Tag Archives: second story

Something is Happening

“Sometimes you should speak to your soul, not just listen to it.”– Dr. Ingrid Davis

—-

Prayer is like writing.  Sometimes you stare at a blank wall, a blank screen, a blank page for awhile.  Thinking you are not yet praying, not yet thinking, not yet writing.

But under just a little bit of skin, your blood is pumping life into your body.  Your lungs have inhaled, exhaled six or a hundred or a quadrillion times since you put yourself in this location.  Mind searching for the words, spirit longing for understanding and to be understood, body pumping, breathing… alive.

Something is happening.  Don’t loose sight of that.

—-

She was distressed.  A young intern, staying with me and my new housemate for her first few days in the Middle East, passed by an open door on our second story to see the team leader she had just met… crying. In the middle of the night.  On her birthday.

The other housemate was already there, having come to check on me.  Earlier in the evening, the group had gathered around me, post-chocolate-peanut-butter-cheesecake, to close the day’s celebration with prayers of blessing.

But when the second person started to pray about dreams and expectations for the year ahead, my soul started to quiver.  Soon shoulders shook, and tears dropped onto the table.  I drew my breath quietly– perhaps, I thought, though the group had drawn close, with eyes shut they would not notice me crying.

Sniffles undid that.  They offered a Kleenex and continued, and I did also.  Sheltered in the kitchen of my second-story house, filled with home-cooked food, encircled by loving friends, I wept over the tentativeness in which every hope, but One, seemed to be shrouded.

After the last “amen,” they accepted my pink eyes and polite thanks, and went home.

Except, of course, for the intern, and my housemate.  She came to my bedroom door 45 minutes later to ask, “How are you?”

Tears again.  A form of answer.

The intern walked by and glimpsed this scene.  She came back, hugged, and walked out again.

O Soul, you asked, Why didn’t I shut the door?  And remembered, In the basement, no one came by the door– I did not have to be vulnerable.  Nostalgic; yet knowing that the vulnerability of the second story is a particularly good place for you to be when you don’t want to be there.

I told the housemate who asked that, while the year had left me with much to celebrate, and drawn me closer to that Hope in One, I had also been bruised until tender from change and loss.  So I was afraid to hope for anything beyond His love, even though I had read it is capable of casting out every category of fear.

Why are you so downcast, my Soul?

—-

Scattered.  Small parts of a people group spread over a big world.  Who would care if they flourished or floundered?  Who would they be known by?

I had not noticed this fear before in the Babel story, even though I had heard it since childhood.  My Sunday School memory was simply of a post-flood, prideful people’s attempt to touch heaven with a physical tower.  Consequentially, languages were confused.  (I would come to grieve this result, as I wrestled with Southeast Asian languages and later Arabic, quite personally.)

But at the international gathering that I attended this summer, Egyptian leader Ann Zaki drew my attention to the text: “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Let’s stay together.  Let’s build a tower and the whole earth will see it.  We are going to have identity, we are going to have companionship, and we are going to have protection.

But they had been given a directive to spread out.  Cravings of the soul to stay in one place, and to make security for themselves, had prompted them to say “no” to God’s plan for them to go and fill the earth.  They had refused to trust Him, to find refuge in Him; they would build their own tower.

As Ann Zaki spoke on the passage, I knew my soul needed to listen.

I needed to acknowledge the tools in my hands.  I had attempted to construct a safe tower, and felt pierced by a sword every time there was a scattering.  It’s time to lay down your arms, to go and let others go.  Be empty-handed and have expectation for protection, companionship, and identity, to come.  Not from what you’ve constructed… but from your Father. 

—-

Sometimes the things I hope for are like Lazarus.  Like his sisters, I contact the Son, confidently, to tell Him what I need Him to do.

Sometimes He lets death approach for awhile.

Sometimes I am Mary, staying a distance away when Jesus approaches, then weeping at His feet.  My soul says to Him, If you had been here, hope would be fulfilled, instead of dead.

