“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.
My mom called me the other day to tell me she can't keep straight what degrees I have or what I am studying in school. “What’s the difference between religion and theology?” she asked. A neighbor I met at the pool the other day eyed me suspiciously, saying, "that's really vague" when I said what I do for work. I often find people think I get paid for my work as a writer. For the most part, I don't. The people in my daily life are confused about the various hats I wear, so I wonder what anyone reading my work online might think. Maybe it's time for a re-introduction. So, hey y'all. I'm Nicole.
I grew up right here in south metro Atlanta, always with the itch for something beyond this place. No matter how many times I leave and how far I go, I can’t seem to shake the red clay out of my blood, though. Lee and I met at thirteen. No, we weren’t childhood sweethearts. There were no romantic notions until we were twenty-four after we had both finished college and moved back to our hometown. It’s that previously small, now booming town, where we are raising our two kids, now entering the tween and teen years.
We’ve lived in Egypt (2007-08) and Bangladesh (2017-19) and traveled to many other places. I’ve left pieces of my heart scattered around the globe and there is not much I love more than international travel and exploring cultures not my own. The places I’ve lived and loved have shaped who I am and am still becoming. I know God has planted me in this place now, though. In another year my daughter will attend the same high school my husband and I both graduated from. We live miles from our extended family. They too, continue to shape every aspect of my life.
My faith has been guiding the trajectory of my life since I was 14. I’ve been in and out of the church, but kind of how Georgia is always on my mind, Jesus never would let me be. I’m more in love with Jesus today than ever, and I am less certain I have how to follow Jesus faithfully all figured out than ever. I will spend my life trying.
I like to call myself a denominational mutt. I came to know Jesus in the Baptist church and am thankful for the love of the Bible and of discipleship I gained there. But my heartbeat is for the diversity of ways God is worshipped by God’s own diverse creation. The beauty of the global church confounds me, and I am committed to the ways we can learn from and strengthen each other. I’ve worshipped in the largest church in the Middle East, on the dirt floor of a schoolhouse in the largest slums in Asia, in a crowded house in a village in South Asia, and in a coffee shop in Yemen with just a handful of people. I’ve been fortunate enough to sit under the teaching of Jesuit priests and Cistercian monks, and have been a part of Baptist, Coptic, International, Non-denominational, and Assemblies of God congregations.
I feel most at home, though, in high church and was confirmed in the Episcopal church in the fall of 2022. No, I don’t think the Episcopal church is the right church. I think it is the right church for me. Lee and the kids still go to the church that has been home for them most of their lives. We’ve always raised the kids to value the diversity of the Body of Christ, so it works for us.
I’ve always written. Stories were the landscape of my childhood. Today they are the way I process the world. They are my prayers and the way I figure out what I think. I started writing for publication in 2015. Like most other writers, I don’t make a living from it. I do it out of love and because I cannot not write. I believe it is a gift God has given me and I am always trying to figure out how to faithfully use it to best serve and love my neighbors.
Since I don’t make a living with my spiritual writing, what do I do? Writing is part of what I do for work, but there is more to it than that. I am a Content Specialist with a communications agency working with non-profits, Ruby Brick, based in Atlanta (but working mostly remotely). Organizations with a social impact come to us to tell their stories and connect with their people. I started working in this kind of writing when I was working in a dual role in a church that had a discipleship ministry, and then as the director of communications for the nonprofit we moved to Bangladesh to serve.
Just like I did for those organizations, I help our clients communicate about the needs they exist to serve (so others can donate or get involved) and tell the stories of life-change they are seeing in their programs. I love being a part of ministries and nonprofits and helping them tell their stories well (we tell these stories through websites, emails, social media, and more).
I felt God calling me into professional ministry when I was in college. I have since learned how calling changes and grows over our lives as we, ourselves, evolve. I have served in churches, in nonprofits, and through my writing. I have been feeling God call me to something deeper for years, and I officially entered the Discernment process with the Episcopal Church this year. It’s a long process boiled down to lots of meetings with various people to pray together and discuss how I can best serve the church. That could be in ordained ministry (priest or deacon) or some sort of enhanced lay ministry within the church. I preached for the first time this year, and never expected to love it as much as I did. Stay tuned. Your guess is as good as mine as to what God is up to.
My undergraduate degree is in Religion. This comparative religion degree sparked a passion in me for understanding how people experience God around the world. I’ve lived in Hindu and Muslim contexts and continue to love studying world religions. Wanting a deeper understanding of my own faith and God’s call on my life, I entered seminary straight out of college but life intervened and I never finished that degree. I went back to grad school in 2021 and am set to graduate with my Master of Arts in Practical Theology in July.
I have always said I would go to school forever if someone else paid for it, and I have applied for the Doctor of Ministry Program at my school, Winebrenner Theological Seminary. (If someone else is willing to step up and pay for it, do let me know). What will I gain from this degree? A wise mentor told me last year that when she entered seminary she didn’t feel called to Pastor at the time; she felt called to seminary. I love my school and the ways I have learned and grown in the past year and a half of my studies. I feel called to this next step. That is all that is clear currently, and that is all I need to know.
When we introduce ourselves, it is easy to talk about what we do or where we’ve lived, who we are in relation to our family members or the other people in the room. Is this really who we are? As I think about all the hats I wear on a regular basis, I am reminded of what Richard Rohr says in Immortal Diamond: “Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had.” The roles we fill in our life do not make us who they are, but they can help us uncover who God created us to be. As we use the gifts God has given us and discover the parts we play in the great tapestry of life woven together by all of us, we uncover a little more of our true selves.
Today I am a daughter, a wife, a mom, a strategist, a student, a writer, a budding preacher, and a Georgian—to put a few labels on my life. Take away any of those things, and who am I really?
Who are you, really? “Your True Self is who you are, and always have been in God, and at its core, it is love itself,” says Rohr. In all that I am doing, I want to be more loving. I want to reflect God in each facet of my life. We are complex beings, created in the image of Love. All that we are and do should reflect this. Rohr continues, “Love is both who you are and who you are still becoming, like a sunflower seed that becomes its own sunflower.”
Maybe you want to take some time this month and listen to who God is saying you are. Is it the same person who is showing up at work or at your home every day? Is it the person you see in the mirror? Are there roles God is asking you to set down for a season or ones you need to pick up? Above all, remember you are beloved. You are Love. You are enough.
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