Sunday, March 09, 2014

One of Many

by Zinta Aistars

My favorite church, the one I  hold most sacred, can be found right here at Z Acres, my 10-acre farm in southwest Michigan. When my heart is full and brimming over, and I need to spill my concerns to a higher power, I head out back into the meadow, or up the hill into the woods. I see and feel Him there. He's everywhere, but when I see the hawks soar through the blue overhead, or hear the whisper of a breeze in the leaves of the forest trees, I feel the connection, unobstructed. I feel heard and I feel held.

Very soon, on March 23, 2014, I will be celebrating my second anniversary at Z Acres. As I stand on the brink of my third year on this beautiful retreat from the so-called civilized world, I feel how deeply my roots have grown here in this relatively short time. I came here on a leap of faith, and so many times over my first two years here, I have had to trust in nothing more, nothing less than faith to get me through. In fact, I've come to believe that this is the very premise on which I live here and why I was brought here, because I also believe nothing happens by chance. There is purpose in the chaos. I am here for a reason, perhaps several reasons, and my living here is a discovery of what those reasons might be.

The day before I moved in, I stood outside on the back deck, in the sun-dappled shade of a spring sun, and I prayed: "Catch me." My life was changing in a big way with this move, and I was about to take some tremendous risks alongside getting a new address. Among them was my leaving corporate America to begin my own business even as I established myself in my new home. I was breaking away from a predictable paycheck to follow yet another dream of building a full-time freelance writing and editing service. I was going for it all. Cake and icing and eating it, too.

Would He catch me if I made the leap? He did. At the end of my first year, I turned in an income tax return with numbers on the bottom line that I had never achieved before in my entire working life, and it was enough to carry me through a more temperate second year, when I was hit by several unexpected financial blows. Whenever I teetered on the edge of anxiety about my feast-or-famine lifestyle, I found myself going back out into the vast field, turning my face to the sky, and having a one-on-One again. Whenever I tried to control my own journey, things got complicated and I tended to choose the wrong way. Whenever I trusted in that path, gave myself over to it and took another leap of faith, a net would appear and the path would smooth out again.

We have a good thing going here at Z Acres, me and Him. We're connected. But something was still missing. I'd been busy building my life, setting down roots, building my business, becoming self-sustaining. On the brink of my third year, I thought it might be time to reach out rather than in.

Out there is a community I have barely touched upon. Community ... I had been giving the idea of community a lot more thought lately. What does it mean? That saying, "it takes a village," has a lot of truth behind it. When I was young, oh I was so all-powerful. I knew it all, I could do it all, I needed nobody. My politics and my personal convictions were those of independence, and if I failed, it was all my fault and it was also all on me to pick myself up again.

Life taught me so many harsh lessons ...

For one thing, I have learned I am a survivor. I am a lot stronger than I realized. I am also a lot more foolish than I realized. I am capable of making sloppy decisions and some whopping mistakes. I let people into my heart that did not deserve to be there. I learned I could endure and overcome great obstacles, but I also learned I wasn't nearly as all-powerful as I liked to imagine. I wasn't in control of all the many circumstances that affect the direction of my life. In fact, I had control over very few of them. Maybe none of them.

One of the bravest moments of my life was when I learned to accept that now and then, here and there, I needed community. One of the hardest things to do was to learn how to ask for help when I truly needed it. Asking for a hand took a lot more courage, I found, than standing alone.

Get that hand, pull up again, and I was off and running. Being dependent for a moment in time restored me to independence. My big lesson was that circumstances sometimes take control, no matter how hard we work, no matter how right we are ... and that sometimes, sometimes we all need a hand up.

That's community. Community consists of our families, our friends, our neighbors, the village or town or city where we live, the country where we fly our flag, and, finally, the Earth where we all live together, and the mysterious and infinite Universe that surrounds us. Rings upon rings of community built one upon the other.

My own Home at long last established, I was ready to give something back. I had reached that point of interdependence, a mix of standing alone, accepting help when I needed it, and now able to reach out and take my turn at helping others. We all need to take our turn. That's how it works.

Actually, for those who still chafe at the idea of community and interdependence ... there are a great many scientific studies that show altruism is a great cure for shaky self-esteem and depression and general feelings of helplessness. Nothing lifts the spirits like helping others. It's neat, really. Reach out to give a hand and you end up helping yourself. If it suits you better, consider it a healthy kind of selfish.

I'm a church-hopper. I hop from one to the next, looking for the one that will hold me. Hm, that sounds an awful lot like how I spent much of my life looking for Home ... until I found it at Z Acres. In a church, I am looking for a congregation that knows how to hold its own, has plenty of history, but isn't in some techno future of big screens of splashy effects, orchestras and bands, and seating for thousands. That's just not me. I like a little tradition. Stained glass windows and wooden pews, a pastor who knows everyone by name, and a sense of community. And, of course, sermons that make me think, stretch my comfort zone, teach and guide and challenge me. I want a place where I can make a difference and make a contribution that goes beyond the dollar in the offering plate.

