The concrete floor and exposed pipe ceiling are, at the same time, a welcome sight and a dagger of grief and sadness through my heart, one that is deep in transition. It’s just a Starbucks, you might say. No, it’s a symbol of all that I am grieving and losing in my life right now.
I’ve been waiting for nine years (or 25 years, depending on how far back you want to go into my story) for this coffee shop to open. As I walk in its doors, the familiar sounds of hissing espresso machines and whiney folk music mingling in my ears, my heart is heavy.
For years I have said we needed a coffee shop here. My family moved to what was once a sleepy Georgia town when I was only ten, from just one county over. I’ve hated this place and cried when I left it, too. I’ve moved to other towns and even countries, but Georgia has always been on my mind, the sweet scent of confederate jasmine and gardenia following me wherever I have gone.
Not much but pine and red clay marked this strip of roadside when we moved here. The big intersection in town consisted of a corner family gas station and a single grocery store. Ours was one of the first houses built in the new subdivision going up just a couple minutes from that red light. We could have been the first settlers in the Wild West for how it felt to a skinny freckled little girl moving into this unknown and barren land.
Over the years we watched our little intersection change as the growth of Atlanta pushed into our south metro town. Concrete replaced the undergrowth as the road widened and big stores pushed that little family one out into the distant memory of the few of us who lived here “back then”. The field that held the annual haunted hayride that every person I knew attended is now covered over with stores and medical offices.
You will still always run into someone you know at any of the multitude of grocery and drug stores that dot the intersection these days, reminding me that we were once a small town. But nothing looks the same and every inch of land that isn’t built on yet is under construction. I’ve returned back to this place again and again—after college and then grad school, finally 9 years ago after living in the Middle East. This is where I grew from child to woman and where my own family started. It has been the only home my two kids have ever known. They’ve watched it change like I did. But now we’re the ones who are changing. Everything is changing.
I’ve loved coffee shops since before I drank the sweet nectar I cannot live without now. The introverted people person that I am, I can be alone in a crowd here. I can be surrounded by conversation and relationships happening around me but still be alone with my thoughts. I do my best thinking and writing in these staples of hip culture, these meccas for caffeine lovers.
Every Saturday morning I venture to the nearest Starbucks to have my “office hours” in which I do my writing and editing. I am usually the first one in the parking lot and don’t leave until the sun is up and my joints are aching from hours of being lost in thought and staring at a screen. I think I literally screamed out loud while I was driving past the new construction that is common on my way home from work. They had put up a Starbucks sign just minutes from my childhood home (that is only 3 miles from my current one).
Today as I sip my usual grande non-fat caramel macchiato I know I may only enjoy this long-awaited coffee shop a dozen times before I fly away from it for years. When I see it again, the shine will have worn off of the gleaming new espresso machines. Who knows how many stores will have closed down and new gone up? Will any of the tall Georgia pines still reach to the sky down this busy stretch of highway?
Just like this intersection, everything in my life is unfamiliar these days. I don’t recognize my own home anymore with most of our belongings packed and the new tile and paint that has readied it for selling. There is nothing routine about my schedule anymore as planning and packing crowd out enjoying the sunny spring days that are marked by the yellow pollen’s arrival on my front porch. We will move sometime this summer to a borrowed basement on the other side of town, right on the border between this county and the one of my birth. A few months after that, Highway 34 will be a just a recollection after our international move.
But it’s right now that I am living in the borderlands. Between wanting to go and longing to stay. Between roots and wings. Between a calling and a rootedness. Between everything I’ve always known and what is waiting out there to be learned.
It’s these places of push and pull that hurt the most. Transition is the feeling of not belonging anywhere. There’s pain in the knowledge of all we are leaving but joy in what I believe we will gain, too. There’s irony in the bittersweet knowledge that I’ve waited 25 years for a coffee shop to arrive in this part of town just to move away from it. There’s deep sorrow in the longing for my home while another home calls to me. This place is still firmly mine though I feel removed from it already.
In this borderland of goodbye I ache for the familiar but know if I let it get too familiar the separation will hurt too deeply. I know I shouldn't cling to Georgia as home more than anywhere else. I am trying to remember that nowhere in this world is ever truly going to be where I belong. "For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come." (Hebrews 13.14, NLT)
You are home, Jesus. Anywhere in this world is a borderland between the now and the everlasting, between brokenness and wholeness. I ache for comfort you never promised me. Wherever I am, God, teach me how to live in this place that never changes—in the tension between holding on and letting go.
