Monthly Archives: May 2014

Fragile Phrases

I had a great idea for my class’s end of semester project… I thought.

My students would write “inspirational quotations.”  After studying quotes from famous authors and public speakers all semester, they would challenge us with their individual ideas.  They would read and explain them in front of the class.

Similar projects I had undertaken previously, at a university in New York; there my students explained songs that gave them hope in dark situations.  Those were powerful times, charged with energy.  We would taste that here… I thought.

My English students’ original quotations, however, struck me as not terribly inspirational.  Same, familiar words.  The old themes: friendship, dreams, love, loyalty.  But they are flat– no vitality– no depth.

…I thought.

Afterward, my “un-inspired quotation experiment” was something I could laugh off, putting it to the side while I focused on grasping my own new language. My study of Arabic, like Frankenstein’s monster, is many pieces pulled together and coming to life:

  • a smattering of dialects
  • a few different textbooks
  • a half-dozen great suggestions from more experienced expatriates
  • and a really funny YouTube sitcom in Arabic that I don’t actually understand.

One of the liveliest parts of my language study right now is learning to tell stories.  My teacher, Ani, records the words, and I listen regularly.  I feel their texture– the ridges and rough patches, the curls of grace and the crisps of the corners– and I try to shape the same sounds from somewhere inside me.

When I succeed… I start the story.  I’ve been learning to talk about Jesus healing two blind men.  In Arabic, “Have mercy on us!” is Irhamna.  To me, this word tastes like mercy.  It feels like longing, like imploring, declaring that He will hear you– He has heard.

Meditating seems to overlap with the study of language.  I’ve experienced that phrase more deeply in Arabic than I did in more than 20 years of knowing it in English.  I had lost my savoring of stories, urged forward by my fluency as a native English speaker.

Now, slowed down by my fragile Arabic, I swallow sensitively.  I let every word sink deep.  And although I never was a foodie, I sure love hanging out with those who are.  They don’t count it loss to spend hours preparing something, and they delight in discovering and sharing good cuisine.

I’m learning to be like them.  The taste of the phrase “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” is so sweet that I tell friends.  The texture of the miracle, when Jesus brings the daughter of a broken religious man back from death– is amazing.  I savor it well when I share it.  My friends, patiently, help me fill in the words that I don’t yet know.

Those “inspirational” words from my students that felt flat to me…. maybe they had deeper flavor, a richer taste, that I did not realize at first.  We are both still searching for words.  But that search itself helps to give us something to say.

 

 

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With

With.  A word that turns something into a connection:

She’s with me.  They’re with the family.  He’s with the band. 

In Mark 14, Jesus is at a table, and a woman comes up behind him, breaks a jar of perfume, and covers him with a scent. Imagine breathing in that rich smell; this perfume was not an everyday-use variety.  It’s price went deeper than an annual income.

It would have been heavy in that room, saturating the senses of everyone at the table.  The gift was overwhelming.

And the attention was riveted on this woman.  “Why the waste?” I can imagine them slowly shaking their heads, frowns growing deeper.  “Many poor people could have been helped with the money she squandered.”

At the retreat I attended two weeks ago, we were asked to put ourselves into this story. I could hear the irreparable cracking open of the alabaster jar.  When it was broken, there was no rationing that could be done; no socially harmless, secreted gift.  Just lavishness.

The ones accusing her of doing more harm than good spoke with voices familiar to me (I ask similar questions, particularly of my own life).  And the consolation baffled me as it may have confused them.  “You can help the poor anytime.  They’re always with you.  She did what she could.”

I sat in a coffee shop a few days ago, phone in hand, checking a facebook account for news on an event happening in my NY home congregation.  They were seeking His presence, listening to good teachers, and celebrating it through posting videos and quotes.  I had come to the coffeeshop for my own time with God, but my heart was focusing on not being with them.  Homesickness ebbs and flows oddly enough.

A song reminded me of the one thing that motivated me to arrive there: His presence.  The same thing that motivated my friends to gather at a downtown brick structure in NY, had me sitting in a coffee shop in the Middle East, with strangers’ not-so-subtle glances and a mediocre drink and a reason to sit and to wait.  Impractical in the eyes of outsiders, invaluable to the one whose presence I am seeking.

And somehow alongside the bitter dish of being without, I am tasting the sweet wine of with.  Not a pairing I would have chosen.  God with us– in the longing, and the fulfillment.  In the community, and the quiet.

It’s that with that I bring with me, to the homes of local friends, to the community center with my Arab mommas, to the university classroom, to the basement space that is my home here.

