Tag Archives: hospitality

Song Inside the Sounds of Breaking Down

This is the story I think she told me.

My husband went every first day of the week.  He tried to get met to go with him, but I didn’t want to.  

Our families are both traditionally from a believing background, but I didn’t want anything to do with it.  Traveling speakers would come from Egypt and other places, and they would visit our home.  I didn’t want them to talk to me.  They would try and I would say, No, no.  They were trying to explain complicated things.  

Then there was trouble.  My children… She paused.  Her face reflected a grief that was deeper than her lips could explain.   

So I went to the church early, and I sat alone.  I went to pray, and to sing songs to God.   And as I praised… She stopped again, wiping her tears.  Sorry

As I praised, sitting by myself, He spoke to me.  

I kept singing more and more songs to God.  Her left palm was pointing up, her right palm placed over her heart.  Eyes looking through the ceiling.

It’s a beautiful thing to sing praise.

She looked down at the table, collecting herself with quiet dignity, and chuckling at her own unexpected display of emotion.  I murmured appreciation for it and wished I had understood more.  And we resumed our lesson, an elder Arab woman with deep faith– and with a son and daughter who are strong in spirit and body– and a young American who had come to visit her city for a brief Arabic intensive course, and who would leave with far more than she anticipated.

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It’s different, the town where I am planted for this week.

A few months ago, upon realizing that not only were my housemates leaving permanently but also most of my remaining coworkers were visiting Stateside at the beginning of the summer, my company director told me to consider clearing out of the country.  No way we’re letting you stay in that big house alone, during Ramadan, with no one to know if you are safe or otherwise.

I negotiated to be allowed live with my Aussie friend in the same city for the summer, after which my coworkers will return, and with them my future housemate (for my home-to-be on the second story).

My Aussie friend also needed to go abroad for a week in the summer, so I decided to take the opportunity to visit friends in other parts of the country, and to do some Arabic study.  Most of the people with whom I imagined myself staying, however, are also traveling.  A wedding.  A funeral.  A surgery.  A trip to Europe to visit family.  A several week respite from the intense climate, both of the desert and of the fasting month of Ramadan…

But the hospitality of our host country, thankfully, seems to have rubbed off on the international community.  A family I had met only once before agreed to provide a place to stay and study in a small northern town, where I could find a professional teacher.

This town has a younger foreign community, many of them college students also studying Arabic on their summer breaks.  Not every day do I write from a coffee shop where the majority of patrons speak English (most people here fast sunup to sundown for Ramadan, so this is one of the few restaurants that are open).  It feels foreign that this cafe is full of mixed tables of men and women, none of whom are smoking.

This town also has a more local gathering on Sundays.  When I went, I tried to join in the songs, decoding the right-to-left Arabic letters across the screen as fast as I could.  Then the slide would shift to a new set of puzzling peaks and swirls that must have meant something, at least to the earnest souls articulating the words in front of me.

In between songs I jotted a few words down, to ask my teacher.

The first one, she told me the next day, simply translated: “the One who is worshiped.”  The next, she said, means “the One who gave me life.”

Then she pointed to the last word.  “Presence.  So in the song, you say, ‘The God who is present.'”

“That’s beautiful,” I replied.

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“Why did he do that?” Sammi asked me.  I was checking the news, after our language lesson and an evening meal with her family, breaking their fast.

The main story was of a man who had gone into a club in the U.S. and murdered 49 people.

I told her I did not know why.  Sammi and I had been studying how to read her language, which is very different than speaking it.  We had earlier practiced from an Arabic translation of a Beverly Cleary Ramona story, but after we discussed the news, we opened another book, the Psalms.  The phrases sometimes feel hard to understand, even when I know the meaning in my heart:

“…let the afflicted hear and rejoice.”

“Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.”

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (34:2, 8, 18)

She read another chapter in her own tongue, swiftly.  I sat silently and tasted the familiar words in my mind.  Beside quiet waters.  He restores my soul.  He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  I will dwell in His house… “So beautiful,” she said, and marked the page so that she could come back to those words whenever she needed to be reminded.

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This afternoon, I sat an empty bedroom.  It was the third I had borrowed in three weeks.  My mind was full, perspective elusive.  The meaning of some circumstances seems far more difficult to grasp than that of swiftly moving Arabic slides. So I turned to the next song on my playlist.

I heard the words:

I will not be moved
I’ll hold on to you

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Soundtrack- Song Inside the Sounds of Breaking Down

 

You grow beauty in my ashes
Sunlight in my sorrow
A garland for depression
You paint portraits on my mourning
Of hope and glory
With oil and with joy
There is a hope that will not disappoint you, no
Will not let you down, will not let you down

You, who are my hope
I will hold on to
You, who are my hope
I will hold on to

Hold On, John Mark McMillan

An ancient story of praise has recently struck me with its beauty: a woman with an alabaster jar, a brokenness that scandalized with the expense, hair in her face and love in the deep places, and kisses for the feet of the only One who really saw and really understood her.  Who loved her: far before the scent of perfume filled the room… as it lingered… and long after it left.

