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.
Suddenly, the sunlight was blotted out by the angry smoke that curled toward the sky. A row of cylindrical chimneys signaled our entrance into the brick factory district on the outskirts of Dhaka. The air hung heavy with the texture of coal emanating in dark clouds from the kilns. As our family rode by we watched workers stack bricks six high on their heads to carry them to trucks. Their back-breaking work of making bricks sent an endless supply of construction material back into the city.
But the work of building didn’t end there. In the year and a half we lived in the capital of Bangladesh, we watched the skyline around our flat constantly shifting. Our building would shake in the middle of the night as truckloads of bricks were emptied into the street. The next morning we would emerge to wave at the construction workers as they sat on a growing pile of rubble. They were already hard at work shattering those very same bricks.
With only one source of stone in the country, bricks were used for construction but also broken down to make the ingredients for concrete. We daily watched clouds of red dust darken the site as women and children shattered the bricks by hand and carried them into mixers to build the foundations of new apartment buildings.
We always said, “What a waste of hard work to make those bricks! I can’t believe they’re just breaking them now!” But it was the only resource they had. And so, they continued to build with what they’d been given. They built up and tore down and built up again. Day by day we watched the city slowly inch higher on the backs of these workers.
When God gave me “build” as my word of the year for 2020, I anticipated starting out with finished raw materials and seeing progress rise all around me. I mean, I was ready. I’d spent long enough tearing down and living in limbo. I’d down deep soul work and was ready to see changes in my life. I promised to let go of plans and to and accept whatever came next, laying brick upon brick as God unfolded the next season.
I started the year with hesitant excitement, still adjusting to being back in the U.S. I'd started a new job in digital communications. My husband, Lee, was still looking for work. We had moved into a home we thought would be a temporary arrangement but then decided to stay, planning renovations and additions. Possibilities to create a future nearly from scratch seemed promising.
I had long been yearning for a more contemplative approach to community worship, a place my wandering heart might belong. I'd attended church in eight (some wildly) different denominations/traditions throughout all my moves. I'd visited so many others around the world and gone on retreats annually to a Trappist monastery for years. Amidst so much shifting faith practice—I didn’t feel like the church “home” I was coming back to in the U.S. was home anymore. I fought it for my family, but I knew I couldn’t stay.
In January our church visiting as a family had stalled and we decided to pursue two different avenues. Lee and the kids would attend what had been our home church before we moved to Bangladesh, and I would attend an Episcopal church we had visited during Advent. I felt like I had found a place, at last, I could belong.
The kids were starting to feel settled in their new schools and we had a solid routine down where I worked while they were at school and wrote on weekend mornings at a coffee shop in the early hours while they slept. Lee started his new job and I was talking with an editor about a book idea that was consuming my thoughts. I could just see this new future rising toward the sky.
A clump of dried Georgia clay crunched under my shoe. I sighed as I turned to grab the broom and sweep the floor again. I looked out the living room window at the mound of orangy-brown earth that had been the source of the mess. My husband took down a hundred trees a few months ago and left a jagged scar running through the yard. It is preparation for building the extension that will house a bedroom and bathroom eventually.
We put the build that will give our kids their own rooms on hold until our income is more reliable though. So a muddy heap of earth is a reminder of living in this in-between space of what is and what is yet to come.
I long for that more expansive home but there are so many steps needed to get there and so much cost associated. It’s going to be a mess for a long time before it is beautiful.
“I don’t feel like you don’t need to add anything else to your daily practice,” my spiritual director said. I wanted to believe her, to take her words as permission to feel like it is enough, like I am enough.
In response to her question of how I see God moving in my life, I mentioned how I am seeking God. I talked about trying to read through the daily office lectionary (a two-year cycle of Scripture for daily reading from the Book of Common Prayer), practice centering prayer, and take breaks throughout my workday in which I stop to pray and send encouraging messages to friends for which I am praying.
She could tell I was asking the question without saying it out loud: “Is this enough? Should I be doing more?” I feel like I’ve been wandering around in the wilderness for so long and I want to finally say I have it all figured out.
Friends who know me well tease me about my orderly way of living. I love to make plans. My house must be clean and organized before I can rest. What I am really after isn’t an orderly house; it is a well-ordered life.
“You make lists just so you can check things off them,” a friend recently said to me. I laughed in response. It was the nervous kind of laughter that says, “yes, this is true; I wish it wasn’t.” We were discussing personality types (How I am an ISFJ and particularly how the J-judging part of my Myers-Briggs type leads me to desire a structure and control).
I slipped into a rule-based faith in my teen years because it fit well into the way I saw the world. I could make lists and check them off. God fit nicely into a box inside my compartmentalized life and all was well...until it wasn’t.
Over the years, the lists kept multiplying. I couldn’t keep up and I felt like I couldn’t earn the love of God anymore with all my list-keeping.
When I first discovered contemplative prayer, I felt like it was the answer to the tyranny of lists that ruled my life. It was a slower, quieter way of encountering God. I was anxious and burned out and never felt any closer to the Presence of the one I wanted to please.
For a few years, I learned about and dabbled in contemplative practices. But instead of finding freedom, I added them to my ever-growing to-do’s. Finally, all the striving and anxiety left my soul in shambles. I couldn’t do any of it anymore. I couldn’t do anything but groan and hope that God understood that I had no more words.
As I tiptoe forward into what I hope are more life-giving rhythms of faith practice and spiritual formation for me in this season, I realize I am living a life under construction. I want to be living in the house already, the one that is inhabited daily by the sweeping winds of the Holy Spirit breathing new life into me. Don’t we all want to feel like that every day? We want to feel like we’ve arrived instead of wandering around in the wastelands.
My life is like the dirt heap I daily force myself to stare at outside my window. I needed to tear down a lot of things that were in my way. I needed to be still for a good while and just sit in the muck until I was ready to move on. And then sit a little while longer.
And that is how we build. First, we have to tear down what is between us and God. Maybe it’s a raging bit of ego in our own way, our own anxieties and expectations. Maybe it’s lies we’ve let ourselves believe. Maybe it’s a relationship that is broken or something we need to let ourselves grieve. An addiction. A sin. But we can’t keep building on a faulty foundation and expect our houses to not come tumbling down.
“The wilderness, by design, disorients,” said Rachel Held Evans. “As any wilderness trekker past or present will tell you, the wilderness has a way of forcing the point, of bringing to the surface whatever fears, questions, and struggles hide within.”
We spend so much of our lives trying to tidy up our filth, to find our way to the Promised Land at last. We miss the vibrant life that can exist right now, not sometime in the future when we have it all figured out.
I yawn as I wrap a blanket around my shoulders and head to the window. The mound of earth is but a shadow under the faint early morning light. I smile in the darkness, remembering it is there. I am growing fond of the grimy reminder that life isn’t perfect (and neither am I).
That is where God finds us, in the middle of all the ways we realize how much we need grace for our messes. I close my eyes and do the last thing I want to but the very thing I need. I thank God for the disorder, for the wandering, for all that has been torn down and is being rebuilt. For today, that is enough.