This Lenten season our church has been talking about Transformation. Many members have shared their personal stories of transformation, so I thought I would share more of what God has been doing in my life.
During Lent, we are often encouraged to take on additional spiritual disciplines. Some common ones are prayer, journaling, fasting, worship, silence and solitude, etc. These practices are tools we use to be intentional about drawing closer to God. These tools can be used anytime, not just during special seasons.
The spiritual practice of choosing One Word to focus on with God each year has been very powerful for me. I started this practice in 2014 when our pastors invited the congregation to pick a word for the year. As I pondered what my word would be for that year, I realized if I had chosen a word for the previous year, it would have been ‘Listen’. I had taken some Spiritual Formation classes where I learned how to be still and listen to God’s tiny whispers in my heart.
For 2014, I settled on the word ‘Wisdom’. In my experience, sometimes you choose a word and sometimes a word chooses you. This word came to me during a Healing and Wholeness service in a swirl that reminded me of the stories of Pentecost. It was the Wisdom from the Serenity prayer.
Lord, Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.
The word encouraged me to put into play the truths I had learned, to live by these truths rather than just ‘knowing’ them in my mind. It guided me to start healing from the effects that my mother’s alcoholism had on my childhood, and my adulthood. It led me to realize my own issues with alcohol, and other addictive substances like wheat and sugar. Through this word, God showed me how to lay down destructive behaviors and choose a better way.
Then in 2015, the word ‘All’ chose me. I was not happy with this word. I would have preferred a more biblical word, but it stuck and I couldn’t get rid of it. This word had two lessons for me. The first lesson was to give God my all as in Mark 12:30, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second lesson was to let God be my all. Looking back, I see that these lessons bled into subsequent years.
In 2016, I started wrestling with a call to ministry. I couldn’t settle for just one word — more truthfully, I would not accept what the word really was — so I worked with the words ‘Open’ and ‘Trust’. The Pharisee in me wanted to be legalistic and use just one word. I told people my word was ‘Faith’, which felt like a combination of being open and trusting. It was such a nice gentle word, but it wasn’t really my word. By August of that year, I finally admitted that my word was really ‘Surrender’. Now that is a tough word, but it’s what God calls us to do, over and over again. I thought the best way to surrender was to go to Seminary to prepare for ordination as a pastor. I applied and I was accepted to start school the following fall.
This gave me plenty of time to work on my word for 2017, which was ‘Confidence’. Confidence in myself, in my ability to complete graduate studies, in my willingness to tell people about my calling, confidence in telling my story. But this was not the whole lesson, as it never is. God had a much bigger lesson for me to learn. It was about God’s son, Jesus Christ. This was the lesson I resisted most.
My first class in Seminary was on Pluralism. In class, we discussed the possibility that believing in Jesus Christ was not the only road to salvation. As someone who did not grow up in church, this idea was very appealing to me. That the road could be wider, that the sacrifice not so great, that it could be easy. As I wrestled with the material, God wrestled with me. Or rather, I wrestled with God. I don’t think God ever really wrestles with us. I think God stands firm, while we try with all our might to budge God to our will. Like a toddler wrestling with a parent. We always know who wins that battle, yet we fight anyway.
At about mid-term, life got in the way and it became clear that now was not the time to pursue a degree. After many tears and much disappointment, I withdrew from Seminary. Because I had been so public about my decision to go to school, I posted a light-hearted story about withdrawing from school. I felt peace with the decision but I was a bit heart-broken. I knew that I didn’t understand the full picture. God still had not revealed everything there was to know. The confidence lesson still needed to be learned. I had lost a bit of confidence in my abilities and in my discernment. I felt a bit ungrounded, like I had jumped off a cliff but had not yet hit bottom. I was not sure where I was going to land.
A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to go on a Spiritual Retreat. I had gone the previous year and had enjoyed the opportunity then to talk to many pastors about their call to ministry. This year I wasn’t sure what to pursue, so I just went open-minded and open-hearted. The speaker was an amazing storyteller. She told a story about a baby eagle that had been raised with chickens. The eaglet walked around pecking at the ground, with its wings tucked in like all the other chickens. One day an adult eagle flies overhead and sees this young eagle acting like a chicken. The adult eagle yells, “Stretch your wings. You are not a chicken. You are meant to fly, to soar.” So, after some arguing, the young eagle stretches his wings and flies. She tells the story in such a way that I can believe I am an eagle who just needs to stretch my wings to fly, to soar.
