I Do Believe (Help)

It’s whisper-steps on the stairs in the still dark, as I move slowly, so as to not wake the sleeping house. My husband, peaceful for another hour. My oldest, sleeping later than she used to sleep. My boys, the ones to maybe sleep in, if any ever will. And my other girl, well, I’ll be lucky to beat her by a few minutes, no matter how early I wake.

I go through the motions that make a morning: strike a match and watch the blue flame circle to life. Put on the kettle, with just enough water, so it won’t take too long to boil. Measure out the coffee into the camp-style coffee maker. And while I wait–brush my teeth, floss, pull my hair back into its standard low ponytail. The water boils so I pour it into the top of the metal coffee maker, then stand still and listen to the slow drip-drip-drip. I pour the coffee into my mug, the only one used by me: the one with the flowers, old-fashioned, quite unlike me at all, but mine, nonetheless. His portion goes in the travel mug, to stay warm.

I make it out to the veranda without anyone waking, and sit low in the blue chair, the one given to us by our neighbors upriver who left last year. I sip coffee, watch the light in the trees, and listen to my world by the river awaken, not quietly–not at all quietly. I whisper words from that Common Book, words old, and new, to me: Oh Lord, let my soul rise up to meet you, as the day rises to meet the sun. I find comfort in words I didn’t need to think of myself, in prayers unfashioned by me, when I know the unease of my own heart, the faltering belief I hold in the power of my own language. I find grace in the words that let me pause in the questioning, in the not-light, not-dark hour, and simply belong: before my day rushes into pancakes and dust, sentence structure and multiple digit subtraction, laundry and swishing the toilet, and all along–looking for Him, and all along–missing Him.

Oh, Lord I do believe! Help my unbelief.

It’s a rush of a morning already, when the man strides across the dirt toward our front door, green cloth wrapped around his waist, black tire sandals on his feet. I was late getting started with the day’s history reading, and late to start the bread rising, and our day will now crash into itself, as it tumbles onward. I don’t really want to go out to see what he wants, but I slip on my flip-flops and head out the door, calling to my two oldest to start their folders, they’re on the table, like usual.

I fumble, with the words, and with understanding, but catch enough to know there’s a wife, and a baby, and too much blood. Will I come? No one could possibly grasp how little I actually want to go, and it isn’t a want of compassion. But I grab the necessary supplies, the kids with strict instructions to finish their work as best as possible, and I leave with the worried husband, trying to match his long stride.

It’s the doubt that catches my heels, as I hurry across the sand, doubt that burns into the top of my head with the mid-morning sun. It’s doubt that bends me low as I crawl through the knee-high opening into the small domed house. It’s doubt that pricks painfully, conscious of all I cannot do. And it is doubt that prays, I’m here, for whatever it’s worth. Are You going to show up, too? And truly, truly, not actually having any idea how, or if, that prayer gets answered.

She lies still under a blanket that bears the marks of the night, the long, long night. A mother, a sister, a second wife, gather in the dark space with me, and I massage a belly, now slack and tender, witness to the months of a life under the surface. Her husband was right: there is a lot of blood. I do what I’ve been called to do, the reason I supposedly have the answer, and no one else–held in a clear glass ampule and a syringe. I feel what I need to, the expansive, life-giving womb now small, now shrinking, now finished with its nine month calling. The mother barely stirs, but I know she’ll live, to hold her baby, the one shaking his tiny fists in the background.

Oh, Lord I do believe! Help my unbelief.

It is a moon nearly full, already rising well above the dark outline of the thorn tree that stands guard over the chicken house, when I lay down to end the day. I find peace in learning the moon, and all of her faces, and the times she likes to peek through, and how she will make my babies and the birds both restless on the nights she invents herself as bright as the one she mirrors. I find comfort in the nights when the darkness is thick, a true kind of darkness that can practically be pinched in my fingertips, and this: to imagine that the darkness I so often try to hold at bay might actually be held in my hands, and felt, and loved, a little.

I find comfort because I am learning to believe that there is as much truth in the black new moon as in the hope of a full silver circle. I am learning to believe that there is as much grace in the dark of night as in the bright of day. I am learning to believe that there is as much prayer in the routine of a day as in the faltering words of the morning. I am learning to believe that there is as much healing in just showing up as in a miraculous rescue.

Oh, Lord, I am learning to believe! Even in my unbelief.

What stirs in you as you read this post?

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  1. Elizabeth October 6, 2014

    Beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful, and I can so relate to the day you describe. That near-impossibility of getting up before the children (which I managed today), those prayers from the Common Book (which are new to me, but I’m learning), and the knowing that if homeschool is not started on time, we will never, ever finish its work (and there is much school work to be done with 4 kiddoes, 3 of whom need individual lessons). The passion for the pregnant and postpartum mom, I have that as well, though without the nursing degree.

    I enjoyed peaking into your day. It’s good to know others are living a similar life and facing the same roadblocks with as much faith as we can.

    1. Joanna October 7, 2014

      Thank you, Elizabeth! It IS so nice to know we aren’t alone–thank you for taking the time to comment.

