They are inside all of us, buried deep inside our subconscious—these moments of impact. There are places, people, and events that changed who we are becoming. When our lives bump up against something that challenges us or deepens our understanding, we become the sprout that branches off an old limb. Over time you don’t see where the new life began, for it is part of the whole, yet this shoot did have an origin and it changed the life of the tree completely by springing into existence. For me, it is often a fragrance that often brings these pivot points back to the surface.
It was my daughter that first noticed what was to her an offending scent. She wrinkled her nose and covered her face. Turning to see what she was referring to I saw someone carrying a thurible into the church, the small golden incense burner that hangs from chains and swings to release the smoke into the sanctuary. The smell of Frankincense startled my senses and I gasped. What was new to my daughter brought back a well of fourteen-year-old memories flooding through me. I turned to my husband, suddenly that young bride, full of wonder again, and cried, “it smells like Egypt!” He smiled and nodded and I knew he was back there again in his mind, too.
The six months we were part of the Coptic church in Egypt transformed us, one of those points in our lives where we diverged from who we had previously been into something altogether new. It was a phase of life in which every new experience overwhelmed us. I dwelled inside the memories in those moments sitting in the church with my family on Christmas Eve. I was transported to the stone walls of another church where my faith exploded into fresh places.
Nothing in my evangelical upbringing prepared me for seeing the demon-possessed woman writhing on the floor during the healing service at The Cave Church. My Western theology had no space for the quiet, yet forceful priest who commanded men in wheelchairs to stand. I watched in skepticism as thousands of people, Christian and Muslim alike, flooded through the village that housed all of Cairo’s garbage collectors and mounds of trash to the monastery hidden inside the recesses of Mokottam Mountain.
All skepticism evaporated like the smoke rising from the incense burners when I met Abouna Samaan, the man who the community called Father and who truly treated each person who came to him like a beloved child. A week after first meeting him we were on a bus with him and dozens of church members headed out into the desert to the retreat center under construction. Here we were, were two total outsiders, welcomed directly into the fold of the largest church in the Middle East.
My hands shook as I grasped the metal bar next to the window tighter. “Why did you insist we come here if you are so afraid?” my husband whispered above the sound of the cable creaking above us. Our family was perched above the Malaysian rainforest, going ever higher by the moment. We ascended steadily on the steepest and longest single-span cable car in the world.
It was Christmas Day and everything about Langkawi was different than our noisy home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I knew this was a chance we’d never have again and one that my husband and son were dreaming of, one that we would all remember forever. I wouldn’t let my fears hold us back, so I insisted we come. My daughter, ever cautious like me, reflected my anxiety over the height back at me and I gripped her hand tightly. “We can do this,” I insisted. We were rewarded richly for our courage when we reached the top. The light reflecting off the Andaman Sea, the views extending all the way to Thailand, and the lush forest below—they were worth every racing heartbeat.
I don’t remember always being this anxious. In fact, I remember being quite fearless as a child. As a dancer, I loved to perform. As Drum Major of the marching band, I reveled in winning first place in competitions and being the best. I remember feeling like there was nothing I couldn’t do. As I got older, I feel somehow, I got smaller. More unable to believe in myself. Less sure of my own opinions and gifts. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be good. I wanted to do all the right things. And I grew afraid.
My adventurous spirit was never quelled, though, even by my fears. I want to see the world, every messy and beautiful corner of it. I want to taste it all and take it in. That’s hard to do cowering in the corner.
In 2021, the word “Dwell” chose me, and I tried to let it guide me to a place of settling, of home. Instead, it led me to dwell deeper in the heart of the God who unsettles us, who shakes us up and pushes us beyond what is comfortable.
This is my home, my place to dwell—in the mystery of the God who always keeps me guessing as to how he could speak into the life of someone like me. I finished the master’s degree I began so many years ago and thought was only a dream for me. We bought a house, and we took steps to put down roots after four years of constant transition. And yet it wasn’t a year of finished goals. It feels like it was only the beginning.
On the last day of the year, the sun tiptoed out from behind the rainclouds that had lingered all week. With trepidation, I descended the trail away from the Ignatius House where I had come to spend the morning in prayer. The soft ground gave way beneath my feet as I left the treetops to walk along the Chattahoochee River.
