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.
Perched on the balcony, like the Black and White Doel¹ that serenaded me from the windowsill in the spring, I watched over my little corner of the world. In the most densely populated city on earth, that one little intersection of Road Six and Safwan Road felt like a microcosm of humanity itself.
I would sit there with a steaming cup of coffee in my hand though the tropical morning humidity already made streams of sweat trickle down my back. The city had been awake for hours already—really it never slept at all. Through the night my family would be serenaded by the barking street dogs and dinging bicycle rickshaw bells. The construction trucks arrived in the early morning hours to dump more rebar and brick in the lot next to us for the ever-growing high rises.
Bangladesh, built on the delta that contains over 700 rivers, is a stunning display of God’s workmanship. Even in the concrete and brick mega-city, our flat was surrounded by green. Palms lined the streets, heavy jackfruit pulled branches down around us, and the bright red Krishnachura blooms fell to the ground like the snow the city will never experience. Humanity has complicated that beauty as more people pour into the city, away from the rising floodwaters, the ebb of jobs, and increasing poverty in the villages. When most people talk to me about the city I love, this is what they focus on.
The pollution that blankets the city in the winter and causes pounding headaches, the trash that lines the streets, and the steady protests that clog traffic makes Dhaka a less than desirable location for most. When we moved back to the U.S. I heard it everywhere: “Aren’t you so glad to be out of that place? It must have been so hard. I would never want to go there.” Every time someone says something like this, I can feel tears of defensiveness sting my eyes. In my mind, I still go back there often to that intersection. My heart swells with love for the beauty I found there, amidst the mess. Because of the mess. Because of the people.
That coffee in hand, for a few quiet moments I would watch the people, so many of them. The chatter of Bangla rising from the street never stopped as people called for rickshaws, yelled at friends heading to the University, or kids ran off to the English primary school down the street—its walls painted brightly with cartoon characters.
From where I stood I could peer directly into the nursery below, as early morning shoppers chose from orange marigolds and buckets of pink bougainvilleas to take home and grow on their balconies. Depending on the season I could see the children inside the small slum-house across from the nursery chasing chickens or running past the cow tied outside the gate. The day workers cleared their throats as they ascended the pile of red dust made from smashed bricks that they would add to the concrete mixer.
I would smile and wave at the nuns, their white shoes shuffling down the cracked street as they walked to the Christian counseling center next to the school. I wanted to smile at the men on their way home from morning prayers at the mosque but their white Topi-clad² heads never looked up at me, hurrying on into the day. The Ayah³ in the villa next to us would meet my gaze, though, as she pulled tight sheets over the rooftop clotheslines. I wondered what she saw when she looked at me. We were some of the only white faces visible in this part of town, far from the richer, diplomatic area in which a lot of foreigners chose to live. She would nod as she returned to her work.
As the heat closed in around me, I would leave the sounds of the city behind and return to the work awaiting me. Soon I would head down to the non-profit office just a couple floors below to write out stories about these people I loved. I would weed through reports from our village schools and news from our teams in the Rohingya refugee camps in the south of the country. I would stumble through accounts of other people’s lives, trying to figure out how to communicate to donors just how important their support was to the education and economic development of people they would never meet. I would pray that I could somehow honor the stories of people, let their own voices come through my words.
Today, I sit here two years after our return to the U.S. and twenty years to the day from the moment I felt God telling me to turn to love when so many around me were learning to hate. The day after the attacks of September 11, 2001 as I sat in an Arabic college class among my Middle Eastern classmates weeping that their religion had been turned into a weapon of terror, my heart shattered. It has been breaking ever since for the divisions we invent out of fear—the blinders we erect that keep us from seeing the glorious richness of what others have to offer us....
I sit in the place that will one day make up the center of my labyrinth. The leg of the chair teeters precariously between two pieces of gravel. It’s not yet the smooth surface of a path it will be. I try to imagine what this garden will look like then.