He fought the urge to close his eyes and shut out the fear rising up in his chest. The salty smell of the sea overtook his senses as the chill hit his waist. The growing sound of the waves drowned out the gasps of the people watching in amazement. His own heartbeat roared in his ears as the water reached his shoulders. He held onto the promise that was his lifeline.
They had come this far, seen the hand of God leading them at every step. He remembered the blood-red Nile, the cries in the night when they huddled in their homes holding their own firstborn sons like their very grips on them would protect them. He looked back one last time at the thousands on the banks, watching him with wide eyes. He couldn’t see a way through the sea yet but the Miracle Worker who brought them here said to go. So, Nashon breathed one last deep breath before plunging headlong into the unknown.
I’ve been submerging myself in the words of Exodus these days, after several gentle nudges from God. A friend would mention stepping into the Red Sea before it parted as encouragement to keep the faith that all of the unknown in our lives right now is leading to a chance at greater obedience. The haunting words of an old Sara Groves song kept coming up in the shuffle of my playlist … “I’m caught between the promise and the things I know.” So, I returned to the old familiar stories of the Children of Israel whose entire lives were changing with every step they took towards the sea and all that lay beyond it.
In searching for what God was trying to show me, I read about Nashon for the first time. His name is one of those I have glossed over a dozen times in the Bible, one in a long list of names that have a place in God’s story that we only glimpse in passing. Nashon was brother-in-law to Aaron, one of the leaders of the tribe of Judah that left Egypt for the promise of God waiting beyond the sea. Mentioned again in the genealogy of Jesus in the New Testament, we learn that he was exactly halfway in the direct line from Judah and King David.
It is in the Midrash, the ancient Jewish commentary on the Hebrew scriptures, that we find the rest of Nashon’s story...
I sigh as I tug on the hem of the cleaning gloves for what feels like the hundredth time and wipe another fingerprint off the wall with the magic eraser that is all but torn to shreds. Now that we are getting our house ready to sell, I notice every smudge and imperfection made by little fingers. Each one represents another chunk of time, another task to do before the deadline we have set for getting ready to move. It seems all those little segments of time add up to more hours than I have available these days. The practical has been pushing the spiritual out of my life and my soul is parched. I ache for quiet moments to seek God like I used to, those precious days I get to retreat to the monastery or go to a writer's conference. I am fortunate to have those opportunities but then I return to "real" life and I long to be able to find quiet in my every day for the spiritual practices that feed my soul.
But I also know that time slips away so easily and I don't want to wish away the hours with these little ones that won't be little for much longer, my nearly eight-year-old already turning into a young woman in front of me. When I take a few minutes out of my dinner preparation to pour red and yellow paint onto a plate and brush it onto their eager hands, I notice how much more paint it requires these days. I have stacks of handprint pictures from their preschool years but we haven't done this in a while. Their fingers barely fit on the page and I'm startled at how sad it makes me. It's funny how I laminate and treasure these little fingerprints, evidence of how tiny they once were. But those same precious marks don't seem so precious when found on my clean walls.
As I working mom of two, I have found the noise of life to be overwhelming. Hence the desire for this place online I created two years ago (with a 5 and 3-year-old at the time) seeking to help myself and others find God's voice in all the real and virtual noise of life. I have explored new spiritual practices (like examen, silence, keeping the church calendar) and tried the same methods that I want to work but can't seem to make fit into my life anymore (waking early to read the Bible, journaling, online women's studies).
I remember the first time I heard about Brother Lawrence, the famed seventh-century monk who wrote The Practice of the Presence of God about finding God in the common daily tasks of the abbey. I thought this is what I need, wisdom in finding God in ordinary life. I read the small book eagerly, and while his words are an inspiration, I still found it difficult to relate the practices of a French monk to my schedule in which I am either taking care of someone or working most every waking hour of the day until the house is quiet and my mind is incapable of anything more substantial than a conversation or television show.
