How Jesus Ate My Livejournal

Photo Credit: Amancay Maas (flickr)

Photo Credit: Amancay Maas (flickr)

Once upon a time, before this blog was born, I had a Livejournal. For those of you who don’t know, Livejournals are what those of us who compulsively overshare our lives used before Facebook and Twitter.

As a lonely teenager who hated making eye contact, Livejournal was a great way for me to make friends. Some of them I eventually met in “real life,” while others I knew only by their screennames. Many of them found me by discovering we had common interests. You could list all your interests on your Livejournal profile, up to 150 of them, beckoning people who shared them with you.

I maxed out my list, declared myself interested in 150 things.

This is so like me.

Looking back at the last version of this list, dating from my college days, I can see I definitely wasn’t equally interested in all of them. Some of them, like “Ancient Greek” and “books” and “baking” were bona fide obsessions which will never fade entirely from my life.

Others, like “linguistics and “Latin dance,” were more in the “I’m interested enough in these things to take a few classes in them” sort of category.

Still others (“gardening,” “sewing,” “rivers”) were more like, “Eh, I feel like I should be interested in these things, but the feeling isn’t strong enough to get any real experience with them.”

And some were just odd. “Fingerprints”? “Quixoticism”? The things you say in college to try and make yourself sound cool.

I’ve been interested in a lot of things in my life. I like the newness of learning something, not so much the discipline of staying with it until mastery. I’ve dabbled in ballet, modern dance, ballroom dance, swing, bellydance, and Argentine tango. I’ve studied Spanish, German, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, and Latin. I just can’t seem to decide on one thing. Heck, I have trouble with menus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is necessarily bad. It’s fun and healthy and uplifting to try new things. But I can’t be equally interested in everything, no matter how much I’d like to tell myself I can. My life is (gasp!) not infinite.

And some things are so much more worthy of my interest than others.

“Jesus” is on my Livejournal list of interests too, buried under 149 other things. And, yeah, I was interested in Jesus in college. But let’s face it, not that much.

My faith didn’t grow much in college. I was too busy sampling all kinds of new ideas and running from activity to activity to read my Bible, worship, or pray.

Now I am old and wise by comparison. Not really. I still try to do way too much. But I have learned one powerful thing: the more obsessed I am with Jesus, the better. He isn’t just one more thing on the list of things I’m vaguely interested in.

The more interested I am in Jesus, the more interesting everything else is too. And loving Jesus can be the unifying force that makes all my other seemingly random interests hang together.

With Jesus at the center of things, everywhere I travel becomes part of the Way. Every new idea I find is measured by the Truth. Everything I do becomes part of the Life. Sometimes hard, messy, frustrating? Sure. But also shot through with hope.

This is part of my Christian walk. This is part of learning faithfulness: putting all those random interests under the umbrella of the best One of all.


Lenten Love Stories #2: The Mysterious Kiss

May 23rd, 2004

Just another Literary Guild meeting, I thought. I brought pumpkin bread to share. Officially I was Guild president, but that was just a title to put on my (now already accepted) college application. We were really a glorified book group, some nerdy friends who worked together at the community college’s Writing Lab.

We sat at the beautiful oak table in Pat’s dining room. My boss at the Writing Lab, Becky, sat to my right. She’d picked out the month’s reading, just one chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. Usually we tackled things like Homer’s Iliad, but the summer highs had already crept above a hundred degrees, so Becky had suggested something short, something light and summery by our standards: “The Grand Inquisitor.”

Three hours we sat there and talked about that chapter. It was nine-thirty by the time Becky drove me home, and I remember how the stars looked as we bounced down the dirt road. I was giddy with energy. I was newly in love.

The chapter (spoiler warning!) takes the form of a story told by one brother to another. Ivan is the skeptic, Alyosha the one with the childlike faith, and Ivan tells Alyosha a story about Jesus. Jesus coming back to earth during the Spanish Inquisition and meeting the Grand Inquisitor, the head of it all. Actually, the Inquisitor has Jesus thrown into prison.