My teacher named her daughter Praise.  She and others reminded me this week that it doesn’t come only from hearts that are strong in confident hope, celebrating healed wounds and answered questions, surrounded with faith-filled fellow worshippers.

As a wise man told me this spring, worship happens whenever we turn from other distractions and lift up our eyes.

 

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The Letter

A letter from my grandfather.  The thin sheets have survived six moves in eight years. When I lived in Southeast Asia, he sent them to me, along with a recipe for homemade bread.

I remember squinting at his scratchy cursive.  It took a long time to understand.

I served Grandpa’s bread on a floor mat, to some neighbors who had come over to celebrate Thanksgiving with me, that first year overseas.  The smell transported me from that island in Asia to a hilltop in Maine.  For years as I was growing up, on visits to Grandpa’s, the sweet, warm aroma of bread had greeted my family before he did.

We would stretch our legs after the two-hour drive up north, then enter through the side door of his farmhouse.  Grandpa didn’t always hear us coming in– especially later in his life– but the smell said we were welcome, he had prepared something.  We were loved.

Last week, the teenagers from the Young Leaders’ program didn’t hear me come in.  They were occupied taping photos of the pilot onto black and white balloons, preparing dozens of tiny candles for a vigil, and wrapping words around their grief until it spun into poetry.  They did not know his name while he was alive.

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But the shocking news of his death had made him an international headline, and even after media moved on, it made them feel like they lost a brother.  So they searched for ways to express their loss, their loyalty, and their love.

Just days afterward, we heard of 21 more killed.  Words seem cracked and dry.

I don’t know where things will go.  In the next five months, over half of my coworkers will move.  I will begin directing the Young Leaders program in the spring, right when fresh faces are arriving.  The steady rhythm I just learned will give way to a different song.  New colleagues will join at the community center.

The relative stability of our region in the days ahead…the relational dynamics in our shifting team… the reality of how much (or little) Arabic I understand will understand in a given conversation…

All of these are unknown.  And all of these will change.

Frequently.

Recently someone suggested picturing faithfulness as a kind of water.  For someone who enjoys metaphors, strange as they may sound, I didn’t get this at first.  But then, I pictured:

A barren rock face.  There’s a small pool of liquid in the middle, but no sign of beauty, none of strength.  Below the surface, unseen, water seeps deeply into the ground.  There it meets just the right combination of empty spaces, pressure, and intense heat.   Sometimes at predictable intervals, other times unexpectedly, the water bursts forward.  A geyser.

It’s not a bubbly, flowing stream, how I used to see faithfulness.  It is mostly quiet and hidden from sight, under an unyielding surface.  It is fiery.  The pressure and empty space work together for something positive.  At just the right moment, grace and power erupt.

And the transformation from hard ground to geyser only takes place along the earth’s faults.  In broken places.

My understanding has often proven too limited to trust, my attempts to predict the future usually result in frustration… But if I still my soul I hear this reminder: I’ve made a way for you here.  I’ve prepared something– just wait.  

I love you. 

The letter closed with the verses that, in his words, “had that meant so much to your grandmother and I.”

My grandpa passed away two years ago, but over the past two days I have heard his voice in my memory, just like I heard it when I first read that letter.  He is reciting these words:  Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

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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?

On Waiting for the Story’s Ending

Sleep refused to come.  It’s possible that it was because of the evening visit to wish my friends Eid Mubarak, a blessed holiday, as they finished 30 days of Ramadan fasting.  A short visit, with “simple” hospitality– which meant only two cups of coffee, a cup of tea, a glass of soda, and sugary holiday cookies known as ma’amoul.

I shifted pillows, counted out deep inhales and exhales, listened to the 4:30 a.m. call to prayer sound from the neighborhood mosque.

And then I wondered if my restlessness was because of you.  You, the friend from home, whose deep struggle I heard about just before bed.  You, the family I recently met, striving to make life work with newly adopted daughters, separated from them by heart-sickening delays.  You, Palestine… and you, Israel.  You, Iraq and you, Syria.

You, ISIS.  You, politicians.  You, Hamas.  You, reporters and re-posters and you, you who haven’t watched or heard or read the news in recent weeks.

Me, sharing these words to you, and running the risk of adding noise without insight.  I don’t know where your situation is going, but I’m going to risk it for this reason: I think I know a place to start.

A friend of mine wrote a book called “The Power of Mentoring.”  He retells the story of the prophet Elijah, tracing his history backwards.  On Mt. Carmel, fire fell and a multitude saw God’s power demonstrated.  Before that, however, Elijah camped by a brook alone during a desolate time, with birds delivering him meals twice each day.  Next he invited one woman– a widow about to starve– to join him in trusting God for daily bread, and later for life to be restored to her dead child.  He went to Carmel AFTER faith had grown in those quiet places.

