"Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing." - 1 Thessalonians 1:5, ESV.
“You’re so brave,” she said admiringly as she slipped the receipt across the counter. I fought back the urge to laugh or cry, I wasn’t sure which. She saw me one side of me—the foreigner in her country, hopping onto the public buses that merely slowed a bit before one needed to jump off onto the cracking curb. In her eyes, there stood this NGO-worker leaving the familiar to serve the people of her country. It was something she didn’t dream she could do and she said as much.
She didn’t see me thirty minutes earlier, sitting in my quiet apartment before my family began to stir, fighting back the fear that was churning in my stomach like yesterday’s spicy fish curry refusing to go down quietly. She didn’t witness this formerly proudly independent woman trying to talk herself into just opening that door to face the world outside. She didn't see that version of me.
When I lived in my home country I had a weekly ritual. I would slip out of the house under the still dark sky and escape to a coffee shop to write. I wouldn’t emerge until the sun was rising high in the sky and I had explored the depths of my soul on the page. I would return home to my family just beginning their days while I was buzzing with caffeine and passion. I felt powerful, invincible.
When the sunlight hit my face that morning I sat straight up in bed reaching for my phone to check the time. I forgot how early the dawn comes here and I saw it is not yet six. I eased out of bed and got ready quickly only to then sit there staring at that menacing door. I’d barely left my house all week, hemmed in by culture shock and depression, a kind of fear and anxiety that were as unexplainable as they were unpredictable. After eight months in this South Asian Mega-city, I felt breakable, broken....
“Are you going to break up with me next?” she cried in frustration and anger. That anger should have been directed completely at me but it was also pointed at God.
I will never forget the look on my sister’s face when I told her I had broken up with my boyfriend. Disbelief mixed with pain and anger flashed in her eyes. I had caused that. Four years older than me, she was no longer in high school but we were in the same circles and shared a lot of friends. We shared a lot in common—except my faith in Jesus. There were other reasons this guy and I parting ways but my sister got around to asking me if it was because he didn’t share my faith and I admitted that was partly it.
It always came back to this with us. I pushed (hard). She pushed back (harder). Disagreeing never accomplished anything except for driving a wedge between two people who couldn’t see the world the same way. I thought I could argue her into believing. I think she would have stopped herself from believing just to spite me ... and she would have been right.
I cringe when I think back to the headstrong and arrogant youth that saw the world one way and expected to debate others into the Kingdom of God. I wish I could change this part of my history but what I can do is learn from it. Unfortunately, one thing I’ve learned is the fear of disagreeing altogether.
I spent so many years mending the damage from my ignorance and never wanting to harm another, especially in the name of the Jesus who never pushed His way into anyone’s life. I have taken the backseat of being a learner and I am more comfortable there.
I still have strong opinions. Just ask my small circle of friends close enough to hear my real political opinions. These are things I do not air publically. The thought of doing so recalls memories of that unkind girl and makes my heart beat faster than it should.
Enter social media and the fact that I am a writer in Christian circles—both of which these days means airing opinions and feelings, writing them out for all to see. I would say I picked the wrong vocation if I had actually picked it. Ask most writers and they’ll tell you it picked them, that they can’t help it. But that doesn’t negate the dread I feel about disagreement (especially about matters as deeply personal as faith and the way we express it)...
I’m a sentimental person by nature. I love gifts that have a personal meaning, heirlooms, and reminders of the ones I love. Other than my wedding ring I don’t own any fancy jewelry but I do own pieces that are absolutely priceless to me like the small diamond necklace that belonged to my grandmother that I wore in my wedding or the ring that my sister got made for me out of a piece of Gram’s silverware.
I am however also a person who loves order and organization. When my mom, whom I learned my sentimentality from, gave me an envelope of childhood items she had kept for me, she was disgusted that I didn’t plan on keeping many of them. Sure that cute picture I drew in kindergarten is nice to show my kids but do I need every report card I ever got in school and every newspaper clipping from the times I made the honor roll?
My distaste for clutter and my love of memory often collide and I am conflicted in what truly matters enough to keep. So I am trying to find a balance with my own kids and the difficulty is compounded as we downsize to two suitcases apiece that we will take with us in our move to South Asia next month.
