Goodbyes have never ben my favorite, but they are an unavoidable part of life. And as I have learned the rather hard way, goodbyes are often the first step in moving forward. This week, I must say goodbye to a best friend as she returns home to Kansas, a circle of friends who have become unexpectedly close and kept me laughing more than ever, a ministry that has challenged and grown me past what I anticipated, and another season of life that has brought me healing and restored hope. But God has been reminding me that saying goodbye to this place and these people doesn’t mean I must say goodbye to the healing, hope, and incredibly deep relationships they have brought. This semester is one I will cherish forever and will continue to learn from as I return home. Here are just a few of many lessons I have learned…
1. God is not confined to a religion. He is God of all who call upon his name, and no man can define the way to get to God. Rather, God calls all people to himself.
2. Healing takes time. There is no timeline to grief. Healing is a journey that can only really be made in a day-by-day decision to trust Jesus with the shattered pieces we have left.
3. Ministry can be a way of choosing insignificance and lack of extravagance, instead remaining unseen but obediently following God’s command to love and serve.
4. Even the best of intentions can be misunderstood.
5. Emotions are deceiving.
6. People all connect with God and process life in very different ways. As frustrating as this can sometimes be, it is the beautiful part of how God made us all very differently.
7. God works the very best with a broken and humble life.
8. Patience is never fully achieved, and just when you think you have achieved it, without fail something will come along to prove you wrong.
9. Despite how hard I try not to, I make mistakes every single day. But in this, God’s grace is tangibly revealed to me.
9. People I would have overlooked were it not for our close proximity have been the people who have taught me the most.
10. Living with an unquenchable curiosity and asking bold and sometimes unanswerable questions allows us to make unexpected discoveries we would have missed otherwise.
11. Passion is contagious.
12. Laughter is essential for our quality of life.
13. There are moments in life where we need to go forward without any destination in mind. The coolest stories are written that way.
14. There are moments when your soul just needs to grab a best friend and be unbelievably silly with zero inhibitions holding you back.
15. Where words are inadequate, sitting in silence with another can bring an unexplainable amount of peace and contentment.
16. Creativity is in all of us and gives us eyes to see previously unrecognizable or misunderstood beauty. Sometimes it just takes another creative soul to once again open our eyes to such beauty and reawaken our creativity.
17. There is something precious about doing life slowly.
18. Pain can be embraced.
19. Home is not a location. It is a state of vulnerability in allowing another to know you, giving them courage to do the same.
20. Everyone, including myself, has an ugly side. It does not define them.
21. To think deeply and to share that with another dares them to think as well.
22. Speaking the truth impacts other people, whether they admit it or not.
23. God can and is present in any and every relationship we invite him into.
24. Love is a moment-by-moment choice.
25. Peace is a choice. So is worry.
26. Prayers prepares our hearts for the change God has already begun.
27. Forgiveness is a process that you will have to choose to receive and give on multiple occasions for the same thing.
28. If you let them, every friend you make reveals a little something new about you that was previously undiscovered.
29. Tears, at times, are necessary.
30. When you unwaveringly and boldly stand for anything that is worth standing for, there will be people who oppose you.
Insignificance. It has never been my most sought after goal in life; in fact, it has never really been a goal of mine at all. Is there anything even in our human DNA that desires to spend our lives without impacting another or without being remembered for a single thing? It just never even crossed my mind that there is time to be spent even pondering such a thing as insignificance. Being in leadership last year, I almost took it for granted that people looked to me for guidance and if I didn’t do my job people would be affected by it. But where is the motivation when you could completely drop everything you are doing, never to pick it up again, and not a single soul would notice? It is rather hard to find.
Coming into this semester, I was enrolled in a mission’s program that would give me a glimpse at what a lifestyle of ministry looks like. I suppose I assumed (unconsciously) that this would involve me making a personal impact on people’s lives. Ironically, this notion of mine is usually why missionaries are unsuccessful, because it becomes too much about them and not about God’s people. However, I wasn’t at all aware of this mentality or expectation of mine until it wasn’t fulfilled.
Doing ministry with near-impossible language barrier and a predominantly male group of refugees from places where women are not equal to men made ministry rather challenging to say the least. There were weeks I would sit silently at a table of people, smiling when appropriate, but otherwise doing little. Other weeks I would spend the time cleaning or organizing with Maddi, not interacting with the refugees at all and realizing that truly anyone on earth could be washing those cups or stacking those books. My time there seemed to require no talent of mine, and quite frankly the minimal I did feel I could do would not be missed if I were gone. Just talk about feeling insignificant.
But then, as the weeks pressed on and those weeks turned into months, God revealed something precious and humbling to me. He had never sent me there to have all those lives remember who “Rylie Shore” is. He sent me there with an honor and privilege of stepping into the work he had already begun in healing and meeting the needs of His people, as he had and has continued to do in my own life. Then the little stab came as I realized I had come in thinking I had something to offer these people, completely overlooking the fact that we were all seeking the same exact things from God, whether or not they have come to know Him yet.
Embracing my insignificance in this situation, I realized my only job was to love them humbly the way Christ has revealed his love to me. As I showed them I have the same needs they have come to Soggiorno (the ministry center) for (the need to belong, the need for friendship, the need for laughter, encouragement,and joy) and live in a way that reveals to them I have had these needs met in God and His kingdom, I have found my significance in the sight of God. And interestingly enough, God has blessed me with gaining some irreplaceable friendships out of this work that is entirely His and not at all due to my own efforts. Though leaving this semester I realize some will easily come next semester to fill my shoes, this is a beautiful thing. This only means that the work we have been doing really does make people dependent on God and not at all on us, which also means He shall receive all the glory due His name in the work that is completed. Hallelujah!
Quite a few months back, when I had come to the conclusion that I wanted to study abroad but had absolutely no idea where that would take me, I was frantically searching for a program that would give some direction or narrow my choices down to just a few countries. Out of the blew, as I was casually walking down “Caf Lane” during the study abroad fair at my home university of Point Loma Nazarene, an unpopulated booth caught my eye. This particular booth had two of my favorite terms plastered across its sign, boasting “study abroad” and “mission work.” Considering living abroad and doing ministry is what I hope to do with my life, this was right up my ally, and this program quickly won itself as my top choice, offering me just six countries from which to choose the place I would make a home for four months. In the end, Italy came out on top, and before I knew it I found myself in Rome doing ministry with refugees from all over the globe.
