In 2004, short side bangs were all the rage, and I raged with them. Aside from bad hair choices, though, it was also the year my mother invited me to attend her annual church women’s retreat. Chemo treatments, radiation, steroids, and painkillers couldn’t keep my mom away from this annual gathering. Every year she poured her heart and soul into planning this weekend, a time set apart for women to study God’s Word, hear the Holy Spirit, and get away from the demands of life. Every year I turned down her invitation to attend. But this time I didn’t. I was never one for women’s ministry (I jokingly referred to it as the women’s misery). Nothing sounded more horrific than spending the weekend with menopausal women bemoaning child rearing and their recent diet fads (at least that’s what I thought the weekend encompassed). But when your cancer ridden, bald-headed mother begs you to attend her favorite church event, you really don’t have an option. You just say yes.
I packed my luggage and my best pastor’s-kid smile, and drove her to a retreat center in the California desert. I parked my car, and as I walked into the registration center, from a distance, I heard the gaggle of women. I immediately rolled my eyes. I was expecting to find women who were giddy with excitement about leaving their children at home and their inhibitions in the car. And while there were some who fit this stereotype with painful perfection, I was not expecting to discover the power of women gathered together in one place, seeking one thing—to hear God and be in his presence. It changed everything.
Cultural critic Matthew Arnold wrote, “If there ever comes a time when the women of the world come together purely and simply for the benefit of mankind, it will be force such as the world has never known.” As I sat on a tufted chair in the conference room, maybe I sensed this truth. Music hung in the air like a thick blanket—warm, cozy, comfortable. The worship team sang, and a feeling of calm filled the room. It wasn’t mystical or creepy, just simple and holy. The sun had set, and the room was as dark as the inside of a cocoon just before the new life inside it breaks free. Something was ready to emerge.
But still, I held back. Maybe it was skepticism. Maybe it was fear. But I could only sit in the back and watch as women were prayed over, worshipped freely, and exuded a faith that filled every inch of the room. They were young and old, big and small, women whose appearances seemed to melt into each other’s with no distinguishing attributes or features as they hugged, prayed, and spoke words of encouragement.
I felt like a tourist in a foreign country, trying to blend in as best as I could, but I was unable to speak the language or participate in the cultural exchange of that divine moment. I had been part of that culture before. I had grown up in this faith. Why had I forgotten the language? Why did I feel so foreign?
God, Are You Listening?
In this season of God’s silence, hope waned as my voice felt raw from petition. No matter how many times I prayed for something to change, no matter how many questions I asked, no matter how I begged, I was met with no response. I wanted to hear from God. Jeremiah 33:3 says, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you don’t know,” but this felt like a promise for someone else—someone perfect, polished, and pretty. Not me, not desperate, fallible me. Surely God wasn’t answering me because I was bad or broken or too bruised to be picked. The refrain of my inner control-freak echoed: try harder, work faster, be better. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The truth was, from the moment of mom’s diagnosis, I filled my journals with furious scribbles vacillating from “I believe you can change this situation!” to “Are you even there?” I lay in my bed and cried myself to sleep as I heard my mother in pain, her body fighting a constant battle with faceless cancer. I begged God for a reprieve. Prayers left my lips like urgent Hail Marys, and I believed that somehow my actions or rote religious rhymes would move God to answer me.
But now in a room full with faith-filled women, I saw that I didn’t have to work hard to be better; I simply had to be. I just didn’t know how.
Power of the Holy Spirit
Before the main evening session, there was an optional workshop about the Holy Spirit. According to the conference brochure, it was a way for women to learn more about the mysterious third member of the Trinity and discover the natural and supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. It was held during a break in the retreat schedule, so while most women opted for a dip in the pool or a cappuccino at the café, I walked into a large room with maroon chairs and sat in a circle of five women. As nervous as I was, I wanted to learn more about the spiritual gifts I’d read about in the Bible and heard various people debate.
