“You can be anything you want,” they said. “If you can dream it, you can be it,” we were told. My generation grew up believing we could follow our bliss, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and every other cliche of the American dream. We were led to believe we were the masters of our own destinies.
I remember a moment I realized we’d been fed lies. I was standing with a friend I had been close to all through high school and college. I was on a break from grad school and he had been in the workforce before heading to law school. We stood on a balcony talking about where our lives had gone since college, about to go our separate ways again. Barely into our twenties, we had weariness in our voices already. “Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would,” he said. I saw the disillusionment in his eyes that mirrored my own. We had been launched out into a world we weren’t ready for, ill-equipped to face reality, and had no one to guide us when everything went topsy-turvy. I felt so alone.
Twenty years later, I watch nieces and nephews graduate and step into the same uncertainty. I watch my eldest with dread, realizing her turn to step into the great unknown is closer than I want to think. How can we help the next generation face reality better than we did? How can we equip them to chart a course that works? I am getting tiny glimpses into the answers to those questions as I, myself, navigate my next steps.
My personal and professional life has been fraught with life-altering decisions I have second and twenty-second guessed. Two international moves around the world and back, my husband’s mid-life career change, and a late-in-life change of church traditions for myself have left me reeling in the past few years. I’ve been asking God for assurances that I made the right decisions or to show me how to make better ones in the days ahead.
My family felt alone in making many of these massive decisions. No one in the non-profit we just left or our home church helped us figure out how to re-enter life in the United States after two years living in South Asia. Confused and alone, we reached out and felt a void reaching back for us. The map we’d been given didn’t work and we didn’t know where to turn.
I knew God was moving me into something deeper but I didn’t know what or how to figure that out by myself. I sent out a cry for help and took steps to surround myself with people to walk beside me. I needed some fresh eyes to help me see what I couldn’t see clearly for myself...
“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...
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
–The New Zealand Anglican Lord’s Prayer
I wanted to savor each ship of chai in the tiny aluminum cup. I didn’t mind its heat on my hands even though my scarf already stuck to my chest, wet with sweat and humidity from the monsoon rains on the horizon. I gulped down my tea though because there was work to do.
I was twenty-four when I spent two months living with two local social workers and daily visiting the largest slums in Asia with them to assist in schools and women’s training programs. It was the summer I finally met the Jesus I’d been chasing for a decade.
Ever a rule-follower, when I started attending church at fourteen I took the systematic approach to becoming a good Christian. Pray a prayer and get saved (rededicate your life to Jesus if you mess up) and get baptized, check. Go to church and find places to serve, check. Study the Bible, check. Go out and tell people about Jesus and bring them into the church so the cycle can begin all over again with them, check.
I am forever grateful for the foundation I received as a teen hungry for love, community, and purpose. I learned to talk to God like a friend, to be responsible for my own spiritual growth, to love the Word of God, and to serve others. But that was only part of the picture. The Jesus I wanted so desperately still eluded me.
I was taught the world was a dark, scary, sinful place I needed to shield myself from. It wasn’t going to get any better until Jesus came back and saved us from it all. I thought that is what church was for—a place to prepare and equip us to go out and bring others into the hope of a world better than this one. We were saved from something and we had a mission.
But in the muddy paths between the tin and wood slum houses, I found a community that upended everything I thought I knew about what Christ came to do in this world, about God’s work of reconciliation. Like the early church, they truly depended on each other for everything. It was there I started to realize the Kingdom of God was already here, that we could be bearers of the goodness of God right here among each other.
In those days I saw poverty, hunger, trafficking, injustice, and suffering like I had never seen before. I also saw families God had restored, lives that had been made new, people willing to suffer to help others, and children clinging to the hope that this life could be better because of the Good News they came to that little church to listen to each week. I saw Muslims, Hindus, and Christians working together to make their little corner of the earth a better place for each other.
Every Sunday the kids we taught during the week showed up in tattered dresses and suits, smiling and calling out, “Namaste, teacher!” We sat and laughed over those hot cups of chai for a few minutes and then rolled up the mats we sat on, packed up the drums, and swept the floor. Class would start early the next day, and we had lots of families to visit.
The church building was swept away moments after the Sunday service was over, returning to its purpose as a schoolroom. But the Church dispersed throughout the slum to care for her people. Church didn’t stop with a worship service. My friends went out to talk to people about the lack of nutrition they experienced, about the injustice they encountered, about education for their children, and job training for women. They went out and really listened to the problems people were experiencing and asked how they could help.
