Peace in Abundance

“They are not safe,” she said quietly to me.  She looked at the cushion between us, trying to hide the tears in her eyes.

She continued, answering the question I had asked at this Christmas party: How is your family?  “The situation is uncertain… they could go to sleep one night and everything is fine, and wake up in the morning to explosions.”

She named the Iraqi city where they lived.  I recognized it from news reports.  My friend had lived under the weight of that uncertainty, not knowing how her family survived in a conflict zone, for years before the headlines were published.

Around us, people exchanged greetings, offered hot cider and gingersnaps, and took photos in front of a ten-foot, plastic evergreen.

She changed the subject.

I squeezed her arm and then let it go.  My mind flashed to the green eyes of one of our Young Leaders’ students, Ramah.  Her family was from another area of the Middle East that has, worldwide, become identified with conflict.

I had met her on the last day of Young Leaders’ registration, standing on the other side of our community center’s locked gate.  We had already interviewed 300 applicants, and we knew we could only accept 120 into the English/leadership development program.

Ramah had arrived five minutes too late.  I was the director; my job was to help the teachers and volunteers to keep balanced and to thrive, and they had been working late nights the entire week.  She stared back at me, her green eyes unblinking, as I gently asserted that the teachers were all done giving interviews, and she would have to go home.

She pled her case like a lawyer.  I was here on time, but had to go home and get my dad to do the application paperwork.  Just let me interview.  I’m not going home until you do.  Please, just give me the chance. 

One of the teachers heard and offered to interview her.  She was accepted on the spot.

Throughout Young Leaders, this young woman had a look and a smile like she was amused but was not going to tell you why.  She developed her strengths in working on a team, speaking to persuade, and communicating in English.  A year and a half after our first meeting, just a few days before her graduation from Young Leaders, I noticed Ramah at our Thanksgiving event.

We had asked all the students to write something they were thankful for.  Her answer, outlined in purple, was: My family feeling safe.

img_8565I asked her about her story.  She told of a time in her home country, as her brother was playing outside with his friends, and explosions happened .  They did not know if he was dead or alive.  She repeated the details twice; though it happened years ago, the feeling and the event remained vivid in her mind.

Now, she knows gratitude for something most of the other youth take for granted, and something my Iraqi friend lives without.

—–

I thought also of my talk with you.  You told me after hours’ worth of tears had dried.

A tragedy, a complicated and painful situation, that would change your family’s life and smash routines like a stormy green wave against a rocky shore.  I sat two feet away from you, wanting to give a hug, to comfort with presence, but your face was an image on the other side of a computer screen.

So the only solace I had to offer was an ear for listening.  “It doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore,” you said.

Later I told you how some local celebrations, typically held by a minority group here, have been scaled down this year.  There is sorrow and tension, aftermath of the news that I first heard via an e-mail sent by the U.S. Embassy.

Its the kind of bulletin that we sometimes receive, but usually can dismiss as cautious warnings about minor events. This time, the words seemed like nonsense; I read them twice, thinking, Not here.  We had recently gone on a day trip to this location, my coworkers and my Arab mamas and I.

And now it was the scene of violence, the embassy said. “Active Shooter Situation.”

—–

Against this background, they tell me to pick up my guitar and sing the reasons we can make merry, because it is Christmas Eve.  I pull wrinkled music sheets out of dusty folders, and play the old songs, familiar to my church in New York, the people I sang with a decade ago in Indonesia, my fellow foreginers in this city, and even many of the Arabs here in the land where I have made my home for the last three Christmases.

But this evening we add another song.

I look at those gathered, then at my Iraqi friend.  This is a song of peace, even as we think about the places, and people whom we love, who do not have that.  He came to bring peace… Even to a place where peace and goodwill seem to have been gobbled by hate.

Where governments grasp for power.

Where families grieve.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

As in ancient Bethlehem, so it is now.  He is unwelcomed by some– at the gates of an inn, from a king in power– but unwilling to walk away until He has done what He came for.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

My “word” for the year, abundance, at times depicted loss and sorrow; at times it described laughter and love.  But the green shoot of hope that seemed to fade with the chill springs up again, full of life– in abundance–as I glimpse peace.  Not my emotional status or a transient season, but peace in a Person.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

All stories show me that, even when I get a glimpse from a second story, my perspective is still limited.  Eternal mysteries and untold tales draw me higher and higher.  And so I put my hope in the Peace who overcomes situations and lasts every season, and choose the same word for 2017.

Abundance.

 

Something is Happening

“Sometimes you should speak to your soul, not just listen to it.”– Dr. Ingrid Davis

—-

Prayer is like writing.  Sometimes you stare at a blank wall, a blank screen, a blank page for awhile.  Thinking you are not yet praying, not yet thinking, not yet writing.

But under just a little bit of skin, your blood is pumping life into your body.  Your lungs have inhaled, exhaled six or a hundred or a quadrillion times since you put yourself in this location.  Mind searching for the words, spirit longing for understanding and to be understood, body pumping, breathing… alive.

Something is happening.  Don’t loose sight of that.

—-

She was distressed.  A young intern, staying with me and my new housemate for her first few days in the Middle East, passed by an open door on our second story to see the team leader she had just met… crying. In the middle of the night.  On her birthday.

The other housemate was already there, having come to check on me.  Earlier in the evening, the group had gathered around me, post-chocolate-peanut-butter-cheesecake, to close the day’s celebration with prayers of blessing.

But when the second person started to pray about dreams and expectations for the year ahead, my soul started to quiver.  Soon shoulders shook, and tears dropped onto the table.  I drew my breath quietly– perhaps, I thought, though the group had drawn close, with eyes shut they would not notice me crying.

Sniffles undid that.  They offered a Kleenex and continued, and I did also.  Sheltered in the kitchen of my second-story house, filled with home-cooked food, encircled by loving friends, I wept over the tentativeness in which every hope, but One, seemed to be shrouded.

After the last “amen,” they accepted my pink eyes and polite thanks, and went home.

Except, of course, for the intern, and my housemate.  She came to my bedroom door 45 minutes later to ask, “How are you?”