There will be a finished path to the front of the property, pots of flowering plants adding a splash of spring color to the morning. When I stand here in the future, I will see a budding rose bush and the flowering clematis vines climbing the retaining wall. It’s hard to see it now in the blurry morning light. I can’t quite grasp it.
It isn’t complete yet. In fact, it hardly looks like more than a mess right now. The prayer garden I dream of is, for now, a mound of gravel haphazardly deposited in the yard. The red clay beneath is freshly turned up, exposing the roots and weeds, tracks from the tires of the tractor, and earthworms squinting in the light of their unearthed tunnels.
One day, where I am sitting will be part of a path placed purposely here for the sole means of reflection, for a slow quiet look at God. In this spot in the middle of the winding labyrinth, there will be part of a path unfolding in front of me, and some of it already behind me. This will be the middle of the pilgrimage toward the center or back out again.
Today, I can’t close my eyes and imagine that picture – whole and complete before me. I only see the tools left in the yard from yesterday’s work, the rusting gas tank, the brambles, and the downed trees left behind after the land was cleared. Ugly things. Frustrating, unfinished things.
But I want to see something different and so here I sit. Continue Reading
“In every circumstance, regardless of the outcome, the main thing Jesus has asked me to do is to love God and my neighbor as religiously as I love myself. The minute I have that handled, I will ask for my next assignment. For now, my hands are full.”
The Main Thing is Seeing All the Sights
Beginning the moment I adorned my first tutu—bouncy peach tulle and silver sequins—at age four, New York called to me. I set my sights on a professional dance career and the Mecca of Manhattan was my goal. But I was 35 before I stepped off the Staten Island Ferry into the city of the dreams that I’d long since tucked away. My husband and two kids in tow, I carried a marked-up map and a list of more things to see than possible in one day.
I wanted to pack the whole experience of New York into those few hours. It had taken me 30 years to get there, and I never knew if I’d return. My son didn’t even make it through everything, falling asleep a few minutes after the curtains rose on the Radio City Rockette’s Christmas Spectacular we’d all dreamed of seeing live. Did I really think a 5-year-old would be able to stay up for the 10 pm show after traipsing all over the city in the blistering winds for hours? It was a wonderful day but the memory of it is a blur.
A couple years later when we visited Paris on the way home from living in South Asia, we still crammed the days full of museums and historic sights. However, we also understood the need to slow down after such a full and hectic year. When I think back on that magical week, the things my mind wanders to first aren’t the sights but simple, sweet moments.
That impromptu picnic in the park next to the Eiffel tower. The afternoon the kids spent playing with French children in the shade of Sacré-Cœur while we lounged on a bench and watched the sun move filter through the trees. Sitting still on the steps overlooking the gardens of Versailles, not thinking about the next thing we had planned. Dwelling in the lifelong and unlikely dream we were getting to live out. Savoring each other’s presence.
Losing Sight of the Main Thing
As evidenced by my frequent bouts of exhaustion as my body tries to tell me I’m too old to live at this pace, it’s not just seeing exciting places that I rush through full force. I’ve always prided myself in the amount I can accomplish and how I can multi-task in all areas of my life. This year I added grad school to my already crammed life of writing, a 25-hour a week job, parenting mostly alone through my husband’s long work hours, performing massive renovations on our home and 6-acre property, and complex family dynamics. Oh, and a pandemic. I believed I could do it all. I always have. My anxiety seems to say otherwise.
This hunger to fill life to the top, complicated by the evangelical training of my youth to live every day like Jesus could come back at any moment, has meant I most often approach spiritual life with the same gusto. Knowing more, serving more, and reaching the world was the daily call. Give all for God every day. After all, Jesus had given all for us. How could we do any less?
As evidenced by my frequent departures into feeling inadequate, unloved by God, and unable to ever be enough, this is not the way to the abundant life Jesus came to give us. The older I got the more the tension grew. I’d attended seminary, served as a leader, and worked for the church. I attended each event and Bible study and served whenever asked like I was taught to do. The more I did, the less I could see Jesus or recognize the presence of God...