Monday, November 28, 2011

My Path to Serenity & Beyond

You fall apart because you’re growing,
Unfolding slowly towards the light
 - from “A Christmas Carol” by The Neld Sisters

I’m sitting here weeping as I listen to Christmas music. Some of it, I’ve sung since I was a little girl (The Vocal Majority, VinceGuaraldi, Elvis, and John Denver & The Muppets, to name a few). I know the words, the melodies and the harmonies.

But it’s almost as if I’m truly hearing these Christmas songs for the first time.

For those of you not in the know, I became a believer earlier this year. If you haven’t read my most popular blog post, it may be worth checking out. It was a very long journey to reach that point of accepting Jesus as my savior, and it was filled with a lot of judgment, resistance, and over-analysis.

It amazes me where I came from, and where I am now.

One of the keystones in my journey of becoming a Christian (even though I was technically raised as one) was attending the spiritual training Pathways offers—called Step Beyond.

Step Beyond is only offered the first weekend of December each year.

I went through the Pathways Core training in August 2004.

So, that means it took me a whopping five years—until December 2009—to lay down enough judgments about the Step Beyond training to finally walk through those doors.

But, you know—everything happens for a reason. I truly believe that. And I knew that if I waited until I felt open enough to go to Step Beyond and feel receptive to whatever training was there for me, I would get a lot more out of it.

For the record, here are some of the judgments I had:
  • Step Beyond is just for Christians, and I’m not one, nor am I interested in being converted or pursued.
  • There’s nothing for me at Step Beyond. I’m not a religious person.
  • I can do it my own way. I've been doing that for years, and it works just fine. 
  • I don’t need that. I’m spiritual enough on my own.
  • I don’t want anyone to dictate how I should be spiritual.
  • It’s such a big training, with so many people. How could I possibly get anything out of it?
  • I don’t know what kind of people will be there. I won't be able to connect with anyone.
  • I don’t know what we’ll do. How the heck can Pathways training possibly address spirituality?
  • Maybe I'll try it next year, when I'm in a better place.
  • I just can't afford it.

Having grown up in the church, I quickly learned to stop asking questions, because the primary answer I got was to just “have faith”.

Faith in what, exactly?

I kept going to church because my parents dragged me, and I felt like it was the “right” thing to do.

But, I stopped taking communion in high school, and for most of the service, I just sat there staring off into space, or staring at the monstrous stained glass window, wondering who Jesus really was. Wondering who God really was, and wondering why I felt so different from everybody else—not just in typical misfit high schoolish ways, but spiritually, too.

I was taught to believe at all costs. Questions were downplayed or even frowned upon. My questions remained, though, and they turned into a whole lot of judgments about what it meant to be a Christian, to be religious, and even to be spiritual.

Of course, now I realize that the reason so many religious folks avoid answering questions about their faith is because they aren’t entirely certain of the answer, either. Instead of engaging in dialog to ask their own questions or explore the idea together, it’s easier to shut down and claim to rely on faith.

To me, that’s blind faith, and I really didn’t want that.

Although I tried different avenues, I think it’s safe to say that I completely pushed any thought of “God” far out of my mind during my college years and into my 20s. For a considerable time, I thought to myself, “I’ll figure it out someday.”

It didn't help that I went through a span of years where I experienced a lot of heartache, loss, and devastation. I thought that if God was real, then those bad things wouldn't have happened to me. 

In those years, I often found moments of peace when I’d go for a walk in the woods, strolling along the ocean, or camping in the middle of nowhere.

And when I lived in Boston, I’d escape the city for the coast of Maine as often as I could. It was only an hour or so away, after all. A man I briefly dated introduced me to a section of rocky cliffs along the shore of Kennebunkport, Maine, where the winding road separated a mountainous mass of multi-million dollar homes from a lone wooden two-story house rather precariously plopped on a stretch of smooth coastline. The water smashed delightfully against the large rocks surrounding three sides of the house.

My special place, on the shore of Kennebunkport, Maine
A perfect setting, complete with park benches staring out into the deep blue depths of the Atlantic.

Earth revealed her curve to me there, and suddenly she seemed so small, yet also so vast—not unlike my human form, trying to contain the vast love and pain in my heart. The whole seemed inadequate for all the parts.

I found solace in my special place, but I never really thought of God.

In fact, I didn’t give God much more thought until I went through Pathways.

I witnessed miracles when I went through my training, of course, but at the time I didn’t think of what I saw as God.

I didn’t think at all, really. I was mostly shocked and envious and mystified and confused and utterly in awe. Shocked, because I’d never witnessed anything like what I saw in the Pathways training room. Envious, because it seemed like other people “got” something that I was so obviously missing. Mystified because I couldn’t explain it, and confused because with me, being a “head case,” I really needed an explanation.

I discounted that it could be God, or anything supernatural. It just didn’t register. The miracles I saw in the training room were something along the lines of coincidence. Just like the beauty I saw in the woods, on the rocky Kennebunkport shore, and at times in the faces of friends or even strangers— were all just chance. It was all confusing. I didn’t process any of it as spiritual.

That’s how far away I was from feeling any sort of spiritual connection (let alone God) when I went through Pathways.

My spiritual path has been at best—tenuous, long, and slow.

Through my journey volunteering as a TA (training assistant) with Pathways, I started to acknowledge that the miracles I saw happening before me, time and time again, were God. I became more open to the idea of God, and that’s when my path started to change course.