Every Thursday, my two ministry partners, Kevin and Maddi, and I have spent a few hours of the day building mutual friendships with people who are from a multitude of other cultures and who are as equally foreign to Italian culture as we are. However, this task of crossing borders proved to be far more difficult than I could have ever envisioned. Ninety-five percent of the time, the room has been packed with only males, most of which are from the Middle East. Despite many of my hopes to get to know all of them, the language barrier proved to be a near-unsurmountable struggle. Even my broken Italian was ineffective when spoken with people who know only Urdu or Farsi. Adding to these difficulties is the fact that gender dynamics in their native countries are far different than in Italy or America, making my friendly attempts to start a conversation misinterpreted as being of completely different intentions than making friends. Though I did build deeper friendships with a few refugees, these were by far the minority.
Despite these obstacles in connecting with some of these international friends, we continued to go every Thursday, praying all the while that God would show up. After three and a half months of fighting these cross-cultural difficulties, Valeria asked Maddi, Kevin, and I to play a song on our last day of ministry. Though I conquered this fear of playing guitar and singing for people last year, the nerves still resurface every time I am asked to do this. However, this particular case brought a whole new set of nerves, considering half the audience is from countries where the Taliban have made music a controversial and touchy subject, but I can never turn down a request to share one of my greatest passions: MUSIC!
Kevin and I prepared the song, “Lean On Me” to thank them for their friendship, and despite my shaking fingers and initially quivering voice, my smile was uncontainable as I glanced up to see my ministry director Valeria, once so foreign and intimidating, beaming back at me for a great semester. My smile continued to grow as we came to the bridge and Maddi began to clap to the beat. Before we knew it the sound had quickly exploded across the room and I realized I was not the only one smiling. After our song was over, our friends went back to whatever they were doing (learning Italian, playing cards, or painting), but a few came over to us to ask if they too could play my guitar or Kevin’s Ukulele, which only added to the sweet sounds of the afternoon.
What I had spent an entire semester trying to accomplish in successfully communicating with this diverse group of people suddenly became successful as I shared one of my greatest loves with these precious friends. All of a sudden, that lesson I learned In Armenia when I first faced my fear of allowing people to hear me play and sing quickly rushed back to me: music is one language that is universal.
Being in Ireland, Aubrey, Maddi, and I were laughing as we recognized the ways we have adopted the Italian culture into our own habits. One, we realized how much we drink coffee. Two, we realized how leisurely we now eat our meals in comparison to other travelers who can throw down a meal in minutes while we take an hour. Three, we realized very early on Saturday morning that we have adopted the Roman style of chasing down our transportation.
Decently late on Friday night, Maddi and I decided we would book two tickets for a bus tour to the Cliffs of Moher (Aubrey had decided to stay behind to meet up with a friend). Considering we didn’t have a printer for our tickets, we just emailed the receipt to ourselves and hoped that would do it. Up and delirious at 6am for our 7am departure time, Maddi asked me to take a screenshot of the receipt on her phone to show the bus driver once we arrived at the meeting point. Being only half-away and not yet fully functioning, I took a screenshot of the confirmation email rather than clicking the link that would have taken me to the receipt, all of this unbeknownst to us at the moment.
We slept-walked to the tourist office where we expected another magical tour bus to be awaiting us. Not only was a bus waiting, but there were ten to choose from that were all going to the Cliffs. However, there was no way of identifying which one we were supposed to be on because, we quickly discovered, such information was only specified on the receipt, which I had forgotten to open and screenshot. After sprinting to every bus in sight, being told we were not on their list, and then being directed to another bus, only to be told the same thing, we were left stranded on the dark street corner with no bus.
Seeing a couple other tourist-looking types on the other side of the road, we headed over to ask them what they were waiting for. Having paid the same price and being told the same meeting time, all the while looking equally stranded, we had some hope that maybe we were on the same bus and it had just not arrived yet. As we tried to convince ourselves this was the case, a kind, young, attractive Irishman came over to help us and gently inform us that our bus had probably left, successfully crushing all remaining hope in our little, newly-formed group. These new companions of ours had the number for the tour company, so our helpful Irishman called for us and discovered that our bus had already left us behind (incase we hadn’t gathered as much from the dark, empty street corner). He gently told us that he could have the bus wait for us in Galway, but we would have to pay more money for the two and a half hour journey on the CityLink bus that had quickly become our only glistening hope to see the Cliffs and rejoin our tour.
With no alternative but to miss the Cliffs and lose all our money, we made our way to the bus stop with our other two newfound companions who were slightly more verbal about their frustrations. We boarded the bus, only to be greeted by another friendly, helpful bus driver who made the journey as easy as possible. With nothing better to do, we slept on the journey there, only hoping that after these two and a half hours the magical bus would really be waiting for us.
When we arrived in Galway, we were informed that our bus had just left. Thankfully, the Irish are too kind. They called our bus driver and asked him to wait before ushering us on another enormous bus that rushed us to catch up to our awaiting pumpkin-turned-carriage. In the end, our mission of chasing our transportation in Ireland was much more successful that it is in Rome, and as if nothing had happened, our tour guide ushered us on the bus with a big smile, and we continued on our journey.
Our first stop brought us to an Irish castle, again reinforcing my notion that Ireland is the perfect place in every way. After a quick exploration of the grounds around it (the castle itself being closed to tourists) and the marshy wetlands that only highlight the glowing green hill with the ancient castle atop, we piled back onto the bus to enjoy more Irish humor from yet another friendly, lively tour guide. Our second stop was a monastery complete with another peaceful, ancient, Irish cemetery that is timelessly adorned with fresh flowers from the faithful who come to remember their dead. Of course, this monastery is also displayed on a vibrant green canvas. But of course no day is complete in Europe without a coffee run (which is apparently deemed so necessary that they are incorporated into tours), so our next stop allowed us to enjoy delicious cups of soul-warming hot cocoa and coffee while sitting in a pub overlooking the water. Content with our caffeine and chocolate fixes, we continued on to my second favorite place of the whole tour: the fairy ring.
