For someone with a love of simplicity and order, I own an excessive amount of trinkets. A few weeks before our departure from South Asia, I packed some of them in a suitcase to send back with a friend returning to the United States. I lovingly wrapped the items as I pondered the most important things to go first.
In went a wooden Coptic cross from the church we attended while living in Egypt. I settled it next to an olivewood communion cup that once held juice outside the garden tomb in Jerusalem. They nestled next to the green, white, black, and red prayer beads secretly pressed into my hand by a Palestinian in Jericho when I spoke to him in broken Arabic, asking about his nation and his faith.
These items have lived on my dresser in Bangladesh, reminding me of the places that have made indelible marks on my life. They will return to a curio cabinet in America next to items that might be worthless in the eyes of others—things like sea shells from the island we visit every year with our closest friends, stones dug out of the Red Sea, a scrap of silk hand embroidered by a friend living in the largest slum in Asia.
My kids placed the beginning of their collections inside the bag as well: a bronze tiger for my son, a little wire rickshaw for my daughter. These things will sit collecting dust on dressers for years to come, surely. But they will also serve as a reminder of the land my children called home for part of their childhood.
This place will make a mark on them they won’t be able to name for years to come. One day, though, they will want to remember. They will need to understand why the smell of ginger and garlic paste simmering in a pan stirs something deep inside their hearts, something they can’t quite place.
When my friend told me the suitcase full of “souvenirs” went missing in transit—lost somewhere in Istanbul—I held back the tears and held my breath. Thankfully, a few days later, I learned it had safely arrived. They are just things, I know, but they are irreplaceable to me, because of the places and the stories they represent...
I’ve lived on the banks of a river that is the stuff of legends—those storied waters that cradled civilization and was the bridge between life and death for the ancients. It is obvious why Egypt is called “the gift of the Nile” once you spend a couple months in the sandy, dry heat. No life could exist in such a desert without those blessed waters.
I conversely now live in one of the most lush deltas in the world. Bangladesh is situated in the fertile plain that lies between the melting Himalayan snow, the waters of the sacred Ganges flowing out of India, and the largest bay in the world. Here the 700 rivers mean life—and death. When the monsoon rains come and the rivers flow outside their banks, many people who have nowhere else to go in this overpopulated land, have to move and rebuild—again.
I’ve seen the same waters meant to bring life, carry destruction instead. How can it be?
I’ve always loved order. I think that is what drew me to organized religion as a teenager who hadn’t been raised in the church. I finally had a set of rules I could follow. There were lines in the sand dividing the good and the bad and I knew just what to do to stay on the right side of that line. It felt like freedom was in the certainty.
I didn’t act like someone who was free, though. I used my freedom to condemn, separating myself from those who didn’t stay on the side of the line that I called good. I became a stagnant, festering pool; there was no living water flowing through me to others.
So, I thought if rules brought death, I’d live free of them. I ran from the church of my youth. I pushed back against the limits to see what being boundless felt like. It felt utterly terrifying. I became a flood, destroying everything in my wake. That wasn’t freedom either.
I’ve lived with a carefully measured faith and no faith at all. Both were destructive. I searched every place I could for a real taste of liberation, but I still felt chained inside...
Sometimes a book shows up in your life and you tuck away the knowledge gained from it for another day. Sometimes the words slam into your life and you feel like the author intended every last word for you and God must have ordained its writing for this very moment in time.
Maybe it’s just me that has this kind of gut connection to words sometimes, but I have a feeling it’s not. If you happen to know what I mean, then let me tell you that Emily Freeman’s The Next Right Thing: A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions slammed into my life that is facing major upheaval and just about a dozen massive life decisions pending. When I started listening to The Next Right Thing podcast where she talked about decision paralysis and how people face about 35,000 decisions per day, I knew I needed to read the book at this point in my life.
We are ending our current jobs and moving back to America after a year and a half in South Asia. While this is familiar territory after the move here, it is different. Saying goodbye to life there was hard but we knew what we were walking into and we were excited about the changes to come. While we know where we will be living and are thrilled to be returning to a place miles from family, we don’t know what is next for us. We are walking into the complete unknown and some days we are simply paralyzed by the largeness of the questions.
Enter Freeman’s book that is a beautiful mix of practical and inspiring. If you’re looking for someone to help you make pro and con lists and be certain you are making the wise choices, look elsewhere. If you are looking for someone to help you ask the right questions and dig deep into spiritual practices that will help you be certain you are engaging the process of discernment well, stick around Freeman’s book or podcast for a while.
I want assurance I’m doing the right thing. Instead, over and over again I am getting the assurance that I’m looking at the right person to guide me:
“What I’m finding to be most helpful more than any list, question, or sage advice is simply to get quiet in a room with Jesus on the regular, not for the sake of an answer but for the sake of love.”
