Today I Saw God
Last week, at the last minute, I was pulled in to volunteer at our church's Coffee with the Pastors as a table leader. For those who don't attend Floris UMC, Coffee with the Pastors is a program that allows people interested in joining the church to get together and learn more about Floris UMC and Methodism. Even though I've been advertising these events on social media for about three years, I had never attended one.
You see, my family has been attending Floris UMC since the late 90s. I attended Sunday school in the second building, went to church almost every Sunday and joined through confirmation when I was in the eighth grade. By following that path, there was no need to attend Coffee with the Pastors. I already know this church. I already get it.
But actually, maybe I don't. It's been over ten years since I went through confirmation, and I haven't exactly been the model Christian since then. Sure, I still attend worship and I pray and I volunteer when I can, but really I pale in comparison to the people I see around me at work and in my family. My dad's been leading a Bible study for over 15 years, and a co-worker's husband spends almost as much time at Floris UMC as I do (the only difference is that he's volunteering all his time, and I get paid to work there 40 hours a week).
So when a friend of mine at work asked if I could help her out at Coffee with the Pastors, I was hesitant, but I said yes. I thought this could be a chance to grow a little; take myself out of my comfort zone. I had to leave work early for some alone time before I could get through two hours of non-stop smiling and chatting (introvert status), but I was going to do this.
The thing is, I really had no idea what I was doing. "You'll just make sure everyone has a chance to talk. Facilitate conversation," my friend told me. Yeah, I'm so great at that. But this was a chance to help someone out, to grow in my own faith and to help others see what's so great about Floris UMC. So, at 6:45 p.m. exactly, I showed up with my heart racing and my hands shaking. Game time.
Before I sat down, another table leader talked me through the evening. She prepared me for what I'd have to do, boosted my confidence and made me feel just a tiny bit more at ease. Then, I grabbed a few cookies and dove in.
The conversation before the presentation started was a little forced, but I kept smiling and tried to make people feel welcome. I really was glad that they were there and that they felt Floris UMC could be a home for them too; I just wasn't that great at showing it. But no one left my table before the lead pastor, Tom Berlin, got up to speak, so I'll take that as a win.
Tom began the night by welcoming everyone and then began sharing his story. I'd never heard his story before. It was interesting and funny and a little shocking at times. He talked about growing up in the church and about a professor who shook up his life plan in college and about a defining moment in his life during a summer job and how he eventually became a pastor. It was a good story. And I was interested up until he said, "Now, at your table, go around and answer two questions: How did you find Floris? And how did Christ find you?"
Uh oh. My first task. I had to start by answering the questions and then prompting others at my table to answer them. Okay, the first question was easy. I've been attending Floris UMC for most of my life. But the second questiongeez, I've never really thought about that one before.
I got through it okay, stumbling over my words about how I'd always been connected to the church, how I'd fallen away from it a little in college and right after and how working for the church has led me back. "I think that's where Christ has really found me," I said, "Through working here."
But really, I don't know. I don't feel like I have a certain moment where I thought, "Wow, this is it. I believe." Sure, I stand in awe when I see natural wonders, and I thank God every day for my many blessings, but I don't have a moment, the moment. Or at least I don't think I do.
The rest of the night went by fine, and though I wasn't the ideal table leader by any means, people still signed up to join so I couldn't have done that terribly. After we were done, I debriefed with my friend and the other table leader and then headed home for some much-needed alone time.
The problem was that for the next few days, anytime I was still, I started thinking about Tom's story, and more specifically, about my story. Compared to some stories I hear of addiction, miracles or signs from God, I never really considered my easy stroll through life to be a real story. There wasn't a lot of adventure, no climax and the conflict was minimal at best. But after Coffee with the Pastors, I couldn't help but dwell on it.
Maybe my story doesn't seem that interesting because it's still being written. Maybe if I start putting myself in more situations where I feel uncomfortable and my hands are shaking, I will finally experience the moment. Maybe Christ found me last week and pushed me to this event so that I could see that; so that I'd finally start examining my own life instead of putting it off, coasting through.
Next month, I am going on my first mission trip. I'm a little terrified to travel to Cubaa hot place without medicine or clean waterwith people I barely know, but now, more than ever, I know that it's something I need to do. My experience last week at Coffee with the Pastors pushed me out of my comfort zone and got me to really think about my life, something I avoid doing if I can. I get it a little more now. I need to take risks and put myself out there so I can continue my journey. So one day I will be confident in telling my story and answering the question, "How did Christ find you?"
During dinner, my daughter notes that in ten years she will be 31 years old, and we will be around retirement age. My youngest then asks, "What do you think about when you are in your 50s? Do you think differently?" First answer that comes to mind is "I don't know," and "I suppose I do think differently."
Truth of the matter is that I'm in that mid-stage of life. I feel like a clich in some ways. We are almost empty nesters in that one has successfully launched on his own, and the others are in various stages of higher education and young adult life. We find ourselves with evenings alone and time to meet with friends during the week or join various groups and Bible studies at church. We really do have a lot more freedom in so many respects.
