Tag Archives: lyrics

Christmas Songs

Hazy and muddled, specific and definite.  My memories patch together like an heirloom quilt in reverse.  They remain clear and crisp in the places that are held the most frequently.  They fade in the places that are not often touched.

Perhaps the vagueness of this one memory comes from its being annually repeated, in some form, every Christmas that we are all together.  My family, in the living room, singing Christmas carols.

But one year was different— when, I don’t remember, but I and all of my siblings still shared an address; the nieces and nephews and novels to which they would give birth were yet unknown; and my fingers remembered how to coax a song from the yellowed, out-of-tune piano in the hallway.

My brother still played guitar often.  My sister could brush up her flute.  The youngest had just started learning the violin.

This nameless Christmas saw four siblings rallied over a song, and its two audience members— Mom and Dad— awed by the harmony, as we performed our version of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

— 

They have no idea what I am saying.  

I’m at an end-of-the-year celebration for the dozen or so ladies who work at our community center, to make jewelry and household items from recycled materials.

Their small business has gone through big changes in the past 12 months.  In the midst of all of it, they have rallied to fill challenging bulk sales orders, started doing fitness and English classes together a couple of times a week, and held “family” gatherings every few weeks to increase their sense of harmony and identity.  Meals cooked with love in the kitchen of the community center.  A road trip to a historical site and the spot with the best bakery for a particular dessert.  A piñata— looking like a pinterest fail, made by me, but still a hit— at a “Mexican Night.”

IMG_8768For the end-of-year event, they have made the national dish, the one that is synonymous in this region with celebration.  They pose with the flowers and bonus envelopes that they receive from their director, like graduates getting a certificate.  Pictures and piles of food seem to be the basic party requirements.

IMG_8767Then someone tells them I know Christmas carols.  I sing O Come All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World.  I think, They have no idea what I’m saying, but release the words over them, to the rhythm of my guitar: “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found…”  “Come and behold Him… O come, let us adore Him.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

This time we found someone to sing in Arabic.  She has yet to be accepted on Arabs Got Talent, but she would have all our votes; we ask her to sing for the Christmas party of our community center’s wellness program.  A combination of American and Arab teachers lead those classes, and usually have more people wanting to attend than they can enroll.  Three times a week the women gather for aerobics, basic yoga, and bellydancing— or some combination of these— along with a post-workout community and coffee time in the center’s upstairs sitting room.

On the morning of the party, we fill the top floor of a restaurant, 50 local women and a handful of ajanib, foreigners.  “May you be well every year,” they say as they enter, kissing my cheeks.  It’s the general blessing for every holiday, but several add “Merry Christmas” with a smile, as if to communicate that their knowing this phrase honors my language and my faith— though they are not their own.

IMG_8794Our local singer takes her place in the front; I stand next to her, guitar in hand.  I try to follow the unfamiliar cadence of Arabic through renditions of Jingle Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.  Then she sings Silent Night in her language, and stretches the microphone to me so I can sing it in mine. I look at a room full of women wearing headscarves, at the mosque outside the giant picture windows, at the mountains beyond that.

I sing, “All is calm, all is bright.”

My heart says: O come, O come, Emmanuel.

I am a substitute for the center’s adult English classes.  But several of the students have been very receptive, and several of my friends are teachers, so I decide to attend their graduation.

Certain semesters of English seem to foster a higher degree of camaraderie; this group was particularly close.  After graduation, when most of the selfies had been taken and students were starting to return to their homes, a young woman takes me and another female teacher by our hands.  “We need you upstairs,” she says.  She hurries us past the second floor, with its classrooms, to the third-floor gym.

Music pours from the speakers.  A group of female students stands in a circle, hips and feet and fingers twirling in Arabic-style dance.  We laugh and jump in, to the approval of the students, who twine their fingers with ours.

We hand them sequin-covered hip scarves from a basket.  The lead dancer straps a yellow one around herself, mauve around me, blue around the other foreign teacher.  But none of us can make the imitation gold coins jingle like she does. This woman’s face is unfamiliar to me; later I learn that I know her, but did not recognize her because I usually see her in mixed-gender situations, when she is wearing a niqab— a head covering that only shows her eyes.

We dance until it is time for the building to close.  The women descend to the first floor, we kiss their cheeks, and they disperse into dark streets.  A young Arab woman, who is visiting the center for the first time, tells me, “It is like a family.”  Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Sixty of the Young Leaders boys are gathered in the gym, our last session of this youth mentoring program for the semester.  How are you different than when you started this program in May?  What did you enjoy?  What did you learn? I ask.