Sometimes I am Martha, coming to Jesus and weeping the same words, but adding, “Even now… I know You are Life and Hope.”

Jesus wept with the sisters.  And then…

But that’s a second story.

—-

So this is what I’m saying to my soul these recent days:

Hoping for the small things is all right.  Because even if they don’t happen, I know Hope and Life.

Scattering is all right.  Because refuge is not something I can build with my own hands– I refuse false refuge, and I go with the One who is Himself my Tower.

Moments of fear and being downcast come all right.  But I have perfect love, even when they come.

The future is a blank page.  This, too, is all right.  Because He is up to something… even now.  And so I breathe deeply, singing with favorites Jonathan David & Melissa Helser:

“Your faithfulness will never let me down

I’m confident I’ll see Your goodness now.”

Catch the Wind, new on “Beautiful Surrender”

Beautiful-Surrender-Helsers-Cover-Web.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Stories and The Story

I’m originally from Central Asia.  Now I live half of the time in a European country, half of the time in another Asian country.  

And I cannot go home.

These were her answers to the questions, “Where are you from?  What do you do in that place?”  I had already exchanged these two questions with dozens of other younger leaders, at this international gathering in Southeast Asia.  I had heard answers as varied as:

  • a Swedish woman with an Alabama accent, who is passionate about training university students
  • a Chinese man who works toward wholeness for people with leprosy, attending to their souls and their skins
  • An Indian brother with a ten-inch beard and a smile that infects everyone around him, whether at the conference or at his home in New Delhi
  • A South African lady who asks big questions and uses her expertise in design and marketing to share hope, via the internet and around the world
  • A Nicaraguan who holds church in a dump and inspires children to a future other than picking up garbage

The woman from the sensitive region, whom I met on the second day of the conference, turned out to be one of our speakers a few days later.  She told of what she had experienced while still in her country.  Imprisonment.  Pain.  Solitary confinement for weeks on end.  

The arms of God around her shoulders.  

“I am not a brave person,” she said.  “I am so ordinary.  But I’m here to tell you that if God can give me the strength to suffer for His name, He can give it to you also.

“If God calls you to suffer, He will also give you the strength you need.

She squeezed.  I thought she might dislocate a couple of my fingers.

Lina, one of 60 teenaged Arab girls on the boat that day, had changed since she joined the Young Leaders Program the year before.  She had been unwilling to interact with the other students, and held back whenever she encountered new things.

If concern about peoples’ stereotypes of orphans or of people with disabilities had had anything to do with it, Lina had two strikes against her, from early on in life.

Her teacher had coaxed her to share some of her insights and abilities with Young Leaders.  Thriving in English, developing some real friendships, and leading her classmates to volunteer with children at the orphanage where she lived– Lina had eventually achieved some major victories.  But on this day her teacher was once again trying to coax her.

This time it was to get on board the “banana boat,” a small inflatable raft pulled by a speedboat, a new experience for the students.

Lina didn’t pretend, when we asked her why she didn’t join the others.  She answered with one word: “Fear.”

I put my arm around her shoulders.  I’ve watched you become braver every month since you started the program.  You can do this.

She paused for a second.  “Will you come with me?”

So I got on the banana boat.  Lina buried her face in her oversized life jacket, like a turtle withdrawing defensively into its shell.  She squinted her eyes shut, and when one spray of water hit her, grabbed my hand like it was her lifesaver.  My peaceful words were effective in getting her to look up and enjoy the view… for about three seconds at a time.

I have been riding around, particularly this summer, with my eyes squinted shut and with my head tucked low in defense.  Yes, I’ve been on the boat.  But I have forgotten to look at the view, to breathe through the challenges.  Any little splash, and I grip His hand in panic, as if I don’t know there are already arms around my shoulders.

IMG_5743
One of several amazing Southeast Asian sunsets

After a week surrounded by younger leaders from around the world, in the Southeast Asian nation I once called home, with the Love that expels fear spoken and danced and sung and prayed into me, I had gained perspective.

But I wondered if it would last once I got back.

