Monthly Archives: July 2014

On Waiting for the Story’s Ending

Sleep refused to come.  It’s possible that it was because of the evening visit to wish my friends Eid Mubarak, a blessed holiday, as they finished 30 days of Ramadan fasting.  A short visit, with “simple” hospitality– which meant only two cups of coffee, a cup of tea, a glass of soda, and sugary holiday cookies known as ma’amoul.

I shifted pillows, counted out deep inhales and exhales, listened to the 4:30 a.m. call to prayer sound from the neighborhood mosque.

And then I wondered if my restlessness was because of you.  You, the friend from home, whose deep struggle I heard about just before bed.  You, the family I recently met, striving to make life work with newly adopted daughters, separated from them by heart-sickening delays.  You, Palestine… and you, Israel.  You, Iraq and you, Syria.

You, ISIS.  You, politicians.  You, Hamas.  You, reporters and re-posters and you, you who haven’t watched or heard or read the news in recent weeks.

Me, sharing these words to you, and running the risk of adding noise without insight.  I don’t know where your situation is going, but I’m going to risk it for this reason: I think I know a place to start.

A friend of mine wrote a book called “The Power of Mentoring.”  He retells the story of the prophet Elijah, tracing his history backwards.  On Mt. Carmel, fire fell and a multitude saw God’s power demonstrated.  Before that, however, Elijah camped by a brook alone during a desolate time, with birds delivering him meals twice each day.  Next he invited one woman– a widow about to starve– to join him in trusting God for daily bread, and later for life to be restored to her dead child.  He went to Carmel AFTER faith had grown in those quiet places.

I visited a fifty-person fellowship earlier in the month.  This anonymous congregation, ten years ago, had noticed local needs and decided to live out His love.  They asked.  They visited.  They brought aid.  When war came close to them, they were on one of the main escape routes through which people fled suffering.  The fellowship kept asking, visiting… loving.  Today, this small congregation has served thousands of displaced, and local, families.

They receive grants from organizations as varied as Samaritan’s Purse and the European Union.  They are consulted by governments and other-faith groups, because they were loving the region before the eyes of the world were on them.

They did not, however, start by reading an article called, “Ten Steps for Responding to a Refugee” or “Three Things to Say to the Suffering.”

They started by loving those in front of them.  In the upheavals of this time, when I think of you and can’t sleep– broken people, beloved people– I pray that love abounds for you.  I pray it rescues you from the destructiveness and darkness that plague us, and ushers you into light.

And I pray today that we are saved from the allure of delay, and the inoculation that comes from information laced with disengagement.

Love the people who are in front of you.  The ones close are often hardest, and acknowledgment may not be present.  Love strongly anyway.  Love daily, without waiting for a crisis to prompt your action.  Love widely, keep your heart soft when you watch the news or receive the updates.  I don’t know where it will go from there… but let’s begin.

Rest comes with surrender.  I fell asleep as dawn broke, accepting the fact that I am unwilling to wait until I know its end before I begin the story.

 

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Tears. Discomfort. Foolishness. Blessing.

The chicken brought tears to my eyes.  A sister in the family, the one who had cooked the feast in front of us, held up her nine-month-old baby boy.  “He has never seen his homeland,” she said.

The floor mats, on which we sat, were printed with the letters “UNHCR”– the UN Refugee Agency.  The family fled to this city to find some respite from the war, but here they are not permitted to work, struggle to get their kids in schools, and strive each month to pay unfair, high rental costs.

And as the sun set, its soft shades visible from the second-story landing we visited, they spread out a sumptuous meal to honor their guests.  Chicken, tabbouleh, soup, rice.  All prepared with exquisite culinary expertise and offered with hospitable hearts, constant guideposts amidst the crises of war, poverty, and grief.

Earlier that week, a friend and mentor had sent me these words from a Franciscan blessing:

May you hear the whisper of God’s Fatherly voice guiding you to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family of faith.

