Monday, June 22, 2015

A time to give thanks

Having just returned home from a week-long mission trip to Belize with the youth of Christ Church Raleigh, I thought I would go ahead and get through the long list of thank-you notes I needed to write to those who have contributed to my mission in Haiti. Although I began writing note after note with dread--assuming it would be an absolute slog--I ended up enjoying the process more than I had originally thought I would. It was touching to see who all had contributed, and I actually enjoyed trying to personalize each note to the particular person(s) I was writing to (ok, so they aren't all super personalized; some of them sound pretty repetitious, but I tried to switch up the wording every now and then!)

But in all seriousness, when I opened the email from the director of finances at Christ Church with a list of my donors so far, I was both pleasantly surprised and touched not so much by the total amount of donations, but by the long list of individual names of those who had contributed. The majority of the people who have given are members of Christ Church, and while I don't want to underrate the importance of donors who are not Christ Church members (thank you, thank you!) I was struck by the incredible, God-given support that my church community has given me since the announcement of my mission year. I am so lucky to have people--not all of whom even know me personally, but know other members of my family or simply believe in supporting a fellow parishioner--that jump at the chance to help make my dreams come true. 

This love that I've felt radiating over me lately isn't just from the numerous people who have donated;  it's also from the love of the clergy and staff of Christ Church who have helped me with planning the fundraising process, publicized my mission to the congregation, and supported me in my discernment of YASC. I could not have done any of this without them, and you can be sure that I wouldn't be as close to my financial goal if it wasn't for their desire to assist me in such a daunting task. 

All of these things--financial giving, supporting me in my mission and goals and helping to make it all come together--made me realize just how loved I really am by the people who surround me every Sunday. It took a little time for me to stop and think about this to realize that the love of the people of Christ Church is God's love incarnate. It seems to be one of the more close-to-perfect examples of God's love being an active force in my life. It's not always easy to see how God's love is shaping and changing you and your future, but this has been one of those times when it's been clear as day. I am thankful for times like these when I feel the powerful love and support of others, because it makes God seem a little more real to me. It reinforces my belief, my connection and my relationship with Him. It helps sustain me in times when I'm not sure if He's there and in times when I am desperately praying for His guidance and protection.

So thank you, Christ Church. Thank you for blessing me with the desire to serve, with a love of community and with a support system that will never fail me. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Marinating" in the Spiritual

David Brooks wrote a opinion piece a few weeks ago in his column for the New York Times, "Building Spiritual Capital" (I haven't been able to figure out how to copy and paste a link on blogspot, but you should be able to find it if you go to the NYT website). He refers to a book by Lisa Miller, a professor of education and psychology at Teacher's College, Columbia University, entitled "The Spiritual Child" which uses statistical studies to show that humans are all born with some sense of spirituality. She defines this innate spiritual awareness as "an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding." Brooks adds that while most children do seem to have an automatic understanding of "the oneness of creation, and a sense of a transcendent, nonmaterial realm," many of these children do not have the adult guidance they need to build on this spiritual identity. Without the necessary direction from parents or teachers to explore this part of one's self-identity, a child's spiritual self will more than likely remain untapped in the recesses of the subconscious rather than developing into an integral part of a person's life.

I have found Brooks's argument to ring true at least in my own life. While I can't attest as to whether or not my spiritual self would have remained uncultivated without direction from adults, I can firmly attest to the value of adults' investment in my spiritual development as a child and teenager. As a 22-year-old, I am not yet too distanced from childhood to realize that my parents' facilitation of the development of my spirituality has made an impact on my decision-making in college and right out of college. What did this look like, exactly? It was my parents' insistance that we go to church most Sundays and that we remain active in church life. I remember being particularly perturbed one Sunday when we had been forced to go to church and tearfully asking why we had to go. I clearly remember my mom saying to me, "because that's what our family does. We go to church, and that's just how it is." 

To some people who may have grown up belonging to a faith tradition but for whom the institutional aspect of that religion (i.e., attending church, temple, mosque) did not play a major role in their upbringing--or to people for whom any religion at all was not in the picture--insisting that the family commit to attending a worship service for which the only reason seems to be "because that's what we do," may seem alien and without legitimate purpose. But for me, at least, it played a major role in my spiritual growth. While attending church as a little girl with my parents and siblings on Sundays may not seem to have made any discernable difference in my relationship with God for a number of years (I often didn't listen to the sermon because I didn't care and the only reason I liked going to church was getting to see my friends and eat donuts at Sunday School), eventually, the "marinating" effect of having been required to go started to manifest itself in my growing interest in God and the Church. As an adolescent and older teenager, I developed a strong love for Church and a stronger connection with my spiritual side. All of those years of going to church, participating in the youth program, seeking direction from ministers and priests, joining Christian fellowship groups, becoming interested in the other religions of my friends and finding a church in my university town built the foundation for the current state of my faith today. Now, I actually want to go to church on my own and have ended up becoming an official employee of the Episcopal Church as a missionary.

While going to church on a regular basis was the route my parents took to building my siblings' and my own spiritual selves (and I would argue that participating in the institutional side of a religion as a child has added benefits from other kinds of spiritual nurturing...but that 's for another post), I do think adults can invest in a child's spirituality in a positive way that does not involve participating in an established faith tradition or even being affiliated with one. I liked to ask lots of questions when I was younger, often in car rides from school to dance classes or at other moments when I had the undivided attention of one of my parents. My mom or dad always listened to me and at least tried to give responses to questions that probably seemed impossible to answer. Sometimes, the questions weren't even about God or church or anything that seemed directly related to Christianity, religion or spirituality. Sometimes, they were questions like, "This girl in my class at school is always bragging. Why is she doing that?" My mom or dad might have guessed that she craved attention because she didn't get it at home or that maybe she thought that she needed to brag for people to like her. Again, these talks didn't seem to have any direct relation to spirituality--and yet, something about them hinged on spirituality because they were dealing with the deep psychology of a human being. And isn't that where our spiritual selves come from? Our spirituality dips into every side of ourselves-- our insecurities, our strengths and our relationships with other people. There's not one part of ourselves that does not somehow involve our spiritual senses. 

Even though I myself have grown a lot spiritually since I was a young girl, I am by no means the end-result of what intentional spiritual nurturing can produce. Although Brooks's article and Miller's book focus specifically on spiritual development during childhood, spiritual development certainly extends beyond childhood and into the different stages of adulthood. Now that I (kind of/sometimes not at all) feel like I have "crossed" the threshold of adulthood, I can look forward to the kind of spiritual nurturing that will come with continued investment in my spiritual side and involvement in the church. The only difference is that  I am now taking the reins in my faith. I know that Haiti will provide opportunities for spiritual growth in ways that I have probably never imagined. I am eager to see how this experience will change me into a person who is hopefully closer to the person God has intended for me to be; a person who is at greater peace with herself and at a greater intimacy with her spiritual core.