They are inside all of us, buried deep inside our subconscious—these moments of impact. There are places, people, and events that changed who we are becoming. When our lives bump up against something that challenges us or deepens our understanding, we become the sprout that branches off an old limb. Over time you don’t see where the new life began, for it is part of the whole, yet this shoot did have an origin and it changed the life of the tree completely by springing into existence. For me, it is often a fragrance that often brings these pivot points back to the surface.
It was my daughter that first noticed what was to her an offending scent. She wrinkled her nose and covered her face. Turning to see what she was referring to I saw someone carrying a thurible into the church, the small golden incense burner that hangs from chains and swings to release the smoke into the sanctuary. The smell of Frankincense startled my senses and I gasped. What was new to my daughter brought back a well of fourteen-year-old memories flooding through me. I turned to my husband, suddenly that young bride, full of wonder again, and cried, “it smells like Egypt!” He smiled and nodded and I knew he was back there again in his mind, too.
The six months we were part of the Coptic church in Egypt transformed us, one of those points in our lives where we diverged from who we had previously been into something altogether new. It was a phase of life in which every new experience overwhelmed us. I dwelled inside the memories in those moments sitting in the church with my family on Christmas Eve. I was transported to the stone walls of another church where my faith exploded into fresh places.
Nothing in my evangelical upbringing prepared me for seeing the demon-possessed woman writhing on the floor during the healing service at The Cave Church. My Western theology had no space for the quiet, yet forceful priest who commanded men in wheelchairs to stand. I watched in skepticism as thousands of people, Christian and Muslim alike, flooded through the village that housed all of Cairo’s garbage collectors and mounds of trash to the monastery hidden inside the recesses of Mokottam Mountain.
All skepticism evaporated like the smoke rising from the incense burners when I met Abouna Samaan, the man who the community called Father and who truly treated each person who came to him like a beloved child. A week after first meeting him we were on a bus with him and dozens of church members headed out into the desert to the retreat center under construction. Here we were, were two total outsiders, welcomed directly into the fold of the largest church in the Middle East.
Her intense gaze met mine, or so I believed. When she turned toward the audience the feathers of her tail responded in a dance of their own, winding around her slender form. She wasn’t a ballet dancer on a stage; she was the exotic bird, emerging from her cage to capture my imagination. Time ceased to be and nothing else existed but us, as something deep inside me stirred into movement while she danced.
From the moment I sat in front of the TV screen, enraptured by the peacock performing the Arabian Dance in the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker, I begged my mom to let me take dance classes. I was only three and she figured I’d lose interest quickly; she was wrong. Dance filled my world and defined who I was. By the time I was in middle school, I was dancing five days a week and planning a professional dance career.
As a teen when I would bandage aching blisters or lose yet another toenail, my father would ask me why I continued to dance. If I complained, he would tell me I should quit. The years of endless classes, the aching muscles, the feet wrecked from pointe shoes—none of it mattered. I battled my body into submission to ballet. I kept chasing after the feeling I had as a little girl watching the exquisite ballerina. I wanted to capture that feeling again, to become what she was.
My winding journey with dance could fill a book. I lost hope in my dream and quit for a while, only to find myself weeping outside a ballet studio shortly after beginning college. I came running back to my first love, changing my major to pursue dance full-time. I kept fighting for the dream despite professors’ lack of belief in me, and traditional wisdom that said a career in dance was not a sustainable life. Every now and then I would glimpse a kind of transcendence: that fleeting moment on stage when a series of memorized steps becomes a moment when the rhythm flows within and through you. I didn’t end up pursuing that career; God took me in other directions, but the love never kept chasing me down.
My body knows the movements my mind can no longer name. It’s been years since I’ve taken a class but the patterns have been etched like deep grooves into my muscle memory. I can still go through the motions of a complete ballet class on days I can’t seem to call my children by the right name. The notes of a song will take me over and I can’t help but move with the music. It reminds me that I will never stop belonging to the dance; it is part of who I am.
Under the Christmas tree, I found the tiny book with golden-edged pages. My mom had sewn a lacy cloth cover to protect its delicate binding. Like I begged for ballet shoes, I begged for a Bible. I thought the answers to what I was searching for would lie inside. It became my icon, a symbol of a Jesus I wanted but didn’t understand. I longed to feel closeness with God and poured over the pages. No answers came.
I can’t explain the hunger I had for God early in life except to say that it was something borne in me. It wasn’t something I learned as a child. I have more vivid memories of hide-and-seek and MTV than I do of the church. I vaguely remember flannel graphs, Oreos, and tiny cups of juice the few times I attended Sunday school as a child. Yet it felt like there was something drawing me to this Jesus I heard and read snatches of stories about.
I don’t remember actually making the choice to go to the back of the room to pray with someone the first time I attended a youth group meeting with friends. The magnetism of the God I had been searching for drew me in, and I was hooked. I met Jesus that night, instead of only glimpsing him from afar.
I threw myself full-force into all the right moves. I memorized them like the exercises of the ballet barre. I learned the routines of a Jesus follower, giving myself to the tutelage of those who could tell me more about him...