When we lived in the Middle East before we had children we packed as light as we could. I remember in moments of culture shock and homesickness how I longed for something to remind me of home. Maybe I am erring on the side of taking too much now as we look at paying for a couple extra bags but I don’t want to regret not having those items that connect us to home. That pillow made for our kids by the teacher who cared for them after school since birth, the dollhouse lovingly made by my childhood best friend for my own daughter (even though it weighs twenty pounds), those stuffed animals given as gifts that they cuddle with each night—all going.
I’ve tried to catalog memories in such a way that we will actually relive them one day. I have boxes full of old-school photo albums that I do actually revisit from time to time (You know, when we used to actually print photos and stick them in books? Many of mine are actually Polaroid’s, gasp!) We don’t have many photos of my husband’s childhood because most of his were lost years ago in a flood. I regret not having those every time someone says how much our son looks like his dad.
In the busyness of life I had gotten behind on making the computer-generated photo books I have made for each year of our children’s lives, so I spent hours in the last few weeks before our big move pouring over pictures from the last three years. I met my goal of getting the books done but those books were bulky and expensive and I didn’t want to risk losing them on the move, so straight into storage they went. Knowing how much the faces of the people we love would bring comfort, I set out to make a smaller book of family and friends to take with us.
I was surprised at the pictures that gripped my heart and I felt like I needed to include...
I know what it must feel like to be a ghost. I am haunting the life I used to live but haven’t moved on yet, hanging out on the fringes of what I once called mine. I watch everyone around me go about their days as they always have but I am on the outside looking in. I ache to be seen but I also know my presence brings up all kinds of hurt, so I remain in the wings. Yes, I know what it must feel like to be but a shadow, haunting your own life. This is life in transition.
Have you ever felt it before? Maybe you moved from the place you long called home or left your church, had an illness that separated you from others, or lost your job while others went on with life as usual?
We are moving to South Asia in less than two months. Our house is sold and our belongings are stored. I watched someone take over my job of six years as I stepped aside, getting the kids ready for uprooting their lives. Their little hearts are unfazed, it seems, as they adjust well while I feel more invisible every day. Next week we sell our car, the last big thing that links us to life in the United States. We will drive in a borrowed car as we live in a borrowed house, feeling like we are borrowing a life that isn’t ours anymore.
I am glad I have this “in-between” time in our move to prepare me for the loneliness I know is coming living 8500 miles from what has been home for most of my life. I feel like I am building up callouses now for the big hurt that is to come. But I also am wounded in another way, the conviction in my heart that is God saying “who else have you made to feel this way in the past? Who are you shutting out even now?”
Faces float to the surface of my memory as I try to push them back under. There’s the friend who encouraged me when my whole life was changing with a move, a new job, a second baby. I sat daily on her couch and we laughed and cried together. We had a fellowship I was sure would withstand the miles when she moved away. We haven’t talked in years. There’s the church small group I was a part of when all this transition happened and we were so busy we couldn’t make it to group but a couple times in a year and we just drifted away from budding relationships. I miss them and wonder how they are doing but it feels like it’s been too long to reach out now.
Relationships ebb and flow. Few last forever, I know that. Out of high school, I have one friendship that has stood the test of time and from college two real friends remain. I read the findings of a psychological study recently that concluded most friendships last no longer than seven years as people change and move on with their lives. But there are those moments when it feels like every relationship you have is changing or all have fallen away. Only loneliness remains and it gets you thinking about how we were designed for real fellowship and how empty we are without it...
I can feel the sweat collecting into a little river trickling down the small of my back. The summer sun is beating down but I think much of the heat is coming from within, my cheeks always flushing when I am uncomfortable. I sit quietly off to myself while laughter drifts by me, a dream-like melody I feel can’t touch me. I have started to shrink back more lately, becoming silent at any sort of gathering of family or friends.
I’ve always avoided controversy, but lately I am feeling more raw and exposed in conversations that often wander into territory where my opinion isn’t the popular one. Conflict is an uncomfortable place, like an ill-fitting pair of pants always digging into your middle section. You try to move around the tightness, but it is always nagging at you, cutting into your core.
