I peel off the sticky neon yellow gloves, a mixture of sawdust, paint, and polyurethane caked on them. The new color of the island matches my Asian Blue Willow china perfectly, but it is a bit bright for the farmhouse kitchen. I still need to sand the edges, add some stain, drill holes for the milk glass knobs. I push down the little bit of anxiety I feel at thought of leaving it unfinished for days before I'll have a chance to work on it again. I rub my aching wrist as I head to wash the paintbrush and focus on the gratitude I feel, instead. I didn't know I could do such things, that I had the ability to make this kind of progress—in my house, in my life, in my soul.
I started the year clinging to the word God gave me: build. I wanted to see progress, in our life that was still in a state of transition. I wanted to see clearly where we were headed next. We'd had so many detours and upsets in our plans over the past five years. I wanted to build on a solid foundation, dig deeper roots into the soil of Georgia where we determined to settle after living in South Asia.
But 2020 was the breaker of plans and the upsetter of settled lives everywhere. In many ways, life hit the pause button for us all. My family was more fortunate than most amidst the global pandemic. Our family and those close to us remained healthy. After eight months of unemployment, Lee had only been in his new job for a month when the world began to shut down all around us. His job was deemed essential and while the new small business faltered, it emerged from 2020 with no furloughs or loss of income for us. I already worked from home. The shift to single parenting virtually-schooled children while I continued to work from home and Lee worked long hours away wasn't easy. The support of a faith community slipped away as the new church I had just started attending went online. My creativity was non-existent. Plans to write a book proposal were shelved. Construction on our home addition crawled along in the two or three free days a month we had to work on it ourselves. Depression and anxiety loomed near.
As the leaves fell, the isolation stretched on, and every day bled seamlessly into the next, I spent a weekend alone on a silent retreat. I spent a lot of time just walking and asking God to make me aware of God's presence in the year. I revisited the dreams and goals I had written down in a workbook at the dawn of the new year. I marked out big events I had written on a timeline and grieved their loss: The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, a pilgrimage to New Mexico a friend had raised funds for me to attend, a work trip to D.C., vacation with our best friends we hadn't gathered with in years while living overseas, our daughter's first lead in a play, our son's soccer season, family gatherings, the 90th birthday party of the matriarch of Lee's family... So many beautiful things 2020 had taken from us.
Next to a roadmap of the year that was now scrawled with x-ed out plans, I had copied a blessing written for me at the beginning of the year by a writer friend who never ceases to encourage others and offer her quiet wisdom. "May you see in concrete ways that you have everything you need to build. All the tools. Right with you know. The abundance." wrote Marlena Graves. "And that you will see in the land of the living how the Lord is restoring the years the locusts have eaten. May your writing and influence increase. And I ask God that you would know in a very real way his provision this year."
I began to write out what I'd seen built in our lives in the previous months and what tools it took to build them. I made a list of the things 2020 had given us. Our family had gone from fractured and uncertain about our place in the world to settled. Lee found his next steps in a job he enjoyed and healing from hurts inflicted by dashed dreams. Nadia told me though she didn't get to perform her play, the friends she gained from the daily rehearsals helped her feel like she belonged in her new school. Our unique living situation sharing a property with our best friends meant we didn't quarantine alone. Every morning Sadie and I met on the steps of her porch to talk and watch the dogs play together (our new pandemic puppy the fifth dog in our little pack). We hired someone to lay the pipe that will one day go to our new bathroom, and in the process reconnected with this friend we've known for over twenty years. He and his family became part of our little family, our little community we are seeing built right before our eyes. They were the light in a dark year.
The literal building going on around us felt achingly slow for an anxious perfectionist who craves order and completion. The yard became a construction heap: gravel to be shoveled for a foundation, piles of wood, tools, and tarps. It was a constant visual reminder of the limbo we lived in, the way our house and life was under construction. But when I stopped to compare photos from a year before, I could see the gifts of the year. If I could see past the rubble, I could see the potential. We'd gone from a crumbling, rotting deck to a tiled foundation and the frame of what will be a screened-in porch that will house a new living area for our family and an under-the-stairs home office for me.
But the real gift was in the process: the days we spent laughing with our friends that gave up their weekend to shovel gravel and pour concrete, the picnics on the kitchen floor we were tiling, the milkshakes to cap off a day in the heat, the meals we ate on the porch table made up for sawhorses and plywood. The pride I felt in what we accomplished with our own hands, with the tools I had I didn't know I even possessed. I had them all along: Friends willing to sacrifice for us and love us enough to patiently endure our bumbling construction skills. The endurance to keep going week after week when the progress feels non-existent. A family that has withstood living in transition and come out knowing a little more about the communication and patience it takes to make it out the other side. A God who is so patient with us, who lovingly grows us through dark nights and troubles, through the love of others, and new beginnings.
