Tag Archives: desert

The Kiss of Release

She approached me in the middle of the bus.  “One of the girls is crying,” she said.  “She got a call on Miss Mae’s phone, and now she’s really upset…”

I looked forward, where Mae– one of our local teachers with Young Leaders– was leaning over a slump-shouldered fifteen-year-old girl.  Teena.  Her family was the one that set up an accidental (for me) blind date with her brother, shortly after I arrived in the country.  There had been no second excursion with Mohammad, but when Teena applied for Young Leaders, she immediately won our teachers’ hearts.

She had determination, ready laughter, social intuitiveness.  What could have happened to bring about those tears? 

Mae explained.  Teena had been given permission by her mom to go on this class trip to a desert reserve, but another family member found out about it and responded the opposite way.  He called and demanded that the bus stop at a nearby security checkpoint.  From there, he would pick Teena up and take her home.

“He’s on the way already,” Mae told me.  “Teena says he never lets her go on trips outside of town, with school or clubs; but he did not know about this one until a few minutes ago…”  We told the bus driver to slow down.  We called Teena’s mom to see what she wanted to do.  She instructed us to let Teena go if that was what this relative wanted.  We called him, we begged, we reasoned.

She’s with all of her friends.  She’s worked hard in this program.  She’s already twenty minutes out of town.  We will protect her like our own sister, our own child.  

He refused.

I knew that Teena’s seat in the program would be lost if she did not participate in ALL activities.  So no field trips also meant no more after-school English lessons.

No more leadership-building activities.

No more mentoring from Miss Mae.

A few days after this incident, I called a cousin of Teena’s whom I know well.  I asked her to appeal to the male relative on our behalf: She is a delight everyone in the program.  But if she doesn’t take the trips, we have to give her spot to another student.  Please, remind this relative that your family knows me, and that I will look after Teena like my own sister. 

Then we called Teena and asked her to have her relative come to the center, so we could try to persuade him face to face.  She was thrilled.  She knew we were fighting for her.  We felt a small measure of hope.

The day of the meeting, Mae called to reconfirm.  No one answered.  Teena texted soon afterward: “We can’t have a meeting today.  Our father passed away this morning.”

That night, Mae and I drove around Teena’s neighborhood, until we found the apartment where dozens of women were gathered to recite funeral prayers and support the family (the men– including the relative who had forbidden Teena’s attendance on field trips– met somewhere outside).  Despite her grief, Teena’s mom recognized me right away.  I kissed her cheeks and repeated the consolation my tutor had taught me for such an occasion.

Someone pulled up extra chairs, and the mom introduced me: “She’s American, a teacher.  My daughter Teena is with her in the Young Leaders program.”

With us in the Young Leaders program.  I repeated the words as if to etch them in stone.

On rising to leave, I forgot the phrase I had learned for funerals, so substituted my favorite parting words: “God be with you.”

Despite hearing that the relative planned to withdraw Teena from the program entirely, Mae and I returned to talk with Teena’s mom, and with a friend who had a voice in his life.  We drank three cups of coffee, offered consolation again, and explained why Young Leaders was vital for Teena’s personal development.  We invited all of them to attend the Opening Ceremony.  We sensed that they supported us– but depended on the male relative’s approval for Teena’s inclusion in the program.

On rising to leave, Teena’s mom randomly informed Mae, “We wanted this foreigner to marry our son.”

It made the mom smile briefly.  It also left me needing to explain the story to my coworker.

We discovered, just a day before the Opening Ceremony, that as soon as the friend had approached Teena’s male relative, he knew what was going to be said.  “Don’t even try,” he said.  “I decided she isn’t going anymore to Young Leaders.”  And that was the end of that portion of the story.

We used all the cultural wisdom we could get.

We fought, we visited, we begged.

We prayed.

Still, with the Opening only hours away, she left an empty space.

—–

What is surrender?  Some think of giving up.  Of being controlled by someone other.  Of passive living.  But what if it is active?  What if it calls for us to not be coerced, but consenting?

What if surrender needs to happen even in the moments that we are fighting… visiting… praying… as much as when we are giving a kiss to each cheek and saying, “God be with you,” in releasing with a blessing?

—–

A hasty search of the waiting list.  Acceptance into the program of a new student.  Her face is familiar when she joins Mae’s class at the Opening Ceremony; we realize her sister was in last year’s program.

Our hearts accept it as a little bit of balm.  What is your name? we ask.

Faith.

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Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand

Their voices traveled through the air and across the sand.  The cliff where these teenaged Young Leaders stood was facing another, larger mountain, which threw back the sound.  The students were surprised; it was the first time, for some of them, that their voices had echoed.