I know this is part personality (an introverted feeler, I spend way too much time inside my own head and the jumble of emotions there.) I care deeply about people, helping them and never hurting them. If I believe anyone is upset with me, thoughts of that disruption in our relationship will overwhelm me, gathering like spoiled dinner in the pit of my stomach. I’m sure another large part is the family culture that shaped me, the one in which we never talked about the big gray bulge under the carpet. We tried to hide the wrinkled trunk of that awkward beast behind an artfully placed piece of furniture, anything but talk about our problems. We held our breath as we tiptoed past that which must not be spoken of until we were about to burst—and many times we did burst later with tears, depression, anxiety. The unhealthy thing about the elephant in the room is the stink it leaves when no one will tend to its mess. When the truth is not spoken, our souls suffer.
I”ve noticed the tension between avoidance and antagonism more since having children of my own. I try to talk to them about hard topics instead of sidestepping them, keeping them in the know about what is going on in the world. I’ve even noticed how vocal I’ve become in my own family, picking fights with my parents about politics or ranting about issues to my husband. Put me around extended family or church members I don’t know as well, though, and I lose my forceful voice...
Shut tight, it was closed against the outside world.
It wasn’t so much to keep out that which offended
though I would have said that was the intention back then.
The reason was much more that I didn’t trust myself,
didn’t know how to stay on the straight and narrow.
I was so afraid of making the wrong choice,
of not being enough to earn the acceptance I so desperately craved.
You’d yell and say I was close-minded,
that I couldn’t see anything outside of the safe little world I’d created.
It wasn’t my mind that snapped shut in those early years of faith though;
It was my heart.
I couldn’t open it to anything that threatened to destroy what I’d found.
If I just kept my head down and my eyes straight ahead,
maybe I’d earn this love I ran towards with all my striving.
The cracks were small at first, just tiny rays of light shining through.
It was moment stopping to cross myself at the altar with tentative hands.
Could I be contemplative and contemporary at the same time?
It was a piping hot cup of green tea and silence.
Was it okay for me to be here with you, learning about meditation?
Fissures followed, all I’d built being torn down around me.
The walls tumbled down and I could finally see…
At night these mostly bare walls with fresh paint echo more than they used to, bouncing each memory of the past six years back through my unquiet mind. The crickets and tree frogs sing a melody that is as commonplace to me here as the call to prayer and honking cars was when we lived in the Middle East. I haven’t stopped to notice it in a long time but in these still moments it is blaring in my ears, reminding me of all we are leaving behind.
A long-held dream is possibly just weeks away (the nature of overseas moves is always a little uncertain as we wait on visas and funding and a house to sell). I keep myself busy every waking hour but not just because my list of tasks to accomplish is long. If I sit in the quiet too long, the conflict inside begins to rage.
I see it in my daughter too, her sweet eyes filling up with tears when she asks for another doll accessory and I remind her we have to be selective in what we buy as we’ll only have so much room in the two suitcases each that will carry all our belongings with us to South Asia. We’re giving up a lot of things, sure. But what about the experiences, the people, the opportunities that we are leaving behind? I know the truth—that we will gain as much as we lose. My heart doesn’t always believe it though.
For sixteen years now this dream of living overseas has tumbled around inside of me. Fueled by five international trips in the past three years, fed by the stories we’ve heard from our refugee friends nearby, the dream has only grown. My husband had the seeds planted in his life early too when his parents hosted international workers in their home. The stories of faraway lands seemed otherworldly to an eight-year-old boy but the fire was ignited just the same. We’ve been working towards this for years.
Last month every event seemed to be a last one. We didn’t make a big deal of it to the kids, didn’t want each day to be colored by, “oh, this is your last dance recital and tomorrow is your last Independence Day parade and next week is your last time to that friend’s house!” After a beautiful week with our best friends at the beach house where we have vacationed every summer for eleven years now, we made the long walk to our cars. It’s always hard to say goodbye to them because we live states apart anyway.