This river feels as if it has flowed along with me through the year, a companion on what was a frightening and exuberating pilgrimage. In the summer I ventured up to North Georgia twice. Once I went to spend the weekend with the friend that has known my struggles with my calling and my fears probably better than anyone since we were just girls in college; once with the man who has walked beside me on our moves me around the world and back (twice). Even raised going to these mountains, I had never floated down the Chattahoochee—a hallmark Georgia experience. I knew this was an adventure I needed to have.
Twice last summer I tubed down the river for hours. We slowly took in the sights and let our fingers linger in the cold, clear, spring water. In places it was so shallow you could scrape your hands along the rocky bottom. Other spots sent us squealing through rapids and that old familiar frenemy fear made my heart race as the rocks sent us reeling. On those weekends we sat next to the bubbling water and talked about the struggles of the pandemic, the unlikely places God has taken us, and being brave enough to walk on through the fear.
There at the retreat center in Atlanta, the river looked like a different one altogether. After flowing nearly 100 miles south of the mountains, through the city, its wide banks revealed a deep and muddy river that crawled by. It was the same water, but it had been completely transformed by its journey. It was no longer pristine. Yet wide and powerful, it was still surging on toward its destination, unscathed. Continue Reading
My fingers lingered on the smooth contours of the olive wood carving as I placed it on the mantle. The faceless Mary and Joseph figures cradled a little bundle, a mystery they would watch unfold through their lives. Could they ever imagine what his life ahead would fully hold, where it would take them all?
As I decorated for Christmas, the house we had been living in for a little over a month started to take on the feel of home. Until then, it had felt like just another temporary living situation. That carving had seen more than its share of new places in the past few years. The year I brought it home from the little shop in Jerusalem’s Arab quarter it had its first and last Christmas in the house we then lived in.
We packed the Holy Family statue among our ten suitcases and carried it along with us through temporary homes—a basement apartment we occupied after we sold our house but before we left the country and then the flat of our new boss in South Asia as we scoured the city for a place to live. It was one of the few precious items that decorated our little flat in Dhaka for the next two Christmases. The year after we returned to the U.S., we put it up to decorate the friend’s house we lived in, but our hearts were still torn between continents.
We weren’t sure what home looked like anymore. We thought we would stay there a long time, like the other places we had ended up only passing through. We made plans to renovate that house and as we rebuilt our lives, we inched toward a feeling of belonging for half a year. Then, the pandemic threw the whole world into the kind of transition our family been experiencing for the past four years. We all occupied a kind of liminal space between the world we knew before and one that had yet to reveal itself. What would life look like on the other side of Covid?
As I stared down all the unknowns of 2021, I held onto the word “dwell” and longed to find a place where my soul could breathe again. I wondered if I could find a place in the in-between to flourish. I wrote, “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?”
The half-built house was metaphoric and literal for me. We had begun renovations that stalled and every part of me itched for something that felt whole. I had joined a new church that I could not yet feel a part of because we couldn’t meet in person. I enrolled in school, looking to finish the master’s degree in theology I had begun seventeen years before, not even sure what completing my studies would mean for me. I ached for feeling settled at last. My word was more of a wish than anything else. Continue Reading
As I flick on the switch, the tiny bulb meant to act as the star casts a warm glow over the scene below. “You have a lot of nativity sets, Mom,” my son comments after he helps set up the wooden, ceramic, hand-carved, and clay sets next to the snow globe manger scene and the stitched Kantha magi picture. I stopped counting how many baby Jesus figures adorn our living room come Advent-time every year. They have captivated me since I was a little girl, even before I knew who this baby in the creche even was. I just knew there was something strange and beautiful about this helpless babe that people revered.
What was attractive about a wriggling bundle of flesh? What power was there in this helplessness? It’s a mystery I still wrestle to answer every year as I gaze upon these nativity sets I have collected from around the world.
In the church, most of the year we contemplate the cross, what we more often see as the symbol of our redemption. But I find myself drawn more to the cradle than to the cross. We view the coming of the Messiah as a culmination of our salvation, but I think it’s just the beginning. The enigma of the life we live in and through the fully God, fully human Savior is something we work out with fear and trembling our whole lives.