So, here I am - busy mom, wanna-be contemplative, failing at the practice of God's presence - and a friend asked me to read her new book on motherhood and spiritual disciplines. Honestly, at first, I thought, oh, another thing I don't have time for. Another book to tell me what I should be doing and I'll try for a little bit but then just end up feeling guilty I am not doing better at it. I picked up the book at a retreat and read the back cover: "Rich, soul inspiring practices for moms who have neither quiet nor time." I was intrigued.
The more I talked to Catherine that weekend and connected with her humor, her wisdom - I knew I had to read it. I opened the book on the plane ride home that weekend and in just the first few pages I knew this wasn't the "do more" mom book I had been expecting. It was the how-to practice God's presence in the midst of the noise of motherhood book I never thought anyone would write. It was the Practice of the Presence of God for 21st-century women. It was more than soul-inspiring to me. It was life-giving.
So, I'll let Catherine tell you a bit more about her heart behind the book and hope you find it as rich a tool in your journey towards God as I did.
Thank you! I’m a mom with three kids (and a few part time jobs). I love to read and garden. I love to study theology and ancient cultures. I’m always trying to learn something new. I enjoy getting to know my neighbors and learning how different people see the world. I love to explore how theology impacts our real, physical lives…and how our real lives impact theology. I’m enamored by the creation of new life but find that working in the garden is less exhausting than pregnancy.
Now, introduce us to your book Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
Long Days of Small Things is a book that looks at the real life work we do in our everyday lives, and finds God right here in the midst of it. It’s a book for moms (or dads…or grandparents…or caregivers…) who know they don’t have any extra time or energy, but still want a way to connect with God and discover how to find Him.
How do you do that in Long Days of Small Things?
In each chapter I tell stories from our real lives—the seasons and stages of motherhood, pregnancy and delivery, infant days, sleepless nights, caring for children of all ages—and the tasks that fill them. I look at spiritual tools that already hide there—like sacrifice, surrender, service, perseverance, and celebration—and consider how we can open our eyes to the spiritual boot camp we walk through every day. Without adding anything extra to our live or to-do lists, we practice so many disciplines every moment of the day.
Why did you decide to write Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline?
A few years ago I was a work-from-home mom with a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. These precious, demanding children took me all the way to the end of my rope…and left me there indefinitely! My life changed in every way, yet I heard only the same spiritual prescriptions I’d always heard: spend quite time each day with God. Find 30-60 minutes each day to be in silence and solitude before the Lord. As I considered the classic spiritual practices (which I love!)—prayer, worship, fasting, meditation, service, solitude, etc.—it became abundantly clear that the realities of motherhood meant I was likely to fail. Or opt out entirely.
But my spirit didn’t allow me to do that. I heard a lament rising in the hearts of the women around me—I have nothing left, nothing left to care for myself or give to God. But as I looked at the actual seasons and tasks of motherhood, I was convinced that there was no better “boot camp” for my soul. Each day we mothers create, we nurture. Each day we are pushed to the end of ourselves and must surrender, sacrifice, and persevere. Each day we serve, pouring ourselves out. We empty ourselves for those in our care—and isn’t this emptiness the very reliance on God that the spiritual disciplines are designed to produce?
I’m convinced that motherhood is doing an eternal work on my soul, even if I’m too exhausted and overwhelmed to notice just now.
What are the “Practices” that you describe in Long Days of Small Things?
At the end of each chapter, I list three things we are doing already—things like walking, eating, driving, changing diapers, going to work. And I explore how we can use these things, already in our daily routines and schedules, to awaken to God’s presence with us. Moms often don’t have time to add additional tasks and tools into our days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the tasks already there! In fact, in many cases, I think these natural things are the most effective.
How has motherhood impacted your understanding of spirituality?
We think of spirituality as something that happens in our minds, in silence. We are taught that our bodies, our mess and complications and noise hold us back from being with God. That doesn’t leave a lot of hope for moms, whose pregnant or post-partum bodies, newborns, toddlers, and van-full of carpool kids have no end of loud, messy, physical, chaotic needs.
But God made us, didn’t He? Genesis describes Him getting in the dirt and forming us from the dust by hand, then breathing His own breath into our mouths. That’s pretty physical and messy! Then He actually took on a body Himself. The King of Kings wiggled around in a woman’s womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid. He entered the world through her birth canal. God was born, you guys. That’s our Good News.
