"Come Further Up, Come Further In!"

One night during my final weeks at seminary, a few of my friends and I decided to put together a picnic so that we could eat while enjoying a local sunset view. The four of us all packed our food, then plugged a beach name into our GPS – one none of us had ever been to before. Just spelling it was a challenge: “Wingaersheek Beach.” After about twenty minutes of following the road’s twists and turns (it’s New England, after all), we arrived at the unassuming location. After parking the car on gravel, we walked up to the sandy shore, beholding low tide.

My dear friends, Ellie (front), Adrienne (left), and Petek (back center).

A few families were walking towards the water, dipping their feet in the shallow waves. Children were flying kites, though mostly unsuccessfully. The four of us walked closer to the shoreline, then found a promising rock formation where we could picnic. While eating turkey sandwiches, clementines, chicken fajitas, and other such yumminess, we discussed some details of navigating adulthood – particularly in finding and nourishing community.  Almost imperceptibly, the sun began to paint the sky, subtly at first, but then with utterly unspeakable contrast.

We were awestruck. All we could do was stare at the sky, then hopped off the rocks to walk closer and closer to the horizon – no matter what that took. Initially, some rocks were in the way, blocking the fullness of the sunset.

We ran into the water, hoping we could see the sunset better within the wetness. First, we were ankle deep, then calf deep, then knee deep. With each step, we could behold the unfolding glory before us. I felt a sense of quickening – of increased speed – in my heart. “Come further up, come further in!” came into my mind, this line spoken by Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle.

That’s what we did. We picked up speed, racing further in towards the sunset, past the protruding rocks, until all we could see was the horizon before us. All four of us walked together, closer and closer. As I looked down along the shore, I found a sand dollar – the first one I’ve ever seen ‘in the wild.’ I picked it up, awestruck by its detail.

I held it close, but not too close, fearing it would shatter, and along with it, the beauty of the moment. I looked up again, beholding the beauty – more picturesque and lovely than I ever imagined a sunset could be. I kept walking, now alone, closer and closer to what seemed to be the edge of the horizon.

I stopped, allowed myself to make a mental memory of the sounds of the waves, then stood silent. I stared at the sky, then felt again:

“Come further up, come further in!”

But I knew in my heart there was nowhere else to go. I had reached the greatest distance I could get to on that beach. In an instant, my heart knew that this quote was not about the beach anymore. Tears filled my eyes as I realized what God was seemingly speaking to my heart:

“Come further up, come further in to My Love! It’s safe here, and I’ll be here to sustain you, beyond this season, into the next, and throughout all eternity.”

I felt perfectly loved. Perfectly held. In that moment, I tasted Home. In that moment, my fears about the future, about my upcoming move, about my possible loneliness, about all that was burdening me – they were loved and held. A kind of holy hush came over me; even though I cried, an inner silence was present. And as soon as the moment came, it left. Darkness was descending, and it was time to walk back to the car.

I caught up with my dear friend Ellie who put her arm around me. As we walked back together, we gave words to this experience. We identified the Sehnsucht – the German word C.S Lewis utilizes to describe a kind of discernible eternal yearning – of the sunset. We recognized that if this experience was just one taste of the love of God, we are in for a real eternal treat.

*  *  *  *  *

A couple weeks later, the sand dollar shattered when I tried carefully packing it to bring back with me to Chicagoland. I was sorely disappointed, realizing that an item representing something so significant was gone before I could ever really enjoy it. However, I realized while holding its broken pieces that my memory was a fragile one. Truly, memories in life are fragile, whether I want them to be or not. And unfortunately, it seems that the moment I’ve attempted to clutch on too tightly, I recognize the fragility most painfully.

But, perhaps tangible items cannot fully point to the intangible anyways. Alas, they are often poor imitations of what only our hearts can grasp that our hands cannot.

