By the time this is posted I will be back on US soil! I’m having a hard time imagining what that will feel like. I’ve been dreaming about it for weeks. Every time I think about seeing my family at the airport I get weepy. Being away from your family for a year is emotional. I know seeing them again will bring me so much joy. But what about the rest of my life? What about my day to day endeavors? Like my life when I’m sixty (If you haven’t, check out my first Human Experience blog post, 28 Going on 60!), I’m having a hard time picturing it.
I fought pretty hard against forming a routine in China but eventually it sunk in. Humans are habitual creatures. It’s what we do. Feeling comfortable in my life here was inevitable. Despite this, I was constantly saying things like “I’ll never enjoy drinking hot water” and “I’ll never like tofu” and after twenty-seven years of American habits I slowly swapped them for more eastern ones while stuffing my face with hot water and tofu. I spit chicken bones out on the sidewalk. I speak at an unnecessarily loud volume. I tell people to have a rest and drink more hot water when they are not feeling well. I prefer squatting to sitting. Things I thought were gross or absurd have now become a part of me. We can make a habit out of anything.
So here’s the problem. Over the last year I have gotten in the habit of keeping my faith private. I’ve been to temples galore and other significant places of worship, but faith is not something that, in my experience, is talked about in China. This was a huge struggle for me. I missed the community that was such an integral part of my faith. But now, after a year of writing a prayer journal and Sundays spent alone I am intimidated at the prospect of going back to church. I get anxious just thinking about. I am mortified to admit this, but it is the truth. I am terrified.
In the last year, I have been in one Catholic Church, St. Josephs Cathedral in Tianjin, China. It took two taxis, a subway and three hours to get there. Before entering the church, I stood across the street for a few moments looking at the building. It was beautiful. The afternoon light filtered through the stain glass windows. The red brick stood out softly against the steel industrial buildings surrounding it. I felt like I was about the run into the arms of a loved one I had not seen in ages. Then I entered the church. I was confused. I knew this was a tourist destination during the week so I expected a bit of noise but I was not prepared for this. I was bombarded by people. People talking loudly into their phones. People playing video games with the volume on max. People snoring in the pews. Children jumping from bench to bench. I was outraged.
Livid, I fought my way to the front of the church and sat. I stewed in that pew, angry thoughts racing. These people had ruined it. I knew my chances to enter a church would be far and few between and these tourists had taken it from me. I started to cry. At this time, I had only been in the country for a month and I felt so lost. For an entire week I had been thinking about this moment. How I would enter this church and I would feel at home. That the fear would leave my heart and I would find the strength to continue on this journey. The fear left my heart alright, but it was replaced with anger not peace. I don’t know how long I sat there but eventually I looked up at the altar. The same beautiful sunlight I had admired as it draped across the windows and doors at the font of the church was now lighting up the space before me. I glanced around and realized how different the front of the church was. The first few pews were almost empty. Their inhabitants all had their heads quietly bowed in prayer. Somehow the din from the tourists did make its way to us. I looked up again and my angry tears became joyful ones. I was home. I just had to but my ego aside to find it.
I never made it back to that church. I lived too far away to make it there for the one English service they offer but I thought of it often when I sat in bed on Sundays with my prayer journal. I let go of the anger I felt and being an introvert I quickly came to love my new version of church. Just me, God and my journal. It was perfect. I do miss the community of church. I miss communion. I miss the nourishment I get from it. The encouragement I need to go out and share my faith. But this habit has formed and I can feel myself in a rut that I’m terrified to climb out of.
Not unlike my life, my faith journey has been a unique one. I have not spent large amounts of time in church. I was recently confirmed and right up there with moving to China, it was easily one of the best decisions I have ever made. I love that I found a place where my heart feels at home. It’s been a long time coming. However, I have not formed the habits that make me feel totally comfortable there. From singing to the sign of peace. It makes it makes me anxious. How can something I love so much, something I miss dearly, something that I know is rooted so deeply in me still intimidate me so much? Is it really because I am out of the habit of practicing my faith with others?
No, it’s my ego again. It’s my anxiety. I was so quick to judge those tourist so many months ago and I worry others are doing the same to me. In today’s society it is so easy to place judgment on others. From the social media to happy hour we dole out our opinions, our judgments like facts and that is a habit we desperately need to break. I know this. Chances are you know this too. Yet here I am, petrified to go back to church because of what others may or may not be thinking of me as I continue to grow in my faith. So what’s a girl to do?
Break the habit and live with intention. How do you break the habit of caring so much what other people think of you? I have no idea. I’m going to start by caring more about what I think of myself. By realizing my opinions are not facts and my judgments benefit no one. By living intentionally. By embracing the community that I so confidently joined a year ago. By loving others and myself the same way God does, unconditionally. Like accepting that I cannot plan what my life will look like when I am sixty, I know that this is something that will take time. But thankfully I’m about to head home to a beautiful community that’s going to help me through it.
Questions for Reflection
What habits to deepen your spirituality would you like to intentionally develop in yourself?
What destructive habits might you need to break?
How do you overcome fear or worry about what others think of you?
Margaret Russell is an almost thirty something who has looked for God just about everywhere – even China. Nothing about her journey has been traditional and it turns out that is exactly how it was supposed to be. She thinks. Maybe. With a background in education, a self-awarded doctoral degree in tacos and a propensity for the ridiculous, Maggie hopes to spend the rest of her life loving as loudly as she laughs and sharing the joy that is her faith.
A Note to the Reader:
If you like to journal like me, you are constantly looking for a new book to hold your thoughts. I am not often a fan of guided journaling, but this book was given to me as a gift before I left for China and it quickly became my prized possession. Be Still and Know that I am God (Signature Journal) can be found here. Each entry contains several quotes and scripture passages based on a specific theme. I found these reading passages so inspiring that I often ran out of room on the blank page that accompanies each of them. I have a few pages to go but when I finish I plan on exploring the rest of Ellie Claire’s signature Journals.