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.
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....
“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...
“To wonder is to stand in the towering shadow of God however frightened we are of our own smallness. Like Moses, let us pause at the buses that burn. Like Tomas, let us bend for a closer look at Christ—even if, paradoxically, it’s doubt that reaches to touch his side. Let us have certainty when it’s available; let us have humility when it’s not.” – Jen Pollock Michel, Surprised by Paradox
Everything about this view is comforting—familiar. I’ve marveled at the symmetrical beauty of the magnolia lane dozens of times. The glistening leaves of the towering Magnolia Grandiflora trees mark the old entrance to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. When you stand there, you feel minuscule, like you are a part of something grand that must have always existed this way. Like you could melt away and no one would notice you were ever there.
I imagine the changes to the world that these trees have witnessed during their stalwart watch over the monks who arrived on the old plantation grounds in 1944. Beyond that, I haven’t thought much about the trees before. Nestled on over 1,000 acres of Georgia woodlands, the monastery offers many other sights like the geese by the lake or the glorious stained glass windows.
I’ve always arrived with a purpose in mind. I always like to be here during the liminal space between two years, asking God to guide me as I enter the next season. I’ve come when discerning a big decision that I need to wisdom for. I’ve been on retreats to learn from a few of the 300 remaining Cistercian monks in the world about a specific topic like contemplative prayer or writing. I’ve always brought expectation as my companion to this place.
Today is different. I am on a solo retreat with no agenda. The church, cafe, and museum are all still closed due to the pandemic. I can’t converse with the brothers or join them for prayer today.
Yet, I need a weekend of silence and some time on what always feels like holy ground to me.
The world has been extra noisy lately. The voices shouting about elections and diseases, sides to take, and lines to draw—have become too much to take. I come to God with a million questions that I am not sure how to begin to ask.
I feel aimless at first. I open my Bible. I journal for a while. I sit in silent prayer. Then, I just start to wander the grounds.
I amble past the trees, at first looking up at the way they seem to touch the sky. That’s usually what I notice about them—their height and their shine, the way the leaves are never changing year-round when everything around them seems to whither.
Today my pace is slower so I stop to notice the sunlight that is much brighter at the base of trees that reach all the way to the ground, no trunk visible. They seem one with the earth, like there is no dividing line between the two.
I step closer and the vision changes. The branches touching the earth aren’t springing from below; they grow sharply downward from the middle of the trunk, jutting out at strange angles. They conceal a cavelike area between the branches and the trunk of the tree.
Her intense gaze met mine, or so I believed. When she turned toward the audience the feathers of her tail responded in a dance of their own, winding around her slender form. She wasn’t a ballet dancer on a stage; she was the exotic bird, emerging from her cage to capture my imagination. Time ceased to be and nothing else existed but us, as something deep inside me stirred into movement while she danced.
From the moment I sat in front of the TV screen, enraptured by the peacock performing the Arabian Dance in the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker, I begged my mom to let me take dance classes. I was only three and she figured I’d lose interest quickly; she was wrong. Dance filled my world and defined who I was. By the time I was in middle school, I was dancing five days a week and planning a professional dance career.
As a teen when I would bandage aching blisters or lose yet another toenail, my father would ask me why I continued to dance. If I complained, he would tell me I should quit. The years of endless classes, the aching muscles, the feet wrecked from pointe shoes—none of it mattered. I battled my body into submission to ballet. I kept chasing after the feeling I had as a little girl watching the exquisite ballerina. I wanted to capture that feeling again, to become what she was.
My winding journey with dance could fill a book. I lost hope in my dream and quit for a while, only to find myself weeping outside a ballet studio shortly after beginning college. I came running back to my first love, changing my major to pursue dance full-time. I kept fighting for the dream despite professors’ lack of belief in me, and traditional wisdom that said a career in dance was not a sustainable life. Every now and then I would glimpse a kind of transcendence: that fleeting moment on stage when a series of memorized steps becomes a moment when the rhythm flows within and through you. I didn’t end up pursuing that career; God took me in other directions, but the love never kept chasing me down.
My body knows the movements my mind can no longer name. It’s been years since I’ve taken a class but the patterns have been etched like deep grooves into my muscle memory. I can still go through the motions of a complete ballet class on days I can’t seem to call my children by the right name. The notes of a song will take me over and I can’t help but move with the music. It reminds me that I will never stop belonging to the dance; it is part of who I am.
Under the Christmas tree, I found the tiny book with golden-edged pages. My mom had sewn a lacy cloth cover to protect its delicate binding. Like I begged for ballet shoes, I begged for a Bible. I thought the answers to what I was searching for would lie inside. It became my icon, a symbol of a Jesus I wanted but didn’t understand. I longed to feel closeness with God and poured over the pages. No answers came.
I can’t explain the hunger I had for God early in life except to say that it was something borne in me. It wasn’t something I learned as a child. I have more vivid memories of hide-and-seek and MTV than I do of the church. I vaguely remember flannel graphs, Oreos, and tiny cups of juice the few times I attended Sunday school as a child. Yet it felt like there was something drawing me to this Jesus I heard and read snatches of stories about.
I don’t remember actually making the choice to go to the back of the room to pray with someone the first time I attended a youth group meeting with friends. The magnetism of the God I had been searching for drew me in, and I was hooked. I met Jesus that night, instead of only glimpsing him from afar.
I threw myself full-force into all the right moves. I memorized them like the exercises of the ballet barre. I learned the routines of a Jesus follower, giving myself to the tutelage of those who could tell me more about him...