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you will live deeply and from the heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and the exploitation of people, so that you will work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those that mourn, so that you will reach out your hand to them and turn their mourning into joy.

May God bless you with just enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do those things that others say cannot be done.

And, May you know the love, joy and freedom that is your inheritance as the children of the Living God. Amen.

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Community of the displaced, outside town.

A local pastor fills a truck with small stoves, blankets, mattresses, other relief items…. and a handful of foreign guests.  We leave supplies at a few apartments– some decent, some dark.  We bring other supplies to tents on the outskirts, tasting the same dust that blows into the faces of those who live there.

Then we stop at a pile of concrete walls with a roof.  It may be a house someday, but for now its floor is rubble, its windows and doors empty holes.  A dusty, broken couch, floor mats, a woman, and five children occupy one room.  A mother of seven lives in the other.

The second woman is on our distribution list for the day.  Her oldest, a ten-year-old boy, silently helps carry “welcome kit” items to the room where his family sleeps.  Their neighbor was not on the list for today, but when we start unloading supplies for her too, the boy helps– he is bigger, after all, than the oldest of her five children.

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“Welcome Kit” supplies for distribution to refugees.

 “We have only been outside the camp for two days,” the boy’s mother told me.  “It was a bad situation.  Much illness, very little water, very little food.  I was afraid.”  She is thin and tall.  And she is determined.  “I will be renting an apartment soon,” she says.

The women kiss my cheeks and we say goodbye with the blessing of this culture: “God be with you.”  I climb in the back of the truck and have nothing left to say.

On the bus ride home to my cozy basement, just a few hours distance, I try to understand what He said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst… those who mourn… the poor.”

I remember the rest: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify God…”

And if, after meeting these displaced families, I am more uncomfortable, angrier at injustice, and crying more over the pain of this world, I hope I can also be a little more of a “fool”– believing, no matter how dark the night seems to be, that there is hope of bringing that light.

Guest Post: Breaking Normal

10309652_10101980061293181_2687677473573907955_nThis blog is committed to getting a “fresh perspective,” so I asked my friend to write about his recent experience in the Middle East.  Sean is a good friend, teacher, lover of coffee, thinker, husband to Jenn, and a recent camel enthusiast.

I should be writing this guest blog post with a very bad attitude right now. It would be forgiven. It would be normal and expected, under the circumstances. Because those circumstances are so annoying.

You see, I was on my way to a coffee shop this morning to get some work done, but mostly to play chess on my iPhone, when my rear wheel began thumping and shaking and all sorts of other -ings that one is afraid of when one has no mechanical expertise whatsoever. So, annoyed, I called AAA, and annoyed, I gave the service rep my information, and annoyed, I pulled out my phone to kill the 15 annoying minutes it took for the tow-truck driver to show up.

After the annoying three minute drive to the repair shop I had to wait another 10 annoying minutes in line before ordering up two new tires (I ordered an extra back tire to pre-empt any possible annoyance come wintertime).

Now I’m writing this post from an air-conditioned coffee shop while I wait for my chicken sandwich and still feel…privileged. Convenience is my normal.

One month ago I was driving along a highway through the desert in the Middle East, and I wondered what would happen if I popped a tire or if the engine overheated. With only pavement and sand on my horizon, without exits or rest stops for miles upon miles, I became nervous. Then I wondered what the normal response for an annoying situation in the desert was.

Then I wondered if there is even such a thing as annoying, or inconvenient, or mildly frustrating in the Middle East desert. Because after 11 days between two countries, the collective psyche I picked up from the people fluctuated between that of welcoming, hospitable, friendly, and aggressive, crisis, “get it done.”

It seemed like the world was only made to play in, until talk shifted to a local refugee crisis.

It seemed like all people knew how to do was talk and laugh and loiter, until you heard what life was like as a marginalized, displaced person.

It seemed like everyone was so proud that there home was the birthplace of so much ancient history, until you find out that so many people are not allowed to return to their actual homes.

So why would there be categories for trivial issues that can so readily alter the mood of an average Western person, when they so pale in comparison to the depths of love and longing that are experienced on a daily basis?

