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The Wonder Report: April 23, 2021
Living in Between
When we come together in the space each week, I always pause to think about what’s happened in my life and in the world in the seven days since I last popped in. Sometimes it feels like we’ve lived a whole life in that interim; other times, it seems like nothing happened at all.
I’m also acutely aware that my own marking of this time fails to account for all the things that you are celebrating, grieving, or just recovering from. I think that’s why I like to slip in kind of late on a Friday, hoping with all hope that if it’s been a hard week and you just don’t have it in you to read another email that you’ll just set this one aside until Saturday morning, or maybe Sunday afternoon. Or maybe some weeks you don’t read at all. Do that if you need to. I’ll be back the next week, after all. And there’s a lot of life to live in that between space: you don’t need an unread email hanging over you.
In fact, those in-between spaces are just what I want to talk about this week. As you know, we’ve been reflecting on the trope of life as a journey, using James K. A. Smith’s On the Road with Saint Augustine as our guide. Often, when we think of traveling, we focus on the destination, and maybe later, when the trip is over, we think of home. But so much of life on the road is spent “on the road,” in that middle space of movement and transition. And often, it’s the middle that’s the hardest.
When I travel—which is pretty rare right now, like for a lot of us—but when I do, I rarely stay as long as I plan to. Ask my friend Ann Kroeker, with whom I’ve traveled often to conferences and retreats and book events.
The build up to the trip is huge: I’m excited for the opportunity to learn or speak. I have a list of people I want to connect with. I plan meals and snacks. I register and make reservations. In the car on the way, there’s tremendous anticipation. I double check times and lists and anticipate our arrival. We get checked in and head out to our first meeting or session. And that’s when it hits.
I’m ready to go home. I miss my bed and my dogs and mostly my husband and the boys. I think about the work that’s waiting for me at home, or the elaborate plans for Mom’s care while I’m away. My introverted nature longs for the chair in the back room by the fireplace with a book and a cup of tea, and instead I’m surrounded by strangers and its noisy and busy. And I still have three days left.
I soldier through the first couple of days, smiling and hugging and generally participating as expected. Despite the longing for home, somehow I managed to be “here.” But I’m both attentive and distracted; I’m finding out new things about myself and I hardly recognize myself. I eat different food, am awake at different times, and rely on the care of others for clean towels and hot coffee.
On the night before I’m supposed to leave for home, something shifts in me. I can’t be both here and not here anymore. I review the schedule, consider my options, propose that we leave a few hours early. For some reason—friendship, frustration, maybe her own since of foreboding about these in-between experiences—Ann almost always agrees. So we plan an early departure, and I hold my breath until we’re in the car again.
In some ways, this feeling of being both here and not here is one I experience much more often than just when I’m on the road. Sometimes when I’m home, in my most comfortable space, I look at my life and long for something else, somewhere else. I dream about life on the road (which after my admission above seems pretty ironic), about life in another city, about life after life. I get stuck in the interim between two things I can’t even put my finger on exactly. Yesterday and someday, here and there, now and then are all just vague notions I can’t quite conjure or shake. And I grow restless.
It’s the feeling Augustine had when he returned home to Africa after years of living in Europe to find that he was “tainted with ‘foreignness’ even at home now.” Smith says the awareness became a “hermeneutic key to the human condition” for Augustine, recognizing that all of humanity is suspended in this in-between space. It’s not exactly homesickness, or a longing to go back to the place we most belong. Because in the angst of “between” we’re not sure where we belong; we just know it’s not here, “even though ‘here’ is the only place I’ve ever lived.”
Augustine’s experiences of emigration and return eventually informed his “theology of the Christian life as one of migration, a quest for a home one has never seen.” And he framed that quest or journey as “a pilgrimage to the country called joy, where we find peace and rest because we find ourselves in the God who welcomes us home,” Smith writes. It’s summed up beautifully in that often quoted line from Augustine’s Confessions:
“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
I’ve spent a good deal of my life swinging on the pendulum between busyness and rest. It’s another in-between place I occupy when neither point feels like home. A frantic life falls like a sharp swords on my soul; I can’t live with chaos too long before it no longer feels like living. But on the other end, I can’t rest all the time. I can’t do nothing and feel alive either. But is that really what rest is? Is lying around in sweat pants watching Netflix what our restless hearts really want?
I’ve often found it curious that the writer of the book of Hebrews characterizes the culmination of God’s work on earth as rest. In Hebrews 4, we read about a Sabbath rest that we’re supposed to diligently seek, just as God rested from his own work in Creation. Rest is a promise God gives to all who hear the good news and believe it. It’s a rest that David and Joshua couldn’t provide on their own; it’s a rest only Jesus and his work on the cross could accomplish. Salvation is rest.
“And for Augustine, to find this rest—to entrust ourselves to the one who holds us—is to find joy,” Smith writes. “Joy, for Augustine, is characterized by a quietude that is the opposite of anxiety—the exhale of someone who has been holding her breath out of fear or worry or insecurity. It is the blissful rest of someone who realizes she no longer has to perform; she is loved. We find joy in the grace of God precisely because he is the one we don’t have to prove anything to.”
Joy transforms busyness into acts of love rather than performance or proof of our worthiness. Real rest supplants anxiety because we we know we are loved and held. And in salvation, when our restless hearts find rest in God, we finally get a glimpse of the home where we actually belong, the home we are headed toward even if we aren’t there yet.
