Unexpected Gifts: How to embrace our faith journey

wrapped presents sitting outside a door

It’s been hard to talk about God lately. Something in how I experience the divine is shifting, and I can’t really put words to it yet. The old way has fallen away but the new one has yet to emerge. This shifting happens in all of our faith journeys. It’s a natural part of the process. The more it happens, the more we can learn to lean into it and trust. It is both an invitation and a gift.

I remember the very first time I was asked to speak about God. It was 14 years ago, and my hands instantly began to sweat. The invitation was to speak to a packed Catholic school gymnasium. The audience, 250+ parents. The topic, how to find joy, delight, and surprise in parenting and raising children in the faith. “You do realize,” I said in reply, “I am not a mother. And I cannot have children.”

“I know,” the director of spiritual formation replied gently. “I trust your instincts on liberating adults to liberate children. I see it in the work that you do in schools, how you coach teachers and principals to turn underperforming schools into places where kids and adults thrive. The kids are still the same kids. So, it can only be the adults that changed.”

He had a point. And a part of me warmed at the recognition. I often said that coaching in public schools was deeply spiritual work. It was all about helping the adults see that they are way more than they think they are. And the kids are way more too. I loved helping teachers and principals reconnect to their instincts and passions. And I loved watching the children rise, time and time again, to meet new challenges.

But I had never talked about God before, out loud, that is, to an audience. And certainly not an audience so foreign to me. Guided reading, writing workshop, reading comprehension, those topics were familiar and known. I could whip up a 90-minute training session in no time. I had been a classroom teacher. I had opened a charter school. I had coached in schools for years. I had credibility and that lived experience walked with me into every school I visited. But that wasn’t going to help me in a packed gymnasium of parents.

I decided to let the invitation stand, intrigued, but not sold. At 38, almost all of my friends were starting families and diving straight into parenthood. I decided to ask them. My friend Tamara met me at a park bench one Saturday afternoon. She listened to me recount the pros and cons of talking about God as she nursed her baby daughter. “Karen,” she said. “Priests have been talking about marriage for a millennium, and they are not even married.”

Oh. My heart caught in my throat. I had no rebuttal. I called from the park bench and said yes.

The best gifts in my life have always come in sideways. Unexpected. Seemingly not for me at all. But giving my first talk about God shifted something inside of me.

It was a rocky start, no doubt. The microphone went in and out. My timing was a bit off. I forgot the best line that I’d practiced in the car that morning. But once I dug deep, the stories began to flow. I remember looking out into that terrifying audience and seeing a couple of moms wipe away tears. I watched some dads chuckle. I saw heads nod and felt hearts be moved. I was energized in a way I had not known was possible.

A group of parents huddled around me afterwards. They had come to thank me. I was stunned, and happy. One mother said, “I can’t think of anything braver than what you just did. Thank you for sharing your faith journey and your walk with infertility. It touched me.” I was no longer afraid of them, or any audience, really. Or to share my own walk with God.

Speaking in that packed gymnasium, I understood something simple and profound: we are all pilgrims on a journey—parent or not, divorced or married, unemployed or overcommitted—seeking to deepen our relationship with the divine. We are all trying to birth the goodness inside of us. And it helps to know that we are not alone. We need our stories to light our way.

I recently said another yes like that one 14 years ago. It was my first time speaking about God since the lockdown started 22 months ago. I was nervous and unsure.

But together we shared stories of the unexpected gifts that emerged during the pandemic. I listened to a room full of women grieve the loss of connection in unique and painful ways and then find it again in deeply personal and unimagined ways. Walking their neighborhood every morning. Daily text messages with other grandmothers isolated from their grandchildren. Meeting families at the park for a recess break and momentary reprieve from Zoom school.

I saw myself in their struggles and I knew that I was not alone. It left me with a renewed sense of compassion and communion as I continue to walk in what theologians call a liminal space, the in-betweenness of our faith.

St. Ignatius wrote: “Everything in this world is presented to us so that we may know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.” Even, and maybe especially, times of shifting in our faith journey can be the invitation and the gift we most need, allowing us to be who we are and love each other more freely.

As we walk together during this holiday season, it can be helpful to remember that Mary and Joseph were pilgrims too. So were the magi and the shepherds. Sometimes we are like Mary saying a “yes” to an unknown future. Other times, more like Joseph as we search desperately for a place of solace and rest. Still others, we are like magi who were willing to leave behind a known path or the shepherds who followed a calling and found the sacred in their midst.

May the God of infinite joy and wonder find you wherever you are on your faith journey. And may we all be reminded of how deep love is and how connected we truly are.