Tag Archives: Fear

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.

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One Word (a matter of light and death)

I held the box in my hands, waiting.

It gave me a moment to observe the givers.  One grinning, rubbing his hands– a gleeful, boyish gesture of impatience.  One watching with eyes shining, and a quiet whisper: “She’s going to love this.”  One sitting very close, her hands poised to assist and her presence, as always, a steadying one.

Their delight and anticipation on another’s behalf– that is worth more than anything they could have put inside this box, I thought.  Finally, I released their treasure from its plum-colored case.  It caught the light and shimmered.

IMG_4061My friend’s fingers fastened the fragile chain around my neck.  “We knew we had to choose this green stone for you,” she said.  “Because of your word for the coming year.”

It was the night before I left New York, in order to move to a different language and culture: that of the Arab world.  A few days earlier, I had been with most of the same friends on New Year’s Eve.  We spoke of our hopes for the coming year, set out the challenges, and then summed up our focus– what we were each determined to pursue in 2014– in a single word.  Mine was Life.

I had no idea how much dying would be required.

When I boarded the plane to the Middle East, I didn’t just carry on a guitar, a green pendant, and a good old L.L.Bean bag. I carried with me memories and anticipation.  But these had expanded with unchecked assumptions and fears: things that would stick out, in the year that followed, in the strangest places.

Change cuts deeply.  In those twelve months, it felt like a hammer and chisel were being applied. They broke off some pieces that I didn’t know existed, and others that I had been convinced were essential.

When I thought the work was complete and my appearance was again smooth, some new layer or other facet would be exposed.  I was left, for all to see, ragged.  The pressure of perfection built as I tried to adhere to mixed messages, regarding various aspects of life:

  • Dress attractivelythey don’t like frumpy here.  But not too attractively-you don’t want to look like you are trying to be sexy.
  • Work hardyou’ve got to learn Arabic and do your part as a member of your new “family”/company.  But don’t work too hard heed the cautionary tales of depression and burnout, from friends… and those no longer here.
  • Don’t expect too much— things may be slow, you have to be in it for the long haul.  But don’t expect too little— or you’ll get it. Too little.
  • Keep in touchyou need family and friends back home.  But open up hereyou must learn to depend on local friends/coworkers.
  • Be independent-– there are endless stories of “needy” personalities.  But don’t be too independent— don’t act like you know what you are doing before you really do.

But I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what I’m doing.  I am sometimes needy; sometimes overly communicating, sometimes overly guarded; sometimes focused on surviving, sometimes dreaming steps ahead; sometimes lazy, sometimes extended too far; sometimes sticking out, sometimes caught at a grocery store with a mis-matched skirt hastily thrown over my exercise clothes.  Complete with sneakers.  Frumpy AND sweaty.

What’s being put to death is security based on perfection.  Performance.  People.  And pleasing others.  A work that is in progress, but oh, it is positive.

And it is painful.

My story is only one part of the challenge.  The second stories cut deeper.  Sweet ladies whose dreams, bodies, and spirits are assaulted by discrimination and human depravity.  Syrian friends sent far from home, wondering which relatives are alive, wishing for escape.  Treasured family members and friends facing death, separation, and sickness from all around the world– their questions are unanswerable.

One morning I woke up to this world of work in progress, and I had in mind the manger.  A cloth-cloaked baby surrounded with straw.  Appearance is weak, but all power is His.  Lowly, but “by highest heaven adored.”  He is startling and He is strong.

And He is life.  An explosion of all prior expectations.

I’m on the sidelines.  I realize, in that picture, that we can cease attempting to perform perfectly, to resolve every question.  Because while chiseling has to happen for the stone to gleam, the brilliance never came from inside the rock.

Our tenderly cut stones catch the Light.  And we shimmer.

Burning Question

I walked with eyes forward. Step quickly. Attempt to look purposeful.

I had absolutely no idea where I was going.

For over a year, I had been living in Southeast Asia. My group had asked me to move to another city for a month, and do a research project on the area for a new community development team. I had resisted. I had seven excellent reasons why me doing such a research journey by myself was a terrible idea.

But the ugly, true name of the resistance, in this case– resistance to the unknown, to the uncomfortable– was fear.

