Tag Archives: love

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

 

 

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The Most Dazzling

She inhaled deeply from a bright red hookah.  She had bought it with money she earned by teaching Arabic to foreigners, and brought it on this day to enjoy on my front patio, as she told me about her recent hard conversations with her fiancé’s family.  Tone staying cheerful, she switched to English for the serious line.

“I may never get married now.”

We were soaking in the warm sunlight of a January afternoon.  I offered her brownies and coffee for comfort, which she swallowed along with the mint-flavored smoke.  Mugs printed with hearts and the phrase “World’s Best Lover” sat in front of us.  She had given them to me last year, thinking that they translated to something like “Person I Love Most in the World.” 

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I will never tell her differently.

She gave one final sentence in English: “But you live happy– look at you, too– and you’re not married.”

Restlessness had seized me earlier that morning.  It was my day off, probably the last full day off I would get in the upcoming three weeks.  But just as sleep is most elusive when most sought, the harder I tried to focus on renewing soul and body, the more restless I became.

I attempted to be still, but my mind bounced from topic to topic like a Facebook newsfeed.

  • Remembering a late-night Skype call I had made the night before, and reviewing the groceries I needed to purchase that day.
  • Thinking about details for the center’s English program registration on Sunday, and planning for the Young Leaders’ day camps the week after.
  • Trying to get a plot twist in a movie I watched, and getting ready to console the emotional friend coming for coffee that afternoon.

Minutes piled into an hour, and still I sat on my couch, unproductive but unrested.  I crabbily thought, I want You to speak– without much hope for an answer– and turned on music, a last-ditch effort at refocusing my soul before I needed to move on to groceries, and visitors, and another week.  The first two lines said:

God loves His family

Like a man loves His wife.  (from Ben Pasley, Chair and Microphone 1)

And suddenly I had a memory of a conference in Southeast Asia, nine years ago, and a woman named Sharon.  She invited everyone to join her at 5:00 a.m. for a time of prayer.  My roommate, a short-term volunteer, woke up at 4:45 a.m. saying that God had spoken to her through a dream, drawing her to go to this meeting.

I had unintentionally woken up at 4:42 a.m., with a mosquito persistently attacking my right ear.

We were the only ones there with Sharon.  But what she prayed, I may always remember.  I was 22, and content with being single at the time– though I had already had the privilege of being in weddings for half a dozen friends.  Sharon asked God to give me joy in being loved by Him, like the joy of someone who had just gotten engaged.

Overflowing delight and irresistible desire to share it.  Combined confidence in knowing that I am beloved, and boldness from the fact that nothing can shake it.  Nothing can separate me from this love.

Wondering, nine years later, as I sat on the couch, is this kind of connection strong even on ordinary days– when the errands pile up, when my focus is wanting, when I am… well… crabby?

The night before, I talked on Skype with a good friend.  She nuzzled her newborn, told me what it was like to be a mother of three, and said she did not have any big updates.  I marveled; taking responsibility for three small lives, in addition to her own and her husband’s, sounded big to me.  I talked of “ordinariness”– travel plans, language study, and sweet soul talks in Arabic.  She talked of “ordinariness”– house plans, feeding schedules, and the sweetness of speaking life to her neighbors.

We are both deep in radically different streams of ordinary.  But they flow regularly into the same river, requiring the same things of us: open hearts, surrender, forgiveness, discipline in little matters, love, a sense of humor, courage, and reliance on One greater than ourselves.

I got off the couch, as the song finished.  Invited God’s presence into the grocery store errand.  Invited Him to the table with me and my hookah-smoking friend, asking Him to be present as we processed her probable divorce (a broken engagement is equivalent to divorce here, and stigmatizing socially– especially for the woman).

I was still slightly restless and unfocused.  But the blessing, given almost a decade ago on the other side of the world, was moving to a deeper level.  It was starting to look less like an engagement… and more like ordinary days, with three kids.  And a mortgage.  And a steady fire where the heart sits.

My fingers were wrapped around the mug with its proclamation, “World’s Best Lover.”  I looked at my friend.  She released a puff of smoke and switched back to Arabic to ask, “What?”

