“In Your mercy confer on me a conversation pleasing to You, the patience to wait for You, and the perseverance to long for You. Grant me a perfect end, Your holy presence.”
– Saint Benedict of Nursia
He intimidated me on that first day I met him. He must have all the answers, I thought. Surely he knows the secret things of God, learns them in his five daily prayers.
I sat in the back of the room as the Trappist monk spoke about how his free-form writing had helped him encounter the dark spaces of his own soul. He’d stroke his chest-length white beard as he laughed. He seemed so casual and approachable at that moment. I imagined if I were to see him out in regular clothes, I might wonder if he was a biker. Yet here in this place, he seemed otherworldly.
Brother Mark is one of the dwindling number of Cistercians that make their home at the monastery I visit a couple of times a year. It’s less than an hour from my home and yet when you enter the sprawling grounds, you feel like you are entering an inherently sacred space. From the Abbey Church’s towering ceiling to the rolling lawn and lake nestled between massive Georgia pines, you truly feel minuscule against the backdrop of the testament that the monastery is to God’s majesty.
I had come for a retreat in which several of the brothers taught about writing and journaling. Brother Mark shared with our small group about his struggles with anger and the temptation to squabble with the men he chose to live his life among.
What—monks arguing? Of course, deep inside I knew this must be true. They are only human, after all. And yet, I had this image in my mind of the holiness that must set them apart, the pedestal these men must belong on for having chosen this life. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around the paradoxes of Brother Mark.
That evening my mother, sister, and I sat in the common room of the retreat guest house. It was the period of “the Great Silence,” the time after compline—the last prayers of the day—when the brothers retreat to their cells until the bells again call them to prayer well before dawn. Yet Brother Mark sat chatting with us about writing, faith, miracles, and dreams. I don’t know what all we discussed; I just know it was the night my illusions shattered...
The sky had been stormy for hours already, so the transition to night was difficult to discern. Disoriented, soaked through, and shivering—we waited for direction.
We had started out the day staring at an “x” on a map, a destination we needed to reach. As the day grew long, our surroundings didn’t look right and our little team began to grumble. The leaders of our expedition, my husband and another member of the group we were traveling with, finally confessed they didn’t think the path we had been following all day would take us to our destination.
Once they realized we were on the wrong trajectory they set off to right our course, but this correction took us down a hill that was already steep before the day’s rains had turned the decline into a muddy slide.
What would happen next lay in their hands. I could see the weight of the decision they must make pressing down on them. Would we continue through the brush trying to find the path, darkness barking at us like a hungry dog? Or would we go back the way we came, returning to the marked (but wrong) trail to find a place to camp? How much longer could we go on in this cold, wet terrain—weary as we were? Whatever they decided affected us all.
I squeezed my children’s hands, trying to pass some confidence into their shaking arms. My five-year-old son’s twenty-pound pack made him look like a turtle slumping under a too-heavy shell. My daughter, two years older than him and trying to seem much braver, winced. I knew her ankles hurt but she wouldn’t say anything about it again. She could see the worry in her dad’s eyes.
We’d been hiking for 48 hours, the last few in sloshy boots and packs burdened with rainwater. In those moments when we stood still waiting for a way forward, hope began to wane. Even if we found a suitable place to camp, could we start a fire in this rain? No longer warmed by the constant movement, we shivered in fear. Hunger gnawed at our confidence that everything would be okay.
Maya Angelou said,
“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction.”
“If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment,” she added, “we must be ready to change that as well.”
There are moments when there doesn’t seem to be a path that leads us back to good. We’re past the point of no return, and there is no map laid out for what happens next. Despair weighs us down like the straps of a pack digging into our shoulders.
I am reminded of another scared group huddled amongst the trees, waiting for directions for their next steps. Confused by the path their leader said he would lead them down and exhausted, they went aside to pray. In the garden whose name means “pressed,” he was crushed by the weight of what was to come like the olive crushed to extract the precious oil from its skin.
Jesus knelt in prayer and wrestled with the uphill climb he knew was ahead but committed to pressing on because of the faith he had in what lay on the other side. He knew the future would be hard for those men he loved sleeping under the olive trees: the weight they would carry, the despair that would try to defeat them.
