As the soaking rains seeped through our thick hiking socks, our boots felt heavier the longer we splashed through the South Missouri mud. We had been in the wilderness two days at this point but the stabbing cold made it feel much longer as we continued towards an unknown destination. We followed behind leaders who silently guided us, topographic map and compass in hand. As we slipped through the brush, not able to avoid the briars, we knew we weren't just off the trail. We were lost.
We had only gone a few feet off the trail, feet slipping in the mud, when we stopped as a team to discuss our best direction. Dark was quickly closing in and we weren't sure which ridge we were actually on. We needed to find somewhere to camp soon after hiking all day in the pouring rain. Packs that were already heavy grew in weight by the moment and none of us had dry clothes left. Empty stomachs were grumbling and our spirits were as drenched as the Ozark Trail we couldn't seem to find.
We backtracked up to the last place we saw the trail, decided to follow it until we could better determine where we were. One teammate stooped down to pull our anxious eight-year-old daughter close as we prayed. We asked God to stop the rain, to heal our littlest team members' aching backs and ankles, to continue to heal my husband, Lee, who had been unable to keep any food down in two days, to show us where to camp. We cried out—lost, wet, desperate.
We followed the trail until we saw a clearing, hopeful that it was the valley we were looking for but unsure we were willing to let down our guard yet and hope. As I tried to hold it together for the kids, my son's cries growing louder, another sound broke through my prayers for relief.
"I will not be shaken. I will not be shaken." Her tiny ankles were quaking and the rain wasn't subsiding. There was no end in sight. But as we walked through that clearing, my daughter was speaking the Truth out loud, holding onto His promises to be with her. Barely a whisper, she was clinging to them like they were her very life. As we walked we were memorizing Psalm 62:5-8 and the words we had repeated throughout the day were sinking deep into her heart: "He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I will not be shaken."
I wiped away my tears as I straightened my pack and kept walking. The two weakest and tiniest members of our group of twelve were teaching us what it meant to have the faith of a child, to cling to the truth and to trust that He will not let us down. As we rounded a corner in the forest trail, we heard the sounds of the river and the crunching of rocks under our feet. We turned our headlamps towards the sounds, sobs catching in our throats as we saw the fire ring on the beach. We were at our destination at last.
This is a tiny glimpse into the lessons I am still meditating on that I learned in the wilderness this Spring. We intentionally placed ourselves in a place of total unknown as we entered a two-week cross-cultural training that would help prepare us for the international move we've been working towards for over a year now. The first part of the training consisted of a multi-day (of undetermined length so that we were always wading through the unknown) period backpacking through the Ozarks with eight other people on similar journeys as us.
We were also unintentionally placed in another wilderness when our plans to move to one location in South Asia fell through and we were completely in limbo, trusting God to show us just the next step. The kids were talking about what they learned following our five days of hiking over 20 miles up mountains and across swift flowing rivers, building our shelters, building a fire and cooking over it, and so many more physically and emotionally stretching moments. Our daughter who saw God answer every prayer for healing, for the rain to stop, for guidance, said it made her want to pray more. "God provides even in the wilderness," she said. She won't understand the full impact of the seed that was planted in her little life for many years. But the courage her words of complete trust in His goodness are growing deeper places of faith in my own soul.
We are about out of the unknown. We have a new destination in South Asia and a goal to get there by fall. But we know there is still much wilderness ahead. We set out on the next leg of our trek knowing it is on solid ground that we step, declaring boldly, "we will not be shaken!"
I felt the pull to reflection deep in my spirit. As soon as the light through the stained glass of the Romanesque chapel fell on my face, I felt I was transported into a tangible awareness of the presence of God. I knew I needed time alone in this place. Over the course of the two-day writing retreat I was attending, I filled my time with as many interactions with my fellow writers as I could. After all, we had traveled from all over the country to be together. This was a unique opportunity full of divine appointments, prayers whispered, stories shared, and wisdom imparted. I didn't want to miss a moment, but I was missing something else.
As the retreat was coming to a close and dear friends were whispering goodbyes in the hushed lobby as people brushed by us into mass, I wanted to stay but I felt the tug on my heart that I had been denying all weekend. I cracked open the heavy wooden door, stopped a moment to kneel, and quietly slip into the back pew just after mass began. I hoped nobody would notice the tears streaming down my face during the lectionary readings that resounded off the stained glass prophets who spoke their words over and into me.
