feeling bittersweet

just over a month ago, kirk and i shared a conversation that began with the question, "what do you think you'd like to do in this upcoming year if we end up staying in florida longer than expected?"

he had posed the question, but it was one i'd already begun thinking about in the previous week. as you know, we had come back from our california trip a little bewildered and unsure how everything would actually work out for us to move there. in addition to that, i recently shared how so much has been happening in new relationships here, and opportunities to serve have begun to ripen. with both of these forces at work, i'd already begun pondering the possibility that God was doing something here, that we needed to pay attention, that maybe the place to be, for now, was here.

this was so hard to even think about. after going through a whole process in february of realizing my heart is made for sitting with people in their journeys, of pondering aloud and in prayer about the work of spiritual direction and dreaming newfangled dreams about a house that opens its arms to those on quiet and sacred pilgrimage, and of taking such painstaking care in an application process for spiritual formation training that was daunting, grueling, and yet redemptive . . . after all of this, think in another direction?

it was hard, but we couldn't deny the painful realities of a hard-hit economy and much higher cost of living on the west coast. we couldn't deny that the tropical sanctuary of winter park and the idyllic haven of our home was beckoning us even deeper every day. and, deep down, i could not help noting the great irony of planning a move across this big wide country to enroll in a graduate program that would train me to do the kinds of things i'm already beginning to do through relationships and opportunities at my church right now. what irony, this.

so on that afternoon when kirk posed that question to me, i turned to him, having already considered how i would most want to spend the coming year of my life in florida, if florida it was indeed going to be. i told him: i would want to invest wholeheartedly with the girls in whatever this ministry with them is trying to become, and i would want to enroll in the online spiritual formation program at spring arbor.

since i knew it was possible we were going to stay here, and since i also knew that this is what i would most definitely be doing if we did, i hopped online as soon as we got home that afternoon and filled out the application for spring arbor right then and there. then i updated my FAFSA information on the government federal aid website so that my information would also be sent to spring arbor for student loan consideration. then i e-mailed the admissions director at spring arbor and introduced myself, saying my application and FAFSA information had been submitted.

this was on a saturday afternoon, but do you know what happened next? the admissions director e-mailed me right back! he said my application had already reached him and then asked if i had any questions. he even gave me his business cell phone number to call at any time. whoa, nelly. things were moving on a fast track here.

after this, i needed to select three references. i thought about it for a little bit and then e-mailed three wonderful people with my request. one of them was none other than our very own terri, from blogland.

within 30 minutes, terri had written back to say yes. first thing monday morning, the person i had asked to be my work-related reference said yes. and on monday afternoon, i just happened to see in the hallway at school the woman i'd asked to be my academic reference, and she said yes, too. all three references were e-mailed or faxed to spring arbor within just a handful of days.

meanwhile, i had three new essays to write to complete my application. i sat down with them for a good 3-4 hours on wednesday night of that week and was able to complete them in one sitting. (thankfully, some of the groundwork for these essays had already been laid with the essays i'd written for my ISF application in the previous month.)

i could hardly believe how much had transpired in just five short days, but if you can believe it, there's more.

i had known about the spring arbor program for at least a year, but my hesitation in considering that school alongside ISF was the fact that it was an online degree program in spiritual formation and leadership. an online program . . . in spiritual formation. something about that notion just didn't sit well with me. the work of the heart runs in such deep waters, but how deeply can you swim in those waters if you're doing it all online?

you can see where this is going, can't you? i mean, look at where we are right now. we're talking to each other in an online space. we're talking about deep questions and concerns and convictions of the heart. we're sharing stories. we're being honest, even if it hurts. we're wrestling hard, and we're celebrating hard. we're loving one another across the miles and through the medium of a computer screen. some of us have met, but most of us haven't. and yet . . . don't you feel, to some degree, we know each other? that meeting in person would be like encountering an old friend we've already known forever?

that's how it feels to me, at least. except that over this past year, and even up to this point through the application process, i still felt unsure about the thought of this online program at spring arbor. that's why i didn't apply sooner. that's why i only considered ISF when i was looking for graduate programs in this subject.

so when the admissions guy asked if i had any questions, i asked if i could talk on the phone with a current student or alumni from the program. he said of course, and then connected me up with a girl named valerie. but it was just a few minutes into our phone conversation that the truth of all this that i just shared finally struck me: that i already know real and vibrant community can form in online spaces, especially when those participating are intentional and committed to it, and especially when those people are gathered around matters of formative spiritual journey.

i could hardly believe the realization i was having in that moment. it was like i could see the past two years in one snapshot, the time i've spent with this blogging community crystallizing into a preparation and a proving ground that culminated in this exact moment: God had prepared me for this.

whoa. freaking. nelly.

it took about two weeks to learn that i'd been accepted. when i got my welcome packet in the mail, i spent about an hour poring over all of it and sharing bits and pieces with kirk as i went.

all of this is a big secret i've been holding close, about to burst with, wanting to tell all of you . . . but i didn't feel the freedom to do so. and that's because i was still waiting for word from ISF on whether i'd been accepted there, too. i just learned this past thursday that i was. both of us were, actually. this was really big news.

there aren't many ways to describe how it felt to get that call from ISF after all of this, after this long journey, after what it has meant to me all along, after this settling realization that florida is what we have chosen, at least for now. but the feeling (and word) i keep coming back to is bittersweet.

it feels sweet because i love ISF and what they stand for. they have an amazing faculty and a great community. i know i would have received outstanding training and a wonderful experience there. it feels so good to have been invited to be a part of that.

but the bittersweet feeling is the letting go of that. it's the weirdness of having thought with everything in me earlier this year that we were heading to california this summer. all those dreams for that ministry house and thinking it was plopped down somewhere in orange county, california, and all that. being close to family and california friends again. letting go of all these things i thought were true. letting go of all that sureness we'd had. letting go of the dream for ISF as a part of my life, at least for now. it makes the sweet so bitter.

but when i turn my mind to what we're choosing instead, that makes all the difference. i think about what's going on with the new friends i've been making. i think about the blessing of our beautiful and very affordable house and how much we love winter park and the lakes and the trees and the stunning beauty. i think about so many new opportunities happening here. and i think about spring arbor. it's so surprising to me what spring arbor has become . . . something that actually thrills and excites me, just to think about it, because of my experience with this blogging community and how deeply connection can form between people who are intentional about it in an online space. the chance to travel to michigan once a year (this is required for the program every january -- yikes, it's going to be freezing!), not to mention the chance to study in greater depth an area that has become so fundamental to who i am is also just amazing and thrilling. i'm really, really excited to finally get started later this august.

when kirk and i were walking along park avenue last friday evening, when he was enjoying his new cigar, he asked how i was doing with the news from ISF we had just received the previous day, and i shared with him this thought: that all of this really comes down to what we are choosing for ourselves in this moment. it feels like a conscious choice right now more than usual. and part of that is painful because choosing one thing means excluding all other possibilities in that moment. but then again, a choice does have to be made in order to keep living life. and here and now, we've decided to choose this one. thanks for being along with me in this journey.