I live between the much larger cities of Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids in Michigan, and so I have gotten  used to going north or south to meet various needs. I've been disappointed in what I have found in churches, however, for a great many reasons. Maybe look closer to Home? Go west? I'm just a few miles from the small, rural town of Allegan, and when I did a quick search, I found many churches there, many denominations, but one in particular caught my attention. A woman pastor, nice, someone I could relate to ... too many times in my church-hopping, I found myself feeling turned away by the male dominance I found there, getting subtle messages about being less than my male counterparts in His eye. Rib and all that. Somehow, I didn't think so.

Other aspects of this church attracted me. A diverse congregation with a lot of community outreach. Finally, I had a Sunday morning to spare, with sunshine thawing the roads, and I went to visit. A greeter smiled at me as I walked up to the door and beckoned me in. A kind elderly woman took my coat when I walked in, and an elderly man hung it up for me. Pastor Karen seemed to notice me as a new face as soon as I walked into the sanctuary, and when I sat down toward the back, she made a beeline for me with outstretched hand. She introduced herself, asked my name, and by golly, actually remembered it later on. We chatted for a moment before the service began, and I told her I had read some of her sermons online and enjoyed them. She had spoken about taking care of the environment as God's gift, and she had spoken about a woman's role in the church. I had a sense she would get me ... and help me answer a few questions that had long nagged at me.

In this Sunday's sermon, as if she had heard my innermost thoughts, she spoke of community. Christ in the desert faced many temptations, and one of those was to isolate Himself. It was tempting to become self sustaining, drawn in, and not take risks on the mess of relationships with other members of the community. Community and being an active member of ours was something He expects us to do.

The church had a long, rich history, reaching back into the 1800s. I looked around to see a small congregation. Later, I would meet several members in their late 90s, while others were still in their teens. At one point, I noticed a space cut into the pews, and I realized it was for a wheelchair. Not at the back of the church. Right smack in the middle of it. I noticed a few visible disabilities among members, while the rest of us were better at hiding ours.

I didn't mean to stay. I just went downstairs to the restroom before driving back home after the service. But as I came out, someone smiled at me, someone else offered me a cookie and apple cider, and Pastor Karen popped in again. We ended up sitting at a table talking long after everyone else had left.

I told her some of the reasons I had come to church this Sunday. I shared a few things I rarely share. I asked about opportunities to get involved. I asked about the various programs, the book club, the community lunch, and when I came up with a program the church didn't currently have, the pastor suggested I start it up. They would help me.

Then she gave me a hug. I drove home smiling. It was good to get involved. To be a member of ... and to now and then say a prayer in the company of other human beings rather than trees and chickens. Not that that is a bad way to talk to Him. All His creatures. I was just ready now to get involved with some of the more difficult, two-legged ones.


  1. Wonderful reflections on how we need to live our faith both horizontally and vertically. And while I need my daily conversations with God, I look forward to fellowship with other pilgrims.

    1. Exactly, Joan. Seasons for all things ... there was a time I needed to draw in, and now I find myself in a season where I need to reach out.

  2. How fantastic that you've found a faith community where you feel you belong!

    1. Finding the right faith community is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves. It's like finding and developing any family, any relationship. I look forward to the challenges and the rewards. I look forward to contributing.

  3. It seems that many Latvians never do this type of searching. They just stick with the Latvian-speaking church/congregation in which they grew up, even if it is not the right fit. Naturally, those are the same folks that then rarely (if ever) attend services, nor contribute in any meaningful way.

    1. That's true. My nearest Latvian church has been in a state of turmoil, with the loss of a minister and current trend to switch sermons to English, basically eliminating the reason many seniors attended in the first place ... for services in their native language. I've found that many Latvians attend their churches more to keep in social connection with the Latvian community than to seek God, which seems to be a secondary concern. I could be wrong, but that's my impression. Or perhaps it's a combination of both. Regardless, I have found few that are theologically challenging.

  4. Oh, I am so happy I found this post! Sorry I missed it when it was posted earlier. This explains some of our conversation last night. I am happy for you to have found a church home. That is so vital in our lives. I understand about the sanctuary of your home at Z Acres, but I also understand the need for more...the reaching out and giving back. I pray that this will be a place where you will feel loved as well as find a way to give love to those around you. You have amazing gifts...meant to be shared! May God bless and bring fulfillment to you in your new "home".

  5. A time for all things ... and as you know, Pam, I admire the strength of your faith. May it carry you through the light and through the dark, back into the light again.

  6. This is my first visit to your blog and I enjoyed hearing about your move to the peaceful farm, and you finding a church that God may be calling you to join.

    1. I appreciate that, Terra, and I'm pleased you found your way here.