I spent so many years wishing to go back.
The years between college and the real world were marked by a struggle to find my place, a kind of limbo. I was truly on my own for the first time, a stranger in a city not my own. I was stuck in a place between the dreams God had called me to and actually live them out.
As I was looking for myself, I found something else.
When I think about that time, I can still feel the sticky heat coming off the bayou. I can feel the breeze blowing through the live oaks that hung down like arms reaching out to embrace you. With my feet dangling into the murky waters off Gulf Coast docks, I spent hours discovering a God who was gently whispering His love for me.
God’s voice was as real to me as the jazz music that invaded every corner of the Quarter. In those early years of my adulthood I felt like I had arrived at a new realization of who God was.
I left that place behind and violent storms have since changed the landscape where I discovered God anew. They changed me, too. I married, lived abroad, returned home. I became something new again—this time mother, twice over.
Somehow, in all the landscape changes over the years, that tangible feeling of God’s Presence got swept away like the apartment I lived in next to the beach, crushed under the raging winds of Hurricane Katrina.
I kept trying to recreate those moments when I had heard God so clearly. I longed for my seminary days when I could spend hours debating theology or discussing faith stories. I struggled to hear God in the same way, but the winds shifted and I couldn’t hear it anymore...
My love quickly turned to a need to please and my feelings of being loved to a fear of failure.
I remember feeling overwhelmed by love when I started following Christ, but the feeling didn’t last long. Like a hamster on a wheel, I started performing. I learned all the right things to say and do, the places and people to avoid, the ways a Christian is “supposed” to look.
I was overtaken with a fear that I wouldn’t measure up. There was a story that was read to us one day in youth group. The gist of the story was a man who found himself in a room full of file cabinets. On the cards in were written every sin, every evil thought and dark place inside of him. Jesus read them all and then canceled them out with his blood, showing the man he was forgiven.
Looking back, I know the intention was to show us that we can be forgiven but all I heard was the part where every horrible thing I ever thought of doing was laid bare before Jesus. I spent so much trying to please him and when I failed, I ran the other way instead.
After years of running from Christ, so tired of that endless race of striving, I found myself sitting again in a room of students. A woman passionate about us wayward college girls was trying desperately to convey God’s love to us. She read us words from the book of Romans telling us that no matter what we had done it was forgotten forever.
“No condemnation,” she said “for those in Christ Jesus. Literally none. Your sins are completely gone, remembered no more.”
Brick by brick the walls I had built up to protect myself came tumbling down and I crumbled before her in tears. I had lived so long in fear of my own failure.
Through my tears, I cried out, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this sooner?”
Fifteen years later, I still struggle to remember this truth, still fighting my tendency to be motivated by fear instead of love.
I sat in another room of students last week, a very different kind. A gathering of writers, we all came to the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing to learn about growing our craft and to connect with other writers. Continue Reading
“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.” - Madeline L’Engle
I love contemplation – in theory.
The year began for me in the aching beauty of an abbey church. The very architecture spoke to me of stillness. The concrete columns towering into arched rafters above were solid, sturdy, glorious. The scene around me reflected what I want my interior life to look like. That still, solid, steadiness is what I hope to embody.
I know that only comes with the contemplation and prayer that the inhabitants of those very walls live by. I began my year learning from the Benedictine monks that lived within the abbey, wanting to practice more of that kind of stillness in my own spirit.
But away from those warm and inviting walls where a single sound is magnified into echoing responses due to the silence – there is so much noise. Inside my head and heart - noise.
A third of the way into the year, I have been on more planes than in the past few years combined. I have been running so much and that isn’t to say I haven’t had moments of extreme clarity when God’s voice has broken through the noise.
I have heard Him in my journeys and in spite of them.
My scene today is a very different one than the dimly lit monastery. Noises and music rise together inside the coffee shop I sit inside, a shelter from the crisp Chicago day. I can’t pick out a single voice, the sounds more of a symphony of chatter than a single conversation.
It’s full of noise but my heart can still find space to be quiet here. There is something beautiful to me about being still in the middle of the city bustling around me.
Whether I am traveling or at home, in the quiet or in a crowd I can find a place for stillness if I will just stop running. The problem is I don’t often stop long enough to do the very thing I know my heart so desperately needs.
On my way to the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, three days in which I am sure I will find little time for stillness, I am so grateful to have time to stop running if only for a moment.
My journey to FFW is starting with a writer’s retreat in which there will be time for prayer, contemplation, and writing. I think I am most looking forward to and most resistant to this part of the journey, all at the same time.
I have been trying make contemplation part of my daily life but it is so contrary to my evangelical church experience. Though I have often stepped outside of the tradition in which I first discovered Christ and still belong, the tendency to place worship in the neat little boxes I learned there are still so ingrained.
Stillness is still an effort for me. I want it to just feel easy but it is work at the same time. The two seem contrary to each other, so I often throw up my hands and walk away from the very practices I long to explore like centering prayer and examen.
In The Contemplative Writer, Ed Cyzewski (one of the people organizing the retreat tomorrow) talks about contemplative prayer as something that “removes us from the spiritual rat race where we’re always trying to make ourselves worthy of God or proving our mettle as disciples of Jesus.”
The rat race had been my life for so long that as soon as I remove myself from the endless cycles of striving, I find myself wandering right back to it.
Just like it is hard to let myself be known by others, it is so hard for me to be still and know. To be and not do. Everything in me fights against it but all I am longs to know how, too.
In this coffee shop I try to be still in the midst of the noise. Tomorrow I will practice contemplation with others, struggling to love it more in practice than in theory. I know it won’t be easy. Not much that actually brings us closer to truly knowing God is.
So here’s to knowing and being known this week…
This year I am not making New Year’s resolutions. I am not jotting down goals and dreams, in hopes of becoming a different version of myself. Instead, I am exploring something new this year—or rather, something very old.
It all began when I visited a local monastery for some quiet reflection. Being a busy working mom, I was feeling out of touch with time for my own spiritual development. Driven by to-do lists, I felt the need to set some spiritual goals instead of just practical ones. The Monastery of the Holy Spirit, sitting on 7,000 acres of untouched Georgia woodlands, became the perfect retreat for New Year’s Day reflections a few years ago.
I was taken by the beauty of the place and intrigued by the life of the forty monks in community there. I attended a retreat at the monastery later in the year, praying and learning alongside the monks. The common prayer and meditative readings were unknown to me as an evangelical, but still sparked a deeper contemplation around God and his gospel truths.
The following year, I returned to the abbey church, listening to monks singing midday prayers while asking God to guide my year ahead. I have always loved how New Year’s puts us in a mindset of reflection and reordering. It’s especially needed as another year comes to an end, and we’re left feeling more defeated than inspired...