Tears again.  A form of answer.

The intern walked by and glimpsed this scene.  She came back, hugged, and walked out again.

O Soul, you asked, Why didn’t I shut the door?  And remembered, In the basement, no one came by the door– I did not have to be vulnerable.  Nostalgic; yet knowing that the vulnerability of the second story is a particularly good place for you to be when you don’t want to be there.

I told the housemate who asked that, while the year had left me with much to celebrate, and drawn me closer to that Hope in One, I had also been bruised until tender from change and loss.  So I was afraid to hope for anything beyond His love, even though I had read it is capable of casting out every category of fear.

Why are you so downcast, my Soul?

—-

Scattered.  Small parts of a people group spread over a big world.  Who would care if they flourished or floundered?  Who would they be known by?

I had not noticed this fear before in the Babel story, even though I had heard it since childhood.  My Sunday School memory was simply of a post-flood, prideful people’s attempt to touch heaven with a physical tower.  Consequentially, languages were confused.  (I would come to grieve this result, as I wrestled with Southeast Asian languages and later Arabic, quite personally.)

But at the international gathering that I attended this summer, Egyptian leader Ann Zaki drew my attention to the text: “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Let’s stay together.  Let’s build a tower and the whole earth will see it.  We are going to have identity, we are going to have companionship, and we are going to have protection.

But they had been given a directive to spread out.  Cravings of the soul to stay in one place, and to make security for themselves, had prompted them to say “no” to God’s plan for them to go and fill the earth.  They had refused to trust Him, to find refuge in Him; they would build their own tower.

As Ann Zaki spoke on the passage, I knew my soul needed to listen.

I needed to acknowledge the tools in my hands.  I had attempted to construct a safe tower, and felt pierced by a sword every time there was a scattering.  It’s time to lay down your arms, to go and let others go.  Be empty-handed and have expectation for protection, companionship, and identity, to come.  Not from what you’ve constructed… but from your Father. 

—-

Sometimes the things I hope for are like Lazarus.  Like his sisters, I contact the Son, confidently, to tell Him what I need Him to do.

Sometimes He lets death approach for awhile.

Sometimes I am Mary, staying a distance away when Jesus approaches, then weeping at His feet.  My soul says to Him, If you had been here, hope would be fulfilled, instead of dead.

Sometimes I am Martha, coming to Jesus and weeping the same words, but adding, “Even now… I know You are Life and Hope.”

Jesus wept with the sisters.  And then…

But that’s a second story.

—-

So this is what I’m saying to my soul these recent days:

Hoping for the small things is all right.  Because even if they don’t happen, I know Hope and Life.

Scattering is all right.  Because refuge is not something I can build with my own hands– I refuse false refuge, and I go with the One who is Himself my Tower.

Moments of fear and being downcast come all right.  But I have perfect love, even when they come.

The future is a blank page.  This, too, is all right.  Because He is up to something… even now.  And so I breathe deeply, singing with favorites Jonathan David & Melissa Helser:

“Your faithfulness will never let me down

I’m confident I’ll see Your goodness now.”

Catch the Wind, new on “Beautiful Surrender”

Beautiful-Surrender-Helsers-Cover-Web.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stories and The Story

I’m originally from Central Asia.  Now I live half of the time in a European country, half of the time in another Asian country.  

And I cannot go home.

These were her answers to the questions, “Where are you from?  What do you do in that place?”  I had already exchanged these two questions with dozens of other younger leaders, at this international gathering in Southeast Asia.  I had heard answers as varied as:

  • a Swedish woman with an Alabama accent, who is passionate about training university students
  • a Chinese man who works toward wholeness for people with leprosy, attending to their souls and their skins
  • An Indian brother with a ten-inch beard and a smile that infects everyone around him, whether at the conference or at his home in New Delhi
  • A South African lady who asks big questions and uses her expertise in design and marketing to share hope, via the internet and around the world
  • A Nicaraguan who holds church in a dump and inspires children to a future other than picking up garbage

The woman from the sensitive region, whom I met on the second day of the conference, turned out to be one of our speakers a few days later.  She told of what she had experienced while still in her country.  Imprisonment.  Pain.  Solitary confinement for weeks on end.  

The arms of God around her shoulders.  

“I am not a brave person,” she said.  “I am so ordinary.  But I’m here to tell you that if God can give me the strength to suffer for His name, He can give it to you also.

“If God calls you to suffer, He will also give you the strength you need.

She squeezed.  I thought she might dislocate a couple of my fingers.

Lina, one of 60 teenaged Arab girls on the boat that day, had changed since she joined the Young Leaders Program the year before.  She had been unwilling to interact with the other students, and held back whenever she encountered new things.

If concern about peoples’ stereotypes of orphans or of people with disabilities had had anything to do with it, Lina had two strikes against her, from early on in life.

Her teacher had coaxed her to share some of her insights and abilities with Young Leaders.  Thriving in English, developing some real friendships, and leading her classmates to volunteer with children at the orphanage where she lived– Lina had eventually achieved some major victories.  But on this day her teacher was once again trying to coax her.

This time it was to get on board the “banana boat,” a small inflatable raft pulled by a speedboat, a new experience for the students.

Lina didn’t pretend, when we asked her why she didn’t join the others.  She answered with one word: “Fear.”

I put my arm around her shoulders.  I’ve watched you become braver every month since you started the program.  You can do this.

She paused for a second.  “Will you come with me?”

So I got on the banana boat.  Lina buried her face in her oversized life jacket, like a turtle withdrawing defensively into its shell.  She squinted her eyes shut, and when one spray of water hit her, grabbed my hand like it was her lifesaver.  My peaceful words were effective in getting her to look up and enjoy the view… for about three seconds at a time.

I have been riding around, particularly this summer, with my eyes squinted shut and with my head tucked low in defense.  Yes, I’ve been on the boat.  But I have forgotten to look at the view, to breathe through the challenges.  Any little splash, and I grip His hand in panic, as if I don’t know there are already arms around my shoulders.