*  *  *  *  *

This hour at the beach has changed me. Recently, when I’ve started to fear the future, I’ve closed my eyes, pictured the sunset, and remembered the utter love that God spoke over my heart: “Come further up, come further in!” I know and I trust that as I move forward and as I draw near to Him, He will be present to sustain me, shelter me, walk with me. Even when the fears seem to shatter all semblance of God’s love, I trust that I can hold onto His love because it is something that doesn’t shatter.

Oh, how I delight in Psalm 139:5,

“You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.” 

I’m no longer on the beach. I no longer live near the ocean. I no longer live in the same space as my three friends. I cannot recreate that moment because it was absolutely fragile. However, in its fragility, it was beautiful, for it pointed me to a Love that sustained me then and continues to sustain me now – a Love that is absolutely steady, firm, and unchanging. A Love, Paul says in Romans 8:39, “nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from.”

*  *  *  *  *
I pray that you may sense this unchanging, endlessly caring, sweet love of God today.

On Repotting.

In August 2015, I walked into the garden care section of a Springfield, MO, Walmart with a dear friend, intent on bringing a plant back with me to keep in my dorm room.  It was senior year, and I was comforted by the prospect of being able to nourish a little bit of green as I began moving towards adulthood with each passing day.  A little jade plant stood out to me, tiny and green, nestled in one of those flimsy, black plastic containers.  With excitement in my heart, I paid $4 or so, and walked out the door with my own potted plant.
When I got back to my cozy and colorful dorm room, I looked around for something that might work as a makeshift pot.  After carefully analyzing my collection of mugs, I decided a transparent glass mug would be my plant’s new abode.  I patted down the soil, then poured a little water in the soil, hoping a little spritz might help the jade feel more at home.  It took me a little while to get used to a routine of checking the soil and watering the jade – hoping to give it just the water it needed.  Also, I experimented with how close or far it liked being from the sun.  After time, we seemed to strike the right balance with each other.  
*  *  *  *  *
Months passed by, til we arrived at college graduation.  I was thankful the jade made it with me at least that far.  After packing up all my possessions to take back to Chicagoland in our family’s car, I carefully carried my plant in hand, hoping it would make it through the 8-hour journey.
Thankfully it did make it, not only through that journey, but the summer and another 16-hour drive to seminary here in Massachusetts.  It adjusted well to this new environment – a little quicker than I expected actually.  
As I watered the plant and made sure it saw the sun, I noticed something strange:  (1) it had gotten quite large; and (2) its roots had nowhere else to go.  But I and it were about to head into uncharted territory:  the art of repotting.

I pored over articles about repotting online, coming to the conclusion that (1) I’d need to get a bigger pot; (2) the pot could not be that much bigger than its current mug because anything bigger might send it into shock; (3) it should be transferred to a terra cotta plant; (4) I should water it so thoroughly after its transfer that water ought to drip through the bottom opening of the pot into the tray; (5) it would take a few weeks to recover. (Thanks for this info, WikiHow).
So after knowing what needed to be done, I bought a pot from Michael’s.  However, I didn’t have it in me to repot the jade immediately.  This may sound silly, but after knowing the stress repotting would have on my beloved plant, I thought I’d let it stay just a little while longer in its confines, letting myself enjoy it should the transplant go poorly and the jade die.
So after a few more weeks of waiting, and then asking some friends to use some potting soil, I sat on the ledge of my bathtub for the big transplant.  To be honest, it was awfully anticlimactic.  Transferring the plant from one mug to the bigger pot took probably three minutes tops.  I spoke sweet words to the jade during the process (like a total nerd), encouraging it to take to its new environment, reminding it that I’d be present for it through the transition (okay, yeah, total nerd). Oh, and sometimes I’ve sung to it, too.
I watered and waited for its transitional weeks, helping it nestle in well to its new home.  To my great excitement, its roots began to strengthen (becoming quite beefy), and new sprouts began growing on the ends of each little branch.  In the almost-year that has followed the transplantation, I’ve seen incredible growth from this once little, once fragile jade plant.  It’s grown strong, confident (can a plant be confident?), and hardy.