Somehow I ended up going anyway…. and my fears proved justifiable. My plane was delayed due to heavy winds. My host family couldn’t take me in until five days after I arrived. Foreign politics (in 2007) felt personal to that region’s occupants, and occasionally some people, frustrated with the West’s involvement, would throw angry words toward me as I passed.

On a less serious note, my first conversation with my expat contact was also bumpy– she chose the gentle phrase I would never go out in that to let me know that my capris and short-sleeved shirt were NOT up to the modesty standards of this part of the country.

She also let me know that she wasn’t impressed by my presence in the city. If your company wanted to know something about this area, why not just ask me? What are you going to learn in a month that I don’t know from living here?

What, indeed? I sat gaping at her kitchen table, feeling like an imposition even as she agreed to let me crash with her until my host family returned. She took me to see where she worked, and then I was on my own. Might be exaggerating, but only slightly, to say I was the only blonde in that city of 600,000. And I walked, vaguely thinking I should go shopping for some long sleeves, trying to set my face like flint while internally answering the burning question: Why am I here?

That question returned to me forcefully this week, when I moved in with an Arab host family. Although this “homestay” is just half a month, and in the same city as supportive coworkers… discomfort and the unknown have visited me like distant relatives, the kind who show up without invitation and make themselves at home in the living room, fluffing couch pillows and saying they’ll sleep there just fine, without stopping to ask if they are welcome.

My host family has a beautiful home, and currently one bedroom is being reconstructed, at unpredictable hours.  So I may come home late at night to find them demolishing a wall, or wake to the sound of buzz saws and hammers.   I can’t seem to get a feel for the rhythm of family life, either.  This means long stretches of silence, times when I step out to meet a friend and inadvertently miss a family event, nights when the good conversations don’t begin until late, or don’t begin… Each day’s plans, like the construction noise, are unpredictable, somewhat jarring, and– at least in theory– building something.

Still, I find myself wondering, Am I getting enough language? Am I learning what I need to learn culturally? Is this worth the price, giving up my schedule? Because if unpredictability, for me, is sandpaper, then my desire to plan and achieve must have some rough edges. The friction between the two shapes me, but sometimes I just feel the burn. Why am I here?

As I walked along that road alone in Southeast Asia, I was crying out, “God, I know You are before me, behind me, above me, beneath me.  Right now I need to know You are beside me, because I feel so far off…”

And I was remembering the answer to the question: Why I came, is that You told me to be here.

Sitting on a red motorcycle, wearing exercise gear and a white head scarf, balancing a young child behind her, a woman was watching me, curious.  “Selamat pagi,” I said as I walked by, greeting her in her language.

She looked shocked.  “You speak my language?  What’s your name?  Why are you here?”  A few minutes later, she was inviting me to hop on the red motorcycle.

Although I don’t recommend this in all circumstances, I said yes.

But that is a second story.

 

–Song with the Story: You Have Called Me Higher, a simple, solid one from All Sons and Daughters

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.

Reference Point. Or…The Dinosaur in the Hallway.

There is a dinosaur in the university.10342460_10203321969786695_2019027340608404385_n

Silver-spiked, short-armed, long-clawed. A protruding forked tongue. Eyes that are surprisingly mellow, belying his sharp fangs and reaching fingers.

I went to the university yesterday with my sister. I had asked her to come with me to meet some of the other teachers and my students, while I quickly handed in my grades for the semester. But trying to function in a language/university system that are still somewhat strange to me, my “quickly” translated into an hour and a half.

When we finally left the teachers’ office, I pointed at it. “See that?” I said to my sister. Her response: “Why?”

“I don’t know why there’s a dinosaur in the hallway. But let’s take a selfie.”

We took a picture and hurried in the other direction, before anyone could ask us what we were doing. As we left the university, I told her that the dinosaur had one other purpose. “Every hall here looks the same,” I said. “Nothing is hanging on the walls; the dinosaur tells me I’m going in the right direction.”

A point of reference keeps me steady in uncertain days. My dear friend, Zaina, approached me at the community center this past Sunday, after our fitness class. “I’m leaving in one week,” she said, the tears in her eyes belying the calm tone of her voice. “My husband has decided we need to go sooner than I thought.” Zaina and her family came because of conflict in their home country, and though she is afraid of going back, her loyalty to her husband is stronger than her fear.