Visiting the captured Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor stares at him and exclaims: “Is it Thou? Thou? … Don’t answer, be silent… Thou hast no right to add to anything thou said of old.” Jesus obeys, looking on in silence as the old man rants about how Jesus ruined everything during his encounter with Satan in the desert, when he denied the temptations of “miracle, mystery and authority.” Jesus refused to manipulate people into submission to him – he left them with their freedom to accept or reject him. The Inquisitor explains that people are too weak for this freedom, that they need control, that no one can live up to the standards Jesus taught, that the church is now controlling the masses and fixing these mistakes Jesus made.

He concludes his indictment of Jesus by saying that he will burn him at the stake as the worst of heretics, and the same people who worship him today will rush tomorrow to throw more kindling on the fire that consumes him.

Alyosha interrupts the story at this point, horrified, saying his brother is misrepresenting Christianity and that the Inquisitor clearly doesn’t believe in God. Ivan admits the old man’s atheism, but says it’s actually compassion for humanity that drives him forward, his sincere realization that the average person will never be able to carry the burden of morality Jesus has placed on his or her shoulders.

Around that oak table, we asked ourselves and each other, Is faith a sign of weakness or of strength? Is religion inevitably cruel and oppressive? Are people really too weak to follow the hard teachings of Jesus?

I took Ivan’s side in these questions. I couldn’t help but see the ugliness of religion, how it was so often used for cruelty, how the teachings of Jesus seemed often to burden people instead of setting them free. I was grateful for Ivan’s boldness in asking questions, his frankness in admitting he couldn’t believe in God.

But when we got to the end of Ivan’s story, something happened to me. I’d read through the thing quickly by myself, but discussing it with my friends around the table, the words jumped out at me as if for the first time.

Jesus looks at the old man in silence. The Inquisitor wishes he would say something, anything at all, no matter how terrible. But then Jesus silently comes forward and kisses the old man on his wrinkled lips. That’s the only answer he gives.

The old man shudders, opens the door to the cell, and lets him go. Ivan concludes the story, “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”

A kiss? That was Jesus’s idea of an answer to this torrent of words? The thought almost offended me, but at the same time touched me in a way I couldn’t explain. My own mind, so full of doubt and argument, bumped up against a love so great it didn’t have to explain itself.

The kiss glowed in my own heart as I came home under the stars. I didn’t yet understand what was happening to me. That night God called to me and I heard, a moment as mysterious and irresistible as suddenly falling in love.

Lenten Love Stories #1: How I Came Back to the Church

October 2008

I woke up one day with this song in my head I hadn’t heard since childhood. A song they used to sing sometimes in my church when we went up to receive Communion. But I’d stopped going to that church ten years ago. I couldn’t believe I still remembered it.

Do not be afraid; I am with you / I have called you each by name / Come and follow me, I will bring you home / I love you and you are mine

I had just moved to the city from my small-town college, still slept on my friends’ living room floor. After months of applying for jobs, I’d landed one at a cookie factory, what I called “my I Love Lucy  job.” Workdays, I woke up at three in the morning, ate plain oatmeal, and went to wait for the train in the dark. When I left work, it was dark again.

The day I woke up with the song in my head, though, was Saturday, a day off. On Saturdays, I woke up and tried to meditate, perhaps trying to convince myself there was something romantically monastic about my spartan lifestyle.

I opened the book of devotions I was using to a random page, and the same words jumped out at me, the beginning of Isaiah 43:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned;
    the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

I blinked. How weird, I thought. Well, maybe I had seen this page on another day and that was what got the song into my head. I did my usual sad attempt at meditating and went about my day.

The next day, Sunday, I decided to try out a church. I’d never really stuck with one in college, preferring to make brunch for friends on Sunday morning. But now, in this new place, I’d decided it would be good for me to have a church of my own. It would help me meet people. I’d heard about this church before, seen its beautiful picture online, heard great things about its welcoming atmosphere.

