“In Your mercy confer on me a conversation pleasing to You, the patience to wait for You, and the perseverance to long for You. Grant me a perfect end, Your holy presence.”
– Saint Benedict of Nursia
He intimidated me on that first day I met him. He must have all the answers, I thought. Surely he knows the secret things of God, learns them in his five daily prayers.
I sat in the back of the room as the Trappist monk spoke about how his free-form writing had helped him encounter the dark spaces of his own soul. He’d stroke his chest-length white beard as he laughed. He seemed so casual and approachable at that moment. I imagined if I were to see him out in regular clothes, I might wonder if he was a biker. Yet here in this place, he seemed otherworldly.
Brother Mark is one of the dwindling number of Cistercians that make their home at the monastery I visit a couple of times a year. It’s less than an hour from my home and yet when you enter the sprawling grounds, you feel like you are entering an inherently sacred space. From the Abbey Church’s towering ceiling to the rolling lawn and lake nestled between massive Georgia pines, you truly feel minuscule against the backdrop of the testament that the monastery is to God’s majesty.
I had come for a retreat in which several of the brothers taught about writing and journaling. Brother Mark shared with our small group about his struggles with anger and the temptation to squabble with the men he chose to live his life among.
What—monks arguing? Of course, deep inside I knew this must be true. They are only human, after all. And yet, I had this image in my mind of the holiness that must set them apart, the pedestal these men must belong on for having chosen this life. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around the paradoxes of Brother Mark.
That evening my mother, sister, and I sat in the common room of the retreat guest house. It was the period of “the Great Silence,” the time after compline—the last prayers of the day—when the brothers retreat to their cells until the bells again call them to prayer well before dawn. Yet Brother Mark sat chatting with us about writing, faith, miracles, and dreams. I don’t know what all we discussed; I just know it was the night my illusions shattered...
“We are homeless wanderers. On this side of glory, we will never be entirely at home. Like the desire to cut and run, the disappointment that God has not yet made all things new…point us homeward.” - Ashley Hales
I moved from trailer park to split-level house, from dorm rooms to efficiency apartments. I’ve lived in a garage apartment on the edge of a bayou and a basement apartment in the home of my childhood best friend. I have made my home in flats in three of the largest cities in the world. I’ve rented, owned my own home, and lived off the kindness of family and friends when my family has been between places to call home. I know well the impact of home, the comfort and the baggage that come with longing to stay and longing to go.
I’ve loved Ashley Hales’ work since she was one of my first editors at The Mudroom and was excited to read her first book Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much. I don’t currently live in the American suburbs that I’ve called home for the longest chunks of my life, but the majority of my friends and family do. I thought this book would be for them. It is. But it is also for me.
I’ve been shaped by life in the suburbs and no matter how far I go from them; the hustle for the American dream and the work-harder attitude that is the hallmark of the suburbs remain part of who I am. It has shaped my spiritual life in ways I daily struggle to overcome and in ways that I am grateful for, too.
As I read Ashley Hales smart and honest book, I knew I needed to hear her words on contentment, gratitude, purpose, rest, and finding God wherever you are. Yes, her words are geared towards readers that have lived in the suburbs of America. But I also appreciated the way she likened the suburbs to our human tendency to isolate ourselves from our neighbors and to gather with those like us and her challenge to all of us to “offer our bodies, to see and to notice, and to move toward others in welcome.”
If you’re feeling a little itchy wherever you are (be it suburbs, city, America, or Asia) you’ll hear her words as an admonishment to find purpose where God has put you and find ways to live with hospitality and peacemaking with those around you. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with what you have compared to your neighbors, you’ll be offered gratitude instead. If you’re feeling too busy, worn out, or like you aren’t sure where God is in the hustle of life, Hales offers practical steps to help you slow down and listen:
“You can stop the worry and busyness, the shame and hiding. Belovedness doesn’t come from working harder to be more acceptable or more beautiful…In the suburbs, it is countercultural to live in the light of this deep-rooted belovedness because everything around us says we need a constant stream of more to belong…There is no house, home, suburb, city, or countryside that will finally offer us all that being God’s beloved can.”
As someone for whom the place I live has become one of the biggest definitions of my life for past few years, I heard Hales words loud and clear as a call to not be defined by my place but to live well in it. As I try to be content in a big city while missing my suburban home (but longed for the big city while living in my suburban home), I try to heed her words to “ be an offering day by day,” to “fight to stay present” when I want to flee.
