Friday, January 26, 2018

Fasting for Hunger Part 6

Looking back at the fast....

1. There was a “grace” for this fast. 

This is hard to describe. I didn't particularly “want” to fast but I felt invited. Thus I approached the fast with respectful fear. I asked people to cover me in prayer and faced the possibility that, apart from the grace of God, I might not “make it” all the way to Friday, and that would be ok. 

I experienced (miraculous?) absence of the physical suffering. I didn't even feel “distracted” by hunger or have trouble focusing. 

Throughout the fast I had a feeling of peaceful resignation. There was very little inner struggle to resist temptation. I was able to withstand freshly baked cookies and an evening working in a restaurant without too much difficulty. I believe this is evidence of supernatural GRACE. I don't think this is normal... 

2. There were significant emotional results of abstaining from food.

I noticed that a large percentage of my daily schedule, motivation, and enjoyment comes from my eating habits! This was a surprise. I had a lot less interest in getting up in the morning without the incentive of a hot cup of coffee waiting for me. I also felt like I was “waiting around” a lot of the time. I felt disconnected from people and "left out" when others partook in food.

3. Noticed in myself an “all or nothing” mentality. 

“If I am fasting food and focusing on God, then why do anything at all, other than simply wait on God to direct me and respond submissively?” All the normal things I usually do (homework, talking on the phone, taking a walk, hanging out with friends etc) felt inconsistent with focus on the Lord. Though when I actually DID any of these things it ended up being life giving to me. Still, I find it strange that “surrender” to God seemed subjectively incompatible with normal life.

4. The experiential allegory of hunger.

It was very interesting to note the parallels between physical hunger, emotional hunger, and spiritual hunger. In the physical, there was bodily weakness, disinterest in other things, aching emptiness,  and highlighted awareness of the smell of food, all of this is a bodily picture of the sensation that people describe as "hungering" for God. 

In the emotional realm, there was insatiable longing - longing that leads to tears - tears that draw love - love that deepens connection - connection that comforts and gives hope and thanksgiving. Perhaps the same system comes into play with hunger for God - longing motivates a crying out, which sets us up to connect with God in ways we otherwise would not.

5. The truth of what Logan (the second year student) told me: 

I discovered I truly did't “need” the things I think I need. The Lord is my strength and my 'reason' for showing up. By grace, it really was as though I did not “need” food at all; I only “wanted” food. Similarly, though I "wanted" it, I didn't “need” the continual high of social stimulation.  

6. My fast was a little bit backwards....

I was fasting because of the ideas I read in Defining Moments. The stories of that book demonstrated that there is “more” to the Christian life, and to relationship with/experience of God, than I have experienced. In the case of most revivalists' lives, intense spiritual “hunger” for “more of God at any cost” preceded their breakthrough encounter with God. Several of them paired their spiritual hunger with physical fasting.

I see I need this “more” of God if I am to live the supernatural life of relationship and partnership with God. Though people universally report that encounter with God is “good” and “worth any cost”, I am afraid of the cost, not inspired by hungry “desire” for God (such as would justify the costs.) So my fast was not out of hunger but for it. First things first...

7. That being said, the thing that sparks the greatest hunger, (in the case of food, friends, and God) is not deprivation but getting a TASTE of it. Taste and see that the Lord is good...

“The Holy Spirit is addictive” I've heard. “Once you taste Him you can never get enough and are ruined for anything else.”

The trick to hungering for MORE is to first have some. During my fast, whenever I got a taste of sugar (gatorade etc) or a taste of friendship (Caleb, Lucy, and Melody,) the result was courage and hope. May I taste the goodness and reality and Presence of the Lord even more than I have already. And may that taste propel me, in hope and courage, to seek even more!

8. Testimony of fruit

During the conference I only prayed for two members of the public. The first woman was not healed at that time. The second was! Praise the Lord for His grace and intervention. He doesn't owe us anything... 

Randy prayed for sick people intentionally and fervently for 11 years before seeing more than a handful of healings. Be encouraged! I am encouraged. 

I may not feel emotionally "hungry" for God, but as I pointed out to the accusing thoughts in my head, I must be pretty hungry (as well as sensitive and responsive) since I came to this school, spent something like 30 hours in prayer/worship/teaching this week, and took on the invitation to fast. God is good. Miracles are real. My friends are faithful. And there is more! 