We got off the bus to once again enter in to a magical wonderland of Ireland. (The scene I am about to paint is too wonderful for my words to ever do it justice, but I shall try all the same.) We got off the bus and climbed the two-stepped wooden entryway that placed us in a magical ring of autumn and wild dreams. To paint the image of this ring that man made a couple centuries before Christ, I have to start by explaining its bowl-like, haven-in-nature shape. As you stand in the center of the ring, grassy walls lined with trees and blanketed in fallen autumn leaves make a perfect circle around you. The branches of the mystical, ancient trees intertwine to form a beautiful, canopy roof of nature above your head. In the silence and peace of the ring, you can hear the wind blow above you, though the circular shelter adorned with nature-made walls and shield you from the chilly breeze. Each time the wind picks up above, the autumn leaves take flight and twirl in colorful circles around you as they add their warmth to the blanketed floor.
Due to this magical peace that has made home in the ring, the Irish have come to believe that fairies have also made home here, casting their magical dust about the ring to cast hope and wishful thinking back upon the burdened soul. I could have sat with my journal under that canopy of nature for hours, dreaming, hoping, and praying, but all too soon we had to say goodbye to this slice of heaven and continue on our journey.
I still don’t fully understand the significance of what we saw next, but I believe it was some famous ancient tomb that consists of three rocks in a box-like formation held up by the weight of a massive, heavy stone resting upon them, seeming to make a roof. I didn’t find much interest in this, but the ground around it brought me much delight. The surface we walked on was made of variously-shaped-and-sized white stones that made endless stepping stones in every direction while set in a beautiful field of green. It reminded my much of the “lava game” you play when you are five and pretend that the ground (in this case the grass) is lava that will burn you, so you must, at all costs, hop safely from one rock to the next to avoid being burned alive. I may or may not have enjoyed this childish game for a moment or two before, safely and unburned, making my way back to the bus. Our next destination was lunch at yet another warm, homey Irish pub, where I enjoyed seafood chowder (delicious!) to give me renewed energy for the most anticipated destination of the day: the Cliffs of Moher!
We arrived to one of the most breath-taking and stunning views of my entire life, and as Maddi and I made our way towards the lookout of the 700-foot tall Cliffs that overlook the Atlantic Ocean, my breath literally left me. Despite the presence of the clouds, the perfectly blue water amplified the vibrant, emerald green of the mind-blowing, majestic cliffs and left me questioning whether I had not actually misjudged my footing earlier, been killed by the lava, and sent straight to heaven. Maddi was equally in awe and the two of us had absolutely no idea what to do with ourselves. We began walking through the fields of green that made a soft, waving, tranquil bed atop the distinguished magnificence of the Cliffs. Of course, being the photo-obsessed tourist that I am, we stopped to take many many pictures of this indescribable scene, but none quite captured the fullness of beauty we were walking amidst.
With few words left to even speak in this all-too-perfect moment amidst the perfection of our Artist’s hand, we sat in silence on the pillowy mounds the lush, Irish grass made for us and gazed out at the surreal view. In our silence we could hear one of my favorite sounds, as the slow-motioned waves powerfully sprayed against the Cliffs and sent the sound of ocean’s thunder echoing along the jagged coastline. I could have sat there for months and not lost the immense amount of satisfaction and awe at the creativity of my Creator, but time is always fighting these wishes and continues to push me onward. So having to force my eyes and feet to uproot themselves, Maddi and I took a quick stroll farther along the Cliffs before hesitantly making our way back to the bus.
And thus the sun set on yet another perfect day in Ireland as I sat on the bus joking with God that he for sure must be calling me to do ministry in Ireland. He hasn’t answered back yet, so I am remaining hopeful. Until then, I am now confident that I have seen the true color of green, met the kindest and friendliest souls in the Irish people, and found a land that will always possess a little piece of my heart.
This weekend was the perfect escape into the land of kind people, the color green, and the chilly season of Fall. Having dreamed of going to Ireland most of my life, when our plane made contact in this perfect Northwestern country in Europe late Thursday night, I could hardly contain my excitement. Despite the fact that many previous chaotic weeks of school and traveling had left my two traveling companions, Aubrey and Maddi, and I zero time to make any plans for our stay, we were hopeful that we would somehow manage to enter into the green landscape of the Irish country.
We awoke early Friday morning to ask our hostel secretary if there was any way we could get three tickets for the popular “Wild Wicklow Tour.” He informed us that it was much too late to book a spot, but we could wait for the bus to show up and ask the driver if he had any extra room for us. Doubtful but willing to give it a shot, we made the short walk to the bus stop and waited. Before too long the bus arrived and we slowly and timidly crept to the back of the line of excited tourists who had planned ahead, waiting to make our request. The quickly filling bus gave us little hope that our wish would be granted, but to our great surprise, the energetic and ambient bus driver was not even phased by our timid inquiry. He joyfully invited us onto the bus without hesitation, only stopping to ask us our names and where we are from. We learned his name was Denis and immediately got the impression that it was going to be a great day.
Once aboard the magic bus that would take us on an indescribably green journey through Ireland, Denis’s Irish jokes and outrageously contagious laughter sent warmth and home through the entire bus. For the duration of the eight hour tour, his joy and easy-going, life-loving spirit did not dwindle one bit but only grew more and more contagious.
Our journey began with a drive through the story-book part of Dublin with the warm, brick red homes with surreally green lawns that soon gave way to the water, where brave and insane souls take a swim in the icy water on a daily basis. Our drive continued down a long road of my new favorite season, which has sprinkled evert tree and fallen leaf with a combination of reds, oranges, and yellows that magically bring the warmth of the holidays and the cozy feelings that accompany sitting by a fire-place sipping hot cocoa with loved ones. In the midst of this fall perfection lies an equally cozy and perfect coffee shop with every type of pastry and baked good you can imagine. Mads, Aubs, and I decided to share some breakfast, and by share breakfast I mean we got a monstrous cinammon roll, an enormously delicious slice of all too satisfying chocolate cake, and a vanilla apple scone with butter-cream and three options for jam. And of course we got all of this in addition to our bath-size cappuccinos.
