New Beginnings and the Seduction of Safety

I resigned from my job yesterday.

Yes – we are in the middle of a recession. Yes – it was on paper a good job. Yes – I need to pay bills.

And I also know that it was a good decision. As soon as I sent the letter, a backpack of burdens fell off my back. I didn’t know how heavy it was until it fell off.

In To Bless the Space Between Us, the poet John O’Donohue speaks to new beginnings in a fresh way, a way that I have never considered:

"In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground...." 

I first read the poem over a month ago and the words on playing with the “seduction of safety and the gray promises that sameness whispered…” began going through my mind on repeat. This was me. I knew I had outgrown this organization a long time ago, but I’m a sticker if nothing else. I never quit, even when perhaps I should.

So I stuck, and I gossiped and I whined and – well you get the picture. It has not been pretty nor has it been healthy. Writing and submitting my letter of resignation is an act of faith and an acknowledgement that leaving this position is an important step forward.

When I first began writing publicly, I relayed a poignant story that Sheila Walsh told of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”

Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”

As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in this retelling of the story and a child’s simple comment. The times that I would go farther except my backpack is too heavy – the things I carry too weighty. 

I love the story and I love the visual picture.

My resignation is my way of shedding the load that is keeping me back, an active way of saying “I can go farther without this heavy backpack.” With it, I step into a new place and I accept what comes.

There will be growing pains, of course. There will be times of fear and some self accusation. But right now, there is so much delight, there is peace, and there is so much grace.

Here’s to entering the “grace of new beginnings.”

You can read the entire poem here.

Stones of Remembrance – Heritage

This past weekend I attended a reunion for others like me who, though not Pakistani, have a deep connection and love for Pakistan through work or through a third culture childhood. After three years of limited contact with these folks, we gathered together in the heart of the Ozark mountains, the kitsch of Branson far enough away to not interfere with our conversation and connections.

Through the years I grow more and more grateful for this heritage that I am gifted, the sense of belonging I can feel with someone 40 years younger or 30 years older than I am.

Coming from all over the world, we celebrated this legacy. There was no need to explain our love of hot curry and airports, our fierce defense of Pakistan and our comfort with travel. We were a group of people who remember the smoke of wood fires as dusk settles over our mountain home away from home, the spicy garlic of chicken karahi, the thick gravy of chicken korma eaten with a hot chapati, the delight of a clear day after a long monsoon, and the joy of sitting in daisy filled fields just minutes from our school. We are people who remember long bus rides up a steeply curved mountain road, vendors hawking at train stations, and crowded bazaars where we searched for bangles and fabric. We are an eclectic group who grew up with a steady diet of old Christian hymns coupled with hearing the call to prayer five times a day. We are men and women of all ages who have experienced the sights, sounds, and smells of Pakistan resurrected in unlikely places, bringing on waves of saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. We are people who have known God’s presence within Pakistan, whether felt through the whisper of wind through pine trees, the sound of the call to prayer, or the sound of ocean waves on Karachi beach.

In March, I spoke to a group of women at our parish. I was invited to share my journey under the theme of “Journeys of Faith.” I titled my talk “Stones of Remembrance” based on a chapter in the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. The story is about God telling Joshua to have each of the tribes of Israel pick up a stone and take it to the middle of the Jordan River so that they could remember God’s faithfulness. I love the concrete picture in this account, the action of picking up a stone, carrying it to a place and having it serve as a reminder of what God has done.

The first stone I talked about was the stone of heritage, the Christian faith that was passed down to me by my parents and the small community that grew me, a gift of faith embodied in my home and school. I included in the stone of heritage the uniqueness of being a little white girl growing up in a Muslim context where Islamic faith echoed in the call to prayer outside of our doors, shaping me with its zeal and devotion.

I was reminded over the past few days of the beauty of this stone of remembrance, the gifts of a heritage that includes shared identity and memories, faith that is based on foundational truths and worked out in different Christian traditions.