I met Jesus that weekend in the laughter of my friends, in the impassioned preaching of some of the strongest women I've ever known, over the dinner table, and in the prayers of the friend who scooted close knowing my heart was aching for someone to pray over me. But He was waiting in that chapel all along, too—waiting for me to quiet myself long enough to just be still before Him. Silence tugs at me and repels me at the same time. I know the need and I know the pain of the pruning that awaits there.
Not cold enough to be called winter but dreary enough to still make all life lay dormant under the piles of fallen leaves, this has been a strange season. At the end of it, I am forcing myself to press into the silence. I found the practice of Examen last year (the daily prayer practice laid out by St. Ingatius Loyola), realized what thousands before me have known using this attitude of prayerful reflection for 500 years - that an examined life is a life of growth. Whenever I have practiced Examen daily, I have found such peace and guidance from God. But, in all honesty, I haven't practiced it very often. Because I've also found the dark places of my heart, the places I'd rather avoid. I've heard things I need to lay down that I desperately want to cling to.
The end of this particular season lends itself especially well to reflection as we also leave Ordinary Time for the Lenten season in which we focus especially close on our own sinfulness and cravings, preparing our hearts for the redemption that is to be celebrated at Easter. I love the practice of reflecting on what we've learned at the end of a season (be it the seasons of the calendar year or the church year). As I was preparing to join Emily Freeman and her community in sharing what we've learned this winter (don't forget to hop over to Emily's place to read some of the other "What We've Learned - Winter Edition" posts), I wanted to share cute and light lessons. But again I felt the tug to something deeper. This year, as the end of winter and the end of Ordinary Time coincide, I am noticing how looking back on what we learned is another form of Examen. I want more than just to reflect back on the season; I want the reflection to turn to prayer and the prayer to change the next season of my life.
If you too are wanting to look back on the past season before you head into the next, join me in examining your life before God, turning what you learned into a prayer of thanks, of repentance, of an openness to grow in yet deeper understanding in the next season. Spend just a few minutes or as much time as you can allow. There is nothing mystical about Examen. It is simply an attitude of reflection that leads to prayer. Traditional Ignatian Examen is done mid-day and at the end of the day. I have started using Examen at the end of the week during Sabbath and planning for the week ahead, or at the end of the month or season. You can journal your reflections if it helps or simply find a quiet place and be with God. Sit in the stillness for a little while. Listen before you speak. Look back. Look ahead. Most importantly, look up.
Leave a comment for me and the benefit of others or send me an email (for my eyes only). I'd love to hear what you're learning, how you're hearing His voice in the noise, and how we can pray together into this new season. Blessings!
I love the changing of the seasons. It so easily lends itself to reflection on what you learned and where you are headed next. Fall is my favorite time of year and I really tried to savor it this year. As fall is ending and we're heading into the expecting and waiting of Advent, I am joining Emily Freeman's "What We Learned" series and reflecting on some things I learned this fall...
- I desperately need real rhythms of rest in my life.
We took a trip with my immediate family to the North Georgia mountains to experience all the things I love about fall - pumpkin patches, apple picking, the changing leaves, and time with family. It was an incredible time to recharge and slow down. But I also need to learn to truly practice Sabbath each week and find times to rest not just when I can get away. Thanksgiving week was a time of real rest as well. I learned I still truly struggle to slow down and just be and that I constantly have to remind myself Sabbath time isn't wasted time. It is just as important as all the tasks ahead. I am not there yet, but it is a practice I journeyed in more this fall.
2. I still love Stars Hollow as much as ever.
The day after Thanksgiving I entered a lovely Gilmore Girls cocoon. Stocked with lots of coffee and Gimore-appropriate food (cheeseburgers with lettuce essence), my girls and I spent 9 hours watching, laughing, and crying. Maybe it is the connection with the best friend I got together with weekly to watch the first round of Gilmore seasons back in the day, maybe it's the fast-talking, coffee-loving ladies I identify with in many ways - but my journey back to Stars Hollow was the best TV binge of all time.
3. I am in love with Bullet journaling!
Don't get me wrong, I put everything on my family Google calendar. But I have always been a fan of still having a paper calendar and to-do list. But I haven't found a system I truly love until I started bullet journaling. Like the Sabbath practice, it's a practice that is a work in progress. But I love having every to-do list, shopping list, writing idea, and other things that jump into my scattered brain throughout the day all in one place. I love it!
