Tag Archives: Grieving

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.

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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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The Fourth Option

Zacky barked at every entrance during my first two and a half years of living in this house.

I had thought he would get used to me, since I frequently came in and out of the front gate to get to my basement apartment, and spent hours with his owners upstairs.  Excitable and determined to guard the family, the tiny terrier never let familiarity be an excuse not to bark.IMG_5073

His bark woke the family up when an electrical fire had started in the living room, and was quickly filling the rest of the house with smoke.  His bark deterred stray cats and warned off desert dogs.  His bark let us know every time someone was entering that gate, and the family could tell by his tone whether it was a stranger or a friend.  Like a baby’s parents know the difference between a hunger cry and a hurt cry.

He was strangely subdued when we took him, and the rest of the family, to the airport.  That could have been the result of the meds that were given to him to keep him calm on the plane; his human counterparts had no such outside influence.  Emotionally spent, celebrated and packed and grieved beyond the place of breaking, the family stood in a long security line and hugged us one more short time.

And then we left.

Empty handed on the way to the parking lot, we were weighed down more heavily than we had been by the suitcases and carry-ons.  The family eventually managed to get all 17 bags, and their dog, through security, and then flew away.

When we returned to the house, it looked the same as it had an hour earlier.  But there was no bark when I entered the gate.

“I understand why they are afraid,” Najua told me.  “I would be afraid too if I were them.”

And then she added, “We are afraid here also.”

Najua had asked me about America’s current political state, and I had commented that both in my home country and in many other places around the world, politics right then seemed to be driven by fear.  As a minority woman in her own country, Najua understands what it feels like to be marginalized.

It’s part of what makes her empathetic, determined to help end stereotypes and racism, and committed to developing Young Leaders (she teaches for this program at our center).  But she faces those fears daily.

In the face of the false dichotomy that fear presents– fight or flight– sometimes a nefarious third option emerges, to entice those forced to endure sustained stress: hope less (ness).  Giving up.  Thinking, I cannot fight successfully against this, and I cannot run away from it.

So I will allow the bitterness of despair to come over me .

We talked about how the power of God is seen in the death and crucifixion that brought life and resurrection.  And asked, What if there are options other than putting up a wall, being a doormat, or finding an escape hatch?  Is this upside-down kingdom possible to apply to us and our world?  

Does love have something to do with it?

I sit in the empty house often in the weeks after Zacky and my housemates move back to the U.S.  I brought my belongings from the basement to the second story, but the sounds of their youngest on his pogo stick, of at least one of six family members rustling in the kitchen for food, of the music that someone was always playing, have ceased.  My own small sounds echo off of walls without their paintings.

Every night I go back to another area of town, where I am staying with an Aussie friend until August.  Then my new housemate will arrive, and a new season will begin as she and I live together in the second story house which once was occupied by four kids, two parents, and various four-legged creatures.

I converse with most of my teammates via Skype (as they are in America for the summer).  I study, plan for Young Leaders, read good books.  I eat unpronounceable things in the homes of local friends, laugh at stories in Arabic a little more often than I did before, attend the wedding of good friends.  When I invite the newlyweds to the second story for breakfast, there is no dog to alert me of their presence, so they text to say they are outside.  We eat my crepes and drink the coffee that my old housemates left behind.  When they leave, I lock the gate.

Before my housemates moved, they prayed for me.  May she not fear the loneliness.

And yet I fear more than isolation.  I fear closeness being withdrawn, due to choices or changing circumstances.  And changes are invariably looming on the horizon, like tides that pull back the water to leave the shore exposed, only to return with rock-splitting force time and time again.  In this sustained stress I reflect:  I cannot fight this.  I refuse flight.  

But there is a bitter taste of inevitability, of hopelessness, on my tongue.

Trying to wash away that bitter taste with familiar promises proved to be more difficult than I anticipated.  Until this one cut through: For I am convinced that… neither the present nor the future… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

An empty house, so it happens, provides a perfect atmosphere for singing.  I draw my guitar out of its case.  The sounds of the strings echo off of empty walls, creating acoustics that are a musician’s dream.  I lift my voice as loud as I like, knowing that no other ears, human or hound, can hear.

Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.*  Words I sung with my housemates the week before they left.  Words I sung with my small group the night before I moved to the Middle East.

Despair, fight, and flight are options that cloud the vision so that it is hard to see one’s own hand in front of one’s face.  But even then, His hand remains on our shoulders.

Constant through the trial and the change.*

And I am starting to taste a fourth option.  Love.  To the God who knows my hungry cries and my hurt cries, from the God who fills this empty home with His songs.

*Lyrics of One Thing Remains, by Bethel Music

 

 

Last Question

Sixty girls sat on the floor in front of me, wrapping up their conversations from snack break, nudging each other.  They were settling in for one final hour– for this semester– in the Young Leaders program.

They will take three months off for summer.  But they know that before every significant break, and after every meaningful activity, comes one thing: a debriefing.

Usually this means that we direct questions to them, draw out their reflections, and delineate how the lessons inside this mentoring program should apply to life outside.  Some friends had inspired me to turn this around… So this time, we invited them to ask us about anything they wanted to know.

Teachers handed out slips of paper and pencils.  Students scribbled words in English or Arabic, whichever they felt more comfortable with, and passed their notes forward.  And we read their anonymous wonderings:

Why do girls fall in love so often at this age?

Why is the Young Leaders Program free?

Why do individuals like to say words that hurt other people?

Why don’t people care about what I feel?

How do I overcome the fear that controls me?

Why is everyone more beautiful than me?

 What existed before God created the universe?

How did Obama become president when there are so many racists?

Every week, a goodbye party takes place.

Departures and transitions often feature heavily in the months of May and June, but this year extraordinarily so.  Some are short-term goodbyes to long-term friends, heading to the States just for the summer.  A few are long-term goodbyes to several-month friends.  These volunteered for a season with our programs, but now must return to participate in grad programs, or weddings, or next steps.  They also must learn to give skinny answers to the fat question, “How was your time out there?” in order to squeeze it into a listener’s attention span.

Frequently featured at these goodbye parties are the questions: “What is something about _____ that you appreciate?” and  “What’s a funny story about ______?”

For one volunteer, Stephanie, several of us came up with the same answer.  Stephanie had gone with the Young Leaders girls to a bird observatory, when a two-hour nature walk among ducks and eagles and gulls had concluded with a surprise visit from a television crew.

They wanted to film the students and some interviews, but I protested– we would need pre-arranged permission from our organization.  They argued; our guide, eager for the promotion of his observatory, was beginning to lose face in front of both his visitors and the TV crew.  We would dishonor him by a refusal.  So we agreed to let them interview only adults, and they requested that both Arabs and Americans participate.

Smiling, southern-born Stephanie had been attentive to the girls all morning, her Arabic advanced enough for good questions and greetings, but not for the guide’s description of the birds we had seen or their habits.  She agreed to the interview, in order to help us out.

Stepping in front of the camera, several teachers and students watching her, and Ramsey at her side to translate, she colored a little.  “I’ve never done an interview,” she said in her Arkansas accent.

The interviewer asked how she had liked the bird observatory, and if she had visited before.  And then the simple question: “What kinds of birds did you see?”

Stephanie turned slightly pinker.  The names had all been given in Arabic.  She knew she had recognized many types of birds, but could recall nothing except the fact that people were staring at her and there was a camera and the whole thing was being translated. The question was asked a second time.

Maybe Ramsey can make this sound specific, she hoped, and smiled sweetly.  “Oh, we saw all kinds of birds.  Big birds and small birds, black birds and white birds…” she drawled. “Yellow birds and red birds, really pretty birds.  Lots of nice birds.”

Ramsey smothered his laughter long enough to translate her words– exactly.  Stephanie’s description of the birds may not have made the local news, but it went down at the center as a legend, retold with the echo of Stephanie’s amiable laughter in our ears, and her distinctive Southern accent describing the birds and protesting afterwards, “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say!”

When recently I took a trip to the US, I was met by friends and family, and supervisors and strangers, with the same question, one that made me pause. Sometimes it is easier to articulate answers to Middle Eastern teenagers about discrimination, personal value, the origin of the universe, and love-sick hearts, than to answer the well-intentioned inquiry: “How are you?”