 

 

 

 

 

A Desert Road

The seat in the back of the bus, isolated, by the aisle, from the pair of seats across from it– that was mine.

I went for the quiet spot after my weekend in a northern city, a good visit with good people, who are becoming friends.  My feet scrunched beneath me, my shoulders leaning into the seat back, I turned my head to the window.

There was nothing to see but desert.

That’s how it seemed.  Four hours of sand, dotted by a few small population centers.  The barren stretches broken occasionally by petrol stations, mosques, or coffee shops, satisfying the desires of this region’s travelers.  Another lonely section of desert… then a small flock of goats, with a donkey-riding shepherd.  Much further down the road, more goats, perched high on seemingly unclimbable rocks.  Their shepherds were out of sight.  The animals stared down, irritated with our bus’ intrusion.

And a pale moon crept two-thirds of the way to the summit of an azure sky.

Why, I wondered, do people choose to make their home in the desert?  Why did the “desert fathers” and “desert mothers” pick hot, waterless places to commune with God?  Why did so many from Scripture go there when life overwhelmed theIMG_0046m and they wanted to run?

I want to run sometimes– not toward the desert, though.  Away. Away.  Away from the heat, the dirt, the limits of communication, the scarcity of water, the never-knowing of when I’ll “be there”/arrive.  From the mirages that confuse and disorient, no matter how hard I blink.  From the isolation and steady sameness of tan-on-blue, one kilometer after another…

My four-year-old nephew, on hearing about where I live– and the camels I see regularly– informed the family, “I wish I lived in the desert!”  The ancient king, David, said the same thing (Psalm 55).  Hagar fled there when her place in the family felt untenable; she was driven there later when it got worse (Genesis 16, 21).

The desolate places became holy points of revelation and resources.  God still wants to meet us there.  Provide shelter.  Open our eyes to the sources we didn’t realize we had.  Tell us that He sees us.  The God who sees me— Hagar’s name for Him after their first desert connection.

My fleeting desire to run is swallowed by the immense possibilities of the desert.  Unexpected rains have coaxed a bit of green out of dry places.  Most desert days come with a monotony of tan-on-blue, with heat and dryness, and with uncertain vision.  But they are dotted by outposts that meet my deepest needs, and met by the steadiness of the rising moon.

And I am asking, with Hagar, to say this in the desert: “I have now seen the One who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).

 

Explain Those

The important stories can be the hardest to explain.

I spent part of the afternoon comparing my limited Arabic vocabulary to the story of Jesus’ birth.  Not a pretty comparison. My teacher had suggested that we look at versions of this story from the Qur’an and the Gospels, as our language class tonight.  But after re-reading Luke’s version of the events, I was awed at the gap between the power and intensity of this story, and my ability to communicate.

That’s how I feel when I sit down to blog lately, also.

The stories that burn in my heart are the hardest to put into words.  Saturday I woke up with no plans.  My rhythm of relaxation is still developing.  So unplanned days here are often open spaces meant to be refreshing, and also reminiscent of people and places I miss…

In the evening, I would Skype into a wedding of good friends in New York.  I’m grateful that technology allows us to connect, but let’s be honest: hugs don’t transmit electronically.  So my Saturday stretched ahead of me, less like shade, more like shadow.

After coffee– still not feeling awake, just restless– I found myself reading Psalms.  My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent (Psalm 22).  I had said goodbye the night before to visitors from the US, including one from home.  I had gotten to process successes from this season as well as the struggles, the places where I still feel the darkness, where God seems silent.  I thought of those conversations as I kept reading.  I will fear no evil, for You are with me (Psalm 23).

And somehow the familiar phrase brought light to cloudy thoughts.

Basking in its warmth, I curled up to sleep again, and on the way to dreams I let the ancient truth percolate: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  The darkness is real.  But it has not overcome the light.  He walks alongside me.

How do I write about kitchen table revelation?  How do I explain how different my day was, when I awoke the second time?  How do I share with you some of the warmth and light that thought gave me, and still acknowledge the shadows that you and I experience?

How can I describe watching, from a screen on the other side of the ocean, as my friends said their vows– how I celebrated, deeply sensing that You are with me, with no other person in the room?  How can I explain why tears still fell, when the screen was off?

Slowly.  Starting with facts, but trying to help us see together the Face behind them.  And praying that He will tell us the soul-strengthening truths that go beyond words.

Kind of the same way I tried to tell the Christmas story tonight.