Zaina’s friendship has been a point of reference for me, letting me know I am heading in the right direction. We ask each other questions and talk about dreams for the future; she lets me practice the stories I learn in Arabic. Her English fluency allows deeper conversations than I can have with many others yet, and she has become one of my closest friends.

When I said goodbye to Zaina, I gave her a book that has been a point of reference for me. “These are poems, mostly written by King David– he experienced war and loss. But he found steadiness in his faith.” I showed her the first one, and she read it aloud, in Arabic. “He is like a tree, planted by streams of water…”

Zaina’s plans changed; she will be here for a few more weeks. In the meantime, she is collecting notes from the people who marked her life here, words she can reference when this season ends. She gave me a note, as well. “I noticed the foreigner, but I didn’t know when I first laid eyes on you,” she wrote, “that you would be a friend who stays with me wherever I go.”

Some points of reference develop through time. Some through investment and effort. And some are given to us, as surprisingly and swiftly as a dinosaur in the hallway.

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.

Smells & Save the Children

So today’s entry is coming from the second story, literally, of the house where I live.  Because the basement–where I call home— is flooded.

The rancid odor encroached on this afternoon’s study session; I smelled before I saw.  My language teacher phrased the situation quite nicely: “… you have a problem with your house.”  What to do? CALL FOR HELP.  While not a common thing, my housemates tell me, it isn’t the first time.  So they, too, called for help.

We hope the plumber comes soon.

And in the meantime I sit on their porch, looking back the interruptions of the past several days.  Unusual rain interrupting this city’s rhythms earlier in the week.  Mosquitoes interrupting sleep for a few of my nights.  A national celebration interrupting normally scheduled classes at the university (a celebration which I learned about two hours before my class was supposed to begin).  A recent video released by Save the Children UK, illuminating in wrenching ways how a child’s life can be quickly interrupted, uprooted, and confused by war.

Videos like that cause movement, movement in my soul.  Shaking, my soul sits before God and asks how I can trust Him, feel safe, or preach a gospel of life and salvation.  These devastating interruptions don’t just come to “bad people,” or to “others.”  They come.  They leave life irreversibly altered.  They surprise me.

Psalm 46:

He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth…He says, “Be still and know that I am God….” The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

My soul is also moved to action– but while some are good steps I do want to make, none is easily going to change all things.  I know it won’t be through my own plans that the trembling ceases in me, or the struggle ceases for others.

So all I know is, beyond shaking, and before and after doing, my strongest movement is toward stillness.  And from a place of stillness, I can call for help.  “Great are You, O God my God; You won’t stay silent against the violence…”  (another song from Tim Coons— The Lord’s Prayer). 

Will you call for help, too?

My housemates’ young sons seize the opportunity, afforded to them by my interruption, and keep me company on the porch.  One informs me of his plan to “earn seventy million dollars” teaching Arabic, and then to “buy a jet pack.”  His six-year-old brother asks me why ants like sugar, while munching cookies and insisting that he has no personal appreciation for the stuff.  And I wait for the plumber more patiently.

And to those for whom the wait is not so gentle, those whose interruption is life-altering, know, your story is not done.  There is hope.

There is a second story.

Afraid of…?

Today someone asked again.  “What are you afraid of most?”

Perhaps I should put the answer on this blog’s “Questions and Responses” tab, as it frequently comes up.  But I always pause– not because I’m not feeling anything, but because I am not sure “fear” is the word to describe it.

Yesterday a young woman said to me, “Don’t be afraid.”  She is from China, and was the only believer in Jesus in her family.  After a long season of prayer, some quietly courageous acts on her part, and God’s work in their hearts, her mother and sister chose to follow… and eventually her father as well.  My friend knew I am heading overseas in a few weeks, and after telling the story of her family, she told me to be courageous.  To go and to not hold back.

I think I’m “grieving” more than fearful.  I have wonderful friends and family, people close to my heart, with whom I enjoy walking through life here.  What I fear is that I’ll say the goodbyes, go to the Middle East, but it won’t make an impact on people there.  Would I be content going even if I don’t see change/transformation right away, or even for awhile?

I will take my friend from China’s advice.  I will not hold back, I will go, and I will leave results in the hands of the one who made me and my friends-to-be in the Middle East.  He is the one who transforms, and He is the one who calms fears.  Thankfully, He is also present in the sorrow.  But that’s a second story.