*  *  *  *  *
We’re getting ready for another move – the jade and I.  Only this time, I’m readying for my own repotting.  For my own repotting, there’s no helpful WikiHow article (unfortunately).  My own repotting feels a lot more abstract; yes, I know where I’m going next and what I’ll be doing – but I know an inevitable time of settling in my new soil awaits.  I’m trusting though, just like in repottings past, that my own Gardener is singing sweetly over me (Zephaniah 3:17).  I trust that as He waters me, I will not wither, but rather grow strong in an awareness of His sustaining love (Psalm 1:1-3).
*  *  *  *  *

I hope you, my friend  whether you’ve just transitioned into a new season, are transitioning out of an old one, or are feeling pretty settled – that you’ll sense the love of the Gardener tending your soul with His life-giving love.  That He’ll strengthen your nervous heart, helping you feel strength to be rooted and the confidence to bloom.

Why Hospital Chaplaincy?

Since I’ve noticed that hospital chaplaincy can actually be quite a mysterious vocation, I thought I’d write a bit about why this ministry has so moved my heart.

The first time I encountered a chaplain was when I was twelve years old, six months after my sister Katie suddenly died. After being in a grief program at Little Company of Mary Hospital – facilitated by my now dear friend Peg – I saw how meaningful pastoral care was in my own life. Through several years and many God-ordered opportunities and movements, I know deep in my heart that this is the kind of ministry He has created me to do – the kind of person He’s created me to be: being on a pastoral care team at a hospital.

I’ve been shocked time and time again, when a sterile room filled with monitors blaring and IVs dripping, becomes a sweet sanctuary – a place where God’s presence is thick and almost tangible. How can a hospital room become a sacred space? It’s honestly a mystery to me, I must confess, that a place so unexpected can become a place where God’s glory dwells.

I think about the joy of simply holding one’s hand – perhaps frail or shaky or strong. But still, human connection. Gazing into the eyes of another who is made in the image of God – unique, sweet, and beautiful. Holy conversations over room temperature meatloaf and applesauce – as well as those plastic bottles of chocolate Ensure (the kind that never look like actual chocolate, though I’ve never actually tasted a sip).

In my role, I have seen faithful marriages in their most brilliant light. I’ve seen elderly wives sitting by their husbands’ beds – for hours and hours on end. I’ve seen them faithfully keep watch, sentries of every discomfort they notice in their spouses. “In sickness and in health…” when the sickness is deep and the symptoms distressing. Still present, still faithful. As a chaplain, I observe husbands blessing their spouses, demonstrated by an action as simple as spoon feeding. Still, I offer my presence and echo the love of God, asking Him to strengthen, uphold, and grant His peace.

I’ve encountered the ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ alike, learning from so many what it means to offer the ministry of presence. I distinctly remember a specific visit with an older man whose chart designated him as ‘nonreligious.’ My internal assumption was that surely he wouldn’t want prayer. However, after a ten minute visit with him, I asked if he wanted me to say a prayer before heading out. He very quickly replied, “That won’t be necessary.” Just as I thought. But as I was about to respond with an “Okay” and a quick exit, he continued,

“Your presence has been prayer enough already.”

I was speechless. Absolutely speechless. My constructs of prayer were immediately altered. Could I really embody a prayer simply by being physically present? At least to this man, the answer was a hearty, “Yes.”

In chaplaincy, I’ve had to reconstruct (or perhaps construct for the first time) a robust theology of the body. If I believe with all my heart that Jesus became human in the Incarnation, literally putting on human skin and feeling what we feel – then I must reasonably begin to see that God deeply values the body as being the place from and in which Jesus redeemed humanity – the body literally being part of the redemption of the entire human race. When in the Bible Jesus ministers to individuals around Him, it seems as if He often reaches others’ souls by first affirming that He cares for the whole of who others are: all their messy and earthy humanity. He heals a man born blind, showing him he cared for his entire wholeness. Jesus heals Mary Magdalene by freeing her from demons – freeing her physically so she can be free, including spiritually. Jesus heals lepers and others who are infirmed, helping them physically flourish to aid in their spiritual well-being, ultimately drawing them to Himself.