IMG_5743
One of several amazing Southeast Asian sunsets

After a week surrounded by younger leaders from around the world, in the Southeast Asian nation I once called home, with the Love that expels fear spoken and danced and sung and prayed into me, I had gained perspective.

But I wondered if it would last once I got back.

On the last night, after the session, my Arab friend and I met up with some other conference participants.  We sat across from a Mexican, who works among the physically poor, and a Canadian, who works with “poor people who happen to be affluent”– those leaders of business and government whose levels of power make their spiritual poverty harder to address.

They asked one expected question: “How do you like living in the Middle East?”  I had prepared for it.  I love it, but honestly it is really hard sometimes.

I had not prepared for the unexpectedly sincere follow-up: “What’s hard about it?”

In the seconds that followed three images swept through my mind: pulling up to an airport at night to release teammates, sitting in my empty house on the yellow couch and weeping, and the face of my Arab “younger brother,” who grasps my culture more than most but often still stereotypes my nation and my gender.  I managed an answer: Heavy transitioning in the community of internationals… being in a leadership position that I feel inadequate for… cultural struggles as a Westerner in the Arab world.  

The Mexican put her arms around me, encouraging me about what would happen for my soul this year.

Our exchanges of stories continued, as I told them of the woman on the red motorcycle who had once given me a ride in Southeast Asia, and the Canadian told of how being the son of Indian and Malaysian parents– and working with senior business folks in Saskatchewan– was strangely like being a blonde woman in the Middle East.  A light rain fell through the opening in the outdoor canopy, and we went on regardless of the time.

Toward the close of the night, the Canadian asked if he could go back to what I had said at the beginning.  “When you return… and you are in leadership…”  He paused for a second.

“Own it.”

I felt terribly ordinary.  I looked at the table and said something about knowing I was supposed to lead whether I was good at it or not.

“No!” he replied.  “Be good at it!  You’ve been mentored more than most people have been.  You don’t need to be perfect.  You’ve got this– you have what you need.”

He continued, with belief: “And– when I read the Story– it’s a story of joy and light.  Yes, there is grief, and there is darkness… but ultimately it’s a story not of darkness, but light.”

I lifted my head.  My eyes opened.

And they have remained so ever since I returned to my second story home in the Middle East.

Sound track for this month: The Art of Celebration, by Rend Collective.  Song Joy link is worth listening to now.

The Fourth Option

Zacky barked at every entrance during my first two and a half years of living in this house.

I had thought he would get used to me, since I frequently came in and out of the front gate to get to my basement apartment, and spent hours with his owners upstairs.  Excitable and determined to guard the family, the tiny terrier never let familiarity be an excuse not to bark.IMG_5073

His bark woke the family up when an electrical fire had started in the living room, and was quickly filling the rest of the house with smoke.  His bark deterred stray cats and warned off desert dogs.  His bark let us know every time someone was entering that gate, and the family could tell by his tone whether it was a stranger or a friend.  Like a baby’s parents know the difference between a hunger cry and a hurt cry.

He was strangely subdued when we took him, and the rest of the family, to the airport.  That could have been the result of the meds that were given to him to keep him calm on the plane; his human counterparts had no such outside influence.  Emotionally spent, celebrated and packed and grieved beyond the place of breaking, the family stood in a long security line and hugged us one more short time.

And then we left.

Empty handed on the way to the parking lot, we were weighed down more heavily than we had been by the suitcases and carry-ons.  The family eventually managed to get all 17 bags, and their dog, through security, and then flew away.

When we returned to the house, it looked the same as it had an hour earlier.  But there was no bark when I entered the gate.

“I understand why they are afraid,” Najua told me.  “I would be afraid too if I were them.”

And then she added, “We are afraid here also.”

Najua had asked me about America’s current political state, and I had commented that both in my home country and in many other places around the world, politics right then seemed to be driven by fear.  As a minority woman in her own country, Najua understands what it feels like to be marginalized.

It’s part of what makes her empathetic, determined to help end stereotypes and racism, and committed to developing Young Leaders (she teaches for this program at our center).  But she faces those fears daily.

In the face of the false dichotomy that fear presents– fight or flight– sometimes a nefarious third option emerges, to entice those forced to endure sustained stress: hope less (ness).  Giving up.  Thinking, I cannot fight successfully against this, and I cannot run away from it.

So I will allow the bitterness of despair to come over me .

We talked about how the power of God is seen in the death and crucifixion that brought life and resurrection.  And asked, What if there are options other than putting up a wall, being a doormat, or finding an escape hatch?  Is this upside-down kingdom possible to apply to us and our world?  

Does love have something to do with it?

I sit in the empty house often in the weeks after Zacky and my housemates move back to the U.S.  I brought my belongings from the basement to the second story, but the sounds of their youngest on his pogo stick, of at least one of six family members rustling in the kitchen for food, of the music that someone was always playing, have ceased.  My own small sounds echo off of walls without their paintings.

Every night I go back to another area of town, where I am staying with an Aussie friend until August.  Then my new housemate will arrive, and a new season will begin as she and I live together in the second story house which once was occupied by four kids, two parents, and various four-legged creatures.

I converse with most of my teammates via Skype (as they are in America for the summer).  I study, plan for Young Leaders, read good books.  I eat unpronounceable things in the homes of local friends, laugh at stories in Arabic a little more often than I did before, attend the wedding of good friends.  When I invite the newlyweds to the second story for breakfast, there is no dog to alert me of their presence, so they text to say they are outside.  We eat my crepes and drink the coffee that my old housemates left behind.  When they leave, I lock the gate.

Before my housemates moved, they prayed for me.  May she not fear the loneliness.

And yet I fear more than isolation.  I fear closeness being withdrawn, due to choices or changing circumstances.  And changes are invariably looming on the horizon, like tides that pull back the water to leave the shore exposed, only to return with rock-splitting force time and time again.  In this sustained stress I reflect:  I cannot fight this.  I refuse flight.  

But there is a bitter taste of inevitability, of hopelessness, on my tongue.