As if all of this combined placed in a cozy coffee shop amidst the season of Fall weren’t perfect enough, the wooden tables were each adorned with a generous bowl of sugar cubes. Feeling slightly overwhelmed by so much sugary goodness in one place, I too-excitedly popped a sugar cube in my mouth before throwing three more into their coffee-bath for good measure. Needless to say, after consuming all of this rich, sweet food I was undoubtedly on a sugar high that near sent me into a food coma once we were back on the bus. With stomachs full and souls warm, we continued our journey through the all too picturesque landscape of Ireland.
The rolling green hills that were speckled with white puffs of sheep, criss-crossed with low stone walls, and colored with the fallen leaves of Autumn quickly had me convinced that I would never be getting on that plane back to Rome. The landscape had captivated me with its beauty and mesmerized me with the vibrant, green that proved I had never known the color green before my trip to this country. As our trip continued, the view only continued to reveal that every inch of Ireland is absolutely perfect and the Irish are the most refreshing, positive, and life-embracing people on the planet.
As part of our journey we made a stop at the famous bridge from the movie “P.S. I Love You,” where the setting could have converted the most hard-hearted cynic into a hopeless, sappy romantic. To show us more of the Irish perfection, our tour guide also made stops at two different lakes, providing our first shot of Jameson whiskey at one of the coldest but prettiest views of my life. And of course, we had to make a stop at an authentic, woodsy, Irish pub along the way to enjoy another overly-satisfying meal of meat and potatoes. And just when I thought my heart could burst from too much goodness, coziness, and satisfaction, we made our final stop.
Denis took the lead in directing us all off the bus, telling “Miss America studying in Rome” to have her camera ready for the beauty that awaited. Our walk began as we stepped through the arches that could have given way to the land of Narnia for all the beauty that unfolded before us. We began in a monastery which, interestingly enough, had a cemetery on its grounds with tomb stones so old the dates had been erased by centuries of rain and stormy-weather. However, in contrast to the usual heeby-jeebies that seem to find me upon entering cemeteries, this one held a strange peace in the tranquil forest. Denis, also, appeared unbothered by the graves and spoke of them in his joking, joyful manner.
As we made our way to a small church whose ancient-barred gates held us on the outside, Denis informed the group that the three “Miss Americas studying in Rome” had spent months preparing a song to sing through those bars into the echoey acoustics of the church. Because the day was too perfect and his spirt of embracing life so contagious, we could not turn him down. So the three Miss Americas, joined by another brave tourist, serenaded the rest of the group with “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Denis followed our song by passionately and wildly singing an Irish song through the rusted bars, which set the perfect mood for our short walk through the forest to the last lake of the tour.
As we made our way under the canopy of trees, the sun began to set on our perfect Irish day. The tranquil, untouched lake at the end of our journey provided the perfect closure and taste of nature for our overly satisfied spirits. Our bus ride back to Dublin was trailed by the sun catching all the fall trees ablaze with its rich red and orange rays that seemed to set the whole landscape on fire.
After this all too perfect day in Ireland, I am completely convinced that I could remain in this richly colored and spirited country for the rest of my days and remain on of the most peaceful and joyful people alive.
Transparency and vulnerability are two of the greatest gifts we can give one another, though I believe both are far too underestimated in power and far too infrequently used (by myself included). I realize that this is a blog open to anyone in the world who may come across its existence, but the dots for what I have been learning this year are finally beginning to connect, and strung across them all is the need for transparency and vulnerability. So here I will let you into the deeper and more complex brain of Rylie Shore, and for those who care to read the long story to follow, I hope that it can also bring you the encouragement and boldness to ask your own big questions, wrestle with yourself and with God, and then to be transparent and vulnerable in sharing that journey with those around you. May your journey be a blessed one.
In the beautiful nation of Italy lies a quiet, storybook lake that majestically reflects the famous Alps in its glassy surface. Alongside this breathtaking mirrored image lies a quaint and tranquil town known as Bellagio. This time of year, fall has touched everything just enough to combine the perfect balance of reds, oranges, and yellows with the colorful houses that stand in perfect contrast to the green hills and blue, still water. Being from Southern California, this concept of changing leaves and chilly air are foreign to me, so as I soaked in my first, true, fall experience in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, I was very much out of my element and enjoying every second of it.
As my three traveling companions and I were wandering through this creativity the seasons threw at us, we came to a small, empty Catholic church and decided to sneak inside. At the front of the tiny space lined with pews sat a small array of red tins of candles, some lit with the prayers already sent to God and others still fresh and unlit, awaiting another prayer to be sent so it too could add its light to the dim room. Having seen one of my friend’s light one at another church earlier in the day, I asked her if I could light one even though I’m not Catholic. She chuckled and said “of course,” so I set my things down and slowly went to the front to again step out of my element. I fumbled in lighting my candle, but I somehow got it aflame to add its glow to the room before making my way to a pew to talk to God. As I sat there watching the flames dance, sometimes in unison and other times of their own accord, my mind was flooded with images from the past year. Before I knew it I had been transported back to South Africa, sitting on the windy, freezing rock formations that jutted out into the sea where the Indian and Atlantic oceans cross borders to intermix their waters.
There I sat, wind whipping my hair in chaotic waves around my head, seemingly making my equally chaotic thoughts tangible in the crisp, winter air as I threw my frustrations and questions at God. The three and a half weeks that birthed all these conflicting emotions and unanswered questions had been spent studying the division and corruption in the Christian church, though this journey became much more personal than I had initially anticipated.
To make an extremely long and complex history short, the South African church has been heavily divided by race for as long as the white man made contact in the region. These white Christian men came in with their Bibles and guns, gave the black men the Bible and took all their land and rights, justifying their actions by deciding they were “God’s chosen people.” Now centuries later, despite the fall of Apartheid and the transition to a democracy, the Christian church is still extremely divided and has made little headway in reaching reconciliation.