4. I practice contemplative prayer so much better with guidance.
Not being a part of a faith community that focuses on contemplative prayer but having been reading all I can and being drawn to the practice for a couple years, I have really been trying to focus this year on lectio divina, examen, and centering prayer. But I get so distracted and give up so easily practicing these disciplines on my own. I discovered a couple apps that are changing that for me as I feel like I have a personal guide, someone journeying with me: The Pray as You Go (my favorite) and Jesuit Prayer app have been my companions in prayer this fall and they are growing my prayer practice immensely.
5. I love social media but I need regular breaks from it.
Having friends all over the world, social media is truly a love of mine. The ability to connect with people anywhere and share life with those I can't be with in person is priceless. But the negativity on social media especially this fall was wearing on my soul and I found that my weekend social media sabbaths were stretching into the week more and more. I learned there are seasons I need to step back from being on social media too much for the good of my mental health and soul. I won't ever abandon it completely but if I am silent for a while, know that I'm still present online but needed a breather.
6. Transition is hard, but also one of the best training grounds in total dependence on God!
As our transition to South Asia gets more real —packing commenced this fall and we started putting some of our belongings in the shipping container that will hold most things we own back in America as we decide what to pack in two suitcases each— so does the excitement and the grief that comes with an international move. This fall has been an emotional roller coaster and I know it is only the beginning of those feelings. But it has driven me to crying out and leaning on Jesus more than much else in my life has. It's a hard, beautiful place to be and I am grateful.
My son has never been confident in his abilities, even less in the water. At the beach, he runs into the waves and back out again, laughing with the innocence of his nearly five years. But if I try to take him a little deeper, the fear rises in his eyes and he runs. So, it was a big step for him to climb down the rickety ladder off the side of the dock. He looked past the aging wood, splintered over time and sagging to one side. He stepped past barnacles, his flip-flops barely hanging onto his feet. He had just settled into the smooth water, tentative and fearful, when the movement began.
Just a little ripple at first, the water began to shift under him. Then the shifting turned into full waves as the boat that had created the wake passed further by. It was just a small boat, a couple people skiing on this sunny afternoon in the intercoastal waterway.
The sound of their laughter drifted over to us at the dock about the same time the ripple did. They passed by without knowing that in their wake a frightened child was reaching for the ladder, frantically calling for his mommy. I helped him scurry back up the ladder and into my arms after only a moment in the water. He was done.
I’ve thought back on that moment many times in the weeks since lazy summer ended and our lives have launched into the momentum and hurry of fall. I keep remembering when I see the effects our lives are having on others, the way the actions of those around me ripple into my own life.
There are exciting dreams ahead for our family but I weigh my words each time they leave my mouth. Before I talk to my family about our coming move, I think about the grief they are feeling. I worry what my words stir up in their hearts. Should I talk about it? Should I stay silent? What will hurt them more? I choke on my words because I’m not sure.
The mother of my daughter’s best friend just told me this week that she has repeatedly caught her little girl crying in the car. She said during those quiet moments of riding she can’t help but think about her best friend moving across the world and it moved her to tears. I have never been so aware of the wake my actions are leaving behind. There are many people caught up in the tide created by the trajectory of my life. We don’t live in a vacuum. We don’t leave in a vacuum. We leave behind loved ones, holes that can’t be filled, and hurt. I grieve every day the way God is creating joy and pain at the same time in the lives that touch our own.
All week I felt like I was back out in those murky Atlantic waters, rising and falling with the tide. My week was filled with the highs and lows of this life in transition. My birthday fell mid-week in a busy time of back to school and Labor Day weekend looming ahead. I had lunch with a couple friends and a lovely dinner with my family. There were joys to be found but I still felt low. Most of my co-workers passed in the hall without a comment or a quick “Oh yeah, happy birthday!”
Just a few weeks before they celebrated another co-worker’s birthday at a nearby restaurant. I waited for the email to come inviting others to my celebration, knowing this would be the last birthday I would spend in the States for at least a couple years. None came. I smiled through the pain when one friend took me to lunch, pretended it didn’t bother me that everyone else was too busy to care. I reminded myself how busy I am, how many “Happy Birthdays” I haven’t said in the past year. How many people’s feelings have I hurt with my busyness? It still stung to be on the other side of the wake, to be caught up in the tides that are rushing so quickly there is no time for relationship sometimes. I fell to sleep early on my birthday, exhausted from emotion, from riding the rolling waves all day. I was done.
