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.
Suddenly, the sunlight was blotted out by the angry smoke that curled toward the sky. A row of cylindrical chimneys signaled our entrance into the brick factory district on the outskirts of Dhaka. The air hung heavy with the texture of coal emanating in dark clouds from the kilns. As our family rode by we watched workers stack bricks six high on their heads to carry them to trucks. Their back-breaking work of making bricks sent an endless supply of construction material back into the city.
But the work of building didn’t end there. In the year and a half we lived in the capital of Bangladesh, we watched the skyline around our flat constantly shifting. Our building would shake in the middle of the night as truckloads of bricks were emptied into the street. The next morning we would emerge to wave at the construction workers as they sat on a growing pile of rubble. They were already hard at work shattering those very same bricks.
With only one source of stone in the country, bricks were used for construction but also broken down to make the ingredients for concrete. We daily watched clouds of red dust darken the site as women and children shattered the bricks by hand and carried them into mixers to build the foundations of new apartment buildings.
We always said, “What a waste of hard work to make those bricks! I can’t believe they’re just breaking them now!” But it was the only resource they had. And so, they continued to build with what they’d been given. They built up and tore down and built up again. Day by day we watched the city slowly inch higher on the backs of these workers.
When God gave me “build” as my word of the year for 2020, I anticipated starting out with finished raw materials and seeing progress rise all around me. I mean, I was ready. I’d spent long enough tearing down and living in limbo. I’d down deep soul work and was ready to see changes in my life. I promised to let go of plans and to and accept whatever came next, laying brick upon brick as God unfolded the next season.
I started the year with hesitant excitement, still adjusting to being back in the U.S. I'd started a new job in digital communications. My husband, Lee, was still looking for work. We had moved into a home we thought would be a temporary arrangement but then decided to stay, planning renovations and additions. Possibilities to create a future nearly from scratch seemed promising.
I had long been yearning for a more contemplative approach to community worship, a place my wandering heart might belong. I'd attended church in eight (some wildly) different denominations/traditions throughout all my moves. I'd visited so many others around the world and gone on retreats annually to a Trappist monastery for years. Amidst so much shifting faith practice—I didn’t feel like the church “home” I was coming back to in the U.S. was home anymore. I fought it for my family, but I knew I couldn’t stay.
In January our church visiting as a family had stalled and we decided to pursue two different avenues. Lee and the kids would attend what had been our home church before we moved to Bangladesh, and I would attend an Episcopal church we had visited during Advent. I felt like I had found a place, at last, I could belong.
The kids were starting to feel settled in their new schools and we had a solid routine down where I worked while they were at school and wrote on weekend mornings at a coffee shop in the early hours while they slept. Lee started his new job and I was talking with an editor about a book idea that was consuming my thoughts. I could just see this new future rising toward the sky.
It baffles my husband, how I can focus on writing amidst a room full of noise. I often get up before the rest of my family rises and write for hours on a weekend morning (I'm writing this now from Starbucks on a cold, rainy Sunday morning). Other people’s conversations fade into the background and I can hear clearly the words I am supposed to be putting down on the page.
When I chose the word “Still” to guide my year, I imagined a place more like the monastery I visit for retreats yearly than the coffee shops in which I write. I envisioned crafting a quiet place in my life to focus on God and the path ahead in another big transition year as we moved back to the U.S. from South Asia.
As is usually the case, that is not at all what I found.
This year was less like the holy quiet of the abbey church and more like the strange solitude of the writer in the middle of the noisy coffee shop. This year was the life raft somehow still upright while the winds of a squall raged around it.
I started off leaning into the stillness. Shortly after we returned to the U.S., I spent a beautiful weekend in the holy quiet of the monastery in my first fully silent retreat. I lapped up the silence like a parched animal. The path before us felt hard but full of possibilities.
But as our transition wore on and reality set in, I couldn’t run away to quiet places removed from the new life we were supposed to be building. And stillness in the middle of that kind of chaos wasn’t just hard to find; it was painful. It showed me that I thought coming “home” would fix a lot of broken things in my own heart. But like you can’t run away from yourself, you can’t expect her to be waiting for you in a place you left. I longed for answers and thought I’d find them in the quiet. I found more questions, more tender and broken places that needed tending.
We encountered renovating a home, joblessness, a family that looked very changed than when we left them, a new school, a lack of community (people changed; you change), and a whole lot of aching for what we left behind in South Asia. After a couple of months when the ache hadn’t left and the stumbling around in the dark remained, it was time to face that we weren’t going to walk into a new beginning and find wholeness. We found things a lot more shattered than we had left them, instead.