  2. Lauren Pinkston October 6, 2014

    Joanna, This was one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve read in a while. You have a true gift with words. I would say that I wish I could write with your style, but I will instead praise the Father for giving you such a talent. I’m thankful I could escape into your world today, and join you in my cries for help in my disbelief. Just…beautiful. Thank you.

    1. Joanna October 7, 2014

      Lauren, thanks so much for your kind words. This was my first time writing outside my own space, and people have been so unbelievably kind.

  3. Jaime October 6, 2014

    I’m thinking of my mornings.  I live with 2 other girls and I love going through my routine before anyone else gets downstairs.  As I read and pray, I love to just sit and take in the quiet and to feel His presence with me because I know that as soon as I leave the table and get ready to go to school, I will not have a peaceful moment again until the next moment; that when I step out my door I will be bombarded with problems and worries that may cause me to doubt what I’m here to do and whether it is worth it.  But in those peaceful morning moments, He strengthens my belief to withstand all that the day will bring.

  4. ErinMP October 6, 2014

    I felt like this was somewhat related, maybe I just wanted to share…maybe so I’ll feel less alone and because in a way it’s my learning to believe in my unbelief–not unbelief in God so much as unbelief in good things, in my being here, in faith and hope. And then the belief sets in. Your post was so timely.

    So here’s the prayer email just sent out to my “chain”–
    I remember when I first got here and everything felt so new and full of hope–well I mean when I was thinking about leaving, before the panic set in, and then again when I had to be around the dorm situation.
    Now…its dealing with parents who sometimes understand, and sometimes seem to blame me for any mistake their child makes, which I would say 90% of the time is most likely not my fault. It’s realizing churches are just as divided here as they are in America. It’s realizing racism is alive and well, and even starts to effect some of the expats when they aren’t careful about guarding their hearts and minds. It’s realizing not everyone working at an overseas school are strong Christians, or strong period. Its realizing that the adage is true– wherever you go, there you are. All my old demons are here with me as well. I didn’t magically mature over night. It’s realizing after you get over culture shock and not knowing the language well enough and you’re lonely–something beyond painful–you settle in to the feeling of not knowing, of being confused, of realizing you are an outlander with other outlanders braving new unfamiliar off-feelings constantly.
    It’s also realizing creation is magically beautiful and ethereal in a way you forgot to look for back home. It’s finding you can find friends who connect with your mind and soul who amazingly don’t even come from the same culture or native tongue as you. It’s realizing how successful you feel when you conquer one of the myriad of problems– when you have a whole conversation in Thai, and you understand all of it except one or two words you figure out on the spot, when you get around town using this remidal Thai and manage to haggle prices (OK it was at the 711 so I wasn’t actually supposed to haggle and the cashiers just laughed and you eventually realizing their signs don’t always align with the right location of food, because why would that be an important part of stocking the shelves?), get to the embassy, order food, get back home without any language difficulties, when a student you’ve been struggling with for weeks randomly pops up with the right answer you’ve been trying so desperately to cram into their tiny little brains (WOW, it WAS in there somewhere!), it’s realizing you’re almost eating as much spice as the natives without breaking into a sweat, it’s realizing you’re so used to the heat you actually get a cardigan when some other person puts on the air con (who needs that anymore?). It’s realizing that as horrible it is that your white skin opens doors, it’s awesome when you say screw you to the system and brazenly use that white skin to open doors for people without that vapid paleness (and shocking to realize this is considered a big deal; am I back in the 1950s with Rosa Parks? Where am I Toto?). Most of all it’s realizing that God is really good, all the time–something that may have been in my heart before has reached into my reality. Where there is no one there, there is God. When nothing makes sense, God grants me peace. When there are only questions, God grants me discernment. It’s realizing He has provided for me–every day, daily bread. Not amazing miracles. Not the storm and the fire; but the quiet, still voice. The daily, every day bread. It’s realizing that is the sweetest friendship and miracle I could ask for.
    Of course five minutes later I may begin complaining about the bug bites  or the complainer in the school, or I may or may not snap at someone instead of turning  the other cheek (isn’t an overseas worker supposed to be calm all the time? Well failed at that one…). But that reality, that grace, is always there to catch me when I slip back down again.
    And maybe the awe, the expectations, may come again. Who knows. Maybe it won’t until the end. Every day the daily part of it is there, with enough stress and anxiety for one day. But every morning His grace is there and new, too. It is enough.
    –Pray for the trip to Laos, paper work, quarter tests, my students, and my patience!

  5. ErinMP October 6, 2014

    (And I am thankful in your post you are not talking about unbelief in God so much as all the other complexities of the relationship and following God. So much a part of the daily struggle with life!)… *meant affects and my tenses are off a bit, too tired. 🙂 Thanks for reading, any who did, and being a part of community!!

