About a week and a half into the new year, I traveled to Philadelphia for a week-long residency with my classmates from Spring Arbor and six other cohort groups enrolled in our spiritual formation program. We were there to learn about social justice from Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, and we were provided intentional time to connect in our cohort groups about the work God has been doing in each of our lives.
During the cohort sharing time, we were asked to individually share our responses to two questions: "What has God been doing in my life since last we met?" and "What hasn't God been doing?"
Wow. Those two questions pack a lot of punch, and it was beautiful to hear each person in our cohort community share their diverse, heartfelt responses to how these questions meet them in their lives right now. And then it was precious to gather around each person after they shared so we could spend time praying for the concerns and questions and praises they had voiced. In all, it was a time of vulnerability, tears, intense listening, intense caring, and holy lifting up.
Since our cohort group has 21 members, it took several installments of several hours each for us to provide this sharing and prayer time for each person. I was next-to-last in line, which means that my sharing time landed in the middle of the week, just before we were scheduled for an evening lecture in the main meeting room.
I told my group about the invitation to practice active rest with God this year, allowing him to teach me what it means for him to be my heavenly Father who sees me, knows my needs, and will provide for them as I release my grip on the future and simply watch, wait, and learn to receive. I shared that this felt scary and that I didn't really know yet how to trust that God would show up. And when it came to sharing what God isn't doing right now, I wryly joked that God is not providing me with a job. It's hard to wait and trust that all will be revealed in the fullness of time.
After the group gathered around and prayed for me, we headed downstairs for the main session. Along the way, my friend Seth came up to me and asked if he could talk with me later. "When you were sharing," he said, "I felt like God gave me something specific to share with you, but I didn't want to share it in the larger group." Intrigued, I agreed to talk with him a little later about it.
That night during the main session, the director of our program talked about the role social justice has played within the charismatic tradition of our faith. He talked about prophecy and about healing, about spirit baptism and about spiritual warfare, linking each of these to the work of the Holy Spirit on behalf of social justice in the world. And then, after learning about the history and tenets of the charismatic tradition, we were invited to participate in a charismatic-style worship service.
We pushed all the tables and chairs off to the side of the room, creating an open space that would allow people to stand, sit, kneel, lay down, or even dance. We were told that we would be provided an opportunity for prayer later in the evening so that people could receive healing and the reception of their gifts and ministry if they wanted to be prayed over.
Since I have been so focused these days on receiving the work God has for me to do, I had every intention of going up to receive prayer for the reception of my ministry. But all of that changed once Seth came over to talk with me.
It was about halfway through the worship service, and I had moved from kneeling on the floor to sitting in a chair on the side of the room. Since I was now somewhat detached and no longer singing, Seth came over and asked if he could share with me what he felt God impressing upon him earlier that night. I nodded.
He sat down beside me and said, "I feel like God wants you to know that he's inviting you to play."
I looked at Seth and arched my eyebrows, not sure what to make of this.
He continued. "I'm serious. It's like God wants you to come up and sit on his lap, and he wants to cuddle with you, and tickle you, and laugh with you, and run around with you, and chase you. He's inviting you to play with him."
And then, without him having any knowledge of the image I've been carrying around about clutching the hardened pinecone at the core of my heart, he said, "I just feel like you're clutching something in your fist. Like you're holding on to it really hard and can't let it go."
My eyes widened, and I sat there, dumbfounded. How could he possibly have known?
"You're right," I said slowly. "Just before I came up here, God was showing me that there's this last little sliver of my heart -- almost like the last remaining 25 percent of it -- that has never been given over to him. And it's so frustrating because the other 75 percent has learned to trust him and receive healing. But this last 25 percent has never done any of that. It feels exactly like I'm clutching it in my fist, and it feels like this hardened, dark pinecone digging into the palms of my hands."
Seth nodded and listened, and then, with his eyes fixed on me, he said, "Christianne, you can receive healing for that."
"I know," I said. "I believe God is trying to heal me of it. That's what this season of active rest and learning to let him be my heavenly Father is all about."
"Right," he said. "But I mean tonight. You can receive healing from that tonight."