9. Since the fast.

For the first couple days after the fast I actually didn't eat much. I had an emotional peace, knowing bodily that I am not beholden to the tyranny of food.

That being said, the emotional feeling of insecurity and social "hunger" also persisted after the fast. I tried to "fix" it by changing my biochemistry with food, but to no avail. I'm still learning what it means to have healthy relationships without being "dependent" on social stimulation for my inner peace.

This past Wednesday I "manifested" in my body for the first time. I didn't "feel" anything during the impartation times of the conference, but I sure felt something yesterday! The muscles of my abdomen twitched and contracted involuntarily. I visibly jolted in my chair for around 15 minutes. I have watched other react this way all year and wondered what it was like. Could people be "faking" it? Nothing was different yesterday, except I was twitching. Sometimes it would stop for a few moments. But then, without any intention on my part, it would start again. 

For those of you who have not (yet?) had this experience, don't worry. It was interesting, and I am very grateful to God for His grace in giving me a taste of what I had been observing. But this time of shaking doesn't change the fact that He continues to relate to me in a unique way, before and after. Our relationship - the way He interacts with me - is so much more than bodily reactions. And so, in response to all that God offers, far beyond I have yet experienced, I say, "Have your way, Lord."

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Fasting for Hunger Part 5

Friday, day four of the fast, final day of the Randy Clark conference.

As the day dawned, I noted that I was still was in NO serious physical discomfort from the ongoing fast. No stomachache, headache, muscle ache, dizziness, faintness, nausea, or blood sugar problems. I continued to have an odd, distasteful, dry, gummy feeling in my mouth, but that was the most pronounced physical symptom.

The theme of the first talk for the day was "Before there is promise, there is process." Paul Martini, associate evangelist with Randy Clark's ministry, Global Awakening, taught this principle from the story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. Jacob didn't love Leah, but from Leah came sons whose names meant "to see", "to hear", "to be at one with", and "praise". From Leah came the line of kings and of the King. Martini drew a parallel between Leah and "process". We need to "love our Leah" in order to see our longed-for promises fulfilled.

This fourth day I sat with Lucy, my best friend at school. She held my hand and stroked my hair and frequently checked in with me asking earnestly, "How are you doing?" At lunchtime (instead of eating) I answered her question. I poured out all my thoughts, feelings, longings, and worries. As we walked back towards our seats, I broke down into tears - ugly, snotty sobs - deep pain from past and present bubbling up and out. As she held me I whispered in my mind, "I love you, Leah...."

In the afternoon Randy Clark taught on the distinction between Christian prayer ministry and non Christian healing practices, specifically Reiki and Therapeutic Touch (which also seem to convey supernatural power for healing.) This is a topic which I have found of great interest in the past. However, that day I struggled with feelings of dull disinterest and even disbelief. I noted, however, that this was out of character for me. In response to the (lying?) thought, “I am not hungry for this stuff” I wrote on my note pad, “I am clearly hungry, obedient, sensitive, and receptive enough... enough to come to BSSM, enough to seek, enough to fast...”

The end of the school day came before I knew it. I ran out the door to go to work. 

I had to let out another wry chuckle. This would be a new level of challenge. Fasting in a restaurant... 

Originally I was not scheduled to work during the conference, but I agreed to cover a coworker's shift, not as a waitress, but as a hostess. Hosting is significantly more challenging and humbling than waiting on tables. Hosting means devoting yourself to primarily serve the other staff, all the while making minimum wage without the compensation of tip money. I was there purely to serve. But like the rest of the week, there was a “grace” on it. It was a very smooth shift.

And after I clocked off at 9:30pm, I broke my fast.

I figured it was better to break the night before than at the beginning of a day.  Plus the food available at the restaurant was perfect: Miso soup over rice, some cooked vegetables from an extra meal, a single bite of coconut cake. The PERFECT breakfast after four days of lemon water.

Very refreshed, I went back to school for the last 30 minutes of the conference.