It happened to be a Catholic church, like the one I’d grown up in.

When I came out as a Christian to my father in my late teens, the first thing he asked me was, “Does that mean you’ll do everything the Pope says now?”

“No, Dad,” I said, with a great show of patience. “That’s Catholics. I’m not specifically Catholic anymore, I’m just a Christian.”

During my college years, I’d never felt a draw back to my childhood church. The churches I shopped were Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, nondenominational.  I’d attended maybe one Catholic Mass since my conversion, and I felt completely unmoved by it.

The one thing I’d really missed about Mass was Communion. Some of the churches I’d attended only shared the bread and wine occasionally, and that never felt quite right to me. So as the Mass went on, I started to get excited about receiving Communion again. After all these years of getting it sporadically at best, I guess I was hungry.

Finally the moment approached. People started to sing the Communion song.

I started to laugh. Then I started to cry, covered my face and sobbed right there in my wooden pew.

It was the song that had been in my head for the last two days: “You Are Mine,” by David Haas.

As I went up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, I was crying so hard I couldn’t even think of singing. On my way back to my seat, a stranger swept me into her arms and gave me a huge hug.

Things like this don’t happen to me. You should know that. I am not a magnet for miracles, or even remarkable coincidences. But after all my wandering and all my doubting, that day I got a sign I couldn’t ignore. Don’t be afraid, it said. Come on. This way is home.

Year One of Forever

I like to call it the smorgasbord approach to life.

Others might call it lack of attention span.

I like everything bagels and pizzas loaded with toppings. I’ve taken classes in ballet, modern dance, ballroom, bellydance, lindy hop and Argentine tango, most for a year or less. And, needless to say, I loved liberal arts college and took a little bit of everything, from Classical Latin to Latin American studies, from geomorphology to poetry.

All this to say, I’m not great at sticking to things sometimes. I love starting something new… but after a year or two, it gets old.

That is not the case with this blog. I can hardly believe it’s been a year since I pressed “publish” on my first post (not counting the introductory one). I’ve done a hundred and twenty-three posts in total, and I have never once wondered what to say. In fact, I have a ton of ideas I haven’t used yet.

For me, this is huge. I have found something I truly love doing. I still have so much to learn about blogging, and I know my blogging will change (I’m planning some exciting changes for this space soon, in fact). But writing about what following Jesus looks like in my life, how I wrestle with the Bible, the Spirit-dreams I hope will shape my future? I’ve only begun to dive in, and I hope to go deeper and deeper.

I got a little closer to my vocation this year, through all of this. I learned that I want to be a truth-teller, to fight my tendency to fear and worry by retelling stories that lighten people’s burdens. I want to share the goodness of God, not out of obligation but out of joy, like holding out a cupcake to my friend and saying, “Taste this. It is so good.” I want to be healed, to take the stick out of my own eye so I can see clearly to truly help others.

Thank you to everyone who’s left an encouraging comment, left any comment, just joined the conversation. Your presence has been a true blessing. I hope the future will bring even more conversation and connection.

But ultimately, aside from comments and hits and likes, even from friendships and connections, I wanted to do this for sheer joy. And I have, and I am, and I will. There is so much glory in dark corners and on forgotten pages, and I want to keep proclaiming it more and more, telling it with stories and essays and conversations and hopefully with my life.

I could do it forever. And maybe I will.

Humble Pie Never Tasted So Sweet

San Francisco de Asis Mission Church

(Photo credit: Snap Man)

You may be wondering how my visit to my mom went – my first visit in over six years. I must admit, as that train rocked restlessly I tried to distract myself from thoughts of the past, tears shed on previous visits, harsh words that had passed both ways between us over the years. I was full of anticipation and anxiety as I stepped off the train into the hot California morning.

And there she was, waiting just outside, screaming like I was a rock star. We hugged and kissed and I thought how different she looked after all these years apart – and I realized that, whether this visit lived up to my fears or exceeded my dreams, I’d be glad I had come, just for the privilege of being here, next to her in space.