I looked at him skeptically. "I don't know, Seth. God has healed me in many different ways over the years, but my experience is that it always takes a really long time and a lot of intentionality on my part. I'm not sure I believe it can happen immediately, in a moment."
"Well, sometimes it doesn't," he agreed. "And God may choose not to heal you tonight. But he also could do it, if he wanted to. And maybe you could just start by asking him. I would really encourage you to go up for the healing prayer when the prayer time starts."
Seth has been involved in healing ministries for a while, so I trusted that he spoke from experience about God's ability to heal in an instant. But still . . . I didn't know what to make of all this. Like I said, the work of healing is something I've experienced, but it has always taken whole seasons of life and intentionality to enter into and receive it. It has always been something God and I work through together, sometimes with the help of friends or the help of a therapist. I didn't know if I believed God could really heal me in an instant.
I sat in my chair and took all this in, and all these thoughts and questions kept racing through my mind. I kept trying to reconcile, too, what he had shared about God inviting me to play. What did that mean? Why was it important? Why did it even matter?
And then suddenly, I was weeping. Deep, wracking sobs seemed to well up from the depths of my body. Tears began streaming down my face. My shoulders shook from all those heavy tears. And I felt so embarrassed to be crying like this, out in the open surrounded by classmates I'd just met in person for the first time a few days ago, plus a whole bunch of other people I didn't know at all.
For a long time, the tears just kept flowing and I didn't really know why. It felt like a grief that had been a long time coming, so I just let it come. And then, slowly, I began to see an image of myself in my mind. I was about four years old, and I was sitting on a chair in the middle of my living room. Activity swirled around me in the house, but I sat alone in the room.
Except that I wasn't alone. I saw Jesus with me in that room, right next to me as I sat in the chair. And I realized that this was somehow connected to the presence of Jesus I've always known.
My conversion story has always been a little awkward for me to tell because it has always been the case that I have had an awareness of Jesus with me in my life. From my earliest memories, Jesus has been there. I had never asked him to be there; he was just there. And I've never known what to make of that.
And yet here, in the midst of my tears, God was showing me that the presence of Jesus being with me from my earliest memories has been intentional. In all the ways I have ever felt alone in my life, I really wasn't ever alone. Jesus was always with me, because he knew I would need him to be.
This revelation that helped me understand something I'd never understood made me cry even more out of gratitude and wonder. And somewhere in the midst of these tears, I felt someone place their hand on my head, as though they were praying for me. They left a few moments later. As I continued to cry, my eyes closed and myself completely oblivious to the worship service going on around me, another person came up behind me and began to squeeze my shoulders, massaging the tension that must have been evident as I was hunched over in my chair. Slowly, I felt my neck and shoulders relax. This stranger, too, then moved away.
The tears began to subside, and I opened my eyes and sat quietly. They were beginning the prayer time at the front of the room, calling up those who wanted to receive prayer for their gifts and ministry. It was now clear to me that healing prayer -- not this prayer for ministry -- was what I needed to receive, and I felt willing to ask for it.
But how does healing happen, I wondered. How do I let God do it? How do I let myself receive it? My brain kept crunching these questions over and over, trying to open myself to receive healing but not knowing how to make sense of how it happened at all. Having some mental understanding of what I needed to invite and assent to seemed important. I mean, how could I receive healing if I didn't know how to let it happen?
With these mental gymnastics playing over and over in my head, I moved to the front of the room once the invitation came. Our director, Ken, approached me with a small bottle of anointing oil in his hand and asked how he could pray for me. But I didn't know how to tell him what I needed. "I'm holding on to something, and I don't know how to let it go," was all I could say. I shrugged my shoulders and looked at him, probably with no small amount of tears and desperation shining in my eyes.
Ken made the sign of the cross with oil on my forehead and prayed for me. Then he moved away to pray over another person and I found myself standing in that spot at the front of the room by myself. I felt self-conscious, and again I found my brain working its mental gymnastics on how to let this healing thing happen. I could feel myself getting nowhere, and I felt completely helpless and frustrated with the whole thing. I couldn't help wondering if all of this was just a little ridiculous.