All this physical stuff that we feel keeps us from Him is the same stuff He used to meet with us, to speak to us, to save us.
So Long Days of Small Things is a book for moms “who have neither quiet nor time” as the cover says—or dads, grandparents, and other caregivers.
Describe an experience that first caused you to understand motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
I was shopping with my three kids. Can you imagine the scene? Lugging my infant in one of those terribly unwieldy baby-carriers. Holding my toddler by the hand, while my preschooler zoomed around the store. The diaper bag was falling off my shoulders, and I clenched the grocery bags with the same hand that grasped my toddler.
And then…the door. I couldn’t figure out how to get us all through. The baby was wailing for milk and a nap, the toddler and preschooler needed lunch (and a nap). I wanted lunch and a nap too, truth be told. But mostly I just wanted to get us out the door. No one held it open for me, but plenty of people watched me make a fool of myself trying to wiggle us all through without banging any heads or pinching any fingers. It felt like a hero-feat, an epic win.
When I finally got everyone home, fed, and sleeping, I sat down to read an article I’d been saving; a short biography of a favorite Christian teacher. The biographer described this hero of the faith as so spiritual, he radiated peace just by walking through the door.
This stopped me in my tracks. The memory of how I looked going through a door was so fresh in my mind. I realized that if spiritual growth entailed developing an aura of peace and radiance, I was never going to arrive—at least not without getting rid of these precious babies!
The contrast between this teacher and myself was so stark, and I realized he and I were simply on two separate paths. I was seeking God through the chaotic but life-giving seasons and tasks of motherhood, and this was going to look entirely different from the classic spiritual practices. “Results may vary” as they say.
How is this book different from all the other books and conversations out there regarding motherhood today?
There are so many books out there for moms on the topic of devotion and spirituality. Almost all of them have this in common: after admitting that moms are exhausted, stretched too thin, without any margin or time or energy, they look for a few extra minutes here or there which might be harvested for God; or offer a Bible study or prayer list that might fit in the tiny slots. Get up at 4:30am before the baby wakes at 5am! Read two minutes of the Bible each day!
I’m all for doing these things when it works, but I’m convinced that we don’t need to exit motherhood to have a spiritual life. Our children are what we create, and this is where our Creator God meets us. I’m certain of it. Without adding more “should’s” or “to-do’s” to our days, we can open our eyes to a unique spiritual journey, made just for us—and find him here. We’re already doing it. All that waits is for us to breathe deeply and being to drink.
What are your hopes for the moms reading Long Days of Small Things?
I told my publisher and editor so many times: I want the title, the cover, and every word to convey that I’m not saying you should do more. You are enough. You are seen. You are loved. You are doing so much already, and there is value here. God is here already. These long days of small things make us feel shunted to the side, second class, invisible.
But I’m certain of one thing: this is the very place God meets us. That’s why we practice spiritual disciplines—to arrive at this place. I’m confident that every flowing, bleeding, dripping, sticky, crying, dirty, wet, exhausted piece of motherhood is a piece that God made and loves, a place where He came, and place where He is.
If moms can hear me say that, and accept the invitation, and find Him there—I will be overjoyed.
Nicole again here. Guys, I truly recommend this book (and yes, Catherine is a fellow writer but I didn't think I had time to help promote the book but when I looked over the table of contents, realized I needed to read it so I bought it. And when I read it, I knew I needed to share it with you). Go buy and read Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
I would recommend reading this book with a small group of moms, too. If you are in MOPS, a homeschool co-op, a small group or any sort of gathering of moms, I have a special treat for you. As I was reading it, I was thinking how well the book would lend itself to reading together with others and discussing how you found the spiritual practices applicable in your own lives. Thankfully, Catherine has made a discussion guide available for just that reason and you can download it here!
And if you aren't a mom - I am sure you know one or two! I am going to stock up on this book as a baby shower gift for all new moms. Blessings friends as you seek to hear God's voice in the noise of mothering, fathering, and every other noisy season of life!
Interview and discussion guide courtesy of Catherine McNiel, author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017). Catherine McNiel survived her children's preschool years by learning to find beauty in the mayhem. Now, she writes to open the eyes to God's creative, redemptive work in each day. The author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017), Catherine cares for three kids, works two jobs, and grows one enormous garden.
