Tag Archives: Sammi

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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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?

Drunken Drivers, Engagements, & Other Misunderstandings

He honked the horn of the bus.  I ignored him, and opened the trunk of my car.

He smirked, gestured, and beeped a second time.

I hoped he wasn’t trying to get my attention.  For women in this part of the world, it’s not unusual to receive some level of rudeness from random guys; but this bus driver was with the Young Leaders group that day.

IMG_5503
Team building games w/ Young Leaders, by the sea

Three busloads of teenage boys, five local teachers, and I had come to the beach that morning for a field trip.  The students were finishing the last of their “team building” games, just a few minutes behind schedule.  Earlier that morning, they had combed the beach for sea glass, which women who are employed at the community center would later transform into jewelry.

I packed the glass in the trunk of my car, and the bus driver beeped again.  “Hurry up!” he yelled in Arabic.  “We’re waiting.  Let’s get going!”  His abruptness led the thought to flash across my mind: Is he intoxicated?

Out loud, I apologized, and told him I would get the boys moving onto the buses.  Given that drinking was against his religion, it was 11:00 a.m., and he was a bus driver, I dismissed my previous thought as preposterous.  I told Ramsey, one of our Young Leaders teachers, that our bus driver wanted us to hurry up.  The boys got into the buses while Ramsey went to see what the rush was about.

He came back to talk to me, keeping his voice low.  “He’s drunk.”

I thought I heard wrong.  I asked him to repeat himself.

“He’s drunk.  Either that, or he’s wearing this bad-smelling cologne that’s common in his home city.”

We needed to figure out, quickly, if this guy was under the influence, endangering students– in which case my instinct was to pull him out of the bus, leave him in the blazing sun on the beach, and replace him behind the wheel with one of our trusted teachers– or if he just had little social aptitude and a poor choice of cologne.

What to do, with so much at stake?  And with so much, from hometown colognes to cultural methods of confrontation, beyond my knowledge?

We came up with a plan, but all I could think about on the drive home was, How do I make sure this vulnerable scenario never. happens. again?

Last week, my best friend from this city, Sammi, was telling me again what she hoped God would provide in her future husband, though she had no current candidates.  She is helping me with my Arabic, and our “studying” often turns into conversations about heart and soul stuff.

The following day a family who had heard of her came to visit– unexpectedly.  By the end of the evening, they had asked her to marry their son.  The two met that night and signed the marriage contract the next morning.

I understand that this story is normal in this country.  I have met many ladies here who began their marriages this way. And when they talk about their relationships, my limited Arabic is enough to understand that a few are delighted, and others are depressed. I have even had well-meaning friends try to set me up like this, with my blind date Mohammad

But on a deeper level, when I saw my close friend Sammi, joining her hands and connecting her life with this almost-stranger, I knew I didn’t understand.

When we lead, when we love, or even when we simply talk, or connect with one another, the risk is present: of not understanding.  Or, what is an even less appealing option to some of us: of not being understood.

Sometimes the stakes are low.  I recently tried to ask one Young Leaders teacher, in Arabic, Do you know how to cook?  It came out, Do you know how to get engaged?   

Sometimes the stakes are higher.  A bus full of students.  A friend who needs support even if I can’t understand the road she is traveling.

When the stakes are raised, but the guarantee that I will understand and be understood is not there, my tendency is to reduce risk factors as much as I possibly can, and try to increase safety.  I put my hands in fighting stance, or attempt to put distance between what I love and what I feel is a threat.

But, in fight or in flight, many times I’m also guarded against good things.  Deepening relationships.  New experiences.  Trust.

After Sammi told me her news, I went to Dana, my wise friend from this city, for help in wrapping my mind around their quick commitment.  What’s the best way for me to support her?  I asked.  Dana asked if there would be an engagement party.

Next week.

She smiled, knowingly.  The best way, though I don’t fully understand what happened previously or know will take place in the future, to be fully present and engaged?

“Just dance.  Just show up, and dance.”