In this beautiful setting, we experienced much laughter and joy and many tears and memories of those who have died. We heard updates on Pakistan and a retelling of countless stories, there was bollywood and qawwali, creative presentations and not as creative presentations. There was occasionally that wistful longing for the past, but it was so much more than that.

Because the true beauty of these reunions is that they give us strength to walk forward and remind us that there are others who have traveled a similar journey. They are reminders of a shared heritage, a unique group of people shaped by a distinctive background with its gifts and its challenges.

Gathering and remembering makes us stronger, helps us to remember that we are all a part of a bigger story that is being written around the world and in our hearts.

Pascha 2022

It’s getting late as I sit, resting before heading to church. Charlestown will soon be asleep with only the liquor store down the street open.

Ever since we became Orthodox I have used this time before heading to our midnight service as a time of reflection. It has changed through the years. When we first became Orthodox, we still had kids living with us and as the rest of the family rested, I would write. Now they are all adults in various parts of the country and world and like Christmas, I miss their presence and the collective excitement that we had for several years.

In this Orthodox journey, our lives are now marked by Pascha and Pentecost, by Dormition and Nativity, by Theophany and the beginning of Great Lent. It has taken some getting used to, but I am beginning to love it. To love the rhythms of the church calendar, the Great Feasts and the more minor ones. In a world that I have found changes with the wind, a world where worldwide disasters accompany personal tragedies, I am learning the value of something as solid as this calendar and the faith that orders it.

Far more than a calendar is the reality of being a part of a bigger story, for it is sobering and freeing. To be a part of a story where the central theme is sacrificial love is extraordinary, and though I try, I will not fully grasp it’s fullness and mystery until I enter eternity.

So I willingly put aside regular bedtime routines entering into the biggest event of the entire church calendar and celebrate Pascha at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church. Because this love story and the God who orchestrated it is worth celebrating.

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!

Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!

Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Select Portions from St. John Chrysostom Easter Sermon

When You’re in the Middle of the Story – and You Want to Know the End

Several years ago I was in the middle of a riveting book. Every time I had a spare moment I would pick up the book and continue reading. My husband was traveling and so after I got my five children settled for the night, I got into my own bed and continued reading. The night got later and later as the book took on more and more suspense. I suddenly looked at the clock and it was three o’clock in the morning. I was stunned, but also faced with a dilemma: Do I go to bed? Do I keep on reading? Or….and this will stun many of you….do I skip forward and read the end?

Knowing that I may disappoint you, I will not tell you what I did. The bigger point is that sometimes we’re in the middle of the story, and we desperately want to know the end. Will the protagonist’s longing be fulfilled? Will the boy find the girl? Will the child be rescued? Will the villain be caught? This is what makes The Princess Bride such a delighful and longstanding movie favorite. Princess Buttercup, Wesley, the Villain, the Giant, Inigo Montoya….it’s all there and it is deeply satisfying because we get to see the end. Wesley’s words to Princess Buttercup “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” stay with us even after watching countless other movies.

The stories each of us live, sometimes caught up with the story of another, are a bit more complicated. We don’t always know the ending. We pray for healing only to watch someone die of cancer. We pray for peace only to see war after war after war. We pray for courage only to see ourselves cower in the moments that we most want to be brave. We pray for understanding only to be crushed by the weight of misunderstanding. We pray that we will have faith to believe in something bigger than ourselves only to doubt everytime life gets difficult. We pray for unity in churches and families only to watch as chasms grow in both. We long for a good ending, but in the dark of night we wonder “How will it all end?”

This week it is Palm Sunday in my faith tradition. Palm Sunday was an amazing story. It is the hero riding into Jerusalem. Right there in the middle of palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” is a story of hope and joy. Things will change! Here he comes! We’ve watched what he can do and he will make everything right.

But a few days later, the unbelievable happened and all hopes were gone in a moment. A moment of denial, a moment of a mother’s tears, a moment of fear. They thought that this was the end of the story.

But it wasn’t. It was the middle of the story and it felt like the end.

