By Sharon Gartland

Make Peace with Your Whole Crazy Family

I just returned from a major academic conference where I spent a lot of time with my professional colleagues. I love working with these women and enjoyed the opportunity to share more of our lives with one another. There is nothing like eating meals together, sharing hotel rooms, and negotiating travel situations to give my colleagues a realistic view of who I really am. They overhear my nightly conversations with family, see how I function under fatigue and stress, and watch how insecure I am as I put myself together in the morning in an attempt to look professional. I believe this is part of the evangelism process, living our life, warts and all, in front of others. I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that I am most useful to God in wooing others to his profound embrace by demonstrating my own desperate need of it.

I have recently been wrestling with God about my sense of despair that the women I come into contact with will ever want to come to faith in Jesus. I am convinced of and transformed by the truth that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, but I am seeing only limited response from others to that Good News. I have felt stalled out in the process. Friends and academic colleagues (from my part-time lecturer position at the local university) seem to view me as an outlier, a “good” Christian, who isn’t as annoying and narrow-minded as the others they know or hear about. I have to admit I have happily distanced myself from the more extreme versions of Christianity.

As I have begun to be honest with God, grieving for the women I know who have walked away from faith or rejected it outright, I began to realize I was angry. Work with me, God! How am I supposed to lead people to Christ if all they see is legalism and judgment? I can’t possibly introduce them to the Church because it is so imperfect and frankly embarrassing at some level. These women are too smart to want to be a part of a faith tradition that can’t resolve a centuries-long theological debate on gender roles and gift usage. There is no way they will accept a belief system that seems inextricably bound up with political positions they will never share. I had plenty of reasons why I couldn’t introduce my friends to the church.

In the midst of a major wrestling session with God, where I journaled countless pages of reflection and frustration about the futility of evangelism in my academic setting, I finally quieted enough to do some listening. At first, I was flooded with a sense of God’s shared grief for his lost sheep. He too loves my friends and colleagues and longs to bring them peace and joy. He is perfectly aware of the severe limitations of the church as a mechanism to draw others, particularly these women, to faith. Nonetheless, the phrase that began to form in my mind was “make peace with your whole crazy family.” I was to stop shielding my friends from the rest of the “family,” regardless of how suitable or appropriate they seemed to me.

One of the things I love about academics is that they are typically able to handle nuance. Rarely is the world seen as straight forward, clear cut, black and white. Perhaps I had been needlessly protecting them from my church family secrets, worried that the community of faith needed to be cleaned up and free of wacky aunts and unreasonable uncles before I could introduce my friends to them. Just as I was useful to God in my brokenness and need for him, I was beginning to understand that this might be true for the body of Christ as well. When God finally breaks through my stubborn view of reality, I try to obey. That means I have to begin looking for opportunities to introduce my friends and colleagues to my fellow believers. All of them. Not just the hand-picked, Sharon-approved individuals, but the whole darn family.

I have to admit, this feels risky to me. My instinct is like a woman in the early stages of a dating relationship who waits for things to be pretty solid before bringing her boyfriend home to meet the family. However, I can’t seem to avoid the fact that God has always used imperfect individuals in the context of their imperfect faith communities to draw others to himself. I am ready to try anything at this point, if it means I will see some softening of hearts towards Jesus. In the process, I’m finding that my heart is softening towards my Christian brothers and sisters as well, seeing potential and hope, where I previously saw difficulties. How do your church worlds and work worlds intersect? Are you comfortable introducing them to each other, or do you share some of my struggles? I’d love to hear from you!

About the Author

Sharon Gartland, OTD, OTR, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Occupational Therapy Program at UW-Madison where her specialty is in developmental disabilities.  She enjoys the combination of teaching, administrative and clinical responsibilities that makes up her job. She is the former national director of Women in the Academy & Professions and continues to participate in the ministry as a volunteer and frequent contributor. She is married to Craig Gartland, a local church pastor and former long-term InterVarsity staff and leader. Together they have four children who are gradually getting launched into the world as functional adults but continue to store a lot of their stuff in the basement. She believes strong prayer practices and a supportive faith community are key to flourishing in career and family life. 

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