An echo of Marlena's blessing over me in 2020, I wrote this verse on a whiteboard over my desk in January: "We went through fire and through water, yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance." (Psalm 66.12). Still very much in the middle of the fire, I wrote those words believing they would be true, claiming God's promises to never leave us. Our abundance may not look like a finished house. It may not look like accomplished plans or a published book. But it is abundance, indeed. It is the ability to love a life under construction, to find God in the stumbling steps, to love each other and find laughter amidst the chaos, and healing in the building.
So as we stand again at the thin space between years—I extend the blessing to you, too. Whatever you have seen the world tear down in your life this year, may you see you have the tools to build something beautiful. Right there with you, inside you. May you be able to sift through the rubble and find the beauty. May you be able to see past the construction to what it will be and love every step of the process. May you never stop building.
I’ve always said I want to be a lifelong learner; I just didn’t realize that I would spend my whole life learning one thing.
I have spent a large part of the last four years writing about listening and learning. I’ve watched my faith becoming an ever-evolving plunge into the Mystery of God and others have come along with me on the journey. I am so grateful for those who have.
I have been fighting the downfalls of my perfectionist, ISFJ, Type A tendencies for years. Being highly driven is an asset in some parts of my life but the quest for the contemplative is not one of them. The need for control is not conducive to a life lived in abandon to the God who rarely reveals the path before we walk it.
Four years ago I began focusing more on reordering my life around the ancient and the mystical, longing for the transformation of my always-hustling soul. A denominational mutt due to many moves, I have attended Baptist, Episcopal, non-denominational, Coptic, Lutheran, and Pentecostal churches. I found beauty in each of these traditions. As I was drawn deeper into the contemplative by my time spent at a Benedictine monastery, I craved the intersection of structure and freedom found in a Rule of Life.
(A Rule of Life is a personal or corporate commitment to live life a certain way, the most well-known Rule being the 1500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict that guides much of monastic life Next week I will share more resources if you are interested in diving into crafting a Rule of Life for yourself).
I’ll let you in on a secret. My Rule of Life is still just a draft, a work in progress like me.
But all my attempts at knowing God intimately still felt like more striving, more tasks to check off my to-do list. The more I tried to meditate on God’s word or character, the more I believed I was doing it all wrong. I read more, tried to figure out the missing ingredient.
I can’t tell you how many times I have re-read Ed Cyzewski’s Flee, Be Silent, Pray (a second edition to be released in February). An evangelical turned contemplative, he gets me. “Contemplation is about doing less so that God can do more,” he says. Doing less. Letting go. It feels so upside down from everything I’ve ever known.
Like everything else in my life, I have approached finding God as a project to complete. I love to see a goal broken down into tasks I can check off, progress I can mark, and finally set aside as completed. Job well done. My evangelical faith reinforced this desire. Complete this discipleship program. Read that Bible study. Serve. Lead. Repeat. You’ve arrived.
When I started trying to build a Rule of Life I also came across the idea of choosing a word to be your focus for the New Year (instead of setting resolutions that I felt would only be swept aside quickly). I would pray and ask God to reveal a word to me. It is no coincidence that my words have gotten increasingly more focused on slowing down, on smallness, always a movement toward stillness.
The more I tried to move forward, the more God said, “stop.” Finally, this year I didn’t have a choice but to listen. When I was forced to my knees by anxiety and depression, I was finally still long enough to hear it.
“The deepest communion with God is beyond words, on the other side of silence,” said Madeleine L'Engle. Yes, this is what I long for, I cried. Where can I find it?
The answer was always there but I couldn’t let myself see it—on the other side of silence. Silence isn’t the answer; it is the beginning. One I kept trying to bypass.
I wanted movement, progress, results. God said, be silent. Be still. Be.
I started the year with Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms and breezed through it as I do with most books, looking for the answers and missing the ones right in front of me. Speaking of the other spiritual disciplines she suggests later in the book, Barton says, “We really can’t engage any of them until solitude becomes a place of rest for us rather than another place for human striving and hard work.”
I didn’t listen to the small urges to first find a place of peace in solitude and silence, to stop trying to manufacture God’s Presence but be comfortable just acknowledging it. Finally, after a whirlwind few weeks in the US this fall dealing with a family crisis with very little time for solitude, I came back to my quiet little corner room overlooking the most densely populated city in the world.