I got there just in time to hear some of the more demonstrable testimonies. For example, six people who had torn their ACL were healed. One man who hadn't been able to lift weights, exercise, or squat in 4 years was running back and fourth like a mad man! Also my personal friend Chrystal, who hasn't been able to walk for a week because of a sprained ankle, was completely healed and carried her crutches down the stairs and out the door!

That night I cheered, praised, and thanked God with the best of them. And, as people started to leave the conference, I confidently raised my hand to indicate I was available to offer prayer. 

Like the first night, a lady came to me. But this time things were different.

The lady told me and another student that her knee, injured in a scooter accident several months earlier, was throbbing with pain. While we prayed, the injured knee tighten up tangibly and the woman's pain level drop dramatically. Upon a second prayer, her pain disappeared completely and, with tears in her eyes, she reported herself healed!

The first time I've ever seen someone instantly healed at my words. Praise God!!!

When we asked her more about her experience, the lady told us that God had told her to go get prayer, (though she didn't want to,) so she was confident He was going to heal her. While we prayed the second time she heard God tell her she needed to 'want' the healing, not just tolerate it. So she had internally adjusted her heart and was healed. 

As I hear people say all the time, it wasn't anything about ME that got the lady healed. A power apart from me (God) decided to heal her. But because of my willingness to participate through prayer, I got to be directly part of a miracle.  

I went home rejoicing. On my way out the door my dear friend Melody ran up to me.

“Have you broken your fast yet?”

“Yup!” I declared merrily.

“Then I have something for you!” She pressed into my hand a little pad of dark chocolate.
Let the feasting begin!
My lovely lady friends <3
Tune in tomorrow for a final installment in this series, a post considering the take-away lessons I learned from this, my first ever four day fast. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Fasting for Hunger Part 4

Thursday, the third day of the conference, I arrived to school a little bit later than planned. Anxious not to end up alone, I took the first seat I could find with someone I knew, (a guy from my Revival Group.) When I returned to the seat after running to the bathroom, however, I was distressed to find that my friend was gone! Strangers eventually filled the seats around mine, but after a while they also left.... this happened several times! It was like I was in the rotating section...

For some reason, this triggered major feelings of loneliness and insecurity. As the day wore on, I was seriously bothered by lying voice saying 'I don't have any real friends...' When the second and third sets of people sitting near me moved away, it occurred to me to stop and pay attention to my feelings to see what they/God were teaching me.

No food... no friends... hunger... longing... desire... fasting.

I realized - the degree to which it bothers me to go without social stimulation shows the degree to which my happiness is dependent upon on. Do I “need” to sit with friends? Am I here at this conference for social reasons? What is my primary purpose for being in my seat today?

In absence of food, I discovered, I was particularly anxious to receive satisfaction, comfort, stimulation from social interaction. This hunger for affirmation, reassurance, and connection was a Soul/Heart hunger, analogous to physical hunger for the comfort/satisfaction/pleasure of food. I was highly attuned to every savory smell wafting through the room, and my eyes roamed over the room, watching jealously as others mixed and mingled. 

As I examined my craving, it reminded me of an addict in “need” of a cigarette. I actually do have many friends, and plenty said hello as they passed my seat, but it didn't relieve my anxious, social hunger. Neither food nor friends, perhaps, can satisfy the deeper craving, the underlying ache, that was revealed when both were removed. 

Tears of longing bubbled up from my heart. I heard in my head a line from a song, “Like a bride waiting for her groom, we'll be a church ready for you.”

Interestingly enough, that morning Bill Johnson taught about fasting, among other things. He also spoke about the peace of heaven which allowed Jesus to sleep during a storm. "We don't need to know why something happened," Bill said. "We just need to ask Jesus what we should do now." This teaching spoke to me. During lunch break, instead of aggressively seeking company, I relaxed into my storm.

At the end of the afternoon session there was another impartation of healing Holy Spirit. I stood quietly with hands open in “receive mode". Individuals all over the auditorium began to respond to the Holy Spirit physically by shaking violently, making loud noises, staggering, and even falling on the floor. Others leaped on the opportunity to pray for them to receive “more”. 

Again I felt nothing. Except annoyed and uncomfortable.

I quietly gathered my things and slipped out the back door. As I walked away from the chaos I heard the convicting thought, “Michelle, you are fasting for more spiritual hunger and for a more significant touch of the Holy Spirit, so why do you leave when the Holy Spirit is moving?”

