Tag Archives: encouragement

Stories and The Story

I’m originally from Central Asia.  Now I live half of the time in a European country, half of the time in another Asian country.  

And I cannot go home.

These were her answers to the questions, “Where are you from?  What do you do in that place?”  I had already exchanged these two questions with dozens of other younger leaders, at this international gathering in Southeast Asia.  I had heard answers as varied as:

  • a Swedish woman with an Alabama accent, who is passionate about training university students
  • a Chinese man who works toward wholeness for people with leprosy, attending to their souls and their skins
  • An Indian brother with a ten-inch beard and a smile that infects everyone around him, whether at the conference or at his home in New Delhi
  • A South African lady who asks big questions and uses her expertise in design and marketing to share hope, via the internet and around the world
  • A Nicaraguan who holds church in a dump and inspires children to a future other than picking up garbage

The woman from the sensitive region, whom I met on the second day of the conference, turned out to be one of our speakers a few days later.  She told of what she had experienced while still in her country.  Imprisonment.  Pain.  Solitary confinement for weeks on end.  

The arms of God around her shoulders.  

“I am not a brave person,” she said.  “I am so ordinary.  But I’m here to tell you that if God can give me the strength to suffer for His name, He can give it to you also.

“If God calls you to suffer, He will also give you the strength you need.

She squeezed.  I thought she might dislocate a couple of my fingers.

Lina, one of 60 teenaged Arab girls on the boat that day, had changed since she joined the Young Leaders Program the year before.  She had been unwilling to interact with the other students, and held back whenever she encountered new things.

If concern about peoples’ stereotypes of orphans or of people with disabilities had had anything to do with it, Lina had two strikes against her, from early on in life.

Her teacher had coaxed her to share some of her insights and abilities with Young Leaders.  Thriving in English, developing some real friendships, and leading her classmates to volunteer with children at the orphanage where she lived– Lina had eventually achieved some major victories.  But on this day her teacher was once again trying to coax her.

This time it was to get on board the “banana boat,” a small inflatable raft pulled by a speedboat, a new experience for the students.

Lina didn’t pretend, when we asked her why she didn’t join the others.  She answered with one word: “Fear.”

I put my arm around her shoulders.  I’ve watched you become braver every month since you started the program.  You can do this.

She paused for a second.  “Will you come with me?”

So I got on the banana boat.  Lina buried her face in her oversized life jacket, like a turtle withdrawing defensively into its shell.  She squinted her eyes shut, and when one spray of water hit her, grabbed my hand like it was her lifesaver.  My peaceful words were effective in getting her to look up and enjoy the view… for about three seconds at a time.

I have been riding around, particularly this summer, with my eyes squinted shut and with my head tucked low in defense.  Yes, I’ve been on the boat.  But I have forgotten to look at the view, to breathe through the challenges.  Any little splash, and I grip His hand in panic, as if I don’t know there are already arms around my shoulders.

IMG_5743
One of several amazing Southeast Asian sunsets

After a week surrounded by younger leaders from around the world, in the Southeast Asian nation I once called home, with the Love that expels fear spoken and danced and sung and prayed into me, I had gained perspective.

But I wondered if it would last once I got back.

On the last night, after the session, my Arab friend and I met up with some other conference participants.  We sat across from a Mexican, who works among the physically poor, and a Canadian, who works with “poor people who happen to be affluent”– those leaders of business and government whose levels of power make their spiritual poverty harder to address.

They asked one expected question: “How do you like living in the Middle East?”  I had prepared for it.  I love it, but honestly it is really hard sometimes.

I had not prepared for the unexpectedly sincere follow-up: “What’s hard about it?”

In the seconds that followed three images swept through my mind: pulling up to an airport at night to release teammates, sitting in my empty house on the yellow couch and weeping, and the face of my Arab “younger brother,” who grasps my culture more than most but often still stereotypes my nation and my gender.  I managed an answer: Heavy transitioning in the community of internationals… being in a leadership position that I feel inadequate for… cultural struggles as a Westerner in the Arab world.  

The Mexican put her arms around me, encouraging me about what would happen for my soul this year.

Our exchanges of stories continued, as I told them of the woman on the red motorcycle who had once given me a ride in Southeast Asia, and the Canadian told of how being the son of Indian and Malaysian parents– and working with senior business folks in Saskatchewan– was strangely like being a blonde woman in the Middle East.  A light rain fell through the opening in the outdoor canopy, and we went on regardless of the time.

