One open gate after another

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I listened to a podcast the other day. It was evangelical in flavor, interviewing a Christian semi-public figure about the ministry work she’s been doing.
 
She spoke of a terrible season of her life, one of emotional loss and physical suffering. As she told her story in that interview, she was asked what was her biggest regret of that season of despair and pain. Her answer was that she wished she had regular Bible reading during that time, and not let her physical pain keep her from God’s presence.
 
And as I listened, I felt a internal constriction, my chest tightened and my breathing sped up. This is my kryptonite, when another believer discusses what she failed in doing during a painful season of her life. I know all about failure, all about spiritual practices I should have done.  There’s a scarcity mentality that I see often in the evangelical church, an acceptance of shame that my younger self learned to live in, that I still work hard to push back against, knowing that shame warps my faith to look more like fear than freedom.
 
After hearing about her suffering, I longed for her to say she regretted not leaning into God’s kindness sooner, not letting herself experience grace. I thought of how close God must have been then, how much God’s presence must have longed to warm her and hold her, to cover her broken body and spirit like a blanket. But instead I heard failure in her voice, failure in her answer.
 
Now, to be fair, I can’t judge her answer, or her experience of God in that season. She spoke as someone who loves scripture. And I so value her commitment and love for experiencing God through the pages of the Bible. The response I had to her words in that moment was born out of my own shame, my own fear that God’s grace is not enough, that my success at spiritual practices is the only way God will want me, accept me, love me. I’ve been on a long, ten year journey of believing that what God wants to offer me is an invitation, not an obligation: That prayer and Bible reading is not a way to earn God’s love or delight.
 
Spiritual Practices are an invitation into that blanket, that covering of God’s love. Spiritual practices are gifts we can receive, not tasks we perform to make God happy, or feel better about ourselves, or even to heal ourselves. 
 
As we head into the Advent season, my prayer is that we would choose to practice God’s presence with a lightness of heart, a belief that we are not on a spiritual performance hamster wheel, but that instead we are on a walk through a beautiful garden. Every time we pray, every time we open our sacred texts, we’re entering through another gate, invited into another garden. This one holding something new, something hope-filled, something good.