Trying to wash away that bitter taste with familiar promises proved to be more difficult than I anticipated.  Until this one cut through: For I am convinced that… neither the present nor the future… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

An empty house, so it happens, provides a perfect atmosphere for singing.  I draw my guitar out of its case.  The sounds of the strings echo off of empty walls, creating acoustics that are a musician’s dream.  I lift my voice as loud as I like, knowing that no other ears, human or hound, can hear.

Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.*  Words I sung with my housemates the week before they left.  Words I sung with my small group the night before I moved to the Middle East.

Despair, fight, and flight are options that cloud the vision so that it is hard to see one’s own hand in front of one’s face.  But even then, His hand remains on our shoulders.

Constant through the trial and the change.*

And I am starting to taste a fourth option.  Love.  To the God who knows my hungry cries and my hurt cries, from the God who fills this empty home with His songs.

*Lyrics of One Thing Remains, by Bethel Music

 

 

Song Inside the Sounds of Breaking Down

This is the story I think she told me.

My husband went every first day of the week.  He tried to get met to go with him, but I didn’t want to.  

Our families are both traditionally from a believing background, but I didn’t want anything to do with it.  Traveling speakers would come from Egypt and other places, and they would visit our home.  I didn’t want them to talk to me.  They would try and I would say, No, no.  They were trying to explain complicated things.  

Then there was trouble.  My children… She paused.  Her face reflected a grief that was deeper than her lips could explain.   

So I went to the church early, and I sat alone.  I went to pray, and to sing songs to God.   And as I praised… She stopped again, wiping her tears.  Sorry

As I praised, sitting by myself, He spoke to me.  

I kept singing more and more songs to God.  Her left palm was pointing up, her right palm placed over her heart.  Eyes looking through the ceiling.

It’s a beautiful thing to sing praise.

She looked down at the table, collecting herself with quiet dignity, and chuckling at her own unexpected display of emotion.  I murmured appreciation for it and wished I had understood more.  And we resumed our lesson, an elder Arab woman with deep faith– and with a son and daughter who are strong in spirit and body– and a young American who had come to visit her city for a brief Arabic intensive course, and who would leave with far more than she anticipated.

_____

It’s different, the town where I am planted for this week.

A few months ago, upon realizing that not only were my housemates leaving permanently but also most of my remaining coworkers were visiting Stateside at the beginning of the summer, my company director told me to consider clearing out of the country.  No way we’re letting you stay in that big house alone, during Ramadan, with no one to know if you are safe or otherwise.

I negotiated to be allowed live with my Aussie friend in the same city for the summer, after which my coworkers will return, and with them my future housemate (for my home-to-be on the second story).

My Aussie friend also needed to go abroad for a week in the summer, so I decided to take the opportunity to visit friends in other parts of the country, and to do some Arabic study.  Most of the people with whom I imagined myself staying, however, are also traveling.  A wedding.  A funeral.  A surgery.  A trip to Europe to visit family.  A several week respite from the intense climate, both of the desert and of the fasting month of Ramadan…

But the hospitality of our host country, thankfully, seems to have rubbed off on the international community.  A family I had met only once before agreed to provide a place to stay and study in a small northern town, where I could find a professional teacher.

This town has a younger foreign community, many of them college students also studying Arabic on their summer breaks.  Not every day do I write from a coffee shop where the majority of patrons speak English (most people here fast sunup to sundown for Ramadan, so this is one of the few restaurants that are open).  It feels foreign that this cafe is full of mixed tables of men and women, none of whom are smoking.

This town also has a more local gathering on Sundays.  When I went, I tried to join in the songs, decoding the right-to-left Arabic letters across the screen as fast as I could.  Then the slide would shift to a new set of puzzling peaks and swirls that must have meant something, at least to the earnest souls articulating the words in front of me.

In between songs I jotted a few words down, to ask my teacher.

The first one, she told me the next day, simply translated: “the One who is worshiped.”  The next, she said, means “the One who gave me life.”

Then she pointed to the last word.  “Presence.  So in the song, you say, ‘The God who is present.'”

“That’s beautiful,” I replied.

_____

“Why did he do that?” Sammi asked me.  I was checking the news, after our language lesson and an evening meal with her family, breaking their fast.

The main story was of a man who had gone into a club in the U.S. and murdered 49 people.

I told her I did not know why.  Sammi and I had been studying how to read her language, which is very different than speaking it.  We had earlier practiced from an Arabic translation of a Beverly Cleary Ramona story, but after we discussed the news, we opened another book, the Psalms.  The phrases sometimes feel hard to understand, even when I know the meaning in my heart:

“…let the afflicted hear and rejoice.”

“Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.”

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (34:2, 8, 18)

She read another chapter in her own tongue, swiftly.  I sat silently and tasted the familiar words in my mind.  Beside quiet waters.  He restores my soul.  He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  I will dwell in His house… “So beautiful,” she said, and marked the page so that she could come back to those words whenever she needed to be reminded.

_____

This afternoon, I sat an empty bedroom.  It was the third I had borrowed in three weeks.  My mind was full, perspective elusive.  The meaning of some circumstances seems far more difficult to grasp than that of swiftly moving Arabic slides. So I turned to the next song on my playlist.

I heard the words:

I will not be moved
I’ll hold on to you

thesonginsidethesoundsofbreakingdown
Soundtrack- Song Inside the Sounds of Breaking Down

 

You grow beauty in my ashes
Sunlight in my sorrow
A garland for depression
You paint portraits on my mourning
Of hope and glory
With oil and with joy
There is a hope that will not disappoint you, no
Will not let you down, will not let you down

You, who are my hope
I will hold on to
You, who are my hope
I will hold on to

Hold On, John Mark McMillan

An ancient story of praise has recently struck me with its beauty: a woman with an alabaster jar, a brokenness that scandalized with the expense, hair in her face and love in the deep places, and kisses for the feet of the only One who really saw and really understood her.  Who loved her: far before the scent of perfume filled the room… as it lingered… and long after it left.

My teacher named her daughter Praise.  She and others reminded me this week that it doesn’t come only from hearts that are strong in confident hope, celebrating healed wounds and answered questions, surrounded with faith-filled fellow worshippers.

