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.
I stare into the gleaming white lights of the Christmas tree until they blur together and dance across my vision, that tree adorned with symbols of peace and hope:
The star that lights the way to the one who delivers. The angel that sings of peace on earth. The manger that holds the hope of the world inside.
We love to sing and ponder the wonder of this time of year, to hold the beauty of a silent night close to our hearts.
But so often our hearts are anything but at peace as the holiday draws near and the flickering lights mock us. Hope seems out of reach and a silent night is all but a story in a children’s book that we can’t imagine being our reality.
What then? Does Christmas offer anything when all is not calm and bright?
So much unknown darkens the heart of Christmas for me this year. The gloom of declining health of family members casts a shadow over celebration. The grief of a life in transition and the uncertainty of what lies ahead in the coming months hangs over all our festivities. The never-ending parade of duties overshadows the sacred Advent call to waiting and expecting.
And that’s just my tiny little world. I can’t even begin to name the darkness that threatens to overtake so many people this season — the fear of what is to come in our divided nation, the death raining down on a city under siege across the world tonight, the bombs claiming more and more lives each day.
As darkness threatens to close in, I sit in the quiet where tiny dots of light are piercing the night. It’s here in the dancing shadows cast down by the sparkling evergreen reminder of hope that I realize this: peace comes with a cost.
I think about the land the Word became flesh in all those years ago, the people Christ came to when He became a babe. The Israelites had a history of wanting redemption without the cost. So do I...