taking the words of Jesus seriously

EDITOR’S NOTE: Monica A. Coleman’s new book, Bipolar Faith, tells the story of how mental illness shaped her faith, opening the way to a deeper understanding of the gospel’s truth. (Read our interview with Coleman here.) We’re happy to share this excerpt from her book today.

Bible study with Christian Impact was more than reading scripture. It was the core unit of a larger network of friendship and faith. We began our Bible studies with check-ins on the past week. We quickly learned each other’s favorite classes, first loves, and what hometown traditions we missed. As we read through the book of Philippians, we shared notes from study guides. We talked about the historical context of Paul’s letter and what the words meant to the church at Philippi. We also talked about how those words spoke to us and how they might encourage or challenge us in our individual relationships with God.

That was the first time I thought of myself as having a personal relationship with God. At Bethel AME, I learned Bible stories, memorized hymns and litanies, and heard countless sermons on the social and political issues that affected the black community. Personally, I fostered a rapport with God not unlike Celie’s in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Celie writes to God in her journals because she has no one else to tell her deepest secrets. There is no one else she can trust. God was my confidant and my rescuer. I responded out of gratitude, asking what I could do to repay God, how I could best praise God. But Christian Impact suggested that there was something more personal involved.

“How is your walk with God?” Lanh asked me this every week when we met one-on-one over lunch.

I loved walking to North House to meet her. I waited for her outside the main doors—freshmen needed resident escorts to enter the upperclass dining halls. Lanh greeted the dining hall worker with words of recognition while I displayed my student card. After moving through the assembly line of students and cafeteria-style food, we hovered over a small table away from the majority of diners.

“It’s okay, I guess.” No one had ever asked me that question before.

Lanh opened the side of her mouth to blow her bangs out of her face. Lanh’s round face was framed by dark straight hair that was wispy on the ends. She used her hand to push them aside after her first gesture failed.

“I mean, is there anything God is challenging you to do? Or have you learned anything new about God this week?”

She expected me to talk about relating to God the way I talked about a friend. I had no language for that. I followed Lanh’s lead.

“Um, when I was reading chapter two, I came across something I never thought of before.”

“Tell me more.”

Although I looked up to Lanh as someone who could teach me more about Christianity, our weekly meetings also gave me a chance to learn more about her. Lanh slowly shared stories about being Chinese from Vietnam. A church in Chicago helped to bring her entire family to the States. “We were the boat people you hear about, ” she recalled. Her family settled in the Midwest, and Lanh was raised with a combination of evangelical heartland Christianity and traditional Chinese values about hard work and women’s purity. I enjoyed hearing her stories, but Lanh always returned the discussion tome. She understood herself to be my discipler, and in the model of Jesus and the twelve, she wanted our friendship to focus on how she could help me to be the best Christian I could be.

Over time, her questions became a casual exchange in an easy-flowing conversation: “How are you and God?” Or “I become easily frustrated when I have a conflict with my family. God is teaching me patience right now. How about you? Do you ever feel that way?”

We tracked the answers in our spiritual notebooks. Lanh showed me her notebook. There were several pages of grids with her daily schedule. She blocked out hours for class, study, extracurricular activities, and prayer time. She showed me how to make a similar chart for my own schedule, planning an hour every day for prayer and Bible reading. With Lanh and Christian Impact, I learned to integrate my faith into my everyday life. I was a disciplined student with all of my classes, and Lanh showed me how to apply that same discipline to my relationship with God.

“God’s like anyone else, ” Lanh said. “You get to know God because you spend time with Him. You get used to the sound of His voice.”

“Makes sense.”

“Try this for a week and we can talk about how it went.”

Nearly every week, Lanh offered new tools for developing my relationship with God. She gave me forms about different ways to pray and how to break down my study of a biblical passage with nothing more than a Bible, a notebook, and a thick Bible dictionary. Lanh showed me that being faithful was more than a declaration of belief. She showed me how to be a Christian. At the end of every lunch, Lanh hugged me as she said, “I appreciate you, Monica.” These were four simple words, but I repeated them to myself when I felt lonely and worthless.

“I appreciate you, Monica.”

Lanh understood that I, like so many other students at Harvard, was rewarded for my accomplishments. In some ways, just attending Harvard was a reward for a high school academic career gone well. Did Lanh know that I needed to know that I was valued for more than the papers I wrote and organizations I joined? That I needed to know that I was valuable just because I was me? She didn’t say, “I appreciate what you did.” She said that she cared about me just because I was me. I heard her acceptance as an outgrowth of God’s acceptance of me. So maybe, I thought, there was nothing I had to do to make God love me, or to make my family and friends love me.

Christian Impact created an overall environment of love and acceptance. I felt welcome when I went to Friday Night Live. The auditorium of Boylston Hall turned into a cross between a nightclub and a camp meeting. We crowded in, nearly two hundred strong, as if we had to arrive before they started charging. A small band of my classmates performed on stage with two men on one mic and two women on another. Some students filed into the theater-style seats while others stood in the aisles. Reading from the words projected onto a screen behind the band, we sang in rounds, the women’s voices following the men’s We closed our eyes, lifted our hands, or swayed back and forth as our music became prayer and celebration. Friday Night Live gathered other people my age who were as excited about God as I was. We believed that God heard our prayers and spoke to each one of us individually. We believed that God was giving us the tools to fulfill our purpose in life. All we had to give was our time and devotion.

After a while, we heard a short sermon from one of the young adults employed by the national organization to provide guidance to our campus. I don’t remember the sermons. I remember the music and the way I felt like a part of something bigger and better while I stood next to a white male student I didn’t see in any of my African American studies classes or black student organizations. For years, I referred to the music as “Christian Impact songs, ” as if they were written specifically for our organization. Only when I stumbled onto a Christian radio station did I hear Michael W. Smith or Twila Paris singing the lyrics that formed my early Christian spirit.

So I turned to Christian Impact when I lost the ability to sleep. I started going to evening prayer, midnight prayer, early morning prayer. If I wasn’t going to sleep, I thought, I might as well talk to God. I couldn’t stand to be alone with all my hurried thoughts. I focused on the recent catastrophe—the cheating boyfriend. How could I have misjudged him? How many people knew? Why didn’t anyone tell me? What was wrong with me? Wasn’t I pretty enough? Supportive enough? What could I change to be the woman he wanted? I replayed the thoughts like a tape recorder until my body believed them too. I couldn’t take vomiting yet another bowl of cereal or slice of pizza. I needed to be around people. I was lucky enough to find people who embraced me just because God made me.

Excerpted from Monica Coleman’ Bipolar Faith (Fortress Press). Used with Permission.


Read our interview with Monica here.

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