I believe that because God honors the body, I can honor others and Him by embodying my ministry to others – being present in the most earthy of ways amidst blood draws and physical therapy sessions – knowing that even this work of being present is deeply spiritual and sneakily meaningful.

So, this is my heart for chaplaincy. I’m moved to tears when I think about this ministry, knowing that I’m passionate to live in the intersection of physical and spiritual health. This is exactly where I feel the Holy Spirit has led me and has equipped me to be present with the sick in mind or in body, present with the dying, holding reverence in the presence of those already dead – privileged to share these moments with family members.

What I’ve Learned from the Spiritual Disciplines.

As the past two weeks have shown me that my schoolwork is monstrously piling up, I’ve decided to tie up my weekly account of the spiritual disciplines (at least for now). Though I may get back on this road of experimentation in the future, I have chosen to stop and to reflect at this point — to pay attention to how these rhythms have shaped my heart this final semester of seminary.

When I think about what’s happened in my heart the past ten weeks, I narrow in on the following image of a tree’s roots aggressively fighting through the blacktop cement (photo taken on a walk in Cambridge):

For so long before this journey, I felt myself trapped by fear of failing in discipline, lack of motivation in connecting with the Lord, and a general complacency in my spiritual journey. However, living these past several weeks in light of the spiritual disciplines — with a literal expectancy of meeting with God — I’ve seen the roots of my heart begin to fight against the previous tendencies of my heart. I’ve felt new life take root in my heart, a kind of life that will no longer be constrained by the limitations I’ve put on myself or the ones I’ve (quite unsuccessfully) tried to put on God’s work in my life. Yes, the roots are breaking through the concrete. My new creation nature is experiencing regrowth.

*  *  *  *  *

As I look back at these spiritual disciplines, I recall such distinct images: sitting on a floral pillow in my seminary’s prayer chapel, praying in front of an icon of Jesus; gazing outside my window at snowflakes steadily falling, remembering the handiwork of God; pacing my room in silence, trying to bear with the strangeness of mute solitude; sipping tea and laughing with my suitemates, celebrating the gift of knowing them; speaking with a spiritual director, vocalizing how the Holy Spirit has been sensitizing my heart to His love and direction.

Through these practices, I’ve begun learning that my delight was not so much in the disciplines themselves — but rather in the fruit of the disciplines — a growing delight in seeing the Lord’s hand in my life.

What has this fruit been (or at least the fruit I’ve perceived growing within myself)?

  1. A greater responsiveness to the Holy Spirit. I’ve sensed greater conviction in the words I speak, the thoughts I meditate on, and how He’s leading me vocationally.
  2. Focused attention on the ordinary. I’ve begun to see individuals around me as truer gifts of God, realizing He has placed friends in my life with purpose and intention. I’ve begun greater delighting in the commonplace events of life: studying with friends, sharing a meal in the dorm kitchen, driving to church on a Sunday. I’ve found God nourishes me with His love in these common places.
  3. Intentionality is carving out space to meet with God. If I truly believe that my identity is found in God as His child, then I must invest time in spending time with Him. I’ve complicated this space, believing it must look a certain way and take a certain amount of time. However, simply showing up and allowing God to speak His love over me — this has changed everything.
*  *  *  *  *

    So, what does it look like moving forward?

    Two spiritual disciplines have especially stood out to me as being beneficial for my soul: Examen and Welcoming Prayer.