But he knew hope isn’t stagnant.
It requires testing the road ahead and if we lose our way, keeping on.
Never giving in.
Night was coming and those men couldn’t see beyond it.
Yet they followed the One who led them on...
It seems like the logical next step. Except I know enough of God by now to know that logic has nothing to do with the journey of this life.
Last year, still straddling the transition between life in Asia and life in the U.S., God gave me the word, “build.” There were obvious literal applications as we rebuilt our lives in a home that didn’t feel like home, as Lee built a new career, and we renovated a home that needed to grow with our family.
Dwell is a clear follow-up word, right? Once you build something, you live in it. And yet, it is anything but evident to me that this should be the next step. The way the word “build” guided me into understanding myself and the need to love the incompleteness of this life in the last year was unexpected.
I realized I had been looking for a place to belong and instead found abundance in the midst of always being a pilgrim wandering toward home. More than anything, I learned to let go, to accept the life that is always going to be lived under construction and in-between brokenness and wholeness.
My word for 2021 first floated into my mind late last fall as I sat beneath the enveloping branches of a Magnolia tree. I had walked by these same trees a dozen times but never stopped to truly look at them. But my pace that day as I walked around the monastery on a silent retreat allowed me the time to stop and to see anew.
As I sat inside the hollow the branches created and thought about how I had spent 2020 with my word for the year so far, I realized I had started the year with anticipation and momentum, only to find—like everyone else—that the world came to a standstill. As I sat in silent prayer, God showed me all the things that were built in me throughout the year. While outward movement stopped, my roots grew deeper.
The word "dwell" entered my mind like a leaf on the breeze but I didn't hold onto it yet. I opened my hand and let it float away, waiting to see if it returned.
It kept coming to the forefront of my thoughts throughout the next month, though. With it came the echoes of a verse of Scripture many of us know well: “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37.3, ESV).
The Psalm is said to have been written by King David in his old age. The people of God, indeed, lived in the promised land when he wrote those words, but not in a perfect kingdom. David had seen war, failure, the inability to build the temple to God he saw as a completion of the kingdom, betrayal, loss. Looking back on his reign, it was far from complete. He must have looked back with regrets and a longing to see the fulfillment of the goodness God has promised his people.
And yet, he looked forward also with trust. With a belief that amidst an imperfect world God’s people could still see good, do good, and yet dwell in the land with faithfulness.
Dwell. It is an invitation to take the time to be present, even in the imperfection. To take the time to listen to God. “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” asks Mary Oliver.
“While the soul, after all, is only a window,
And the opening of the window no more difficult
Than the wakening from a little sleep”
Wake up. Throw open the window. Breathe deeply. Dwell.
It is an invitation to live in the now and not-yet that is our life or faith instead of always chasing after the next thing, the answers, and the illusions of perfection. Can we sit awhile in this half-built house around us and stare out at the trees? Can we accept the mystery and be just where we are?
It is an invitation to live in this world as broken as it may be and to still believe it can be better, that we can be part of making it better. David never saw the temple complete in his life but he built a foundation that his son then continued to build upon. Can we live in the broken places without being consumed by them, to continue to hope?
We may not see how the tiny acts of faithfulness we live out make a difference, but we can trust that they will unite together with all the other tiny acts of faithfulness to matter. Can we dig down into the places God has planted us and take the very next step to build a more Beloved Community?
We’re not done building this home, this Beloved Community in which we live and work and play and dream together. And yet, we must dwell in it—in all it’s imperfections and missing pieces.
We can’t always be chasing after something we don’t yet have or the things we’ve lost. Right now is what we’ve been given. We need to find ways to live at peace in it and to find the beauty in it.
And yet, we keep reaching to make it better, to renovate and redesign and bring more people into the midst of this promised land that we know will be beautiful in time.
How do you see God showing you to dwell in the one life you’ve been given? How do you allow yourself to be present in daily life, in God’s presence, in the now and not yet? Do you struggle with restlessness, discontentment, or despair? How do you feel challenged to “befriend faithfulness” in your current situation?
Do you have one word to guide your year? What do you hope this word brings you this year? What change or growth would you like to see it bring your way in 2021?
