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Fresh out of the car after a 23-hour Spring Break road trip, I’ve been contemplating journeys.

One of my vacation reads this year was Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber. I’ve been a fan of Pastor Nadia’s for quite awhile, and this nearly-a-decade old book sat on my dresser waiting to be read for months before I threw it into my bag for this trip.

While sitting on the beach last Sunday, I snapped a picture of the five bullet points that encapsulate what Nadia says she learned in seminary. The point that hit me the hardest is this: “No one is climbing a spiritual ladder. We don’t continually improve until we are so spiritual we no longer need God. We die and are made new, but that’s different from spiritual self-improvement.”

As a first-born child saddled with an elevated sense of responsibility and penchant for guilt, hopping off my perceived spiritual ladder is not easy. I want to believe that “trying harder” and “doing more” isn’t really God’s will for my life, but buried inside me is also the eight-year-old girl who asked Jesus into her heart over and over and over just to make sure it really took.

No matter how I’ve attempted to internalize, there is still a part of me convinced that if I keep working at it, surely, there are some rungs I can climb. This is especially true as I hit middle age and hope that as a prize for an increased number of wrinkles and aches and pains, in another decade I’ll peer down below amazed at how much wiser and gentler I’ve become, perhaps finally conquering the self consciousness I thought for sure I’d leave behind in adolescence.

In my work as an instructional coach, I spend a fair amount of time working with new teachers. I’m quick to warn them of the “myth of arrival,” quick to assure them that there will never be a point in their work when everything feels easy, when every student behaves perfectly, learns effortlessly, and the lesson plans just flow out of their fingers and mouths. I tell them that fumbling and longing to be better is normal — even admirable. I remind them about the importance of never losing a humble growth mindset.

At first, this idea of never arriving can feel like relief; I can exhale a big breath of stress by admitting that I’ll never have everything perfectly figured out. But, on second thought, the concept of an endless journey can be discouraging. I tire of constantly being asked to stretch and grow, am exhausted by challenges that supposedly make us better, and terrified of watching my kids go through hard stuff so they can learn the same.

And yet, as we enter Holy Week, I wonder if this is why I need the circular pattern of the church calendar. Rather than attempting to climb up, up, up, what I really need is to rewalk, to relearn, to retreat to the well-worn path from Advent to Christmas, and then to Lent to Easter, and even Ordinary Time. I need to again hear the stories, to again wonder at the miracles, to again come to terms with the brokenness of humanity, of myself. And I need to again be offered the gifts of forgiveness and grace.

A new blogpost arrived in my inbox yesterday from Nadia Bolz-Weber, and in it she wrote about way the Palm Sunday story makes her cringe: “the fickle crowds waving their palms and laying down their cloaks and shouting hosanna in the highest to the guy riding into Jerusalem on an unimpressive animal.” She wrote of her embarrassment of a crowd that seems so sure of themselves “and how miserably they are about to fail when put to the test; how quickly their shouts go from hail him to nail him.”

It’s easy, Nadia says, for us to think we’re different, more enlightened than those faltering disciples. Reading this, my mind went again to ladder climbing, and how this sort of striving really shows more about faith in ourselves than an attempt to reach for the heart of God. “No amount of super-good discipleship or wisdom or woke-ness would make a lick of difference to God’s determination to draw all people to God’s self,” she writes.

When I think about myself as that little girl, that girl asking and reasking God into her heart over and over, I’d like to tell her she doesn’t need to keep begging a God who already loves her to love her more. That no amount of coloring inside the lines will result in more grace — it’s already given, it’s already available. And maybe, as an adult, reaching for the next rung, I need to hear the same thing. It is finished. Now, leap off of that ladder, step again into the well-worn story, and live into grace.

Dana VanderLugt

Dana VanderLugt lives in West Michigan with her husband, three sons, and spoiled golden retriever. She has an MFA from Spalding University and works as a literacy consultant. Her novel, Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, releases in September 2023.  Her work has also been published in Longridge Review, Ruminate, and Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith. She can be found at www.danavanderlugt.com and on Twitter @danavanderlugt.

6 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    “We are falling off the ladder,
    we are falling off the ladder,
    we are falling off the ladder,
    soldiers of the cross.”
    Teach it to Sunday School kids, to the Jacob’s ladder tune. Would have served me, who also gave my life to Christ every time I was told to, assuming that I had to.

  • Judith Baker says:

    Thank you, Dana. An enlightening way to begin a dark week.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    “She doesn’t need to keep begging a God who loves her to love her more.”

    Sadly, my experience at Camp Geneva in the 70s contributed to my own flawed sense of what it meant to Christian. Those Thursday night consecration services, used music and some emotional manipulation to get kids to accept Jesus into their hearts in a tearful conversation with the counselor later that night. Then the “discipleship” was something like “read your Bible and pray every day, evangelize your friends, and don’t talk back to your parents.” Of course nobody could maintain this “Christian lifestyle” for more than two days, so you think you must not be a real Christian and you accept Jesus into your heart again the next summer.

    NBW is one of the most insightful spiritual writers I’ve read. This is a great book for anybody … not just women clergy.

    Thanks, Dana.

    • Linda J. Miles says:

      Thank you Dana and Lynn. I am grateful for all the spiritual writers who continue to challenge and refine our faith.

  • Daniel R Miller says:

    Nadia Bolz-Weber pushed one of my buttons with her comment: “how quickly their shouts go from hail him to nail him.” Nothing in the Gospel record supports the familiar Easter cliche about how the crowds go from supporting to condemning Jesus. Instead, the Gospels make it clear there were two crowds. One was the out of towners who celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. They may indeed have misunderstood Jesus’ mission but they did not turn on him, they were blindsided by the crucifixion–see the dialogue on the road to Emmaus. The other were the Jerusalem crowd who were the hangers on of the priestly set. They were the ones who called for Jesus’ blood. I encourage her, and all of us, to be more careful when we draw “moral lessons” from the text.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    As always, Dana, your exquisite writing creates a voice we experience and rather than the more common linear structure, you weave seamlessly.

    As a teacher every class was my first class.
    And my Christian ladder had endless steps, and I think I may have made it to the third before I would slip back down. Finally I just sat down on the ground.

    Thank you. 23 hours??? Whew!

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