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...
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. – Psalm 147:3
How did I not see this before? I stared at what I had just written and it was like a neon sign was flashing the answer to a question I didn’t even realize I had been asking. I was sitting in a training for cross-cultural workers and I knew the value in preparing spiritually and emotionally for a big transition. But what I didn’t expect was to receive a new layer of healing to an old wound I had thought was closed.
The funny thing about moving forward is that it often requires looking back first. I am coming to realize how healing is a process, sometimes a lifelong one. I want easy solutions, problems solved. Wounds don’t work that way. Scar tissue forms. Old injuries can reappear.
I sat back on my heels, blinking away the tears. I was supposed to be there looking ahead and here I was suddenly plunged into the past. For the first time in a decade, I could see a little bit of why I had been wounded in the first place…
Our move back to the States from the Middle East ten years ago seemed pretty easy to explain—we returned to help family with some unexpected difficulties. But the decision to return wasn’t made without a piercing of my soul, a breaking of our dreams, a deep fissure created in my heart. I was wracked with anxiety and shut down when I learned the pain my family back home was going through. Life from 6,000 miles away became unbearable.
Guilt and years of wilderness walking followed. Was I too weak to stay? Was it my weakness that shut down a dream we’d worked so hard for? Life kept moving and it was easy to just bandage the hurt and move on.
God gave me the gift of walking with a friend a couple years ago through her post-traumatic return to the states and all the shame and litany of questions that came with it. As we cried and prayed together, layers of dead tissue fell away from my own heart. You didn’t fail. You did what God asked. The anxiety you felt in a traumatic situation is normal and He can use you still. I said the words to her while God whispered to my heart that those words that were true for her were true for me as well.
So, imagine my surprise as yet another layer was being peeled away, showing me the work wasn’t done yet. Finally heading back overseas, we went to this training trying to become aware of issues that might arise before we moved. We were given a long list of values, things that matter to us in our daily lives—things like adventure, ethics, independence, privacy, rest. We were supposed to rate how much those mattered to us, then say how well that area could be met in our current culture, and finally how likely we would be able to meet that need in our new culture...
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...
Have you ever felt a connection to a place without yet visiting it? A kinship with a people you’ve never met?
That’s the way I felt when I first dreamed of going to South Asia. Tiny glimpses of a vibrant culture ignited a fire inside that didn’t make any sense, but wouldn’t let go of me. Friends and family thought it was absurd. I feared they might be right, but I had to see for myself.
For two months I lived in a land I’d only known in my dreams. But the moment the sticky heat of that crowded city hit my skin on the tarmac, I felt connected. It was like a physical weight settled over my body and the presence of a place felt like home even though I had never known it outside of stories and photographs.
Now I find myself back at that strange avenue between worlds again. My family has been working towards moving to South Asia for over a year. When the door to the city we had been planning to move, slammed shut a few months ago, we were left scrambling and asking God what it all meant.
A place was suggested and we resisted at first. But then the power of a story entered in, that mysterious feeling of belonging tugging at our hearts. We watched a video of a woman who had been a child-bride. She had complications in childbirth that had stripped her of her child, her husband and her dignity. She received the care she needed and training in a skill. She had a hope and a future again and her face beamed. Her joy crossed the miles between us and drew me to a sister I might never meet but who is changing the destiny of my entire family with her story.
We watched video after video, read stories and talked to people who live there. We made the decision to move to a city we have never visited, a country that is foreign to us. Ridiculous? Maybe.
Sure? We couldn’t be more certain.
When we tell people we want to move to a developing nation, we get those looks...
As the soaking rains seeped through our thick hiking socks, our boots felt heavier the longer we splashed through the South Missouri mud. We had been in the wilderness two days at this point but the stabbing cold made it feel much longer as we continued towards an unknown destination. We followed behind leaders who silently guided us, topographic map and compass in hand. As we slipped through the brush, not able to avoid the briars, we knew we weren't just off the trail. We were lost.
We had only gone a few feet off the trail, feet slipping in the mud, when we stopped as a team to discuss our best direction. Dark was quickly closing in and we weren't sure which ridge we were actually on. We needed to find somewhere to camp soon after hiking all day in the pouring rain. Packs that were already heavy grew in weight by the moment and none of us had dry clothes left. Empty stomachs were grumbling and our spirits were as drenched as the Ozark Trail we couldn't seem to find.
We backtracked up to the last place we saw the trail, decided to follow it until we could better determine where we were. One teammate stooped down to pull our anxious eight-year-old daughter close as we prayed. We asked God to stop the rain, to heal our littlest team members' aching backs and ankles, to continue to heal my husband, Lee, who had been unable to keep any food down in two days, to show us where to camp. We cried out—lost, wet, desperate.
We followed the trail until we saw a clearing, hopeful that it was the valley we were looking for but unsure we were willing to let down our guard yet and hope. As I tried to hold it together for the kids, my son's cries growing louder, another sound broke through my prayers for relief.
"I will not be shaken. I will not be shaken." Her tiny ankles were quaking and the rain wasn't subsiding. There was no end in sight. But as we walked through that clearing, my daughter was speaking the Truth out loud, holding onto His promises to be with her. Barely a whisper, she was clinging to them like they were her very life. As we walked we were memorizing Psalm 62:5-8 and the words we had repeated throughout the day were sinking deep into her heart: "He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I will not be shaken."
I wiped away my tears as I straightened my pack and kept walking. The two weakest and tiniest members of our group of twelve were teaching us what it meant to have the faith of a child, to cling to the truth and to trust that He will not let us down. As we rounded a corner in the forest trail, we heard the sounds of the river and the crunching of rocks under our feet. We turned our headlamps towards the sounds, sobs catching in our throats as we saw the fire ring on the beach. We were at our destination at last.