Heartbreaking to see is that the church has made little headway in reconciliation because of their inability to be vulnerable with one another in admitting their flaws and mistakes. As I walked on the South African soil where Christ’s church is visibly divided, this cause of its brokenness and division became very personal for me. It is one thing to be able to point out the flaws and destruction in another’s system or another’s life, thinking you have the light and solution to their problems. However, it is a much more humbling and difficult thing to acknowledge your own flaws and corruption and take actions to change them. South Africa forced me to do just that, because this concept of reconciliation suddenly struck a little too close to home.
Accompanying me in this journey through South Africa was a friend of mine, but not just any friend. My closest friend, my friend in whom I found home, the friend who knew me well enough to remind me who I was in those dark moments when I could forget. But in South Africa, she suddenly became estranged from me. Due to a multitude of unexplainable circumstances, this treasured friend and I hurt each other so deeply that we spent thirty days together, 24/7, and had maybe a total of four conversations, 75% of which were marked by tears. And let me just tell you how quickly we could both wall up in pride, trying to forget the friendship we shared, pushing one another out of our lives, refusing to look at our own contributions to our shattered friendship, all the while studying how broken the church is for these very reasons of forced forgetfulness and silence.
Had I resisted God and remained in my pride, I can admit that my friend and I would most likely have ended our friendship together after that trip. But miraculously, God is gracious and doesn’t let me get off that easily. Rather than letting me sit in my pride, he took me to my knees, broken and crumpled in tears, as he lovingly but firmly called me out in my wrongs, held them up so I could look them in the face, and reminded me that this is exactly why His church, His body, is so broken. My inability to admit my own wrongs and my resistance to being vulnerable with my dear friend mirrored the very causes for the lack of reconciliation in the Christian church. This thing I was studying and becoming passionate about was no longer a distant idea but had become about the most personal, painful journey of my entire life. How could I expect these people in Christ’s church to reconcile if I could not even reconcile with the girl I had once called my best friend?
As Christ equally worked on both my heart and hers, we humbly, brokenly, and vulnerably came back together to begin a long, painful, but rewarding journey of reconciliation. Thankfully and beyond my comprehension, our God is one of insane depths of grace and redemption, and strictly by His miraculous work in both of our lives, our friendship has been restored. However, my journey of facing the brokenness and division in Christ’s church did not end here.
As I was still in the process of healing and reconciling with my precious friend, a man walked into my life very unexpectedly and much to my resistance. Having been through so many frustrations and heartaches with guys in the past year, I was just not in any place to even desire another relationship or anything close to it. In fact, I was almost at the extreme of bolting out of the room when a man my age walked in the door simply to avoid even potential attraction. But God has a sense of humor. He likes to surprise me and remind me that He is constantly in control, even when I have yet to detect Him at work.
Having just learned about vulnerability and literally being so broken that there was nothing left in me to even attempt to hide that fact, I was about as raw and real with this man as I had ever been with anyone. I was pretty confident this would scare him off, at any rate. But oh how incredibly wrong I was. Here I will spare you the details of my affections, but I will share that my feelings for this man took everyone, myself included, by great surprise. Now you might be wondering, how could there possibly be a problem with this?
The issue was that, unknown to me at that point, I was on a journey of feeling the division of the church on an extremely personal level. So as I had first learned of the destruction of lack of vulnerability and reconciliation through hurting and being hurt by a best friend, I was now learning of the destruction in claiming one denomination or group of people know God better than all the others with the first man I loved.
Now comes the essential twist in the plot of any good story. The twist here is that he is Mormon. I can honestly say that I have never felt such tension between people who all claim to be following God as I did in the responses of people who found out I was dating him. Having never met him, I had great-intentioned friends telling me it was dangerous to date a Mormon, that I could be led astray from God, etc. But to this day I cannot understand these arguments. Though I am fully aware that we do have some key differences in theology, this man loves God more than most Protestants I have met and loved me with the pure love of Christ. We had some great and challenging conversations where we asked each other big questions about faith and God, and through all of this I encountered God in more real ways than I had before meeting him. But when it came down to it, this man-made thing called religion separated us.
I sat up many late nights asking God this question: “How can two people be faithfully following you all their lives, praying to be led into your truth, and come up with two different answers? This should not be.” And once again, God had walked with me into very personally feeling His frustrations and sadness. I quickly felt how His heart breaks as He watches His children compete with one another to be the church who has it right, rather than supporting and loving each other because we all worship the same Father.
And so I had to watch this incredible man walk away because of something men created that then divided Christ’s children against one another: religion. In perfect succession to the summer (because God is very creative and had His grand plan all along), just as I was wrestling with all of this and with God and with truth, it was time to come to Rome.
I could not have been more perfectly placed to study church history and the next sect that claims Christ as their Savior: the Catholic Church. And again, as I sit with people, question, think, and pray, I have felt the tension that lies between Catholics and Protestants. But as I sat there, in that small quiet church in Bellagio, watching my prayer manifest in the dancing flame, I was reminded that God is so much bigger than we make him out to be. It is ignorance for me, or any man, to claim to know the fullness of God. His glory and majesty are so vast that no human being could ever grasp Him in all His fullness. He is far too vast and we are far too simple. But God made it that way, beautifully so.
Far more than being glorified in a specific religion, I believe God is glorified in the lives of those who humbly come before Him, asking for His wisdom and truth, and then boldly and faithfully go forth in it. As I watched that candlelight dance, I realized that God was and is glorified in the way my dear friend humbly came before God to take that first step in reconciliation with me. He is glorified in the way that my first love faithfully devotes his life to the truth he has sought up until this point in his life. He is glorified in the way Catholics come before Him with deep respect and reverence, fully acknowledging His power and holiness that can sometimes seem to be lost in the protestant churches. Protestants exude the freedom and grace that Christ gives, while walking forth in passion and fervor to serve the overlooked and marginalized. And Mormons faithfully give up two years of their lives to bring people to Christ, exhibiting the sacrifice and dedication our Father has called us to.
