“You can be anything you want,” they said. “If you can dream it, you can be it,” we were told. My generation grew up believing we could follow our bliss, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and every other cliche of the American dream. We were led to believe we were the masters of our own destinies.
I remember a moment I realized we’d been fed lies. I was standing with a friend I had been close to all through high school and college. I was on a break from grad school and he had been in the workforce before heading to law school. We stood on a balcony talking about where our lives had gone since college, about to go our separate ways again. Barely into our twenties, we had weariness in our voices already. “Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would,” he said. I saw the disillusionment in his eyes that mirrored my own. We had been launched out into a world we weren’t ready for, ill-equipped to face reality, and had no one to guide us when everything went topsy-turvy. I felt so alone.
Twenty years later, I watch nieces and nephews graduate and step into the same uncertainty. I watch my eldest with dread, realizing her turn to step into the great unknown is closer than I want to think. How can we help the next generation face reality better than we did? How can we equip them to chart a course that works? I am getting tiny glimpses into the answers to those questions as I, myself, navigate my next steps.
My personal and professional life has been fraught with life-altering decisions I have second and twenty-second guessed. Two international moves around the world and back, my husband’s mid-life career change, and a late-in-life change of church traditions for myself have left me reeling in the past few years. I’ve been asking God for assurances that I made the right decisions or to show me how to make better ones in the days ahead.
My family felt alone in making many of these massive decisions. No one in the non-profit we just left or our home church helped us figure out how to re-enter life in the United States after two years living in South Asia. Confused and alone, we reached out and felt a void reaching back for us. The map we’d been given didn’t work and we didn’t know where to turn.
I knew God was moving me into something deeper but I didn’t know what or how to figure that out by myself. I sent out a cry for help and took steps to surround myself with people to walk beside me. I needed some fresh eyes to help me see what I couldn’t see clearly for myself...
“Say it again,” they urged me. I felt like an animal in a cage, surrounded by the watchful eyes of gleeful children who poked at its helpless form with a stick. My fellow college-aged camp counselors hailed mostly from Canada and the Northeastern United States. Much of the kitchen crew came from the United Kingdom. The oddity of my red hair and southern drawl quickly earned me the nickname, “Georgia Ginger,” and now they wanted me to speak on command like a trained parrot.
I hadn’t traveled outside of the Deep South much before and didn’t realize I had a different vocabulary than people from other parts of the United States. When I said I was fixin’ to go somewhere and they laughed, I felt exposed and uncertain of what I’d done that warranted their teasing. I never realized my place in the world unknowingly shaped me in ways that were unlike other people.
Understanding the world
I was young and unaware of how acutely our understanding of ourselves, others, and even God, is formed by the location and people we are born into or by the proximity we allow ourselves to cultures unlike our own. I later learned the word for it in my seminary studies: worldview. James Sire in The Universe Next Door explains a worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart” and says a person’s worldview “provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.”(1)
The place, family, religious tradition, and culture in which we grow and learn shapes our understanding of the world and how we will interact with it. Each person has a unique vantage point shaped by our circumstances, background, and life experiences; but we share common beliefs and commitments to those who are like us, who share our place in the world. This is the foundation upon which we build our beliefs about God and the universe God created.
My upbringing in what’s called the “Bible Belt” didn’t just influence the way I speak. The phrases y’all and bless your heart aren’t the only takeaways I gained from growing up in the former Confederacy. As I stepped further outside of the boundaries of the Mason Dixon Line and the Atlantic Ocean, I learned just how much that red clay had been the fertile ground for a particular view of God.
The shock to my body as a young adult who was transplanted into the Western Sahara Desert was nothing compared to the shock to my soul. Wide-eyed and newly married, I sat on the hewn rock pews of the largest church in the Middle East and listened to Arabic sermons next to my new Coptic Orthodox neighbors.
I learned fresh ways of seeing everything I had ever known along with new words for God and the way to understand and explain faith. I must have looked like my camp counselor friends in those early days, mouth agape with shock and delight, “Say it again.” Abouna. Father. Eid. Feast.
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.