As it happened, the visit was pretty great. I credit good timing, grace, and of course, your prayers. Thank you so much to all those who prayed. I’m so glad I asked; I could really feel the difference.

Over the three-day weekend, the two of us walked around town in the sunshine. We ate omelets with hash browns and English muffins at Mom’s favorite sun-soaked brunch place, real Tex-Mex like I hadn’t had in years, cut up fruit with lime juice and chili on the bus (probably against the rules). I stole sips of her iced mochas. We walked to the library and hung out outside it with a statue of John Steinbeck and the library mascot, a small tortoise. I read to her from The Message as her bedtime approached.

Most beautiful of all, we worshiped side by side in a big church packed with families. We sang songs I remembered from when I was a child, and it made me think of how Mom all but dragged me to church that first time, how patiently she’d answered my frantic, searching questions about religion as a child, her responses amounting to, Well, there are a lot of things we don’t know, honey. Be patient. God will reveal it to you. Without her guiding me toward baptism and my first taste of holy bread and wine, who knows if I’d believe today?

And then, before we ate bread and wine from the same table for the first time in seven years, we sat holding hands, waiting for the Scripture to be read to us. The lector’s voice rang out, speaking words from the book of Wisdom:

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.

It was one of those times when the Word stood out to me in neon lights. This is for you. I knew I had almost been too proud to set aside my schedule, sacrifice the time and money I’d spent on the gift of this moment. I could have missed it all.

And then we made our way to the Table together for the first time in over seven years. I often thought of Mom when I received communion at home, knowing it brought me closer to her in a mystical way, but it was another thing to be right here beside her.

Mom had her problems when I was a kid. And I couldn’t kid myself: she has her problems now. We might never have your typical parent-child relationship. But I was grateful all the same for the relationship we had, for the ability to share what we did. I was so glad I’d humbled myself enough to admit I’d been wrong not to visit her all this time.

Yes, I’d been so wrong I could taste it. But bread and wine had never tasted sweeter.

Newsflash: Settlers of Catan Doesn’t Last Forever

Русский: Игра в "Settlers of Catan"

Forty-five minutes. That’s how long the Settlers of Catan box says it takes. Somehow I can’t seem to remember what a short time that is.

I kind of have a thing about board games. My sister and I got them every Christmas as kids, but rarely did we play them. We preferred games where we made up the rules, where our imagination set the only limits. And this was great: I remember fondly the entire days we spent on sagas in which Princess Clara (my Skipper doll) rescued entire civilizations of Littlest Pet Shop figurines from certain doom, armed only with her wits and her smart-mouthed flying pony. (I’m sure no one who knows me in real life will be surprised in the least to learn about this.)

The only downfall of such games with this: because there was no way to win or lose, I didn’t learn to do either one gracefully. And because I was such a natural perfectionist, I built up the importance of winning, or at least not losing badly, until it became life or death in my mind. Those few times we played Monopoly as a family (which really did seem to last forever – why is that game so long?) seemed to end with me overturning the board. I hated losing so much that I’d lose sight of absolutely everything else: friendships, family ties, proportion, dignity, and common sense.

I’m much better now. I mean, I’d better be, since board game parties are a popular way to hang out among my friends. Currently, I play Settlers several times a month, and I’ve never even been tempted to turn the board over (so far). But sometimes, I definitely slip back into bad habits. My adult version of this happens to be passive-aggressive comments delivered in that I’m-joking-or-am-I? tone of voice. Sometimes my frustration builds to the point where I’ll actually come out and say something outright: “Ugh, I can’t believe I even play this with you. I try to be nice and then you repay me by grinding my face in the dirt.”

I really don’t know why I act this way. It’s like I think the game is a map of my life, rather than something that’ll get packed up and tucked into my friend’s messenger bag, to be brought back the next time she comes over. The moments just seem so long that it seems to make total sense to blow off steam because I’m frustrated at myself for losing.

