Perched on the balcony, like the Black and White Doel¹ that serenaded me from the windowsill in the spring, I watched over my little corner of the world. In the most densely populated city on earth, that one little intersection of Road Six and Safwan Road felt like a microcosm of humanity itself.
I would sit there with a steaming cup of coffee in my hand though the tropical morning humidity already made streams of sweat trickle down my back. The city had been awake for hours already—really it never slept at all. Through the night my family would be serenaded by the barking street dogs and dinging bicycle rickshaw bells. The construction trucks arrived in the early morning hours to dump more rebar and brick in the lot next to us for the ever-growing high rises.
Bangladesh, built on the delta that contains over 700 rivers, is a stunning display of God’s workmanship. Even in the concrete and brick mega-city, our flat was surrounded by green. Palms lined the streets, heavy jackfruit pulled branches down around us, and the bright red Krishnachura blooms fell to the ground like the snow the city will never experience. Humanity has complicated that beauty as more people pour into the city, away from the rising floodwaters, the ebb of jobs, and increasing poverty in the villages. When most people talk to me about the city I love, this is what they focus on.
The pollution that blankets the city in the winter and causes pounding headaches, the trash that lines the streets, and the steady protests that clog traffic makes Dhaka a less than desirable location for most. When we moved back to the U.S. I heard it everywhere: “Aren’t you so glad to be out of that place? It must have been so hard. I would never want to go there.” Every time someone says something like this, I can feel tears of defensiveness sting my eyes. In my mind, I still go back there often to that intersection. My heart swells with love for the beauty I found there, amidst the mess. Because of the mess. Because of the people.
That coffee in hand, for a few quiet moments I would watch the people, so many of them. The chatter of Bangla rising from the street never stopped as people called for rickshaws, yelled at friends heading to the University, or kids ran off to the English primary school down the street—its walls painted brightly with cartoon characters.
From where I stood I could peer directly into the nursery below, as early morning shoppers chose from orange marigolds and buckets of pink bougainvilleas to take home and grow on their balconies. Depending on the season I could see the children inside the small slum-house across from the nursery chasing chickens or running past the cow tied outside the gate. The day workers cleared their throats as they ascended the pile of red dust made from smashed bricks that they would add to the concrete mixer.
I would smile and wave at the nuns, their white shoes shuffling down the cracked street as they walked to the Christian counseling center next to the school. I wanted to smile at the men on their way home from morning prayers at the mosque but their white Topi-clad² heads never looked up at me, hurrying on into the day. The Ayah³ in the villa next to us would meet my gaze, though, as she pulled tight sheets over the rooftop clotheslines. I wondered what she saw when she looked at me. We were some of the only white faces visible in this part of town, far from the richer, diplomatic area in which a lot of foreigners chose to live. She would nod as she returned to her work.
As the heat closed in around me, I would leave the sounds of the city behind and return to the work awaiting me. Soon I would head down to the non-profit office just a couple floors below to write out stories about these people I loved. I would weed through reports from our village schools and news from our teams in the Rohingya refugee camps in the south of the country. I would stumble through accounts of other people’s lives, trying to figure out how to communicate to donors just how important their support was to the education and economic development of people they would never meet. I would pray that I could somehow honor the stories of people, let their own voices come through my words.
Today, I sit here two years after our return to the U.S. and twenty years to the day from the moment I felt God telling me to turn to love when so many around me were learning to hate. The day after the attacks of September 11, 2001 as I sat in an Arabic college class among my Middle Eastern classmates weeping that their religion had been turned into a weapon of terror, my heart shattered. It has been breaking ever since for the divisions we invent out of fear—the blinders we erect that keep us from seeing the glorious richness of what others have to offer us....
I sit in the place that will one day make up the center of my labyrinth. The leg of the chair teeters precariously between two pieces of gravel. It’s not yet the smooth surface of a path it will be. I try to imagine what this garden will look like then.
There will be a finished path to the front of the property, pots of flowering plants adding a splash of spring color to the morning. When I stand here in the future, I will see a budding rose bush and the flowering clematis vines climbing the retaining wall. It’s hard to see it now in the blurry morning light. I can’t quite grasp it.
It isn’t complete yet. In fact, it hardly looks like more than a mess right now. The prayer garden I dream of is, for now, a mound of gravel haphazardly deposited in the yard. The red clay beneath is freshly turned up, exposing the roots and weeds, tracks from the tires of the tractor, and earthworms squinting in the light of their unearthed tunnels.
One day, where I am sitting will be part of a path placed purposely here for the sole means of reflection, for a slow quiet look at God. In this spot in the middle of the winding labyrinth, there will be part of a path unfolding in front of me, and some of it already behind me. This will be the middle of the pilgrimage toward the center or back out again.
Today, I can’t close my eyes and imagine that picture – whole and complete before me. I only see the tools left in the yard from yesterday’s work, the rusting gas tank, the brambles, and the downed trees left behind after the land was cleared. Ugly things. Frustrating, unfinished things.