We are much like that. It’s easy to feel despair, to sit in the middle of the story thinking it is the end. Because in this Christian faith, a faith that I describe as my oxygen, the Story is not yet over. It is ultimately a love story that continues to call us into believing the impossible, to hope in the unseen, and to live in the light of a bigger reality. It calls us follow that great cloud of witnesses that went before, It whispers in the night, and shouts in the daylight that there is more and that it matters.

As for faith and the middle of the story? I so often want to skip to the end, to forget the pages inbetween. To get resolution and redemption without all the pain that goes along with it. Here is the truth: Sometimes I believe, sometimes I doubt, always I pray “Help my unbelief.” Sometimes I love God and people, sometimes I do not; always I pray “Teach me to love more and judge less.” Sometimes I believe the story is not yet over, other times I believe that it has ended, that what I see is all there is; always I pray:

Help me to remember that the story is not over, that the story I see with limited vision continually points to a bigger story with an absolutely astonishing ending.

And since ultimately this Christian story is a love story, perhaps I too would do well to remember the words of Wesley in The Princess Bride “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”

Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash

Cow Dust Time and Anniversaries of Hard Things

Yesterday evening while driving along the Charles River, we stopped at a traffic light, joining other cars in a long line. It was dusk, those few brief moments where day meets night and melancholy meets mystery. Daffodils dotted the banks of the river, their cheery yellow barely visible in the growing twilight. I gasped at the beauty, longing to capture it even as I knew that this would be impossible.

I love dusk, the whispered end of a day that reaches into the soul. I learned from my brother that Pakistanis call this “cow dust time.” He went on to say “the time around sunset when cooling air makes the dust form a layer a few feet above the ground and little sounds like cowbells or children’s chatter seems to be amplified.” Though I spent my childhood and my late twenties in Pakistan, I had never heard this before. Further reading tells me that in India this was the time when cows were brought home from pasture. Either way, I love this phrase and the description.

Dusk has always been one of my favorite times, particularly in Pakistan or the Middle East, where the call to prayer echoes across sunsets, calling the faithful to leave what they are doing and listen, pay attention, pray.

As sounds are amplified during “cow dust time” so too are the contradictions of a life of faith. The ability to mix joy with sorrow, day with night, contentment with longing. I sighed during the moment, thinking over the past week and all it held, for its biggest holding was the anniversary of a hard time. A time that I don’t want to remember; a time that I honestly wish had never happened; a time that sends reverberations through my body and my heart.

We usually think of anniversaries as happy times. Conventional wisdom brings on images of flowers, candle light, happy conversation, and hearts that could burst from the joy of it all. But most of us know in our bones what it is to face the anniversary of something that is not so happy, something that will forever present as the space between the before and the after. A death, a divorce, a tragedy, a diagnosis, an adult child leaving in anger, the fragile breaking of family bonds, an accident, a job loss – there are many ways in which the world forces us to remember anniversaries that we’d rather forget.

As I thought back to last year I remembered each event as though rewinding a film and replaying it in slow motion. As I did so, a curious thing happened. Details began to emerge that I had previously taken for granted. Details of people walking beside us until the pain and fog gave way to clarity and a spark of hope.

The kindness of my children, each walking beside me in their own unique ways; the kindness and love of our neighbors as shown through a conversation, a meal, a gorgeous, flowering plant, beauty products, more conversation, and absolutely no pressure to share more than I wanted. Then there was the kindness of dear friends as well as those in our parish, poignantly present during the time of Lent, a season of repentance and lament. As I remembered each person and kindness, long forgotten conversations and the generosity of those who sat and walked with me filled my mind. An anniversary of sadness turned into a collage of grateful memories.

Like dusk itself, these times amplify the contradictions in a life of faith. That an anniversary of sadness can hold so many memories of gladness; that joy and sorrow are so infinitely inseparable, that all of it is summed up in the ampersand that is life.