Maybe this seems like a small thing. In a way, it is. My friends let my remarks go by, because they’re much classier than I am, and they always offer to let me play again next time. My family has even long forgiven me for those horrible childhood games of Monopoly (at least I hope so). But as with so many things, it raises larger questions in my mind.

Why do I still somehow think it’s more important to win than to be kind? Why is it so hard for me to realize that, whether I win or lose, the game will soon be over and we’ll all forget about it? Why is it so hard for me to look at the faces of my friends instead of obsessively scrutinizing the board, to think about how blessed I am to be with them instead of counting my points and inwardly reciting the rules?

In the grand scheme of things, forty-five minutes is nothing. Even my life is just a breath. Everything will be over before I know it. Will I have spent my time obsessing over winning some kind of prize I can’t take with me, or will I be able to look past the fake rules and objectives and set my eyes on what really matters?

I guess I’ll work on the Catan game first. Then maybe I can work on remembering what really matters for the length of an entire movie. Wow, at this rate I hope I have enough time left to learn how to truly enjoy it…

Twentysomething Jesus

Sleeping office worker.I’m sure it will shock no one to hear that sometimes, sitting in my gray cubicle with the angry ringing phone, I get a little discouraged. Honestly, it’s not that the pay is low; it is, but I have enough to provide for my modest needs (and many wants) and not so much that I can’t sympathize with those in true need. It’s not that the work is boring and there’s no room for advancement, although those things are true too. More than anything, it’s feeling lost, irrelevant, hidden away in the windowless building like so much obsolete office equipment. Are my gifts wasting away in there? Shouldn’t I be using them for God? Will I ever figure out what I should really be doing?

I think many in my generation feel this way. As kids, we were told to dream big. As college students, we looked forward to our futures. Then, on our own in a precarious economy, we realized sometimes it was hard enough to keep or get any job. I know I used to feel like my horizons were unlimited, and when I hit the job market in 2008, I felt like I’d walked into a sliding glass door I’d never known was there. There are exceptions, of course, and many of us have rallied beautifully, creatively pursuing our dreams even when they look different than we thought. But for many of us, keeping the vision alive through the daily grind is, let’s be honest, hard.

On those kinds of days, I like to imagine what Jesus was doing when he was my age. Nothing too interesting to the outside world, apparently, considering all we know about it. We do know he worked with his hands, probably for the family business. It’s clear from his later life that he read the Scriptures and thought about what they meant a lot. He also no doubt spent a good bit of time watching the subtleties of nature, their slow cycles: storms telling the weather, fig trees blooming, grain growing – or not – from scattered seed.

I love thinking about those years of his life, hidden from the world, but known to God. Jesus never spoke to his disciples about that time, or if he did, the words were not preserved, making the experience doubly lost. But I know he didn’t see them as lost. He often speaks of secret things as precious to God, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. He says God loves the prayers we pray in secret, with our door shut, and the fasting we hide from the world, and the money we give so sneakily even we barely realize it. Those who want credit for their acts of devotion, he says, have already received their reward. They can either have it now or later, and they’ve chosen now. But they’re going to miss out on the surprise God would have kept for them, something more beautiful than they could ever request or imagine.

So maybe I’ve learned something from my twenties after all, even though they haven’t gone the way I’ve planned. Realizing the meaninglessness of the dreams I used to nurture is surely a kind of meaning in itself. Maybe God is slowly teaching me that it’s not that I used to dream too big, but that I’m still not dreaming big enough.

Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself to get through days in the cubicle.

But I’d like to think Jesus is right there with me.

Grace: Not Just Something You Say

I didn’t grow up saying grace over food, not even in the old days when my family went to church together. Well, we memorized the standard Catholic grace-before-meals, but we never said it consistently. I learned a few graces, too, in Girl Scouts, upbeat little songs that seemed silly compared to the stern grandeur of the Catholic prayer.  In either context, not only did the graces said not penetrate my heart, but they never even shaped my mind, never became one of those good habits moms drill into you like buckling your seat belt or brushing your teeth.

