The walls of a monastery have held the echoes of my thoughts for the past few New Years. The cold, smooth stone became the embodiment of silence and peace for me as I reflected on the year behind, dreamed of what lie ahead. I have always been able to hear God so clearly in the silence carved out by the Benedictine Brothers that have informed so much of my spiritual life for the past few years. I crave this kind of silence in my daily life but outside the abbey walls it seems unattainable.
This year my New Year’s Reflections were anything but clean and cool and silent. We were traveling by train outside of our new home in the most densely populated city on earth, where silence is but a dream. I was thrilled to be in a rural area over the weekend that stretched across the New Year. I dreamed about sitting under the stars that I can’t even see from the hazy capital city sky. My aspirations of a tidy time for reflection were met with disappointment as yes, the moon and stars were beautiful, but I could only sit under them for a minute before the mosquitos drove me back inside. Yes, I was in a place of beauty but even in this wild area of jungle and tea gardens, voices and songs filled the night with noise.
So much like my desire for the perfect place for reflection, my daily spiritual life always feels lacking. My works-focused evangelical faith has often provided a goal, an unachievable standard. I can say I believe in grace all day long but still try to heap up works that prove how much I love God. If I can’t seem to hear God’s voice in prayer, I give Him the silent treatment for days to follow. If I can’t have my ideal 5 am quiet time of silence and journaling, prayer and Bible reading, I just throw in the towel all together and call myself a failure. Nothing is ever enough. It was striving, burned out faith that led me to seek out contemplation and silence in the first place.
On my weekend away I started reading Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms, hoping to find a little peace. It was like I was reading my own journal: “Our longing for a way of life that works is most often met with an invitation to more activity, which unfortunately plays right into our compulsions and the drivenness of Western culture.”
I said I was giving up resolutions a couple years ago but never really let go of my unattainable aspirations of perfection. I dressed them up as a Rule of Life, something that felt more holy. But they were still goals with a timeline attached, something to strive for—something to fall short of. Every broken promise was a reminder that I couldn’t seem to change my life.
I started choosing one word to guide my year as a means to focus less on goals and more on what I wanted the year to embody. In 2016 I chose the word practice, exploring spiritual practices that I hoped would draw me closer to God. It was a year of leaning into silence and contemplation but I felt like all my learning never turned into something that could sustain me.
In 2017 I felt exploring led way to establishing, rhythm becoming my guiding word of the year. I hoped to establish unforced rhythms in my life, take some of what I was learning and make it part of my every day (practicing examen instead of just reading about it, finding ways to weave silence into my daily practices). But 2017 was a year that would prove to bring the most upheaval into my life I have ever experienced. Changing plans, shifting dreams, moving four times and finally settling 8000 miles from home—my plans to grow deeply rooted felt thwarted when all I knew was uprooted over and over again.
So tired of feeling like a failure at the end of every year, worn on from the striving, I settled onto the train to return home on the morning of the first day of 2018. I watched a world so exotic to me roll by. Women precariously balance jars of water on their heads as men plucked the rice plants from the water logged paddies. Extraordinary to me. Utterly mundane to the people who live day to day in these villages stretching out before my eyes. It seemed the whole of humanity passed before my eyes in those hours. Beggars and the lame. Children and the old. Women in their best getting ready to board the train for a holiday. As I watched them I thought God are you here? Are you with them as you are with me? Are you with me?
Something breathed into my spirit and in the least silent moment I can imagine, God met me there, assuring me that He was with me. That He was in this place in more ways than I can possibly imagine. “Solitutde is a place inside myself where God’s Spirit and my spirit dwell together in union,” says Barton. I was truly alone with Him on that ride and for a few minutes I could let go of my need for the perfect. I was just there. So was my loving Father.
My 2018 word settled into my soul in those moments. I am done trying to drum up the perfect plan, with the striving, the goals, the failure. I can’t hear Him if I am running ahead all the time. I can find a still place in the noisiest city on earth, in my always-churning thoughts.
I just want to be where I am. I just want to be where He is. Present.
Join the conversation: Do you have One Word you have chosen for 2018 and what ways are you weaving it into your life this year? What ways do you find to let go of your perfectionism? How do you find stillness in a chaotic world? How do you find ways to be present each day?
I was impressed by the monumental size of the stones, the mystery of how the ancients could build something so incredible. The sheer novelty of being next to such famous structures. But I tried to play it cool. We weren’t tourists; we had come to plant our lives in the Middle East.
We moved to Cairo at the end of summer with the heat still blazing down on us. We trekked through the unfamiliar streets to find grocery stores and vegetable stands, bakeries and shawarma stalls. We made at least four stops to get everything we needed for the week. Just running normal errands took every bit of effort my husband and I had as we explored our new city. Between the exhaustion from the heat and the mental strain of navigating life in a strange city, in a language we couldn’t yet understand — we were spent.
When friends offered to take us to the Pyramids, about half an hour from our new home, we welcomed the break from all of the practicalities.
Every photo I’d ever seen of the Pyramids showed these mammoth wonders of the world against a backdrop of breathtaking desert and not much else. Perhaps a camel or tourists looking like they were the size of ants would dot the base. But in pictures you get the impression that the Pyramids sit in the middle of an endless desert.
When we first spotted the famous landmarks, the peaks coming into view through the haze that seemed to hang in the air, every notion I had about the Pyramids changed.