So, wherever home happens to be for you at this point in your life, if you want to learn how to live more faithfully in it, I believe Ashley Hales book will be an encouragement and challenge to you.
At night these mostly bare walls with fresh paint echo more than they used to, bouncing each memory of the past six years back through my unquiet mind. The crickets and tree frogs sing a melody that is as commonplace to me here as the call to prayer and honking cars was when we lived in the Middle East. I haven’t stopped to notice it in a long time but in these still moments it is blaring in my ears, reminding me of all we are leaving behind.
A long-held dream is possibly just weeks away (the nature of overseas moves is always a little uncertain as we wait on visas and funding and a house to sell). I keep myself busy every waking hour but not just because my list of tasks to accomplish is long. If I sit in the quiet too long, the conflict inside begins to rage.
I see it in my daughter too, her sweet eyes filling up with tears when she asks for another doll accessory and I remind her we have to be selective in what we buy as we’ll only have so much room in the two suitcases each that will carry all our belongings with us to South Asia. We’re giving up a lot of things, sure. But what about the experiences, the people, the opportunities that we are leaving behind? I know the truth—that we will gain as much as we lose. My heart doesn’t always believe it though.
For sixteen years now this dream of living overseas has tumbled around inside of me. Fueled by five international trips in the past three years, fed by the stories we’ve heard from our refugee friends nearby, the dream has only grown. My husband had the seeds planted in his life early too when his parents hosted international workers in their home. The stories of faraway lands seemed otherworldly to an eight-year-old boy but the fire was ignited just the same. We’ve been working towards this for years.
Last month every event seemed to be a last one. We didn’t make a big deal of it to the kids, didn’t want each day to be colored by, “oh, this is your last dance recital and tomorrow is your last Independence Day parade and next week is your last time to that friend’s house!” After a beautiful week with our best friends at the beach house where we have vacationed every summer for eleven years now, we made the long walk to our cars. It’s always hard to say goodbye to them because we live states apart anyway.
The pain didn’t grip me though until the moment I wrapped my arms around my friend to say goodbye. We knew each other when we were just foolish college kids. Life hasn’t turned out like we thought it would. In most ways it is so much better than we imagined though some realities are harder than we dreamed. I kissed her two precious girls goodbye, feeling like I was placing my own children in their car seats. I lingered a moment to whisper “I love you” to the little boy growing in her belly knowing I won’t get to hold him when he’s still tiny. He will be born a month after we leave. The ache claws at the back of my throat and I can’t look at her with the tears burning my eyes, so I quickly turn away...
The miniature plastic house hung limply between two pine branches, the words “Our First Home” engraved on the side. We had brought the Christmas ornament with us to the first home we rented after a year and a half of marriage in which we lived with a friend.
The tree looked like it came straight out of Charlie Brown’s Christmas and the only other signs of celebration in our fourth-floor flat was a bright red poinsettia. Nothing about the day felt like Christmas because even though the Coptic minority celebrated the holiday, the Orthodox Christmas occurred later in January.
After we opened a couple gifts to each other—an onyx encrusted hand drum purchased from the tourist market and a grey flowing robe that local men wore called a gallabaya—we caught a cab to a nearby café that felt a bit like home.
The ancient culture had called to us back when we were living in the Southern United States. We imagined living in the land of the Pharaohs as this thrilling adventure and weren’t disappointed as the melodic Arabic call to prayer became the first soundtrack of our new lives.
In country for three months, the newness had worn off. We learned to say “we aren’t tourists; we live here” in Arabic to street vendors who tried to charge us more than we knew items were worth. But the truth is the dusty landscape didn’t feel much like home yet. We huddled in the cafe, isolated from those around us as we sipped our lattes and nibbled tomato and mozzarella sandwiches that Christmas afternoon, longing for the comfort of something familiar...
The Home series is a reflection on Jen's newly released Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017).
Home is something that is on my mind daily in this season of my life, something that holds deep meaning and intense longing. As we pack up our home of six years, as we look towards a new home overseas, as we say good bye to those things that anchor us to what home has meant for most of our lives ... we are constantly reminded that God gave us a longing for place and how to find home in this world and long for it in the next.
Jen Pollock Michel's new book Keeping Place couldn't have been more timely for me and I believe it will be for you as well.
"Home is our most fundamental longing. And for many of us homesickness is a nagging place of grief. This book connects that desire and disappointment with the story of the Bible, helping us to see that there is a homemaking God with wide arms of welcome – and a church commissioned with this same work..."
