Trust in the slow work of God… Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Some people are soothed by the certainty that they hold the one irrefutable true interpretation of Scripture, the “right” answers everyone else outside their group is missing. Seeing the world in black-and-white, in tidy boxes to be checked off and answers given to them bring them comfort. I used to be one of them.
But as the world around me became greyer, I was no longer satisfied by packaged ideas handed to me without the ability to ask “Why?” The unraveling began decades ago when I fell in love with the cultures not my own and my Muslim friends taught me about faith. I discovered a vibrant, diverse global church outside the walls of my denomination. I found communities encountering and serving God in ways the faith of my youth would say were out of bounds. God was at work in bigger and more varied ways than I’d ever been told.
Then came my engagement with contemplation and some around me pushed back against what Catholics had to teach me. As a woman, I had never been comfortable with my denomination’s view of what women could and could not do, but I thought it was the sacrifice I had to make to fit into the community that introduced me to Jesus. Finally, after 2016, I was even more unsettled with the white evangelical church and the choices its leaders were making, especially regarding women and people of color. I stayed despite great distress—until it was too damaging to my own soul to stay.
I entered an Episcopal church through the doorway of a centering prayer group. After practicing Lectio Divina (a method of meditating on a Scripture passage) together and sitting for twenty minutes in silent prayer, we discussed what we heard God say in those moments. I had found a kindred group.
“You’re Baptist?” they asked when I told them a little about myself. “Well, kind of,” I said, unsure what to call myself anymore. “I have been a member of a Baptist church since I was a teen, but during my years in college and living in South Asia and the Middle East, I have attended Episcopal, non-denominational, Coptic Orthodox, and Assemblies of God churches. I have learned from Trappist monks and Jesuits and attended house churches and international churches in Muslim and Hindu communities. I’m kind of a denominational mutt, I guess.” They laughed and said they welcomed my perspective and were glad I was there.
A few weeks later my family attended an Advent service at that same church. With rapt attention, I hung on every word of the woman priest. When I kneeled at the communion rail and she placed the bread in my hand, it was a coming home meal. For my husband and children, it wasn’t home. We decided to try to walk separate spiritual paths and see if we could make it work.
Over the next few months, I moved timidly from the back row into coffee hours and Wednesday dinners. I wasn’t sure what people would make of my complicated history or my family now divided between two churches....
“For my entire life, it seemed that people had been shouting at me—telling me what to believe and how to act…’There is a new voice,’ Mary Oliver wrote of the journey of awakening, ‘which you slowly recognize as your own.’ Until my mid-thirties, I did not know that voice. But once I listened, it grew more insistent. A calling, a beckoning, and urging toward love. And, as Oliver said, I ‘determined to do the only thing’ I could do: Save my own life. I did not know what would happen. But I was ready to leave the old voices behind. I stared at the cage’s open door, and I knew it was time to walk out into the world. I trusted that Jesus would be on the way.”
– Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus
It feels as if I am embarking on a new journey and yet my entire life has been leading to this bend in the road. So, is it really new? I am simply following the voice that beckons me on toward love.
For a long time, all I could see were the losses on this journey. All in the span of a few years—my family left all we’d ever known to move to work with a non-profit in Bangladesh. Then, we lost our dream of living long-term in South Asia when we moved back to the U.S. The family I knew was forever changed by serious illness and death. I walked away from the church that was home for two decades.
The losses I felt weren’t unique. So many were struggling with faith and church in the wake of so many shifts in society and the church, all over people awakening to what they’d been missing. Then, Covid stole so much from us all. The aches of the world gnawed away at our souls, our societies, and the faith of many.
Even as I heard a voice calling me forward and I tiptoed toward what I couldn’t see, I could not stop looking at all that was slipping through my fingers.
It was only a crawl at first—that day I stepped into the Episcopal church. Wounded, I looked for a place to heal when I found a Centering Prayer group that met at a nearby parish. I nudged open the heavy red, wooden door and stepped inside, begging God to meet me there. I believed with all that was in me I could still find God inside the church. I loved her and wouldn’t let go of that hope.
My exploration into contemplation had saved my faith, and I prayed it would help me find my way forward. Amidst deep anxiety and depression—it was silence, stillness, and contemplative prayer that allowed me to find Jesus anew and discover my own belovedness....
“In every circumstance, regardless of the outcome, the main thing Jesus has asked me to do is to love God and my neighbor as religiously as I love myself. The minute I have that handled, I will ask for my next assignment. For now, my hands are full.”
The Main Thing is Seeing All the Sights
Beginning the moment I adorned my first tutu—bouncy peach tulle and silver sequins—at age four, New York called to me. I set my sights on a professional dance career and the Mecca of Manhattan was my goal. But I was 35 before I stepped off the Staten Island Ferry into the city of the dreams that I’d long since tucked away. My husband and two kids in tow, I carried a marked-up map and a list of more things to see than possible in one day.