This is a tiny glimpse into the lessons I am still meditating on that I learned in the wilderness this Spring. We intentionally placed ourselves in a place of total unknown as we entered a two-week cross-cultural training that would help prepare us for the international move we've been working towards for over a year now. The first part of the training consisted of a multi-day (of undetermined length so that we were always wading through the unknown) period backpacking through the Ozarks with eight other people on similar journeys as us.
We were also unintentionally placed in another wilderness when our plans to move to one location in South Asia fell through and we were completely in limbo, trusting God to show us just the next step. The kids were talking about what they learned following our five days of hiking over 20 miles up mountains and across swift flowing rivers, building our shelters, building a fire and cooking over it, and so many more physically and emotionally stretching moments. Our daughter who saw God answer every prayer for healing, for the rain to stop, for guidance, said it made her want to pray more. "God provides even in the wilderness," she said. She won't understand the full impact of the seed that was planted in her little life for many years. But the courage her words of complete trust in His goodness are growing deeper places of faith in my own soul.
We are about out of the unknown. We have a new destination in South Asia and a goal to get there by fall. But we know there is still much wilderness ahead. We set out on the next leg of our trek knowing it is on solid ground that we step, declaring boldly, "we will not be shaken!"
“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.
The miniature plastic house hung limply between two pine branches, the words “Our First Home” engraved on the side. We had brought the Christmas ornament with us to the first home we rented after a year and a half of marriage in which we lived with a friend.
The tree looked like it came straight out of Charlie Brown’s Christmas and the only other signs of celebration in our fourth-floor flat was a bright red poinsettia. Nothing about the day felt like Christmas because even though the Coptic minority celebrated the holiday, the Orthodox Christmas occurred later in January.
After we opened a couple gifts to each other—an onyx encrusted hand drum purchased from the tourist market and a grey flowing robe that local men wore called a gallabaya—we caught a cab to a nearby café that felt a bit like home.
The ancient culture had called to us back when we were living in the Southern United States. We imagined living in the land of the Pharaohs as this thrilling adventure and weren’t disappointed as the melodic Arabic call to prayer became the first soundtrack of our new lives.
In country for three months, the newness had worn off. We learned to say “we aren’t tourists; we live here” in Arabic to street vendors who tried to charge us more than we knew items were worth. But the truth is the dusty landscape didn’t feel much like home yet. We huddled in the cafe, isolated from those around us as we sipped our lattes and nibbled tomato and mozzarella sandwiches that Christmas afternoon, longing for the comfort of something familiar...
The Home series is a reflection on Jen's newly released Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017).
Home is something that is on my mind daily in this season of my life, something that holds deep meaning and intense longing. As we pack up our home of six years, as we look towards a new home overseas, as we say good bye to those things that anchor us to what home has meant for most of our lives ... we are constantly reminded that God gave us a longing for place and how to find home in this world and long for it in the next.
Jen Pollock Michel's new book Keeping Place couldn't have been more timely for me and I believe it will be for you as well.
"Home is our most fundamental longing. And for many of us homesickness is a nagging place of grief. This book connects that desire and disappointment with the story of the Bible, helping us to see that there is a homemaking God with wide arms of welcome – and a church commissioned with this same work..."
- Jen Pollock Michel
There’s been this growing sentiment in the world of social media and online writing over the past couple years. There is a feeling that whether we speak up or are silent, either way is losing. If we are vocal about an issue outside of our social context we risk being called out for a “white savoir complex” or jumping on the social justice bandwagon. If we are don’t speak up about a growing injustice in our country, then we are called careless and complicit in our silence.
Solidarity is a hard line to walk in today’s world. Do words on social media really mean we are standing with another anyway? They are just words, so easy to toss up on a screen without much effect to our lives. On the other hand, there are those that call us to speak up for them with the influence we have and there is a feeling we have to tread lightly, afraid to bring down ridicule, scared into silence. I think of a friend who has been the loving hands of Jesus to a local refugee community and who recently felt afraid to let her all-white community know of her passion.
Issues of justice weigh heavily on my heart and I’ve struggled to know how to use my words and my life to answer God’s call to be a peacemaker. Slavery, oppression of whole people groups, the needs of refugees—these things are more than token issues to me. I have lived in places where my neighbors live these realities, put myself in the way of these issues so that they had a face.
I have wrapped my arms around a beautiful South Asian child whose face beamed with joy despite his disability and homelessness. When I asked about him later I couldn’t even name the grief that washed over me when my friends told me he was missing, likely sold into slavery bringing a good price as a deaf beggar.
My heart has ached over the anxiety in my new friend’s eyes as I tried to teach her to make chocolate chip cookies. Everything in an American kitchen was foreign to her. She finally had to leave the room because, between the language barrier and not understanding anything in her new country, she was just too overwhelmed.
Yet I, too, have been afraid to speak out sometimes.
More and more I am convicted about the way solidarity is more than words, how we need to act on the needs we see. We can’t say we love if we hoard the cup of water we have access to while our neighbor goes thirsty. But we also can’t say we love if we don’t use our voices to speak truth into the dark places where justice is denied. Standing with someone means using our hands and our voices to support them. Solidarity means both speaking and acting.
One of my favorite quotes when I speak to groups about the slavery I have seen in South Asia and the ways we can stand in solidarity with those who are denied their basic human rights is, “We are none of us free if we are not all free.” An American poet named Emma Lazarus wrote these words. You’ve probably never heard her name though I guarantee almost all Americans, and many around the world know these words of her most famous sonnet, The New Colossus:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…
I hadn’t heard of her until, wanting to attribute the quote to the right person in a presentation I was making, I looked up who said it and started reading about Emma Lazarus. I couldn’t stop...