Perhaps from now on I too will call dusk “cow dust time” and it will remind me that just as sounds are amplified during this time, so too is the broken beauty of our lives. Anniversaries of hard things giving birth to memories of extraordinary love and kindness, God’s goodness always and ever present.

Lemon & Honey; Mystery & Grace

It’s Sunday afternoon – the time when I feel all the things. The time when I simultaneously cry tears of sorrow and yet still feel hope for the world; the time when liturgy – fresh in my mind from the morning – clothes me in a bubble of God’s love.

Though fog covered our area this morning, it has long since burned away replaced by afternoon sunshine pouring through our living room windows. My friend Brit recently introduced me to a song that I have on repeat. “Give us a vision of your love Lord, Let us fall in love with you again.” Bathed in sunlight and lyrics I can hardly imagine the tears that I cried just yesterday when I did not have a vision for anything other than despair. The truth is that in the comfort of my now it is easy for me to have a vision of God’s love. It’s tomorrow, Monday morning, when I will struggle.

We are two weeks into Lent, the rhythm of the season ordering our days and evenings. We rid ourselves of all things dairy and meat, taking up the physical Lenten fast. That is often the easier part of Lent. The more difficult part is the self examination and willingness to repent and learn.

I often feel like I have to hype myself up before Lent begins. I need to be in a place of strength and single purpose, ready to take on extra services, prayers, readings, fasting, and more. A couple of weeks ago when I sent my godmother a note that alluded to this, she responded “I think our desire to enter Lent with us being somehow in control is maybe not the way God wants us to start off.” Her words gave me hope. Isn’t the whole point that we are not in control? That we aren’t, God is, and we need to allow him control?

My love of comfort is ever before me. I love tea, sunlight, good coffee, books, comfortable pillows and chairs, bouquets of flowers, candlelight, large cinnamon rolls….the list goes on and on. These are all good gifts from a creative God who loves beauty and invites us into all things lovely. Still, I am well aware of when my love of comfort pushes against all things difficult.

Beyond the physical are, of course, those things that are far harder to talk about. The heart pieces that keep me up at night, and waking early. The deep pain over relationships that are fractured, the prayers for wisdom to do the right thing, the nervous feelings that take over and distract me.

Yet, Lent is for all these and more. It is the bitter and the sweet, the lemon and the honey. It is correction and love, repentance and forgiveness. It is tears of the heart and joy of the soul. It is muted colors and longer days. It is death and it is life. It is convicting and it is restoring. It is mystery and it is grace.

May you rest in mystery and grace this season, and may there be room in you heart for both lemon and honey.

The Courage to Stay Small

In a recent Whatsapp conversation with a good friend, I posed these questions: “Can you become someone well known and still maintain your integrity? Can you be great in the world’s eyes and still be humble? Can you be great and not lose your way?” The conversation was in response to a well known organization that recently released a statement about the organization’s questionable leadership practices.

My initial response to this organization was not kind and I am embarassed to admit it. My inner “Nasty people will have their come uppance!” arrogance was quickly confronted by a Holy Spirit willing to continue working on my heart. As quickly as the thought arrived, a deep sadness replaced it.

How do we lose our way so quickly? How do we fall for the bright lights and shallow praise over and over again, ignoring the big heart issues, willing to give up our integrity for a short dance in the spotlight?

Thankfully, I listened to the prompt and began my own soul searching.

This searching and self reflection brought me to my writing. When I first began to write publicly, I was so excited to be writing, so anxious to begin something that I had wanted to do for a long, long time. I would get emails from friends saying “Oh! I love that you are writing! I love your words!” and this encouragement reached a hungry, willing part of my heart. Early on I discovered the ‘daily stats’ section on my blog. It was so exciting when I had 10 people who came to Communicating Across Boundaries. Then 30, then 40, then 100! It was amazing! People were reading my words and my words resonated! Then one day, I thought there was a mistake. Within a short time, 4,000 people had come to my site. I started getting comment after comment from complete strangers. Someone Important had discovered my blog, my words. At the time, it was the uprising in Egypt and the start of the Arab Spring. My daughter was in Egypt and I wrote about her. I wrote honestly and from a position of anonymity. When the response came, I felt anything but anonymous. I couldn’t peel myself away from the movement on the stats page.

