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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.