For many of them, it was also their first trip to this famous desert reserve– despite its proximity, only an hour from their homes.  Their first time racing across the sand in the backs of pickups.  Climbing sand dunes.  Seeing stars undimmed by city lights.  Letting themselves go in a trust fall.  Day five of our group’s summer camp took them into the “wilderness,” both rewarding and continuing the previous days’ intensive English and leadership development.

IMG_6860
The students raised their voices again, in celebration and to hear the rock reply: “YOUNG LEEEEADERRRRRRS!!” 

Lana had been one of the first to make it up the cliff.  She was not one of the original Young Leaders; she had been at the top of our waiting list of 180 students, and when another girl’s family withdrew her before the camp, this petite 15-year-old got her chance.  She wore a flowery headscarf and an expression of delight the whole week.

“Do you remember the lesson about dreams?” she asked me.  I did.

Lana and her classmates had thought first of occupations, when they had been asked, If money were not a factor, and you knew you would succeed, what do you dream of doing?IMG_6706

We pushed students to take the question more broadly: what kinds of people they would help, how they would influence the world, what experiences they would have.  Answers ranged from, “Create peace in the Middle East” to, “Take a selfie with a lion.”  Students made posters about their dreams, and Lana had written something, without knowing how soon it would be fulfilled:

‘Climb a mountain’— this was one of my dreams.”

The setting sun spilled golden light across the desert, creating a storybook-like background as groups of students stood chatting, or bent to write their names in the sand.  But Lana’s eyes looked at me with a deeper fire, and with pride.  She came from a family of limited resources and opportunities.  She had, nonetheless, turned at least this one dream into reality– so what dream could come next?

I cannot show you her picture.  My cell phone wouldn’t quite capture the desert light, anyway, or the glow in Lana’s eyes over this simple experience.  But even if it did, respect for her culture and privacy would limit what I share in this public space.

If you saw her picture, would its thousand words-worth articulate a call to somehow take action?  Climb a mountain.  Ask a young person their dream.  Chase a dream yourself.  

Last week many of us viewed a photograph that we did not want to see.  It spurred media, individuals, and governments to focus once again on the long-term problems faced by displaced people.  It saddened us, it shook us.

But it cannot surprise us.

If it does, we haven’t been paying attention.  To the hundreds of gut-wrenching headlines over the past few years.  To the thousands dead (220,000 in Syria’s civil war alone, about half of whom are believed to be civilians).  To the millions displaced (from Syria, 7.6 internally, 4 million in other countries–the most severe displacement crisis since the Rwandan genocide).  To the swell of voices of oppressed people who have lost their homes, family networks, and security, and are desperately seeking a place of shelter, safety, and hope for their children.

Somehow a single, controversial photograph of a dead Syrian child on a beach commanded us to face the incomprehensible.  But far too many other tragedies came before the one with Aylan Kurdi.

My good friend Zaina is one among the displaced.  She lived where I am only a few months, in between her life in Syria and in the country where her husband now has work.  Last week she sent me a message: “I saw you in my dream last night, my dear friend.  How are you?”

When I returned the question, she sent emoticons streaming with tears.  Financial stress, social isolation, the cultural gap between where she is from and where she lives, and continuing difficulties registering her son for school– these have left her heartbroken.  If I sent a picture of her son– a round-cheeked six-year-old with a mischievous glint in his eyes– would the story mean more?  “Sometimes I think about trying to get to Europe by boat,” she wrote.  “Maybe it is better to die at sea than to live here.”

This is not news.  This is a mother of three– a woman the same age I am– seeking options.  Getting doors slammed.

Though my hands are tied from reaching her, I stretched words out across the distance.  Your life echoes, it matters, to me, to your beloved family.  Please be careful.

“I won’t attempt anything,” she texted.  “It’s just my sadness doing the talking.”

Her sadness is what needed to be heard a long time ago.  We tend to photograph drama, to tell stories full of excitement, but the slow death of Zaina’s hopes and opportunities speaks loudly of the need for justice both in her country and in the surrounding region.

Even if you can’t see her, can you hear her?

Lana’s slow ascent toward one of her dreams– and the light in her eyes– speaks of the power of putting action behind ideals.  She envisioned a goal and accomplished the task.  Even if you can’t see her, can you hear the echo of her voice, across the oceans?

Hearing is not sufficient.  Will you take action against the injustice, near and far away, that you encounter?  Will you stand for the ones whose stories don’t make headlines and don’t get photographed– or who do, yet continue suffering?

A picture is worth a thousand words.  Action’s value can be ten thousand times ten thousand.

Mara and the Mountain

Not everyone made it.