Our car wove in and out of traffic. The honks were just friendly reminders that each car had to fight for space on the bumpy roads that transported twenty million people through the city. We rounded a bend and there they were—not in the middle of the desert but right in the heart of the bustling city. All those magnificent photos that are so famous are shot from the front of the Pyramids, with the Sphinx at the base.
But look from another angle and you will glimpse the complexities of life in this land—the ancient and the modern side by side. Wonders of the ancient world sit right next to the Pizza Hut…
The party was completely pin-worthy, Pinterest-perfect. Donning my little hand-made hat, I walked around the party watching the kids decorate their tea cups and laughing at the rabbit and queen of hearts costumes. The mad-hatter cake was just tilted enough, the frosting looking too good to cut into.
When a friend commented the next day how wonderful my five-year-old daughter’s party had been, saying “I don’t know how you do it all” I smiled modestly and cheerfully said something about just not sleeping but I was lying through my fake smile, hiding all the cracks underneath the surface.
Inside I was trying to do everything I thought I was expected to do and be something no one asked me to be, least of all my family. Like the slightly chipped teacups I bought at the thrift store for the party, I looked good on the outside but imperceptibly, quietly, I was cracking.
The voices on every side were bombarding me, telling me everything I should be doing. Feed your kids organic food, but live frugally and buy locally. Work out and get that perfect body, but make sure you don’t spend too much time away from your family. You can have that perfect party at little cost when you make it all yourself, but slow down so you don’t miss out on your kid's lives. The contradicting voices cried out, clawed at me, and made me feel inadequate, harried, and always less than enough.
By the end of that year, I was barely keeping the tight anxiety in my chest at bay, fighting exhaustion, and feeling far from God. I couldn’t fit everything into the day. Between my family, work, church, volunteering and everything I believed I had to do, God was relegated to the leftover edges of my life. I knew I couldn’t live like that anymore and I started practicing saying “no” to things.
Committing to live more simply, I pulled back on commitments, tried to let go of all the perfection, and promised to listen to God’s voice instead of all the other ones I had let become my Master that year. I spent more time just being with my family. Parties became small outings and I curled up with my new Bible study and asked God to speak.
The trouble was the voices didn’t stop bombarding me, telling me all the things I should be doing.
They came from authors of books and writers online who promised a more peaceful, spiritual life. They came from the very Bible study I hoped would be the answer to my spiritual dryness. They came from the pulpit on Sunday morning...
Today I am joining my friend, author Tina Osterhouse in her spiritual practices series, writing about the practice of letting go of everything you "should" be doing. Join me there?
Sometimes it is the burdens I bring home from the workday that I unload on my husband. Other times it is the frustrations with the kids or just with daily life. Over the years I have poured out my heart to this man who willingly listens with a nod and a knowing smile. It’s not always pretty.
He rarely offers advice unless I ask and he doesn’t rush in to fix it. He just listens, offers the gift of his presence.
Ever the worrier, I find my balance in him with his effortless trust that everything will be okay in the end. He helps this controller loosen her grip, the fixer in me let others be who they are.
I am the opposite from him in almost every way.
God knows I needed a man like this, even though sometimes I would love him to just be able to fix all of my mess.
A few months ago we celebrated ten years of building this life together and dreamed of some time away, just the two of us. We have been in a particularly stressful season of life lately and the tension building in both of our shoulders showed it.
We sat crunching numbers together as my tears fell down. That cruise we had been looking at booking for our anniversary felt like it was slipping through my fingertips as unexpected expenses piled up.
He gently took my hand. “Trust me?” he asked. “Can we do this, see it as an investment in us?”
My breathing slowed and I wanted to say “no.” I wanted to tell him about how the numbers didn’t add up and why I held onto my worry like a safety net. Instead, I nodded and he squeezed me tight.
I held onto him as he prayed over our kids, our finances, this trip, and our marriage.
As we sat on the deck of that cruise ship under the Caribbean sun, I looked up from my novel, the first I had the chance to read in months. He was engrossed in a book of his own. This day wasn’t some magic solution but it was something we both needed desperately and he knew it. We didn’t talk much that morning on the ship, just held space together.
We’ve been holding space together for ten years now. Sometimes there are words and other times we can just be silent. That’s the beauty of partnership.
I realize how grateful I was for this man who could be with my in the big, joyful moments and sit with me through the struggling ones, too.
I think about what a reflection of Our Father he is in that way. Continue Reading
We all know the rules that governed our parents’ generations have changed. Just watch that black and white TV show with the dad who works to “bring home the bacon” while the mom is in the kitchen. Then look around at the homes of your friends and you will know this isn’t a reality for most of us anymore. About half of American families have two full-time working parents and close to two-thirds have two parents that work at least part-time.
As a mom who is caught between the necessity to work and the desire to be there for my kids, I know that the rules changing also mean the roles have to change for my family to thrive.
Gone are the days when the mother was the primary caregiver and not all dads are the main breadwinner anymore. No matter what the work-home dynamic, the need is the same. Providing for our kids is necessary but our children long for parents who are present.
My husband is fortunate in this season of life to have a job that allows him to work largely from home and when the kids walk through the door he is usually there to ask them about their day. After they get settled in with homework or naps he heads back up to his office, but a day doesn’t pass that he doesn’t take time out to see them for a few minutes. Schedules differ but those precious minutes, whenever they are in our days, should never be negotiable...
Work-home dynamics are changing in our world and there are so many demands on our time. Today I am over at Hey Dadada to encourage parents to “be all there,” really being present in their children’s lives. Join me there?