It felt like every person in my life was bearing the same kind of weight as I groped around for hope: caregiving, chronic illness, mental health issues, financial, job, or marriage strain. I stacked these weights upon my own and felt my knees buckle. Continue Reading
(Miss Part One? Read A Movement Toward Stillness)
“Let there come a word of solace, a voice that speaks into the shattering, reminding you that who you are is here, every shard somehow holding the whole of you that you cannot see but is taking shape even now, piece joining to piece in an ancient, remembered rhythm that bears you not toward restoration, not toward return – as if you could somehow become unchanged – but steadily deeper into the heart of the one who has already dreamed you complete.” – Jan Richardson, Blessing for a Whole Heart
“The dark night of the soul is the pivot point.” – Michelle Derusha, True You: Letting Go of Your False Self to Uncover the Person God Created
Like my slow journey toward stillness, I have been on the road to understanding my belovedness in God for years. When fellow writers spoke over me, assuring me I was God’s beloved, I wept. But I didn’t truly understand it in my core. I gobbled up Brennan Manning’s words to his Abba earlier this year and longed for that kind of knowing and being known with my Father. When my counselor gave me one assignment for my entire vacation this summer, it was to internalize the words of Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty Savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”
Always it was a movement toward acceptance and stillness: Accepting that I don’t have to earn God’s love; accepting that the Spirit is ever present even when I can’t feel it. I’ve been slowly learning how to climb up into the lap of my Daddy and knowing I am his beloved and rest in that. Slowly. Learning.
As this long year of was drawing to a close, I couldn't explain a new feeling I had. It was like the scratchy woolen blanket that had smothered me for months was being replaced by the gentle down of a comforter that kept me warm but let me breathe. It felt like being a sapling breaking through the crackling ground above. From the outside, it didn’t look like there was any growth. But slowly green was unfurling, proof that indeed life was still happening in the silence.
Then I read the words of Jan Richardson and a mirror was held up to my soul. If the words of her Walking Blessing spoke about this year I have spent walking in the wilderness, this new blessing (Blessing for a Whole Heart) spoke to the path ahead: deeper into the heart of the One who loves and knows me.
Next, I was given an advance copy of Michelle Derusha’s new book on the heels of slowly digesting Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond on shedding the false self and living into the true you. And the place from which I was emerging finally had a name – what St. John of the Cross calls the Dark Night of the Soul.
As I read about Derusha’s journey into doubt and her analogy of the dark night as the painful pruning of a tree before there can be new growth, I sat in silence for a long time. I didn’t exactly want to thank the Lord for the darkness but I knew it was the place where I began to find the light…so I did.
“Your identity comes not from what you do, but from who you are in God. Once you understand at the core of your being that you are truly God’s beloved – delighted in and cherished by God – everything else falls into place,” I read in Derusha’s book that was like a lamp shedding light on the way forward.
Derusha talks about her practice of stillness, how she would spend a few minutes a day on a park bench amidst her daily walks. Those moments of stillness grew into longer periods of silence on a writer’s retreat in which she came face to face with her own dark night of the soul.
The day after I finished her book, I opened the sliding door that leads onto the veranda outside of my bedroom. I sat on the hammock that has remained unused during the long months of tropical heat and felt the cool breeze of late autumn on my face. It felt like the hand of my Mother saying, “Be still, my child. My beloved.” I said thank you for experiencing pruning and being laid bare, for whatever lays beyond the dark night.
The first day I sat in stillness I felt the usual restlessness rising up in me. I felt a need to control my thoughts, to do something. The second day I watched the delicate black and white magpies building a nest on the ledge of the building next to me. I watched the construction workers slowly stretching their arms to the sky, still shaking off the weariness of morning. I felt a twinge of sadness when the timer dinged ten minutes later, calling me back inside.
I didn’t have any profound revelations. I didn’t feel any movement. I felt stillness. I felt I was right where I should be—still enough to listen. Quiet enough to hear.
I don’t have any magic formulas to offer after several years of walking the path toward stilling the noise of the world and the noise inside my own head long enough to hear God speak. I finally realize there aren’t any. There is the daily showing up to listen and the acceptance of the journey, that it is a lifelong trek.
“There is an anxiety incompleteness to be sure. But there is also peace in the relinquishing, in knowing that God continues his good work in us and through us, even when we can’t yet see what will be,” Derusha promises. And I believe her.
My One word for 2019 is an obvious one, the next progression in my movement toward solitude and silence. It is the intention I am setting over the next year of my life: Still. Even though I feel a momentum moving me out of the darkness, I know that there is still more growth that needs to happen in the quiet, still places underneath the surface. I know this is the place to which I always need to return. And so I do—I finally stop. And then I begin.
Let's encourage each other and I'll be praying for your journey this coming year. You can also share it at the official #oneword365 community.
Interested in stillness/contemplation or finding out more about crafting a rule of life? Here are some good places to start (some I mentioned in this series) as you journey into the new year:
Sacred Ordinary Days resources for Rule of Life, the liturgical calendar, and more
True You - Michelle Derusha
Flee, Be Silent, Pray - Ed Cyzewski
Sacred Rhythms - Ruth Haley Barton
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