The week before we unboxed our mangers, I sat at the computer for hours pondering all I had learned in the last three months during my final trimester of studies for my master’s degree in Practical Theology. We were tasked with writing a statement of faith, detailing what we believed about important doctrines like the nature of God, creation, and our eternal destinies. One question I spent more time on others is what the Imago Dei really means, what it says about us that we were created in the image and likeness of God.
Is it something about our physical bodies? Our capacity to reason? Our freedom to choose or to love? Our eternal nature? I read arguments from theologians and early church fathers arguing for each of these.
But the words I kept coming back to were ones I had heard months before when I spent a day hiking and praying at the Ignatius House in Atlanta. A quiet Jesuit priest spoke to a handful of us retreatants throughout the day about the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
What stuck with me from that day is he didn’t speak about becoming more spiritual through these contemplative exercises but becoming more human. “We become human on our journey through this life and so become what God is like,” he said. It felt scandalous, blasphemous. I grew up hearing that our humanity was nothing more than fallen and sinful from birth, taught we should try to be more like God, less like us. Instead, he was telling us to live more fully into who God created us to be.
We call them the kissing trees. Today they are featured in the middle of the open yard, the only two hardwoods still reaching for the sky after the whole acre has been cleared. They weren’t always so noticeable. Their bases used to be surrounded by brambles and weeds, their tops crowded out by less hardy but more demanding pines.
It’s why they lean so—they had to curve around the stingy evergreens to find the sun. They aren’t perfect; in fact, they’re quite awkward. There are dead limbs hanging off of one that need to be trimmed. Their growth is uneven. But we couldn’t let them go when we cut the rest down to make way for pasture. They’d fought so hard for their place here...like we did—Sadie and me.
Sadie bought this land and well-worn house before she turned 18, the promise of a bright future, even if it was going to take a little work. We were young, optimistic best friends with barely any life behind us and we thought we knew something of the world. We were wrong. But Sadie was right about buying this house. It has gone through as many changes as our lives have. It’s constantly under renovation, an ever-present reminder of how our lives are renovations, too. The other thing we she was right about is that we’d be friends forever.
Over two decades later we’ve weathered our shares of brambles, weeds, demanding circumstances, and uneven places of growth. Individually and as friends. We met at only 14. It was a decade later when I moved into the basement apartment of her house, thinking it would be for a short time. All in all, over the course of three times of moving out and back in, I've spent eight of the last sixteen years living on the same property as my best friend, watching our lives bend toward each others in irrevocable ways.
Our families have grown and changed and we’ve both left this house and returned to it. It’s seen our two families collectively through a divorce, death of loved ones, chronic illness, loss of jobs, recovering relationships with long-lost parents, losing relationships with long-loved friends, and so much more. It’s been witness to movie nights and bonfires, egg hunts and prime rib dinners, and more laughter than these walls can contain.
This week Sadie took scrap wood from under the shed and cut it down into boards for a new farmhouse dining table. She brushed away mold and rot, a spider web or two. They were tossed there a year ago when we pried them up to pour concrete for a porch. For over ten years they had supported the weight of those who came and went from the basement apartment.
When we brought our firstborn home from the hospital, we only had a gravel drive and dirt entrance outside the lower level of the house where Lee and I lived. We spent a lot of time out there though as Sadie’s back porch steps met our front entrance.
Lee spent the first week of Nadia’s life building that porch where we later hung her first swing. That yard is where we sat late into the night with Sadie and Ben watching the fire die, where the kids played and we laughed at the five dogs between us chasing each other. It is where we shared cups of coffee every morning when we were each other’s only “bubble” members as we weathered the lonely Covid pandemic. It was the center of our collective lives.
That cast aside wood is becoming the top boards of the table we will take with us when we move this week into our new home less than ten minutes away. Ten minutes between our two families, instead of just a staircase and a yard. That life we built here is changing again, as all good things must do. We know it is for the best. It is the space we need to allow our families to grow and become what they should be. But every new season carries with it a grief we can’t always name. Every new season comes with the death of the season before it.
New seasons begin and the landscape changes, but some things will always remain: the strongest trees that learn to bend toward life when the odds are against them; houses with good bones that hold generations of stories within their walls; the ties that bind friends into a kind of family that cannot be broken.
Please enter an Access Token on the Instagram Feed plugin Settings page.