On the last night, after the session, my Arab friend and I met up with some other conference participants.  We sat across from a Mexican, who works among the physically poor, and a Canadian, who works with “poor people who happen to be affluent”– those leaders of business and government whose levels of power make their spiritual poverty harder to address.

They asked one expected question: “How do you like living in the Middle East?”  I had prepared for it.  I love it, but honestly it is really hard sometimes.

I had not prepared for the unexpectedly sincere follow-up: “What’s hard about it?”

In the seconds that followed three images swept through my mind: pulling up to an airport at night to release teammates, sitting in my empty house on the yellow couch and weeping, and the face of my Arab “younger brother,” who grasps my culture more than most but often still stereotypes my nation and my gender.  I managed an answer: Heavy transitioning in the community of internationals… being in a leadership position that I feel inadequate for… cultural struggles as a Westerner in the Arab world.  

The Mexican put her arms around me, encouraging me about what would happen for my soul this year.

Our exchanges of stories continued, as I told them of the woman on the red motorcycle who had once given me a ride in Southeast Asia, and the Canadian told of how being the son of Indian and Malaysian parents– and working with senior business folks in Saskatchewan– was strangely like being a blonde woman in the Middle East.  A light rain fell through the opening in the outdoor canopy, and we went on regardless of the time.

Toward the close of the night, the Canadian asked if he could go back to what I had said at the beginning.  “When you return… and you are in leadership…”  He paused for a second.

“Own it.”

I felt terribly ordinary.  I looked at the table and said something about knowing I was supposed to lead whether I was good at it or not.

“No!” he replied.  “Be good at it!  You’ve been mentored more than most people have been.  You don’t need to be perfect.  You’ve got this– you have what you need.”

He continued, with belief: “And– when I read the Story– it’s a story of joy and light.  Yes, there is grief, and there is darkness… but ultimately it’s a story not of darkness, but light.”

I lifted my head.  My eyes opened.

And they have remained so ever since I returned to my second story home in the Middle East.

Sound track for this month: The Art of Celebration, by Rend Collective.  Song Joy link is worth listening to now.

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

 

 

Last Question

Sixty girls sat on the floor in front of me, wrapping up their conversations from snack break, nudging each other.  They were settling in for one final hour– for this semester– in the Young Leaders program.

They will take three months off for summer.  But they know that before every significant break, and after every meaningful activity, comes one thing: a debriefing.

Usually this means that we direct questions to them, draw out their reflections, and delineate how the lessons inside this mentoring program should apply to life outside.  Some friends had inspired me to turn this around… So this time, we invited them to ask us about anything they wanted to know.

Teachers handed out slips of paper and pencils.  Students scribbled words in English or Arabic, whichever they felt more comfortable with, and passed their notes forward.  And we read their anonymous wonderings:

Why do girls fall in love so often at this age?

Why is the Young Leaders Program free?

Why do individuals like to say words that hurt other people?

Why don’t people care about what I feel?

How do I overcome the fear that controls me?

Why is everyone more beautiful than me?

 What existed before God created the universe?

How did Obama become president when there are so many racists?

Every week, a goodbye party takes place.

Departures and transitions often feature heavily in the months of May and June, but this year extraordinarily so.  Some are short-term goodbyes to long-term friends, heading to the States just for the summer.  A few are long-term goodbyes to several-month friends.  These volunteered for a season with our programs, but now must return to participate in grad programs, or weddings, or next steps.  They also must learn to give skinny answers to the fat question, “How was your time out there?” in order to squeeze it into a listener’s attention span.

Frequently featured at these goodbye parties are the questions: “What is something about _____ that you appreciate?” and  “What’s a funny story about ______?”

For one volunteer, Stephanie, several of us came up with the same answer.  Stephanie had gone with the Young Leaders girls to a bird observatory, when a two-hour nature walk among ducks and eagles and gulls had concluded with a surprise visit from a television crew.

