Fears of Writing Books and Belonging to a Place

“Religion starts, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, the dove coming down out to the sky.” “Each of them responds to Something for which words like shalom, oneness, God even, are only pallid souvenirs”

–Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember

Many of you know this — this lump in the throat. You know that feeling when you are so moved by a landscape, or incensed at the lack of justice, or the way that words roll off your tongue. All our stories start with a lump in the throat.

When we moved home to the suburbs of southern California, anxiety settled in my stomach, not in my throat. My body constricted not with a moment where there were no words, but instead with a body, mind, and soul that felt out of place. This came from all that needed doing — logistics and unpacking and needing to make friends. All the things to begin to belong to a new place that left me exhausted, busy, and confused about how to find where I could belong.

I suppose it was fear.

Fear of not fitting in, not finding friends, of not making it, of our church plant in the suburbs not looking like we’d planned. And then when, a year later, I had a book contract in hand to write Finding Holy in the Suburbs, it all came crashing in. How could I write through the tension of learning how to belong?

But I suppose fear and faithfulness, too (as well as poems), start with a lump in the throat. 

And then they proceed with one faithful, steadfast step in front of the other. If you were raised on a diet of world-changing, it’s hard to grasp the massive importance of simply being faithful. We’ve been told we were special, that we could change the world, that we all matter. And we blessedly DO. But no matter how sexy your job is, how much you’re seen as successful, or how fancy or intelligent you are, we all have to live life ordinarily.

We are both exquisitely unique and quite mundane. And this, I’m learning is a gift.

It’s a gift, like our places are a gift. It’s a gift like trying to eke out words when it’s still dark out because that is the best way you know how to make sense not only of your place, but of yourself. We can hold the fear in tandem with faithfully doing the work.

And so, whether we write to figure out ourselves or our places — or if we simply do the small mundane acts of ordinary life with great care, may we chase those moments where words are not enough. Where we connect with all that is behind the words.

It’s hard to say hard truths — even truths you know you find it hard to believe. To say things like “safety is not our highest aim,” “our children’s outward success is not the end goal,” “there is something bigger and wilder for you to belong to — and it looks pretty foolish from the outside — but come, follow, let’s explore together.” This might look as incredulous as a burning bush. We might be laying down our words like ebenezers, chronicling the moments when the holy comes near, when our throats are full and we look the fool.

We never arrive, never have it figured out, never are above the fear that someone won’t like our words — let alone us. There is not ideal moment when we will find ourselves without the lump of fear in the throat, this idea that maybe we’re just imposters, or that we won’t ever cut it to belong.

But what do we do on this precipice?

We keep doing small acts in love. We put one foot in front of the other. We show up in small deeds of generosity so we can find ourselves, find our places, and find God. This is what finding holy in the suburbs looks like. Small steps in love. Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision (of the Kingdom of God) come true.”

Friends, let us be courageous enough to stay put. To do hard things like work through difficult emotions like fear and failure. Let us love one another to say the hard things. Let’s lean into the messy brokenness of our places — suburbs, cities, towns, and countryside — and offer small moments of relief to those around us. Let us glory in moments of presence, of play; let us do small things in love — because what else are we here for? What else might a well-lived life look like?

Let us make dinner, invite someone over, offer a meal or a prayer. It is these small acts of staying put and starting small that will change the world. And we pray, that these moments — as we do them again and again, even hesitantly or fearfully — will form the fabric whereby some hungry soul will be caught up with a lump in the throat. What a gift to offer.


Ashley Hales’ first book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much (IVP) releases in a few weeks, this October. Make sure you pre-order a copy and get your pre-order goodies! Find out more here.

Ashley Hales

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