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
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
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.