“We are so quick, as human beings, to get our salvation and then make it personal. It’s all about Jesus and me,” said Civil rights activist, community developer, and Bible teacher, John Perkins. “What would happen if we organized with the expectation that God is going to use us in one another’s lives—if we recognized the importance of those around us to our own spiritual growth?”
The interdependence Perkins talks about is what opened my eyes that summer to a whole new way of seeing. I saw how each person’s life was tangled up in the others. This is a bedrock of Asian communal culture. It should also be a bedrock of communities of faith around the world, working together to see the Kingdom coming among us...
“I accept whatever He gives and I give whatever He takes.” – Teresa of Calcutta
It’s not something you talk about in polite company—not being quite okay and being willing to admit it. When people ask how are you, they don’t expect an honest answer. I know; I’ve been answering honestly for months, unable to sprinkle sugary platitudes over the reality of loss and uneasiness I feel.
I’ve sat in the middle of transition, family illness, unemployment, depression, and feeling completely lost in the midst of it all. And I’ve named it, called it out loud to myself and to others. Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Uneasy smiles fade. Eyes widen or dart away quickly. Promises to pray are made. People run for the door.
We’ve been conditioned to hide away feelings of pain and restlessness, especially in communities of faith. We’re a little more comfortable if it can be medicated or counseled, easily solved, or prayed away. But prolonged periods of dread, of feeling the absence of God’s presence or not being sure how to pray, of not having easy answers—that we’re not so good with.
I’ve been finding consolation in an unlikely place lately, in the company of a woman who spent well over five decades years of her life not feeling consoled at all. But she was faithful anyway. She loved with abandon anyway.
For many years I’ve felt a connection to the tiny-framed, quiet woman who lived her life among the poor and dying of India. Like so many others drawn to Mother Teresa, I’ve read her words and been awed by her from afar. Perhaps it was her selfless work for the poor that first drew me to her, our common love for India.
When I was stumbling through writing and rewriting the hauntingly beautiful curves of the Bangla alphabet a fellow language student mentioned that maybe this saintly woman also struggled to learn the verbs of the Bengali people she served, the same people I lived among and loved. I laughed at the thought of the small but mighty nun struggling with anything.
It was then that dove into a couple of biographies about the Albanian woman born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, sainted as Teresa of Calcutta by the Catholic Church in 2013 and realized I knew nothing of her real-life at all...
Hers was the first familiar face I saw in the sea of unknown that was the airport atrium. Standing back on the soil of my “home” for the first time in a year, I felt uprooted. A week before, my friend only existed as a voice over the phone while I ached for community I hadn’t been able to build yet in my new life in South Asia. America felt like another reality altogether as change pulled me further away.
But a family crisis had yanked me up by my transplanted roots, and there I stood again. Home yet not home. My husband and children stayed behind 8,500 miles away, and my heart was torn between two continents.
I expected to feel out of place after the prolonged absence and adjustment to a new normal. Yet in the smiling face of the friend who had known the depths of my wandering heart for twenty-three years, I felt like no time had passed at all. We became friends over bus rides to band competitions and passing notes in biology class. We saw each other through crushes and crushed hearts, marriage and divorce, chronic illness, and now two international moves. We had shared a house and shared over half our lives.
I had imagined our connection dissolving with time and distance as I complained that I had no friends in my new home. I focused on what I didn’t have and forgot what I did have because it lingered out of sight. Yet there she was with a caramel macchiato she knew to be my favorite in hand. She was a visual reminder that friendship is not erased by time apart and not changed by miles traveled.
When I walked into the ICU waiting room where my whole family was gathered, she quietly melted into the background. She let me cry with my sister, whose husband had just undergone a second emergency surgery for the aneurism that had prompted my unplanned trip around the world. I felt ashamed at my own lack of willingness to be inconvenienced for others when her husband didn’t complain that it was 2am before we pulled into my parents’ driveway.
I was reminded of so much more than the strength of a childhood friendship in those days. Every time she showed up over those two weeks, I was surprised when I shouldn’t have been. Where else but in the everyday needs of life should we expect Christ to show up?...
Sign up here to receive free notes from (in)courage, delivered daily to your inbox!