Before I drifted off, I asked God to make me more aware of those around me, of their needs and their hurts. I get so busy that I just don’t think about the effect I have on others. I don’t see. I am like those boaters—riding along in my life, caught up in what I have going on. I forget so easily that there are others on the periphery of my life. What I do and say—or am too busy to do or say—can rock their world. It can encourage and uplift them. Or it can send them running back to safety, wounded.
My son got back in the water that day. With his mommy speaking encouraging words and a friend’s arms reaching out for him, he found a safe space to enter the water. We laughed when the waves came, made a game out of riding them. He only stayed in for a few minutes and then came running back to my waiting arms, shivering from the cold. He learned a lesson that day about perseverance. I learned about paying attention, about the effect my actions have on others. I am still learning…
I don't even know what I was doing when I burst into tears. I was busying myself with yet another task that needed to be done right then. Maybe I was washing the dishes that inevitably pile up in the sink. I swear, no one else was in the kitchen when I washed the last one and another cup appeared out of thin air. Perhaps I was sweeping the crumbs off the kitchen floor - again. All I know is I was frantically cleaning so I could get to the other endless tasks waiting for me - writing deadlines, bills to pay, or emails to answer.
In an effort to get it all done I was rushing around the kitchen when the scent of Georgia summer invaded my senses. I stopped near the bowl of gardenias I had brought into the house earlier that day.
If you haven't lived below the Mason-Dixon line, you won't understand how the aroma of this flower signals the coming of summer in the mind of a child of the South. The Gardenia is a staple of the southern garden. The plant itself is a bush, it's leathery leaves shiny and thick. One day there will be tight green buds, nothing more than the promise of a flower waiting to unfurl. The very next day there is an explosion of white, the smell of the Cape Jasmine flowers thick in the air.
When I was growing up we would find the biggest white blossoms, the velvety soft petals -- thicker and smoother than the rose and more fragrant than even the honeysuckle that grew wild in the woods -- and pluck them from the bush outside our back door. We would place a bowl full of the blooms floating in water somewhere in our house. Before the thermometer reached 100, before we broke out the bathing suits and sprinklers -- this scent floating gently through the house told us summer had arrived.
That night in all of my busyness, the captivating aroma caught in the air for a moment and took me back in time. All at once the memories of so many summer nights spent on the back porch came flooding in. I would sit for hours talking on the phone (yes, the kind that you actually had to dial a real number to call and that either had a chord or a battery that would beep incessantly if the cordless phone had been away from the base too long).
I can't tell you what drama was unfolding on any given night as there were so many -- from friend to boy dramas, school or parent problems. But it always seemed like the problem of the hour meant the world as we knew it caving in on us. Everything seemed to be life or death, so urgent. I think now, with regret, how I missed so many little moments caught up in all the things that never really mattered at all.
And here I am -- years later and supposedly so much wiser. I am doing it all again. That pile of dishes has to be conquered or I will go insane. If I don't meet that deadline my writing career will certainly come crashing down all around me. The lie of scarcity says there is never enough time. I must get it all done - today!
Meanwhile, the love of my life -- the one I could only have dreamed of as the boy-crazy, headstrong teen that I was back then -- he is sitting in the other room, waiting for just a few minutes with me before the day ends. My two little ones are upstairs sleeping peacefully, replicas of another child that wanted nothing more than to catch just some fireflies in a mason jar before summer's end.
I can teach them the joys of a Georgia summer - of gardenia blooms and fireworks set against the backdrop of Stone Mountain, of whippoorwill calls and rootbeer floats. Or I can miss it all by being caught up in all the tasks marking up my overly full agenda, even the necessary and good things that distract me from what really matters.
The sobs caught in my chest and I dropped what I was doing in the kitchen and, before I knew it, I was sitting on my front porch surrounded by gardenia blossoms. Some were in full-bloom and others were waiting to spring into the world tomorrow. The clean, tropical smell mixed with the humid night air and enveloped me like the sultry voice of Billie Holiday, who used to wear a gardenia in her hair whenever she performed. I don't know how long I sat out there, stroking the velvety side of a flower until I had rubbed a hole in the petal. Memory mixed with prayer, tears with laughter. Continue Reading