The Little Things

The following is an assignment I’ve submitted for a current class I’m taking. It was intended to read more as a blog post than academic writing, so I decided to actually post it to my neglected blog.

Fasting: going without

“Ok, God, give me something to sustain me!” I yelled sarcastically as I read a section from Richard Foster’s classic book, Celebration of Discipline. He wrote “Fasting reminds us that we are sustained ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Food does not sustain us; God sustains us.”[1]

I was only about three hours into my fast.

I texted with my friend Yaakov throughout the day, as he was also fasting; it was Taanit Esther; I had chosen that day to fast because I knew I would get support from him.

Kelly: “I don’t know how you do this multiple times per year.”

Yaakov: “How bad is it?”

Kelly: “it hasn’t even been 3 hours since sunrise and I am getting hungry, cranky, and a little shaky.”

I went back and forth about whether or not I had to actually complete what I started. There are no rules I have to follow; this discipline is an experiment for me. I could adapt it any way I wanted. I could quit.

I am not a quitter.

Kelly: “what is the purpose behind fasting, other than God said so?”

Yaakov: “Many times in scripture you find that when people are satisfied and things are going well that they forget about God. So fasting is a sign of self-affliction to help you remember to turn to God in contrition.”

“Dinner’s ready!” I announced to my husband and kids, and started dishing food onto my kids’ plates for them to take into the dining room. My husband got a plate and said, “I’m not really that hungry.” I gave him a LOOK. I hardly spoke during dinner. I stared at Greg’s plate of pasta and meatballs, watching him twist the fettucine around his fork. My older son noticed. “Why are you just staring at Dad’s plate? Why aren’t you eating?” I reminded him I was fasting today. He went on with his meal. I got up and made a sandwich to go since I had to take my son to basketball practice later, and my fast would end as the sun slipped from the sky at 6:52 p.m. The facility has a concession stand and asks people not to bring in outside food, but I wasn’t interested in concession stand food, nor in paying the exorbitant prices for it.

One hour to go.

Yaakov: bon apetite

Kelly: two minutes!!!

Kelly: mmmmmmmmmmm

I don’t think a roast beef and pepperjack cheese sandwich ever tasted so good, and I paid  $1.75 for a Twix candy bar.

Gardening: lessons in death and life

When I discovered that gardening and running were the activities I had for number six, I felt a little deflated. At 42, I know full well that gardening is not a skill nor an interest I have, and I have absolutely, without a doubt, hated running since I was a child. Of the two, I prefer plants over running, and since it is not the optimal time to attempt to garden, I bought a bamboo plant because supposedly it is something that is easy to keep alive. I even bought it plant food.

I have never kept a garden, but my backyard used to be beautiful; in its prime, it looked like a scene out of a flower catalog and had been on the local garden tour, but when we moved in, years of neglect and overgrowth hid the way it once was. Every spring and summer I trim branches, tear out weeds, and attempt to make it look somewhat nice again. It is a lot of work but with it comes surprising lessons.

My favorite part of the yard is the lilac tree outside my sunroom door. When it is in bloom and the weather is nice, the heady scent drifts in through the screen. The first year I trimmed it back, I was afraid. I knew trimming was supposed to be necessary for growth, but I also did not want to inadvertently kill it. The next year, I was amazed to see new growth; branches sprouting from near the bottom, where I hadn’t trimmed anything. They didn’t bloom, but they hold the promise and hope that they will someday. My bamboo plant has some brown leaves, but it does appear to still be alive. It is strong and resilient, but still needs care and maintenance. It cannot get through life in a solitary manner.

Journaling: regular maintenance

“Have you journaled lately?” Robert, my senior pastor, asked me the other day, after I had stood quietly in the office, my head against the window, looking out into the empty parking lot as the rain trickled down from the gray sky. We were not under a shelter-at-home mandate yet, but we had decided to cancel all in-person activities.

“No.”

“Maybe you should, so you can process what you’re thinking and feeling about all of this.”

I knew he was right, but I cannot find the energy to journal, which, for someone who has journals going back to the fourth grade, says something. It says I do not really want to face everything that is happening and what it makes me feel.