Literally above all the hustling, I took what felt like my first deep breath in three weeks. I read Michelle Derusha’s words in her forthcoming (hitting bookstores January 1 but you can pre-order now with some free bonuses) book True You: “Silence and solitude are an absolute necessity if we truly desire to know and understand our true selves and enter into intimate relationship with God.” Okay, Lord. Okay.
I took another deep breath and closed the kindle app on my phone, set a timer for ten minutes instead. I sat alone in silence.
I didn’t worry about my thoughts wandering and try to wrangle them to the ground. I didn’t think about doing it right. I didn’t measure my progress. I just did the first thing. I finally stopped. And then I began…
Have you felt a tug towards a more contemplative faith and what have you found difficult about a less results-oriented spiritual practice? How have you found silence and solitude in your daily life?
Join me next week for Part Two. I’ll be sharing more about my journey of listening and my word for 2019.
If you spend time this week praying about the next (or first) thing in your journey, your word or thoughts to guide your year, I’d love to pray with you.
When we read and talk about presence, there are usually peaceful undertones to the conversation. We can be talking about slowing down, self-care, and finding holy in the mundane. I imagine the beautiful farmhouse of Ann Voskamp. Not that she has an easier life than anyone else but to gaze upon her poetic words and photos is to believe she has found a way to choose presence over productivity. We believe we too can mine the deep wells of life for beauty in every day. I think of Emily Freeman’s admonition to find life in simple Tuesdays. I picture her park bench imagery of sitting still when the world around us asks us to hustle.
It was with these images of letting go and letting joy into life in the back of my mind that I chose I present to be the word to guide my year in 2018. My life was far from peaceful (nor did I have access to a park bench or farmland) but I imagined metaphorically finding this kind of place to be present in my own life. Thoughts of presence begat images of foundness, of knowing my place and finding my way. I dreamed of relishing in the beauty of diversity and even in the difficulties of a different kind of life than I’d ever known having moved my family 8500 miles away from home.
But less than two months into the year I could already feel myself going under the ravages of culture shock, language study, anxiety, and depression. I not only didn’t know where I fit anymore, I wasn’t sure who I was. Could I still be a writer on top of being a wife, mom, non-profit-worker, and immigrant? The dark parts of me that rose to the surface under the stress made me question everything about who I was…and consequently who God was. Plainly said, I was lost.
It was then that Jan Richardson’s words (from her Walking Blessing) became the soundtrack of my life. I wrote them in my journal. I cried them in my prayers. I read them while I washed my face in the mornings. I dreamed them when I slept fitfully at night…”Let yourself become lost.” Being physically lost (as someone with little navigational sense) is one of my greatest fears. Whoever enjoyed the feeling of not knowing the way ahead? Who lets themselves become lost?
A life-long achiever trying to find presence instead, lostness was just what I needed. And the last thing I ever wanted.
“Progress is not the goal anyway,
to feel the path on your skin,
to the way it reshapes you…”
Instead of on a peaceful park bench, I found myself becoming present in the eye of a hurricane. Instead of writing words for others to read, I drowned in the reading of ancient prayers and scribbled out my confusion to God alone in my room. How could You call me beloved when I am not producing anything? How could You call me beloved when I am falling apart?
The places I wanted to run from, there I stayed. I wept and I raged. I prayed and I remained silent. I asked for help and I talked endlessly to a counselor, to my journals, to friends that never missed a day to text me even if just to say, “I love you.”
I never expected the places that God asked me to stay present to be places of such deep rending and stripping of all I knew before. But as I dug my feet into the ground and forced myself to stand when I wanted to collapse, my loving Father held me. My gentle Mother consoled me.
Just as I had reordered my life around lostness this year, found my peace with not knowing…the storm continued. A family crisis back home reminded me that we never truly know the way forward. It doesn’t take an international move to plunge us into the ravages of unknowing. And yet we move forward, assured of God’s love for us and of His knowledge of the paths that will shape us into our truest selves.
I experienced the coming of two autumns this year, my favorite time of year. My unexpected trip to America allowed me to stand still for a few moments on familiar soil, the soothing crackling of dead leaves underfoot a song that has long eased my soul. I stood in the woods and breathed in David Wagoner’s words from the poem Lost:
“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.”
Two weeks later I returned to Bangladesh to the first cool morning breezes of Hemontokal, the late autumn season. More like Spring in America, hemontokal brings clear skies and the songs of the magpies, the blooms of marigolds, and the rice harvest. I reminded myself to stay present to this autumn and what God is saying in it, divided though my heart may be. It is this path that God is using to reshape me. My Father knows where I am. He knows who I am.
I am not lost when I remain Here.