This is Not a Frank Peretti Novel

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I read my first and only Frank Peretti novel in ninth grade. My sister, Katie, brought it with her when she moved back from the children’s home where she’d lived for the last seven years, along with her collection of pig tchotchkes and a thin copy of the Living Bible. In the room we suddenly shared, she put away her clothes in the closet, her impressive collection of nail polish under the sink, and the pigs, Peretti, and Bible on the shelf of what had once been my desk.

I expected, when I’d heard the month before that she was moving home, that I would resent having to share a room with her. Since her exile, I had told myself a version of a fairy tale. Katie was Cinderella, and I was the spoiled, pampered sister. I expected to sulk, to complain, to throw fits at living alongside her. I dreaded my own entitled fragility.

When she moved in all of her stuff, though, I felt something entirely unexpected. I was so, so happy to have her there. I was also happy to discover I was a better person than I’d imagined.

Katie had become a Christian at the children’s home, and Peretti wasn’t the first Christian book she’d brought home. By then I’d been following her breadcrumb trail of Christian Evangelical culture for years. As a result, I had recently knelt by my bed and prayed the sinner’s prayer. When I asked Jesus to forgive me, it was my wicked stepsister role I was thinking of.

So: back to Peretti. It wasn’t a shock to read that angels were floating around me like holy, invisible butterflies, or that they were powered by prayer battery packs. I had heard rumors of the apocalypse and the Beast already from Katie. Compared to that, Peretti was tame.

Part of me liked the world he described. In Peretti’s universe, teenagers were warriors, and the choice to fall on your knees was more important than any pre-algebra quiz. I wanted to matter, to change things, and it fascinated me to imagine the power was inside me to affect spirits in an unworldly realm. Also, almost every character was so earnest, just like me. Gratifyingly, everyone else was either cluelessly unsaved or actively evil.

Still, I wondered at how Peretti sorted people. For most of my life, I had assumed I was a bad guy. It was easy, even as a very young child, to know that if your sister (and Steve, our older brother), were living at a children’s home instead of with you, something was very, very wrong. Why things were wrong, and who was at fault for that bewildered me not just then, but even today. Were Katie and Steve at fault? Was I? Were our parents? If Jesus divided sheep from goats with a clean, bright line, I assumed people I loved would be cut off. Perhaps I would be, too.

Still, I knew Peretti was right: evil was real. I knew this so instinctively, so tangibly, that even today when people scoff at the idea of hell I feel sorry for them, as if they still believe the earth is flat. I have seen hell in my own heart, and in others’, and do not doubt that it is usually of our own making.

And I knew, even before I picked up Peretti, that hell required warriors to confront it. I read about the characters in battle on their knees, and I gasped for the power they had as if thirsting for a cup of water. I was so desperate to be clean and on the right side.

By the time I read Peretti, I had been a Christian over a year, and I had prayed the sinner’s prayer with the same gasping desperation: to fight hell, to be clean. Even a year in, I had started to suspect that the guarantees offered by Evangelicals came with a large asterisk. The Evangelicals said: All of the power of Christ is in you from now on.

The asterisk was this: it sure did not feel that way.

If you get a taste of a banquet when you are starving, and you can’t move any closer to the table and eat your fill, standing and staring at the food is its own kind of hell. I desperately wanted to feel Jesus’ power, but though I did feel different after accepting Christ, I did not feel that different. The lack of change felt like torture.

I assumed it was my fault I had not yet become a warrior in the black and white battle I imagined. Reading Peretti’s clear-cut narrative, I assumed that if I couldn’t yet recharge angel battery packs, it was because I was not praying right.

Now, though, reading how Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven, he rarely talks about wars and battles. Instead, Jesus talks about gardens.

Jesus told stories of ordinary people, shouldering household objects and chores, slowly going about their business. And then he’d turn the narrative, upsetting expectations. A tiny seed planted grew to house the birds of the air. A faithless son came home weeping. A mote of yeast leavened an entire loaf of bread. Wheat and weeds grew intermingled in a garden; there is a long wait before they’re sorted.

Human action is sudden, violent—a line of soldiers advancing on a village, ready to set it alight. But in a garden or inside a loaf of bread, change happens more slowly. A vineyard’s fruit improves as it matures for decades. Husbandry is about long-term patience as much as taking abrupt action.

Reading Peretti, I thought Jesus called me to a lightning-quick battle, where the results would be immediate and would change me in an instant. Sure, I believe in the miracle of instant change, and yet the overall journey we take towards God’s Kingdom lasts decades, not moments. The changes I’m most desperate for are a slow-growth forest, not a fast-raging fire.

I was once surprised by the grace I found in myself, the grace to cohabit, to welcome, to be kin with my sister. I was surprised that those gifts had been growing in me for years, without me noticing. Likewise, I’m beginning to find contentment in the slow pace of my fight, in which my power and competence are not the battle plan.

I long to be astonished by God’s call into the conflict I’m called to—a slow-motion fight of love, patience, and the incredible grace of Jesus’ heart.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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