My hands shook as I grasped the metal bar next to the window tighter. “Why did you insist we come here if you are so afraid?” my husband whispered above the sound of the cable creaking above us. Our family was perched above the Malaysian rainforest, going ever higher by the moment. We ascended steadily on the steepest and longest single-span cable car in the world.
It was Christmas Day and everything about Langkawi was different than our noisy home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I knew this was a chance we’d never have again and one that my husband and son were dreaming of, one that we would all remember forever. I wouldn’t let my fears hold us back, so I insisted we come. My daughter, ever cautious like me, reflected my anxiety over the height back at me and I gripped her hand tightly. “We can do this,” I insisted. We were rewarded richly for our courage when we reached the top. The light reflecting off the Andaman Sea, the views extending all the way to Thailand, and the lush forest below—they were worth every racing heartbeat.
I don’t remember always being this anxious. In fact, I remember being quite fearless as a child. As a dancer, I loved to perform. As Drum Major of the marching band, I reveled in winning first place in competitions and being the best. I remember feeling like there was nothing I couldn’t do. As I got older, I feel somehow, I got smaller. More unable to believe in myself. Less sure of my own opinions and gifts. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be good. I wanted to do all the right things. And I grew afraid.
My adventurous spirit was never quelled, though, even by my fears. I want to see the world, every messy and beautiful corner of it. I want to taste it all and take it in. That’s hard to do cowering in the corner.
In 2021, the word “Dwell” chose me, and I tried to let it guide me to a place of settling, of home. Instead, it led me to dwell deeper in the heart of the God who unsettles us, who shakes us up and pushes us beyond what is comfortable.
This is my home, my place to dwell—in the mystery of the God who always keeps me guessing as to how he could speak into the life of someone like me. I finished the master’s degree I began so many years ago and thought was only a dream for me. We bought a house, and we took steps to put down roots after four years of constant transition. And yet it wasn’t a year of finished goals. It feels like it was only the beginning.
On the last day of the year, the sun tiptoed out from behind the rainclouds that had lingered all week. With trepidation, I descended the trail away from the Ignatius House where I had come to spend the morning in prayer. The soft ground gave way beneath my feet as I left the treetops to walk along the Chattahoochee River.
This river feels as if it has flowed along with me through the year, a companion on what was a frightening and exuberating pilgrimage. In the summer I ventured up to North Georgia twice. Once I went to spend the weekend with the friend that has known my struggles with my calling and my fears probably better than anyone since we were just girls in college; once with the man who has walked beside me on our moves me around the world and back (twice). Even raised going to these mountains, I had never floated down the Chattahoochee—a hallmark Georgia experience. I knew this was an adventure I needed to have.
Twice last summer I tubed down the river for hours. We slowly took in the sights and let our fingers linger in the cold, clear, spring water. In places it was so shallow you could scrape your hands along the rocky bottom. Other spots sent us squealing through rapids and that old familiar frenemy fear made my heart race as the rocks sent us reeling. On those weekends we sat next to the bubbling water and talked about the struggles of the pandemic, the unlikely places God has taken us, and being brave enough to walk on through the fear.
There at the retreat center in Atlanta, the river looked like a different one altogether. After flowing nearly 100 miles south of the mountains, through the city, its wide banks revealed a deep and muddy river that crawled by. It was the same water, but it had been completely transformed by its journey. It was no longer pristine. Yet wide and powerful, it was still surging on toward its destination, unscathed.
The trail took a turn away from the river and I followed as it grew narrower, barely enough to put one foot on at a time. My heart began to race as I surveyed the erosion the rain had brought. I considered turning back, but I wanted to know what was up ahead. I pressed on as I held my breath and moved a trembling hand from one branch to another to guide along the rocky creek bed below. The sound of rushing water drew me forward until there it was. The woods opened onto a waterfall ahead, tucked beneath the highway above. This secluded little spot in the middle of the city was completely hidden except to the one who would take the time to find it.
For the next two hours, I sat out of the reach of the spray journaling and praying, thanking God for the hope I felt at the end of a difficult and beautiful year. The word “explore” floated on the wind and landed there at my feet. I felt like the last year had caught me up in a current I never expected and brought me to places I didn’t dream I would go. But I never would have found them if I hadn’t stepped out of the comfortable places, willing to explore.
Every Friday for months I picked up the phone and with a shaky voice poured my heart out to the mentor who challenged me and affirmed my call to deeper places with God. I researched and wrote, at first timidly. My theology professor responded to my first paper and said I needed to have a stronger theological voice. I never believed I was allowed to have one before.
As I learned to trust my own opinions, my confidence grew. I believed I had every right to be there. I said it loudly for the first time in years. God has called me. Yes, a woman. Yes, little me. Yes, what I have to say matters. I researched and led a couple of lessons and presentations in class, and I was terrified every step of the way. And when the Bishop of Atlanta put his hands on either side of my head and smiled down at me, welcoming me into a faith tradition that says, “all are welcome here,” I couldn’t stop smiling. I had found this scary, stunning, rocky, muddy place the current had taken me. And I wouldn’t stop now. I will keep exploring, despite my fears.
There’s so much to explore in the days ahead. Who we are—always learning, always growing, understanding how to use our gifts for the flourishing of others. Who God is—choosing to dive into the mystery and ask for a little more of the Spirit. Who we can be together—the world is confusing and unjust and divisive and hard. And yet, there is a Kingdom where there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew, rich nor poor, black nor white, Democrat nor Republican, outsider nor insider. And I will never stop believing we can work together to build it.
So, as I enter 2022, a year that will certainly be full of exploration as I step into a new church and continue my studies and process of discernment, I am full of fear. And excitement. And hope. I know the journey won’t be easy. Nothing beautiful ever is. There will be rocks and rapids, narrow trails, and slippery paths. And possibly a breathtaking view along the way. I don’t know where the flow will lead me next. But I do know that I don’t go alone.
One word: Did a word for 2022 find you? How are you clinging to that word this year? What do you hope God will use that word to guide you to or through?
Explore: What do you hope to explore about God, yourself, and the world this year? Do you feel like you are flowing with the river or against it? How can you step out in spite of your fears this year?
Share in the comments below so I can be praying for you in 2022.
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