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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Radical Welcome

“We long for the land,” she said. “The soil of home.” Anise chatted with us in the sitting room, one hand cradling a cup of coffee, the other steadying her infant daughter. Her parents had fled war in a neighboring country, when Anise was not much older than her baby is now.

Her identity is bound up in a land she only knows through her family’s stories, of Palestine.

Zaina, the hostess, carried heaping dishes of tabbouleh, vegetables, and hand-made pastries into the sitting room from the kitchen, which doubles as a bedroom for her two children. She sat down and listened as Anise’s stories continued. “My cousin tried to visit our homeland to see his mother before she died. They delayed him at the border for four days. When he got through, she was gone. Grief was strong. He had a stroke, and he has been paralyzed since.”

Anise retold her stories of woe and hunger for homelands with a flair that, from the surface, bordered on cheerfulness. She introduced us new listeners to her decades-old tales with great animation. Zaina’s face, however, grew cloudy, then dark. She burst into tears and ran into the kitchen.

Gathering tissues, Anise said to us in a matter-of-fact tone: “She fled Syria only eight months ago. It’s difficult. We all long for our lands.” And she went to the kitchen to pursue Zaina.

My second-story view this week is from an apartment in the United States, where I am staying with good friends. We are grieving the transition of a beloved woman of faith from this life to the next. Her husband sent me a text in the weeks leading up to her death, letting me know specifically that he was praying for me.

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Upside-down, isn’t it? The displaced being hosts. The grieving giving prayers. The wounded bringing wholeness. Since moving eight months ago, I have become an adult who needs to re-learn communication; a member separated from a body; an extroverted person who spends great portions of time in quiet.

It’s changing my perspective.

There is this story about giving food to the hungry, drink to those who thirst, a visit to those in prison, and a home to the lonely. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” In this upside-down time, I’ve been starting to see this story through the lens of the “least of these.”

For I was hungry for companionship, and an Arab family asked me to spend every night of their holidays with them, eating and playing games. I was thirsty for knowledge of the language, and new friends patiently repeated themselves until my mind was sated, unable to hold more. I was sick, and the women in the community center’s wellness program offered seven different cough remedies. I was a stranger to their country and their language, and they kept pouring coffee and urging me to eat more, kept insisting that I remain with them.

Last month, a family of Syrian refugees invited some friends and I to their home. From the second story of an apartment building on the border, they have watched and waited more than a year for stability to return to their homeland. Over the elaborate meal they fed us, we asked them about rent and employment and heard the story that had become familiar: high rental costs, no jobs.

Back at Zaina’s, while Anise was comforting her in the kitchen, I had thought about the night before.  I had been alone in my house, crying out homesick and longing for my own “land.” And I realized that with my decision to move here, I was sensing some type of hunger, thirst, and what it meant to be alone– and that Zaina, and my other friends who have been displaced by war and division, experienced that pain with much less choice and a far greater depth.  Yet they were the ones feeding me, helping me learn the language, and inviting me into their families.

I carry them in my heart for these days that I am visiting in the United States. They exist on the borders, uncertain of rent but offering a meal to strangers. They bear longing and even pain– for lost soil, for absent loved ones– and still look up, seeing those around them who hunger and thirst.

Even when my soul thirsts– when I grieve– when everything feels unsettled– will I extend a radical welcome?

Connections

I’m starting to see the connections.  For example, the Arabic word meaning to remain with is connected to the word for to sit down.  I get that.  A word that starts as discussion can easily become the word for argument.  Makes sense.

And one of the words for working out also means… math?

That one, I asked my teacher to clarify.  She grinned at my puzzled expression. “Of course: exercise for your body… or exercise for your mind!”

My mind is getting a lot more exercise than my body this summer, as community center activities take a hiatus and I sit with language teachers, studying word connections and sipping sweet coffee.   So I decided to borrow a work-out DVD from one of my housemates.  I’ve seen fit college athletes nurse aching limbs after one of these workouts: 30 Day Shred.

Jillian Michaels, the coach, reminds me daily: “You want change.  To get that, you’ve got to endure stress…. That’s how change happens.” (Did I mention that in Arabic, the word to beat/to hit someone is connected to the word to coach?)

Rob Reimer is a professor and pastor, and a person experienced in endurance of tough things.  His teaching “hits me”/coaches me even from across an ocean.  The truth is that amidst the summer stillness, I am restless for resolution– resolution of conflict in this region, of sadness of loved friends, and of longings in my own soul.  Reimer reminds me, “…this time between the promise and the delivery of the promise is the most critical time in the life of the people of God.  It is the “in between time.'” (Pathways to the King).

I wasn’t sure I had a story this week.  I am in between spring and fall semesters at the university, between Ramadan and the re-opening of the center,  between being green and being seasoned, between hearing the promises and being able to grasp them with my hands.  And tension resides.  My instinct with this tension is the same as my instinct with Jillian Michaels’ Shred video: I want a different way, I want to get out of it.  But stress builds change often, or at least creates the opportunity for it.  And I’m beginning to see the connection.

Here in the in-between, I spend my days studying Arabic and “shredding,” throwing away last semester’s worksheets to make way for new students, organizing my apartment to prepare for leaving it this fall to live a month with a local family… While I can see the end coming quickly to this in-between schedule, I don’t know when the resolutions promised will come.

