The following was originally written for my application to the MA program at Western Seminary. I’ve also submitted a condensed version of it to a writing contest. If you like it, would you please vote for it?
Tossed by the Wind
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” — John 3:8
I live in Iowa, which is windy—very, very windy. I’ve noticed over the years that wind can take many forms. When it is gentle, it will make wind chimes tinkle, filling the summer air with random music. At other times, wind is powerful, scary, and noisy. During thunderstorms and tornadoes it can tear down tree branches and destroy entire towns. This powerful force can be harnessed by turbines and turned into a source of energy. Its power is collected, processed, and turned into something else. And so it is with the Holy Spirit. The ruach that swept over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation is the driving force behind all that we do in faith, guiding and empowering us.
In the gospel of John, Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again. The Christian church, as a whole, has debated what this means. For some, it means to say the “Sinner’s Prayer” and ask Jesus into one’s heart. For others, it means to have a dramatic experience like Paul had on the road to Damascus.
I have had neither of those experiences.
Family and Faith of Origin
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.–Ephesians 4:4-6
I still have the bulletin from the congregational church service from the day I was baptized. It was September 3, 1978 at North Canaan Congregational Church.
The church gathered together that morning at 11:00 a.m., praying to be a faithful witness in the world, confessing to be rebellious, asking for forgiveness and restoration, and to be made alive to serve God in faith, obedience, and joy.
They were assured of pardon.
Then, with the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” as water was dripped over my head, I was baptized into a community of forgiven people, and I belonged.
Or did I?
Belonging is tricky, especially when your parents attend different churches and want you baptized in both. So that afternoon, in a separate ceremony at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, I again had water dripped over my head, and again the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” were recited.
And again, I belonged.
Perhaps, as we left the church, an early fall breeze blew over my dark hair, still damp from my baptism, a premonition of the Spirit’s presence in my life.
Early Childhood/Early Adolescence
It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” –Lamentations 26-28; 31-32
I spent much of my childhood shuffling between both churches, sometimes attending Sunday School at the congregational church and sometimes attending catechism at the Catholic church. In both, I learned and abided by the different rules: communion in one was okay, but not the other until I had my first communion (my sister and I would practice with breath mints while everyone else got to walk forward).
I took my belonging in both churches somewhat seriously. In the Catholic church, we recited the Nicene Creed each week, but I would always skip the line about one holy catholic church. Then, in the congregational church, I’d adjust how I said the Lord’s Prayer to make it match the other version better.
In the Catholic Church, the consecrated hosts for communion were kept in the tabernacle before being used. I always saw Miss Keilty’s back while she stood in front of it, but I desperately wanted to see the inside. Because this was where Jesus dwelled, and it was too small to house a grown human being, plus, because Jesus had died and was sitting at the right hand of the Father, I had imagined that inside of this cabinet there would be dancing lights, as if it was some magical, mystical place. One time I did see inside, and though it was ornate, it was empty and ordinary. There were no dancing lights. I was disappointed, and I wondered, where was God?
My disillusionment with church grew through the years, whether it was due to boredom, not understanding, or witnessing hypocrisy in the lives of people around me—and not understanding the struggles they were facing. Still, I participated, and even enjoyed parts of it, such as the Christmas Eve pageant which ended in a candlelight service. Eventually it came time for confirmation, and as this was a serious time commitment, going to both churches was not going to be realistic. While getting confirmed was not my choice, I at least had the opportunity to choose which church’s confirmation classes I would attend, and I picked St. Joseph’s, because that is where most of my friends also went. Confirmation was done on a three year cycle, and I entered the process with two years left.
In May of 1993, we all sat there, in those first few pews of the church, draped in our red robes, hoping we wouldn’t be called on to randomly answer questions. Many classmates were wearing nice “church clothes” under their robes, shirts with ties, new dresses they’d bought specifically for the occasion. I wore a plain white t-shirt and red shorts. It made little sense to me to get dressed up for something that didn’t matter to me. After we were done, and we stood around outside, shaking hands and getting congratulatory hugs from well-wishers, a gentle spring breeze blew our hair around.
During this time, I never really questioned the core beliefs that I’d recited each week, only their relevance and importance to my life, and within a year or so of my confirmation, my church attendance stopped. Sometimes, when I was lonely or desperate, I would pray, with barely a glimmer of hope that God was still there, somewhere, but answers were not forthcoming. There wasn’t even a whisper.
God was silent.
Adult Life (post-high school)
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. –James 1:5-7, NRSV
In November of 1996, I went on a retreat sponsored by the campus ministry department at Merrimack College, where I had transferred after one year commuting to a branch of the University of Connecticut. We spent the weekend in a large house on a beach somewhere in Yarmouth, MA, on Cape Cod, the waves rhythmically moving in and out, the November air cold and windy, the sky gray and dull.
God showed up.
During one activity, for a brief period of time, I sensed God’s Presence in the room. It was not a feeling I had, nothing that came from inside of me, but rather, something that surrounded me and the only description of it I could come up with was that it was Love and that it was God.
A few days after I returned, I wrote in my journal, “It was an amazing experience. It is so difficult to express in words…I felt loved and cared for, not only by the people there, but also by God. He was with us throughout the weekend and I know He is still with me. That is something I have always had trouble dealing with—believing that. But now I do believe it.”
Life circumstances led me from Massachusetts that fall to Utah that winter, until I finally settled in Albuquerque, NM in June of 1997. I registered for classes at the University of New Mexico and became an English Literature major with a Religious Studies minor. I’d been attending a Bible study regularly since I moved there and a discovered deep desire for learning the Bible. The Bible, however, was more complex than I’d realized, and the more I dug into it, the more questions I had. Why would Matthew use Hosea 11:1 to refer to Jesus when in its original context it is obviously about Israel? Why would my professor convert from Christianity to Judaism? Wasn’t that a step backward? Why was the T.A. for my Milton class an atheist? How could he not know that God exists? During these next few years, I also became involved in online discussion boards—and came across many other people who had rejected Christianity for one reason or another. Particularly concerning to me were the Orthodox Jews I’d met, who had completely different scriptural interpretations that I’d never heard. This led to one night, sitting at my dining room table in tears, asking my husband, “What if everything I have ever believed is wrong?”
In the years since then, I have had ups and downs in my faith. I have had moments of great certainty and moments of great doubt. As troubling and difficult as doubt can be, it is also something that I am thankful for, as it causes me to seek and to search for God and at times to be able to simply say “I don’t know, but I trust.” I once heard a sermon in which the pastor spoke about how it is wrong to doubt; based on these verses from James. I was disappointed in this admonition, not only because the idea of doubt was taken out of context of what it actually means, but also because doubt can be a very powerful tool to strengthen and deepen one’s faith.
Currently, I am in a place where I know that despite affirming the historic Christian creeds, faith can be fragile. Sometimes, even faith the size of a mustard seed is difficult. Yet, it is a gift given by God, taken one day at a time, examined, explored, and exercised in all areas of life, with the Holy Spirit blowing in the background.
As with the many types of winds, the Holy Spirit is present in different ways at different times. The Spirit that was present at the dawn of creation, at my baptism, during times of clarity and during my darkest times, is still there. Sometimes, it is only a quick breath, other times, a forceful presence. When everything is dark and formless, when life seems to be at a standstill, when everything is in a state of confusion and I don’t know which way to go, the Holy Spirit is there. When everything feels hopeless and I feel lost, the Holy Spirit is there, tossing me into the next part of my journey.