My conversion at age 18 didn’t sell me on grace either; as I wrote at the time, I thought “churches and ceremony” gave people “a false sense of security.” Even through college, I scorned most spiritual disciplines, didn’t attend church regularly, didn’t pray or read the Bible. Though I called myself a Christian, I could almost forget about my faith for days at a time. I certainly didn’t find my three square meals a day occasion to remember it. Grace seemed too superstitious, inorganic, almost insincere.

Only within the last few years have I come to see the value of this ritual. Strange, because food and shared meals have always been core symbols of the faith for me. The transition from hunger to fullness recalls the Beatitudes. Sharing a meal with loved ones and guests echoes the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples and his instructions to remember him “whenever you do this.” Scripture actually invites us to “taste and see the goodness of God,” like it’s a feast we can sink our teeth into, like it’s tempting us to take that first bite. And I’ve always loved feeding people, expressing my love through a loaf of pumpkin bread or pizza from scratch, my little way of echoing the love of God in the concrete.

We all need food. Sharing food fosters friendship. Giving food shows love. I understood all of this without words.

But now I know that words are valuable too.

I started to learn this in my junior year of college, when I was part of a dinner co-op with six friends. We’d all trade off making dinner in pairs five times a week, then fend for ourselves on Fridays and Saturdays. On the whole, it worked well, and we all learned a lot about cooking (my tablemates patiently bore with me through some memorable botched meals, including mouth-scorching chili and a truly disastrous first batch of pizza).

My friends Katrina and Anna are wonderful cooks and hostesses, and night after night when it was their turn, they’d set the table meticulously, set out some steaming, succulent dish plated beautifully… and ask us to wait. Then Katrina would read out loud a poem she’d selected beforehand, maybe something by Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry, and we’d chew the words over, looking around at each other’s faces. When the poem was over, we’d take a breath before digging in, and the food would somehow taste even better for the ritual.

They graduated and left, and I began tucking into meals without pausing again. It took me years to figure out that I missed it, the moment of silence and the carefully chosen words, to make a meal something more. So I started taking a breath, taking a moment to pause thankfully before sating my hunger, and in the act of doing it, I’ve realized what grace really means.

Why is it called grace? Because the definition of “grace” is “a gift I don’t deserve,” and I don’t deserve my food. Sure, more often than not I’m the one who cooked it, bought it at the supermarket or the farmer’s market. But could I feed myself entirely on my own? Absolutely not. By the time my food reaches my lips, so much energy has already gone into it that my own act of cooking seems like nothing.

Could I make meals like I do if I had to grow my own wheat and grind my own flour and make my own pasta? My lifestyle wouldn’t allow it. Could I enjoy the bounty of foods and the variety of ingredients and cuisines I do without the help of others? No. These things have nothing to do with my merit; they’re a gift, and they should inspire my gratitude. So grace is a way of remembering where my food comes from and a way of honoring those whose hard work went into its making.

And even if I did grow my own vegetables and mill my own flour, would I not be dependent, as all farmers are, on temperature and rainfall and other earthly processes that nourish seeds and make them come alive? Could I ever truly say I made my food myself when its growth depended on so many things beyond my control? Agriculture itself is a gift. The security it provides us with is surely a gift, since I doubt I’d do better at hunting deer and gathering berries than I would at farming. In a sense, my entire existence is a gift which the gift of food makes possible.

Sharing food with others I love is also completely undeserved. It’s a wild blessing that I’m alive, that they’re alive, and that we’re together. It’s worthy of celebration, just like the meal Jesus shared with his friends. It’s a holy moment every time, and the ritual of saying grace reminds me I’m on sacred ground.

