Tag Archives: Middle East

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.

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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.

 

 

With

With.  A word that turns something into a connection:

She’s with me.  They’re with the family.  He’s with the band. 

In Mark 14, Jesus is at a table, and a woman comes up behind him, breaks a jar of perfume, and covers him with a scent. Imagine breathing in that rich smell; this perfume was not an everyday-use variety.  It’s price went deeper than an annual income.

It would have been heavy in that room, saturating the senses of everyone at the table.  The gift was overwhelming.

And the attention was riveted on this woman.  “Why the waste?” I can imagine them slowly shaking their heads, frowns growing deeper.  “Many poor people could have been helped with the money she squandered.”

At the retreat I attended two weeks ago, we were asked to put ourselves into this story. I could hear the irreparable cracking open of the alabaster jar.  When it was broken, there was no rationing that could be done; no socially harmless, secreted gift.  Just lavishness.

The ones accusing her of doing more harm than good spoke with voices familiar to me (I ask similar questions, particularly of my own life).  And the consolation baffled me as it may have confused them.  “You can help the poor anytime.  They’re always with you.  She did what she could.”

I sat in a coffee shop a few days ago, phone in hand, checking a facebook account for news on an event happening in my NY home congregation.  They were seeking His presence, listening to good teachers, and celebrating it through posting videos and quotes.  I had come to the coffeeshop for my own time with God, but my heart was focusing on not being with them.  Homesickness ebbs and flows oddly enough.

A song reminded me of the one thing that motivated me to arrive there: His presence.  The same thing that motivated my friends to gather at a downtown brick structure in NY, had me sitting in a coffee shop in the Middle East, with strangers’ not-so-subtle glances and a mediocre drink and a reason to sit and to wait.  Impractical in the eyes of outsiders, invaluable to the one whose presence I am seeking.

And somehow alongside the bitter dish of being without, I am tasting the sweet wine of with.  Not a pairing I would have chosen.  God with us– in the longing, and the fulfillment.  In the community, and the quiet.

It’s that with that I bring with me, to the homes of local friends, to the community center with my Arab mommas, to the university classroom, to the basement space that is my home here.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

A Key and an Address

Unwinding the housekeys from my keyring, three days ago, I traveled back in my mind to the time before I received them.  It was more than three and a half years ago, and I was about to finish grad school.  I did not know the answer to the question, “What is your post-graduate address?”  When the question was settled, and the little silver key was placed in my hands, I celebrated.

“What’ll your overseas address be?”  That question has given me pause the past few days.  I unwound the housekey for my New York apartment before I had the replacement in my hands, before I knew what my address would be.  I left behind a few other keys– from the fellowship where I led worship, from the car that carried me.  Dear friends prayed, laughed, ate, sang, packed, cried, celebrated with me.  And I waved goodbye from the far side of airport security.

Only 20 hours later, I was here in the Middle East, at the door of my new apartment.  A new silver key was in my hand.  While I’m excited to be settling in well so far, I stepped into a world that is bringing surprises in unexpected places– even in my own home.  Three small examples of familiar things that took on a new dimension for me since my arrival last night:

  • Songs– As I was unpacking today, and listening to Brian and Katie Torwalt’s worship song “I’m a Lover of Your Presence“, the call to prayer resonated loudly underneath it from a nearby mosque.
  • Rain– This city does not get it more than a couple of times a year, but it came today.  It left a damp, dusty smell, and prompted the kids upstairs to run excitedly outside to catch a glimpse of it.
  • Recycling– It turns out this city does not do it at all!!  EXCEPT at the community center’s project that turns peoples’ trash into amazing jewelry (while also employing local people.  E-mail me if you want to find out how to get involved).

P.S.  I still don’t know my address.

Mugs and a new place

unnamedEvery one of them has its story.  A personalized, purple-y mug crafted by a co-worker.  A solid blue with the logo of some engineering firm, passed on by a friend who knew I’d like it because it was “just the right shape.”  Today I sip one brought years ago from a friend in Germany, a mug marked with the words Onhe Kaffee ist alles doof — without coffee, everything is dumb.

Company in my apartment receive an invitation to drink a warm mug.  If I told the stories of each one, it would take more than one visit, so I mostly keep them to myself.  My guests sit and sip, while I drink in recollections of old friends and other places.  Connection between the past and present takes place as new memories are made over old mugs.

Earlier in the year, a few friends who know me well gave me a gift to take with me to the Middle East: a teapot and two mugs.  They said they felt the connections I had shared with them and others over hot drinks.  They wanted to send me with part of themselves, and also bless the connections and conversations yet to come.

As I pack this week, deciding what to keep and what to leave behind is nowhere near as difficult as wondering what parts of my life I can take with me, and what I will need to let go.  But the unseen loved ones, as well as the untold stories, carry influence.  Like the mugs that hold memories from old days, are savored in the present, and anticipate new use– I carry influence from each story, each place, and each connection, with me both now and into my new life.

Everyone who has every shared a warm mug of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate with me: You have influenced me.  You have been woven into the fabric of a story yet unfinished.  I will be taking you on this journey, remembering as I drink hot cups of Middle Eastern coffees and teas with new acquaintances.  You are deeply appreciated.  Your part has not finished yet.  A second story is happening.

Afraid of…?

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

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

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

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

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

Say “Yes” First

“Take a ________ for the road,” he said.  He was gesturing at a pile of fruit, and speaking to me in Arabic.

I had been studying some basic Arabic for months, in anticipation of moving to the Middle East, but I still wasn’t quite sure what he was offering– apple? avocado?  There were also bunches of bananas, but sadly I am allergic to those, so I hoped that wasn’t it.  Somewhere between his third and fourth offers, I accepted.

I did not know what I was saying yes to.

This weekend, a Chinese youth group and a fellowship in Long Island welcomed me to tell part of my story.  I told them the part about going overseas right after college graduation, before I knew what I was saying yes to.   I had been on short-term trips to Spanish-speaking areas, had read lots and lots of books, and knew some people who had done international work.  So I said yes, got on the plane, and soon figured out that much of what I’d anticipated/expected was not reality.

Some of the realities were incredibly sweet; others very difficult to swallow. But I learned that even if I can’t predict all that will happen, “yes” is sometimes still the right answer.

I got a banana.  Couldn’t eat it, but a friend really enjoyed it.  And now I know the word for “banana” in Arabic.