    With Examen, I’m encouraged to alert myself to God’s presence, choosing to be aware of the ways He has moved beautifully and apparently throughout the day. Additionally, I can be honest with myself and with God about the times I chose to live out of my own efforts instead of His. I can replay the moments of my day, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal aspects of His character to me and to change my heart so I can greater reflect His character in my own life.

    With Welcoming Prayer, I’ve learned to ask Jesus to be present in every single part of my day — no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. I’ve experienced the beauty of welcoming Him before running on the treadmill or working on a homework assignment; this practice has refocused me, causing me to consciously remind myself that all I am and have — any strength I muster — must come from Him and Him alone.

    These two practices, as well as the others throughout the past ten weeks, have been truly special, challenging me and drawing me into the rhythms of God’s timing — not the limited nature of my own timing.

    * * * * *

    So, in closing, I want to say:

    Thanks, Adele Calhoun, for your informative and special guide. And thank you, my reader, for joining me on this ‘Journey with the Spiritual Disciplines.’ I pray you continue to see the beauty of the rhythms God is leading you into — and how these rhythms can steadily guide you nearer to His loving and precious heart. He loves you so much.

    Week Ten: Retreat.

    This past week, I had the opportunity to participate in a day-long retreat with a discipleship center we have on campus called The Pierce Center for Disciple Building. These day-long retreats have very much become part of the fabric of my time at seminary (I have gone on five), giving me just enough pause to catch up to where my heart is and how God is working within it.

    This is a spiritual discipline that first captured my attention two years ago exactly, in March 2016, right before I graduated from college. I traveled with a small group of graduating seniors and a professor, lodging for three days and two nights at a Cistercian monastery in Ava, Missouri. Ever since that experience, I’ve known that silent retreats must be part of my spiritual life.

    So, it’s been a joy to retreat at the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Abbey in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  I love that the founder of the order, St. Julie Billiart, declared: “How good is the good God!” Truly, that Abbey is a perfect landscape to reflect on the goodness of the good God.

    *  *  *  *  *
    Adele Calhoun, in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, describes Retreat as the following:
    Desire: to pull back from daily life and spend extended time with God
    Definition: Retreats are specific and regular times apart for quietly listening to God and delighting in his company. Retreats remove us from the daily battle into times of refreshing, retooling, renewing, and unwinding.
    Practice Includes:
    • having a short time as well as extended times away with God
    • detaching from productivity and doing in order to be in the presence of God and attend to his voice alone
    • having longer retreats of two to forty days
    • spending time in a hermitage
    • spending one day a moment at a retreat site for time with God
    • having seasonal retreats for rest and renewal
    • withdrawing from life in order to see where your soul is in danger, to seek God’s help in reengaging in the battle”
    (pg. 77)
    *  *  *  *  *
    So, here’s what a silent retreat looked like for me on Wednesday:
    • 9:00 – 9:30am –> Introduction with the rest of the retreat participants
    • 9:30 – 10:45am –> Silent time (in my room)
    • 10:45 – 11:15am –> Private spiritual direction session with retreat leader
    • 11:30am – Noon –> Small group of sharing what’s been going on within us
    • Noon – 1:00pm –> Lunch (eaten in silence)
    • 1:00 – 1:20pm –> Walk through the Stations of the Cross on Abbey grounds
    • 1:20 – 2:00pm –> Napping in a comfy chair
    • 2:00 – 3:30pm –> Reading Henri Nouwen’s book Discernment and prayer journaling
    • 3:30 – 4:00pm –> Closing session
    *  *  *  *  *
    Even though this retreat lasted seven hours, it felt so much shorter. Once my body adjusted to the rhythm of being silent, I began to sink into it like a cozy bed filled with huggable pillows (what a change from my experience with Silence a few weeks ago!). When I remembered that my truest self finds a home first in being seen and known by God, I knew that a “wasted day” was one of the greatest spent times I could give to Him.
    Especially since this week is ‘Holy Week’ in the Church calendar, I especially found my prayer walk around the Stations of the Cross to be a sweet time of reflection, meditating on the sufferings of Jesus that he willingly underwent so that I might find eternal life in his death and resurrection. Usually, it’s easy for me to find identification with Christ in his resurrection – in celebration – but while participating in the Stations of the Cross, I entered into meditation on the sufferings of Christ, something that helped me to deeper enter into fellowship with him.
    Also, I loved being able to nap in God’s presence, enjoying rest of body during my rest of soul. When I was dozing off, I remembered that God loves me for who I am in Him, not for all I accomplish or produce. But as I know His love more and more, I know that whatever I do in His name will come from a rich knowing of who I am first in Him.

