An Invitation to Love

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Driving home from Washington Dulles airport last March after my two months of service in El Paso, I experienced an odd thought: This isn’t home anymore.

Despite those gorgeous green mountains gathering around to welcome me, the lush countryside overpowering my senses after that dry, sandy El Paso landscape, and even the thought of my dog Cody whimpering and running around in circles to greet me, Virginia no longer felt like home.

I wondered — what exactly am I coming home to?

Recently I picked up the novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, to perhaps gain some insight from my friend Bilbo Baggins with whom I’d associated when I began this adventure. I found this line towards the end of the book, after Bilbo has returned home. Gandalf, the wizard who set Bilbo off on this adventure in the first place, could have easily been speaking these words to me:

“My dear Bilbo!” Gandalf tells him. “Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.”

No, indeed, I am not the hobbit that I was.

My journey to El Paso has changed my life. I knew it would even before I left. The question is—and has been for some time now—what is next for me? Yet I have asked this question with anticipation, hopefulness, and a spiritual awareness that I am being invited to something more.

I heard this invitation last year when I first visited El Paso for that week-long “border immersion” trip. And I felt the pull in my heart to respond to that invitation. That’s what got me back there.

Now I’ve heard, and responded to, another invitation. This one from the Incarnate Word Missionaries. Last week they invited me to be a lay missionary with their program in San Antonio beginning this August. It involves working with mostly Hispanic single moms and their children living in a transitional housing program called Visitation House. The name of the house refers to “the visitation” of Mary, who having just said “yes” to God’s plan of giving birth to Jesus, embarks on a long journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is several months pregnant after many years of wanting a child.

This is symbolic for me on many levels, not the least of which is a dream I had while serving in El Paso. In this dream, I find myself pregnant, at my age, with a new life that I feel unprepared—and unwilling—to handle at this point. Until the baby is born and I am cradling him in my arms. Looking into this newborn’s eyes, I feel such immense love. In that moment, every fear, every doubt, every apprehension simply melts away. And I totally accept this new life.

The day before I said yes to this invitation from Incarnate Word Missionaries, I spent some time in silence, to simply listen and be present to God. I wanted to be sure, after all. I mean this is no small commitment. It involves risk. Starting someplace new. Stepping into the unknown. And opening my heart even further.

Afterwards, while sitting in that silence, I pick up one of the books in my prayer space: Ted Loder’s The Haunt of Grace, and inadvertently turn to a chapter called “New Rules of Engagement.”

When I see that the chapter is about how Joseph in the New Testament had taken a risk by marrying Mary, I almost stop reading. How does this apply to me, I wonder. But something entices me to continue. Then Loder talks about the angel in Joseph’s dream, and how we have our own angel telling us the same thing: “Do not be afraid. Listen to your deepest longing for love, for meaning, for relationships that are deep, trusting, satisfying, challenging, and joyful, for a world of justice and peace and beauty. In a haunting way, our dreams call us to engagement, to move from the outskirts to the center of our lives.”

I hear that message deep within me. Don’t be afraid to take the risks. Don’t be afraid to step into the center of your life. Don’t be afraid to follow your longing.

But then Loder quotes lines from a poem called, The Invitation, by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and I hear Spirit speak directly to my inner being:

“It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive…

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silence of the full moon, ‘Yes!’

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.”

So, I said yes to this invitation. I am ready to trust my deepest longing. To love and serve something greater than myself. To stand in the center of the fire. And feel fully alive.

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The Adventure Begins

With about a week and a half to go before I leave to serve on the border in El Paso, I’m trying not to panic. Not that I don’t want to go. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m excited about this new adventure and where it may lead. I truly believe that in following my heart and taking this step, what I’m being called to next in this stage of my journey will become clearer. But for now, preparing to leave my house, my devoted dog, and daily responsibilities for 2 ½ months or more feels daunting. So many details to manage, finances to get in order, and lists to prepare. And I still need to orientate my good friend, who unbelievably has agreed to house sit, take care of my dog, and help me clear out more stuff while I’m gone. She’s fully supporting me so that when I return from El Paso, I’ll be ready to venture off to wherever I may be called to go next.

Actually, this all sounds kind of unsettling, doesn’t it? I have to admit that while this is an exciting step, it’s scary too. And risky.  After all, who knows what I’ll face while dealing with the many complexities of our immigration system? And with immigration reform slated to be taken up again in 2014, controversy around the issue is sure to fire up. Will I be up for the task? Will I work through my fears with courage and perseverance? This is the archetypal hero’s journey, isn’t it? Leaving home. Venturing into the unknown. Wondering what challenges you’ll find and how you’ll meet them.

Recently I witnessed, quite inadvertently, a metaphor for my journey. Over the Christmas holiday while visiting my sister and her family we watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My niece had given the DVD to her dad for Christmas and I asked if we could watch it. I seemed to be the only one in the room–and probably one of the few on the planet–who hadn’t seen it yet. I know the movie actually came out a year ago, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m on the slow track when it comes to keeping up with the latest in entertainment. Lucky for me, my son, niece, and brother-in-law don’t mind seeing movies over and over again.

Somehow when they put the movie on, I missed the fact that it was titled “An Unexpected Journey.” I simply settled in to watch what I thought would be another vivid action fantasy along the lines of the The Lord of the Rings series.

From "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
From “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

But it wasn’t long before I began to recognize Bilbo Baggins’ journey as a metaphor for my own life. It happened right about the time the dwarves started invading Bilbo’s adorable little home nestled in a hollow of a tree. Looking anything like dwarves, these husky men appeared unexpectedly at his door, one after another, wearing rancid furs and donning scruffy beards, their wild hair shooting off in all directions. They ransacked his kitchen, helped themselves to his food, sloshed ale over his table, and generally created a noisy, out-of-control atmosphere. All the while, Bilbo grew visibly uncomfortable and anxious as he watched this chaotic situation unfold. I could feel his pain. I, too, once had a tidy and predictable life. Guarded my possessions. Prized order and structure. Thought I knew where I was headed. And who was coming along with me. Not so anymore.

I call it the workings of the Holy Spirit or the True Self.

First there’s the invitation — the foreshadowing of an unexpected journey ahead. In The Hobbit, Gandalf, the wizard, takes this role, showing up unannounced and mysterious, with his invitation for Bilbo to go on an “adventure.” But Bilbo has no intentions of leaving his comfortable life and his quaint home. He’s perfectly happy with life as it is. Or so he thinks. When these wild men show up at his door, they get him to wonder about something more. Even though at first he’s certain he doesn’t want to join in this adventure, he ends up hurrying off after them when he discovers the next morning they’ve left  him behind. At some point in the journey, feeling unprepared, scared, and certain he’s made a mistake, Bilbo decides to go back home. But he doesn’t. He sticks with it. And transformation happens. The turning point comes when the king of the dwarves is about to be killed, and Bilbo goes through his fear, tackles the evil in front of him and saves the king.

For me, the invitation came when I listened to my heart and heard God calling me to something more. What exactly, I do not know. I understand my life won’t be the same. No more rational explanations. Like Bilbo, I figure I’ll have moments when I feel scared, unprepared, and wondering why I left home. But also like Bilbo, I choose to leave behind my tidy, predictable life and accept the adventure. Even though it may mean facing some tough, long-held fears. Even though I don’t know where the adventure will lead. But one thing I do know: I will never be left to face the journey alone.

Probably by the next time you hear from me, I’ll be writing from El Paso.