I would say that our freedom reminds me of our days before kids, but it really doesn't. Turns out, I do think differently now. I'm so much more laid back than I was then. I was "tightly wound" as others who knew me would put it. I worried about many things, I never seemed to have enough and it was "me vs. the world." Those things have been minimized. Edges have been worn. The sharp contrast of black and white has bled considerably to create large areas of gray. That need to or convenience of quickly sorting people and situations doesn't exist so much. That slow erosion of a dogmatic religion has been so freeing.
I look at my children, and I remember what it was like to be in my early 20s. I hadn't yet grasped the beauty of living in each day for the day's sake. I was busy doing, doing and doing. Output driven, it was check in and out and on to the next thing. Much of it was exciting, and acquiring was fun albeit tiring in many ways. That is somewhat over though. That "second half" of life that I had heard about has come.
Some of it is the perspective of years, but a lot of it has come with my growth in Christ and mindfully living each day. The needs of the world are all around me. It is my response that matters. Not the dollar to the needy or the sandwich to the hungry. Those are important and absolutely a necessary outcome of faith. I'm talking about the response in my heart. That inner voice that quells the judgments, that realizes in a split second that the other is just as I am. Not better or worse, in or out, more successful or less, black or white, blessed or cursed. We become one in Christ. I've experienced this so I know that it exists and is attainable. It takes practice and mindfulness. I still have a long way to go. This journey, as we are told, requires us to pick up the cross daily. When I do choose to pick it up, prepare for it and know that I carry it for this day and focus on this day, the world looks different. I am different. There is something just wondrous and mysterious about that.
Usually the drive to Annapolis takes an hour and fifteen minutes. On this particular morning I had the unfortunate experience of having to leave at 8 a.m. As you might imagine, I was in traffic for two hours. Normally that would frustrate me, but because I promised to connect with God more intentionally, I used it as an opportunity to listen to Christian radio. I listened to my favorite stations: 89.9, 91.9 and The Message on satellite radio. Of course, God didn't let me down and I heard some of my old favorites, some of my new favorites and some really encouraging words.
One song in particular,Help Me Find Itby Sidewalk Prophets (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsjZ94K7UQs), really spoke to me. I am in the "sandwich generation"; on the one hand, my oldest just completed her freshman year in college and my youngest will begin her senior year this fall. On the other, my mom is dealing with dementia. Meanwhile, I am looking ahead wondering what the second half of my life will look like. There are many days when I feel like I've been placed in a foreign land and I have no map.
It is nice to have songs remind me that I don't have to have all the answers; that I just need to quiet myself, listen and watch for God to guide and direct me. If I listen and I am still, then I will "find it". If you don't already listen, consider turning your radio to a Christian station. You might find, like I did, encouragement and comfort, and even a suggestion or two about how to navigate life.
Recentlyin a sermon, Tom suggested we look for stones and clods in our lives that were keeping us from growing with Christ. I don't really have any big rocks or clods, I proudly said to myself. Wait a minuteHow about that pride you just felt? How about that driving thing? Yeah I've got them. Judgment is a great big clod I've discovered. It is usually masked as many little stones. I believe that Jesus has been at work in my life don't get me wrong. What's that they say? "If this is how far you've come, you must have been pretty far away." Seriously, during my spiritual journey that judgment clod has been hit several times with big hammers as God has been at work in me. I've even been able to throw some of those out. But I'm left with lots of little pieces that show up quite frequently during my day.
So I'm driving in one morning and traveling on Route 28 in the middle lane. I'm the good guy who lets a car come into my lane. The driver used a blinker which I thought was impressive (more on that later), then quickly got into the left hand lane. Very quickly the cars in my lane accelerated and I was side by side with the driver who had just gotten all the way over in the next lane. He was going a few miles an hourunderthe speed limit. I sped past him going about 65 shaking my head and thought, "What a jerk. Doesn't the guy know the left lane is a passing lane?" Just as I had that thought, I quickly remembered my mother-in-law who when challenged with angry drivers riding her bumper would say, "The speed limit is xxMPH and I have just as much right to be in this lane as anyone."
I do the same thing with blinkers. What is it with northern Virginia drivers? I witnessed yet another person not using a blinker and I thought "so doesn't that expensive new Audi come with blinkers?" Ouch! There's the judgment and some envy for good measure. I even caught myself saying something about someone making a right hand turn, as I was, and not using their blinker. I looked down and sure enough neither was I! "How much more conviction do you need?" I asked myself. This is difficult.
As I continue to reflect on this rather large plank in my own eye, I find that my judgment may in fact be merited. I call it my Captain Justice Cape. I put it on and point out things that clearly may be against the law: "You see how fast that guy was going? He flipped me off as he passed, and I'm already going 70 on the access road. I hope he gets a ticket." But it appears that I am really just as guilty. So many times I don that cape and as I'm taking it back off, I've been convicted that perhaps I've got my own things I need to concentrate on, like not having to be right all the time. My judgment isn't really coming from a place that is concerned about the other individual(s). Rather, it is me needing to be right, superior or just altogether a much better person. Why is that? Why do I feel like I have to win or be better? I think it is that same struggle I have with acceptance of God's grace. How can God love everybody the same no matter what we've done or not done?