***Song to this story is Counting On, by John Mark McMillan.

He Sees

Soundlessly, she sat beside us, crying as her sister Sammi told her tale.  “A European couple offered me a job nannying their children,” she said.  “But then they decided that they want someone else, someone who does not wear a headscarf.”

Sammi spoke in a matter-of-fact voice, like the entire affair was of no consequence.  However, we all knew that this had been the kind of opportunity that does not come often– and that the reason it was rescinded appeared to be flat-out discrimination.  My mouth fell open and then filled with words like that’s horrible and they have no idea what an amazing person they are missing.  Sammi’s sister’s eyes simply filled with silent tears.

Sammi shook her head.  “Don’t cry,” she commanded in English, as if using their second language would make them both feel stronger.  Her sister had completed Young Leaders before I arrived in the Middle East; through that program, they had connected with our community center, and eventually I had met them and they had accepted me into their family.

Now 18 years old, this youngest sister dreams of skydiving, passing her final exams for high school next month, and working toward a psychology degree.  Her compassion is the size of Saudi Arabia, and more precious than all the oil it contains.

I stopped speaking.  I wrapped my arms around her and prayed inside that God would wrap His arms around her gentle soul.

Dana knows what it is like to experience deep suffering.  And great joy.  And pain, brokenness, loyalty, and love.  She is known as a woman of wisdom, and is the giver of some of the best hugs I have received while in the Middle East.

I came to work late one day– in the middle of a busy couple of months, when the weekends were full of Young Leaders events and the days seemed long– to good-natured joking from some of my coworkers.  “You should look more rested, after you took the morning off.  You still look tired!”

I laughed with them, saying I was much refreshed, since I had spent the morning quietly relaxing, reading, and sleeping.

Dana, however, eyed me carefully.  “You look more than tired.  There is something else– what is it, really?”

Later that day, I found Dana alone and sat down beside her.  “There is something else,” I said, quietly.  “Don’t know how, but you see what other people don’t see.  I did spend some of my morning resting, and did eventually feel refreshed, but first there were tears…”

She listened as I explained why.  Then she wrapped her arms around me.  She told me she would pray and reminded me of the goodness of God.

I told her that when she put her arms around me, when she said that she could see me, I knew His eyes were on me also.

Sammi and I sat in the car with the windows rolled down, sweating as we longed for a breeze and waited for her sister to emerge from the house.  A four-year-old boy started to walk in front of us, talking to no one that we could see, and swinging an empty, pink-stained paint bucket.  We smiled at each other, happily distracted from the heat to wonder at the little guy’s chatter, and his choice of toys.

He noticed us and went immediately to Sammi’s side of the car.  He extended his hand to shake– while I suppressed my surprise and wondered if this kid’s culture had ever taught him to be cautious with strangers– and she politely took it, asking his name.

His answer was unintelligible, but she established that he lives in her neighborhood.  Then he said, in a voice just as matter-of-fact as Sammi’s own had been about the recent job opportunity lost:

“Do you know the news about my sister?  She’s dead.”

She kept her voice normal and asked what had happened.  “We gave her medicine, and we shook her like this, but she never got out of bed.”

“When?” He didn’t know.  As he wandered around the car to my side, Sammi told me, “He has a Syrian accent.”

I shook his hand.  Where are you from?  “Homs.”  The fallen capital of the Syrian revolution, some would say, but to him it is simply home.  He told us then that his favorite food is cake.  His favorite color is blue.  And then Sammi’s sister arrived, and we left.

Our arms waved goodbye.  But in our hearts, we held him.

His eyes are on us.

When injustice slaps beloved friends.  When delayed hope sickens hearts.  When shells echo in a four-year-old’s mind.

Sometimes we extend His love to each other with a hug, a word, a hearing of each others’ tales.  Sometimes we feel that love straight from the heart of the Father.

But even when we can’t see, when circumstances steal our eyes from His, He wants us to know He is present.

His arms are extended.

And He sees.