As a wise man told me this spring, worship happens whenever we turn from other distractions and lift up our eyes.

 

Last Question

Sixty girls sat on the floor in front of me, wrapping up their conversations from snack break, nudging each other.  They were settling in for one final hour– for this semester– in the Young Leaders program.

They will take three months off for summer.  But they know that before every significant break, and after every meaningful activity, comes one thing: a debriefing.

Usually this means that we direct questions to them, draw out their reflections, and delineate how the lessons inside this mentoring program should apply to life outside.  Some friends had inspired me to turn this around… So this time, we invited them to ask us about anything they wanted to know.

Teachers handed out slips of paper and pencils.  Students scribbled words in English or Arabic, whichever they felt more comfortable with, and passed their notes forward.  And we read their anonymous wonderings:

Why do girls fall in love so often at this age?

Why is the Young Leaders Program free?

Why do individuals like to say words that hurt other people?

Why don’t people care about what I feel?

How do I overcome the fear that controls me?

Why is everyone more beautiful than me?

 What existed before God created the universe?

How did Obama become president when there are so many racists?

Every week, a goodbye party takes place.

Departures and transitions often feature heavily in the months of May and June, but this year extraordinarily so.  Some are short-term goodbyes to long-term friends, heading to the States just for the summer.  A few are long-term goodbyes to several-month friends.  These volunteered for a season with our programs, but now must return to participate in grad programs, or weddings, or next steps.  They also must learn to give skinny answers to the fat question, “How was your time out there?” in order to squeeze it into a listener’s attention span.

Frequently featured at these goodbye parties are the questions: “What is something about _____ that you appreciate?” and  “What’s a funny story about ______?”

For one volunteer, Stephanie, several of us came up with the same answer.  Stephanie had gone with the Young Leaders girls to a bird observatory, when a two-hour nature walk among ducks and eagles and gulls had concluded with a surprise visit from a television crew.

They wanted to film the students and some interviews, but I protested– we would need pre-arranged permission from our organization.  They argued; our guide, eager for the promotion of his observatory, was beginning to lose face in front of both his visitors and the TV crew.  We would dishonor him by a refusal.  So we agreed to let them interview only adults, and they requested that both Arabs and Americans participate.

Smiling, southern-born Stephanie had been attentive to the girls all morning, her Arabic advanced enough for good questions and greetings, but not for the guide’s description of the birds we had seen or their habits.  She agreed to the interview, in order to help us out.

Stepping in front of the camera, several teachers and students watching her, and Ramsey at her side to translate, she colored a little.  “I’ve never done an interview,” she said in her Arkansas accent.

The interviewer asked how she had liked the bird observatory, and if she had visited before.  And then the simple question: “What kinds of birds did you see?”

Stephanie turned slightly pinker.  The names had all been given in Arabic.  She knew she had recognized many types of birds, but could recall nothing except the fact that people were staring at her and there was a camera and the whole thing was being translated. The question was asked a second time.

Maybe Ramsey can make this sound specific, she hoped, and smiled sweetly.  “Oh, we saw all kinds of birds.  Big birds and small birds, black birds and white birds…” she drawled. “Yellow birds and red birds, really pretty birds.  Lots of nice birds.”

Ramsey smothered his laughter long enough to translate her words– exactly.  Stephanie’s description of the birds may not have made the local news, but it went down at the center as a legend, retold with the echo of Stephanie’s amiable laughter in our ears, and her distinctive Southern accent describing the birds and protesting afterwards, “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say!”

When recently I took a trip to the US, I was met by friends and family, and supervisors and strangers, with the same question, one that made me pause. Sometimes it is easier to articulate answers to Middle Eastern teenagers about discrimination, personal value, the origin of the universe, and love-sick hearts, than to answer the well-intentioned inquiry: “How are you?”

  • In under three weeks, my housemates will leave permanently, a long-term goodbye from long-term friends.
  • In a little more than three weeks, the center will close for a season due to the approach of Ramadan, the fasting month, and other local and foreign coworkers will travel.
  • In two and a half weeks, I will move into a friend’s apartment for the summer, and later I’ll move again, to the second story of this home, with a different housemate.

Ask a new volunteer to describe the habits of sparrowhawks and storks in Arabic, and you’ll know what my answer to “How are you?” is like.

I am looking forward to breathing fresher air above, but I will miss my basement-turned-garden-level apartment.

I am holding on to hope, but I am letting go of loved people, routines, and places.

It is good, and it is hard.

Simplistic answers which satisfy some.  But they don’t fit the situation any more than the Dead Sea fits into a water bottle.

We asked the girls to give one another answers.

Hands shot up around the room.  “Comparing yourself with others isn’t worthwhile.”  “Do things even when you are afraid.”  “Martin Luther King, Jr. and others helped change peoples’ thinking.”

These aren’t answers so much as starting places; they will move forward and backward, believing and disbelieving, adding questions to questions and finding that the empty spaces of silence can be as significant as speech… or more valuable.

Basements have been comfortable starting places for me– I lived in one for three and a half years in New York, then two and a half more in the Middle East.  Perhaps the only way to summarize my answer to the last question is this:

I am about to begin a new story.

Turning Back… and Around

He has two good friends here, this American living in the Middle East.  Both of them are named Abdullah.

David left his home and family to work in this region for a specific timeframe: long enough to mess up his plans for life, but not long enough to master the local tongue.  Early on, he met Abdullah A, a young man who had been friends with many of our center’s staff and interns over the years.

They connected over sports, stories, and meals.  Abdullah’s fluency in English and general likability not only made his friendship with David flow sweetly, but also helped Abdullah to get a teaching role with Young Leaders, our English and mentoring program for youth who come from limited resources, a few months later.

One day, the Young Leaders volunteered to do activities at a center for youth who face harder obstacles than they do, and David accompanied them.  There he met Abdullah B: sensitive, caring, and incredibly loyal to the troubled youth with whom he works.  David met him again when he attended a wedding with Abdullah A, in a city a few hours from where all three of them live.  Abdullah B speaks very little English, but when one of the youth he is responsible for started knocking on David’s door, he stepped in and helped to resolve things.