I struggle with that grace and forgiveness. Maybe it is the belief that I'm unworthy. Maybe it is because I can't wrap my head around the equality concept. After all, life is a game right? You win or you lose. I either have been a good person or a bad person. "Certainly God can't love Hitler" many skeptics say as the ultimate test of where God's grace ends and damnation begins. Actions merit judgment after all! At least that is what I've been raised to believe.
Just maybe the action that merits the judgment is mine. How I choose to react or believe is the only "judgment" necessary. I need to look at the speck in my own eye. Funny how Jesus uses aplankin the other guy's eye and aspeckin mine. It is just like thatthe other guy's actions, behaviors, thoughts, beliefs, and so on, are always much more egregious than mine. Maybe Jesus is saying that totally tongue in cheek, such as, "Bill, you know that speck–like not using your blinker? Maybe you should be looking at that and not worrying about that guy who was just texting while speeding past you." Maybe disobeying traffic laws all together isn't a good analogy since we shouldn't be doing either of those things, but you get my point. It isn't the size difference of the speck or plank; it is the fact that I've got something in my own eye. I'm just as guilty; I'm just as human. It is our shared condition.
There's the saying, "It's not the destination, it's the journey." How many times have I heard that? Someone recently said, "It's not the destination, it isn't the journey either. It's about who you are traveling with." Now THAT I like. Really there is no end to this spiritual journey. It is a circle of self-examination, honest "soil searching," grace and acceptance and action to do the next right thing through the strength of Jesus Christ living in me. When I am doing this with others on the journey? Well that's when divine space is opened and shared. There is beauty in the honest sharing of the vulnerability and hypocrisy that lives in each and every one of us. That truly is sacred space. Humility is tangible in this space. That's where I begin to become a better Christ follower and in the process just maybe a better driver?
"How long have you been working on this?"
That's the question I asked the artist, Dominique Ehrmann, when I realized that she was the mastermind behind the magnificent piece of art in front of me.
"Well there are two answers to that question. It took me about 1,000 hours to complete this piece. But it really took my entire life."
She went on to explain that she and her husband live in the woods and like to take walks together after work. The animals in her quilts were inspired by the animals she sees on those walks. The scene is absolutely beautiful; a little girl walking up to a home hidden in the trees. What is truly amazing is the presentation where the scene is composed of four quilts that build one on top of the other.
There is a base layer that features the house and sky. From there, each layer adds a little more to the scenetrees, animals, a clothesline with sparkling quilts; such intricate details that seem so minimal and yet when added together make the final product a truly wonderful piece.
As I examined the piece a bit more, I was amazed that the artist was ever able to finish it. I can only imagine the number of things that could go wrong with something that takes that long to construct. I imagined the number of times she must have had to rip out stitches. Then what about the colors that didn't blend as well as she thought they would? I can picture the late nights and early mornings that were spent laboring over that quilt. I'm sure there were moments when she wanted to give up; when it just seemed like so much work that it wasn't even worth going on. I'm sure there were other times when it brought her so much joy and energy that she found herself so engulfed in the project that she'd glance up from working and realize five hours had passed. And even when it was finished, there is still the maintenance between shows to make sure it doesn't tear or fade or even worse, become forgotten in a box in someone's basement.
I remembered her words again, "But really, it really took my entire life."
As I stared at her quilt and thought of that phrase, I thought about my own spiritual life. I thought about the times I thought I had it all figured out only to discover the God I thought I had all figured out was much bigger. I thought about the times when things were hard and I was mad at Godthe times when I couldn't understand God's role in my life and wanted things to be easier. I thought about the times when things made sense. When it seemed that everywhere I looked I saw the finger prints of God.
Our spiritual lives are like quilts, don't you think? We might work on them rather intensely for bouts of time, but really, they take our entire lives to create. Whether we knew it or not, God was always with us to help us with our quilts from the day we were born. The day we finally decide to sit down with a needle and thread to begin the actual quilt is not the beginning. God was with us before. When we get frustrated because we've come to a difficult part of the quilt, God is there to help us through. When we are excited and full of joy because we find ourselves working in a brightly colored section of our quilt, God is celebrating with us.
Our spiritual quilts are never finished. We work on them our entire lives. And when we are gone our quilts are what others remember us by. I hope that my quilt is a blessing to others. I hope that people can see the joy that my quilt brought me and it will inspire them to find that same joy. I hope people will be able to see that there were some challenging sections in my quilt but I persevered. Most importantly, I want them to see my quilt as something that mattered to me. It wasn't something that was a side project that I tinkered with in my free time. My spiritual quilt is my most prized possession.
What about you? What is the status of your spiritual quilt?