Their answers make my heart swell.  I tell them, though, that none of it matters.  Nothing of what you learned this semester matters.  Unless you use it when you are not at the center. Then it matters.  

And I believe that it does.

We descend to the first floor.  Someone puts candles in a big pan of cheesy, sweet kanafeh, to honor one teacher’s birthday.  They begin to sing; first, “Happy Birthday” in English, but then the song somehow changes to a clapping, table drumming, tremendously loud chanting of songs probably written before their grandfathers were boys.  Some of them don’t stop, even when the usual time for them to go home arrives.  They sing with one voice.

I sit behind the counter and watch.  I remember the awkward silence before their first class.  Their nervous interviews when they came to apply for the program.  The fights and insults that teachers had to intervene in, some just weeks before.  The looks on the faces that have changed.  The looks on the faces that haven’t.

And I keep a song close in my heart.  Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

The words stay crisp and clear, remembered often, in the dark and in the light.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Has come to thee…

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Locked In

My hands were scrubbing a sink-full of plates and plastic bowls.  My eyes were filling with a water of their own.  Both a challenging situation in class, and a short night of sleep, were brimming over into the dishpan.

I wanted to be told that everything would be okay.  And to get a hug.

Setting the dishes on the drying rack, I thought of others whose stories of challenge had come my way recently.  Omar takes a class at our community center.  He works long days but seems to smile unceasingly, despite his concern for his mother and siblings, still in a neighboring country at war.  One day I asked him to draw a map of his neighborhood, part of a class project on learning how to give directions.  “Draw a map?” he said, that smile of his ever-present.  “If I draw a map of my neighborhood, I will have to draw dead bodies.”

I had exchanged texts with my friend Zaina earlier in the week, asking her about life in her new home.  Conflict displaced Zaina’s family more than a year ago; she and her husband, and their two children, have moved at least six times in the six months since I met them.  “What you mean?  I have one home, in Syria.  Anything outside of Syria is a house.”

A quiet voice woke me early in the morning, after a gentle knock on the door of my current second-story bedroom.  I am helping to care for my four youngest housemates while their parents are away, seeing them off to school in the morning– or, in this case, keeping them home.  The voice whispered, “My tummy really hurts.”

She sat next to me on the couch later that morning, drawing, and I graded Poetry class homework.  “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – that perches in the soul,” we had read.  One student defined perches as: an edible freshwater fish, providing me with a moment’s laughter, before I entrusted my sick young charge to another friend and left for class.

The week of late nights and early mornings was starting to take its toll, and for some reason I felt irritability stretching icy fingers around my soul as I got in the car.  Shook it off temporarily by listening to some good music.  But when I arrived to the predictable welcome outside the university– dozens of young guys who hang on the university steps between classes, and gape at me as I enter– the irritability flooded back.  Don’t pay attention, I said to myself.  This happens all the time to women here.  Don’t let it bother you.

During class a few other young men lingered outside the door of my classroom, gawking through the window and talking loudly with each other.  When, finally, even my students told me they were distracted by them, I had my (one) male student go out and tell them to leave.  Then it was back to the love poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lord ByronDon’t let it bother you, I repeated, forcing focus from myself, for the students.

But my frustrations spilled over in the kitchen, when my hands were full and my soul had time and space for questions.  “Lord, I know you see, but will you act?”  To defend me.  To heal sickness in a young one.  To soothe the sorrows of my Syrian friend.  Disconnected situations, fused by the element of brokenness.

When darkness means death in our neighborhoods, distance from our homes, disease in our bodies, and discrimination in our hallways– we need salvation.

A soft song was playing in the background, as I struggled with God and the sink:

I will lock eyes with the One who’s ransomed me

The One who gave me joy for mourning

I will lock eyes with the One who’s chosen me

The One who set my feet to dancing

We Dance, from Bethel Music

 When I lose perspective in the shadows, He’s still there.  He is calling me to lock eyes with Him, even when I can’t see what will happen…  Because there is that thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.

Hope.

For a second story.

 

 

 

 

Fragile Phrases

I had a great idea for my class’s end of semester project… I thought.

My students would write “inspirational quotations.”  After studying quotes from famous authors and public speakers all semester, they would challenge us with their individual ideas.  They would read and explain them in front of the class.