I know Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons alike who know God intimately. I also know those of all three sects who do not, which has only gone to show me that no religion can figure out God. He is too unpredictable, enormous, and far above our level of comprehension. However, He is God of all who call on His name, and His simple but powerful command to us all is to love Him above all else and to love each other as we love ourselves. Now I am not saying that we scrap church, because Christ came to bring the church, His body, together. But as His children, we should be loving one another, humbly acknowledging our own flaws, challenging each other with big questions, encouraging our brothers and sisters in what they are doing well (for this world is so large we need the combination of all our strengths to fully accomplish the purpose Christ set out for us), and giving God the glory for all of it. After all, He is whole reason we started church in the first place.
This year, for me, has been one of asking big questions of God, myself, religion, and people. About five months ago, after a beautiful and painful month in South Africa of learning to lament, I returned home to find that I had lost the joy that had previously been my constant companion. As I was making desperate attempts to restore this joy to the void that had taken its place, I stumbled upon C.S. Lewis’s book, “Surprised By Joy.” Though I endured five months of my usual love-hate relationship with C.S. Lewis books, picking it up, putting it down, and then picking it up again with renewed perseverance and fervor, I finally finished and was left in awe of his conclusions on Joy and its implications for my own life. Though he spends much of his book describing his life of striving after Joy, he comes to find that Joy cannot be possessed for it was never meant to be something we obtain. It was simply intended to be a means that points us to the presence of God. As I came to his closing lines, I was again overtaken with this thing we call Joy. But not for the reason of having Joy itself, but for the revelations of God that it had pointed me to. I hope these contemplations, which were very much inspired by the writings of C.S. Lewis, will lead you to ask your own questions and encounter the presence of our God.
There is this thing we always talk about in church, that Christians discuss as if it is a common phenomenon and non-Christians sometimes scoff at. This concept of the presence of God. While in our talk of God and this “presence” of His that we get to encounter, it seems that He sometimes becomes our personal god that we can call upon when necessary, draw joy from when we are lacking it, and maybe talk about on a Sunday morning church service. But if this were truly the God that many claim to worship, if this God of ours was something we could wrap our minds around or possess for our personal use, he would be far too small for me to want to worship him. How could I possible give my life in worship to a God that predictably produced joy when I wanted, fit himself in the boxes I try to put him in, and answered all my big, crazy questions in gift-wrapped answers with a pretty bow? I would not do it. I could not do it. But the glorious truth is, I don’t have to.
One thought Lewis reminded me of that has been untouched for some time is the reality that God himself is so perfect and worthy of praise that should he lose all His power to meddle in our own human lives, He would still be due the same worship and praise that He is now. Our worship of Him should not be from the motive of receiving love and joy or eternal life from Him, but simply to come before the Creator of all things, the One and Only God, and bow before Him in awe and reverence. His beauty, majesty, and perfection are such that, apart from any benefit we may receive, it should and does produce in us an unquenchable desire to be in His presence worshipping His very character and power. (Though I have heard and read of this truth before, the reminder brought fresh incredulity at the miracle and perfection of the God I have the honor to worship with my life. It also brought the perfect slap that brings me back to the reality that it is all very much about God and not at all about me. Praise Jesus!)
And if God’s presence is truly all we are to desire and hope for, then heaven takes on a whole new meaning for us who like to pursue the idea of paradise. Heaven and hell, if analyzed outside or apart from God, truly lose all their meaning. For heaven is the fullness of the presence of God and hell is the absence. Lewis left me with the incredible truth that the miracle is that heaven exists, far more than any of us reaching it. The existence of heaven means the existence of the presence of God. What has always confounded me is when people in my life who deny the existence of God or refuse to worship Him then talk about reaching heaven or knowing that deceased loved ones have reached it. If they cannot love and embrace the presence of God and the fullness of His character while they are on earth, I would think they wouldn’t enjoy heaven very much either. The sad part for me to grapple with is that so many in my life have yet to encounter the fullness of God’s being, and therefore they do not know what they are missing. If they had ever truly and intimately known the Most High God of the Universe, there would be no possibility of them ever desiring anything but His perfect presence. For to know God is to love and worship Him, and I don’t know that there is ever really any alternative response to His character.
And now my challenge in waking away from this book is to bring other people to this incredible realization that we have the beautiful opportunity to sit, walk, and dance in the presence of God himself, simply and unfathomably because He is who He is. I can only hope that the way I myself and Christians around the globe worship Christ will transform us in such a way that the church will no longer be a place that preaches the prosperity gospel to draw people into its doors, nor one that focuses so much on mending one another’s problems that human flaws and complications blur the lines of what church is all about, but simply a body that worships and loves God so entirely that we become one united front that joyfully sings and proclaims the perfection of our King. For people in love become contagious in their affection, and I can only imagine that loving God will be the most contagious adoration of them all.
On a warm October day on the gorgeous Greek island of Santorini I conquered another fear. Now some may be laughing as they read that the fear I faced this day was birthed by an event that many would jump at the opportunity to experience. However, for those who have known me for any length of time know that I am absolutely and irrationally terrified of sharks. Now this has never kept me from going in the Ocean or surfing (despite the random trails of thoughts that leave me imagining my leg suddenly disappearing into the terrifying clenches of a shark’s jaw), but Greece presented a whole new adventure: scuba diving.
I again realize that you may now be chuckling that I would really be afraid of seeing a shark in the Mediterranean Sea, and this is exactly how I convinced myself to sign up for such an absurd endeavor. I just continued to tell myself, “There aren’t any sharks in the Mediterranean,” and somehow this brought me enough courage to pay the high fee that would allow me to experience the underwater world. But just as I had myself nearly deceived that I was actually excited for this adventure, my oh so loving and humorous brother decided to text me and remind me just how terrified of sharks I am. I laughed back at him and told him that he could tease me all he wanted, but I am safe on that front. There are no sharks in the Mediterranean. Wrong. The next text message I get is a lovely article from google about how they just caught a shark in the Mediterranean. Well, there goes all my worked up courage. Thank you Preston for bringing me back to square one: sheer terror. But at this point, I had already signed up. So here goes nothing.