The pain didn’t grip me though until the moment I wrapped my arms around my friend to say goodbye. We knew each other when we were just foolish college kids. Life hasn’t turned out like we thought it would. In most ways it is so much better than we imagined though some realities are harder than we dreamed. I kissed her two precious girls goodbye, feeling like I was placing my own children in their car seats. I lingered a moment to whisper “I love you” to the little boy growing in her belly knowing I won’t get to hold him when he’s still tiny. He will be born a month after we leave. The ache claws at the back of my throat and I can’t look at her with the tears burning my eyes, so I quickly turn away...
“Some words are elegant, some can wound and destroy, but all are written with the same letters.” – Paulo Coelho
The laughing ceased as I walked into the room, turning to piercing eyes and whispers hidden behind folders. I inhaled deeply, trying to hold back the tears stinging my eyes. I wouldn’t let them know how they injured me with their thinly veiled gossip.
I had been so proud to go pick up my copy of the literary magazine that had printed my first poem that day. My friends knew me by my constant flow of words. Whether notes folded into shapes that might pass for origami or poems scribbled on the back of a math assignment I half-paid attention to, my words were frequent and plentiful. Angst beyond my years and teenage over exaggerations characterized my writing back then but all emotions feel like they hold the power of life and death when you are fifteen, don’t they?
I had several teachers that encouraged me to turn my writing into something more than poetry about the boy I was currently obsessing over (this week). Even though the magazine only contained entries from our school, I was emboldened by what felt like a big accomplishment—until the whispers came.
It became apparent whom I had written the poem about when word quickly spread that my boyfriend of months had dumped me over the phone the weekend before. To his popular senior friends, my broken sophomore heart was the fodder of laughter by lockers. My words may have been juvenile, loftily speaking of what I had no business calling love in my naiveté, but they came from the tender places I hadn’t yet learned to hide, from a vulnerability I would thereafter conceal. My own words were used as a weapon against me, to bring shame.
My first publication—poisoned by wounds to an insecure little girl’s heart, like the first scars of youth that inspired them. Words meant for life brought a little piece of death.
Many scars and lost loves later, I scribbled words in haste at the end of a journal I had kept for over two years. I had filled it lovingly with the deepest desires of my heart and letters to give one day to the guy I believed I would marry. We had parted ways with tears but not anger, God taking us in different directions. But when he quickly launched into another relationship, that wounded girl from the hallways of my youth fought back in the way I had learned held power—with my words.
Words I had intended as a record of our relationship to be given to him in love were thrust at him as a weapon. I wanted to wound him the way he had wounded me by moving on so quickly and not honoring what I thought we’d had. I twisted something meant for good into a poison I wanted him to choke down. “Look what you destroyed,” I said with my vindictive act. I used my words against him, to bring shame.
My first adult relationship—poisoned by wounds to an insecure little girl’s heart, like the first scars of youth that inspired them. Words meant for life brought a little piece of death.
I have long since destroyed most of the journals of my youth and cringe when I read my early poetry. I’d like to say I didn’t know the power of words back then, that I was a foolhardy child. But I knew early on the way words could rescue or wreck, heal or destroy.
When we meet new people we often have to clarify our closeness. We finish each other’s sentences and laugh at jokes that others around us don’t get. We see eyes dart with questioning looks and have to qualify it with, “Oh, we’re sisters” and then we see them nod with understanding.
My sister’s favorite thing to ask people next is who they think is older. Most of the time my wrinkles give people the impression that I am the elder sister, though I am actually four years younger.
The truth is I show most of the characteristics of a firstborn—structured, cautious, and controlling. She has all the fun loving, outgoing traits of the lastborn. Over the years we’ve each taken on the role of leading the other, following in each other’s footsteps.
It hasn't always been this way though. There were times I thought I had it all figured out when I really needed to humbly learn from her.
When I became the first follower of Christ in my family at 14, I plunged into a rule-based faith like my very salvation depended on it. I think my motivation was right—I loved Jesus and wanted to follow God well. But I separated myself from the world and my family. I alienated those who loved me best.
I was defensive and self-righteous, intent on “saving” my family. I created a divide between us when I should have loved and served.
I know I wounded my sister deeply in those years. I called out her sin (ignoring my own unloving, prideful spirit). I picked fights over creation and evolution. I did all but call her a heathen.