And then, I came to a point in my path in December 2009 where I felt a tap on my heart.

I felt pulled to attend Step Beyond. I didn’t even understand why, but something inside of me recognized that it was time. And for once, I listened.

It was God doing the tapping, of course—sitting patiently, waiting.

Waiting for me.

During Step Beyond, I realized that even though I finally recognized seeing and feeling God all around me, I had never thought to allow God into my heart. I had kept God at bay with all the judgments I had about what it means to believe in God, accept God, trust God, and yes, "have faith".

And realizing that is exactly what helped me break wide open. At the heart of it all, I felt like I’d let God down. I wasn’t sure there was anything truly good inside of me. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to show my own light. I felt like I didn’t have it in me to continue on, trying to find my own way—especially since my spiritual path looked so different from that of a Christian, a Jew, a Pagan, a Buddhist, a Muslim, an Atheist, an Agnostic… my spiritual path had no clear definition to anyone. Especially not me.

At the time, I didn’t realize that was enough.

When the time came during Step Beyond for me to open my heart fully, I did not fold. I moved into the light, and I let that light into my heart for the first time.

At that point in my journey, God was a loosely shaped being represented by warm, yellow light. Light, representing a collection of all that is good, humble, and reverent.

I crawled into the light’s long, warm arms, and I curled up to rest, like a little girl.

That light is God. My light shines from the inside out. And when I let my light shine, I am a being as close to God as I can ever be.

That’s the covenant I made in Step Beyond… I am a Godly woman, letting my light shine.

Even when it’s hard. Even when I don’t think I can. Even when my heart feels weak. Maybe especially when my heart feels weak.

I believe all of us have the capacity to shine brightly, from our hearts out into the world.

Each of us contains light… each of us contains God.

For the first time in my life, God took up residence here, in my heart. And it made me realize how beautiful life really is.

It’s incredibly difficult to describe exactly how my life has changed since attending Step Beyond. But my life started to change in unexpected ways. I took a harder look at who I had really become, who I was becoming, what I had settled for, the direction in which I was moving, and I evaluated all of that (all at once, of course. This is me we’re talking about, after all).

And then I started to see God showing up in my day to day life. I started talking to God more… but more importantly—I started to listen.

I learned what it felt like to receive grace—from people, and from God. I realized that if I allow myself to be vulnerable, I’m never alone. I am always carried… by the love of others, and by the love of God. I learned what serenity really feels like.

One of the many inexplicable moments I’ve had in the last two years occurred in September 2010, when I was in my special place, in Kennebunkport, Maine. I sat on my favorite bench, watching the sunset, and grieving the loss of my grandmother, the loss of my marriage, the loss of everything I was familiar with—and finally, I said out loud, “I’m yours, God. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.”

True surrender.

In that moment, I felt serenity for the first time in my life.

And then I realized I was hungry. I started heading back to the town center, I parked the car, and then I started walking towards a local eatery, when suddenly I felt myself walking left, instead of right. I couldn’t understand why I was walking around the corner. I couldn’t understand why I felt drawn to set foot in a little gift shop I had overlooked so many times before.

I didn’t understand it, until I walked in and without any hesitation, I walked straight to a table and rested my hand on a smooth rock of sea glass. I looked down and read the word etched on that rock: Serenity.

With the goofiest smile and tears streaming down my face, I bought the sea glass stone and then enjoyed the best lobster bisque I’ve ever had.

I could cite so many more moments like that. Numerous. I can’t explain them, but that gives you a tiny peek into the last two years of my life. I don’t think I could do justice here to the way my life has changed in the two years since I went through Step Beyond. I owe this story more than I could possibly address in a blog.

I know—certainly, I know—I would not have made it through the last two years of my life if I hadn’t been to Step Beyond in December 2009. Sometimes, you go to a training experience like Pathways to cleanse you of all you’ve been through and all you’ve done.

Sometimes, though—it’s to prepare you for what’s coming.

And with all the changes I’ve made, and with all that’s happened in my life, I needed to have faith in God. I needed to have a solid foundation on which to lean. I needed to have a light to cling onto, when all I saw around me was darkness, as I fought through the muck of the life I had created and have since worked very hard to shed.

This year, I am taking another step in my spiritual journey by refreshing the Step Beyond training.

I’m a little nervous, a little excited, and I honestly have no idea how it’s going to turn out.

Please believe me when I say that I’m as surprised as anyone to have accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior. I really never saw that one coming! Step Beyond doesn’t turn people into Christians, by the way. Like any of the other Pathways training experiences, you get whatever it is that you need.

And as far as those judgments I mentioned earlier? Sure, I could have allowed them to get in the way. It's a choice, after all.

But a unique thing happens when you get a room full of people together, when everybody wants something and  is willing to open themselves just enough for judgments, fears, and walls to fall away. What's left are true intentions, deep needs and desires of the soul, and miraculously... a willing spirit.

One thing is for sure. I’ve stretched, grown, and changed so much in the two years that have passed since attending Step Beyond, and although I'm not yet sure how I'm going to pay for it, I cannot imagine a better way to close out 2011 than willingly stepping closer to God, to Jesus, and to my inner light.

If you need "something" but can't quite identify what... Step Beyond might be just the right place for you this weekend. Check it out, here.

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