I felt the pull to reflection deep in my spirit. As soon as the light through the stained glass of the Romanesque chapel fell on my face, I felt I was transported into a tangible awareness of the presence of God. I knew I needed time alone in this place. Over the course of the two-day writing retreat I was attending, I filled my time with as many interactions with my fellow writers as I could. After all, we had traveled from all over the country to be together. This was a unique opportunity full of divine appointments, prayers whispered, stories shared, and wisdom imparted. I didn't want to miss a moment, but I was missing something else.
As the retreat was coming to a close and dear friends were whispering goodbyes in the hushed lobby as people brushed by us into mass, I wanted to stay but I felt the tug on my heart that I had been denying all weekend. I cracked open the heavy wooden door, stopped a moment to kneel, and quietly slip into the back pew just after mass began. I hoped nobody would notice the tears streaming down my face during the lectionary readings that resounded off the stained glass prophets who spoke their words over and into me.
I met Jesus that weekend in the laughter of my friends, in the impassioned preaching of some of the strongest women I've ever known, over the dinner table, and in the prayers of the friend who scooted close knowing my heart was aching for someone to pray over me. But He was waiting in that chapel all along, too—waiting for me to quiet myself long enough to just be still before Him. Silence tugs at me and repels me at the same time. I know the need and I know the pain of the pruning that awaits there.
Not cold enough to be called winter but dreary enough to still make all life lay dormant under the piles of fallen leaves, this has been a strange season. At the end of it, I am forcing myself to press into the silence. I found the practice of Examen last year (the daily prayer practice laid out by St. Ingatius Loyola), realized what thousands before me have known using this attitude of prayerful reflection for 500 years - that an examined life is a life of growth. Whenever I have practiced Examen daily, I have found such peace and guidance from God. But, in all honesty, I haven't practiced it very often. Because I've also found the dark places of my heart, the places I'd rather avoid. I've heard things I need to lay down that I desperately want to cling to.
The end of this particular season lends itself especially well to reflection as we also leave Ordinary Time for the Lenten season in which we focus especially close on our own sinfulness and cravings, preparing our hearts for the redemption that is to be celebrated at Easter. I love the practice of reflecting on what we've learned at the end of a season (be it the seasons of the calendar year or the church year). As I was preparing to join Emily Freeman and her community in sharing what we've learned this winter (don't forget to hop over to Emily's place to read some of the other "What We've Learned - Winter Edition" posts), I wanted to share cute and light lessons. But again I felt the tug to something deeper. This year, as the end of winter and the end of Ordinary Time coincide, I am noticing how looking back on what we learned is another form of Examen. I want more than just to reflect back on the season; I want the reflection to turn to prayer and the prayer to change the next season of my life.
If you too are wanting to look back on the past season before you head into the next, join me in examining your life before God, turning what you learned into a prayer of thanks, of repentance, of an openness to grow in yet deeper understanding in the next season. Spend just a few minutes or as much time as you can allow. There is nothing mystical about Examen. It is simply an attitude of reflection that leads to prayer. Traditional Ignatian Examen is done mid-day and at the end of the day. I have started using Examen at the end of the week during Sabbath and planning for the week ahead, or at the end of the month or season. You can journal your reflections if it helps or simply find a quiet place and be with God. Sit in the stillness for a little while. Listen before you speak. Look back. Look ahead. Most importantly, look up.
Leave a comment for me and the benefit of others or send me an email (for my eyes only). I'd love to hear what you're learning, how you're hearing His voice in the noise, and how we can pray together into this new season. Blessings!
Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. – Ephesians 5.1-2, The Message
She’s got my bent towards anxiety. I can see it in her already, even in her early years. My little one frets over her art, erasing and erasing when it isn’t up to her standards of perfection. Tears threaten and she moans in frustration, throwing down her pencil in defeat.
She also has my fierce belief in hope; that I can see, too. In her innocence, she believes she can change the world. She hasn’t seen the opposition that is coming nor felt the weight that can crush a hopeful heart. I want to protect her from those hurts, but I also know they will make her stronger if she can endure them.
When the calendar pages turned to 2017, she went back to school, the last half of second grade awaiting her. My little bundle of light and dark warring against each other—worry and wonder shining in her bright blue eyes—bounded in the house, excited to tell me about her day at school.