It is a time when spiritual practices are perhaps more vitally important than any other, yet also a time when it becomes easy to forget about them, especially with schedules and routines all out of order. When it is difficult to know what day it is, it is even harder to implement any new practices. In this time, I’ve relied more heavily on my “Sacred Space” guided prayer app; I use this regularly each morning when I have my coffee in the sunroom. While it is still dark, I can sit in the silence, one hand warm from the mug, the other tapping “next” as I move through the prayer.

Spiritual practices have different dimensions and will work differently in people’s lives. Sometimes, we need the “big” ones, other times, something simple and regular to hold onto in the midst of life’s uncertainty, and always, we can learn about life and resurrection being revealed in time in the little things, after deprivation, pain, and death.

 

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[1] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed., 3rd ed., rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 55.

Tossed by the Wind

The following was originally written for my application to the MA program at Western Seminary. I’ve also submitted a condensed version of it to a writing contest. If you like it, would you please vote for it?  

Tossed by the Wind

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” — John 3:8

I live in Iowa, which is windy—very, very windy. I’ve noticed over the years that wind can take many forms. When it is gentle, it will make wind chimes tinkle, filling the summer air with random music. At other times, wind is powerful, scary, and noisy. During thunderstorms and tornadoes it can tear down tree branches and destroy entire towns. This powerful force can be harnessed by turbines and turned into a source of energy. Its power is collected, processed, and turned into something else. And so it is with the Holy Spirit. The ruach that swept over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation is the driving force behind all that we do in faith, guiding and empowering us.

In the gospel of John, Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again. The Christian church, as a whole, has debated what this means. For some, it means to say the “Sinner’s Prayer” and ask Jesus into one’s heart. For others, it means to have a dramatic experience like Paul had on the road to Damascus.

I have had neither of those experiences.

Family and Faith of Origin

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.–Ephesians 4:4-6

I still have the bulletin from the congregational church service from the day I was baptized. It was September 3, 1978 at North Canaan Congregational Church.

The church gathered together that morning at 11:00 a.m., praying to be a faithful witness in the world, confessing to be rebellious, asking for forgiveness and restoration, and to be made alive to serve God in faith, obedience, and joy.

They were assured of pardon.

Then, with the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” as water was dripped over my head, I was baptized into a community of forgiven people, and I belonged.

Or did I?

Belonging is tricky, especially when your parents attend different churches and want you baptized in both. So that afternoon, in a separate ceremony at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, I again had water dripped over my head, and again the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” were recited.

And again, I belonged.

Perhaps, as we left the church, an early fall breeze blew over my dark hair, still damp from my baptism, a premonition of the Spirit’s presence in my life.

Early Childhood/Early Adolescence

It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” –Lamentations 26-28; 31-32

I spent much of my childhood shuffling between both churches, sometimes attending Sunday School at the congregational church and sometimes attending catechism at the Catholic church. In both, I learned and abided by the different rules: communion in one was okay, but not the other until I had my first communion (my sister and I would practice with breath mints while everyone else got to walk forward).

I took my belonging in both churches somewhat seriously. In the Catholic church, we recited the Nicene Creed each week, but I would always skip the line about one holy catholic church. Then, in the congregational church, I’d adjust how I said the Lord’s Prayer to make it match the other version better.

In the Catholic Church, the consecrated hosts for communion were kept in the tabernacle before being used. I always saw Miss Keilty’s back while she stood in front of it, but I desperately wanted to see the inside. Because this was where Jesus dwelled, and it was too small to house a grown human being, plus, because Jesus had died and was sitting at the right hand of the Father, I had imagined that inside of this cabinet there would be dancing lights, as if it was some magical, mystical place. One time I did see inside, and though it was ornate, it was empty and ordinary. There were no dancing lights. I was disappointed, and I wondered, where was God?

My disillusionment with church grew through the years, whether it was due to boredom, not understanding, or witnessing hypocrisy in the lives of people around me—and not understanding the struggles they were facing. Still, I participated, and even enjoyed parts of it, such as the Christmas Eve pageant which ended in a candlelight service. Eventually it came time for confirmation, and as this was a serious time commitment, going to both churches was not going to be realistic. While getting confirmed was not my choice, I at least had the opportunity to choose which church’s confirmation classes I would attend, and I picked St. Joseph’s, because that is where most of my friends also went. Confirmation was done on a three year cycle, and I entered the process with two years left.

