Tag Archives: blessing

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zombies vs. the Holidays

“Are you zombies!?”

She laughed at her joke, while I found the right words to explain myself.  I had attempted to tell my host mom about Thanksgiving in America, and had concluded with, And we eat our families.

Which would make you zombies, she had delightedly pointed out.  Missed one important word.  With.  I re-stated it in Arabic: “We eat WITH our families.”

No, I am not a zombie.  But after living with a host family, wrestling with Arabic from before I got out of bed in the morning, I sometimes felt like I was.  My host mom would say, “Come with me to…” and I would obediently follow, even if I didn’t understand the destination.  My delayed understanding often manifest itself through blank stares, slow reaction times, and silly misunderstandings.  The parents were usually quiet during the day and emerged at night; often that just looked like all of us sitting in the same room, occupied with our own projects.

Sometimes it meant shopping runs or social visits.  On one of these, they asked me, “Do you like to eat …?”  And since it sounded vaguely like a vegetable I had once, and I’ve liked almost everything here, I enthusiastically responded with yes– only to find out it was the one food I have yet to find palatable in any country.

Liver.

When I actually understood all the words spoken, sometimes I still had to confess that I had missed their meaning.  To understand, in depth or in daily rhythms, requires more than translation.  Words are not sufficient.

Mary experienced something that was communicated in words from angels, signaled by a star, witnessed by shepherds; it was a story strong enough to change the way we mark time.  Those shepherds– secondary characters in most Nativities– hurried off to tell what they had seen.  But she, who was as close as anyone could humanly be to the center of the story, kept her lips sealed.  Even modern music lists questions we’d like Mary to answer: How much did you understand?  Mary, did you know?

She had no speaking lines that night.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.  Shortly before I moved to the Middle East, my friends/teachers Chuck and Ingrid prayed blessings over me.  Chuck’s words were authoritative, asking for empowerment and discernment; my soul affirmed them.  Ingrid, however, blessed me to be like Mary, to treasure things and ponder them in my heart.  No, I resisted quietly.  I don’t want to be like Mary.

I want to tell the stories.  I want to be understood.

In English class yesterday, my students were describing what was needed for a famous regional food, mansaf.  First, fermented yogurt.  Nuts.  Spices.  Meat.  Rice.  A thin, platter-sized piece of bread.  Do we need anything else?  

Omar answered: “People.”

An essential ingredient of some stories is their retelling.  I could be tempted to keep quiet for fear of being misunderstood.  But these are the stories that give life, and just as no one would think of eating mansaf alone, I cannot hold these stories to myself; I invite others to share them.

But the “sharing shepherd” is the easier of the roles for me.  During the two weeks with my Arab family, there were cultural miscommunications, deep talks, awkward moments… but the hardest part was the silence.  Sitting together, presence assured and pressure off, not much in the way of words.

And those stretching times were what made the difference between “visiting” and “living with.”

So I remember Ingrid’s prayer, that I can become a person who knows how to sit in silence.  With others.  With myself.  With my God.  Treasuring the moments that don’t need to be commonly understood or retold, at least not yet.

And pondering them in my heart, I say, Amen.

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.