On that Tuesday morning at 9:00am sharp an ambient Greek man showed up to drive terrified Rylie and her ecstatic friend Aubrey to the diving school. Before I could even get out a proper greeting and shut the van’s door, the words, “Are there any sharks?” flew out of my mouth. He smirked in the rearview mirror and responded, “Yes, they eat people all the time. But don’t worry, they only eat Chinese.” (This was his attempt at making jokes about the absurd amount of Chinese tourists that come to Greece at this time of year). We all laughed, my laughter being more forced and interlaced with nervous giggles, and before we knew it, we had arrived at the diving school.
We pulled up and met out hilariously insane scuba instructor, Demetrius, just as he was walking out with those alien-looking breathing devices. As soon as I remembered I would be breathing out of a tube and that my life would be dependent on an oxygen tanks ability to function properly, I about bolted straight out of there. However, the combination of my pride and stubbornness in facing my own fears kept me rooted in place with a forced smile and increased heart-rate. Without taking notice to my anxiety, Demetrius prepared the gear, started making jokes, and informed us we were the only two divers of the day. With this new information I decided it might actually be a cool experience to see some fish underwater, as long as they weren’t accompanied by any sharks or 70-foot whales. He gave us the run-though of how to clean our goggles underwater, how to breath through that snake-like tub, and how to maneuver in the water. Before I had a chance to change my mind, he piled us into the van with our beyond-heavy oxygen tanks, and we began our descent down the cliff to the little private cove where we would get to explore a foreign, underwater world.
When we reached the sandy shore, he asked us to repeat back to him the rules of diving, helped us suit up, and then attached the weight belts, oxygen tanks, and countless other random instruments to our nervous but excited bodies. And then, it was time. My moment of truth. Could I actually do this?
We followed him into the water, where we struggled to balance on one leg under the weight of the oxygen tank as we tried to put on our fins. After a couple failed attempts, we were successful at our mission. And now, the moment had come to say goodbye to everything humanly familiar, including our ability to breath on our own, and go below the surface to discover an underwater wonderland. We followed our instructor until we were about five feet below the surface, and he had us all sit in a circle on our knees. It may have looked like a comical underwater tea party to anyone who could have watched us, but to uncoordinated and slightly-panicked Rylie (who could not get used to the idea of only being able to breath through her mouth into a tube that was sustaining her life) it took all will-power to refrain from bolting to the surface. However, my mind was somehow composed enough to grasp that against all logic I was, in fact, breathing underwater.
As our instructor had us practice how to retrieve our breathing tubes and clean out our goggles, I talked myself out of the fear and was finally able to take in the swaying underwater plants that continued to birth colorful fish out of their slow-motioned dancing. Our instructor apparently decided that we were now experienced enough to go into deeper water, so we pushed off into a horizontal position and began kicking down along the sand. Finally back in my comfort zone of swimming horizontally (despite the fact that I was 15 feet underwater) and growing accustomed to slower breathing, I began to really enjoy myself.
We made a short tour of the green underwater plants and spastic fish, which flitted in every which direction if you tried to touch them, before coming back out of the water for our break. Our instructor informed me that I have the buoyancy of a diver with 15-17 dives, so apparently my four years of swim team and doing underwater, no-breathers across the pool did me some good. We re-hydrated and warmed ourselves in the sun before suiting back up for our second and final dive, which would take us up to 12 meters (40 feet). This time we knew the drill, so our instructor, carrying a loaf of bread to feed the fish, led the way that would take us to the reef.
We plunged back under the water, this time excited and with much anticipation to see “Finding Nemo” in real life. We kicked more rapidly and I would occasionally flip over to look up and see the sun shining through the surface that continued to retreat farther and farther into the distance. I would also catch glimpses of Aubrey and had to contain my laughter at the sight of her kicking through the water with hundreds of various fish swimming close behind her. Now that’s an image of your friend you don’t get to see every day.
Before we knew it, we had come to one of the most beautiful and surreal scenes I have ever laid eyes on: the reef. It is so full of life and color and crevices that you could probably spend months exploring it and still not discover all that has perfectly come together to make its home in the reef. Our instructor would occasionally dive down deeper to touch strange sea life, and we would follow suit, all the while trying to register that this wasn’t just some crazy dream (that still hasn’t fully registered). It was an inexplainable sensation to see something in the reef ten feet below you, and then just dive down to touch it, not only with no need to take a breath but with a constant flow of oxygen available to you.
After exploring the reef and looking amidst crevices to find wild life, we again swam up to shallower water, knelt down on the sand, and pulled out the loaf of bread. Before I could even process what was happening, I was sitting amidst hundreds of fish who were happily swimming about me to come eat the bread from my fingers. Occasionally a fish would miss and kiss my hand instead, and as their hunger distracted them from the unidentifiable, terrifying being that was I all clad in scuba gear, I was able to pet and touch the fish with my bare hands. After about five minutes of being encircled in underwater sea life, our instructor led our ascent to shallower water.
As we swam back up I continued to discover more life in the sand, even stealing away a couple abandoned shells as a memory of my trip to the bottom of the sea. All too soon, our exploration came to an end, though our scuba instructor informed us that most other beginners make it about 12 meters down (40 feet), but he took us down to 26 meters (about 85 feet). We carried our scuba gear back to the van, bewilderment and thrill still strewn across our faces. As we said goodbye to our instructor, he encouraged us to continue with scuba diving and get our certifications. All I can say is that this no longer an outlandish idea for me. This girl is hooked…. as long as there are no sharks.
Spontaneity is probably one of the most exhilarating and thrilling parts of traveling, at least in my book. And of course it is always an added excitement when you have an equally spontaneous companion to travel with. This combination of a precious friend, no plans, and a foreign country are the perfect ingredients for an epic adventure. And that is exactly what occurred this past weekend.