In May of 1993, we all sat there, in those first few pews of the church, draped in our red robes, hoping we wouldn’t be called on to randomly answer questions. Many classmates were wearing nice “church clothes” under their robes, shirts with ties, new dresses they’d bought specifically for the occasion. I wore a plain white t-shirt and red shorts. It made little sense to me to get dressed up for something that didn’t matter to me. After we were done, and we stood around outside, shaking hands and getting congratulatory hugs from well-wishers, a gentle spring breeze blew our hair around.

During this time, I never really questioned the core beliefs that I’d recited each week, only their relevance and importance to my life, and within a year or so of my confirmation, my church attendance stopped. Sometimes, when I was lonely or desperate, I would pray, with barely a glimmer of hope that God was still there, somewhere, but answers were not forthcoming. There wasn’t even a whisper.

God was silent.

Adult Life (post-high school)

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. –James 1:5-7, NRSV

In November of 1996, I went on a retreat sponsored by the campus ministry department at Merrimack College, where I had transferred after one year commuting to a branch of the University of Connecticut. We spent the weekend in a large house on a beach somewhere in Yarmouth, MA, on Cape Cod, the waves rhythmically moving in and out, the November air cold and windy, the sky gray and dull.

God showed up.

During one activity, for a brief period of time, I sensed God’s Presence in the room. It was not a feeling I had, nothing that came from inside of me, but rather, something that surrounded me and the only description of it I could come up with was that it was Love and that it was God.

A few days after I returned, I wrote in my journal, “It was an amazing experience. It is so difficult to express in words…I felt loved and cared for, not only by the people there, but also by God. He was with us throughout the weekend and I know He is still with me. That is something I have always had trouble dealing with—believing that. But now I do believe it.”

Life circumstances led me from Massachusetts that fall to Utah that winter, until I finally settled in Albuquerque, NM in June of 1997. I registered for classes at the University of New Mexico and became an English Literature major with a Religious Studies minor. I’d been attending a Bible study regularly since I moved there and a discovered deep desire for learning the Bible. The Bible, however, was more complex than I’d realized, and the more I dug into it, the more questions I had. Why would Matthew use Hosea 11:1 to refer to Jesus when in its original context it is obviously about Israel? Why would my professor convert from Christianity to Judaism? Wasn’t that a step backward? Why was the T.A. for my Milton class an atheist? How could he not know that God exists? During these next few years, I also became involved in online discussion boards—and came across many other people who had rejected Christianity for one reason or another. Particularly concerning to me were the Orthodox Jews I’d met, who had completely different scriptural interpretations that I’d never heard. This led to one night, sitting at my dining room table in tears, asking my husband, “What if everything I have ever believed is wrong?”

In the years since then, I have had ups and downs in my faith. I have had moments of great certainty and moments of great doubt. As troubling and difficult as doubt can be, it is also something that I am thankful for, as it causes me to seek and to search for God and at times to be able to simply say “I don’t know, but I trust.” I once heard a sermon in which the pastor spoke about how it is wrong to doubt; based on these verses from James. I was disappointed in this admonition, not only because the idea of doubt was taken out of context of what it actually means, but also because doubt can be a very powerful tool to strengthen and deepen one’s faith.

Currently, I am in a place where I know that despite affirming the historic Christian creeds, faith can be fragile. Sometimes, even faith the size of a mustard seed is difficult. Yet, it is a gift given by God, taken one day at a time, examined, explored, and exercised in all areas of life, with the Holy Spirit blowing in the background.

As with the many types of winds, the Holy Spirit is present in different ways at different times. The Spirit that was present at the dawn of creation, at my baptism, during times of clarity and during my darkest times, is still there. Sometimes, it is only a quick breath, other times, a forceful presence. When everything is dark and formless, when life seems to be at a standstill, when everything is in a state of confusion and I don’t know which way to go, the Holy Spirit is there. When everything feels hopeless and I feel lost, the Holy Spirit is there, tossing me into the next part of my journey.