My hands shook as I grasped the metal bar next to the window tighter. “Why did you insist we come here if you are so afraid?” my husband whispered above the sound of the cable creaking above us. Our family was perched above the Malaysian rainforest, going ever higher by the moment. We ascended steadily on the steepest and longest single-span cable car in the world.
It was Christmas Day and everything about Langkawi was different than our noisy home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I knew this was a chance we’d never have again and one that my husband and son were dreaming of, one that we would all remember forever. I wouldn’t let my fears hold us back, so I insisted we come. My daughter, ever cautious like me, reflected my anxiety over the height back at me and I gripped her hand tightly. “We can do this,” I insisted. We were rewarded richly for our courage when we reached the top. The light reflecting off the Andaman Sea, the views extending all the way to Thailand, and the lush forest below—they were worth every racing heartbeat.
I don’t remember always being this anxious. In fact, I remember being quite fearless as a child. As a dancer, I loved to perform. As Drum Major of the marching band, I reveled in winning first place in competitions and being the best. I remember feeling like there was nothing I couldn’t do. As I got older, I feel somehow, I got smaller. More unable to believe in myself. Less sure of my own opinions and gifts. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be good. I wanted to do all the right things. And I grew afraid.
My adventurous spirit was never quelled, though, even by my fears. I want to see the world, every messy and beautiful corner of it. I want to taste it all and take it in. That’s hard to do cowering in the corner.
In 2021, the word “Dwell” chose me, and I tried to let it guide me to a place of settling, of home. Instead, it led me to dwell deeper in the heart of the God who unsettles us, who shakes us up and pushes us beyond what is comfortable.
This is my home, my place to dwell—in the mystery of the God who always keeps me guessing as to how he could speak into the life of someone like me. I finished the master’s degree I began so many years ago and thought was only a dream for me. We bought a house, and we took steps to put down roots after four years of constant transition. And yet it wasn’t a year of finished goals. It feels like it was only the beginning.
On the last day of the year, the sun tiptoed out from behind the rainclouds that had lingered all week. With trepidation, I descended the trail away from the Ignatius House where I had come to spend the morning in prayer. The soft ground gave way beneath my feet as I left the treetops to walk along the Chattahoochee River.
This river feels as if it has flowed along with me through the year, a companion on what was a frightening and exuberating pilgrimage. In the summer I ventured up to North Georgia twice. Once I went to spend the weekend with the friend that has known my struggles with my calling and my fears probably better than anyone since we were just girls in college; once with the man who has walked beside me on our moves me around the world and back (twice). Even raised going to these mountains, I had never floated down the Chattahoochee—a hallmark Georgia experience. I knew this was an adventure I needed to have.
Twice last summer I tubed down the river for hours. We slowly took in the sights and let our fingers linger in the cold, clear, spring water. In places it was so shallow you could scrape your hands along the rocky bottom. Other spots sent us squealing through rapids and that old familiar frenemy fear made my heart race as the rocks sent us reeling. On those weekends we sat next to the bubbling water and talked about the struggles of the pandemic, the unlikely places God has taken us, and being brave enough to walk on through the fear.
There at the retreat center in Atlanta, the river looked like a different one altogether. After flowing nearly 100 miles south of the mountains, through the city, its wide banks revealed a deep and muddy river that crawled by. It was the same water, but it had been completely transformed by its journey. It was no longer pristine. Yet wide and powerful, it was still surging on toward its destination, unscathed. Continue Reading
My fingers lingered on the smooth contours of the olive wood carving as I placed it on the mantle. The faceless Mary and Joseph figures cradled a little bundle, a mystery they would watch unfold through their lives. Could they ever imagine what his life ahead would fully hold, where it would take them all?
As I decorated for Christmas, the house we had been living in for a little over a month started to take on the feel of home. Until then, it had felt like just another temporary living situation. That carving had seen more than its share of new places in the past few years. The year I brought it home from the little shop in Jerusalem’s Arab quarter it had its first and last Christmas in the house we then lived in.
We packed the Holy Family statue among our ten suitcases and carried it along with us through temporary homes—a basement apartment we occupied after we sold our house but before we left the country and then the flat of our new boss in South Asia as we scoured the city for a place to live. It was one of the few precious items that decorated our little flat in Dhaka for the next two Christmases. The year after we returned to the U.S., we put it up to decorate the friend’s house we lived in, but our hearts were still torn between continents.
