“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...
Maybe it’s the desperate hope that somehow the tide of the pandemic will finally turn and we’ll see a return to some semblance of the life we knew before. But I’ve been feeling the need to mark the days lately, to remember.
As summer unofficially ended in the U.S. with Labor Day, I noticed something strange in the air. Lately, each passing day has felt like another bead on the string of weeks woven together in this unending loop we’re in. We’ve rounded this corner half a dozen times now as we mark six months of pandemic life.
As the days have blurred together, we’ve had to be intentional to find things to make important days stand out. We didn’t plan to commemorate Labor Day in any sense. I needed to write, so I stole a few moments away at a nearby lake. I enjoyed the silence of nature but noticed the noise as well: families laughing, children screaming, dogs barking. Many had come out to enjoy the last day of summer.
While picnic blankets were spread farther apart than previous years and masks reminded us of what we’ve lost in recent days, the rhythmic beating of shallow waves against the rocks reminded me of what stays the same. I realized we can still hold onto those things if we’ll stop to notice them.
I stopped writing and called to tell my husband and kids to get ready. We needed to observe this day together. We needed to remember in hope...
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...
Shame was a language I learned early, right along with how to say “please” and “thank you.” There was an unspoken etiquette we learned growing up in the Southern United States. The tea should be sweet. You should address people older than you as “ma’am” and “sir.” I knew the taste of collard greens and banana pudding, as well as the proper use of the phrase, “bless her heart” to camouflage your disdain for someone in a prayer. We were known for our hospitality and kindness. We were always polite and proper—to people’s faces. Appearances mattered, often more than anything else.
I spent a good bit of my childhood being lulled into summer evening bliss by the rhythmic rocking of wooden chairs and the tinkle of the wind chimes hung on a long porch. My sister and I spent days down by the creek, running as fast as we could past our grandpa’s beehives. Our hands were stained from the red clay and black muscadine juice, calloused from shelling peas and stirring pots of beans.
But during those lazy afternoons on the porch, the stories flowed like molasses, sweet and sticky in the summer sun. Oh, that girl down the road the got married a little young. We all knew why. That neighbor had a liking for the bottle, everyone said. Shh, don’t say it too loud, someone might hear you. But wasn’t there a guy in school whose momma just got out of the hospital? You know, for taking too many pills?
If you stepped outside the cultural expectations, you would be the talk of the town. One thing I never learned was the language of grace. We were never taught to talk about all our failings or about the healing we can find when we say it out loud. We didn’t know what life could be like when we admitted our mistakes and asked for help. We just knew to sweep the dark corners of our lives under the rug, afraid someone would find out and whisper about us, too.
It was never said explicitly but the implications were clear. Don’t let people see your weaknesses. Manners matter more than transparency. And, for goodness sake, keep up appearances.
When I started attending church in my teens, I wrapped a new layer of right actions around me like a bullet-proof vest. I knew just what to say and do (and what and who to avoid) to appear like the best Christian. We talked all about a personal relationship with Christ, but what I really gained was another set of standards I needed to uphold.
Years later, after lapses that certainly made me the talk of all the good folks I knew in my church days, I longed for Jesus but I wasn’t so sure about his people. I knew I was a horrible mess and I was hungry for someone that could offer me more than appearances. I’ll never forget the kind people that poured into hurting students in the college ministry where I finally discovered a different dialect. They replaced the language of failure, shame, and secrecy with words like vulnerability, lament, mercy, and restoration...