“For my entire life, it seemed that people had been shouting at me—telling me what to believe and how to act…’There is a new voice,’ Mary Oliver wrote of the journey of awakening, ‘which you slowly recognize as your own.’ Until my mid-thirties, I did not know that voice. But once I listened, it grew more insistent. A calling, a beckoning, and urging toward love. And, as Oliver said, I ‘determined to do the only thing’ I could do: Save my own life. I did not know what would happen. But I was ready to leave the old voices behind. I stared at the cage’s open door, and I knew it was time to walk out into the world. I trusted that Jesus would be on the way.”
– Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus
It feels as if I am embarking on a new journey and yet my entire life has been leading to this bend in the road. So, is it really new? I am simply following the voice that beckons me on toward love.
For a long time, all I could see were the losses on this journey. All in the span of a few years—my family left all we’d ever known to move to work with a non-profit in Bangladesh. Then, we lost our dream of living long-term in South Asia when we moved back to the U.S. The family I knew was forever changed by serious illness and death. I walked away from the church that was home for two decades.
The losses I felt weren’t unique. So many were struggling with faith and church in the wake of so many shifts in society and the church, all over people awakening to what they’d been missing. Then, Covid stole so much from us all. The aches of the world gnawed away at our souls, our societies, and the faith of many.
Even as I heard a voice calling me forward and I tiptoed toward what I couldn’t see, I could not stop looking at all that was slipping through my fingers.
It was only a crawl at first—that day I stepped into the Episcopal church. Wounded, I looked for a place to heal when I found a Centering Prayer group that met at a nearby parish. I nudged open the heavy red, wooden door and stepped inside, begging God to meet me there. I believed with all that was in me I could still find God inside the church. I loved her and wouldn’t let go of that hope.
My exploration into contemplation had saved my faith, and I prayed it would help me find my way forward. Amidst deep anxiety and depression—it was silence, stillness, and contemplative prayer that allowed me to find Jesus anew and discover my own belovedness....
Trying to Fit Into Someone Else’s Clothes
You know that feeling, the burning desire to make it fit even though you know it won’t? You wiggle; you inhale, and you try just one more time.
Here I sit, a bundle of fur warming my side, basking in the warm glow of the Christmas tree—and it all looks picture-perfect. Yet, I’ve always felt like I inhabit the fringes of life.
Even as I round middle age, I feel like I fit awkwardly into this life I’ve worn for decades like a pair of hand-me-down jeans a little too long for my short legs and too tight around my wide hips.
This year I’ve spent a lot of time exploring who I really am, peeling away the layers of false selves I have worn over the years. We all put them on, that baggy coat to hide our flaws. That glamorous dress to divert their eyes from our insecurities.
Maybe it’s the don’t-care attitude I’ve heard we take on in our later years. Perhaps it’s the liminal space of being back in graduate school and wrestling with a twenty-year-old calling to ministry that has seen its share of detours, diversions, and dead-ends.
Either way, I’ve been throwing off the distortions and trying to find the right fit. And for the first time, I’ve realized I’m not the only fringe-dweller in the spaces I long to find a home.
Getting Naked In Front of Strangers
When I’m nervous and out of place, I ramble. I feel compelled to fill the awkward silence with a lumbering monologue instead. As anxious as I was, I spent a lot of time listening this year instead.
Forced to slow down and seek the wisdom of others as I entered the discernment process with my church, I found myself with others in the same uncomfortable limbo as myself. I was one of a dozen people who felt compelled to pursue a possible journey into ordained ministry. Thrown together in this vulnerable process, we stripped down to our barest selves in front of strangers.
We sat in Zoom rooms and conference rooms, the offices of our church leaders, and in intimidating interviews with Commission on Ministry members. We told our raw and unfiltered stories, with trembling and a few tears.
Trying Jesus on For Size
For me, it was a year of uncovering layers of my complicated history with the Body of Christ. I was a child who didn’t know who the Jesus figure that came out in manger scenes was. I knew there was something important about him and longed to know more. The youth group of my teens nurtured me and then discarded me like an ill-fitting pair of pants.
I was introduced to versions of Jesus who wanted me to do all the right things and ones who loved me like a best friend. There were ones who kept records of my sins in heavenly file cabinets, waiting to judge my failings—and ones who held no record of wrongs. I did my best to decipher who Jesus was when I wasn’t even sure who I was.
I thought I had it all figured out by the time I was on staff at the mega-church I’d spend a large portion of my life in. On the outside, I looked like a perfectly-polished Christian. Husband and two kids, the van, the Christian preschool, and obligatory Insta-worthy birthday parties. I looked just like everyone else so that meant I belonged, right?
Never mind the uneasiness that rattled around my soul, the lack of connection with the Jesus I longed to know intimately, and the theological issues I thought would go away if I ignored them.
It was a beautiful place; it was just not the place I belonged. And I knew it and pretended not to. It was easier that way—until it wasn’t. Until my desperate, dry, lonely soul cried out to move from the fringes to the place where the Spirit could live and move in me...