At the helm of this Spirt-ship was a white-haired woman with crystal blue eyes and orthopedic shoes. I debated rubbing my temples and squinting, feigning the onset of a migraine so I could walk out yet avoid judgement. But I felt guilty about reducing the cumulative total of women at the workshop to four so I stayed. Plus, I was the pastor’s daughter, and leaving might make me look like a bad Christian who didn’t want to spend extra time brushing up on Jesus-y stuff. To be honest, guilt drove me to stay.
Kathy, the white-haired woman, began talking about the Holy Spirit so personally an intimately, I couldn’t help but hold on to every word. What had seemed so foreign and far away began to hit home. The Scriptures she read were a balm to my aching heart. The promises of God in the pages she turned felt like the very Bread of Life my famished soul craved.
“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33:14)
“This is what I covenanted with you when you came out Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.” (Haggai 2:5)
“I will put my spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:14)
“…till the Spirit is poured on us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest.” (Isaiah 32:15)
Her words were like water to my dry, arid soul. I was tired of wandering through the desert, and she promised the Holy Spirit could give me rest. The very presence of God’s Spirit was with me, and I didn’t have to fear. The Holy Spirit was in me, and I could experience life in a land that was mine to inherit. And when it came to pass, I would know without a doubt that God had done it. When the Spirit was poured out on me, the desert would become fertile fields, she said, and I so desperately needed to know that the barren areas of my life could see this kind of life again.
I didn’t want to just understand or analyze her faith; I wanted to emulate it. Whatever she had, whatever she knew, I wanted it. She was alive and dynamic, and she spoke in a way that displayed her intimate relationship with God. She knew more than just the Scriptures or facts; she knew her Savior in the depths of her soul. Her eyes glistened when she spoke of God, her smile revealed her love of him, and her calm tone was governed by the Prince of Peace. She took us on a journey, helping us to understand the Holy Spirit, how he operated, and why he was important in our lives. She was not heavy-handed with her use of theology, though she unpacked and expounded upon Scriptures about the Trinity. Her focus was on what she knew through experience, and she wanted to demystify the Holy Spirit.
The workshop ended, and as the other women filed out, I lingered for a minute and attempted to swallow the lump in my throat. My hands tightly gripped the sides of my chair as I tried to control my emotions. I closed my eyes and willed myself not to cry. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and when I lifted my head, Kathy’s eyes met mine. She asked me if I would like to pray. Unable to form any words, I nodded my head.
Thick and slow and sweet, her prayer oozed out like molasses. She prayed with a confidence and an authority unlike anything I had ever heard. She knew things I only vocalized in isolation; she prayed over me, bringing things that had been hidden in my heart to God. The words were not condemning or judging, but honest and raw.
Kathy’s words opened and exposed my heart, and I felt like a human onion, reeking more and more as each layer was gently removed. The good Christian girl who attended Sunday school, memorized verses, and saw the miraculous occur in her life had also doubted God’s goodness, questioned his existence, and lost faith in biblical promises. It was as if Kathy supernaturally knew each of these secrets, saw every hurdle I tumbled over, and knew of my inability to get back on my feet. She spoke to the microscopic fleck of faith in my soul. She leaned over mid-prayer, took my hands, and said, “God hears you and knows you love him.”
That was it. That one phrase took me over the edge, and I began to sob like a teenage girl whose diary had just been read aloud in front of the entire school. My conflicting feelings of relief and embarrassment were soothed as Kathy said over and over, “God hears you and knows how much you love him.”
Beyond the cancer, past the perfectionist complex, after the relationship failures, I realized I had been most overcome by the prospect of crying out to a deity I thought no longer heard me. Deep down, I wanted to believe God was there, that he heard my cries, saw my suffering, and could right all wrongs, but I had been losing faith and hope with every passing day. I had begged God to change me, to intervene in the situations around me, but nothing changed. Like the Israelites of old, I had felt as if my cries fell on deaf ears.
But in that moment, everything seemed to shift. In the stillness, I discovered God had not abandoned me, nor was he ignoring me. I only had to be still and know that he was my God.
Bianca Juárez Olthoff is the Chief Storyteller of the A-21 Campaign and the Creative Director for Propel Women. She has been in church ministry for 15 years. This article is excerpted from her book Play with Fire (available August 2016). Used with permission of Zondervan.