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.
“Oh, boys don’t wear mehndi,” we were told when our six-year-old proudly displayed the bright red paisley design he got on his palm during a recent celebration. We’d seen young boys on the streets with the designs and he just wanted to be included in the festivities, but a trusted friend told us it is a bit taboo. I nodded and made a mental note for next time. There’s always something new to learn.
Learning to live well in a new culture is like being a small child again. We are helpless without the guidance of others. Some may think this ends after we’ve learned where to shop and how to navigate public transportation, how to have a simple conversation or what hospitality looks like. It doesn’t, not if we want to be good students of culture and open ourselves to truly connecting with people in our adopted home. We have to make choices every day to set aside our pride and to place ourselves under the wisdom of those wiser than us.
Humility looks like being embarrassed when we are told to always serve tea in dainty teacups (now knowing why we got funny looks when we gave our guests our enormous American mugs. More is better, right? Wrong.). It looks like serving dinner at the end of the night instead of the beginning like we’d do in American because here visiting first is a priority and serving the meal means the visit is now over. We can’t ever assume we understand and we can’t stop seeking to go deeper in respect for and a willingness to learn from our neighbors.
We need to know how to respect the traditions of our neighbors, how to walk the line between what we hold onto from our own culture and how we fit into our new one. I wear the local clothing (not all foreigners here choose to) but my young daughter doesn’t need to. We fumble with attempts to learn the language but our kids go to an English school and only know a few phrases in Bangla. We eat Bengali food for lunch but don’t deny our son his Nutella.
I am not a natural at humility or taking correction. It actually takes a lot of work for me. While I can easily submit myself to the wisdom of people in my adopted country, I often am rigid when it comes to taking direction on issues I think I know a lot about. I’m not happy about this. God is leading me to the roots of this pride, the insecurity that fuels it.
Feeling like a child again shows me how little I know and I am working to allow trusted people to speak into my life in more than just issues of culture. I especially want to look to those with a different perspective than me. I want to read more books by and follow people on social media who are outside my own culture, faith tradition, and race—people who can speak into blind spots my own experiences have left me with. In areas I know I am weak, I look to those who are strong. In areas where I think I am strong, I remind myself I’m not as capable as I think I am. I still need some work. Okay, a lot of work.
It may not come naturally to humble ourselves but that is why we work at it. When it comes to wanting to belong in a place or to a people, sometimes it is easy to say, “here I am; teach me!” When it is a group we aren’t sure we love yet, a people who rub us the wrong way—it takes a little more effort and is that much more necessary.
Yes, I’m like a child in a culture where I am an outsider. But in so many other ways as well I am like my kids easily take correction on their spelling words. They know their mom knows a few more things about the English language than they do in first and fourth grade. But they don’t exactly love it when I point out their bad attitudes or unkind words. I remind them that I am trying to help them grow into better people and make a mental note that I need to take my own advice. All of us children need reminders that correction is loving, humility is necessary, and we should never stop trying to grow.
In what areas of learning do you feel you are weak?
How do you work towards humility in your life? Does it come naturally to live as a learner?
What steps are you taking to take correction and move towards understanding, in what areas of your life?
The question stayed with me for days but I didn’t have an answer. In one of my online tribes a question was posed: What do you know so well that you could teach on for 45 minutes without notes?
I could easily ramble about some things I am passionate about for 45 minutes but I am not expert enough in any of them that I could truly teach about them. I realized how much of my life is that of a learner. I joke that I would go to school for the rest of my life if someone else would pay for it. I have a thousand different interests and I dabble in many of them, but I am expert in none—save my own life experiences that I invite others into through my writing.
I have poured countless hours into writing, editing, learning about the craft and the industry, building a website, making connections. But, what is the purpose of this thing I pour my time and my heart into? What do my readers come to my writing hoping to gain?
Earlier this year, overwhelmed by language study and culture shock of a huge international move, I stepped back from writing. When the words started tumbling out again, they sounded different. I realized I needed to step back and ask, “What do I really have to say?”
When I started sharing my writing online several years ago I invited others to quiet the noise without and within and listen for the One voice that mattered. I have encountered God in my writing and in my life in those years and my faith has shifted as a result. How could it not in the midst of the changing seasons of my life, motherhood, geography, and the cultural context of the world and church around me? My writing has changed because I have changed. I have changed because I have listened. I have placed myself under teachers who have guided me. I realized my writing has been guiding too—toward a life of listening, learning, loving.
I have dipped my toes into the waters of what faith looks like through different practices and in different seasons. Together we’ve gone on journeys into contemplative prayer, social justice, mental health, transition, and more. And I am not an expert in any of these areas. But I am learning more every day from those who are and from the God who wants our lives to fully embody a life of loving Him and others. And I think there are others out there who don’t want to sit still and let the noise of this world overtake them. They too want to sift through the noise to find what God is saying about how to live in this world.
I’m no mental health authority but I can share how fear and anxiety has shaped my faith and maybe we find we have similar wounds. I don’t know all there is to know about interfaith dialogue or international life but I know what it looks like to sit with my Muslim neighbors and try to love them better. Maybe you want to know what that looks like. I struggle with contemplative prayer more days than I manage to sit with silence but maybe we can walk toward life-giving practices of faith together.
In Four Gifts: Seeking Self-care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength April Yamasaki talks about how the word “Listen” positioned at the beginning of the great commandment struck her as vital to the commandment itself:
Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ – Mark 12.29-31, NLT
Yamasaki says, “If we are to love God, we need to listen. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to listen. As far as great commandments go, listening ranks right up there with loving. Listening and loving go together.”
No, I’m not an expert on much. Not even on listening. Just ask my husband. I am full of pride more often than I am humble. I like to hear my own voice and have to work on being still. But in my journeys in faith, in loving cultures not my own, in stumbling toward seeing my part in God’s plan of restoration, I have seen the truth that I must listen to God and listen to others if I am to live a life of love. And this is the journey I invite you to take together with me. Maybe we can make some space in this noisy online world and be still to listen together. I don’t know about you but I would be happy to be known simply as a listener. Let’s be known for being humble learners and fierce lovers!
I want to hear from you. I am listening with you. Keep the conversation going in the comments or on social media:
How are you listening to God? What areas do you struggle in your practice and experience of faith?
Who are you listening to in this noisy world clamoring for our attention? Do you place yourself under the teaching of a diverse group of people? Where do you feel you are lacking in what you are learning or who you are listening to these days?