The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.
– Philippians 3:7-9, The Message
I was following all the formulas I knew and heard nothing, saw nothing. Why not? I was doing everything I’d been taught; and how much I had been taught, indeed.
If someone else thought they had a reason to boast, I certainly had more. A student of religion, I had the degree on the wall to prove it. I had all those hours in seminary and years as a spiritual writer to show off. Shelves and shelves of books on theology and prayer proved how much I should have known. I had years of ministry under my belt. We’d left everything we knew behind in the United States and moved 8000 miles away because we’d heard God say, go. In regards to the law, I was obedient. As for zeal, serving the church. As for righteousness based on the law, faultless. ¹
Coming of age in the Protestant church, I was encouraged to dive deeply into studying Scripture and its application in my life. I expected to meet God in the pages of the Bible, but couldn’t see anything more than words anymore.
As an adult I had become a student of the more contemplative paths of other traditions, learning about the Ignatian Examen, Lectio Divina, and Centering Prayer. Now, none of these prayers was yielding comfort; only resounding silence.
Staring into the face of my spiritual director through the tiny dot of a camera on my laptop, I talked about the yawning abyss I felt I was facing. We were leaving Bangladesh in a few months and I had no idea what the future held. I was buried under anxiety and only wanted to feel the peace that passes understanding that Jesus promises.
My background had hardwired me to think pleasing God had to do with my performance. The concept of just living in the love of God, trusting I couldn’t do anything to lose it, was taking some major unlearning and relearning. “As the day rolls on and I regrettably slip back into trying to earn Your favor, forgive me I pray, and gently remind me that I am the child and You are the Father, and it is Your kingdom I desire—not mine,” wrote Brennan Manning. I knew it in my head—that I was God’s beloved. Getting that lesson to my heart was proving to be more difficult. I tried everything I knew to try to experience God in this place of unknown…Silence. Darkness.
That was when my spiritual director asked me if I had ever heard of the Ignatian practice of Imaginative Prayer. I thought it meant imagining biblical scenes like I was a character in them. It seemed like another mental exercise in studying Scripture—and not a prayerful one. She asked if I was willing to explore Imaginative Prayer with her during our time together. I said okay, not expecting much...
You know it well, don’t you? That feeling of inhabiting two worlds, not fully in either.
One foot is still firmly planted in the place you are leaving, while another is itching to propel you forward. You are at the threshold and somehow you are stuck.
These days I feel it in a lot of places, this ache of transition. We feel it now as spring dangles its delights before us for hours at a time only to plunge us back into winter. A friend said to me the other day that we are on the off-ramp of Covid, and I suddenly had the desire to shout, “Shh, don’t jinx us!” From New Years to changing seasons, growing children to aging parents, diagnoses to treatments, we are constantly visiting these places of transition. Very rarely do our lives sit still for long before launching us into the unknown again.
I long ago accepted that these liminal spaces between seasons are wonderful teaching moments. That doesn’t mean I’m always a willing student. Sometimes I would really love some boredom for once. And yet, the world keeps spinning—and with it our lives that are very rarely linear paths to a clear destination.
God gave us clear markers of change with the seasons. The rituals that come with the constantly shifting world can give us beautiful ways to move from one place in the year to the next. Right now, those of us in the southern United States are filing up garden beds and spreading weed preventer on our still-stubbly grass. We’re dusting off feeders in the garage and boiling sugar water to lure the hummingbirds back to our porches. My friends in northern states dread my photos of freshly potted daffodils as they send back photos of freshly fallen snow. We ache in the in-between spaces, longing for the warmer days to come.
The church can give us clear markers of change as well. We have rituals for just about every turning point. In liturgical churches, we switch the colors on the altar to reflect the season. Right now Lenten purple adorns our pulpits, reminding us of that period of repentance that leads to Easter. We create ceremonies for other important life transitions: dedications and baptisms for new life, parties to mark the entry into adulthood upon graduation, vows to mark the creation of a new family created by marriage, remembrances for those passing into eternity.
Yet we most often stand at thresholds without ceremony—stuck and unsure how to pass through. Where is the fanfare that leads us into that next season of spiritual growth when we feel God is doing something new? Who is walking with us in long stretches of dryness when we need a push? When the grief is no longer fresh or the diagnosis is old news—how do we mark forward movement?
It was such a joy to speak with Nichole Wuu and Tammy Perlmutter about my writing journey and the place that has been my writing home the longest, The Mudroom Blog. You can listen to our conversation The Secret to a Life of Words over at The Mudroom, on Spotify, or Apple Podcasts.
This was a follow-up episode to Episode 5: Finding Grace in the Middle in which I narrate my latest Mudroom piece, "Grace in the Middle", with pauses throughout where I dive deeper into what life looks like in liminal space and the meaning we can find in transitions. You can catch it here.
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.