Now Abdullah B and David, without sharing language or history or faith, share a deep friendship.

Abdullah A and David’s shared love for running led them to run a half-marathon together.  But this was not a usual race— their path led through the desert.

During the warmest month of the summer.

At the hottest time of the day.

Without water or any refreshment beyond what they carried on their backs.

With just a few training runs under their belts, Abdullah A and David hit the sand.  They were doing well until they neared the end of the race and encountered dunes; not only were these obstacles exhausting, but they poured sand into their sneakers.  Blisters soon punished each step.

Abdullah A said he needed to walk for a bit.  David pressed on toward the finish line, alone for his last few kilometers.

And then— just at the finish line, just before earning second place— he turned around.

He returned to where Abdullah was now running again, and they finished together.  As a win-loving athlete, who knew that the drive to compete and achieve was something he shared with his friend, Abdullah was blown away.  He kept asking,

“Why?”

And no words, Arabic or English, would satisfy his desire for an answer.

A few months later, Abdullah A led 14 Young Leaders students in training for a 10K run for charity.  David was out of town on the day of the race.  I arrived at the finish line to congratulate them, and a few were done, with a few more still on the way.  I asked the students, “Where is Mr. Abdullah?”

“He got to the finish line,” they answered.  “But then he turned around to finish the race with the boys who were behind.”

—-

I had met Abdullah B a few times, as students from the Young Leaders program volunteered with the youth in his program.  When his birthday rolled around, he invited both me and David to join in the celebration.

Coffee.  Soda.  Snacks.  Conversation.  We arrived late, but early enough to enjoy all of these before the real meal was served.  The rest of the party, all members of Abdullah B’s close family, eventually arrived; Abdullah gathered us around a table crowded with twelve different dishes and four desserts (which would be served with more coffee and tea).

“Thank you for coming to my birthday celebration,” he started.  “Before we begin the meal, I want to take this opportunity to tell each of you what you mean to me.”

I attempted to explain what was happening to David, as Abdullah thanked God for specific things about each one in the room: his wife who had impacted his life so strongly, his adorable and high-spirited little daughter, his father and mother, in-laws, siblings, their spouses, and David and me.  But as we watched the family members’ eyes shimmering with tears, the cheeks kissed and hugs exchanged, and the two Americans drawn in with the language of love… I knew my English translations were not necessary.

Yesterday, David invited friends to come and celebrate a milestone– he is halfway through his time in this city.  I’m eating dessert leftovers to be inspired as I write right now, because in addition to the homemade mac n’ cheese, gourmet burgers, and roasted veggies  that he served, we had something that brought chocolate cake and peanut butter cup cheesecake together.

It tastes as good as you think…maybe better.

Before dinner, David sat down with all of us.  “If it weren’t for you guys, I would have been home a long time ago.”

We laughed.  So are you saying that it is a good thing we helped you stay here, or are you upset with us for keeping you from turning back?

He laughed, smiling over the shared memories– really good, really hard, really shaping and stretching moments.  And the knowledge that more will be arriving.  “No, just, before we begin the meal,” he said, “I want to turn this around and tell each of you what you mean to me.”

Turn things around.

Temptation is strong to run alone.  And other temptations run stronger when we run alone: to be discouraged, to think we have accomplished things on our own, to be so focused on what we think is the reward that we miss the real prize… or to turn back.

When you upend expectations and remember the community, inspiration comes to others to do the same.  And winning becomes not a solo act, but a joining together of companions.

The pace may seem slower.  And, I am confident, the prize will be greater.

Captured

Without a sign of problems, my phone captured moments for me.  Quickly shot photographs of students, friends, meals together, celebrations in the community– if I did not want something to slip through my fingers, I saved it on a memory card.

Until the day it happened.

During Young Leaders’ last class of the semester, the camera application that had been opened to record a group photo– inexplicably– showed only a blank screen.

However, when I pressed the “selfie” button, an awkward reflection of my crinkled forehead, squinted look, and exaggerated chin emerged. I’m not campaigning against selfie-taking, but I’m also not of the generation that is good at them.  My eyes dart to the wrong place, uncertain of their focus.  Moments that I intend to keep crisp and clear in memory translate into images that are distorted and fuzzy.

The quick fix, according to internet rumors, can be easily accomplished at an Apple store… The nearest of these is two countries away.  So for the last few months, my camera has only operated in selfie mode.

—-

Recorded or not, the moments parade by.  I drink tea at the beach with a young coworker, his new fiancé, and their families.  The five-year-old sister learned somewhere to roll her eyes back, stretch her mouth into a tall “O,” and call herself a zombie, whenever a photograph is being taken.

Her mother scolds, “Your face will get stuck like that!”  But she still does the look during our sunset selfies at the beach… and weeks later, during formal shots at her big brother’s engagement party.

I use an old camera during Young Leaders Winter Camps.  What makes a good leader?  we ask them.  IMG_1150

“A good leader helps the team,” the first student answers.  They learn about setting an example and inspiring change, and watch clips of Martin Luther King, Jr.  They learn about listening, and walk in silence around a bird observatory; if they speak too much, the moment passes, the birds fly to a safe zone.  They learn about perseverance and overcoming challenges, piecing together puzzles, giving speeches in English, and participating in their first team game of paintball.

Guess which of these is their favorite.

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Because my camera was working at that moment.

But I grow weary, attempting to be fully present in these moments, while capturing them with broken tools.  A few times– also inexplicably– my phone camera works normally, including twice out of two dozen times I attempted to use it on a recent trip to a neighboring country.  I take photos out of car windows and in airports, desperately recording things I would not have bothered with if I could have counted on the lens to work always.

 

While my camera is limited in its view, I miss many images: shots of new friends, new foods, tender sunsets and triumphs of ancient artists and architects.  But I also learn to approach things from a new angle.

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Layover in Istanbul turned into touring the Hagia Sophia.

Set the camera up, and then step aside.

Or, even more efficient, point the lens toward the sky.

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Ate at this restaurant just because it had about a thousand of these lamps hanging above the tables.