Friday night at about eleven at night, Maddi (my roommate and close friend) and I were settling down to watch a movie. As she fought with the Internet to try and figure out how to watch movies in Italy (this is not as simple of a task as it would seem), I decided to scroll through Pinterest. Coming across a breath-taking image of a waterfall, I distractedly and jokingly made some comment to Maddi about going to find a waterfall in Italy. The next thing I know, Maddi casually says, “Hey Rys, there is a waterfall an hour north of Rome. Train tickets are only 13 euro.” That was all that needed to be spoken for the two of us to smile, nod our heads, and quickly doze off to rest up for a spontaneous trip to find this hidden Italian gem.
Saturday morning Maddi and I woke up at 8:00, leisurely got dressed, packed a backpack incase we decided to stay the night, and headed out the door to being a journey to a train station we had never been to before. Stopping for a cappuccino along the way (an Italian necessity), we asked the cashier, “Dove é Roma TIburtina?” And the next thing we knew, we had been directed to the nearest bus stop to await the ‘492’ bus that would deliver us directly to the station. Without much wait, the bus arrived to whisk us off to the new train station.
Upon our arrival to Roma Triburtina, we boarded the train that would take us Terni and enjoyed a relaxing trip to the town Google claims offers nothing to tourists (Google had also told us its location boasted Europe’s largest waterfall, so we banked on the fact that the second claim outdid the first). Upon our arrival to Terni, we fumbled to a nearby hotel and decided to book a room… I mean, why not? We then found a map, located the bus that would take us to the small icon that looked like flowing water, and waited. When the bus driver pulled up and we asked in broken Italian about “Marmore Falls,” his unrestrained smile and friendliness took us aback. Terni may not boast crazy buildings in the same way Rome does, but it sure can pride itself in its ambient, joyful people. We got on the bus and took a journey to a treasured destination that few tourists seem to know about.
Upon our arrival to the lush green forests that made a sanctuary of this little slice of heaven, peace flooded to every space in my soul. For the first time since being in Italy, I could not see one building, but was surrounded purely by the creation of our Father. As much as I adore Rome, the hustle and bustle of the city life can make it difficult to find clarity with God, but there was no escaping Him here. In literally every direction I turned my head, my gaze fell upon the powerful but peaceful water, surrounded by the greenest of trees that emitted the smell of fall into the crisp air. I laughed with Maddi as we stopped to take a deep breath of this perfect air and she said, “We are breathing for the fist time.” And in some ways, I would say that I was.
The remaining bits of heartache of the past year began to disintegrate as I sat and hiked in the presence of God and a beautiful, cherished friend, constantly reminded of how small my trials are when placed in the hands of a sovereign and mighty God. Though having God may not bring me perfect circumstances or an easy life, it does bring me a sure foundation, a reason for joy in every moment, and relief that God is bigger than all my inadequacies and fears. And thus, there is peace.
As Maddi and I began our ascent up the mountain, it began to rain. But in this adventure, it did not restrain our laughter and enjoyment but only added to it. Everywhere we looked as we made our climb, our eyes delighted in glorious beauty. After about 45 minutes of pushing through trees, stopping to admire the flowers, and slipping up the muddy trail, we found ourselves breathlessly approaching one of the most beautiful sights we have ever encountered. Maddi put it perfectly: “There were so many points in my life that I longed to be in this place, right here, and I finally made it.”
Looking at that grand amount of beauty, all finally aligns in life and its almost as if you see things for the first time. You feel the most yourself, the most alive. You are standing side-by-side with a friend you cherish, staring out at the tangible and perfect beauty of a God you both know, love, and worship, and nothing but joy, peace, contemplation, appreciation, and delight can flood your soul. And just as the cascading waters had you convinced that you had never before witnessed such beauty, a rainbow decides to paint itself across the sky. And now you are left with an indescribable, majestic perfection of a rushing waterfall whose mist rises up to set the stage for the unmatched colors of the rainbow to paint themselves across the already unreal landscape. But to make you realize the magic and treasure of what that rainbow promises, it remains just long enough for you to soak in its sight before fading back into the ever-rising mist.
After being nearly immobile for quite some time as we sat in awe of our powerful and beautiful Creator, Maddi and I continued, our hearts overflowing, to the town that overlooked such beauty. We were let out into a rather deserted town that housed many unused campgrounds and far too much beauty to even write of. But after much wandering down random pathways amidst story-book homes, picturesque vineyards, and scenes that screamed the season of fall, we came to a coffee shop that gave us a chance to warm ourselves on another cappuccino.
After we had finished, we went to pay, and the far-too-attractive-for-his-own-good cashier asked us, in his equally attractive and heart-meltingly accented voice, where we were from. When we responded with “Kansas and California,” he looked shocked and amused that two Americans had found this hidden gem of Italy. And this realization that this treasure has been undiscovered by most tourists only added to the magical feeling that we had discovered our own slice of heaven.
With this understanding that our completely spontaneous quest to find a waterfall had resulted in our discovery of a hidden treasure, we made our way back along the fairy-tale roads of the town. Of course, we had to stop and pick some of the most luscious looking grapes I have ever seen, and all I can say is that every other grape on earth will forever taste like dirt in comparison. These heavenly grapes literally burst with flavorful, sweet, and surprising goodness that will forever leave me craving them far more than any of the sweetest candies on earth. (And this is not at all like C.S. Lewis’s description of Turkish delight that leads imaginative children to believe that there is some heavenly dessert out there, only to grow up and actually taste Turkish delight and realize it is as much an acquired taste as wine. These grapes were not like this at all, but truly the most heavenly taste I have ever enjoyed).
With our stomachs content and our hearts singing, we made our journey back down the mountain, the whole way wishing we could freeze time forever and just remain in our little haven in Italy. But after much joy and delight over all the discoveries of hidden caves and paths, very wet from venturing too close to the rushing water, the sun set to conclude our perfect day, though the reminders and perspective the day brought did not fade one bit.
I truly don’t know that there is any way to spend time amidst such crisp air, indescribable beauty, and powerful water without singing the praises of the One who created it. And yet, even more beautiful than the little slice of heaven that is Marmore Falls is the realization that the Creator of it all desperately loves me and he desperately loves you, his beloved children. And we have the honor and privilege to worship him with our lives. What a priceless gift.