A couple weekends ago, I went on a Celtic prayer retreat. A friend and I drove my little Mazda 3 up to an undeveloped camp site a few hours north of Seattle … and we spent the weekend camping with a group of people we’d never met.
I’d never camped with strangers, and I’d never been on a prayer retreat. I’m not really the sort of uber-Christian who does things like weekend prayer retreats. But lately, I’ve been trying to expand outside of the U.S. Evangelical Christianity I was raised in and learn about God through voices outside of my primary frame of reference. A Celtic prayer retreat seemed exactly up my alley, and I’ve been curious about the Celtic approach to faith.
Celtic spirituality focuses on seeing God in nature. Instead of Lecito Divina, reading a passage of Scripture and noting which words or phrases stand out to you, we practiced Terra Divina, walking around the forest and seeing what in nature stood out … and how God might be using it to share something with us.
Celtic Christianity was diverse. It was unique. It was odd. It annoyed the people who were in power. It was fine with doctrine, as long as doctrine didn’t reduce God to something smaller than who God is. Celtic Christianity finds God in the mystery. It asks: What can this God-intoxicated people do? What impact can we make in our suffering, imperfect world?
I spent the weekend with the type of people who come to a cookout with turkey bacon, black bean burgers, and three types of quinoa salad. People who will camp without running water, but make sure to bring all the supplies for pourover coffee. (None of that regular brewed nonsense. Something with much better flavor profiles.)
Sitting in a circle during a session on great Celtic saints, we passed around a bottle of Laphroaig — my absolute favorite scotch — which I sipped out of my coffee mug while we learned about Columba of Iona (who was kind of a jerk sometimes), Kevin of Glendalough (who spent a lot of time with birds), and of course St. Patrick (who did a lot more than just pick shamrocks and get a holiday named after him).
Too many times, I’ve felt like I just don’t “fit in” in many typical Christian circles. I don’t like megachurches. I don’t like Christian pop culture or the commercialization of faith. And I’m way too concerned about things like women in leadership or the church’s interaction with social justice issues for many Protestants I know.
But sitting around the campfire and discussing Celtic saints while trying my first slice of vegan zucchini bread … I felt more at home than I had at many Evangelical potlucks or Bible studies.
For me, the most powerful part of the weekend came as we were decorating an altar with a Celtic cross, in preparation for communion. We each went out into the woods to find objects in nature that could decorate our cross.
I came back with dandelions: two yellow flowers and one white seed pod. When I was a toddler, I loved dandelions. Every time we went on a walk, I’d point at every single dandelion we passed. And my grandpa would stop my stroller, every time, and go to retrieve each dandelion.
Our walks took three times as long as they should. I always came home with giant fistfuls of dandelion bouquets. After my grandpa died this past January, I’ve begun to see dandelions as a metaphor for the love Christ has for us.
See, my life hasn’t ended up anything like what my grandparents probably would have picked for me. I didn’t go to the university they would have wanted me to — the university where they, my parents, and uncles/aunts met; the university they financially supported their entire lives. I don’t go to a Lutheran church. I wanted to be a writer, so I didn’t get a practical, sensible job in education, engineering, or finance. I’m 28 and still not married, and I probably won’t stay home with kids full time like both of my grandmas and my mother did. Some people would be upset, or at least disappointed, to see their life choices and preferences disregarded.
But at the end of the day, I know that my grandpa didn’t care about those things. Every time we visited his house, every time we went out to dinner at Denny’s, I could tell how much he loved me. Just for being his granddaughter … just for being me. No strings attached. Nothing else required.
As a workaholic and a perfectionist, I’m pretty great at doing things out of obligation. But I never felt any bitterness from my grandparents. When Christians talk about Jesus’ unconditional love — being loved not for anything good we did or anything we had to earn, but simply because getting to spend time with us fills him with joy — I know what that feels like. Because I’ve experienced it with my grandpa.
He loved me for me. Because I existed, and I cared about him. No more or less than my siblings who went to the “right” school or got the “right” sort of job.
After he died, every dandelion I saw reminded me of that love — of what it feels like to know you are cared about unconditionally. But I also started to feel mad at the white dandelions.
Mad at them for being dead.
Mad because … why couldn’t they be alive like the bright little yellow ones I always used to scrunch into dandelion bouquets? Why did they have to be dead?
About halfway through the prayer retreat, I finally connected the dots and realized that we were camping in the same small town where my grandpa grew up. Now, my grandpa didn’t have a particularly happy childhood. His widow mother was in and out of the picture during his formative years. They struggled financially, and he sacrificed greatly to make it out of his small town, to secure an Ivy League master’s degree, and to advance to the top of his engineering field.
The place I was camping was the same place that formed my grandpa into the person he ultimately decided to be. His life there wasn’t easy. Nothing was handed to him. But it all helped him figure out exactly what sort of person he wanted to become.
Now, it’s my turn.
White dandelions are dead. But they’re full of seeds — ready to be caught up in the breeze, to scatter in the wind, and to take root somewhere new.
My grandpa is gone, and now it’s my turn. I can decide who I want to be; how my childhood and formative will influence the person I am going to become.
I know how my grandpa chose to live his life. I watched how deeply he invested in his family, in his church … how much he gave to people in his community: how he supported his local school board, the university where he received his undergrad, and all the Bible studies he led at church.
My life won’t look like my grandpa’s did. I won’t invest in the same places that he did. But I can still choose to invest … in places that make sense for me. I know my grandpa’s heart: how deeply he cared for his family, his church, and the people in his community. I can choose to love my family, church, and community like that. (Or I can choose not to and just focus on my life and career. It’s up to me.)
But I know what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. And my grandpa isn’t around to care for his community like that anymore. So I’d like to pick up the baton and start caring for my community in the ways that he did.
My grandpa would never drink scotch around a campfire. He probably wasn’t too interested in Celtic saints. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t care for quinoa.
But that’s okay. I can serve Jesus in a way that fits me. It doesn’t have to look how my grandpa’s life looked. As long as I keep God at the center of my life, that is what really matters.
Evangelicals talk a lot about how “God calls us” to things. We say that we feel God calling us to a certain job, into leadership in a certain church program, that sort of thing. During the prayer retreat, someone said that he doesn’t think God calls us to certain specific roles. Instead, God calls us to follow God. To follow God into places that might be new, unfamiliar, or frightening.
Our job isn’t to figure out one simple, easily-defined thing that God is calling us to. Our job is to do the uncomfortable, messy, confusing work of trusting God … and following where we feel God lead us.
For me, that means continuing to invest in the college ministry I’ve started at my church. That means being intentional about getting to know the students who come — of learning how I can listen to, pray for, and support them. It means continuing to be involved in my church, even when things get hard. Even when I accidentally do something hurtful. It means not running away, but sticking around to have the hard conversations that help me learn how to be a better friend and church member.
It means not spending so many hours at work. It means continuing to take seriously the challenge of putting God at the center of my life: of every decision. It means knowing that I am going to mess up. I’m going to fail. I’m going to suck sometimes. But I’m going to keep trying.
And one day, when I’m 88 years old, mostly blind, and am sitting at a Denny’s with my grandchildren — what will my legacy be?
For me, I was able to understand the meaning of Jesus’ unconditional love because of how my grandpa cared about me. But he’s gone now. So now, it’s my turn.