They wanted to film the students and some interviews, but I protested– we would need pre-arranged permission from our organization.  They argued; our guide, eager for the promotion of his observatory, was beginning to lose face in front of both his visitors and the TV crew.  We would dishonor him by a refusal.  So we agreed to let them interview only adults, and they requested that both Arabs and Americans participate.

Smiling, southern-born Stephanie had been attentive to the girls all morning, her Arabic advanced enough for good questions and greetings, but not for the guide’s description of the birds we had seen or their habits.  She agreed to the interview, in order to help us out.

Stepping in front of the camera, several teachers and students watching her, and Ramsey at her side to translate, she colored a little.  “I’ve never done an interview,” she said in her Arkansas accent.

The interviewer asked how she had liked the bird observatory, and if she had visited before.  And then the simple question: “What kinds of birds did you see?”

Stephanie turned slightly pinker.  The names had all been given in Arabic.  She knew she had recognized many types of birds, but could recall nothing except the fact that people were staring at her and there was a camera and the whole thing was being translated. The question was asked a second time.

Maybe Ramsey can make this sound specific, she hoped, and smiled sweetly.  “Oh, we saw all kinds of birds.  Big birds and small birds, black birds and white birds…” she drawled. “Yellow birds and red birds, really pretty birds.  Lots of nice birds.”

Ramsey smothered his laughter long enough to translate her words– exactly.  Stephanie’s description of the birds may not have made the local news, but it went down at the center as a legend, retold with the echo of Stephanie’s amiable laughter in our ears, and her distinctive Southern accent describing the birds and protesting afterwards, “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say!”

When recently I took a trip to the US, I was met by friends and family, and supervisors and strangers, with the same question, one that made me pause. Sometimes it is easier to articulate answers to Middle Eastern teenagers about discrimination, personal value, the origin of the universe, and love-sick hearts, than to answer the well-intentioned inquiry: “How are you?”

  • In under three weeks, my housemates will leave permanently, a long-term goodbye from long-term friends.
  • In a little more than three weeks, the center will close for a season due to the approach of Ramadan, the fasting month, and other local and foreign coworkers will travel.
  • In two and a half weeks, I will move into a friend’s apartment for the summer, and later I’ll move again, to the second story of this home, with a different housemate.

Ask a new volunteer to describe the habits of sparrowhawks and storks in Arabic, and you’ll know what my answer to “How are you?” is like.

I am looking forward to breathing fresher air above, but I will miss my basement-turned-garden-level apartment.

I am holding on to hope, but I am letting go of loved people, routines, and places.

It is good, and it is hard.

Simplistic answers which satisfy some.  But they don’t fit the situation any more than the Dead Sea fits into a water bottle.

We asked the girls to give one another answers.

Hands shot up around the room.  “Comparing yourself with others isn’t worthwhile.”  “Do things even when you are afraid.”  “Martin Luther King, Jr. and others helped change peoples’ thinking.”

These aren’t answers so much as starting places; they will move forward and backward, believing and disbelieving, adding questions to questions and finding that the empty spaces of silence can be as significant as speech… or more valuable.

Basements have been comfortable starting places for me– I lived in one for three and a half years in New York, then two and a half more in the Middle East.  Perhaps the only way to summarize my answer to the last question is this:

I am about to begin a new story.

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.” 

IMG_9020

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathing in the Basement

Flowers on the table.  And two envelopes.  The first was a list of memories, from my dad, and the second was a story, from my mom.  Neither she nor I had been very comfortable on the day in question, but she remembers it— vividly— and I do not.

My birthday.IMG_7773

Friends in the Middle East had contacted my family in Maine, to get suggestions on how to celebrate this day’s anniversary with me.  They had taken responsibility for delivering the flowers and notes from my parents.  Later, they pulled out a cake glowing with candles— trick candles, a couple dozen of them, plus extra until they achieved the correct number.

How did you know?  I asked, when the smoke had cleared and I could see the cake itself.

It was a household favorite, only eaten on birthdays.  But I hadn’t thought of one, much less mentioned it to them, in time within memory.

