Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Letter

A letter from my grandfather.  The thin sheets have survived six moves in eight years. When I lived in Southeast Asia, he sent them to me, along with a recipe for homemade bread.

I remember squinting at his scratchy cursive.  It took a long time to understand.

I served Grandpa’s bread on a floor mat, to some neighbors who had come over to celebrate Thanksgiving with me, that first year overseas.  The smell transported me from that island in Asia to a hilltop in Maine.  For years as I was growing up, on visits to Grandpa’s, the sweet, warm aroma of bread had greeted my family before he did.

We would stretch our legs after the two-hour drive up north, then enter through the side door of his farmhouse.  Grandpa didn’t always hear us coming in– especially later in his life– but the smell said we were welcome, he had prepared something.  We were loved.

Last week, the teenagers from the Young Leaders’ program didn’t hear me come in.  They were occupied taping photos of the pilot onto black and white balloons, preparing dozens of tiny candles for a vigil, and wrapping words around their grief until it spun into poetry.  They did not know his name while he was alive.

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But the shocking news of his death had made him an international headline, and even after media moved on, it made them feel like they lost a brother.  So they searched for ways to express their loss, their loyalty, and their love.

Just days afterward, we heard of 21 more killed.  Words seem cracked and dry.

I don’t know where things will go.  In the next five months, over half of my coworkers will move.  I will begin directing the Young Leaders program in the spring, right when fresh faces are arriving.  The steady rhythm I just learned will give way to a different song.  New colleagues will join at the community center.

The relative stability of our region in the days ahead…the relational dynamics in our shifting team… the reality of how much (or little) Arabic I understand will understand in a given conversation…

All of these are unknown.  And all of these will change.

Frequently.

Recently someone suggested picturing faithfulness as a kind of water.  For someone who enjoys metaphors, strange as they may sound, I didn’t get this at first.  But then, I pictured:

A barren rock face.  There’s a small pool of liquid in the middle, but no sign of beauty, none of strength.  Below the surface, unseen, water seeps deeply into the ground.  There it meets just the right combination of empty spaces, pressure, and intense heat.   Sometimes at predictable intervals, other times unexpectedly, the water bursts forward.  A geyser.

It’s not a bubbly, flowing stream, how I used to see faithfulness.  It is mostly quiet and hidden from sight, under an unyielding surface.  It is fiery.  The pressure and empty space work together for something positive.  At just the right moment, grace and power erupt.

And the transformation from hard ground to geyser only takes place along the earth’s faults.  In broken places.

My understanding has often proven too limited to trust, my attempts to predict the future usually result in frustration… But if I still my soul I hear this reminder: I’ve made a way for you here.  I’ve prepared something– just wait.  

I love you. 

The letter closed with the verses that, in his words, “had that meant so much to your grandmother and I.”

My grandpa passed away two years ago, but over the past two days I have heard his voice in my memory, just like I heard it when I first read that letter.  He is reciting these words:  Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

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Not Time.

Some of you are those people.  The ones who really want to know the answer, when you ask, How are you?  No matter how muddy, how messy, how story-filled, or how strange, the answer may be.

Thankfully for me, one of your type meets up with me for coffee each week.   We hadn’t even ordered the mochas yet, last week, but she wanted to know.

“I’m feeling uneasy,” I answered.  Then I gave a very “foreigner”-sounding reason for it: “I have many things to do today, and yet have managed to start none of them….”  Went to meet someone; forgot they are not home.  Wanted to organize my university class from my laptop, while sitting in the lobby of the community center; interrupted by local friends walking in the door.  Shifted other plans to be present at a language lesson; time got changed, last minute, by my teacher.

Unfortunately, my addiction to showing results, to doing things efficiently– in a hurry— did not get left behind on my native continent.

Wednesday, a little before class, one of my students informed me of a special prayer ceremony, which would take place in half an hour.  It was in memory of the fallen soldier.  I assured her that she and the other students would be allowed to attend; my 75 minute lesson was shortened to 15.  Then we took the last 15 minutes to talk about the pilot.  Many of the students had seen the video, which had been made public the night before, of his death.  How do you feel?

“This is not Islam,” one began.  The class nodded their assent.

“We feel sad…sad.”  “People think it will separate us but it will unite us.”  “They make our Muslim faith look horrible.”

“We feel angry.”

“We feel like he is our brother.”

“I have no words in the English language,” said a young woman in the front row.   Encouraged to speak Arabic, she still struggled to find vocabulary:  “It’s a crime. How… how could anyone do that?  How could they burn a person?”

Some other students studied the tiles on the floor, solemn-faced and articulately silent.  Finally one spoke up: “We feel frustrated, because there is nothing we can do.”

What do people do when they are angry?  Our response to others’ actions is a choice– so what should WE do?  I want to give them answers.  To throw them a life preserver, as they wrestle with a flood of confusion and grief… To drag them back to safety.

But I don’t have answers either.  As we left, I saw a printout of his picture, posted at the university’s entrance.  Not the military picture from the news articles; he is dressed casually, smiling, maybe on vacation.  Relaxed.  And I thought, this is over our heads, and there is no shortcut.  We are going to have to learn how to swim.

And that will take some time.

Forty-one teenaged Arab girls spent Friday exploring the most famous tourist attraction of their country: a world-renowned, historically-rich archeological city.  Many had never visited before.  Groups had prepared presentations on one of 12 specific locations, which spread out over several kilometers, up hills, and in valleys.IMG_2371

I was in charge of the day, and felt responsible to get them to as many sites as we could visit.  Maybe 10 out of 12, I thought.

We left an hour late.  I looked the list of locations.  Maybe nine out of twelve?

Lunch, which we had arranged in advance, wasn’t ready on time.  We lost another 40 minutes.   Eight? 

And then there were the girls themselves.  I tried to motivate them by making it a game– “Your team gets a point if you make it to the next spot on time!”– without smothering the fun of the journey.  They were stopping to look at Bedouin shops, posing in caves and on camels.  Their songs reverberated off the rocks, as they ambled ancient paths between the mountains.

At one point, what I thought I said was meet in 15 minutes.  The whole group laughed good-naturedly.  “We’ll starve if it takes that long!”

What did I say?  

Apparently, my Arabic still needs help.  “You just told us to meet in fifteen years!”

At the end of the day, I think we had hit six or seven of the sites.  But rushing toward the goal would have robbed them of the chance to fully savor it all– the journey.  The presence of their teachers and each other.  The conversations with locals.  The challenges of exertion and exploration.

Together with the ones at the university, these students will keep reminding me that learning, like healing, can’t be rushed.

When I meet my friend for coffee tomorrow, I’ll know– just a little more than I did last week– it’s not about time.