“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...
A clump of dried Georgia clay crunched under my shoe. I sighed as I turned to grab the broom and sweep the floor again. I looked out the living room window at the mound of orangy-brown earth that had been the source of the mess. My husband took down a hundred trees a few months ago and left a jagged scar running through the yard. It is preparation for building the extension that will house a bedroom and bathroom eventually.
We put the build that will give our kids their own rooms on hold until our income is more reliable though. So a muddy heap of earth is a reminder of living in this in-between space of what is and what is yet to come.
I long for that more expansive home but there are so many steps needed to get there and so much cost associated. It’s going to be a mess for a long time before it is beautiful.
“I don’t feel like you don’t need to add anything else to your daily practice,” my spiritual director said. I wanted to believe her, to take her words as permission to feel like it is enough, like I am enough.
In response to her question of how I see God moving in my life, I mentioned how I am seeking God. I talked about trying to read through the daily office lectionary (a two-year cycle of Scripture for daily reading from the Book of Common Prayer), practice centering prayer, and take breaks throughout my workday in which I stop to pray and send encouraging messages to friends for which I am praying.
She could tell I was asking the question without saying it out loud: “Is this enough? Should I be doing more?” I feel like I’ve been wandering around in the wilderness for so long and I want to finally say I have it all figured out.
Friends who know me well tease me about my orderly way of living. I love to make plans. My house must be clean and organized before I can rest. What I am really after isn’t an orderly house; it is a well-ordered life.
“You make lists just so you can check things off them,” a friend recently said to me. I laughed in response. It was the nervous kind of laughter that says, “yes, this is true; I wish it wasn’t.” We were discussing personality types (How I am an ISFJ and particularly how the J-judging part of my Myers-Briggs type leads me to desire a structure and control).
I slipped into a rule-based faith in my teen years because it fit well into the way I saw the world. I could make lists and check them off. God fit nicely into a box inside my compartmentalized life and all was well...until it wasn’t.
Over the years, the lists kept multiplying. I couldn’t keep up and I felt like I couldn’t earn the love of God anymore with all my list-keeping.
When I first discovered contemplative prayer, I felt like it was the answer to the tyranny of lists that ruled my life. It was a slower, quieter way of encountering God. I was anxious and burned out and never felt any closer to the Presence of the one I wanted to please.
For a few years, I learned about and dabbled in contemplative practices. But instead of finding freedom, I added them to my ever-growing to-do’s. Finally, all the striving and anxiety left my soul in shambles. I couldn’t do any of it anymore. I couldn’t do anything but groan and hope that God understood that I had no more words.
As I tiptoe forward into what I hope are more life-giving rhythms of faith practice and spiritual formation for me in this season, I realize I am living a life under construction. I want to be living in the house already, the one that is inhabited daily by the sweeping winds of the Holy Spirit breathing new life into me. Don’t we all want to feel like that every day? We want to feel like we’ve arrived instead of wandering around in the wastelands.
My life is like the dirt heap I daily force myself to stare at outside my window. I needed to tear down a lot of things that were in my way. I needed to be still for a good while and just sit in the muck until I was ready to move on. And then sit a little while longer.
And that is how we build. First, we have to tear down what is between us and God. Maybe it’s a raging bit of ego in our own way, our own anxieties and expectations. Maybe it’s lies we’ve let ourselves believe. Maybe it’s a relationship that is broken or something we need to let ourselves grieve. An addiction. A sin. But we can’t keep building on a faulty foundation and expect our houses to not come tumbling down.
“The wilderness, by design, disorients,” said Rachel Held Evans. “As any wilderness trekker past or present will tell you, the wilderness has a way of forcing the point, of bringing to the surface whatever fears, questions, and struggles hide within.”
We spend so much of our lives trying to tidy up our filth, to find our way to the Promised Land at last. We miss the vibrant life that can exist right now, not sometime in the future when we have it all figured out.
I yawn as I wrap a blanket around my shoulders and head to the window. The mound of earth is but a shadow under the faint early morning light. I smile in the darkness, remembering it is there. I am growing fond of the grimy reminder that life isn’t perfect (and neither am I).