“You know, right?” I answered.  “You know the reason I can have a full life, even without being married yet?”  She smiles.  She knows this.

In my heart I pray Sharon’s blessing again, with the updates:

May you be someone for whom the “ordinariness”

of life is infused with

contentment, confidence,

and boldness and joy.  

May these come from knowing you

are unconditionally, steadfastly, and 

passionately

loved.  

I don’t always feel this.  But that is why there is a second story.

Love is the most dazzling when we are the least worthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Promise to Break

The air came like heat waves from an oven.  Only no chocolate chip cookies were baking… just me.

I was directly in front of my fan.

It was my first night home after a month of travel outside of this country, and my goal was to save air conditioning until I had finished unpacking.  I’ve got to get used to only running it when I am sleeping, I told myself, remembering my housemates’ significant bill last summer.  Sticky with sweat, I pulled a bag of individually-packaged peppermint patties from my suitcase.  They had melted and then re-congealed into a brick of mint filling, chocolate, and silver wrapping.

On first moving into a stuffy basement apartment in a Middle Eastern desert, I made a vow: I will not talk about heat.  I kept that vow for only three months.  Now, on my first day back, my problem was not in talking about the heat; my problem was in not being able to think of anything else.

But I had a new promise to keep: Survive without additional air conditioning.  

The next morning, I ate breakfast in my bedroom, also known as my “slightly-cooler-than-kitchen room.”  With lights off.  With curtains drawn.  With the fan pointed on me.  And for about 15 minutes, I was okay… but the apartment was baking as the sun moved higher.  Now I just have to find a solution for the rest of the day.

I made plans to visit Sammi (her apartment is on the second floor– better air flow), and to meet another friend later for coffee (the coffee shop has air conditioning).

In between, I stayed in front of the fan.  If I moved– even for five minutes– the fan moved with me.  I’ve only got to do this for another three months, I told myself.  Three months of trying to stay cool.

Of closing curtains to reduce the light.

Of hiding from my home whenever possible, as it is temporarily transmogrified into the belly of a dragon.

I moved slowly all day, attempting to be not hot… and doing laundry upstairs.  On my last visit to the second story, one of my housemates stopped me. Since I’d been away so much the expense would already be less, he explained, and since they preferred for me to live through the summer: “We want you to run your air conditioning at all times.”

The statement liberated me from the promise I had made to myself.  I laughed in relief as I felt the first gusts of cool air.

And then I made dinner.  And thought through the next couple of days.  And showered.  All tasks that had seemed impossible earlier in my day.

Finding a way to survive the heat had become primary… but my promise to do so without any help had been smothering other important concerns.

Breaking a promise can feel sooooo good.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time I’ve pursued the wrong promises.  Often vows of the type I am referencing are made in response to something, but stay below the surface of our awareness, influencing our lives yet trying to escape acknowledgement.

But at times those promises can knock us over, like sharks with a surfer earlier this week, attempting to drag us down and smother higher pursuits.

We can either punch them in the back, or be eaten alive by them.  Couple of my “promises” that have attacked of late:

“I will not make people angry.”

“I will not hurt people.”

Impossible as these vows are, knowingly or unknowingly I have spent much of my life trying to keep them.

Failures push me to just try harder.  And my fervent attempts to control others’ responses have led to– that’s right– anger and hurt.  Other times, they have led to avoidance of things that needed to be talked about.

But love is stifled by an attempt to control another’s emotions.  And love languishes in an atmosphere of avoidance.

Close friends sat with me on a porch at a Pennsylvania farmhouse last month, listening to me wrestle with these thoughts and promises.  There were more: “It’s not okay to feel alone,” was one.  When I ran dry of words, they were silent with me, watching the fireflies circle the cornfields until my eyes dried, also.  Sometimes love looks like speech, and sometimes it looks like silence.

Sometimes we need to hear that it is okay to run A.C. at all times.

Sometimes, my Pennsylvania friends told me, breaking promises is the most faithful course of action.

——

What about you?  What promises do you want to break?

