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.
The unsettledness of 2020 lingered longer into the next year than any of us imagined it would. I think many of us shared the ache for feeling normal again. We found ourselves a world we didn’t recognize anymore, full of chaos and confusion. Riddled with division and hate, our countries, our families, and our churches reeled. We couldn’t go back, and we groped for a way forward. Dwelling where we were sometimes was just too much to handle.
The statue that had been around of the world with us and back found its new home this year, one none of us expected. Our plans to stay where we had been changed this fall and we were uprooted again. As we settle things into the house we bought, I think back on all the places that have shaped me and ahead to the ways this one will as well.
How many years will Mary look down from the mantle in this place and see our family growing and changing? Just as the original Mary looked down on her baby and pondered in her heart what lie ahead, I consider these things. This year I watched the last semblances of child fall away from the young woman that now stands in the place of my first-born baby. She is not who she once was, not yet who she will become. Neither am I.
This year I learned a lot and unlearned even more. I was twenty-two, with grand ideas about my future, when I first entered seminary. Nothing I ever thought about that future turned out the way I thought it would. My husband asked me what the end goal of finishing my degree was, and I didn’t have an answer for him. I just knew God wouldn’t let me forget the idea that followed me all these years.
This seminary experience was nothing like the first. Here I was affirmed for all my gifts, given a breadth of knowledge, and challenged to figure out what I believe for myself. Here I was told I could follow wherever God called (as opposed to the limited places only approved for women within certain traditions). More than anything in this year of upheaval, my thoughts about God and about who I am as one made in God’s image, have grown deeper and wider than I ever imagined they could.
It was in this constant affirmation of my gifts in knowledge, teaching, and leading that I dwelt this year. It was an uncomfortable place, just like our new house in those first days. My heart beat out of my chest when the Bishop laid his hands on my forehead to confirm me in the Episcopal church. My voice shakes as I step up to the lectern to read the Scripture before the congregation I have just joined. I am already taking notes for the Doctoral level class I will start next week as a trial to see if I want to join the Doctor of Ministry program. I still can’t answer the question, “what is next?”
But I know the place that comes next won’t be a place of stable ground, of settling. I don’t think that’s in the cards for me—or for many of us with wandering hearts and souls that chase after wherever God calls us next. It’s not a place, or people, or a single purpose that brings our hearts to rest. It’s not stability or control. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” said Saint Augustine of Hippo.
As always, my word of the year guided me somewhere different than I had imagined. This is not where I thought the end of 2021 would bring me. And yet, my heart feels at rest among the mysteries of what is next and who I am becoming, of where my family’s story is headed and how God will lead. I couldn’t ask for a better place to dwell than here in the unknowing with the God who knows it all.
How did your One Word (or goal or dream for the year) change in the reality of 2021? What did it teach you? Did it take you to any unexpected places? Spend some time reflecting back on 2021 this week and thank God for the lessons you learned, no matter how hard-earned they may have been. (Leave a comment to share and I will be praying for you as we enter 2022).
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