“But do you believe in you?”
The question landed like a punch in my mid-section, my throat constricting around the rising emotion. “I am trying,” I croaked in response as I attempted to force down tears.
The question was posed by one member of the commission charged with interviewing prospective Priests like myself, those who believed God was calling them into the holy vows of ordained ministry.
I told him how I ended up in that very interview carried on the belief of others, because I chose to listen to what they said they saw in me. I never would have entered the discernment process last year if other people had not spurred me on, saying they saw gifts in me that I couldn’t yet see in myself.
It was the year in which the word “explore” was embodied in every area of my life and I was discovering new lands at every turn. The Priesthood was not a destination I ever imagined for myself, but I committed to following the arrows God placed before me, like the compass that pointed ever true North.
Now at the threshold between years, I look back on the year of exploration, content. I didn’t reach a destination, but I found something more precious: myself.
I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to fit myself into the mold others made for me. I floated between roles in the church and non-profits, and between countries and cultures seamlessly. The adaptability that has been a gift in my ministry across denominations and on three continents has been a curse, too. My chameleon skin, able to take on the color of my surroundings, has changed so many times I didn’t remember the hue of my own flesh anymore.
As I peeled away the layers of others’ expectations, my own fears, a lack of boundaries, and the need for control—I found someone I had forgotten.
She loves God fiercely. She is a gifted communicator. She lights up when she’s among people who have a similar disdain for small talk and want to go deep in spiritual conversation. She loves to help and serve, but she is also a leader. She is a learner at heart but enjoys sharing what she’s learned with others. That makes her a teacher. She’s a bridge builder, able to reach across divides. Her smile is contagious. She has the gift of faith, and can see God working in places others overlook.
It is work every day to believe in myself, to trust that this is who God made me to be, and admit the good things God is working out in me. But after two decades of shrinking back and making myself smaller, I am planting a stake in the ground right here.
Parker Palmer said before we can tell our lives what we want to do with them, we must listen to our lives telling us who we are. “I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity,” he said, “not the standards by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”
My word for 2023 came quickly and firmly into my mind in late December. It feels like a risky word and I admit it scares me more than a little.
“You are incapable of being okay being still, spinning your wheels,” she said. “You are only happy when you are moving forward.”
She is right. This friend has heard me process all my ups and downs during this year of exploration. She has been a safe place to process all my fears, to talk through off-the-wall dissertation ideas, and has just shown up and said, “I see you” when I feel like no one else does.
Her comment about my need for forward motion came after hearing my voice lilt with sadness all week and then pick up with a note of excitement when I told her about the possibility of some new adventures ahead.
The ache I’d been nursing in my heart came from an answer I didn’t want to hear: wait. I’d been so used to the momentum that the screeching halt sent me reeling down a sideroad to dark places that week.
The word “explore” launched me down a trajectory this year that has been often dizzying. I chose it as my One Word for 2022, perhaps hopeful like most people that this year would be the year the world started moving again after nearly two years of holding our breath.
I knew the Spirit was stirring up something deep in my soul that I couldn’t yet name. So, I was determined to follow the path forward until I figured it out. No part of my life remained untouched this year by change and I was committed to riding that transformation into a new, exciting purpose.
I was falling behind, dragging them down. I glimpsed it on their little faces—the fear gathering in their eyes, the shock at seeing their mother so vulnerable. Wasn’t I supposed to be the strong one, always the one taking up the lead? The tears started to roll down my five-year-old son’s cheeks and my heart shattered.
We were in the middle of an exercise illustrating what leaders or counselors would call the transition model. As part of a training experience for our upcoming international move to work for a non-profit, we found ourselves navigating a wobbly obstacle course of yoga balls and uneven chairs, a literal representation of the transition bridge that anyone going through major change experiences.
My family of four was tied to one another with cords and then connected to other people who represented the fears that might hold us back. That one person over there was our family that remained back home or the person who critiqued our move around the world. Another personified our doubts, like the devil sitting on our shoulders whispering lies in our ears.
As the ropes tightened and we tried to cross the makeshift bridge, they yanked us away from each other. My husband, Lee was in the lead, already to the last chair, the one that finally sat on level ground. He pulled Nadia toward him but Aidan was stuck between the precariously placed balls and a chair teetering on two legs. I was in the rear, floundering to keep up and barely hanging on to the edge of Aidan’s jacket.
Everything we had been learning about how difficult transition could be was being enacted in our very bodies. Each fear I had about our family being ripped apart by taking our kids to Bangladesh seemed to come true in those moments. When we finally reached a stable place where we could hold onto one another, I pulled them tight and Lee paused to pray. As the tears fell, he asked God to give us strength and to remind us to hold onto Jesus and to each other amid the instability.
I cannot count the times in the past five years that I have remembered that moment, felt that same fear, and longed for steady ground. The amount of transitions we’ve crossed over as a family since that day has been overwhelming: five moves, life in a developing country, crushed dreams, family health crises, the shaky return to Georgia, unemployment, anxiety, depression, changing churches, starting new careers mid-life, kids stepping into adolescence amid reverse culture shock, and the losses and grief of a global pandemic. It’s been one long bridge spanning the expanse of half a decade of our lives.
A well-known model of the internal battle we go through during major change comes from William Bridge who outlines the endings, neutral zone, and new beginnings we experience in the process. I disagree with the neutrality the language he gives to the middle stage implies; that middle ground is the yawning abyss we experience when we are plunged into the unknown. It is chaotic and destabilizing; there is nothing neutral about it.
They are inside all of us, buried deep inside our subconscious—these moments of impact. There are places, people, and events that changed who we are becoming. When our lives bump up against something that challenges us or deepens our understanding, we become the sprout that branches off an old limb. Over time you don’t see where the new life began, for it is part of the whole, yet this shoot did have an origin and it changed the life of the tree completely by springing into existence. For me, it is often a fragrance that often brings these pivot points back to the surface.
It was my daughter that first noticed what was to her an offending scent. She wrinkled her nose and covered her face. Turning to see what she was referring to I saw someone carrying a thurible into the church, the small golden incense burner that hangs from chains and swings to release the smoke into the sanctuary. The smell of Frankincense startled my senses and I gasped. What was new to my daughter brought back a well of fourteen-year-old memories flooding through me. I turned to my husband, suddenly that young bride, full of wonder again, and cried, “it smells like Egypt!” He smiled and nodded and I knew he was back there again in his mind, too.
The six months we were part of the Coptic church in Egypt transformed us, one of those points in our lives where we diverged from who we had previously been into something altogether new. It was a phase of life in which every new experience overwhelmed us. I dwelled inside the memories in those moments sitting in the church with my family on Christmas Eve. I was transported to the stone walls of another church where my faith exploded into fresh places.
Nothing in my evangelical upbringing prepared me for seeing the demon-possessed woman writhing on the floor during the healing service at The Cave Church. My Western theology had no space for the quiet, yet forceful priest who commanded men in wheelchairs to stand. I watched in skepticism as thousands of people, Christian and Muslim alike, flooded through the village that housed all of Cairo’s garbage collectors and mounds of trash to the monastery hidden inside the recesses of Mokottam Mountain.
All skepticism evaporated like the smoke rising from the incense burners when I met Abouna Samaan, the man who the community called Father and who truly treated each person who came to him like a beloved child. A week after first meeting him we were on a bus with him and dozens of church members headed out into the desert to the retreat center under construction. Here we were, were two total outsiders, welcomed directly into the fold of the largest church in the Middle East.
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