My friends shrugged in a downplay of their own thoughtfulness. But I learned later, the “favorite cake” tip had been sought out, arranged after advice from my family.

A fresh perspective welcomed my thirty-second year.  Those who helped me to celebrate were mostly unknown to me six months earlier, and the view they gave me was definitely “second story,” and beautiful.  A midnight picnic at the Red Sea with international coworkers.  Sweet gifts from the hearts of the ones I love.  A surprise scuba diving trip– first time!– from one of the teachers at our community center.  More flowers, and a heavily accented rendition “Happy Birthday,” from sixty students in Young Leaders.

But sometimes returning to the basement is the only way to put the panorama in context.

I say basement— my housemate (a former real estate agent, and who’s family is among the few I have known for some time) says “garden level apartment.”  It is underground on three sides.  But no matter what he calls it, when the conversation is over, I descend the stairs down, down to the home’s foundation.  To a place both close and cozy.

Sometimes, as I sit in this basement, I simply feel closed in and limited in perspective.  I want the breathing room of the second story.  I want to peel back layers of soil until I reach it, but the result would only be dirty hands.  Exhaustion.

I cannot change this.  

—–

My mother’s life verse to me, which she told me two decades ago, comes from the exclamation of an impossibly pregnant old woman to an impossibly pregnant young woman.  I love the promise it holds.  “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.”  It rings in my mind often as I hold out for promises made that are yet to be fulfilled.

A couple of days after birthday celebrations, I felt drawn to read the beginning of this story, to go down, down to its foundations.  Earlier in the chapter, before she got any affirmation from a human voice, Mary listened to heaven make a promise of something unexpected.

Something scandalous.  Something impossible.  Something desperately needed by the whole world.  Her question in reply: How?

—–

Sometimes I fight to see promises fulfilled: for the area in which I live now, for my beloved family and friends, for my life.  Work harder, perform higher, plan with more discernment.  Love more, listen more, speak less and with more discernment.  Have more friends, since many of those who were here this year may not be next year, and choose who from your local and foreign community to spend time with… with more discernment.  

But trying to fulfill promises through these mean efforts only results in a mess.  In exhaustion.

I cannot control this.

Then I think about how the promise given to Mary was fulfilled, not because of her capability, but because of the power of the One Most High, who overshadows the limitations of the ones like me.  So I return to the foundations.

Like on my birth day, I could not cry until I could breathe.  And I could not breathe until I got released from the cord around my neck.  My mother recalls her own breathlessness in waiting for this, her joy when I finally let out a wail.

Sometimes when we go to the basement (or garden-level apartment) of the soul, to remember the promises we have been given and the foundational identity upon which our lives are built, there are tears as well as laughs.  And that is okay.  We can relax our hands and renew our hopes, because He is the one who is powerful, and the basement perspective is limited but the promises still hold on.  We are, crying or laughing, still taking breaths.

So I cannot keep from hoping.  

Because the promises in the basement– even the ones yet unfulfilled– are sweeter than a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting.
IMG_7790

The Kiss of Release

She approached me in the middle of the bus.  “One of the girls is crying,” she said.  “She got a call on Miss Mae’s phone, and now she’s really upset…”

I looked forward, where Mae– one of our local teachers with Young Leaders– was leaning over a slump-shouldered fifteen-year-old girl.  Teena.  Her family was the one that set up an accidental (for me) blind date with her brother, shortly after I arrived in the country.  There had been no second excursion with Mohammad, but when Teena applied for Young Leaders, she immediately won our teachers’ hearts.

She had determination, ready laughter, social intuitiveness.  What could have happened to bring about those tears? 

Mae explained.  Teena had been given permission by her mom to go on this class trip to a desert reserve, but another family member found out about it and responded the opposite way.  He called and demanded that the bus stop at a nearby security checkpoint.  From there, he would pick Teena up and take her home.