Fifty Arab teenagers faced a sand dune: enormous, steep, and scattered with thorns and stones.  These girls were on a day trip in the desert, part of a week-long leadership camp, that would include games to build teamwork, group discussions on values, and dancing around a fire pit.

But the first adventure was not so organized– our Bedouin guides raced their Jeeps through the open spaces of the desert, and came to a stop at the bottom of a mountain of sand.  Disembarking from the open pick-ups, the students knew what to do– and they were full of anticipation.

But what does Mara anticipate with this? I wondered, looking for her.  There she was, walking toward me, dragging her stiff right leg behind her small frame, as she always did.  “Are you ready?” I asked, sounding out her plans.  This sand dune would not be easy, even on two healthy legs.  She replied in a voice that was soft and ever-so-slightly slurred.  “I’m ready.”

Next thing I realized, Mara was leading me to the base of the sand mountain.  We stumbled forward, arms linked, quietly laughing.  We had come only a fraction of the way when we paused to recover.  “Do you want to keep going?” I asked.

“Yes.”

The stumbles turned into falls– the dune was steeper past the base.  This isn’t going to get any easier, I thought, looking upward.  But Mara was focused.  And a few rocks ahead might provide secure footing.  For every step, I pushed with two legs, and Mara with her one healthy leg, but the loose red sands absorbed our shoes, socks, and ankles, sucking us backwards.

We sat down.  “It’s an amazing view, Mara, even just here!”

“Yes,” she said quietly, eyes forward.  “But it will be even better from the top.”

We stood again.  Eventually we learned that the plants were thorn bushes, and while hardy, not to be used for any support.  But we found our rhythm: Mara would wait while I stepped forward.  Then I would reach back and hold her arm, pulling her upwards while she pushed from her good leg.  We’d end up standing together– usually dragged down half a step for every step we took– and then would do it again.  “Are you tired, Mara?”

“No.”

The rocks, it turned out, were also disappointing.  The small ones I thought would support us tumbled down the fine, hot sand when touched.  We sat on the ground again, resting. “I have relatives in America,” Mara said, mixing in occasional English words with her Arabic.  “When I turn 18 I will go and visit.  They have really good doctors.”

Five years ago, she told me, she and her mom had been in a car accident.  She was eight years old. “I stayed in the hospital for one month.  I couldn’t move my legs.  And I couldn’t talk.”

Others on the mountain had started to notice our ascent.  One offered to carry our bags.  We were at the halfway mark.  Those at the top– as well as those who had decided to halt somewhere along the way– started to call out encouragement.  I wondered if Mara would feel embarrassed.  She seemed not to notice, just keeping the edge of her mouth in a smile and her eyes on the sand in front of her.087

Three quarters of the way to the top.  Mara asked me, “Are you tired?”  Is she trying to tell me that she’s tired? I wondered.  Our staggered steps were becoming less coordinated.

Then we heard a voice above us: “You’ve got this!”  We looked up.  One of the other volunteers, a friend of mine, smiled and came to take Mara’s free arm.  We had to awkwardly figure out how to coordinate as three now, but it was worth it– we inched upward again.  Mara’s small smile returned.  The girls at the top started chanting her name.  Mara.  Mara.

MARA.  MARA.

She made it.

Mara said little, but her smile had taken over her whole face.  After a few minutes of taking in the view– which as Mara predicted, was MUCH better from up there– I started to wonder how she would get down.  Most of the rest ran (it feels kind of like flying), and that would not work for her.  Before I could ask, Mara told me what she wanted.  A couple of others thought it looked like so much fun, that they joined her.

She slid.092

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.

 

A Desert Road

The seat in the back of the bus, isolated, by the aisle, from the pair of seats across from it– that was mine.

I went for the quiet spot after my weekend in a northern city, a good visit with good people, who are becoming friends.  My feet scrunched beneath me, my shoulders leaning into the seat back, I turned my head to the window.

There was nothing to see but desert.

That’s how it seemed.  Four hours of sand, dotted by a few small population centers.  The barren stretches broken occasionally by petrol stations, mosques, or coffee shops, satisfying the desires of this region’s travelers.  Another lonely section of desert… then a small flock of goats, with a donkey-riding shepherd.  Much further down the road, more goats, perched high on seemingly unclimbable rocks.  Their shepherds were out of sight.  The animals stared down, irritated with our bus’ intrusion.

And a pale moon crept two-thirds of the way to the summit of an azure sky.

Why, I wondered, do people choose to make their home in the desert?  Why did the “desert fathers” and “desert mothers” pick hot, waterless places to commune with God?  Why did so many from Scripture go there when life overwhelmed theIMG_0046m and they wanted to run?