She asked me what that “R” word is that means you make a promise you have to keep. A little confused, I pressed on and she said, “You know, you make them at the beginning of the year?”
“Oh, resolutions,” I said and she nodded furiously. “Yeah, we made resolutions today and I have two.”
Crawling up in my lap, her eyes brimmed with excitement and I asked her to tell me about them. She recited them like the lines of a play she had committed to heart.
“First, I am going to be grateful for each day I have because God made that day and we have no idea how many days we get. Each might be our last and I’d rather spend my last day happy than with a bad attitude,” she said proudly. Wow, she has been listening in our quiet times of bedtime prayer when she fidgets and squirms, when I think her thoughts are anywhere but on praying.
“Second, I promise to do something kind each day for at least one person,” she said between swings of her legs and shifting, her way of moving every second she is awake.
I stopped her for a moment, holding her face to mine so that she had to look in my eyes. Be still a moment. Just a moment. Hear me, little one...
The world outside the window fits the world inside me in this moment. What started as a light drizzle throughout the morning has become a downpour. Each week I enter this coffee shop while the stars still blanket the world, and I emerge after the sun has started to illuminate my table that acts as a writing desk for my weekly writing office hours. The sun should have emerged an hour ago, but the sky is grey and no light shines through. Folk music plays and the espresso machines whir; friendly chatter becomes the backdrop to my thoughts. Inside all is warm and dimly lit, creating an atmosphere of serenity. Outside the storm rages.
I’ve always prided myself on my strength. I come from a long line of strong women who worked hard, carried their families; women who did it all. I equated strength with quantity, with full and busy lives. So I followed suit. I launched myself into every endeavor with passion and gusto. When I travel, I seek to soak in every last moment, saying, “Who knows if I’ll ever be here again? I can sleep when it’s over.” I can do it all. I can have it all. That’s how I’ve lived for 35 years.
A decade ago my body started telling me that I couldn’t keep up the pace and the emotional strain of taking on everything with all of my being. My doctor finally named my chest pains and inability to catch my breath as what it was—anxiety.
Sometimes I have listened to my body, treated it well and found moments of relief; other times I pushed myself to the limit and pushed through the pain. I’ve begged God for relief. I’ve taken medication, diffused oils, stretched through downward dog and pushed my muscles to the limit in the gym. I’ve soaked in suds, played with my kids, escaped into books.
But I never stopped believing I could do all the things. I pretended I was slowing down when I turned down certain commitments. But I replaced those with new ones. I couldn’t let go of the addiction of activity, the rush of busyness. I said I wanted stillness but I didn’t really. When left alone with my thoughts, I was forced to face the realities I didn’t want to. Introspection became the thing I avoided with all of my doing.
I watch the gutters gush forth a full load, puddles spilling over like a tiny river that feet splash through on their way to the car. My heart fills like the gutters these days; it’s at capacity, overflowing...
Anger. Distrust. Blame. Fear. Hate.
Pointing fingers and sharp words have filled our screens in the past year as divisions in our country and world have widened. The chasm between our political parties, religions, nationalities, races, and classes has never seemed wider.
During the summer of 2016 I stepped back from writing as much to focus on my family and some big life changes. In the midst of the growing anger spewing forth in social media newsfeeds and media outlets, I found myself withdrawing from much online presence at all. I felt like all of the negativity was seeping out between each keystroke and suffocating me. Mounting anxieties in my personal life mixed with all the fear and anger were becoming just too much. As a writer whose work appears mostly online, I wasn’t sure how to continue. I wanted to retreat, to just run away from it all.
Then, in the midst of more racially-charged violence sweeping our nation, a ray of light appeared in a darkening online world. Scrolling through stories on facebook, about ready to shut it all out, I received an invite from a friend to the Prayers of the People event hosted by Deidre Riggs.
It was a simple idea. Log on at the same time or whenever you can and post prayers in this time of great need and pain. It wasn’t a huge event. About 400 people logged on. But the impact was profound, at least for my wilting spirit.
Peace. Humility. Brokenness. Love. Unity.
In that simple online space I saw hands grasping for the Father, for each other across the divides. In spite of them. Because of them.
Startled by the soft touch on my shoulder, I turned to see the concerned eyes of my seven-year-old daughter peering into my own tear-filled eyes. I scooped her up into my lap and together we read the prayers aloud and talked about the events in our country that had prompted them. We talked about the way so many were returning anger for anger and how Christ calls us to love our enemy instead.