“He’s on the way already,” Mae told me.  “Teena says he never lets her go on trips outside of town, with school or clubs; but he did not know about this one until a few minutes ago…”  We told the bus driver to slow down.  We called Teena’s mom to see what she wanted to do.  She instructed us to let Teena go if that was what this relative wanted.  We called him, we begged, we reasoned.

She’s with all of her friends.  She’s worked hard in this program.  She’s already twenty minutes out of town.  We will protect her like our own sister, our own child.  

He refused.

I knew that Teena’s seat in the program would be lost if she did not participate in ALL activities.  So no field trips also meant no more after-school English lessons.

No more leadership-building activities.

No more mentoring from Miss Mae.

A few days after this incident, I called a cousin of Teena’s whom I know well.  I asked her to appeal to the male relative on our behalf: She is a delight everyone in the program.  But if she doesn’t take the trips, we have to give her spot to another student.  Please, remind this relative that your family knows me, and that I will look after Teena like my own sister. 

Then we called Teena and asked her to have her relative come to the center, so we could try to persuade him face to face.  She was thrilled.  She knew we were fighting for her.  We felt a small measure of hope.

The day of the meeting, Mae called to reconfirm.  No one answered.  Teena texted soon afterward: “We can’t have a meeting today.  Our father passed away this morning.”

That night, Mae and I drove around Teena’s neighborhood, until we found the apartment where dozens of women were gathered to recite funeral prayers and support the family (the men– including the relative who had forbidden Teena’s attendance on field trips– met somewhere outside).  Despite her grief, Teena’s mom recognized me right away.  I kissed her cheeks and repeated the consolation my tutor had taught me for such an occasion.

Someone pulled up extra chairs, and the mom introduced me: “She’s American, a teacher.  My daughter Teena is with her in the Young Leaders program.”

With us in the Young Leaders program.  I repeated the words as if to etch them in stone.

On rising to leave, I forgot the phrase I had learned for funerals, so substituted my favorite parting words: “God be with you.”

Despite hearing that the relative planned to withdraw Teena from the program entirely, Mae and I returned to talk with Teena’s mom, and with a friend who had a voice in his life.  We drank three cups of coffee, offered consolation again, and explained why Young Leaders was vital for Teena’s personal development.  We invited all of them to attend the Opening Ceremony.  We sensed that they supported us– but depended on the male relative’s approval for Teena’s inclusion in the program.

On rising to leave, Teena’s mom randomly informed Mae, “We wanted this foreigner to marry our son.”

It made the mom smile briefly.  It also left me needing to explain the story to my coworker.

We discovered, just a day before the Opening Ceremony, that as soon as the friend had approached Teena’s male relative, he knew what was going to be said.  “Don’t even try,” he said.  “I decided she isn’t going anymore to Young Leaders.”  And that was the end of that portion of the story.

We used all the cultural wisdom we could get.

We fought, we visited, we begged.

We prayed.

Still, with the Opening only hours away, she left an empty space.

—–

What is surrender?  Some think of giving up.  Of being controlled by someone other.  Of passive living.  But what if it is active?  What if it calls for us to not be coerced, but consenting?

What if surrender needs to happen even in the moments that we are fighting… visiting… praying… as much as when we are giving a kiss to each cheek and saying, “God be with you,” in releasing with a blessing?

—–

A hasty search of the waiting list.  Acceptance into the program of a new student.  Her face is familiar when she joins Mae’s class at the Opening Ceremony; we realize her sister was in last year’s program.

Our hearts accept it as a little bit of balm.  What is your name? we ask.

Faith.

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?

The Blind Date

Let me tell you about my accidental blind date.  

With Mohammad.

I had been in the country for about six weeks.  A friend from our community center, Khudrah, invited me and my housemate to visit the ladies in her home.  My housemate warned me that Khudrah had been inquiring about my marital status that day, mentioning a cousin who “wants to marry a foreigner.”  Note: Marriages here are often set up by the female members of a household, who research options and then arrange a meeting between the potential couple.

As surrogate family, my housemate had tried to discourage Khudrah, but gently so as not to insult the family.