I am mesmerized by her storytelling and my heart is wide open. Then she starts a story about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. She talks about how Samaria was the ‘no-go’ area at the time and how people would go far out of their way to avoid going through Samaria. But Jesus went straight through. She then asked us, “What is your Samaria? What is your no-go area?”
As she tells the story, I notice the name of the man sitting next to me. Some writers I follow, talk about being aware of synchronicity; when circumstances seem to all swirl together with what others would call coincidences. Christians call them ‘God-things’. They say, “It was a God-thing”. Since I started paying attention, I have been blown away by the synchronicities. The way God can orchestrate the simplest things over and over again to accomplish His perfect will. The people I end up sitting by have been a pattern of these synchronicities. When I went to a retreat in Illinois to help discern whether to pursue Deacon or Elder ordination, the woman seated next to me was an ordained Deacon whose job was helping people discern their calling. When I was considering meeting with a counselor, everyone I sat next to for the next few weeks just happened to be a Licensed Counselor. So I was curious about the one sitting next to me at this retreat. His name was Peter. Yes, Peter, who denied Christ three times.
Oh, I am Peter.
“What is my Samaria? What is my no-go area?”
I realized that ‘Christian’ is my no-go area. Jesus is my Samaria. I am Peter, who acts like a follower but then denies Jesus when the pressure is on.
I hear Jesus address me as He addressed Paul on the road to Damascus, “Marissa, why do you persecute me?”
I hear Jesus ask me, “Do you love Me?”
I reply, “Yes, I love you.”
“Do you love Me?”, He asks again.
“Yes, I love you,” I answer.
“Marissa, do you love Me?”
And I can’t answer that third time. It is my no-go.
Hmmm…well that is something to ponder. Something to work through. I prayed and journaled a lot that week as I wrestled with God.
Who was Jesus to me? I’ve always liked the name Rabbi for Jesus. Teacher. I love to learn from Jesus’ wise teachings. And trusted friend. I saw Jesus as trusted counsel who could guide me through tough times. But Lord and Savior? Lord had always been my name for God, not for Jesus. And Savior was a churchy word that we used at Christmas when we sing, “A Savior is born”. I didn’t really understand the full meaning of these words. But then there was a shift in my heart. I realized that when I cried, “Lord”, I really was calling to Jesus. That I was aching to be saved. To be His. But I didn’t know how.
I met with a friend who is very comfortable discussing such things. I shared that I had never experienced one of those moments people talk about where they accept Jesus in their hearts as their Lord and Savior. She mentioned praying a prayer of surrender with an open and willing heart.
I had been learning about Jesus, I had been teaching about Jesus, and I wanted to follow Him, but…
I liked the duality. I was of two worlds and I wasn’t ready to give up my non-Christian status, my secular friends, my secular life. I liked having my options open. I am always amazed at how stubborn I can be. I was willing to go to Seminary, to study to be a Pastor, but I was not willing to be fully Christian. I loved Jesus with my mind and with my strength, but I wasn’t willing to give Him my heart or my soul.
I remembered a time after a powerful Healing and Wholeness Service when I was so overcome by emotion that I had to kneel at the cross in the Prayer Room to pull myself together. My heart cried out this strange prayer to Jesus, “Take me with you,” as if I were waiting for God to convert me. Just make me do it. Take me, rather than me having to make that big step. I found myself in a stalemate, with Jesus standing there with His hand stretched out saying, “Come.” And I’m standing there waiting for Jesus to come to me, “Come play by my rules, my will.” But I couldn’t hold out any longer. The surrender I had worked on the previous year finally came.
I’ve had some trouble with my back lately so I was in bed when I prayed this prayer of surrender. The exact same place where I first felt Jesus’ presence as a hand on my shoulder when I was so sick during pregnancy, the first time I felt that I was not alone. Fourteen years later, I prayed this prayer and surrendered my heart and soul to Jesus.
So my lesson this past year was not about confidence in myself, but confidence in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. What a beautiful, powerful lesson. It always amazes me what God will accomplish in us with just a little bit of intention from us. God is so good.
My word for 2018 is Steadfast. A combination of Hope and Perseverance. To Stand Firm in who God is, who Jesus is, and who I am created and called to be. I am confident that it will be a great lesson! My guiding verse for the year is:
Psalm 51:10 ~ Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
(This story was also posted on the First United Methodist Church of Grapevine Spiritual Formation blog at http://www.fumcg.org/blog/oneword)