Last night I participated in an ecumenical series hosted by the Metro DC Synod of the ELCA, One in the Spirit. Speakers were asked to share a moment they were surprised by God. This is what I shared, (with some edits for clarity).

I moved twice when I was growing up — not as much as other military families I’ve known, but they were both big and at critical developmental stages. Once, when I was five from North Carolina to the Philippines, the second time as an eight year-old, when we moved from the Philippines to California. I have a running theory that this is one of the reasons why I hate surprises and why being over-prepared all the time, always is my go-to coping mechanism for anxiety-inducing situations.

The irony is not lost on me that I’ve been asked to share about the God of surprises, a moment when I’ve been caught off guard by grace, when the Spirit has turned reality on its head.

Lately, it seems as though those moments are few and far between. Mostly because my walk with God has felt more and more like wandering, especially in the last couple of years. I was born and raised in the Catholic Church and was involved in the Catholic Charismatic Movement in the early 1990s. As a teenager, I loved the worship music, the sense of purpose I had when it came to spreading the Good News of God’s deep and unwavering love for us. I ministered as a volunteer, then professionally. I went to school to study pastoral ministry and read and wrote and breathed theology. I loved it.

My family grew and I became a mother. I was a parent volunteer, going to moms’ Bible studies and seeing the world through my daughters’ eyes.

I did all the things that came with ministry and volunteering, hoping — I realize that now — hoping that the work that I did would somehow bring order to the chaos that always seemed to be in the air.

The heated arguments I had with loved ones about what it meant to protect the most vulnerable.

The confusion and humiliation I felt when a well-meaning woman in my Bible study dismissed the fear I’d expressed being a minority in a post-2016 election.

The 2018 grand jury report of Catholic Church sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.

The Parkland school shooting.

When Covid made headlines in 2019, the despair that I’d felt about the world we were building for our children was at its height. I thought that if I kept doing what I was supposed to, it would somehow be more bearable.

But everything — my own pain and frustration, the collective trauma that we experienced as a church, as a nation, as a global community— it was all too much. And the only thing that I could do to survive was to stop putting myself out there, to stop investing so much time and energy volunteering and organizing and leading. I didn’t tell anyone at the new church we’d joined that I knew how to sing or play the piano. Eventually, I stopped singing or listening to worship music. I stopped reading Scripture. I stopped writing. The things that mattered to me the most in other seasons of my life, that helped me come home to myself, I stopped.

And what often happens in these times of withdrawal is that you become numb to whatever is causing you pain and you begin to believe that it is easier to stop caring.

This was the state of my mind and heart last November when I was in the Newark Airport, coming home from my cousin’s funeral. His death was completely unexpected and he was too young and it was too soon. I was feeling drained and wrung out, and the airport was completely packed with people because of the NYC Marathon. And even though I had arrived 2 hours early and I was traveling by myself, of course, I missed my flight.

So when it had become obvious that I was going to be there for the next 8 hours (or some ungodly amount of time), I did the only thing I could do, which was stick my AirPods in and listen to the one of the only songs that I have apparently ever downloaded to my phone: Your Glory by All Sons and Daughters. It was a worship song.

And even after all the time that had gone by, of avoiding and even being fearful that I had been away from worship and music for so long that whatever comfort I used to find would no longer be there — even after all that time, I felt this overwhelming sense of peace come over me.

In the midst of my pain and sadness, in the midst of my doubt and frustration and despair. Having done nothing to deserve or work or prepare for it, Grace showed up in the middle of Newark airport.

And as I dragged my suitcase behind me, my hat pulled low over over my eyes and my fingers not moving fast enough to wipe away a seemingly endless stream of tears, I felt like I was walking under the protection of a forcefield, an invisible bubble of music shielding me from all the stress and anxiety that seemed to emanate from everyone at the airport that day.

And it’s not that everything suddenly changed in that moment. I am still wandering and questioning, experiencing doubts and disorientation. It’s just that now, I am reminded that the Spirit can show up regardless of how prepared we feel we are, whether or not we have everything figured out, even in the midst of our mess, of our disillusionment and despair.

This weekend, coincidentally, we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. May we, whose hearts ache for peace, for the families in Uvalde and Buffalo, for the war in Ukraine, may our hearts be caught off guard by Grace, overwhelmed by the Spirit whose peace passes all understanding.

3 thoughts

  1. Thank you, dear Jessica. [Big sigh]. May the Spirit continue to sneak up on you and surprise you and make you laugh and say “wow, did not see that coming.” Marianne and I (since we have been retired) have become more sensitive to the little things and are surprised by so many little “coincidences” that we have come to believe there is a Spirit of some sort trying to get out attention. Despite what is mammothly wrong in the world at large, for us there are little promptings that reveal The Presence. Blessings always to you

    1. Thank you, Al! Always a nice surprise to hear from you 🙂 Blessings to you and Marianne and thank you for your encouraging words.

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