Love Poem

Blue eyeliner framed her brown eyes, complimenting the vivid blue scarf that outlined her face.  The brightness of those colors and the youthfulness of her features were striking, especially in contrast with the seriousness of her expression, and the dullness of her tone, as she answered me.

I had told her and her friend that we would be doing a unit on “Love Poetry” at the university.  Would they tell me their thoughts on romance, men, love?  What are you looking for in a husband?  

What do you think men are looking for in a wife?

The first question drew dreamy looks, produced smile lines at the corners of their eyes; these vanished rapidly when they came to the second question.  “They want someone beautiful… dependent… to listen to them…”

Dependent?  I asked.

In a low, flat voice, she said, “They don’t want us to be strong.”

A couple of days ago I was in the middle of teaching one of our center’s English classes, when I was interrupted by surprising news from home.  A moment later, I was announcing to twenty Arab women and men something that most of our friends in the US hadn’t heard yet: my sister’s baby had arrived early.  It was time to celebrate.

They sang “Happy Birthday” in Arabic and English.  One went and bought sweets for everyone, and a cake, with the inscription “Happy Birthday Eveln.”  Not exactly how her parents spell it, but he tried.IMG_3839

I felt the joy with my students, passed the congratulations of the community center on to my sister, and went home and cried because I was not with them physically.

Then I texted Zaina.  She hears others’ stories differently since she lost her job, her homeland, and her security in a neighboring war.  She listened to my good news and my grief, offering words of blessing for the baby, congratulations to me as an auntie, and consolation in the challenge of being far apart.  Her capacity for compassion is strong within her sorrow.

On my niece’s birthday (although I didn’t know it was that at the time), my university class had analyzed Sylvia Plath’s poem Metaphors.  They tried to follow each clue:

I’m a riddle in nine syllables, 

An elephant, a ponderous house,

A melon strolling on two tendrils.

“Pregnancy!” they guessed, correctly.  The poem finishes with some less whimsical metaphors:

…I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.

I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,

Boarded the train there’s no getting off. 

The speaker seems to have lost her own identity; she has no meaning except as a “means” for the new.  What gives a person identity?  I asked.  What makes your life valuable? 

Hanna, a top student (and also the mother of three teenagers), answered, “Maybe her society told her that her worth was only in having children.  Maybe she didn’t like it, and that’s why she wrote this poem.”

Society often tells us what would make us valuable– whether it’s having kids, possessing lots of stuff, getting some prestigious education… I said.  But it doesn’t always give the right answers.  

What do YOU think?

“I think it is not about what we produce,” said Hanna, “It’s not about producing kids, or about work, or about money.  It’s about doing our purpose.  When God made Adam and…” She faltered for the English name; her holy book has a similar story of creation to what I know.  “Eve.  He gave them… both… a purpose.

Hanna knew that worth is defined by something more profound than opinions or circumstances.

Men– women– society– all sing loudly about what gives us value. Their melodies can be alluring, promising acceptance in exchange for acquiescence to their demands.  These demands can contradict, but sometimes, amidst all the dissonance, we can’t hear any other voice.

But there is an anthem, begun before creation, and its rhythm is restoration.  It’s a ballad of weak ones strengthened, lost ones found, distant ones brought close, lonely ones placed in families, grieving ones granted joy.  A carol of deeper identity than whom we can please, how we can protect ourselves from hurt, or what we can produce.

This is the song I want my students, and my new niece– and you– to hear.  The song I resonate with in new ways, every season.   A love poem set to music.

Listen.

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.

 

Testing Our Courage

Exam grading at the University:

My friend has a tall hair, and a green eye. 

Talking with my students about why this sentence is incorrect led me to a deeper understanding of how difficult English can be.  Last week, we went over the most frequent wrong answers, to this and other questions on their midterm.

The students want so badly to be perfect. I try to affirm them for taking risks with the language, for trying different things when still unsure of their use of words.  (Like the student who, when asked about her interests during the spoken exam, grinned and said, “I love evil.”  I broke in at that point: “Excuse me– could you repeat that?”  She replied, still grinning: “Oh yes.  I love eevviil. Eeevviiil Tower– Paris– right?”)

But my students are still gripped more by what they missed than by what they accomplished.