But I want to see something different and so here I sit. Continue Reading
“In every circumstance, regardless of the outcome, the main thing Jesus has asked me to do is to love God and my neighbor as religiously as I love myself. The minute I have that handled, I will ask for my next assignment. For now, my hands are full.”
The Main Thing is Seeing All the Sights
Beginning the moment I adorned my first tutu—bouncy peach tulle and silver sequins—at age four, New York called to me. I set my sights on a professional dance career and the Mecca of Manhattan was my goal. But I was 35 before I stepped off the Staten Island Ferry into the city of the dreams that I’d long since tucked away. My husband and two kids in tow, I carried a marked-up map and a list of more things to see than possible in one day.
I wanted to pack the whole experience of New York into those few hours. It had taken me 30 years to get there, and I never knew if I’d return. My son didn’t even make it through everything, falling asleep a few minutes after the curtains rose on the Radio City Rockette’s Christmas Spectacular we’d all dreamed of seeing live. Did I really think a 5-year-old would be able to stay up for the 10 pm show after traipsing all over the city in the blistering winds for hours? It was a wonderful day but the memory of it is a blur.
A couple years later when we visited Paris on the way home from living in South Asia, we still crammed the days full of museums and historic sights. However, we also understood the need to slow down after such a full and hectic year. When I think back on that magical week, the things my mind wanders to first aren’t the sights but simple, sweet moments.
That impromptu picnic in the park next to the Eiffel tower. The afternoon the kids spent playing with French children in the shade of Sacré-Cœur while we lounged on a bench and watched the sun move filter through the trees. Sitting still on the steps overlooking the gardens of Versailles, not thinking about the next thing we had planned. Dwelling in the lifelong and unlikely dream we were getting to live out. Savoring each other’s presence.
Losing Sight of the Main Thing
As evidenced by my frequent bouts of exhaustion as my body tries to tell me I’m too old to live at this pace, it’s not just seeing exciting places that I rush through full force. I’ve always prided myself in the amount I can accomplish and how I can multi-task in all areas of my life. This year I added grad school to my already crammed life of writing, a 25-hour a week job, parenting mostly alone through my husband’s long work hours, performing massive renovations on our home and 6-acre property, and complex family dynamics. Oh, and a pandemic. I believed I could do it all. I always have. My anxiety seems to say otherwise.
This hunger to fill life to the top, complicated by the evangelical training of my youth to live every day like Jesus could come back at any moment, has meant I most often approach spiritual life with the same gusto. Knowing more, serving more, and reaching the world was the daily call. Give all for God every day. After all, Jesus had given all for us. How could we do any less?
As evidenced by my frequent departures into feeling inadequate, unloved by God, and unable to ever be enough, this is not the way to the abundant life Jesus came to give us. The older I got the more the tension grew. I’d attended seminary, served as a leader, and worked for the church. I attended each event and Bible study and served whenever asked like I was taught to do. The more I did, the less I could see Jesus or recognize the presence of God...
The sky had been stormy for hours already, so the transition to night was difficult to discern. Disoriented, soaked through, and shivering—we waited for direction.
We had started out the day staring at an “x” on a map, a destination we needed to reach. As the day grew long, our surroundings didn’t look right and our little team began to grumble. The leaders of our expedition, my husband and another member of the group we were traveling with, finally confessed they didn’t think the path we had been following all day would take us to our destination.
Once they realized we were on the wrong trajectory they set off to right our course, but this correction took us down a hill that was already steep before the day’s rains had turned the decline into a muddy slide.
What would happen next lay in their hands. I could see the weight of the decision they must make pressing down on them. Would we continue through the brush trying to find the path, darkness barking at us like a hungry dog? Or would we go back the way we came, returning to the marked (but wrong) trail to find a place to camp? How much longer could we go on in this cold, wet terrain—weary as we were? Whatever they decided affected us all.
I squeezed my children’s hands, trying to pass some confidence into their shaking arms. My five-year-old son’s twenty-pound pack made him look like a turtle slumping under a too-heavy shell. My daughter, two years older than him and trying to seem much braver, winced. I knew her ankles hurt but she wouldn’t say anything about it again. She could see the worry in her dad’s eyes.
We’d been hiking for 48 hours, the last few in sloshy boots and packs burdened with rainwater. In those moments when we stood still waiting for a way forward, hope began to wane. Even if we found a suitable place to camp, could we start a fire in this rain? No longer warmed by the constant movement, we shivered in fear. Hunger gnawed at our confidence that everything would be okay.
Maya Angelou said,
“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction.”
“If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment,” she added, “we must be ready to change that as well.”
There are moments when there doesn’t seem to be a path that leads us back to good. We’re past the point of no return, and there is no map laid out for what happens next. Despair weighs us down like the straps of a pack digging into our shoulders.