    As the day came to a close, I felt tangibly refreshed and uplifted. I knew once again deep in my heart that God is waiting to meet with me; all I need to do is create that space.

    *  *  *  *  *
    If you’re interested in taking a silent prayer retreat, here’s a handy website that can help you find the closest retreat centers to you: https://www.retreatfinder.com/Search.aspx. Additionally, if you’re unable to go to a retreat center, you could very easily spend a day in nature, admiring God’s creation. I’d recommend not taking the retreat in your own home, especially because it’s very easy to get distracted when you see around you chores that “could” be done or tasks you “ought” to be accomplishing. 
    This spiritual discipline is one I truly wish to continue as I graduate from seminary and enter into my next vocation as chaplain. I encourage you, also, to carve out some space for Retreat in your own life, allowing you to refocus on the God who calls you His Beloved child.

    Week Nine: Scripture Memorization.

    This past week, I practiced a discipline that reminded me of my elementary school days of memorizing chunks of Scripture.  However, this week was probably my first time memorizing Scripture not for a homework assignment or a Bible quiz competition.  Instead of my motivation being external, it was internal – truly wanting to tuck God’s Word in my heart so I might access it at my weakest moments of discouragement and temptation.

    Here’s Adele Calhoun’s take on “Memorization”:

    Desire: to carry the life-shaping words of God in me at all times and in all places

    Definition: Memorization is the process of continually remembering the words, truths and images God uses to shape us. Memorization provides us with a store of learning, which can be accessed anywhere and anytime.

    Practice Includes:

    • memorizing Scriptures, hymns, poems, quotes, etc.
    • rereading portions of Scripture until they are committed to memory
    • memorizing Scripture verses that clearly reveal God’s plan of salvation
    • memorizing the books of the Bible, particular dates and times as well as where various verses are found
    • learning by heart portions of Scripture that encourage you when you are tempted”
    (Adele Calhoun, A Journey with the Spiritual Disciplines, p. 194)
    *  *  *  *  *

    So, for the week, I decided to memorize three passages – each to help me remember something particularly important about God and about who I am in Him:

    “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:15-16 

    “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us spreads and makes evident everywhere the sweet fragrance of the knowledge of Him.” – 2 Corinthians 2:14  

    “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” – John 14:27

    I practiced these verses when I woke up in the morning and before I went to bed each night, reading them, then closing my eyes to repeat each verse again. Throughout the week, my devotional time was very much formed by declaring the words of these verses, inviting me to remember that Christ draws me to appreciate his divinity and his humanity, that I can approach him with a surety in his presence. I can remember that Christ leads me into triumph over what entangles me, giving me the gift of sharing his love with others. And I can remember that Christ’s peace is the only lasting peace; I can so easily try to seek for peace in many other places, but I know my heart’s true home is in the peace that he provides.

    *  *  *  *  *
    I’m thankful that this week-long practice provided me with truths to mull over for many weeks to come. Perhaps you’ll like to revisit the discipline of Memorization as well, allowing words of God’s truth to take root in your heart, blossoming forth and filling your mind when you are in need of it.

    Week Eight: Celebration.