Ick. But ok.

Meekly I went back into the crowded room. Not sure what else to do, I gingerly reached out to touch a few of the convulsing people. Imitating the prayers of others I muttered “More Lord...” No one reacted to my touch, (though at others' prayers the shaking increased dramatically, which actually makes me think there is more to it than psychosomatic expectation.)

Eventually I moved to a clear spot in the room and simply knelt down to receive. "Here I am Lord..." Pretty soon I felt hands on me and heard whispered prayers. I do think I felt a slight twitching of muscles in my abdomen. I went with it. Not faking, but not resisting. Just responding. It was very faint, but tangible.  

As I knelt like this (I'm sure my face a portrait of tragedy) a sweet friend of mine named Caleb came over to me and asked if I was ok. After chatting a little bit, Caleb invited me to come hang out at his house that evening. I struggled for a few hours before deciding, wondering if it was too “indulgent”, but eventually decided to go. I'm glad I did. 

As I drove away from school I prayed frankly. “God, other than respecting the fact that You commanded your disciples to go do supernatural things, I don't have a strong desire for the power gifts. I have much more of a desire for your voice...and for encounters with you.”

I went on to tell Him what else I actually desire: To hear Him express His actual feelings for me and others, to see through His eyes, to experience His love, and to receive encounters that demolish unbelief and impart confident faith. I am so tired of being lukewarm and unsure... 

I felt much better after this prayer. (And also perhaps because of the gatorade I was drinking.) 

When I arrived to Caleb's house he had just taken out of the oven a fresh batch of cookies. Wonderful... I had to chuckle. If you are going to fast for the sake of 'hunger', might as well be hungry!

That night I told Caleb about my feeling of not having many real friends and also told him that I don't consider most men to even be my “friends” unless there is an understanding that they will not take my friendship as romantic encouragement. As I was fumbling with my words, he cut me off. "Don't worry. We are safe. I am your friend.” I'm sure my gratitude and joy shown out my eyes. “Well, then,” I said radiantly, “That opens up a whole new world of possibilities."

So that is how I started the day feeling social isolation and ended it with a new friend. A lot of people might scorn the "friend zone", but for me it is a very precious place. I so dearly love my friends.

Melody and Jeremy

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Fasting for Hunger Part 3

Wednesday - the second day of the fast - I woke up ahead of my alarm. Instead of getting up, however, I turned over grumpily. I was not eagerly interested in starting a day without food.

Eventually I did get up and do my morning routine (sans breakfast or preparation for bagged lunch/dinner.) Since I wasn't sure caffeine on an empty stomach was a good idea, I decided to skip my beloved morning cup of coffee and instead drink black tea and lemon water.

On the way to school I messaged some close friends and asked them to cover me in prayer this week. I've had mixed experiences with fasting before, so I asked them to pray for my fast to be “protected and productive”. (In the past I've found that times of fasting can correlate with increased weakness to other kinds of temptation.)

I arrived to school excited and eager. The day before had been full of great teaching about truths and tensions related to miraculous healing. 

In his message The Thrill of Victory Randy walked us through five principles that are generally true, but all subject to the grace of God. For example, the Principle of Faith. Faith (on the part of receiver of prayer and/or pray-er) does make it easier and more likely for a miracle to occur. However, God can and does sometimes heal sovereignly without any human faith being involved. For each principle, Randy supplied first hand examples of documented miracles he had witnessed. 

In addition to teaching on the Thrill of Victory, Randy also taught on the Agony of Defeat. He started with the question, "Why don't more charismatic, miracle-believing Christians pray for physical healing?" He proposed that it is because of the emotional pain of dealing with the times when people do not get healed. 

Over his years, Randy has seen countless healings and creative miracles. But it is certain times when a person has NOT been healed that stand out most severely in his memory. One occasion particularly, his entire church prayed long and hard for a certain child, but the child still died. Randy considered giving up praying for healing entirely after that but he realized, despite the sorrow of having lost that child, to stop praying would result in MORE casualties not less. So he continues to pray, seeing countless victories, punctuated by some defeats. With this warning he invited us to enter the fray, take up the banner, and pray for the sick. 

So back to the story...