We weren’t sure what home looked like anymore. We thought we would stay there a long time, like the other places we had ended up only passing through. We made plans to renovate that house and as we rebuilt our lives, we inched toward a feeling of belonging for half a year. Then, the pandemic threw the whole world into the kind of transition our family been experiencing for the past four years. We all occupied a kind of liminal space between the world we knew before and one that had yet to reveal itself. What would life look like on the other side of Covid?
As I stared down all the unknowns of 2021, I held onto the word “dwell” and longed to find a place where my soul could breathe again. I wondered if I could find a place in the in-between to flourish. I wrote, “Dwell: It is an invitation to live in the now and not-yet that is our life or faith instead of always chasing after the next thing, the answers, and the illusions of perfection. Can we sit awhile in this half-built house around us and stare out at the trees? Can we accept the mystery and be just where we are?”
The half-built house was metaphoric and literal for me. We had begun renovations that stalled and every part of me itched for something that felt whole. I had joined a new church that I could not yet feel a part of because we couldn’t meet in person. I enrolled in school, looking to finish the master’s degree in theology I had begun seventeen years before, not even sure what completing my studies would mean for me. I ached for feeling settled at last. My word was more of a wish than anything else. Continue Reading
I sit in the place that will one day make up the center of my labyrinth. The leg of the chair teeters precariously between two pieces of gravel. It’s not yet the smooth surface of a path it will be. I try to imagine what this garden will look like then.
There will be a finished path to the front of the property, pots of flowering plants adding a splash of spring color to the morning. When I stand here in the future, I will see a budding rose bush and the flowering clematis vines climbing the retaining wall. It’s hard to see it now in the blurry morning light. I can’t quite grasp it.
It isn’t complete yet. In fact, it hardly looks like more than a mess right now. The prayer garden I dream of is, for now, a mound of gravel haphazardly deposited in the yard. The red clay beneath is freshly turned up, exposing the roots and weeds, tracks from the tires of the tractor, and earthworms squinting in the light of their unearthed tunnels.
One day, where I am sitting will be part of a path placed purposely here for the sole means of reflection, for a slow quiet look at God. In this spot in the middle of the winding labyrinth, there will be part of a path unfolding in front of me, and some of it already behind me. This will be the middle of the pilgrimage toward the center or back out again.
Today, I can’t close my eyes and imagine that picture – whole and complete before me. I only see the tools left in the yard from yesterday’s work, the rusting gas tank, the brambles, and the downed trees left behind after the land was cleared. Ugly things. Frustrating, unfinished things.
But I want to see something different and so here I sit. Continue Reading
It seems like the logical next step. Except I know enough of God by now to know that logic has nothing to do with the journey of this life.
Last year, still straddling the transition between life in Asia and life in the U.S., God gave me the word, “build.” There were obvious literal applications as we rebuilt our lives in a home that didn’t feel like home, as Lee built a new career, and we renovated a home that needed to grow with our family.
Dwell is a clear follow-up word, right? Once you build something, you live in it. And yet, it is anything but evident to me that this should be the next step. The way the word “build” guided me into understanding myself and the need to love the incompleteness of this life in the last year was unexpected.
I realized I had been looking for a place to belong and instead found abundance in the midst of always being a pilgrim wandering toward home. More than anything, I learned to let go, to accept the life that is always going to be lived under construction and in-between brokenness and wholeness.
My word for 2021 first floated into my mind late last fall as I sat beneath the enveloping branches of a Magnolia tree. I had walked by these same trees a dozen times but never stopped to truly look at them. But my pace that day as I walked around the monastery on a silent retreat allowed me the time to stop and to see anew.
As I sat inside the hollow the branches created and thought about how I had spent 2020 with my word for the year so far, I realized I had started the year with anticipation and momentum, only to find—like everyone else—that the world came to a standstill. As I sat in silent prayer, God showed me all the things that were built in me throughout the year. While outward movement stopped, my roots grew deeper.
