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.
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.
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.
A 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.