Reimer says that, in the in-betweens, people face three major challenges:

  • trying to make things happen via our own resources
  • listening to competing voices (counter to what He says)
  • quitting

So instead I am waiting with arms stretched wide, with one side reaching toward the promises I’ve been given in the past, and the other stretching into hope for the days that remain to be seen; and with whole self here, present.  Sometimes there is pain in the stress.  But Rob and Jillian agree…

This stretch brings about change.  And it’s there that I get ready for new opportunities, which I saw take place even yesterday… although that is a second story.  For now, I’ll just say, holding arms wide open leaves me ready, giving or receiving, for an embrace.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

New Day Beginning

Darkness hid the mountains as I stepped, for the first time, from the plane onto the tarmac in this new place.

I reached my city well after night had come, six months ago.  My first impressions were limited to what could be illuminated by orange streetlights and neon signs; an inky black covered the rest.

Stepping once again onto airport pavement, three weeks ago, I remembered that first hazy darkness. This time dusty outlines of mountains surrounded me and faded into the dusk.  I was picking up my sister for a week of life here: laughter and tears with Arab ladies at the community center, exploration of familiar and new places together, smiling acceptance of whatever food or drink was offered… She flowed with it all.IMG_1604

And then I was on another tarmac, mid-day.  My flight was shockingly un-delayed by the downpour that had drenched the morning, the rain that had saturated sidewalks and left behind a dull blue-gray sky.  My sister was heading home from our connecting city of Paris. I took a different direction; a group of professionals in similar work had been invited to gather on the coast of Spain.

I held little expectation, except to go to the beach during our free time… or during not-free time if needed.  I knew none of the other participants. I speak no Spanish (once I knew a little, but it is quite buried beneath Arabic for now).

I was unsure of what I would hear. But I came with a desire to listen.

Within an hour of arriving, I was at a local restaurant with a couple that does community development in London… soon after, meeting a young family that works in Afghanistan, English teachers from Africa, and business-developers who live in India.  I started hearing the many stories: smart ideas, failures, restoration, defeat, thefts, provision… Healed, in some cases.

Unhealed, other times.  Life.  Death.  Miracles.  Suffering.  Enduring.

And during our conference, eyes were feasted on seas, sunsets, and World Cup games.  Stomachs filled with good food, mouths with laughter.  Faces washed in tears as we heard some of the experiences.  Because as we came from around the world, many of us carried stories of broken bodies, broken relationships… companies… countries.

We also carried the knowledge of one who was with us. Every celebration. Every dark day.

Some friends and I had the chance to spend the night, last week, in the desert with the Bedouin. The stars– beyond all counting, beyond any descriptions– drew us flat on our backs in a half-circle, facing up. The darkest night displayed un-earthly glory, and all other nights have felt richer since I got that glimpse.

Two days ago, I was at another aiIMG_2184rport, this time to drop off dear friends who had been here to visit. They had taught me to cold brew coffee, hugged like they meant it, and reminded me of the most important things. The sun was rising as I drove home, warm bands of orange and pink that stretched over the desert horizon.

A heart filled up. A broadened view.

A new day.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

This is something I need.

I need you to help me…

Monday I told a local friend that I needed something.  An idea: a different way to invest in Syrian refugees, now the first project had ended.  She is from here, a make-it-happen activator who already has two jobs; I am new, a student increasingly conscious of how much I still need to learn.

We wanted something that would involve the community in service, make space for developing relationships, and meet a practical need.  BUT something we had time to do.

She said she’d think about it, and get back to me.

Still, after nearly three months, I miss my family and friends and community from the States– and pizza; I really miss buffalo chicken, New York style slices– and all the familiarity that came with them.  I had people to talk through teaching ideas with me.  I had a team of trusted coworkers and friends, to help plan community events: worship training, community breakfasts, an art show… Together our ideas and application were better than they ever could have been alone.  I enjoy making music, but when I play here alone, I miss the sounds of our incredible drummer, or the classical-turned-loose pianist or the strum just the way Shawna does it.

A quiet place.  A mug of coffee and an almond croissant.  A hug, listening ears, a soul connection over tea or Chinese food or… I miss how easy it was to get those things.

Learning friends, family, and community in a new place may be harder than learning a foreign language– but even more necessary for life to be lived (instead of survived).  My favorite parts of the past three months have been times of connection.  And I see in people I have met a deep craving for connection, whether they are from the Arab world, the US, or elsewhere.

My favorite moments of the past months have been moments of connection.  Hummus and pita with Arab friends.  Ice cream and oreos with a fellow stranger to this country, who makes her home here.  Working as an incredible team, both local and non-local, for our first outreach for refugees.  Laughter with local ladies as I attempt to tell a story.  And moments of connection– looking up at the mountains, praying with a friend, hearing lyrics from a good song– with the Creator.

My friend came back the next day holding a pile of papers.  The top page read, “101 Project Ideas.”  In between jobs, my friend had researched ideas, and come up with one that she thought would work for neighborhood and the Syrian refugees.

She gave me a great idea to bring back to the team.  And she gave me yet another connection here; yet another powerful note in the unfinished song that is this season.  I think I’ll call the song…

No, I’ll save naming this song for another, second story.