I became obsessed. With a current world population of almost 8 billion people, my words had reached a whopping 4,000. Wow.

Hopefully, you’re seeing the humor of all of this with me. I thought I was hitting the big numbers. A quick reminder of the world’s population was all it took to bring me down from my floating cloud of glory to a hard earth bump.

I’ve since realized that yesterday’s internet sensation or hero is tomorrow’s villain and spam.

But the bigger issue is the message all around me that I am so willing to absorb. The message to get, have, or be more. More posessions, more house, more education, more status, more followers, more influence. I am assaulted with this from sun up until sun down in blatant and subtle ways throughout the day.

How do I have the courage and the willingness to stay small?

It is critical that I learn to live beyond the messages of more, to live securely in the message of “enough.”

On a side note, it helps immensely to have adult children. They keep me incredibly and delightfully grounded. But, it’s not their job to call out their mom on her striving for more.

This I know: Striving to be bigger and more is exhausting, defeating, chaotic.

Enough is calming. Enough is sobering. Enough is freeing.

A constant striving to be bigger and more leaves me depleted and continually searching for contentment. If I just get this, then I will be content. If I just get one more degree, one more follower, one more writing piece accepted…the list is never ending.

As I write and reflect on the courage to stay small, I remember an incident from a number of years ago. I applied to a graduate school program. I was convinced that I would get in to this program. After all, I reasoned, I’ve watched mere children of 21 years get into this program. The program will be so happy to have one such as me. I mean, what wasn’t to love? My writing was good, my essay sound, my background impeccable. Oh – except for the grades I received in my nursing program, but that was a long time ago.

I was soundly rejected. The day I received my rejection I cried until there were no more tears. I knew in that moment, I was not enough. I would never be enough. And then I called one of my brilliant brothers – in this case, the youngest one. The one who I lovingly offered a scowl and a doll to when he was a tiny baby. I thought I had cried enough tears, but they came on again at the sound of his voice. I tearfully told him the story.

He listened. He comforted. And then he said something that I’ve come back to over and over. He said “I think you need to figure out why it matters so much.” He then reminded me of a C.S. Lewis essay that came from a lecture Lewis gave in 1944.

In this essay, CS Lewis takes a profound look at our desire as humans to be “insiders.” He calls it “the inner ring.”

“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” “As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left.”

This inner ring can be in any area of life…whether it’s about academics, status, belonging, or influence. We are not born understanding these rings or how to get into them.

At the beginning of the essay, Lewis poses this question: “I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.”

To be a part of that inner ring often means acting or speaking in ways that we end up regretting, we forget who we are, we lose our way, all in the quest to get to the inner ring. Sometimes getting to the inner ring involves giving up our integrity, our honesty, and pretending we are someone who we aren’t.

Call it influence, status, or the inner ring – it all leads to a similar place.

This brings me to my initial questions of my friend, Rachel: “Can we become someone well known and still maintain our integrity? Can we be great in the world’s eyes and still be humble? Can we be great and not lose our way?”

Lewis’ response to the dilemma of the “Inner Ring” is to break the cycle. “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.” If we break this cycle, we will no longer wear ourselves out by trying so hard to make it, by striving so desperately for ‘more.’

Breaking the cycle of longing for the inner ring, whatever it is for you, for me, is about the courage to remain small. It is the courage to not seek an inner ring, to not strive for more. It is the courage to seek God first, middle, and last. It is the courage to give any praise or influence we do have or receive into the capable hands, heart, and mind of the omnipotent God of the Universe.

The courage to remain small is perhaps best worded in Matthew’s Gospel “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”* May I have the courage each day to remain small, to lose my life in the service of the One who must remain large.

Do not despise the day of small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.

Zechariah 4:10

*Matthew 10:39

Photo Credit: https://www.instagram.com/arunbabuthomas/