I want to run sometimes– not toward the desert, though.  Away. Away.  Away from the heat, the dirt, the limits of communication, the scarcity of water, the never-knowing of when I’ll “be there”/arrive.  From the mirages that confuse and disorient, no matter how hard I blink.  From the isolation and steady sameness of tan-on-blue, one kilometer after another…

My four-year-old nephew, on hearing about where I live– and the camels I see regularly– informed the family, “I wish I lived in the desert!”  The ancient king, David, said the same thing (Psalm 55).  Hagar fled there when her place in the family felt untenable; she was driven there later when it got worse (Genesis 16, 21).

The desolate places became holy points of revelation and resources.  God still wants to meet us there.  Provide shelter.  Open our eyes to the sources we didn’t realize we had.  Tell us that He sees us.  The God who sees me— Hagar’s name for Him after their first desert connection.

My fleeting desire to run is swallowed by the immense possibilities of the desert.  Unexpected rains have coaxed a bit of green out of dry places.  Most desert days come with a monotony of tan-on-blue, with heat and dryness, and with uncertain vision.  But they are dotted by outposts that meet my deepest needs, and met by the steadiness of the rising moon.

And I am asking, with Hagar, to say this in the desert: “I have now seen the One who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).

 

Sleeping Jesus

IMG_1016 Someone starts a new venture, with clear confirmation that this is what they should do.  Things move forward, and as they do, God seems silent.  But no concern arises; the person is confident that they know what to do.  They have knowledge, expertise, the right equipment, and even clarity.

Then things get hard.

A storm renders the usual equipment useless, and their expertise doesn’t fit the new situation.  They look to God, who seems silent but present.  “Why isn’t He moving?” they ask themselves.  At last they throw Him their question: “Don’t you care that we, we who are carrying out Your commands, are going to drown?”

It was Jesus’ idea to cross the lake.  His friends, many of them fishermen, didn’t worry– they had the knowledge, expertise, and equipment, and then they had Jesus telling them to do it.  So they loaded the boat. 

While Jesus was sleeping…

The storm came.  He didn’t rise.  They knew He could help them.  He woke up responding to their shaking, their begging– or accusing– question, “Don’t you care if we drown?” 

A sunset a few days ago that I accidentally spied, in between dinner at a friend’s house and an evening language class, became a “best” moment in my week.  Walking past an empty lot of desert rock and sand, my eyes were drawn to the sunlight streaming out behind a few clouds, not yet hidden by the mountains that form the town’s western border.

It was a five minute walk.  The wind was the sole sound.  My camera just served as a reminder that some things can only be captured by memory.

Rob Reimer is a wise mentor, who points out how we often ask God, “Do you love me?”  God proved that through the cross, and instead asks us, “Do you trust Me?”  Moments of sunset colors remind me of the beauty and love of God.  He doesn’t say anything.  He just reminds me of His presence.

I hold memories like that for the moments when the storms come.  The presence of Christ is real in moments of silence, whether accompanied by sunset colors or storming waves.  Can I trust a sleeping Jesus?

–Heard for the first time today, and perfect for today’s thoughts:  You Make Me Brave, from Bethel Music

 

Not to be Captured

2014-01-11 14.44.25Writing usually evokes the thoughts and events that have been percolating in the back of my mind.  But there are so many right now, it’s hard to decide what to put out here.

Should I write about my first attempt to speak Arabic, when my listener gently replied– in English– that she was from the Philippines and doesn’t speak Arabic?

Or of the women who make jewelery at the center, part of a “small business” enterprise.  Upon our second meeting, these motherly and grandmotherly women began calling me “habibti,” a local term of love and affection.  They teach me Arabic, show me how to roll paper beads from recycled magazines, and feed me quantities of green olives and hummus.

Or maybe I should write about the fun couple from the US who has had me in their home–twice– in the past week, expressing their commitment to helping me settle in.  The map that he made, and the cheesecake she made, were very welcome.  The intentional questions they asked, even more welcome!!

On the other hand, I could tell of writing an e-mail to a friend in Pennsylvania, and of crying as I answered her question about how my last week in the US had been.  Everyone loved, encouraged, expressed appreciation, and blessed me greatly.  My family & dear friends have sent me well.  And I miss them.

I could write about seeing a refugee child selling peanuts on the street, long after dark.

I could write about the eyes of a young woman from the same area, distant and guarded until a smile came her way.  Unbelievably quickly, the look of caution fled, and her face lit up with her own brilliant smile.

I could write about teaching my first-ever English class yesterday, and explaining to a crowded room of students what the words “hope” and “confidence” mean.  “Optimism”– we talked about that, too.

I could write about my first venture into the desert– a beauty unique from any others.  But I don’t think words could capture any of it.