Leave me your One word below if you want me to pray for you (or send me a message through the Contact page if you don’t want it to be public). I’d love to be a part of your journey this year.
Listen. Learn. Love. is my monthly letter to you, the one who wants to find the places where faith and action intersect. Sign up here.
I peel off the sticky neon yellow gloves, a mixture of sawdust, paint, and polyurethane caked on them. The new color of the island matches my Asian Blue Willow china perfectly, but it is a bit bright for the farmhouse kitchen. I still need to sand the edges, add some stain, drill holes for the milk glass knobs. I push down the little bit of anxiety I feel at thought of leaving it unfinished for days before I'll have a chance to work on it again. I rub my aching wrist as I head to wash the paintbrush and focus on the gratitude I feel, instead. I didn't know I could do such things, that I had the ability to make this kind of progress—in my house, in my life, in my soul.
I started the year clinging to the word God gave me: build. I wanted to see progress, in our life that was still in a state of transition. I wanted to see clearly where we were headed next. We'd had so many detours and upsets in our plans over the past five years. I wanted to build on a solid foundation, dig deeper roots into the soil of Georgia where we determined to settle after living in South Asia.
But 2020 was the breaker of plans and the upsetter of settled lives everywhere. In many ways, life hit the pause button for us all. My family was more fortunate than most amidst the global pandemic. Our family and those close to us remained healthy. After eight months of unemployment, Lee had only been in his new job for a month when the world began to shut down all around us. His job was deemed essential and while the new small business faltered, it emerged from 2020 with no furloughs or loss of income for us. I already worked from home. The shift to single parenting virtually-schooled children while I continued to work from home and Lee worked long hours away wasn't easy. The support of a faith community slipped away as the new church I had just started attending went online. My creativity was non-existent. Plans to write a book proposal were shelved. Construction on our home addition crawled along in the two or three free days a month we had to work on it ourselves. Depression and anxiety loomed near.
As the leaves fell, the isolation stretched on, and every day bled seamlessly into the next, I spent a weekend alone on a silent retreat. I spent a lot of time just walking and asking God to make me aware of God's presence in the year. I revisited the dreams and goals I had written down in a workbook at the dawn of the new year. I marked out big events I had written on a timeline and grieved their loss: The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, a pilgrimage to New Mexico a friend had raised funds for me to attend, a work trip to D.C., vacation with our best friends we hadn't gathered with in years while living overseas, our daughter's first lead in a play, our son's soccer season, family gatherings, the 90th birthday party of the matriarch of Lee's family... So many beautiful things 2020 had taken from us.
Next to a roadmap of the year that was now scrawled with x-ed out plans, I had copied a blessing written for me at the beginning of the year by a writer friend who never ceases to encourage others and offer her quiet wisdom. "May you see in concrete ways that you have everything you need to build. All the tools. Right with you know. The abundance." wrote Marlena Graves. "And that you will see in the land of the living how the Lord is restoring the years the locusts have eaten. May your writing and influence increase. And I ask God that you would know in a very real way his provision this year."
I began to write out what I'd seen built in our lives in the previous months and what tools it took to build them. I made a list of the things 2020 had given us. Our family had gone from fractured and uncertain about our place in the world to settled. Lee found his next steps in a job he enjoyed and healing from hurts inflicted by dashed dreams. Nadia told me though she didn't get to perform her play, the friends she gained from the daily rehearsals helped her feel like she belonged in her new school. Our unique living situation sharing a property with our best friends meant we didn't quarantine alone. Every morning Sadie and I met on the steps of her porch to talk and watch the dogs play together (our new pandemic puppy the fifth dog in our little pack). We hired someone to lay the pipe that will one day go to our new bathroom, and in the process reconnected with this friend we've known for over twenty years. He and his family became part of our little family, our little community we are seeing built right before our eyes. They were the light in a dark year.
The literal building going on around us felt achingly slow for an anxious perfectionist who craves order and completion. The yard became a construction heap: gravel to be shoveled for a foundation, piles of wood, tools, and tarps. It was a constant visual reminder of the limbo we lived in, the way our house and life was under construction. But when I stopped to compare photos from a year before, I could see the gifts of the year. If I could see past the rubble, I could see the potential. We'd gone from a crumbling, rotting deck to a tiled foundation and the frame of what will be a screened-in porch that will house a new living area for our family and an under-the-stairs home office for me.