  • In under three weeks, my housemates will leave permanently, a long-term goodbye from long-term friends.
  • In a little more than three weeks, the center will close for a season due to the approach of Ramadan, the fasting month, and other local and foreign coworkers will travel.
  • In two and a half weeks, I will move into a friend’s apartment for the summer, and later I’ll move again, to the second story of this home, with a different housemate.

Ask a new volunteer to describe the habits of sparrowhawks and storks in Arabic, and you’ll know what my answer to “How are you?” is like.

I am looking forward to breathing fresher air above, but I will miss my basement-turned-garden-level apartment.

I am holding on to hope, but I am letting go of loved people, routines, and places.

It is good, and it is hard.

Simplistic answers which satisfy some.  But they don’t fit the situation any more than the Dead Sea fits into a water bottle.

We asked the girls to give one another answers.

Hands shot up around the room.  “Comparing yourself with others isn’t worthwhile.”  “Do things even when you are afraid.”  “Martin Luther King, Jr. and others helped change peoples’ thinking.”

These aren’t answers so much as starting places; they will move forward and backward, believing and disbelieving, adding questions to questions and finding that the empty spaces of silence can be as significant as speech… or more valuable.

Basements have been comfortable starting places for me– I lived in one for three and a half years in New York, then two and a half more in the Middle East.  Perhaps the only way to summarize my answer to the last question is this:

I am about to begin a new story.

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.

Losing My Voice

“I lost my voice,” she said.  “But I can still listen.”

Neither of us knew how to keep the conversation one-sided.  So despite intentions to give her voice a break, our Skype chat soon reverted to the usual back-and-forth.  My dear friend Jenn updated me about a few of the people we both love in New York, and new opportunities on her horizon; I processed some things that have been happening here in the Middle East.

When it was time for our next call, however, I received a text message instead.  “Had to work late.  Feeling terrible– still have no voice.  I need to rest.”

Over the past few weeks, I haven’t been able to find my voice, either.   

It’s been the fullest month since I came to the Middle East, as far as work and new experiences go.  I shook hands with the city commissioner; brought our current Young Leaders students on their first “college visit” (at the university where I teach); just about burst with pride watching some of them do magic tricks and tell stories at an orphanage; and received multiple lessons in the art of dance.

I also helped take 50 teenaged boys on a day-long field trip; met over 300 local families, whose teenagers are interviewing for our UPCOMING Young Leaders program; made horrible mistakes in Arabic, and learned from them; and celebrated the Resurrection two weeks in a row (as this area celebrated a week after friends and family in the US).

Mostly, things have gone well.  Mostly, the experiences have been a lot of fun.  Mostly, the challenges have served to enhance the victories (for example, an accidental hike down a tougher path than we planned, on the boys’ field trip; or an unexpected rush of people crowding the center, to register for the new cohort of Young Leaders).

Mostly, I come home and think, I need to rest.  

When I try to tell the stories, I am caught between my hope about work, life, and students… and my fears that hope may be deferred, my grief over promises from God that are yet to be fulfilled.  I deeply feel the need for a second story perspective, but I can’t figure out how to take hold of it.

Stuck in uncertainty over whether I should celebrate like it is Resurrection Day, or embrace the grieving of Good Friday, I am silent.  The words catch in my throat.

Picture the Emmaus pathway: Two men walking from Jerusalem, striving to understand what happened in the prior three days.  When a Stranger asked what they were talking about, their response:

“They stood still, their faces downcast.” (Luke 24:17)

After a moment of silent struggle with his question, they threw down an inquiry of their own.  “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what happened?”  The Stranger chose to walk along with them.  Their story came out:

Their hope in the one called Jesus.

Their grief over his crucifixion.

Their confusion over visions of angels and empty graves.

Grief overflows even into their grammar; they relegate hope to the past tense.  “… we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (v. 21)

Another dear friend– this one local– recently sat on my couch to update me on a situation in her life.  “What can I do now?” she said.  “My hope is gone.”  She picked up a glass cup from the table, and asked me what the English word would be, were it to be broken into thousands of pieces.

Shattered.