That is where God finds us, in the middle of all the ways we realize how much we need grace for our messes. I close my eyes and do the last thing I want to but the very thing I need. I thank God for the disorder, for the wandering, for all that has been torn down and is being rebuilt. For today, that is enough.
There’s something inside you waiting to unfurl. It is quietly growing beneath the surface. You can feel it gathering itself up, the momentum of its growth building. How it began is a mystery. What it will become is yet to be seen—even to you. But in its time, if you nurture it well, it will bloom.
“I understand now,” she said slowly. My mom sighed deeply and shook her head like she was trying to shake off the realization that had settled over her. “Seeing the way you interact with the people, seeing how you are here…” her voice trailed off as she gestured toward the old city street bustling locals and tourists entering shops. “You’re different somehow,” she finished after a pause. “You come alive,” she said as she placed her drink down on the table, every move deliberate as if the words pained her.
I wasn’t exposed to much diversity as a child in the middle-class Bible belt of suburban Georgia. I don’t know why this hunger had been churning and rumbling inside me or why it founds its place of rest and belonging the moment I stepped off a plane onto Asian soil.
I was twenty-one before I ever traveled outside the borders of America. It wasn’t for lack of trying before but my parents said no to that trip in high school and my college study abroad plans fell through. I couldn’t name this burning desire that had always been germinating inside of me. It longed to connect to something I couldn’t see—somewhere out there. As soon as I could pay my own way and had the chance, I was gone.
In the next ten years, I traveled to eight countries and lived in South Asia and the Middle East. I dragged my mom to Hindu temples and Bollywood movies. She came to watch my classical Indian dance performance and listened to me practice my broken Arabic with at the Lebanese restaurant where she warily tried shwarma. But she never connected with the cultures for which I had an insatiable appetite. I was growing in a direction that took me far away.
My first Bharata Natyam teacher explained my immediate aptitude for the complex Indian dance form as something I was born into. “You must have been a devadasi (Hindu temple dancer) in a past life.” My South Asian friends laugh sometimes at my ready acceptance of their culture—“Sister, you are more Bengali than we are.”
Fourteen years after my first steps outside of my home country, my mom and I sat together in a café tucked inside the ancient cobbled walls of the Arab Quarter of old Jerusalem. It was her first trip overseas in her adult life and my first chance to show her the world I loved. I knew the admission pained her, to say that she finally understood it, in her own way. It was a relinquishing of sorts—releasing me to something that threatened to take me (and my family) from her side...
For a moment, as the sunlight filters through our red paisley curtains casting a warm glow across the tile floor, I forget. It’s just a split second though before the sounds of the city pierce the morning and I am plunged into the day ahead. I remember that I am simultaneously home and 8000 miles from home.
We’ve lived in South Asia four months now and our flat has a warmth to it that feels like a haven when we walk in from the crowded streets. It is home. But the teeming masses outside our door, the culture that surrounds us, and the language that engulfs us—it all still feels so far away. Our brains live on overdrive, trying to process all the newness and the words we know we have heard before but can’t place. Studying a complex and hauntingly beautiful language simply makes me tired…all the time.
For the first few months, I held onto everything I could because I’d let go of so much already—frequent calls to family and friends, TV, anything familiar. And I especially wanted to keep up my blog and writing commitments. It was my tie to home, to who I had been and wanted to still be. A couple months into full-time school there was a tugging at the back of my heart that I didn’t want to face. I was stress and overwhelmed. Instead of finding joy in what awaited me in the day ahead just managing normal life felt daunting. Writing deadlines on top of that felt like torture.
The tug wouldn’t go away. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to let go of something tethering me to a place that I wanted to be but was no longer. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I spent the last three years building my passion for writing into something that defined me. For a long time, I didn’t dare call myself a “real writer.” Each published piece gave me more confidence. Seeing my name on essays published in several books, I finally boldly claimed the title author, writer, editor. It is my writing that opened the doors for us to move to this particular job overseas and I will be working in communications down the road once we get some grasp on language. But it’s my personal writing, the places I show up every month and the communities I love (Mudroom, SheLoves, Ready Magazine, Redbud Writer’s Guild) that I didn’t want to loosen my grasp on.