Similar projects I had undertaken previously, at a university in New York; there my students explained songs that gave them hope in dark situations.  Those were powerful times, charged with energy.  We would taste that here… I thought.

My English students’ original quotations, however, struck me as not terribly inspirational.  Same, familiar words.  The old themes: friendship, dreams, love, loyalty.  But they are flat– no vitality– no depth.

…I thought.

Afterward, my “un-inspired quotation experiment” was something I could laugh off, putting it to the side while I focused on grasping my own new language. My study of Arabic, like Frankenstein’s monster, is many pieces pulled together and coming to life:

  • a smattering of dialects
  • a few different textbooks
  • a half-dozen great suggestions from more experienced expatriates
  • and a really funny YouTube sitcom in Arabic that I don’t actually understand.

One of the liveliest parts of my language study right now is learning to tell stories.  My teacher, Ani, records the words, and I listen regularly.  I feel their texture– the ridges and rough patches, the curls of grace and the crisps of the corners– and I try to shape the same sounds from somewhere inside me.

When I succeed… I start the story.  I’ve been learning to talk about Jesus healing two blind men.  In Arabic, “Have mercy on us!” is Irhamna.  To me, this word tastes like mercy.  It feels like longing, like imploring, declaring that He will hear you– He has heard.

Meditating seems to overlap with the study of language.  I’ve experienced that phrase more deeply in Arabic than I did in more than 20 years of knowing it in English.  I had lost my savoring of stories, urged forward by my fluency as a native English speaker.

Now, slowed down by my fragile Arabic, I swallow sensitively.  I let every word sink deep.  And although I never was a foodie, I sure love hanging out with those who are.  They don’t count it loss to spend hours preparing something, and they delight in discovering and sharing good cuisine.

I’m learning to be like them.  The taste of the phrase “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” is so sweet that I tell friends.  The texture of the miracle, when Jesus brings the daughter of a broken religious man back from death– is amazing.  I savor it well when I share it.  My friends, patiently, help me fill in the words that I don’t yet know.

Those “inspirational” words from my students that felt flat to me…. maybe they had deeper flavor, a richer taste, that I did not realize at first.  We are both still searching for words.  But that search itself helps to give us something to say.

 

 

Smells & Save the Children

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

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

We hope the plumber comes soon.

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

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

Psalm 46:

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

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

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

Will you call for help, too?

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

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

There is a second story.

The Cupboard’s Full

We sat at a table in the sunshine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything is new

“Vision: 1) the faculty or state of being able to see.  2) the ability to think or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.” (source: Google)

Just before I left the U.S., this word took root in my soul. I didn’t fully know why, but since I arrived here one month ago, it has continued to grow.  Hungry for vision, hungry to help others get it, hungry for supernatural revelation from God…

Thursday I sat in a circle of young women from this area.  They had come to practice their English.  We talked about dreams; at first, they listed jobs they wanted (doctor, professor).  Then we moved into discussing what kinds of people we want to be, no matter what our occupations.

Their answers were powerful and insightful.  They want to help people learn new things, to be compassionate to the poor, to bring laughter to those they meet.  One of the last said she planned to change the world.  The girl sitting next to her interrupted: “You can’t change the whole world!”

“No,” she replied.  She was searching for the words, gesturing with her hands.  “But, if I change it for one person, and they change it for one person…”

Since coming to the Middle East, I’ve been praying– and asking others to pray– for vision.  I tend to think in specific terms: I want vision for the Syrian refugee project, or for my English students, or for my Arab moms at the center.  Yesterday, my prayer shifted, because in order to live fully in the present that I’ve been given, I hunger after promise for the future.

I asked God for a broad vision.  What does He want for this place, for these people, for me and for my life?  Speaking through music seems to be God’s thing for me; this song played as I threw up my questions:

My eyes have seen the glory

Of the coming Lord

And it looks like streets restored after the vicious war.

It looks like lonely souls being alone no more.

My God, You rule, and everything is new

The world is changed, never the same

The light has come bearing Your name

The dawn that’s breaking in the East

Shines upon the least of these

Soon, everything is new

— Tim Coons, “Everything is New”

I want to think and plan for the future with wisdom and imagination, as reads that definition.  I want to see God’s perspective, to see people and this place through His eyes. And I want the same thing for you :).

May there be a still small voice that whispers in your ear God’s vision for your community, for your area, for you.  You see brokenness around you now, but God, when He moves, makes everything new– lonely souls alone no more, streets restored. May it be so… Amen.

Taken over… and over…

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

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

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

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

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