The word "dwell" entered my mind like a leaf on the breeze but I didn't hold onto it yet. I opened my hand and let it float away, waiting to see if it returned.
It kept coming to the forefront of my thoughts throughout the next month, though. With it came the echoes of a verse of Scripture many of us know well: “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37.3, ESV).
The Psalm is said to have been written by King David in his old age. The people of God, indeed, lived in the promised land when he wrote those words, but not in a perfect kingdom. David had seen war, failure, the inability to build the temple to God he saw as a completion of the kingdom, betrayal, loss. Looking back on his reign, it was far from complete. He must have looked back with regrets and a longing to see the fulfillment of the goodness God has promised his people.
And yet, he looked forward also with trust. With a belief that amidst an imperfect world God’s people could still see good, do good, and yet dwell in the land with faithfulness.
Dwell. It is an invitation to take the time to be present, even in the imperfection. To take the time to listen to God. “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” asks Mary Oliver.
“While the soul, after all, is only a window,
And the opening of the window no more difficult
Than the wakening from a little sleep”
Wake up. Throw open the window. Breathe deeply. Dwell.
It is an invitation to live in the now and not-yet that is our life or faith instead of always chasing after the next thing, the answers, and the illusions of perfection. Can we sit awhile in this half-built house around us and stare out at the trees? Can we accept the mystery and be just where we are?
It is an invitation to live in this world as broken as it may be and to still believe it can be better, that we can be part of making it better. David never saw the temple complete in his life but he built a foundation that his son then continued to build upon. Can we live in the broken places without being consumed by them, to continue to hope?
We may not see how the tiny acts of faithfulness we live out make a difference, but we can trust that they will unite together with all the other tiny acts of faithfulness to matter. Can we dig down into the places God has planted us and take the very next step to build a more Beloved Community?
We’re not done building this home, this Beloved Community in which we live and work and play and dream together. And yet, we must dwell in it—in all it’s imperfections and missing pieces.
We can’t always be chasing after something we don’t yet have or the things we’ve lost. Right now is what we’ve been given. We need to find ways to live at peace in it and to find the beauty in it.
And yet, we keep reaching to make it better, to renovate and redesign and bring more people into the midst of this promised land that we know will be beautiful in time.
How do you see God showing you to dwell in the one life you’ve been given? How do you allow yourself to be present in daily life, in God’s presence, in the now and not yet? Do you struggle with restlessness, discontentment, or despair? How do you feel challenged to “befriend faithfulness” in your current situation?
Do you have one word to guide your year? What do you hope this word brings you this year? What change or growth would you like to see it bring your way in 2021?
Leave me your One word below if you want me to pray for you (or send me a message through the Contact page if you don’t want it to be public). I’d love to be a part of your journey this year.
Listen. Learn. Love. is my monthly letter to you, the one who wants to find the places where faith and action intersect. Sign up here.
I peel off the sticky neon yellow gloves, a mixture of sawdust, paint, and polyurethane caked on them. The new color of the island matches my Asian Blue Willow china perfectly, but it is a bit bright for the farmhouse kitchen. I still need to sand the edges, add some stain, drill holes for the milk glass knobs. I push down the little bit of anxiety I feel at thought of leaving it unfinished for days before I'll have a chance to work on it again. I rub my aching wrist as I head to wash the paintbrush and focus on the gratitude I feel, instead. I didn't know I could do such things, that I had the ability to make this kind of progress—in my house, in my life, in my soul.
I started the year clinging to the word God gave me: build. I wanted to see progress, in our life that was still in a state of transition. I wanted to see clearly where we were headed next. We'd had so many detours and upsets in our plans over the past five years. I wanted to build on a solid foundation, dig deeper roots into the soil of Georgia where we determined to settle after living in South Asia.
But 2020 was the breaker of plans and the upsetter of settled lives everywhere. In many ways, life hit the pause button for us all. My family was more fortunate than most amidst the global pandemic. Our family and those close to us remained healthy. After eight months of unemployment, Lee had only been in his new job for a month when the world began to shut down all around us. His job was deemed essential and while the new small business faltered, it emerged from 2020 with no furloughs or loss of income for us. I already worked from home. The shift to single parenting virtually-schooled children while I continued to work from home and Lee worked long hours away wasn't easy. The support of a faith community slipped away as the new church I had just started attending went online. My creativity was non-existent. Plans to write a book proposal were shelved. Construction on our home addition crawled along in the two or three free days a month we had to work on it ourselves. Depression and anxiety loomed near.