At some point in the middle of morning worship, I realized I had left my large bottle of lemon water at home! So I slipped out of the auditorium and bought a Odwala green juice smoothie thing. I figured it was ok since it was truly just “juice”; besides, I set the parameters of this fast anyway.

I downed half of it before making it back to my seat. I have rarely tasted anything so delicious! I decided to save the rest for later. I immediately noticed the effect of the drink. As I headed back into the worshiping crowd, I found myself getting excited about indulging in all kinds of special drinks during this fast. Kombucha, Hot Chocolate, Smoothies...

Then I realized... This was NOT the point of the fast. I don't HAVE to fast, but if I am going to fast, then why look to exploit loopholes?

“Ok, Lord,” I thought, “I'll just finish this one smoothie and then go back to lemon water as planned.” But even this intention met with an inner check. Why make compromises? Sure, I was in innocent earnest when I first bought the drink, but if I've decided that smoothies are not part of this fast, why keep drinking one? This is an opportunity to make a true, “Drink Offering” unto the Lord.

With a sigh of resignation and breath of determination, I got up at once, left the alter, and went to the bathroom. As I poured the remaining Odwalla down the sink I prayed, “Lord I want you more than this $3 drink, more than food, more than comfort, more than compromise...” Turns out, alters come in a variety of forms...

After school I had three hours to kill before the night session. Disinterested in going home (or anywhere) if I couldn't eat, I went to the Alabaster Prayer House at Bethel main campus. Though I had homework to do and all my books/computer with me, I didn't do it. I read a little more in Defining Moments and took a few notes on my thoughts/prayers but otherwise I waited...

That night Randy taught against the various major practices/teachings that undermine hope and faith for healing. (If you want to know more, look up Randy Clark's teaching called "Removing the Rubble") After this teaching, Randy and a couple other staff members started calling out "Words of Knowledge", (specific conditions God had revealed a desire to heal tonight.) As they listed the conditions ("Bullet wound in right thigh" "Complications from a stomch surgery" "Neck injury from diving into a pool") people who had that condition stood up. Then, if/when the people experienced 80% or more aleviation of symptoms, they waved their hands over their heads and were counted. 

The room was abuzz with excitement, clapping, and cheering. Hands were waving all over the place. People reported feeling heat and tingling and movement in their bodies. One man said a metal plate on his skull had disappeared. I think they counted over 180 people reporting healing during that Words of Knowledge time. I myself stood up in response to a the word of knowledge about a misaligned jaw. But I did not experience anything in my body and eventually sat back down.
After this time, we were all released to pray for the sick. Uneasy with the whole thing and discouraged about not having felt anything in my own body, I dutifully went down to the main floor and raised my hand to indicate availability to pray. One woman came to me for prayer. She had a frozen shoulder, an inflamed wrist, partial deafness, and a couple other problems. Trying to remember the script, I fumbled through prayer as best I could. After a couple uneventful prayers, the woman indicated rather apologetically, thank you but she wanted to go home. I was disappointed but not surprised. I also wanted to go home.

"Well," I comforted her (and myself) "There are two more days to come." Who knows... 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Fasting for Hunger Part 2

Tuesday I arrived to school bright and eager, inspired from reading Randy's story the night before. 

During morning worship I thought cheerfully, “I bet there is a grace on people for fasting right now. I'm glad I had breakfast already or else I might be tempted to fast today! And that would be a bummer, because I can't wait for lunch!” I dismissed this thought and turned my attention back to worship, I couldn't quite shake it. “...there is a grace for fasting right now...”

By the time I got back to my seat, I was uneasy about digging in to the lunch overflowing the bag at my feet. If there was a grace for fasting, then I wanted in on it, even if I did eat breakfast already! Then again, I was quite hungry... I decided to “delay” eating lunch to think about it. 

The day continued as usual. During the dinner break, instead of heading to a restaurant with my friends I wandered up to the stage area and lingered there. I was waiting for the next session, but also waiting on the Lord. I felt a relaxed peace rather than an anxious urgency. I had nowhere to be and was in no hurry.

As the evening session started, it occurred to me, “When should I break this fast?” For some reason, tonight and tomorrow both seemed “not quite right”. With some alarm, I realized that, intuitively, it seemed most fitting to continue fasting till the conference was over!