Yet she met me with forgiveness. The sister who followed the Savior who modeled ultimate forgiveness held a grudge against her lack of faith. The one who wasn’t ready to embrace Jesus acted more like Him than I...
Have you ever experienced walking with someone towards faith? Today I am at SheLoves Magazine sharing the legacy of love my sister gave me and the faith she taught me. Read on.
My son has never been confident in his abilities, even less in the water. At the beach, he runs into the waves and back out again, laughing with the innocence of his nearly five years. But if I try to take him a little deeper, the fear rises in his eyes and he runs. So, it was a big step for him to climb down the rickety ladder off the side of the dock. He looked past the aging wood, splintered over time and sagging to one side. He stepped past barnacles, his flip-flops barely hanging onto his feet. He had just settled into the smooth water, tentative and fearful, when the movement began.
Just a little ripple at first, the water began to shift under him. Then the shifting turned into full waves as the boat that had created the wake passed further by. It was just a small boat, a couple people skiing on this sunny afternoon in the intercoastal waterway.
The sound of their laughter drifted over to us at the dock about the same time the ripple did. They passed by without knowing that in their wake a frightened child was reaching for the ladder, frantically calling for his mommy. I helped him scurry back up the ladder and into my arms after only a moment in the water. He was done.
I’ve thought back on that moment many times in the weeks since lazy summer ended and our lives have launched into the momentum and hurry of fall. I keep remembering when I see the effects our lives are having on others, the way the actions of those around me ripple into my own life.
There are exciting dreams ahead for our family but I weigh my words each time they leave my mouth. Before I talk to my family about our coming move, I think about the grief they are feeling. I worry what my words stir up in their hearts. Should I talk about it? Should I stay silent? What will hurt them more? I choke on my words because I’m not sure.
The mother of my daughter’s best friend just told me this week that she has repeatedly caught her little girl crying in the car. She said during those quiet moments of riding she can’t help but think about her best friend moving across the world and it moved her to tears. I have never been so aware of the wake my actions are leaving behind. There are many people caught up in the tide created by the trajectory of my life. We don’t live in a vacuum. We don’t leave in a vacuum. We leave behind loved ones, holes that can’t be filled, and hurt. I grieve every day the way God is creating joy and pain at the same time in the lives that touch our own.
All week I felt like I was back out in those murky Atlantic waters, rising and falling with the tide. My week was filled with the highs and lows of this life in transition. My birthday fell mid-week in a busy time of back to school and Labor Day weekend looming ahead. I had lunch with a couple friends and a lovely dinner with my family. There were joys to be found but I still felt low. Most of my co-workers passed in the hall without a comment or a quick “Oh yeah, happy birthday!”
Just a few weeks before they celebrated another co-worker’s birthday at a nearby restaurant. I waited for the email to come inviting others to my celebration, knowing this would be the last birthday I would spend in the States for at least a couple years. None came. I smiled through the pain when one friend took me to lunch, pretended it didn’t bother me that everyone else was too busy to care. I reminded myself how busy I am, how many “Happy Birthdays” I haven’t said in the past year. How many people’s feelings have I hurt with my busyness? It still stung to be on the other side of the wake, to be caught up in the tides that are rushing so quickly there is no time for relationship sometimes. I fell to sleep early on my birthday, exhausted from emotion, from riding the rolling waves all day. I was done.
Before I drifted off, I asked God to make me more aware of those around me, of their needs and their hurts. I get so busy that I just don’t think about the effect I have on others. I don’t see. I am like those boaters—riding along in my life, caught up in what I have going on. I forget so easily that there are others on the periphery of my life. What I do and say—or am too busy to do or say—can rock their world. It can encourage and uplift them. Or it can send them running back to safety, wounded.
My son got back in the water that day. With his mommy speaking encouraging words and a friend’s arms reaching out for him, he found a safe space to enter the water. We laughed when the waves came, made a game out of riding them. He only stayed in for a few minutes and then came running back to my waiting arms, shivering from the cold. He learned a lesson that day about perseverance. I learned about paying attention, about the effect my actions have on others. I am still learning…