I visited a fifty-person fellowship earlier in the month.  This anonymous congregation, ten years ago, had noticed local needs and decided to live out His love.  They asked.  They visited.  They brought aid.  When war came close to them, they were on one of the main escape routes through which people fled suffering.  The fellowship kept asking, visiting… loving.  Today, this small congregation has served thousands of displaced, and local, families.

They receive grants from organizations as varied as Samaritan’s Purse and the European Union.  They are consulted by governments and other-faith groups, because they were loving the region before the eyes of the world were on them.

They did not, however, start by reading an article called, “Ten Steps for Responding to a Refugee” or “Three Things to Say to the Suffering.”

They started by loving those in front of them.  In the upheavals of this time, when I think of you and can’t sleep– broken people, beloved people– I pray that love abounds for you.  I pray it rescues you from the destructiveness and darkness that plague us, and ushers you into light.

And I pray today that we are saved from the allure of delay, and the inoculation that comes from information laced with disengagement.

Love the people who are in front of you.  The ones close are often hardest, and acknowledgment may not be present.  Love strongly anyway.  Love daily, without waiting for a crisis to prompt your action.  Love widely, keep your heart soft when you watch the news or receive the updates.  I don’t know where it will go from there… but let’s begin.

Rest comes with surrender.  I fell asleep as dawn broke, accepting the fact that I am unwilling to wait until I know its end before I begin the story.

 

Guest Post: Breaking Normal

10309652_10101980061293181_2687677473573907955_nThis blog is committed to getting a “fresh perspective,” so I asked my friend to write about his recent experience in the Middle East.  Sean is a good friend, teacher, lover of coffee, thinker, husband to Jenn, and a recent camel enthusiast.

I should be writing this guest blog post with a very bad attitude right now. It would be forgiven. It would be normal and expected, under the circumstances. Because those circumstances are so annoying.

You see, I was on my way to a coffee shop this morning to get some work done, but mostly to play chess on my iPhone, when my rear wheel began thumping and shaking and all sorts of other -ings that one is afraid of when one has no mechanical expertise whatsoever. So, annoyed, I called AAA, and annoyed, I gave the service rep my information, and annoyed, I pulled out my phone to kill the 15 annoying minutes it took for the tow-truck driver to show up.

After the annoying three minute drive to the repair shop I had to wait another 10 annoying minutes in line before ordering up two new tires (I ordered an extra back tire to pre-empt any possible annoyance come wintertime).

Now I’m writing this post from an air-conditioned coffee shop while I wait for my chicken sandwich and still feel…privileged. Convenience is my normal.

One month ago I was driving along a highway through the desert in the Middle East, and I wondered what would happen if I popped a tire or if the engine overheated. With only pavement and sand on my horizon, without exits or rest stops for miles upon miles, I became nervous. Then I wondered what the normal response for an annoying situation in the desert was.

Then I wondered if there is even such a thing as annoying, or inconvenient, or mildly frustrating in the Middle East desert. Because after 11 days between two countries, the collective psyche I picked up from the people fluctuated between that of welcoming, hospitable, friendly, and aggressive, crisis, “get it done.”

It seemed like the world was only made to play in, until talk shifted to a local refugee crisis.

It seemed like all people knew how to do was talk and laugh and loiter, until you heard what life was like as a marginalized, displaced person.

It seemed like everyone was so proud that there home was the birthplace of so much ancient history, until you find out that so many people are not allowed to return to their actual homes.

So why would there be categories for trivial issues that can so readily alter the mood of an average Western person, when they so pale in comparison to the depths of love and longing that are experienced on a daily basis?

Maybe these categories do exist where I visited, and I was simply culturally blind to them while adjusting to normal: military officers walking the beat; women wearing layers of covering over their bodies, yet not failing to wholeheartedly express themselves through laughter and smiles and all the emotions communicated through the eyes; witnessing police checkpoints and interrogations from a distance while getting the privileged, trusted American treatment.

I was shocked at how quickly strange became normal. The only true difference is that I had to become aware and make adjustments in the Middle East. By the third or fourth sighting, I hardly noticed the military presence. By the third or fourth conversation, fully-covered women posed no ideological difficulty for me.

(Funny what an encounter with humanity will do to ideology, isn’t it?)

Back here, I don’t need to adjust to a flat tire —> tow-truck —> repair shop —> air-conditioned coffee shop on a laptop experience, all within two and a half hours, because over here it’s just annoying. It’s a lack of convenience turned into the very definition of convenience, with barely an appreciation for it.

So I’m trying to train my mind to relive the trek across the desert, the interactions with expressive eyes, the historic conflicts that are occurring on historic land. Because at this point it does not much matter what constitutes normal. It’s the blinding familiarity with it that can keep us from a full life.

Most good stories don’t contain much normal; we crave fantasy, suspense, adventure. Even so, our favorite stories can become dangerously familiar and routine. As can our daily experienced stories.

And that’s why we ask for a Second Story — to break us out of our normal.

So read on.