As is our practice each time we meet, we reviewed quotations.  The students have learned a new quote every week, and have practiced explaining the thought behind each of them, quotes like:

  • Experience is a hard teacher, because she gives the test first and the lesson afterward. –Vernon Law
  • It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving. –Mother Teresa
  • Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. — Helen Keller

Last week I found out, minutes before my class was to begin, that there would be a university-wide seminar on “violence against women.”  I reminded my students that some of our conversations about speaking up– or our quotes– might relate.  We went to the auditorium together.

Injustice and inequality were portrayed in the stories of four women, in a well-made film by Half the Sky; the power of educational opportunities for women was emphasized.  When mediator opened the floor for comments, a young man stood.  His words prompted the student on my right to murmur disagreement, shaking her head.

“What did he say?” I asked.  Among other things, she translated, he said that women could avoid being hurt by simply staying at home.

Fire in my stomach.  The mediator responded; another student, one on my left, reached for the microphone.  She trembled, but barely.  “If a man and a woman make the same mistake,” she said, “the woman is treated differently.  This is not fair.  I have had this happen to me.”

By the end of the discussion, the young man had gently backpedaled on his statement.  Several female students had told their experiences, perspectives, and passion for change to be made.  They had not waited to make their every word perfect.  They had no knowledge of how he would respond.  But they spoke anyway– and the world spins a little more justly today, because of their words.

May we have their courage in the small things, not just the seemingly big moments.  And may our tastes of justice create hunger to know the One who made us, to live in shalom with with Him, the self, the creation, and each other.

 

 

 

Which of us is teaching?

The look was something between concentration and panic.  The first day I saw her in my English course, one among forty women, I would remember her look.

She was petite, shorter than the other university freshmen in the course, with wide eyes and a childlike face emerging from a white headscarf.  In my experience teaching and leading a group in worship, I have seen many expressions: nervous, eager, frustrated, engaged, vacant, hoping… But this look was different.  It did not change through the whole first lecture.  “Tell me your name, and one thing about yourself,” I asked, and 37 young women answered.

Three could not find words for anything other than names.  When it was her turn, she said shortly, “Nani,” and let the other question fall.

I kept this in mind and prepared a language assessment for the students.  If they don’t speak ANY English, they should not be in this class, I thought.  Nani’s look intensified during the second class, as she joined her classmates in answering questions and filling in blanks.

“Kevin has a headache.  He should take some _________.”  Most students filled that blank with some form of the word “medicine.”  Two wrote that Kevin should take some “coffee.”  Geniuses.

Three students struggled to answer even the question, “How are you doing?”  Nani was one of these.  She desperately tried to drink in everything, but was unable to, and therefore had the look of someone who was drowning in a downpour of English.

Third class: a new student named Mohammad, one of the few men in the English department, walked in–saw that the whole class was female– and walked out again.  His loss, I thought.   One of the three struggling students had dropped also, but it wasn’t Nani.

I separated the students into small groups, and asked them to describe a picture from their textbooks.  Nani struggled to come up with the English words, her look of concentration creating furrows in her forehead.  So when each group picked one person to report their discussion to the class, I was surprised to see Nani stand up.

She held her notes close to her face and read as quickly as she could, clipped words delivered in a childlike voice.  I held back applause as I saw this young, brave woman diving into the difficult language, boldly attempting to form its strange sounds.   As she stood, she rose above the knowledge of her peers, and showed something far more fundamental for success in college, in life…

After class she lingered.  “Nani,” I got her attention.  “You did a great job reading today.  Well done.”  Her brow un-furrowed, the fearfulness left those wide eyes, and a generous smile took over her face.

…On another day, we worked alongside local ladies from the fitness program at the community center,  organizing clothes and household goods to give to refugees.  As we were working, one of my Arab mommas, who works in an income-generating business also at the center, came up to me.

She handed me something, and I wondered if it was for the refugees.  “No, for you!” she smiled, and I opened the black plastic bag to find a purse and hand-knit slippers.  Her generosity leaves me speechless.  I learn what love and courage look like when I see them in the quiet choices of these women.