Anxious questions and thoughts started to buzz through my mind:

“Won't the hunger of fasting distract me from paying attention and receiving the messages of the conference?” 

“If I'm pushing myself to fast as long as I can, is that striving?”

“If I'm fasting food, does that mean I also should not do anything other than pray/worship?” 

“If I extend this fast, when will it end? Maybe I'll never feel released to stop fasting and might as well stop now!”

But in the midsts of these fearful thoughts I also thought:

“There has been a real grace for the fast today.”

“It is interesting to notice the parallels between physical hunger and spiritual hunger.”

“There is rarely a more appropriate or inspiring situation in which to fast than when seek greater spiritual hunger while receiving impartation from Randy Clark.”

As the evening session wound down, I my friends Lucy and Melody about what I was considering. Just then, a second year student seated in front of me, turned around in his seat and chimed into the conversation. 

“We second year students are also fasting till the end of the conference. Don't worry. The Lord really is your strength. I bless you to know you really don't need what you think you need. ” 

That settled it. I took a deep breath. As God gave me grace for it, I would not eat (food) again for three more days.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Fasting for Hunger Part 1

“Fasting is when we are hungrier for the unseen than for the seen. It is not a hunger strike or a manipulation tool. It is surrender.” - Bill Johnson

It is Saturday morning. I sit with my first cup of coffee in four days. Today marks the first day after the 2018 Randy Clark Healing conference at Bethel Church. It also marks the day after my first ever four-day water fast. But let's not get ahead of ourselves....
Dr. Randy Clark
Last Monday, the night before the healing conference began, I read the chapter on Randy Clark in Defining Moments, the book I'm currently reading for school. This book tells the stories of 13 charismatic revivalists who lived throughout the past 300 years, from John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles Finney (1792-1875) to still living revivalists such as Randy Clark and Heidi Baker.

Defining Moments looks at revivalists' lives through the specific lens of their personal “defining moment” - the “God encounter” moment that marked significant turning points in their lives. Each revivalist had one, or multiple, times when God flooded into their lives in a new way, often in the form of a kind of “spirit baptism of love”, usually accompanied by physical manifestations such as overwhelming electricity, and/or open visions of Jesus. Though severe trial usually followed this encounter, the revivalists always took with them new levels of supernatural power and a new level of wholehearted devotion to their Lord.
The stories of the people in this book sparked a realization that there is “much more” to encountering the reality of God than I have yet experienced. It was also obvious that there is great “cost” in devoting oneself entirely to knowing and serving God - though each of revivalists in the book seemed to do so with reckless abandon, as though they would be miserable with anything less. I felt intrigued as well as intimidated. When one doesn't have a concept for the prize, one is more heavily aware of the price...

Though the revivalists highlighted in Defining Moments span hundreds of years and multiple cultural backgrounds, they all seem to report very great spiritual “hunger”, which motivated their desperate pursuit of God leading up to their “defining moment”. Some paired their spiritual hunger with physical fasting as they sought a touch from the Lord. Randy Clark himself, before becoming a central figure in the Toronto Blessing and the apostle whose impartation launched Heidi Baker, Leif Hetland, and Bill Johnson, (through whom millions of souls have been saved,) fasted several times for multiple weeks at a time, while “pressing in” for new levels of anointing in healing and creative miracles.

So it was with all of this in mind that I arrived to school on Tuesday, the first day of Randy Clark's four day visit to our school. I arrived eager and excited to hear Randy Clark for myself, to learn from his teaching, possibly witness some miracles, and maybe receive an impartation of my own....

Tune in tomorrow for part two! 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Holiday Highlights

After four months in Redding California, I spent the Christmas and New Year holidays home in Virginia. Instead of telling the whole story straight through, here are a few highlights.

The first shout out goes to my cousin Kathryn.

She picked me up from the airport mid morning on a work day. She hosted me at her beautiful, peaceful apartment for three nights. Kathryn also suggested I be invited along to an extra special night on the town with her family. And to top it all off, she made arrangements to LEND ME HER CAR for three days, which made it possible for me to fit in SEVEN separate visits to various friends during my short time in Northern VA.

