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....
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...
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.