I held the plastic cup of juice in one hand, a tiny square cracker in the other. In my chair, I tried to focus all my thoughts on God and let all else fall away. This symbolic act of taking communion was designed to bring me closer to the Lord. Head bowed, it was just me and Jesus. Until I realized it wasn’t…
Countless throngs of angels stand before you to serve you night and day; and, beholding the glory of your presence, they offer you unceasing praise. Joining with them, and giving voice to every creature under heaven, we acclaim you, and glorify your Name…
I came of age in my faith in a tradition that didn’t place a strong emphasis on what is sometimes called The Lord’s Supper, Communion, or the Eucharist. A few times a year we would come to a service to find trays of individual juice and wafers had been placed around the room. Like the other elements of the Baptist worship I experienced, it was an emphasis on each of us connecting with the Lord, individually. Communion was largely seen as a symbol of remembrance, reminding us of the sacrifice Jesus made for each of us and allowing us an opportunity to evaluate our personal relationship with God.
In your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you. Again and again, you called us into covenant with you, and through the prophets you taught us to hope for salvation…
I hold out my hands in expectation, waiting alongside others. I smile at the little girl to my right, excitedly squirming as her mom whispers instructions in her ear. The person kneeling to my left brushes against me as he makes the sign of the cross and places his elbow close to mine on the rail. I look around the circle at members of my community. I’ve only been a member of this Episcopal parish for a year, so I’m still getting to know everyone. But the Priest knows every name. I listen as she makes her way around to me, stopping to look each person in the eye.
After she hands a wafer to the family to my right, she reaches back to the silver plate stacked with wafers and picks one up. She winks and smiles as she places it in my palm. “Nicole, the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” she says. Here I receive communion; I don’t take it. It is given to me, a gift each week—the centerpiece of our worship. The chalice bearer follows behind her, wipes the edge of the cup, and turns it before offering it to my upturned face. Slowly, the wine crosses my lips as he reminds me this is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.
To fulfill your purpose, he gave himself up to death; and, rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new. And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all…
When I found myself no longer able to pray, in the throes of depression and anxiety, I reached out to friends around the world. They promised to pray the words I couldn’t, to carry me through my wilderness. I lived 8000 miles from home in South Asia when I realized how desperately I needed a community around me. Just me and Jesus alone weren’t enough; we were never meant to be.
In a time when I felt more alone than ever, I discovered the gift the Body of Christ can be. It was the prayers of friends, the wisdom of a Spiritual Director, and the listening ear of a counselor who pulled me from the abyss. I needed someone to stand before me and remind me Jesus was present. I needed someone to set a place at the table for me, to hold out the cup to my thirsty lips.
After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, "Drink this, all of you…
The Eucharist isn’t only a remembrance of the Last Supper when Jesus said the words hear repeated each week. It is meant to be a foretaste of the Great Banquet that is to come. Jesus reminds us that one day he will eat the Passover again with us when it “finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” The disciples would have understood Jesus’ reference to a Great Feast to come, a time when “the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples.” Jesus often spoke to his followers about preparing for the feast that is to come. I spent so much of my life thinking this meant preparing myself alone—personal reflection, personal growth, and personal worship.
A feast is not to be eaten alone. A banquet table is not set for one...
I know what it must feel like to be a ghost. I am haunting the life I used to live but haven’t moved on yet, hanging out on the fringes of what I once called mine. I watch everyone around me go about their days as they always have but I am on the outside looking in. I ache to be seen but I also know my presence brings up all kinds of hurt, so I remain in the wings. Yes, I know what it must feel like to be but a shadow, haunting your own life. This is life in transition.
Have you ever felt it before? Maybe you moved from the place you long called home or left your church, had an illness that separated you from others, or lost your job while others went on with life as usual?
We are moving to South Asia in less than two months. Our house is sold and our belongings are stored. I watched someone take over my job of six years as I stepped aside, getting the kids ready for uprooting their lives. Their little hearts are unfazed, it seems, as they adjust well while I feel more invisible every day. Next week we sell our car, the last big thing that links us to life in the United States. We will drive in a borrowed car as we live in a borrowed house, feeling like we are borrowing a life that isn’t ours anymore.
I am glad I have this “in-between” time in our move to prepare me for the loneliness I know is coming living 8500 miles from what has been home for most of my life. I feel like I am building up callouses now for the big hurt that is to come. But I also am wounded in another way, the conviction in my heart that is God saying “who else have you made to feel this way in the past? Who are you shutting out even now?”
Faces float to the surface of my memory as I try to push them back under. There’s the friend who encouraged me when my whole life was changing with a move, a new job, a second baby. I sat daily on her couch and we laughed and cried together. We had a fellowship I was sure would withstand the miles when she moved away. We haven’t talked in years. There’s the church small group I was a part of when all this transition happened and we were so busy we couldn’t make it to group but a couple times in a year and we just drifted away from budding relationships. I miss them and wonder how they are doing but it feels like it’s been too long to reach out now.
Relationships ebb and flow. Few last forever, I know that. Out of high school, I have one friendship that has stood the test of time and from college two real friends remain. I read the findings of a psychological study recently that concluded most friendships last no longer than seven years as people change and move on with their lives. But there are those moments when it feels like every relationship you have is changing or all have fallen away. Only loneliness remains and it gets you thinking about how we were designed for real fellowship and how empty we are without it...