I walked away that day with a conviction that running away wasn’t the answer. Staying and fighting is. “Prayer is how we battle,” Deidre posted. Someone commented: “Prayer is how we battle not only injustice but our own anger and discouragement.” I was broken in that moment because I realized I had been tempted to just retreat, to back away and throw up my hands. I asked God to keep my eyes open, to show me how to do battle.
I’ve been thinking about those prayers a lot these days, revisiting that facebook page to read the prayers and learn how to live them. We stand at the precipice of a change in our country that threatens to further divide us. So much fear swirls around the unknown ahead...
The holidays have always been a time of togetherness and feasting for my family. When crispness enters the air, bringing relief from the stifling Georgia summer, my mind turns to standing in my mom’s kitchen and making noodles or pound cake, pulling out the card table to make room for everyone in the kitchen.
The year my husband and I found ourselves living in a land that was still new to us when the holidays rolled around, we had none of the familiar traditions to anchor us to the season of feasting and family.
Our family was celebrating together over 6,000 miles away. Fall for us in the Middle East was marked by one uncommon rainfall, not falling leaves. We spent Thanksgiving with a group of internationals, eating turkey alongside stuffed grape leaves, the familiar next to the new. There was food and laughter, but it didn’t feel like a feast.
Homesickness settled in over my soul in the middle of the holiday season, pictures from home brought reminders of all I was missing out on. The poinsettia and little Charlie Brown tree in the corner were the only evidence of an approaching Christmas until an amazing thing happened.
Twinkling lights started adorning the buildings next to us and lanterns were strung between balconies. Candies and dates piled up in the produce section of the little grocery store and makeshift stables were erected in the streets outside our flat.
The Muslim holidays occur at different times each year following the lunar Islamic calendar. Eid-al-Adha, the cause of all of the decorations and excitement, happened to fall only a few days before our Christmas that year...
You would think the concrete walls would feel cold on this winter day. Instead, the white stone exudes warmth and peace. Towering overhead, the arches reflect the colors of the stained glass. The warm hues of the filtered light add to the calming atmosphere of the Abbey church as I pause to run my hands along the cool stone underneath a wooden cross. This building always reminds me of the eternal, both in its carefully crafted features meant to direct attention to the God Eternal and in its unchanging strength. It has stood here for nearly 60 years, a testament to the lives of the brothers who enter each day to pray—lives that look much the same as those of the earliest Benedictine monks of the 11th century.
And I have stood under its sheltering pillars on one of the last days of the year for seven years now, sitting in the shadow of the same nativity scene each year. My annual retreat to the Monastery each December marks the passing of one year into the next.Though the scenery is my constant, adding to the feeling of ritual in my year-end reflections—the person kneeling at the altar today looks vastly different than the one who first entering through the heavy wooden doors seven years ago. Than the one who prayed here just a year ago.
Last year I came to the Abbey confident in where I was headed in 2016. God had given me the word "Practice" for 2016 and as my journey with contemplative practices deepened, I sought to craft a Rule of Life in My Year Without Resolutions. I had a busy travel schedule planned for the winter and spring, knew the places I wanted to publish in the coming months, and planned out a second half of the year with plenty of time for reflection and creation. I wanted to grow into new spiritual practices, deepen my writing practice, and out of the overflow of the rich experiences in South Asia, Israel, and connecting with my tribes at The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing growth would flow.
As is usually the case, my roadmap of the year ahead took a significant detour, only six weeks into the carefully crafted year. My husband and I left South Asia with burning questions in our hearts, ones that would change the entire trajectory of not only the year ahead but our entire lives. We were launched into a world of transition as we followed step by step what God asked of us. As the path to an international move became clear, the margin in my life disappeared. I explored a lot of practices that moved me and sustained me in the year of upheaval but none of those practices grew into habit. I tried to use the fledgling Rule of Life I had established to guide me but I never found sustainable rhythms in the hectic schedule I was keeping. When the motion of life got to be too much (like it did in this recent season of Advent) I abandoned the life-giving practices I had explored and just felt like I was floating through my days, aimless.