Some of the most splendid details in these places are only seen when the neck is craned back, eyes lifted to the ceiling.

—-

“Fireworks,” twenty-year-old Yakub told me.  “That’s what I thought it was, when I heard the first round of bombs go off in the city where I grew up.  I was happy about it.  I was just a kid, and I didn’t understand why everyone was so upset.”

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Tea with Yakub and friends.  But I can’t share their pictures, so… tea.

 

A friend introduced me to Yakub on my first day in this neighboring country– a place with a rich heritage of musicians and poets, but also a destructive legacy of war and the massacre of minorities.  He learned English from X-box games that connected people through the internet.  Yakub’s stories of multiple displacements to different countries, bombings witnessed as a child, and infamous neighbors from his town were delivered with humor and casualness.

 

But his stories of separation from family, homelessness, and interrupted high school dreams were cropped out of his conversation, to be filled in later by my friend.

The next day, I traveled outside of the city to a hotel, where a group was meeting for a retreat and had asked me to lend some music.  Arriving a little before the rest, I went into the meeting room and strapped on the guitar, looking at the green hills that stretched past the picture window.

Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for

To be overcome by Your presence, Lord. 

Holy Spirit, Brian & Katie Torwalt

My voice was catching.  To sing about God’s goodness and His glory, in a land that has experienced genocide and destruction, created a tension in me.  Tension between the knowledge that His presence has been there through the region’s long history, and the grief that many haven’t yet experienced that presence.  IMG_4275

Between the good news that many, like Yakub, are tasting real life, and the sadness that they have felt death bitterly.

Between the green beauty of the mountains, and the knowledge that many fled to them to try to save themselves from guns and gases.

Between the sweetness of singing in this place, where many have sung before, and the knowledge that so many, many have not experienced the reason for our songs.

—-

I want to see healing come to the people of this nation, wholly and with finality.  I want similarly conclusive results in my own life.  Because I know that brokenness can cause us to miss moments.  It can cause us to be in selfie mode in our pain— eyes uncertain where to look, our own image crowding the frame.  Distorted perceiving of the way things really are, and lower resolution, resulting in less clarity of vision.

Overeager attempts to find something which we can hold.  A job, a relationship, a celebration, any lovely thing that we don’t think will always be there.  We grasp at the grand and the mundane, hoping to capture at least a reflection of them so that we still have something nearby when darkness falls.

But perhaps it isn’t resolution, but tension, that beckons me to step out of the way, and to look up.   Perhaps, even in the darkness, my neck should be craning skyward.

Maybe brokenness invites me to see things from a different perspective.

And maybe it is less about capture, and more about release.

 

 

 

 

Arrive with Peace

I have been waiting to hear those words.  Their meaning:

You are home, we are glad.

Your absence was felt.  

Your presence matters.  

Alhamdulillah al salameh.  The literal translation is along the lines of, “Praise God you have arrived with peace.”  It invites the response, Allah yesalamek: “May God give you also peace.”

But my ears have been listening for this common greeting, over the past few days, in a new way.

Returning from a week outside the country, I hear the words spoken upon each reunion with a “regular” person in my life.  From my coworkers at the community center, who smile and say that I was missed.  From the teachers in the Young Leaders’ program, who accompany the phrase with interested questions about the conference I attended in Thailand.  From Sammi, my dear language tutor, and her mother, who holds my face in her hands as she says it.

Though I was once a stranger, and still am a foreigner, I am moved by the way this city welcomes me home.  I am reminded through the fragile familiarity of the dust color on houses, the jagged rocks of mountains on the horizon, and the faces in stores where I catch up on errands, that I live here now:

A young teller at the bank says hi in English. Her mom and I used to be in the same fitness class, and I have eaten dinner in their apartment.  “Why haven’t you visited us again?” she asks, switching to her native language. The question is not an accusation; it’s an invitation.  

We exchange numbers, and I send greetings to her mother.  The root word is the same.  Give her my peace.

The young man behind the counter at the store where I pay for WiFi greets me warmly.  His boss, a savvy businesswoman working on her master’s degree, spoke about leadership last month to the students in our Young Leaders program.  I ask him, also, to give her my peace.

I buy phone credit from a former student from our center’s Adult English program; he tells me about his dreams for further study.  Finished, he says, “Ma salameh”… Go in peace.

Even the grey-haired manager at the supermarket remembers the blonde foreigner who buys her yogurt and pita from his store.  He sees me in the parking lot, ignores my reluctance, and calls out for an employee to carry my groceries to the car.  “God give you health,” I tell him as he settles the bags into the passenger’s seat, and he responds with the prescribed blessing: “May God also give it to you.”

But these phrases that bless with health and peace, as I return this time, mean something more.  The friends and the city who welcomed me back did not know how thin stress had worn that peace before my time away.  Neither did I.

In Bangkok, the day we landed, our approach to the city was like a three-year-old’s approach to birthday presents– eagerness, surprise, lack of orderliness, lavish wonder.  It included an unexpected arrival at a five-million-bulb light show, The Light of Happiness, in its last night of display.  Earlier, we stumbled from temples and markets to tailor shops and food stalls, breathing scents that were spicy and sour, and tasting the humid air and the fried octopus.

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Light of Happiness, Bangkok

The next morning we bused to our conference, a couple of hours away, with about 100 other businesspeople and teachers who work internationally.  As I watched the green hills and golden Buddhas out of my window, listening to headphones play tunes of abundant love and dependance on one greater than us, I knew that some truths were simpler than I could understand.

I desired deeply to delight in this time.  But my heart was constricted by distractions and grief and worries, clogged like an artery that refused to allow more than a minimum amount of blood to flow.  The work and relationships that matter most to me in the Middle East were going well.  But looming ahead were transitions that will take away some of the people who support me well, will give me new responsibilities, and will introduce the likelihood of challenges and weaknesses that are unwelcome.

In between conference sessions, I sat looking at palm trees and flowers from quiet, secluded spots.  Scribbling notes in a journal and wondering what it meant to trust, when I must also accept that the future may be uncomfortable.