But the real gift was in the process: the days we spent laughing with our friends that gave up their weekend to shovel gravel and pour concrete, the picnics on the kitchen floor we were tiling, the milkshakes to cap off a day in the heat, the meals we ate on the porch table made up for sawhorses and plywood. The pride I felt in what we accomplished with our own hands, with the tools I had I didn't know I even possessed. I had them all along: Friends willing to sacrifice for us and love us enough to patiently endure our bumbling construction skills. The endurance to keep going week after week when the progress feels non-existent. A family that has withstood living in transition and come out knowing a little more about the communication and patience it takes to make it out the other side. A God who is so patient with us, who lovingly grows us through dark nights and troubles, through the love of others, and new beginnings.
An echo of Marlena's blessing over me in 2020, I wrote this verse on a whiteboard over my desk in January: "We went through fire and through water, yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance." (Psalm 66.12). Still very much in the middle of the fire, I wrote those words believing they would be true, claiming God's promises to never leave us. Our abundance may not look like a finished house. It may not look like accomplished plans or a published book. But it is abundance, indeed. It is the ability to love a life under construction, to find God in the stumbling steps, to love each other and find laughter amidst the chaos, and healing in the building.
So as we stand again at the thin space between years—I extend the blessing to you, too. Whatever you have seen the world tear down in your life this year, may you see you have the tools to build something beautiful. Right there with you, inside you. May you be able to sift through the rubble and find the beauty. May you be able to see past the construction to what it will be and love every step of the process. May you never stop building.
“To wonder is to stand in the towering shadow of God however frightened we are of our own smallness. Like Moses, let us pause at the buses that burn. Like Tomas, let us bend for a closer look at Christ—even if, paradoxically, it’s doubt that reaches to touch his side. Let us have certainty when it’s available; let us have humility when it’s not.” – Jen Pollock Michel, Surprised by Paradox
Everything about this view is comforting—familiar. I’ve marveled at the symmetrical beauty of the magnolia lane dozens of times. The glistening leaves of the towering Magnolia Grandiflora trees mark the old entrance to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. When you stand there, you feel minuscule, like you are a part of something grand that must have always existed this way. Like you could melt away and no one would notice you were ever there.
I imagine the changes to the world that these trees have witnessed during their stalwart watch over the monks who arrived on the old plantation grounds in 1944. Beyond that, I haven’t thought much about the trees before. Nestled on over 1,000 acres of Georgia woodlands, the monastery offers many other sights like the geese by the lake or the glorious stained glass windows.
I’ve always arrived with a purpose in mind. I always like to be here during the liminal space between two years, asking God to guide me as I enter the next season. I’ve come when discerning a big decision that I need to wisdom for. I’ve been on retreats to learn from a few of the 300 remaining Cistercian monks in the world about a specific topic like contemplative prayer or writing. I’ve always brought expectation as my companion to this place.
Today is different. I am on a solo retreat with no agenda. The church, cafe, and museum are all still closed due to the pandemic. I can’t converse with the brothers or join them for prayer today.
Yet, I need a weekend of silence and some time on what always feels like holy ground to me.
The world has been extra noisy lately. The voices shouting about elections and diseases, sides to take, and lines to draw—have become too much to take. I come to God with a million questions that I am not sure how to begin to ask.
I feel aimless at first. I open my Bible. I journal for a while. I sit in silent prayer. Then, I just start to wander the grounds.
I amble past the trees, at first looking up at the way they seem to touch the sky. That’s usually what I notice about them—their height and their shine, the way the leaves are never changing year-round when everything around them seems to whither.
Today my pace is slower so I stop to notice the sunlight that is much brighter at the base of trees that reach all the way to the ground, no trunk visible. They seem one with the earth, like there is no dividing line between the two.
I step closer and the vision changes. The branches touching the earth aren’t springing from below; they grow sharply downward from the middle of the trunk, jutting out at strange angles. They conceal a cavelike area between the branches and the trunk of the tree.
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