  6. M'Lynn October 6, 2014

    “I find comfort in words I didn’t need to think of myself, in prayers unfashioned by me” Love this. So true. I’m struggling lately with wanting to put my words down on paper but my mushy, sleep deprived, multi-tasking brain isn’t cooperating…and my hands would rather hold a coffee cup than a pen. So, I’m encouraged by this thought that even though my own words feel like they’re floating around, escaping my page and my memory, I can lean on the Words written for me for this season. 

    1. Shelly October 11, 2014

      That phrase stuck with me, too. I am struggling with (resisting?) prayer, and have for some time now. It comes in fits and starts, and just never gets to a steady place. As this week on the topic of doubt emerges, I may find that it is doubt that is sabotaging my best intentions to sit with Him, to listen, to enjoy, to receive, to give.

  7. Patty Stallings October 6, 2014

    Thank you for sharing this beautifully written treasure with us.  So much richness of thought and language!

  8. Dianne Chryst October 10, 2014

    Joanna, You are an amazing writer, and I can see, feel, walk with you as you describe your everyday situations.  I sit here amazed and in awe. This is a reminder to pray for you.

  9. Resources for the Light Chasers (Vol. 3) November 21, 2014

    […] Creativity Really Means by Jennifer Dukes Lee  I Do Believe (Help) by Joanna Swart over at Velvet Ashes {A post on doubt, because we all have.}History of Hymns: […]

  10. Stacey November 23, 2014

    Joanna, Thank you so much for sharing a glimpse into your day. You are a gifted writer and I felt like I was right there with you. I can’t do anything medically, but I have the same sorts of doubts on a daily basis, though none of my struggles are truly life/death the way this situation was.

    I have never been in a tradition that uses a Common Prayer Book, but I am really interested in this. I am NOT a morning person, and here is typically what happens in my house: 1)I try to get up earlier than normal to pray. I try really hard and just either sit there and think about nothing (wish I could get that to happen at bedtime instead!), or I fall back asleep. 2)I stay in bed a little longer than the rest of my family (who all love early mornings!), I get up and say something like, “Lord have mercy,” and usually the Lord’s prayer, and then I stumble into the day with the rest of my bright-eyed and eager family. Starting my day sitting at His feet has always been a struggle, and that has not changed since being outnumbered 4 – 1 by morning people.

    I’m curious to hear from any of you – is there just one Book of Common Prayer? Or is there an Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Methodist, Lutheran, etc.? I’m showing my ignorance, I know! But if I were to look for a digital version/e-book, where do I start? What do you all use?

    1. Elizabeth November 23, 2014

      Stacey, I didn’t grow up in a tradition that used the Book of Prayer either, and only this year am I learning about the church calendar and things like that (Kimberly’s book on postnatal depression for the book club here was some of my first intro). In fact, I know so little, that I asked a friend who’s Anglican to order me a church calendar when they do their yearly order 🙂 All I know is what I use: I use a book called Common Prayer that was edited and compiled by Shane Claiborne (of Irresistible Revolution fame) and some other people. They culled from all the denominational prayer resources, and my mom who grew up Catholic recognizes many of the prayer from her childhood. I am familiar with the Anglican church’s Book of Common Prayer, which I have read only a little of, but really enjoy some of their prayers. I don’t know if other traditions use prayer books or not. (I grew up fairly fundamentalist.) Claiborne’s book is thick and nearly 20 bucks and takes you through a year of reading instead of 3 like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, so it’s a little condensed.

      And how I use it . . . I have never been one who could get up early to read the Bible, like my husband. I am a night owl. Yet I cannot seem to make Bible reading work at night, either. Living overseas wears out my brain so much that I can’t engage God at night. Because I need the endorphins so much, I have tried getting up to exercise before my kids are allowed out of their rooms (they are up but are supposed to be quiet b/c of my husband’s quiet time, and I used to sleep through that). However, I discovered that doesn’t go well for me. I am dizzy and bleary eyed and lightheaded. Then I tried getting up to read Common Prayer, and it works for me. Apparently, I can read and pray bleary eyed and light headed and be fine. LOL.

      This is how I do it: I read the prayers and then the Scripture reading for the day. I underline anything that speaks to where I am right now, and I write them in my journal. Then I write out a prayer, if something prompts me from the reading. It is always good. I do not stress about missing a day, even though the Common Prayer is supposed to be read every day and along with the church calendar that starts in December. Well I knew I would be slow and end up skipping days so I just started at the beginning even though it wasn’t December, and just keep plodding through. I used to avoid God if I couldn’t be “perfect” in my discipline of reading the Bible, like I wasn’t worthy to read it or talk to Him if I weren’t being a good girl. I have since released myself from that silly notion, and I’m better able to enjoy the time I DO spend with the Father. And I really like keeping a journal of my readings. I have never been one to keep a journal, but I wanted to try it and I like this way of just re-writing significant verses so I can go back and look at those later. I record prayers too but it depends on how early I got up (!) and how I’m feeling. I can do it in 10 minutes if I have to squeeze it, but it’s nice to take longer too. However it does give me structure so I am not foundering around, early in the morning, without a clue what to do 🙂 That’s just my (rather new!) experience but maybe it can help a bit.

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