Toward the close of the night, the Canadian asked if he could go back to what I had said at the beginning.  “When you return… and you are in leadership…”  He paused for a second.

“Own it.”

I felt terribly ordinary.  I looked at the table and said something about knowing I was supposed to lead whether I was good at it or not.

“No!” he replied.  “Be good at it!  You’ve been mentored more than most people have been.  You don’t need to be perfect.  You’ve got this– you have what you need.”

He continued, with belief: “And– when I read the Story– it’s a story of joy and light.  Yes, there is grief, and there is darkness… but ultimately it’s a story not of darkness, but light.”

I lifted my head.  My eyes opened.

And they have remained so ever since I returned to my second story home in the Middle East.

Sound track for this month: The Art of Celebration, by Rend Collective.  Song Joy link is worth listening to now.

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

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.

Wildflowers Live Here Too

I was riding on the back of a motorcycle in Asia when I glimpsed it.  The “motorcycle taxi driver” had taken the long way home. Tired, I wished I had remembered to tell him about the shortcut back to my host family’s place.  I was staying with them for a month while researching their city, and it had been tough– beyond anything I had experienced in the previous year of living in the country.  But we were too far in to take a shortcut.

This route brought us to a different horizon, on the city’s edge.  Instead of smothering smog and sun-concealing concrete, I saw low houses and fields lit up by a glorious orange sky, that was fading to pink, then to dusky blues.  My breath was caught.  Now I wanted the ride to be as long as it could be.

A talented friend, Shawna Handke, gave me a piece of her artwork while I was still in New York (you can see more here at her website).  Wildflowers Live Here Too, she calls it.  I love the movement, the color of the flowers–IMG_1082 and the stark beauty of the solid buildings.

The stories this week include some large piles of concrete, hard edged, pretending they possess power to delete the sun from the sky and keep the ground without life.  I will tell you only one: from a woman who eagerly helped our group pack first-aid boxes to give to refugees.  She is also here in flight of that war.

She showed pictures of her two kids, her mother, her sister, all smiling.  Then she showed a picture of dust and rubble.  “That is all that is left of our home,” she told me.  The difficulties of displaced people go far beyond material provision– loneliness, lack of family network, loss, insecurity… Although now she has become part of community exercise, she said she would go for weeks with no one to talk to, when she first arrived here.

The Wildflowers picture looked bare on my wall, and I found no frame.  So one night, inspired by Brene Brown’s challenge in Daring Greatly that gratitude is a PRACTICE, I grabbed a post-it note, jotted one thing to be grateful for that day, and stuck it on the edge of the picture.  Same thing the next day.  Two days after that.  The frame is a work in progress– sunset-colored notes reflecting the flowers that, in Shawna’s art, tower over black-and-white buildings, and somehow seem far more permanent.

  • My friend’s 6-year-old daughter smiling and greeting me as “Khalto,” the Arabic word for “auntie.”
  • A quiet place outside to sit with my music, journal.
  • A trio of messages from dear friends, coming when I needed them.

A fistful of wildflowers.

And perhaps, I can be a friend– a wildflower to my new acquaintance– as she, with her dedication to helping other displaced people in this town, is a wildflower in my eyes.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cupboard’s Full

We sat at a table in the sunshine.

Sandwiches were for lunch, as we collaborated on a Bible study and plans for a weekly meeting with our international colleagues.  My friend suggested an age-old method that guides people in listening to God through a passage, asking Him what He’s saying for ourselves, and then asking what He’s saying we should do with it (a process called Lexio Divina.)

The brownies had just come out of the oven, at that meeting with our fellow workers.  We read, slowly, the ancient words of Isaiah 55: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! …Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”  We listened for words from God and prayed them into everyone who asked.

Sweet juice, two cups of it, sat on the table in front of my Arabic teacher and me.  “I have no friends,” she said; and an ever-so-slight tremor in her voice undercut the stoicism in her face.  The hunger for relationship remained.  The tension between resignation to the situation being faced, and resistance of the circumstances– this tension I would see on dozens of other faces in the next few weeks.

Cheaply packaged chocolate wafers were handed out to all the students– and to us volunteers– at the afterschool program for young refugee women.  A social worker from Syria asked me how I was doing since the last time we had met.  After the pleasantries had been properly conveyed, she made one more statement, leaving me with no Arabic or English reply: “My house in Syria was burned in a fire.  It is gone.”

