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
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