In the middle of a particularly low week when I could barely lift my eyes to heaven, one of those online communities I love posted this blessing by Jan Richardson:
That each step
may be a shedding.
That you will let yourself
That when it looks
like you’re going backwards
you may be making progress.
That progress is not the goal anyway,
to the feel of the path on your skin,
to the way it reshapes you
in each place it makes contact,
to the way you cannot see it
until the moment you have stepped out.
Each word was a knife to my heart and a salve to the same wound. Through the tears I typed an email to all my editors and told them I need to take a step back for right now. It feels like a little death, letting go of my writing even for a time. It may be for a couple months. It may need to be longer. It’s another thing that I worked hard to build that I am tearing back down, like the home we sold, the people we left behind. It makes me feel so lost.
But maybe being lost isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps this shedding of parts of myself is exactly what I need right now, to be fully dependant on God for who I am and what gives me worth. Not deadlines. Not readers. Not even the joy I get from telling stories. For right now, I need to just be present where I am and being obedient to just this one day. Maybe I need to live the story for a while before I have the space to write it.
You may not see my words in the usual places over the next few months. It feels like going backward. I have to believe it isn’t though, that it is progress to wherever it is God wants to take me…and you next. So thank you for showing up, for reading my words. I hope you will stick around and this conversation will continue soon. It will shift and change. Life always does.
But when you are feeling lost, maybe these words that spoke to me will be a comfort to you too. Know that you may not feel like you are accomplishing anything. But if presence is the goal, then be where you are. Be fully there and believe that someday…maybe not soon, maybe not when you expect it…but someday, you’ll step out into something new to realize God was accomplishing something great in you.
A gentle whisper in my ear broke through my early morning dream. I sat up quickly when the sunlight filtering through our red paisley curtains cast a crimson glow across my son’s face. The unwelcome light accused me and immediately my self-berating thoughts began:
"I did it again. I promised this day would be different. I would get up while it was still dark and spend time with God. I know I need it and it is a new year. I can’t do anything right."
“Play with me, mommy?” My six-year old's big brown eyes danced with hope as I was caught up in my inner dialogue of despair. My first instinct was to decline his request and send him on his way. My husband and daughter’s snores told me I could hand my son an electronic device and still have time to hit my yoga mat before they woke.
In the split second between his request and my response, there was a war raging inside my head. I thought back to the previous day when I sat at the dining room table with papers scattered all around. My half filled out bullet journal from last year sat there mocking me. You failure, the uncompleted to-do lists said. The daily gratitude page was half filled out, telling me I was ungrateful. You're lazy, said the books I intended to read but hadn’t. The pieces I needed to have already written because deadlines were looming, calling me: Procrastinator. And worse of all, the scriptures I hadn’t memorized, the devotional I was reading that I was weeks behind on said: Bad Christian.
I ripped out the accusing pages one by one. I stared at the crumpled mess on the floor and wanted to shout at them, "You don’t define me. I am going to change. This time will be different." After over three decades of living with this inner dialogue, I know my tendencies by now. I’m all or nothing. If I can’t follow through with every stroke of my schedule, the whole plan is abandoned. If I say I am going to get up and workout, read my Bible, and pray every morning and instead oversleep (again), then I will go the whole day without doing any of those things. I’ve already failed, so what’s the point in trying?
All those stories so ingrained in my early upbringing in the faith run through my mind. Meant to encourage us towards spiritual disciplines, these stories set a bar of perfectionism I have been trying to attain every since. There was the one about a certain man of faith who never once missed a day reading his Bible. When he got sick towards the end of his life, his wife sat by his hospital bed and read it to him each day. There is the man praised because he didn’t miss a single Sunday of church even when his child was sick in the hospital or the woman who showed up to rock babies every weekend for decades. I was always told faithfulness to a task proves faithfulness to God…thus I am unfaithful.
This bent towards perfectionism has been killing me for years, snuffing out a fire of intimacy with God that used to burn brightly. And I’m so tired of it...
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