She covered her eyes with one hand.  I reached out for the other, inwardly reaching for the right things to say– reassuring phrases about her future, her personhood, her reason for confidence– but not finding any voice.  After a few moments, she broke the silence.

“Can you give me a…”

I placed the tissues in her lap, striving to be helpful even before she could finish talking.  “Thank you,” she answered.  “But what I really need is a hug.”

Those men from the road to Emmaus had seen hope broken into 10,000 pieces.  Then He was walking with them, but their faces were downcast, their minds wrestled with harsh realities, their hope was moved to the past tense– because they did not recognize that Presence beside them.

They were walking like it was still Good Friday, but didn’t know that it was Sunday, come to stay. Hope would now be present, continuous.

Losing my voice, unable to see past uncertainties, I need something more than articulate answers.

I need presence.

And an embrace.

 

Vulnerable

I sat awkwardly on the couch in the living room.  My friend Sammi’s mother and sister had kissed my cheeks in greeting, and then withdrawn to the kitchen, oddly quiet.  They drew the curtain closed behind them.

I was not invited to follow.

Alone, I looked at the green balloons strewn across the floor.  The family had intended to surprise me with a birthday party, but things had fallen apart, to a certain extent due to me not getting it and having earlier plans.  I knew they were frustrated.  I wondered if that was the reason for Sammi’s absence, or for the silence.

Breathing out slowly, I reminded myself that misunderstandings are part of life– especially living in a different culture.  And that I really love this family.  I hoped they knew that.

Earlier this week I moved out of my basement, to a second-story bedroom… which I am borrowing from my housemates’ children.  Someone else is borrowing my space for several weeks, and the kids are sharing rooms.   As I packed up to move, I read a post from my friends Andrew & Becca’s “Radical Hospitality” series on this blog, about the vulnerability that exists within relationships.

As I read their words on open hands and homes and hearts, and prepared to move to the second floor, I once again felt the vulnerability of receiving.  Am I thankful enough?  Present enough?  Helpful, honest, flexible, strong, funny enough?

My friends would tell me to relax.  But the fact is, at some point, we’ll note each others’ uneven edges and wish the other was… smoother.  Or maybe more edgy.  I know that when I see others’ frailties, I want to love well.  The question is, when my own vulnerability is exposed– when I make cultural mistakes, when I am angry, when I am not flexible or present or strong or courageous enough– will I still receive the love that is offered me?

In the Poetry class this week, each student had to give a metaphor for themselves.  “I am a seed,” one said.  “I have a world inside that no one can see.  I go deep, and I will change.”  Another said she was a smile, something so simple but with “deep feeling,” meaning the most to people in their hardest times.  A third was iron.  “I carry many responsibilities at home and with family and with schoolwork.  I must be strong.”

Students, via their metaphors, demonstrated higher degrees of honesty than people tend to use with everyday statements.  In a few words, they expressed being incompletely understood, trying to support others in difficulty, and experiencing the weight of responsibilities… as well as what they hoped for themselves: change, joyfulness, strength.

Something in our class shifted as students exposed pieces of their souls.  And then, together, we read “If.”

This poem tells the reader to be uncomplaining, uncompromising, and unstoppable by setbacks… or by successes.  My students embraced the challenge not to let circumstances transform them.  But, vulnerably, they questioned the advice to guard against any emotion.  If “neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,” and if you respond the same way to triumph or disaster, Rudyard Kipling says “you’ll be a Man, my son!”

But I wonder, in the absence of celebration or of grief, would we still be human?

Thirty was a rich year.  Rich with friendships, love, experiences, loss, travel, grieving, celebrating… I think that if 31 is going to be what I dream, I will need an even greater degree of openness/vulnerability in it.  But strength in vulnerability comes from knowing, at the core of who I am, that I am approved by the One who matters most.

And as I told my students, I am a tree.  My roots are deep.  If days are dry or storms shake my branches, I am still deeply connected to the Source of all I need.

Back at Sammi’s house, the silence was interrupted by her mom coming into the room and turning off the lights.  Then her sister held back the curtain.  Sammi walked in with a smile, carrying a brightly-lit, beautifully decorated birthday cake.

The quietness was preparation. And I was surprised.

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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?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.