Weeping for what I have had to let go, what I will have to release in the months coming.  What I never could hold on to, except as an illusion.

Control.  

Somehow those arteries harden, stifling nourishment from reaching me, when I try to hold on.  The greater my efforts at making things happen myself, the weaker I realize I am.  When the circumstances around me keep shifting, and dependence on others doesn’t cut it, how do I handle my own shaky hands and vulnerable stomach?  If I honestly assess my own strength and find it wanting, what resource do I have left?

The golden glory of the early morning sun had yet to fade when I awoke, five days into the conference but still five time zones away in my sleep patterns.  I slipped onto the balcony and opened a Psalm.

I lift my eyes up to the hills–

where does my help come from? (121:1)

Every source of help, every close relationship, every circumstance or flavor or person or sunrise that has brought strength and joy– these are gifts from God.  I am astonished at the innumerable gifts, every ability I have being also given to me.

But intense instability, and the inability to control, were deep reminders that my soul cannot be satisfied in the presence of gifts.

Through it all, one Presence remains.  The Giver.

IMG_3870A few more days of seminars and networking with people from around the globe.  The best of them were the ones who saw how dependent they are on the Father.  A few more times venturing forth to explore the country.  The warm waves of the ocean, the wall-to-wall people cast in the red glow of Chinese lanterns for a New Year’s celebration, the splendid sunsets and the shimmering mosaics of the temples– they will not soon be forgotten.

Somehow along the journey, trust began to devour what had blocked those arteries, and my heart began to pound once again with health and strength.

Because His presence matters.

He is my home.

And as I return, I arrive with peace.

The Most Dazzling

She inhaled deeply from a bright red hookah.  She had bought it with money she earned by teaching Arabic to foreigners, and brought it on this day to enjoy on my front patio, as she told me about her recent hard conversations with her fiancé’s family.  Tone staying cheerful, she switched to English for the serious line.

“I may never get married now.”

We were soaking in the warm sunlight of a January afternoon.  I offered her brownies and coffee for comfort, which she swallowed along with the mint-flavored smoke.  Mugs printed with hearts and the phrase “World’s Best Lover” sat in front of us.  She had given them to me last year, thinking that they translated to something like “Person I Love Most in the World.” 

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I will never tell her differently.

She gave one final sentence in English: “But you live happy– look at you, too– and you’re not married.”

Restlessness had seized me earlier that morning.  It was my day off, probably the last full day off I would get in the upcoming three weeks.  But just as sleep is most elusive when most sought, the harder I tried to focus on renewing soul and body, the more restless I became.

I attempted to be still, but my mind bounced from topic to topic like a Facebook newsfeed.

  • Remembering a late-night Skype call I had made the night before, and reviewing the groceries I needed to purchase that day.
  • Thinking about details for the center’s English program registration on Sunday, and planning for the Young Leaders’ day camps the week after.
  • Trying to get a plot twist in a movie I watched, and getting ready to console the emotional friend coming for coffee that afternoon.

Minutes piled into an hour, and still I sat on my couch, unproductive but unrested.  I crabbily thought, I want You to speak– without much hope for an answer– and turned on music, a last-ditch effort at refocusing my soul before I needed to move on to groceries, and visitors, and another week.  The first two lines said:

God loves His family

Like a man loves His wife.  (from Ben Pasley, Chair and Microphone 1)

And suddenly I had a memory of a conference in Southeast Asia, nine years ago, and a woman named Sharon.  She invited everyone to join her at 5:00 a.m. for a time of prayer.  My roommate, a short-term volunteer, woke up at 4:45 a.m. saying that God had spoken to her through a dream, drawing her to go to this meeting.

I had unintentionally woken up at 4:42 a.m., with a mosquito persistently attacking my right ear.

We were the only ones there with Sharon.  But what she prayed, I may always remember.  I was 22, and content with being single at the time– though I had already had the privilege of being in weddings for half a dozen friends.  Sharon asked God to give me joy in being loved by Him, like the joy of someone who had just gotten engaged.

Overflowing delight and irresistible desire to share it.  Combined confidence in knowing that I am beloved, and boldness from the fact that nothing can shake it.  Nothing can separate me from this love.

Wondering, nine years later, as I sat on the couch, is this kind of connection strong even on ordinary days– when the errands pile up, when my focus is wanting, when I am… well… crabby?

The night before, I talked on Skype with a good friend.  She nuzzled her newborn, told me what it was like to be a mother of three, and said she did not have any big updates.  I marveled; taking responsibility for three small lives, in addition to her own and her husband’s, sounded big to me.  I talked of “ordinariness”– travel plans, language study, and sweet soul talks in Arabic.  She talked of “ordinariness”– house plans, feeding schedules, and the sweetness of speaking life to her neighbors.

We are both deep in radically different streams of ordinary.  But they flow regularly into the same river, requiring the same things of us: open hearts, surrender, forgiveness, discipline in little matters, love, a sense of humor, courage, and reliance on One greater than ourselves.

I got off the couch, as the song finished.  Invited God’s presence into the grocery store errand.  Invited Him to the table with me and my hookah-smoking friend, asking Him to be present as we processed her probable divorce (a broken engagement is equivalent to divorce here, and stigmatizing socially– especially for the woman).

I was still slightly restless and unfocused.  But the blessing, given almost a decade ago on the other side of the world, was moving to a deeper level.  It was starting to look less like an engagement… and more like ordinary days, with three kids.  And a mortgage.  And a steady fire where the heart sits.

My fingers were wrapped around the mug with its proclamation, “World’s Best Lover.”  I looked at my friend.  She released a puff of smoke and switched back to Arabic to ask, “What?”

“You know, right?” I answered.  “You know the reason I can have a full life, even without being married yet?”  She smiles.  She knows this.

In my heart I pray Sharon’s blessing again, with the updates:

May you be someone for whom the “ordinariness”

of life is infused with

contentment, confidence,

and boldness and joy.  

May these come from knowing you

are unconditionally, steadfastly, and 

passionately

loved.  

I don’t always feel this.  But that is why there is a second story.

Love is the most dazzling when we are the least worthy.