I want a clear destination. I am reminded that the path, one day at a time in step with Jesus, is what matters:
“The darkness can invite us into a mystery, a place where we don’t know the answer. We know that seeds need to bury down deep in the ground, sometimes for a long, long time. Eventually, those seeds will break open and take root. But first, they have to settle into darkness. Still, that seed carries with it a narrative of hope. It just hasn’t lived into the whole story yet.”
I want action steps (you do get those in the book and I especially recommend pre-ordering before April 2 so you get free access to the Discern and Decide Video Series that will walk with you through the process of discernment) but I get prayers to breathe out when I can’t find the words anymore:
“Unbound by time or place or gravity, you go ahead of us into an unknown future. You walk toward us with love in your eyes. You stand beside us when we find ourselves in unsure places. You sit next to us in silence and in joy. You watch behind us to protect our minds from regret. You live within us and lead from a quiet place... Let us keep company with you at a walking pace, moving forward together one step at a time. Help us to know the difference between being pushed by fear and led by love.”
I’m daily clinging to this question as I try to take small steps forward: “Does this activity draw me closer to God or push me further from him?”
Yesterday the next right thing looked like listening to the friends who kept saying, “you need a buffer, time with your family as you grieve this big transition” and booking plane tickets, deciding to stop over in Europe on the way back to America. Today the next right thing looked like staying in with a book all day and letting the silence wash over me.
Friends, whatever you are facing today, this is my prayer for you: May you cling to the God who will not let you miss out on the love that is available for you, no matter what decision you make. May you accept grace from his hand and extend it to yourself and others, who are all just trying to navigate their next steps. Grace and Peace to you.
Let us walk together on this journey of listening to God. Sometimes the next right thing in sharing with someone who can sit with you in your circumstances, who can pray for you when you aren't sure how to pray. Please don't hesitate to leave a comment so we can journey together or send an email for my eyes only. I will be praying for you.
A quick Google search defines the word they as a pronoun “referring to two more people previously mentioned or easily defined.” It’s my experience that no one group of people is easily defined but, oh, we still like to try.
We tuck people away into groups of them and those people, defining those groups as different than us. And these labels reduce people to a stereotype that can house hate, fear, and oppression.
Sometimes that little word triggers such anger in me. I see it in my social media feeds almost daily describing how those people act or believe, words laced with venom—words about how one such group of people we inaccurately mis-categorize is out to destroy our country and world. Words describing people I love—my Muslim brothers and sisters. A huge, diverse group of people comprising one-fourth of the population of the world is reduced to a they that others so easily reject, or vilify.
Most people in my daily life claim Islam as their religion since I live in a country where Muslims make up 80% of the population. To see a group of men wearing white prayer caps and flowing robes walking down the street on the way to the mosque is a normal daily occurrence for me. These are my neighbors. For many people that same image would strike fear of the unknown in their heart.
That’s the key—the unknown. We fear what we don’t take the time to know. We just slap a they label on people and think they are so easily defined.
When others don’t recognize the image of God in my Muslim friends, don’t see them as equal to themselves, as someone who has much wisdom to teach them—I want to rage, I want to scream: how can you not see? I can forget that once I was blind too...
I don’t remember your name. I do remember your laughter, your patience when you helped me with my pronunciation of sounds that are difficult for the English-trained tongue.
I never saw you again after our college Arabic class ended but the look in your eyes has remained with me all these years—the fear and sorrow I saw there when your entire existence was reduced to stereotypes. I realized the distance between you and me was greater than I had imagined. It was September 12, 2001, and on that day the only thing people saw when they looked at you was the headscarf you wore. It’s still the only thing many probably see. But I saw you.
You were the friend of a friend and I could only speak to you through her translating. When I first saw you, we all looked the same under our colorful headscarves and baltos, the long, black dressed that covered our clothing. Over tiny cups of strong coffee, we were able to remove all that kept us hidden from the eyes of men on the streets. I laughed to find you in jeans and a tank top underneath, surprised at how young you looked though already a bride.
Years later, I still kept the small piece of knitting you gave me in the curio cabinet in my bedroom. I would touch the woven white and blue yarn and breathe a prayer for you. I would remember your story and the ancient smell of incense in your home. You were the second wife to a man you rarely saw, living a few apartments away from his first wife. You handed me a pile of knit pieces to choose from, evidence of just how much time you spent alone. The distance between us is many miles and I don’t know if your house in the war-torn Yemeni capital is even still standing. But I remember you.
You made me feel your home was mine. Every time I visited, you had a gift for me. Sometimes you would open your jewelry box and let me choose a bangle. I remember the way your voice would rise with as much passion when we talked about the Egyptian TV dramas you used to act in as when we discussed the differences in the Qur’an and Bible.
You shared all you had with me. You let me see your pain and you carried mine. You cried when we told you we were moving back to America. When you became our landlady, we had nothing in common. We were from different nations, religions, and generations. But I called you friend. I still think of you when your teal and red bracelets clink on my wrists...