That first leg of the trip was a breathtaking success, full of value - mostly thanks to Kathryn. When I thanked her, (probably while she was cooking some delectable dinner for us to share,) she waved it off. “No problem at all. Living in community has taught me to see my resources as our resources. Its all for the Kingdom.” I am impressed – and inspired – and blessed. Thank you, Kathryn!

Highlight: Christmas Day 

During high school, it seemed like my family members were never alone together, just us. Then, when everyone scattered to different colleges etc, it seemed we were never all together at the same place. Plus, during my senior year of college, my parents separated; so though they are still friendly, being all together is the exception rather than the rule. How precious it was this Christmas, if only for a day, to be all together again.

We spent the day at Tiffany's house. Mom cooked a big breakfast for us all. Carlos and Toby took turns playing the piano for whoever wanted to sing. Tiffany, Pedro, bustled around while my Dad played with the four grand babies. 
Guinevere, Jackson, Isaac
Lucy Belle
Every year we say we are not going to make a big deal about presents, but each year we always seem to succumb to the temptation. I brought ZERO gifts with me from CA, but by the time Christmas day rolled around I had something to hand each person in my family. I can't help it... I love them. And I love to love them. How can I pass up the chance... 

At one point, Tiffany asked the group, “We didn't use to appreciate each other so much when we all lived together as kids. How can I get my children to love each other while they are children as much as we do as adults?” No one knew...

After the gift exchange, Tiffany's family packed up to go spend the evening with Pedro's family. Dad said goodbye and headed home. Mom, Carlos, Toby, and I went to watch Jumanji, followed by all you can eat sushi at Sushi King. ($17 all you can eat sushi??? Seriously???) I appreciate this so much more now that I work at a sushi restaurant.

Another Highlight: Malena

I have dear friends all over the world. But in Richmond I have one primary friend. Malena. 

I met Malena and her boyfriend Aaron right after moving back from Japan. I had no idea then what a precious friend I had come across. Even though I have lived in CA for at least half of the time we've known each other, Malena has been a true, faithful, generous friend.
This time round, Malena and Aaron spent Christmas eve with me and Tiffany's family. Another day she showed up early in the morning with bags of groceries, “Surprise! I'm here to bless you with breakfast!” Malena spent the entire day of New Year's eve helping me and my family prepare a huge party for Tiffany's church community. And the day before I flew back to CA Malena invited me to come experience “Lyra” hoop acrobatics with her and Aaron. Afterward, while having dinner, Malena said, “Thanks for spending your last night with us.” I laughed and realized, “I wouldn't want it any other way.”
I feel like I give very little to Malena, compared to how much she gives me (in time, effort, and material gifts.) But she seems to think the friendship is worth it. :) I am very grateful. 
Me, Tiffany, Aaron, Malena
Another highlight: Quiet days. 

Perhaps it was because everyone was sick (seriously, EVERYONE. My sister's infant, Lucy, was so weak she could barely cry...) But the pace of this trip seemed more relaxed. 

We thought about taking a day trip to go snow boarding but cancelled it, preferring to rest. (I ended up using that day to drive out to Williamsburg and have lunch with my Adopt-A-Student parents from my college days.)
 My Adopt-A-Student parents, Stacey and Pat
Looking back over the trip, some of my fondest memories are of various relaxed conversations. Pedro and Tiffany telling me the entire story of a certain TV show. Taking notes while my Mom helped me prepare “Messages” to be delivered during my mission trip to Russia. Brainstorming teaching materials on the topic of “Leadership” with Carlos and Toby. Telling my Mom about the concept of “Chosen friendships”. Etc.

Final Highlight: Parties.

Castells Family Sing Along. Dinner with the Armistead family. Several days at a Lake House with my Dad's side of the family. And the big New Year's Eve party at my sister's church. Each of these were such a blessing and could have their own story. Music, dancing, games, conversation... What a life.
Kristin and Kathryn
Castells singing along

Noah and Seth, the wonderful Armistead boys

Carlos and Isaac at the lake

Ringing in the New Year
Cleaning up after the party
While I was looking back over this holiday I prayed somewhat mournfully, “God, it was all so great, but I didn't really spend any time with you. I didn't even attend church!” As I looked up anxiously I thought I heard Him say, “Look again... I was there the whole time.”

Merry Christmas!