Our eyes grew wide in disbelief at the yelling, shoving crowd. We had been warned, to be fair, that our trip to the Mogamma, the towering government building in Tahrir Square, would be difficult. But this was something entirely otherworldly. We clutched our passports to our chests and braced ourselves against elbows to the ribs. Everyone there needed to get to that one plexiglass window at the front of the room. On the other side were the stamps that would allow us to stay in the country.
We came to Egypt on tourist one-month entry visas in faith that the system would work and we would be allowed to stay. We didn’t act like there was any other option when we signed a two-year lease and enrolled in Arabic classes. But we needed someone on the other side of the mob to take our papers and give us final permission.
We tell our immigration stories fondly now from the other side. They felt like harrowing experiences while we were in the middle of them though. We hounded the guy at the Bangladeshi Embassy daily. He could have denied our visas because of a changing rule we didn’t know about. Instead, he gave us a call and a chance to make it right. Our entire life was already packed up in ten suitcases and the one-way plane tickets had been purchased. Yet he held the power to deny us entry into the new life we sought. In the end, we got the highly-coveted five-year permission that others told us they were jealous of. “How easy it was for you,” they would say.
I’ve been an immigrant twice and I’ve served with an organization that worked in relief and development amidst one of the largest refugee crises of our time. I’ve helped bring aid to those who fled. I listened to and wrote stories so that donors would hopefully continue to help. I stood looking over the vast rolling hills of the world’s largest refugee camp and thought I knew something about the vulnerability of a transitory life. I knew nothing.
When I started listening, really listening—I realized how one-sided my knowledge was of why people leave and why people need sanctuary...
“Why are you here?” she asked suspiciously when we sat down knee to knee on the dirt floor of her shelter. She had seen other foreigners before. They brought food and water, set up medical camps. Were we here to do the same? “We just want to hear your story,” one of the women in our circle said. The Rohingya woman tugged the violet scarf behind her ears as she smiled widely and let out a contented sigh.
When I was younger I never imagined I would be sitting in a circle like that one. Everything in me loved to color inside the lines. A risk-averse rule follower asks where the boundaries are and then stays a few feet inside of them.
My faith stayed inside the lines for years, too. I clung to right answers and thought I knew all the rules to follow to please God and to make a difference in the world.
And then, I went out and met people who looked, lived, and believed nothing like me. I started listening and realizing how little I knew at all.
Thankfully, I met people who valued people’s stories over quick solutions. When one organization I worked with wanted to combat slavery in India they asked the people in bondage how they could help and listened when they responded: “Educated our children. Don’t let this cycle continue with the next generation.” So, they started schools and empowered national teachers to run them.
“It is easy to know what is good for someone else,” says nun and human rights advocate, Joan Chissiter, “It is difficult to listen and let them define it themselves.” I don’t always make the effort to listen. But when I do, I realize the gravity of carrying someone else’s story…and the privilege.
Back in that camp, we leaned in closer around the quiet woman, eager to hear her story...
I am thrilled to share my story today at Cara Meredith's Coloring Outside the Lines blog. Cara is the author of The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice. The proceeds from the article will go to the work of Preemptive Love.
Ask anyone who knows me: I am obsessed with books. My dream house includes plans for a library with bookshelves tall enough to necessitate a sliding ladder. Belle was always my favorite princess because of her love of reading. Some of the world's most magnificent libraries have brought me to tears (Alexandria, Egypt to name one).
It's this love of the written word that made me want to be a writer to begin with. Maybe it's this love of words that drew me to study the stories people tell about God and get a degree in Religion. I have an abnormal love of learning and have said I would go to school forever if someone would pay for it (Anyone dying to fund my return to an incomplete seminary degree I started sixteen years ago? No?). If you ask any expert on writing what to do to become a better writer, the first thing they will say is, "read more."
So I set out this year with a goal to read 52 books. I read on my kindle and on my phone, listened to audiobooks, borrowed from the library, and supported author friends in launching their precious book babies into the world. By the beginning of December, I had busted my goal apart and read 59 books (and countless essays and articles online).
My head was swimming with all the beautiful, wonderful words. And I needed a break. My love of reading had become a duty as a writer. I needed to read more to grow my craft. I needed to support every author friend that was putting together a launch team. I needed to recommend the best books in my monthly newsletter to my reader (and articles and podcasts, and oh, so much noise in my mind!). My love of story had turned into a duty to take in more information at a breakneck pace. And I wasn't loving it anymore. Sometimes even the things we love can become burdensome. Sometimes we need to reevaluate our reasons.
So, I took December off of social media, reading, podcasts, news. I work in online communications so I couldn't log off completely. But outside of work, I let the only words I take into my mind during Advent be one short devotional and Scripture.
It was a relief to have some quiet for a time. But it is not sustainable as a writer or even as a lover of words. I long to be a learner but I also have limited time (and limited capacity in a middle-aged brain that is pulled in a million different directions). I want to be smarter in what I consume and I don't ever want it to just be more information. I want it to be part of transformation.
So, here's a look back on what I read in 2019 and my goals for the coming year. What about you—what do your bookshelves look like? Continue Reading