I wanted to pack the whole experience of New York into those few hours. It had taken me 30 years to get there, and I never knew if I’d return. My son didn’t even make it through everything, falling asleep a few minutes after the curtains rose on the Radio City Rockette’s Christmas Spectacular we’d all dreamed of seeing live. Did I really think a 5-year-old would be able to stay up for the 10 pm show after traipsing all over the city in the blistering winds for hours? It was a wonderful day but the memory of it is a blur.
A couple years later when we visited Paris on the way home from living in South Asia, we still crammed the days full of museums and historic sights. However, we also understood the need to slow down after such a full and hectic year. When I think back on that magical week, the things my mind wanders to first aren’t the sights but simple, sweet moments.
That impromptu picnic in the park next to the Eiffel tower. The afternoon the kids spent playing with French children in the shade of Sacré-Cœur while we lounged on a bench and watched the sun move filter through the trees. Sitting still on the steps overlooking the gardens of Versailles, not thinking about the next thing we had planned. Dwelling in the lifelong and unlikely dream we were getting to live out. Savoring each other’s presence.
Losing Sight of the Main Thing
As evidenced by my frequent bouts of exhaustion as my body tries to tell me I’m too old to live at this pace, it’s not just seeing exciting places that I rush through full force. I’ve always prided myself in the amount I can accomplish and how I can multi-task in all areas of my life. This year I added grad school to my already crammed life of writing, a 25-hour a week job, parenting mostly alone through my husband’s long work hours, performing massive renovations on our home and 6-acre property, and complex family dynamics. Oh, and a pandemic. I believed I could do it all. I always have. My anxiety seems to say otherwise.
This hunger to fill life to the top, complicated by the evangelical training of my youth to live every day like Jesus could come back at any moment, has meant I most often approach spiritual life with the same gusto. Knowing more, serving more, and reaching the world was the daily call. Give all for God every day. After all, Jesus had given all for us. How could we do any less?
As evidenced by my frequent departures into feeling inadequate, unloved by God, and unable to ever be enough, this is not the way to the abundant life Jesus came to give us. The older I got the more the tension grew. I’d attended seminary, served as a leader, and worked for the church. I attended each event and Bible study and served whenever asked like I was taught to do. The more I did, the less I could see Jesus or recognize the presence of God...
The new leaves look as small and fragile as a baby’s fingernail. I smile in wonder as I water the miniature umbrella tree that sits as a quiet reminder to me in my window sill. The bonsai sits soaking up the morning sun doing its slow work. Changes are subtle and take days to notice. It looks like nothing is happening for a long time; then suddenly what appeared dormant emerges.
I am the farthest thing from a gardener. Though I love plants, I can’t keep them alive. Yet, after years of admiring the bonsai garden at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit which I visit several times a year, I finally bought one of the minuscule trees last year. I took great care the first few weeks to make sure it was watered and fertilized. In short order, the leaves drained of their color and started collecting in heaps around the base of the tree.
I read more about the specific type of plant and realized I was over-saturating it. I purchased a humidity tray to keep subtle moisture always nearby. I started watering it only once a week. Yet, I feared it was too late as the branches remained bare for weeks. I kept pouring water into the ceramic, turquoise base every Monday. I didn’t think there was any hope for the weepy branches, but I kept trying.
And then one day as I was watering the apparently dead tree, I saw those tiny leaves beginning to emerge. Something had been happening beneath the dark, moist soil that I couldn’t see. Life had been pulsing inside the branches all along, quietly, imperceptibly.
I started working on a rule of life four years ago sitting under the high arches of the very same abbey church where my little bonsai started its life as a sapling. I sat at the monastery and dreamed of a well-ordered life like the ones the brothers who live there know—one that prioritizes prayer and community, faith and action. One that finally makes sense.
“A rule of life aims to create a framework for being and becoming, rather than checking something off a list. Practical and spiritual goals fit into this framework as prayer and Bible reading can get sidelined into another item on the to-do list.”
I first learned about living by a rule at the monastery but found that followers of Christ have been creating personal rules individually and in community for years. St. Benedict himself, who wrote the most famous rule which orders the life of monastics around the world, summarized the rule as “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”
I’ve struggled to complete or live by a rule in the years since because it feels rigid in my ever-changing life. I would get a draft together of spiritual practices I wanted to pursue and ways I wanted to fix my life around anchor points that didn’t shift when my circumstances did. A few months into the year, just like with resolutions or goals, I would abandon the attempt, only to try again later. Continue Reading
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.