I am reminded of another scared group huddled amongst the trees, waiting for directions for their next steps. Confused by the path their leader said he would lead them down and exhausted, they went aside to pray. In the garden whose name means “pressed,” he was crushed by the weight of what was to come like the olive crushed to extract the precious oil from its skin.
Jesus knelt in prayer and wrestled with the uphill climb he knew was ahead but committed to pressing on because of the faith he had in what lay on the other side. He knew the future would be hard for those men he loved sleeping under the olive trees: the weight they would carry, the despair that would try to defeat them.
But he knew hope isn’t stagnant.
It requires testing the road ahead and if we lose our way, keeping on.
Never giving in.
Night was coming and those men couldn’t see beyond it.
Yet they followed the One who led them on...
It seems like the logical next step. Except I know enough of God by now to know that logic has nothing to do with the journey of this life.
Last year, still straddling the transition between life in Asia and life in the U.S., God gave me the word, “build.” There were obvious literal applications as we rebuilt our lives in a home that didn’t feel like home, as Lee built a new career, and we renovated a home that needed to grow with our family.
Dwell is a clear follow-up word, right? Once you build something, you live in it. And yet, it is anything but evident to me that this should be the next step. The way the word “build” guided me into understanding myself and the need to love the incompleteness of this life in the last year was unexpected.
I realized I had been looking for a place to belong and instead found abundance in the midst of always being a pilgrim wandering toward home. More than anything, I learned to let go, to accept the life that is always going to be lived under construction and in-between brokenness and wholeness.
My word for 2021 first floated into my mind late last fall as I sat beneath the enveloping branches of a Magnolia tree. I had walked by these same trees a dozen times but never stopped to truly look at them. But my pace that day as I walked around the monastery on a silent retreat allowed me the time to stop and to see anew.
As I sat inside the hollow the branches created and thought about how I had spent 2020 with my word for the year so far, I realized I had started the year with anticipation and momentum, only to find—like everyone else—that the world came to a standstill. As I sat in silent prayer, God showed me all the things that were built in me throughout the year. While outward movement stopped, my roots grew deeper.
The word "dwell" entered my mind like a leaf on the breeze but I didn't hold onto it yet. I opened my hand and let it float away, waiting to see if it returned.
It kept coming to the forefront of my thoughts throughout the next month, though. With it came the echoes of a verse of Scripture many of us know well: “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37.3, ESV).
The Psalm is said to have been written by King David in his old age. The people of God, indeed, lived in the promised land when he wrote those words, but not in a perfect kingdom. David had seen war, failure, the inability to build the temple to God he saw as a completion of the kingdom, betrayal, loss. Looking back on his reign, it was far from complete. He must have looked back with regrets and a longing to see the fulfillment of the goodness God has promised his people.
And yet, he looked forward also with trust. With a belief that amidst an imperfect world God’s people could still see good, do good, and yet dwell in the land with faithfulness.
Dwell. It is an invitation to take the time to be present, even in the imperfection. To take the time to listen to God. “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” asks Mary Oliver.
“While the soul, after all, is only a window,
And the opening of the window no more difficult
Than the wakening from a little sleep”
Wake up. Throw open the window. Breathe deeply. Dwell.
It is an invitation to live in the now and not-yet that is our life or faith instead of always chasing after the next thing, the answers, and the illusions of perfection. Can we sit awhile in this half-built house around us and stare out at the trees? Can we accept the mystery and be just where we are?
It is an invitation to live in this world as broken as it may be and to still believe it can be better, that we can be part of making it better. David never saw the temple complete in his life but he built a foundation that his son then continued to build upon. Can we live in the broken places without being consumed by them, to continue to hope?
We may not see how the tiny acts of faithfulness we live out make a difference, but we can trust that they will unite together with all the other tiny acts of faithfulness to matter. Can we dig down into the places God has planted us and take the very next step to build a more Beloved Community?
We’re not done building this home, this Beloved Community in which we live and work and play and dream together. And yet, we must dwell in it—in all it’s imperfections and missing pieces.
We can’t always be chasing after something we don’t yet have or the things we’ve lost. Right now is what we’ve been given. We need to find ways to live at peace in it and to find the beauty in it.
And yet, we keep reaching to make it better, to renovate and redesign and bring more people into the midst of this promised land that we know will be beautiful in time.
How do you see God showing you to dwell in the one life you’ve been given? How do you allow yourself to be present in daily life, in God’s presence, in the now and not yet? Do you struggle with restlessness, discontentment, or despair? How do you feel challenged to “befriend faithfulness” in your current situation?
Do you have one word to guide your year? What do you hope this word brings you this year? What change or growth would you like to see it bring your way in 2021?
Leave me your One word below if you want me to pray for you (or send me a message through the Contact page if you don’t want it to be public). I’d love to be a part of your journey this year.
Listen. Learn. Love. is my monthly letter to you, the one who wants to find the places where faith and action intersect. Sign up here.
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