I felt the call to contemplative prayer, to silence and stillness, to Holy Listening, to morning rituals to guide my day—but I didn't grow deep in any practice. In all the hustle and trying to force rest, I found none. I couldn't find the line between doing and striving, between a practice and a rhythm, between knowing Christ and abiding in Him.
As I reflected on all the changes (and the inability to change in the midst of them) in the Abbey, I already knew the word I would choose to guide the coming year: rhythms. It had actually come to me early in Advent as I reflected on these thoughts on the shallow growth in my 2016 practices. As I left the church and ventured to the greenhouse nearby where the monks lovingly nurture bonsai saplings into miniatures of deeply-rooted, well-established trees, I thought about the verse I have often reflected on as how I long for my life to look:
But blessed is the man who trusts me, God,
the woman who sticks with God.
They're like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roonts near rivers -
never a worry through the hottest of summers,
never dropping a leaf, serene and calm through droughts,
bearing fruit in every season.
-Jeremiah 17.8, The Message
Many of the fragile baby bonsai were attached to guides. A thin stick and some string don't look like much of a guide, but attached to a growing tree they provide the guidance needed to show the branches how to turn and help the limbs find their space to grow. I ran back to my journal as quickly as I could, drawing a trellis and vine as the framework for all that was churning in my heart and soul. The Rule of Life that had seemed so elusive last year, that never felt like it took shape—it all began to flow out on paper.
The word "Rule" has roots in both Latin and Greek as the word "trellis." I was first drawn to crafting a rule of life as I watched the structure of prayer in the monastery and felt the peace in my heart when I joined in praying the hours with the brothers, when I read Stephan Macchia's words describing it as "the well-ordered way." My hectic life cried out for order, my soul for a framework on which to grow. I quoted Henri Nouwen in my piece in which I first sought to craft a Rule:
A rule offers creative boundaries within which God's loving presence can be recognized and celebrated. It does not prescribe but invite, it does not force but guide, it does not threaten but warn, it does not instill fear but points to love. In this it is a call to freedom, freedom to love.
As the new year dawns, I am clinging to the words of Matthew 11.28-30:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.
My rule of life is taking shape. A pencil sketch gives way to color, to words that make up the trellis on which I want to hang my very being. It took a year of living with a half-formed idea to let it germinate into a promise from God, a hope for living freely and lightly, for "being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others" (Robert Mulholland). The way the trellis guides the vine gently, directs it's path towards the life-giving sun, I am seeking to establish unforced rhythms to guide me to the place where life is found.
It’s the first morning of Advent—the season that embodies longing, the pause between waiting for deliverance and the arrival of Emmanuel. The only sound I can hear is the ticking of the clock as I scribble in my journal that’s lit only by the soft white glow of the Christmas tree’s lights. It’s one of those moments you wait for—hushed and holy.
But I hang my head in regret in the still of that tender moment. My first act of Advent is repentance as I read the words that describe exactly what I did the day before:
Make sure that you don’t get so absorbed and exhausted taking care of all your day-to-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God. –Romans 13:11, The Message
I wanted everything to be perfect that day. Thanksgiving was behind us and Christmas was close enough to touch, to start the daily countdown written in chalk next to the stockings. We have the tradition of decorating while listening to Christmas music and sipping cocoa before we watch the first Christmas movie of the season, always Elf.
I worked myself into a frenzy trying to create that perfect moment. The furniture had to be moved to make room for the tree. That meant cleaning the baseboards where the couch had been. It also meant packing away the fall decorations to make way for the collection of mangers that adorn every surface of the dining room. But those surfaces were all covered in dust. One cleaning project turned into another until every space was spotless and by then the time to decorate the tree before we went to evening church was limited.
There are no pictures of the kids laughing while they hung the ornaments. I didn’t have time for that. We had cocoa with dinner but drank it quickly and rushed off to the next thing. In all the preparations for that special moment, I missed it altogether. There were no prayers said beside the tree. The joy of it was lost to me.
I am sure the kids saw nothing but magic; the lights, the cocoa, the music were all there. But I knew better. I was waiting for this magical moment. I was trying to whip up some sacred experience like a batch of Christmas cookies...
In the hustle and bustle of the season, do you find yourself trying to get through your to-do lists and keep the moments going? Join me at SheLoves today and pause during the sacred and mundane moments to wait on the Lord.