Maybe these categories do exist where I visited, and I was simply culturally blind to them while adjusting to normal: military officers walking the beat; women wearing layers of covering over their bodies, yet not failing to wholeheartedly express themselves through laughter and smiles and all the emotions communicated through the eyes; witnessing police checkpoints and interrogations from a distance while getting the privileged, trusted American treatment.

I was shocked at how quickly strange became normal. The only true difference is that I had to become aware and make adjustments in the Middle East. By the third or fourth sighting, I hardly noticed the military presence. By the third or fourth conversation, fully-covered women posed no ideological difficulty for me.

(Funny what an encounter with humanity will do to ideology, isn’t it?)

Back here, I don’t need to adjust to a flat tire —> tow-truck —> repair shop —> air-conditioned coffee shop on a laptop experience, all within two and a half hours, because over here it’s just annoying. It’s a lack of convenience turned into the very definition of convenience, with barely an appreciation for it.

So I’m trying to train my mind to relive the trek across the desert, the interactions with expressive eyes, the historic conflicts that are occurring on historic land. Because at this point it does not much matter what constitutes normal. It’s the blinding familiarity with it that can keep us from a full life.

Most good stories don’t contain much normal; we crave fantasy, suspense, adventure. Even so, our favorite stories can become dangerously familiar and routine. As can our daily experienced stories.

And that’s why we ask for a Second Story — to break us out of our normal.

So read on.

Layering Up

“What should I wear when I visit you?” my friend from New York asked.

“Layers.”

Temperature sits at 115 degrees.  Culture calls for covered legs, covered arms, but away from the public eye, survival calls for something less strict.  Light sweaters to be shrugged off.  Scarves to be undone.  Long pants exchanged for bliss… I mean shorts.

Here, she noticed, while somewhat stifling in moments, the layers shield us from the sun’s intensity.

A few nights ago, a friend’s family had me join them for their “breaking fast” meal.  It was the first day of Ramadan.   They made a local favorite from a recipe so good the mom refuses to share it; they ate quickly, in silence, having tasted no food or water since before sunrise (14 hours, temp of 115).  Feeling slightly awkward, I ate my lamb, and wondered about leaving.  Then someone said, “Spoons.”

It’s a card game that mirrors musical chairs, in that the loser is the one with the slowest reflexes.  The unfortunate player holding no spoon at the end of the round is”punished” by the winner, with a mild dare.  For two hours, we crowded around a deck of cards and battered silverware.  Their parents sat on the couch, enjoying watching us enjoy ourselves.

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Somewhere within the laughter of that night, I remembered the last time I had played this game.  It was New Year’s Eve, in New York, days before I would leave the country.  Playing games sometimes shows new sides of personalities.  But I leave that to your imagination.  I remembered playing with neighbor kids and teenagers on my front porch in Southeast Asia, when we couldn’t speak much of their language, but Spoons let us laugh together.  Vague memories of games in high school, on retreats or all-nighters or with the spoons in restaurants (shaking head).

That memory took on a new layer this week, as Ramadan opened, amidst a silent meal and a rambunctious game of Spoons, among friends who I am still growing to understand, little by little.

Sometimes I just want to shed the layers, return to what is comfortable.  I fear losing something important.  But then I forget that layers can add depth, add richness, not stifle.  So in the heat, I am letting the layers pile on:

  • singing songs that were the anthems of my home fellowship, here with smaller groups of voices
  • celebrating life events & holidays with new friends who are here
  • pulling favorite coffee mugs from the shelf, to be sipped by other, thirsty throats
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Prints

A couple of months ago, a crafty friend showed me how to make prints, layering levels of paint and stamps– processes that I, in my craftlessness, don’t find straightforward.  I tried a layer or two  and protested, “This is a mess.  Can I start again?”

“It looks like a mess,” she agreed, perfectly calm.  “But the best prints often start out like that…. You have no idea what it’ll look like ten or twelve layers from now.”