Tag Archives: presence

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.

_____

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.

_____

“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.

_____

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

thesonginsidethesoundsofbreakingdown
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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Arrive with Peace

I have been waiting to hear those words.  Their meaning:

You are home, we are glad.

Your absence was felt.  

Your presence matters.  

Alhamdulillah al salameh.  The literal translation is along the lines of, “Praise God you have arrived with peace.”  It invites the response, Allah yesalamek: “May God give you also peace.”

But my ears have been listening for this common greeting, over the past few days, in a new way.

Returning from a week outside the country, I hear the words spoken upon each reunion with a “regular” person in my life.  From my coworkers at the community center, who smile and say that I was missed.  From the teachers in the Young Leaders’ program, who accompany the phrase with interested questions about the conference I attended in Thailand.  From Sammi, my dear language tutor, and her mother, who holds my face in her hands as she says it.

Though I was once a stranger, and still am a foreigner, I am moved by the way this city welcomes me home.  I am reminded through the fragile familiarity of the dust color on houses, the jagged rocks of mountains on the horizon, and the faces in stores where I catch up on errands, that I live here now:

A young teller at the bank says hi in English. Her mom and I used to be in the same fitness class, and I have eaten dinner in their apartment.  “Why haven’t you visited us again?” she asks, switching to her native language. The question is not an accusation; it’s an invitation.  

We exchange numbers, and I send greetings to her mother.  The root word is the same.  Give her my peace.

The young man behind the counter at the store where I pay for WiFi greets me warmly.  His boss, a savvy businesswoman working on her master’s degree, spoke about leadership last month to the students in our Young Leaders program.  I ask him, also, to give her my peace.

I buy phone credit from a former student from our center’s Adult English program; he tells me about his dreams for further study.  Finished, he says, “Ma salameh”… Go in peace.

Even the grey-haired manager at the supermarket remembers the blonde foreigner who buys her yogurt and pita from his store.  He sees me in the parking lot, ignores my reluctance, and calls out for an employee to carry my groceries to the car.  “God give you health,” I tell him as he settles the bags into the passenger’s seat, and he responds with the prescribed blessing: “May God also give it to you.”

But these phrases that bless with health and peace, as I return this time, mean something more.  The friends and the city who welcomed me back did not know how thin stress had worn that peace before my time away.  Neither did I.

In Bangkok, the day we landed, our approach to the city was like a three-year-old’s approach to birthday presents– eagerness, surprise, lack of orderliness, lavish wonder.  It included an unexpected arrival at a five-million-bulb light show, The Light of Happiness, in its last night of display.  Earlier, we stumbled from temples and markets to tailor shops and food stalls, breathing scents that were spicy and sour, and tasting the humid air and the fried octopus.

IMG_3834.jpg
Light of Happiness, Bangkok

The next morning we bused to our conference, a couple of hours away, with about 100 other businesspeople and teachers who work internationally.  As I watched the green hills and golden Buddhas out of my window, listening to headphones play tunes of abundant love and dependance on one greater than us, I knew that some truths were simpler than I could understand.

I desired deeply to delight in this time.  But my heart was constricted by distractions and grief and worries, clogged like an artery that refused to allow more than a minimum amount of blood to flow.  The work and relationships that matter most to me in the Middle East were going well.  But looming ahead were transitions that will take away some of the people who support me well, will give me new responsibilities, and will introduce the likelihood of challenges and weaknesses that are unwelcome.

In between conference sessions, I sat looking at palm trees and flowers from quiet, secluded spots.  Scribbling notes in a journal and wondering what it meant to trust, when I must also accept that the future may be uncomfortable.

Weeping for what I have had to let go, what I will have to release in the months coming.  What I never could hold on to, except as an illusion.

Control.  

Somehow those arteries harden, stifling nourishment from reaching me, when I try to hold on.  The greater my efforts at making things happen myself, the weaker I realize I am.  When the circumstances around me keep shifting, and dependence on others doesn’t cut it, how do I handle my own shaky hands and vulnerable stomach?  If I honestly assess my own strength and find it wanting, what resource do I have left?

The golden glory of the early morning sun had yet to fade when I awoke, five days into the conference but still five time zones away in my sleep patterns.  I slipped onto the balcony and opened a Psalm.

I lift my eyes up to the hills–

where does my help come from? (121:1)

Every source of help, every close relationship, every circumstance or flavor or person or sunrise that has brought strength and joy– these are gifts from God.  I am astonished at the innumerable gifts, every ability I have being also given to me.

But intense instability, and the inability to control, were deep reminders that my soul cannot be satisfied in the presence of gifts.

Through it all, one Presence remains.  The Giver.

IMG_3870A few more days of seminars and networking with people from around the globe.  The best of them were the ones who saw how dependent they are on the Father.  A few more times venturing forth to explore the country.  The warm waves of the ocean, the wall-to-wall people cast in the red glow of Chinese lanterns for a New Year’s celebration, the splendid sunsets and the shimmering mosaics of the temples– they will not soon be forgotten.

Somehow along the journey, trust began to devour what had blocked those arteries, and my heart began to pound once again with health and strength.

Because His presence matters.

He is my home.

And as I return, I arrive with peace.

Losing My Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their hope in the one called Jesus.

Their grief over his crucifixion.

Their confusion over visions of angels and empty graves.

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

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

Shattered.

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

“Can you give me a…”

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

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

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

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

I need presence.

And an embrace.

 

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.