- Jen Pollock Michel
The concrete floor and exposed pipe ceiling are, at the same time, a welcome sight and a dagger of grief and sadness through my heart, one that is deep in transition. It’s just a Starbucks, you might say. No, it’s a symbol of all that I am grieving and losing in my life right now.
I’ve been waiting for nine years (or 25 years, depending on how far back you want to go into my story) for this coffee shop to open. As I walk in its doors, the familiar sounds of hissing espresso machines and whiney folk music mingling in my ears, my heart is heavy.
For years I have said we needed a coffee shop here. My family moved to what was once a sleepy Georgia town when I was only ten, from just one county over. I’ve hated this place and cried when I left it, too. I’ve moved to other towns and even countries, but Georgia has always been on my mind, the sweet scent of confederate jasmine and gardenia following me wherever I have gone.
Not much but pine and red clay marked this strip of roadside when we moved here. The big intersection in town consisted of a corner family gas station and a single grocery store. Ours was one of the first houses built in the new subdivision going up just a couple minutes from that red light. We could have been the first settlers in the Wild West for how it felt to a skinny freckled little girl moving into this unknown and barren land.
Over the years we watched our little intersection change as the growth of Atlanta pushed into our south metro town. Concrete replaced the undergrowth as the road widened and big stores pushed that little family one out into the distant memory of the few of us who lived here “back then”. The field that held the annual haunted hayride that every person I knew attended is now covered over with stores and medical offices.
You will still always run into someone you know at any of the multitude of grocery and drug stores that dot the intersection these days, reminding me that we were once a small town. But nothing looks the same and every inch of land that isn’t built on yet is under construction. I’ve returned back to this place again and again—after college and then grad school, finally 9 years ago after living in the Middle East. This is where I grew from child to woman and where my own family started. It has been the only home my two kids have ever known. They’ve watched it change like I did. But now we’re the ones who are changing. Everything is changing.
I’ve loved coffee shops since before I drank the sweet nectar I cannot live without now. The introverted people person that I am, I can be alone in a crowd here. I can be surrounded by conversation and relationships happening around me but still be alone with my thoughts. I do my best thinking and writing in these staples of hip culture, these meccas for caffeine lovers.
Every Saturday morning I venture to the nearest Starbucks to have my “office hours” in which I do my writing and editing. I am usually the first one in the parking lot and don’t leave until the sun is up and my joints are aching from hours of being lost in thought and staring at a screen. I think I literally screamed out loud while I was driving past the new construction that is common on my way home from work. They had put up a Starbucks sign just minutes from my childhood home (that is only 3 miles from my current one).
Today as I sip my usual grande non-fat caramel macchiato I know I may only enjoy this long-awaited coffee shop a dozen times before I fly away from it for years. When I see it again, the shine will have worn off of the gleaming new espresso machines. Who knows how many stores will have closed down and new gone up? Will any of the tall Georgia pines still reach to the sky down this busy stretch of highway?
Just like this intersection, everything in my life is unfamiliar these days. I don’t recognize my own home anymore with most of our belongings packed and the new tile and paint that has readied it for selling. There is nothing routine about my schedule anymore as planning and packing crowd out enjoying the sunny spring days that are marked by the yellow pollen’s arrival on my front porch. We will move sometime this summer to a borrowed basement on the other side of town, right on the border between this county and the one of my birth. A few months after that, Highway 34 will be a just a recollection after our international move.
But it’s right now that I am living in the borderlands. Between wanting to go and longing to stay. Between roots and wings. Between a calling and a rootedness. Between everything I’ve always known and what is waiting out there to be learned.
It’s these places of push and pull that hurt the most. Transition is the feeling of not belonging anywhere. There’s pain in the knowledge of all we are leaving but joy in what I believe we will gain, too. There’s irony in the bittersweet knowledge that I’ve waited 25 years for a coffee shop to arrive in this part of town just to move away from it. There’s deep sorrow in the longing for my home while another home calls to me. This place is still firmly mine though I feel removed from it already.
In this borderland of goodbye I ache for the familiar but know if I let it get too familiar the separation will hurt too deeply. I know I shouldn't cling to Georgia as home more than anywhere else. I am trying to remember that nowhere in this world is ever truly going to be where I belong. "For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come." (Hebrews 13.14, NLT)
You are home, Jesus. Anywhere in this world is a borderland between the now and the everlasting, between brokenness and wholeness. I ache for comfort you never promised me. Wherever I am, God, teach me how to live in this place that never changes—in the tension between holding on and letting go.
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