Honestly, a few words and a pause before a meal don’t even do all of this justice. But it helps me to keep it more in mind, to pause my whirling brain for a moment and try to comprehend the degree to which I need to be thankful. And then, like the energy in my food fuels my actions for the day, that moment of thankfulness can fuel the sharing of my blessings with those around me, can help me view my life as bread to be broken, a little at a time, meal by meal.

Nine Words to Guide My Future

In 2004, I remember sitting on that worn basement couch after Bible Study and telling someone for the first time that I was a Christian. I remember walking home to my dorm that night a little drunk on cosmic love, naïvely dreaming of doing Something Great for Jesus Someday as I pushed the glass door of my dorm open, caught between wild darkness and warm glow.

In 2005, I traveled to Greece with its grand, golden, empty churches. I walked to the one neighborhood people told me not to go to, down streets crammed with people and past shops crammed with imported trinkets, to the soup kitchen above a falafel shop. Heavenly smell as I climbed the stairs! Inside, slopping soup and taking names, I learned that my smile was sometimes not enough, that Something Great for Jesus was hard to do, but nonetheless, I kept showing up.

In 2006, they called from Arizona to tell me my grandmother was dying. I flew home immediately, though we’d never been that close and my teenage self-absorption and her dementia had just widened the gap. When I walked in the room I barely recognized her, her body curled in fetal position, the vibrant red hair of her youth almost gone. We children and grandchildren held her hand and fed her ice chips and sang to her and talked to her, although we didn’t know if she could sense our presence anymore. She died the next day, all of us in the room watching her chest rise and fall until it didn’t anymore. What can I say? I’d never loved her more. In those few days, I saw Jesus in her.

In 2007, I went to live in rural Panama for two months. I went “to help,” which was, again, a total joke. I lived with nine other people in a house with one room and one light bulb. They pulled out all the stops for me, gave me the only real bed, taught me merengue and how to wash my clothes by hand. Everywhere I went in that town of maybe a hundred, people pulled out their best plastic chairs, shooed away their dogs, sliced up mangoes, made coffee, killed a precious chicken for my dinner. The strangeness of their world almost shook my faith apart, and their generosity put it back together again.

In 2008, I graduated college, moved to a new state, and couldn’t get a job for three months. Then I got a job, which I found exhausting and grueling, and I almost got fired except I cried in my boss’s office and she took pity on me. I almost couldn’t function, unable to live with my utter incompetence, not wanting to leave the house. The worst was feeling like I’d failed God by letting all this crush me. But I remember, too, crying on the phone with a distant friend about my multiple levels of failure, and she said, “Oh Rachel, don’t you know God loves you so much he’ll never let you go?” And I cried more, because somehow I hadn’t known it before, and now I did.

In 2009, I found a church home for the first time. Weeks before Lent, I walked into that shabby wooden building not knowing how much it would shape the next several years of my life. I ate the bread and drank the wine, and it started to infect me, ever so slowly, like yeast or a creeping weed like mustard plants. They drilled the Preferential Option for the Poor into my head with sermon after sermon, they washed my feet on Holy Thursday and stayed up until midnight with me on Easter Vigil. Before I knew it I wasn’t just a spectator, I was part of the Body again, bringing muffins to interminable meetings in which we plotted how to bring the Kingdom always just a little closer.

In 2010, I picked up my dusty Bible and read the thing through for the very first time. I wrestled with twisted family histories, purity codes, temple blueprints, census numbers, raving prophets, and strange riddles, and I realized something that should always have been obvious: This is a love story, beginning to end.

In 2011, I started praying for real. I sat in silence and tried to learn to just Be with the one who is called I Am Who I Am. I met a woman from Canada on the Internet who wanted to be prayer partners with me. I prayed for her through her months of bed rest during what was possibly one of the world’s most epically difficult pregnancies, and she prayed, with awesome humility, for my relatively pain-free life and my rampant pride issues. We’d wake up while it was still dark sometimes to encourage each other, and miles away we’d pray with similar desperation things like Please let me get through this day.