So I wasn’t worried about the visit that night, and I had my housemate with me to help with any challenging language situations. One of Khudrah’s aunts began telling me about her son, suggesting he could teach me Arabic.

I declined the offer.

That Thursday night, Khudrah invited just me out for coffee.  I told myself that there was no way the cousin would show up– culturally, that would be really, REALLY weird.  But the discomfort persisted…

Until I got in the car, and saw just Khudrah and a single aunt of hers sitting there.  I need to be okay with not controlling all the details, I reminded myself.

So I didn’t ask where we were going.  We parked in a busy downtown area, and I noticed the people in the car next to us– three women, some kids, and an infirm-looking older gentleman– and thought, Why is that one lady waving at me, smiling so expectantly?  Have I met her before?

Khudrah grinned: “This is the coffee shop, owned by my cousin Mohammad!  There’s his dad and my aunt– his mom– in the car beside us.  You remember her, right?”

I spent the next two and a half hours trying to make small talk with the women of the family, in my excruciating Arabic. Trying not to make small talk with Mohammad, who would emerge from behind the counter periodically, smoking cigarettes and attempting to ask me questions in English.  Trying to be clear with Khudrah, drawing her aside, saying, I’m here to hang out with you ladies, not with your cousin.  Trying to be polite when the aunts commented that I was “shy” around Mohammad, and Khudrah informed them, “She doesn’t talk to men.”  Trying to figure out if being reserved made them more or less interested in me as a future daughter-in-law.  Trying not to laugh at the awkwardness of the situation.

I found out later that an initial meeting is often all that a potential couple has to go on, before they decide whether to get married.  Sitting with my housemate the next day, I told her, I think I just went on this culture’s version of a blind date.

“Yes,” she said, after hearing my story.  “Sounds about right.”

I waited for the awkward follow-up conversation, but it never came; Khudrah and I became close with other people, and we didn’t see each other much outside of the community center’s exercise classes.  But, just last week, she invited me to a wedding.

Weddings here involve lots of music and dancing, and almost no interaction with the opposite sex.  The women celebrate by themselves, and the groom enters with the bride to dance, cut the cake (with a sword), and present the bride with her dowry of gold jewelry.  I knew Khudrah’s female cousin had just gotten accepted into the Young Leaders’ program, and that I would probably see some of the other ladies from her family, so I accepted her invitation.

On the way over, I asked who the bride was.  “I don’t really know the bride,” Khudrah replied.  “I’m related to the groom.  Remember Mohammad?”

I’ve been in the Middle East under 18 months.  Like “Part II” of a novel, when enough has changed that the author feels it necessary to give you a blank page so that you can catch your breath, a good many things have shifted this spring: the level of my friendships, the people who are my coworkers, the definition of a “hot” day (anything under 95 doesn’t qualify for me anymore), the things I pray when I sit in quiet, the job I do at our community center.

But then there are the things from “Part I” that were incomprehensible then, or stories that I didn’t know how to tell, that are resurfacing later in the book.  Last Tuesday, at the graduation ceremony for our Young Leaders, I saw 100 “parts” ending; 120 new students will begin next week in their place.  Parts ending, parts begun.  All unfinished.

No one but the author knows how the stories will be woven together.

Last night, amidst the strobe light and the bubbles from the bubble machine and the smoke from Mohammad’s signature cigarette, this young couple danced out of “Part I” and into “Part II” of their stories.  He made her giggle as he pulled every woman over 50 onto the dance floor with them.  He made the aunts blush as he kissed his bride in public– twice– and sang along to the ear-splitting music.  He took the mic from the DJ and said, “Everyone should get up and dance, since this is my first wedding, and my last!”

Some friends from New York recently caught up with me on the shifting happening in the stories here.  I don’t know which parts of old stories will resurface in the pages ahead, and a thousand new stories are launching on an unknown trajectory, but I’ll heed their good advice: “Be present. Stay patient and enjoy the good parts.”

On that note, off to brownies and a game night, with good friends, who are present in this part.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.