As the leaves fell, the isolation stretched on, and every day bled seamlessly into the next, I spent a weekend alone on a silent retreat. I spent a lot of time just walking and asking God to make me aware of God's presence in the year. I revisited the dreams and goals I had written down in a workbook at the dawn of the new year. I marked out big events I had written on a timeline and grieved their loss: The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, a pilgrimage to New Mexico a friend had raised funds for me to attend, a work trip to D.C., vacation with our best friends we hadn't gathered with in years while living overseas, our daughter's first lead in a play, our son's soccer season, family gatherings, the 90th birthday party of the matriarch of Lee's family... So many beautiful things 2020 had taken from us.
Next to a roadmap of the year that was now scrawled with x-ed out plans, I had copied a blessing written for me at the beginning of the year by a writer friend who never ceases to encourage others and offer her quiet wisdom. "May you see in concrete ways that you have everything you need to build. All the tools. Right with you know. The abundance." wrote Marlena Graves. "And that you will see in the land of the living how the Lord is restoring the years the locusts have eaten. May your writing and influence increase. And I ask God that you would know in a very real way his provision this year."
I began to write out what I'd seen built in our lives in the previous months and what tools it took to build them. I made a list of the things 2020 had given us. Our family had gone from fractured and uncertain about our place in the world to settled. Lee found his next steps in a job he enjoyed and healing from hurts inflicted by dashed dreams. Nadia told me though she didn't get to perform her play, the friends she gained from the daily rehearsals helped her feel like she belonged in her new school. Our unique living situation sharing a property with our best friends meant we didn't quarantine alone. Every morning Sadie and I met on the steps of her porch to talk and watch the dogs play together (our new pandemic puppy the fifth dog in our little pack). We hired someone to lay the pipe that will one day go to our new bathroom, and in the process reconnected with this friend we've known for over twenty years. He and his family became part of our little family, our little community we are seeing built right before our eyes. They were the light in a dark year.
The literal building going on around us felt achingly slow for an anxious perfectionist who craves order and completion. The yard became a construction heap: gravel to be shoveled for a foundation, piles of wood, tools, and tarps. It was a constant visual reminder of the limbo we lived in, the way our house and life was under construction. But when I stopped to compare photos from a year before, I could see the gifts of the year. If I could see past the rubble, I could see the potential. We'd gone from a crumbling, rotting deck to a tiled foundation and the frame of what will be a screened-in porch that will house a new living area for our family and an under-the-stairs home office for me.
But the real gift was in the process: the days we spent laughing with our friends that gave up their weekend to shovel gravel and pour concrete, the picnics on the kitchen floor we were tiling, the milkshakes to cap off a day in the heat, the meals we ate on the porch table made up for sawhorses and plywood. The pride I felt in what we accomplished with our own hands, with the tools I had I didn't know I even possessed. I had them all along: Friends willing to sacrifice for us and love us enough to patiently endure our bumbling construction skills. The endurance to keep going week after week when the progress feels non-existent. A family that has withstood living in transition and come out knowing a little more about the communication and patience it takes to make it out the other side. A God who is so patient with us, who lovingly grows us through dark nights and troubles, through the love of others, and new beginnings.
An echo of Marlena's blessing over me in 2020, I wrote this verse on a whiteboard over my desk in January: "We went through fire and through water, yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance." (Psalm 66.12). Still very much in the middle of the fire, I wrote those words believing they would be true, claiming God's promises to never leave us. Our abundance may not look like a finished house. It may not look like accomplished plans or a published book. But it is abundance, indeed. It is the ability to love a life under construction, to find God in the stumbling steps, to love each other and find laughter amidst the chaos, and healing in the building.
So as we stand again at the thin space between years—I extend the blessing to you, too. Whatever you have seen the world tear down in your life this year, may you see you have the tools to build something beautiful. Right there with you, inside you. May you be able to sift through the rubble and find the beauty. May you be able to see past the construction to what it will be and love every step of the process. May you never stop building.