and I don't think I even dared to imagine myself in his shoes, but I couldn't think of a better job in the whole wide world than to preach the Word of God.

I probably said I wanted to be a missionary. In fact, I imagined I could be a missionary-astronaut-famous singer all at once, with space missions and singing tours during furlough. What I didn't want to be was a teacher, which seemed way too boring. Where I didn't want to live was America, because people already had plenty of opportunities to hear the gospel in English.

In the decades since my childhood I've changed zip codes so often I would be hard pressed to come up with a list of them all. West Coast, Southeast Asia, East Coast, Midwest, West Coast, and now the True North. In November, I boarded a plane in Calgary bound for Denver. Usually, going home means stepping away from my work, embracing rest with family. This time my parents picked me up from the airport in my suit jacket with a conference name badge ready to wear. I was home to work.

View of the Mountains from Downtown Denver, 2018
(Photo: C Imes)
It was my 10th year of academic meetings, but the first to be held in my home town. First item on the agenda? Family time. We headed to the retirement home in my old neighborhood to visit my grandparents. On our way to grandma's room, we bumped into Rev. Kok. He's long retired now and driving a motorized wheelchair, but there is nothing wrong "upstairs." We found him in the library studying for his Sunday School class on the Psalms. (A kindred spirit!)

His face lit up when he saw us, incredulous to see me after nearly 30 years -- elementary school student turned college professor. I lost no time in reminding him of his children's sermon and how I had aspired to be like him.

"Do you ever preach?" he asked, eyebrows raised in expectation. Time stood still as I considered the irony of his question and what might be at stake in my reply. Women didn't preach in our church growing up. It wasn't allowed. For most of my childhood, they couldn't even collect the offering. I realized in that moment that church practices are complicated, and that I probably didn't know Rev. Kok as well as I thought, or that he might have changed while I was changing, too.

"Yes!" I replied, the clock ticking again. "A few times a year in local churches or in chapel."

His response was immediate, affirming, "Good for you!"

It's a mystery how old aches can heal or unfinished chapters can be written in a moment's time. That conversation was balm to my soul. There he was, my childhood pastor, looking at the grown up me and saying, "well done!" All these years I had imagined his displeasure at the ways I'd come to disagree with him on theology or on church polity -- especially on the topic of women in ministry. And here we were, colleagues. He made sure I knew that.

Map of Palestine in Jesus' Day
from the NIV Study Bible
Photo: C Imes
I reminded Rev. Kok of another conversation we had some 33 years ago. At the time, it may have seemed insignificant. But in retrospect, it likely shaped who I've become. It was a Sunday morning. The sermon failed to capture my interest, so I was studying the maps in the back of the pew Bible. I might have been 8 or 9 years old. I was looking at the map labeled "New Testament in the Time of Jesus." But something was wrong with that map! Jericho should not have been there. The Old Testament said the walls fell down! I was puzzled (and, if I'm honest, probably felt a bit smug about finding a typo in the Bible).

I brought the Bible with me to the back of the sanctuary afterward, where Rev. Kok was shaking hands with everyone as they filed out. When he was finished, he turned to hear my question. I remember his giant frame bending down to look at the map. He didn't know the answer, but said he would investigate. (I had stumped the pastor!) One week later I could hardly wait for the sermon to finish. I was nervous that he had forgotten my question, but also eager to know if he'd found an answer. He asked me to wait until he was done shaking hands. Then he bent down beside me to explain.

His answer matters less than the fact that he had an answer. He had taken my question seriously, researched it, and brought me a response. A whole book on Jericho?! A reason for its re-appearance on the NT map?! I came away with a healthy respect for scholarship and an appreciation for libraries and the confidence to keep asking questions. Is it any wonder I ended up as an Old Testament professor?

The next day I headed downtown for six days of professional development, networking, academic papers, board meetings, and conversations with publishers. But the most significant work had already been accomplished at the retirement home. I'd come full circle.

And so I went home. Home to my roots. Home to the people who shaped my future. Home as the grown-up me, so grateful for the grace of God that takes our dreams and makes them something better than we knew to wish for. A missionary? Yes, but not in the way I'd imagined. A teacher, which was a much better fit for my personality than an astronaut. A ministry that includes preaching as well as writing the sorts of books that address Bible questions shared by children and adults.

It truly is the #bestjobintheworld, because it's what I was born (in Denver) to do. Who knew?

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