    Since this past week was my ‘birthday week,’ I thought it would be a good time to put into practice the spiritual discipline of Celebration. When I think of the word ‘celebrate,’ my mind immediately wanders back to an old VHS about Disney World I used to watch as a kid; Mickey and his friends, as well as a bunch of kids dressed in colorful clothes, would all sing, “Celebrate good times, come on!” Believe it or not, I found the video:

    The above video might make you smile, or it may even be a little obnoxious (for me, it’s a combination of both). But what might Celebration as a ‘spiritual discipline’ look like?
    Adele Calhoun, in her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, writes the following about the discipline:
    Desire: to take joyful, passionate pleasure in God and the radically glorious nature of God’s people, Word, world and purposes
    Definition: Celebration is a way of engaging in actions that orient the spirit toward worship, praise and thanksgiving. Delighting in all the attentions and never-changing presence of the Trinity fuels celebration
    Practice Includes: Identifying and pursuing those things that bring the heart deep gladness and reveling in them before the Lord. This may include time spent with others, sharing meals, working, serving, worshiping, laughing, listening to music, dancing and so on.”
    (pg. 28)
    *  *  *  *  *
    I caught snippets of celebration this week, feeling completely blown away at how loved I felt by my friends and family. By each of their kind actions, I felt God’s love for me extended through them. I sensed the reality of Zephaniah 3:17, that 
    “He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, 
    he will rejoice over you with singing.”
    Here’s some moments where celebration made me feel loved by others and, in turn, made me feel the love of the Lord:
    • Enjoying some yummy dessert with dear gals on Sunday night, pondering some of the best parts of the year, as well as expectations for the future.
    • Waking up to a suite full of balloons, thanks to my lovely and kind suitemates who blew up all THIRTY-SEVEN of them with their lungs (and not a machine!).

    • Those same suitemates making me chocolate-covered strawberries and tea, as well as getting each of us fun clown wigs. It’s amazing how much joy came into our hearts simply by laughing about these fun wigs! When we tried talking about serious matters, it wouldn’t last long due to the hilarity on our heads.

    • Getting absolutely surprised by an outpouring of joy and of love at a party planned by my friend, Petek. Complete with pizza, cake, candy, and a monkey piñata, it was a real bash. Swinging at that monkey gave me so many laughs that I could barely keep swinging! 

    • Receiving 20 different envelopes from back home filled with silly surprises from my besties, Gianna and Amy.
    • Opening a birthday package from my family, filled with treats and love.
    • Cherishing every card and letter and FaceTime chat from family and friends.

    *  *  *  *  *
    Apart from my birthday, I delighted in a couple other moments during the week:
    • The joy I spotted on a two-year-old’s face when she played with the leaves of a plant outside a coffee shop. I don’t know what made her so joyful about touching a plant (especially since it was pretty much dead considering winter chilliness), but she was laughing up a storm! I couldn’t help but smile, admiring how she was celebrating the simple joys around her.
    • Spotting the sunrise reflection upon my bedroom wall. Even though I gazed at it for a few moments, snapped a photo, then fell back asleep – it was a moment of sweetness. It added the gift of celebration to my morning – the blessed awareness that the morning was not a drudgery but a gift to be celebrated.

    *  *  *  *  *
    So, can the simple act of celebrating life be a spiritual practice? Though it may not be the same as sitting alone in a room on a silent retreat or fasting from a certain food for Lent, I’d argue that the practice of Celebration is just as important. I firmly believe that as we humans celebrate the blessings God has given us – especially in the form of cherished friends and family – we participate in practicing the joy He has placed in our hearts, the joy that ought to lead us closer to His heart.

    This past week as I celebrated the gift of life, I was repeatedly drawn back to thankfulness to the Lord for His faithfulness. I pray that as I continue living into this spiritual discipline, that all the joy may only and ever be glorifying to Him.

    As Adele Calhoun concludes her chapter on Celebration:
    “Celebrate the God who celebrates you.”

    I pray that you, my friend, feel celebrated this week by God.
    And maybe even put on a party hat.