In 2012, I found myself sitting in on a rather unremarkable seminary class and I heard some words read aloud that were like a big neon sign to me: This is a clue to what you do with your life. It had to do with some of my favorite things: bread and words and desert rain. It was Isaiah 55:10-11:

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

In 2013, I’m wrestling with that passage and how to make those words come true in me. Can I do it? Too early to tell, really. It may take another nine years. It may take the rest of my life, or even more than that. Who knows.

If I make it through the next nine years, I’ll be thirty-six, the age my mother was when she had me, her first child. I think about that and I think, It’s not too late to give birth to what will bring you your greatest joy. When I think about the future, I think about what I want to define me, and I think of learning these nine words by heart until they power me like a heartbeat: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Recipe for Rebirth

Looking back at my life nine years ago, I can’t help but ask myself what it was about that moment that made me suddenly want to follow Jesus. Why then, ten years since attending church for the first time, having had countless conversations with friends and relatives about their faith, did the Jesus story suddenly seem real and applicable to me?

Another journal entry, this one from September 2004, gives me the best answer I’ve found so far. (Again, not edited for language.)

Here are, in my mind, the fundamentals of Christianity:

1. Humility. We all fuck up, every day, like clockwork. It is part of being human. We can’t escape the flaws of our minds and souls any more than we can death, the ultimate flaw of our bodies. And as much as we all hate to admit it, we cannot do anything about this. We cannot become perfect, blessed, pain-free beings through force of will, good intentions, experience, book learning, or anything else. What, then, can help us?

2. Hope. The main story of Christianity is about a man who died and rose again. This is ludicrous, impossible, stupid. Yet aren’t all forms of hope? Hope means believing that, impossibly enough, love can come from our emptiness and weakness, that when all we see is dead ends and sacrifice and suffering, something else will come to fill the suffering and transform it. This is what I have a hard time believing, not to mention arguing, because what if it isn’t true? Still, even if those who hope are wrong and deluded, maybe they will still be able to do what they thought was impossible. At least they will have a reason to keep trying. Is it weak to need a reason? Yes. But so are we.

These, not particular Bible verses, are fundamentals worth clinging to. Neither one should be compromised. If you have humility without hope, you give up. If you have hope without humility, you become proud, and then you fall. If you have both, you just might be sane. Also, you just might be Christian.

Frankly, it blows my mind to read this, for one thing because I still believe it. Out of the mouths of babes! This is still the crux of my central struggle as a Christian: to accept my deeply flawed nature and to cling to hope despite that. One of those things that Shane Claiborne might describe as “simple and hard as crud.” It also blows my mind how close this is to Romans 7:15-25, a poignant description of the hope of Christ breaking through the apparent hopelessness of human nature. And I know I didn’t get it from the Bible, because I wouldn’t really read the Bible for years.

But this entry encapsulates my mental state at the time very well. Poised on the edge of adulthood, soon to leave home and go to college, I was getting to know both humility and hope better than ever before. On the one hand, as a teenager, I was struggling with the knowledge of my own limits, my inadequacy, and my propensity to do things I knew were wrong (disrespecting my family was a big one, according to those old journal entries). On the other hand, I felt that in leaving for college I’d be able to make a new start, and anything seemed possible.

My adult life stretched out before me; so far, it was unmarred by mistakes, but I knew it soon would be black with them. Also, I was painfully aware of all the adults around me who dealt with their mistakes and subsequent regret in all kinds of unhealthy ways, from addiction to complete social disengagement to unbridled anger. They were good people, nice people, well-intentioned people, but this did not save them from an endless cycle of pain and bad decisions and pain and bad decisions, lather rinse repeat. And I think all this made me unusually disposed to hope that somehow, there was a Way out of such a cycle.

I was scared and guilty and confused and unprepared. In short, I was ready for some good news. I was listening hard for it, and I heard it, heard the Good News as if it were spoken directly to me: blessed are the desperately lonely, the inveterate losers, the constant screw-ups, for they shall receive, because they don’t deserve it, the gift of abundant hope.