I was eating a late-night bowl of Raisin Bran while we chatted on Skype.  She caught me up on discoveries and dreams developing in Jersey, and asked how things were for me in the Middle East.   Have you ever seen a little girl try to lift her father?  I asked.  She can’t move him a bit, no matter how determined she is, how hard she tugs.  But he swings her into the air….

That’s how I feel when I read Isaiah 55.  I can stay hungry and thirsty, regretting my deficits, and scraping to find something to serve to others.  I can spend my labor, without moving the circumstances around me; and instead of satisfaction, I’ll get dissatisfaction and disillusionment.

Or I can let my Father carry both the weight of the world and of this little child.  A physical need, a method of connecting as human beings, a requirement for growth and replenishing, a gift to make celebrations more fun– food and drink are rich metaphors.  And I hear Him inviting me to sit down, drink and eat, and trust He’s got covered both my and my neighbors’ hungry souls.

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. –Isaiah 55:2

P.S.– Currently on my “moving songs for this journey” list, and stay for the powerful lyrics: The Cupboard’s Full

One Art

His Alabama accent was thick.

I had met his wife shortly after I arrived, a Japanese woman who uses origami to connect with Syrian refugees. We had come together the week before to an after school program for young refugee women.  Waiting in the car with us, ready to help again this afternoon, was my friend’s precocious seven-year-old.  She spoke to her mom in Japanese and to me in English (with her dad reminding her that she should address me as “ma’am”).

We waited in the car, beside the locked door of the center.  Finally we called.  Times had changed– and we had missed the program.

The night before, I told a teammate how I have been feeling huge waves of grief sweep up, sometimes with long periods of stillness in between, and at other times a steady pounding.  She listened a long time, and did not attempt to solve things. “I think the measure of how good something is, is how much you mourn it,” she said.

Today she had me bring my guitar to our community center’s fitness room.  We met with three other women who are involved in the leadership of this fitness program, who were expecting to have a business meeting.  Instead, we sang; we proclaimed the love of God, the holiness of God, the miraculous healings and transformation, the power of God– over ourselves, the space, the women in our fitness program, and the rest of the city.

It was awesome.  So when my impatience stirred like a wind over calm seas, I was surprised.  “It’s getting late.  I need to go visit my Arab moms… or start studying…”  The tug to “do something” was strong.  A quiet voice told my soul, Peace! Be still.  We kept singing.

A favorite poem of mine declares, The art of losing isn’t hard to master.  The author, Elizabeth Bishop, advises,

Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. 

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

The poet records her losses, increasingly significant (I lost two cities, lovely ones, and vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent…).  She moves from acceptance to seeming to try to convince herself that it’s no “disaster” to have lost what, or whom, she lost (see full poem here: One Art.)

And as I live here in the Middle East, in addition to studying language and society and new roles, I am studying this art.  The art of letting today’s “wasted hour” at the closed community center, turn into the joyful acquaintance of my new seven-year-old-Alabaman-Japanese buddy.

The art of knowing that the best use of time is the pursuit of loving God and others.  And if it’s more about the process than about producing, that must just be part of the art.

And the art of calling the losses the irreplaceable things that they are, and staying soft-hearted and open-handed, embracing life fully, every day.

Taken over… and over…

There were twenty minutes of class time left, and one of my students stood up.  “Professor,” she said.  “Since you’re leaving soon, we all have something to say.”

I’ve been teaching this college class for four years– a freshman-level course that aims to develop students’ academic, study, and personal skills.  We get quite personal in this class, talking about vision for the future, struggles, disappointments, and inspiration.  Each student even chooses a song that pushes them to keep going when things get tough, and presents these “inspirational lyrics” to their classmates (This year’s selection included everything from Bob Marley to worship songs to “Hakuna Matata“.)  That day each of them told how being in our class impacted them, and by doing so, wrote words on my heart that will long resonate.

Several days after my students “took over” class, I was at a Christmas party with the music team for my local Sunday fellowship.  We had all gathered in one room.  I thought it was time for the “white elephant” gift exchange, but again, someone stood up.  “Since you’re leaving soon, we have something to say.”

They didn’t just say kind things.  My fellow team members gave insights and observations to help me see what had worked well, what I should keep doing, and what strengths God has given me, that I can take into a new context.    Their words were blessings to continue what God was doing here, in my Middle Eastern community.

Take over normal conversations with words of encouragement.  Take over normal events with conversations that build up each others’ souls.  Those conversations will lead to laughter, risky feedback, deeper understanding, and occasionally tears.  And those conversations help us give each other perspective, “second-story” views on life.  Thanks to the students, friends, and family who do this in my world.