After a few minutes, one of the prayer volunteers came up to me. He introduced himself as Austin and asked how he could pray for me. "I don't know," I told him. "There's this part of my heart that I'm holding on to, and I need to let it go. I need to give it to God, but I don't know how. I don't know how to let healing happen. I don't understand how it works."
Austin nodded and looked at me quietly. "Do you think you could name it? If you could give a word or two to what you're holding on to, what do you think it would it be?"
I just stood there, not saying anything. I didn't know. I shook my head in utter helplessness and looked back at him without saying anything.
He looked at me intently for a few moments, as though listening to the words I wasn't saying and listening to the spirit of God at the same time. "It feels to me like it might be a great loneliness," he said. "But I don't want to name it for you. Do you think you could give it a name?"
To the best of my ability and knowledge, all I could say was, "Trying to make life happen. I would name it, 'Trying to make my life happen.'"
Austin asked if he could pray for me, and his prayer took on a similar theme to what Seth had said to me earlier: that God wanted to play with me, that he wanted me to know how much he delights in me, that he wants me to be like a child with him, running around and being chased. I found myself wondering how he could possibly know what he was praying, how it was possible for his words to mirror Seth's so closely when he hadn't been there for our conversation.
After Austin prayed, we both stood there together. Neither of us said anything for a moment. Finally, I said, "I don't know how to do this. I don't know how to give this over to God so he can heal me. It just doesn't make sense to my mind. I feel like I need to understand how it happens in order to let it happen."
As I was talking, Seth came up and stood on the other side of me, placing his hand on my shoulder and praying for me quietly. Austin nodded at what I had said and then continued to stand there with me, as though listening. After a moment, he said, "I'll tell you what. Why don't we both stand here together quietly and see if God speaks to either one of us about this. And then, if either one of us hears him speak, we can tell the other person what he said. Does that sound okay?"
I nodded. We closed our eyes.
And then I saw him.
In my mind, I saw Jesus standing before me. He was smiling and laughing and beckoning me forward to run and frolic and play. His eyes twinkled. And he just kept laughing and inviting me forward, as though playing with me was the best thing he could imagine doing right in that moment.
So I did it. I imagined that four-year-old me that had been sitting in the living room chair entering into the scene with him and letting him chase me. I laughed and shrieked with joy. I let him catch and tickle me. I was having so much fun! And I could feel, as Seth and Austin prayed beside me, that a huge smile was beginning to spread across my face. It felt like it would be totally stuck there forever.
I stood there for a long time, allowing myself to bask in the moment, just watching myself play with Jesus in that image in my mind. And then, as I continued watching, I saw myself crawl up into his arms and rest. Jesus held me in his arms, my four-year-old self laying in his arms like an infant, fastly falling asleep.
A deep sense of rest came over my body, and I felt like I had no muscles at all. It felt like Seth was holding me up, keeping me from falling backward with his hand lightly touching my shoulder as he prayed. I could tell it was happening. The healing was happening. This is what healing felt like.
Soon Seth and Austin walked away, as though they knew I was with Jesus, just resting, just being with him, no longer needing them beside me in prayer, totally content to be with Jesus for a while.
I had the sense of a group of people standing behind me, a band of four or five of them, praying for me. My friend Annie came up and sang a beautiful worship chorus with her hand resting lightly on my shoulder. Her voice sounded like angel's wings in my ears. And then, with Seth's words to me from the beginning, and Ken's anointing oil and prayer, and Austin's inviting me deeper into all of it, and nameless strangers coming to touch my head and massage my shoulders while I cried, and a group of them standing in a circle of prayer behind me, and Annie's beautiful singing, I was struck with the greatest sense of being held up and supported by the literal body of Christ that I have ever known.
And in the midst of it, Jesus. Jesus holding me in his arms.
I'm not sure at what point it happened, but I slowly came to realize that it was gone. The hardened pinecone that was the core of my heart, the dark pit I had been clutching in my fist and didn't know how to let go of, was gone. Somewhere in the midst of all that playing, he had taken it from my hand, like a parent distracts a child to some other kind of activity so they forget what they'd been holding and the parent can pick it up after they've abandoned it.
I hadn't had to do anything to consciously offer it over. I hadn't had to understand how it would happen, or even when it would happen. He had done it all. He had taken it from me completely, and all that I did was play.