So we continue on as pilgrims who aren’t yet where we belong, “unsettled yet hopeful, tenuous but searching, eager to find the hometown we’ve never been to.” And we find ourselves traveling in a strange paradox: the discomfort of the in-between can bring comfort to our souls. We can trust it, lean into it even, because it points us straight to God. He is our home, “that place where true consolation of our migration is found.”
Do you feel like you’re traveling between two places and don’t belong to either?
We live a lot of our lives in the middle, heading toward an unknown destination, but not exactly at home where we are either. I’ve felt this unmooring in my work, in my family, even in my theology. It’s tempting to want to squelch the feeling by just making a home out of wherever we are. But as Smith describes it, this mostly turns into “distracting ourselves from the unsettling fact of our alienation.” And whatever the specifics, that alienation is always a reminder, always a sign post that we were made for something (or somewhere or someone) else.
Here’s the challenge: Think of one area in your life where you feel homeless (it could be literal, social, or even ideological). How has your lack of belonging changed how you feel about yourself? What longings does it represent? What might God be teaching you about himself through those longings?
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
1. There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing by Adam Grant for the New York Times. When I read this article, so many lightbulbs came on for me about how I’ve felt lately. And the fact that this how many people are feeling actually brought me a lot of comfort … knowing I’m not alone. More particularly, I think languishing seems particularly common when the middle part of life’s journey seems to go on and on, and we feel disconnected from the home we’ve left and the destination we’re headed toward.
From the essay: “Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference. When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself.”
2. Reconciliation Is Spiritual Formation by David M. Bailey for Comment. I think this essay highlights the ways that our journeys, and particularly the in-betweenness we experience as we travel, are not done in isolation. We are in relationships, we are part of institutions, we form communities, and we need each other to share the burdens of the road. But often, the people we are journeying with are not like us, which makes the road fraught with misunderstanding and division.
From the essay: “A community is a group of people linked by a common purpose and rhythm of life. In a reconciling community, the community acknowledges the depth of brokenness in our world and actively participates in God’s invitation to bring healing to the brokenness. The transformational journey to become a reconciling community and bring healing to our world must happen holistically.”
3. Log Off and Know that I Am God by Tish Harrison Warren for Christianity Today. At the risk of overstating it, I would say that digital technology has left me feeling more like a stranger in this world than just about anything else. Of course I reap the vast benefits of the Internet and electronic devices and a vast array of other modern conveniences. But I also have to constantly guard myself from the dangers of technology that rob me of wonder, keep me from beauty, and turn me into a consumer rather than co-creator in the world God made. Warren masterfully addresses that struggle in this essay.
From the essay: “The transcendent and utterly overwhelming triune God becomes flattened to a sociological or theological abstraction. Many of us spend far more time on social media than in gathered worship, and that digital space often hinders true repentance, contemplation, or prayer. It is harder to approach God as the mysterious creator of the Crab Nebula, sustainer of every minute, and redeemer of the cosmos when we’ve spent hours reading the words of strangers arguing with other strangers about spiritual things.”
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“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.” — Rachel Carson
Tips and tricks to help you explore nature.
I’ve been thinking a lot about our perception of nature recently, particularly the ways we romanticize time in the woods or tame nature with words like gentle and peaceful. Nature can be gentle and peaceful, but it can also be wild and dangerous and unpredictable. I talked last week about nature’s darker side as a constraint we reckon with when we go into the woods.
But nature is not just dangerous. It’s also dirty and messy and cluttered. I remember a recent spring when I spent more time than usual in the woods and found myself wanting to tidy up a bit. All around me were fallen trees and limbs, overgrown bushes and weeds, and shriveling wild flowers desperately in need of some deadheading.
And then there was the mud. So much mud everywhere. Some trails were even impassable because the spring thaws and rains had left not only mud but standing water. That was the spring I realized that if I was going to accept nature on her own terms, then I needed to get muddy too.
“‘Mud season’—when excess snowmelt drains onto trails and dirt roads—is an overlooked opportunity to see the woods come out of winter’s hibernation. Warblers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers fill the hemlock forests with their songs. Foxes and ample-cheeked chipmunks emerge, often with a brood in tow. A winter’s worth of snowpack feeds thundering waterfalls. It’s visual, it’s auditory, and it’s olfactory,” Howard writes.
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
This week’s writing tip is simple: Sometimes we need to take a break from writing. Which is exactly why after months of pushing hard through a project I feel passionate about, I decided to set it aside for a short season.
On the day I stopped, I was convinced I’d never work on it again. I was finished. Done. I couldn’t handle the stress of it. But rather than tear up my notes and delete all my earlier drafts, I just let them be. I can always get rid of them later, I figured, not even bothering to remind myself that I was just taking a break not quitting.
In reality, when writers take a break it can feel like quitting. If I’m not writing am I really a writer? But the writing life has two parts to it: writing + life. And when either the writing or the living isn’t going so well, setting the work aside for a short time usually helps me figure out why.
And it’s not like I’m not writing … even on my “break,” I still write every day. I have clients who pay me to write and I have deadlines I’ve already committed to. But for a few weeks, I’m giving myself permission to be the writer I am and not the writer I or others want me to be.
On other words, I’m giving my ambition a break, too. I’m turning my attention to the writing I actually love not just the writing I think I should do. And I’m making time to do the non-writing tasks that usually nudge me back to the page: like reading, hiking, visiting museums, and talking with friends.
I’m not quitting. But I am taking a break. And maybe you should take one too.
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Until next time,