The Fragility of Goodness

I have been thinking a lot about “goodness” lately – that word that speaks to the quality of being kind, virtuous, morally good. What does it mean to grow into goodness, to grow beyond the childlike attribute of being “good” and grow into someone whose character makes you think of true goodness.

As children, many of us hear the words “Be good” on a regular basis. “Be good for grandma!” “Be good to your brother!” It is said so often that it sometimes loses both its meaning and its power. Perhaps the importance of how we can mature into goodness is also lost along the way, lost in a world that doesn’t necessarily reward goodness beyond childhood. Instead, being savvy, smart, intellectual, and quick-tongued and quick penned are what gives us an edge in many spheres.

As I’ve thought about goodness, I came upon the story of Bulgaria’s Jews in World War 2 as relayed in a book I am reading called The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. In this particular section, the author is telling the story of a Jewish family in Bulgaria who ended up in Palestine. Central to their survival in Bulgaria is the larger story of the Jews in Bulgaria.

A deportation order had been written that would deport all of Bulgaria’s 47,000 Jews. Unlike most of Europe, this planned deportation was never carried out. It wasn’t carried out because ordinary people and leaders found out about it. The Metropolitan and the Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood up for the Jews, approaching places of power and “imploring the king to demonstrate compassion by defending the right to freedom and human dignity of the Jews.” A member of parliament (Dimitar Peshev) publicly went against his government, gathering signatures and approaching the king stating that a deportation “would be be disastrous and bring ominous consequences upon the country.” Along with these, leaders of professional organizations and businesses, and ordinary people across the country stood by the Jewish population.

The deportation order was stopped temporarily in March of 1943, and then indefinitely in May. The Jewish population of the entire nation of Bulgaria did not die in gas chambers.

The author goes on to say this:

“None of this would have happened withough what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events”

Evil spreads quickly and virulently. Like a virus, it is hard to stop once it takes root. Todorov says that once it is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile. And yet possible.

I have been thinking about this story and the idea of the fragility of goodness all week. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews, people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, and their community members, is a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity. While Tdorov speaks to the fragility and the “tenuous chain of events” that led to a stay in the deportation order, maybe it is not as tenuous as he supposes. Maybe what appeared tenuous and fragile was far stonger then he could imagine.

In my experience, goodness is far stronger than we know, far more powerful than it may appear. Its power is in its moral strength and its stubborn refusal to quit. That’s what I see, not only in this story, but in the small ways that goodness moves in, refusing to give up, determined that evil will not have the final word.

There are two areas where I am deeply challenged in all of this. How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty in my daily life? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? Secondly, Like many of you, I’ve increasingly felt disillusioned and discontent with social media. In its best form it serves as a connector, a friendship builder, a way to challenge, build bridges and encourage. In its other forms, it is none of that. It builds anger, doubt, mistrust, discouragement, discontent, and convinces us that we will never have what others have. Where is goodness in our online selves? Why do we usually head for the lowest denominator, convincing ourselves that it really doesn’t matter.

How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? I don’t know. But it gives me hope when I think of ordinary people going about their lives in Bulgaria in 1943, deciding that they would speak up and out, never knowing that they would be a part of a chain called the fragility of goodness.

In all this, I am reminded of Christ, the author of goodness, the one who strengthens the fragility of goodness making it into a force that challenges and destroys evil, for it is he who daily calls me to chase after goodness, truth, and beauty.


Note: all quotes are from The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan

Eve of Nativity & Insurrectionists

Coptic church – Evidence of Egypt’s large Coptic Christian population

Today is the eve of the celebration of nativity for many in the East. While the West celebrates December 25th, the East continues its Advent waiting, finally coming together in celebration on the 7th of January. Even as I write this, people in Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, and many other places are at midnight liturgies celebrating the birth of Christ.

We unapologetically celebrate both. For something as lifechanging and miraculous as the Incarnation, God become man, it somehow doesn’t feel like too much. Instead, it feels like we are incredibly fortunate to have these rich traditions to live by.

In our first Christmas Eve, I lamented a pardon that felt particularly unjust, lamented that hard fought justice was overturned. This second Christmas eve or Eve of the Nativity I lament something else. I lament a mob storming the U.S. Capital. Scaling walls, knocking over barriers, vandalizing offices, proudly taking pictures to post on social media. I lament this country’s delusional idea that it shines as a beacon of light in the world.

But if that is not enough, my deepest cry is over Christian leaders applauding this and urging people on. A well known Christian leader who hosts a radio show tweeted a picture of the 21 Coptic men, martyred by ISIS for their faith. The audacity of posting this picture with the caption “What price are you willing to pay for what you believe in?” feels like an assault on all things good, on all things holy. Indeed, it feels like an assault on the faith I hold so close and so dear.

Those of us who did not grow up in this country have often been asked in our adopted countries about the United States. They are envious of many things, among them the fact that we elect leaders and have a peaceful transfer of power. This is unthinkable to many in the world. Elections result in military coups, in forced ousting of leaders, in violence and unrest. Until this time I could be proud of this in our country.

That changed today. Today I’ve read the news with a gasp and cry of anger. The anger has since turned to deep sadness.

And yet… it is the Eve of Nativity. The Eve of remembering an occupation, Roman rule, unrest, and marginalization of a people. The Eve of remembering a baby “born to set thy people free.” The Eve of Nativity, where I look back on the waiting and know it has come to an end.

And as I remember, I’m reminded again that this is my only hope. My hope is not in government. My hope is not in peaceful transfer of power. My hope is not in people “doing the right thing.” My hope is not in the next administration. This does not mean that I will not call out wrong. This does not mean that I will not seek the welfare of the city where I live. This does not mean I will not fight evil, confronting it with discernment and courage.

What it means is that my hope will not shattered when those Christians with influence and a lot of power seem to have lost their way. It means that my hope is in somehting so much greater, wiser, and stronger.

My hope is in the one whose name is called “Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

Right now it is the only thing I have, and it is enough.


This poem was written after the Coptic Christians were martyred. I post it here, as a reminder of that which is good and true and holy.

Two rows of men walked the shore of the sea,
On a day when the world’s tears would run free,
One a row of assassins, who thought they did right,
The other of innocents, true sons of the light,
One holding knives in hands held high,
The other with hands empty, defenseless and tied,
One row of slits to conceal glaring-dead eyes,
The other with living eyes raised to the skies,
One row stood steady, pall-bearers of death,
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath,
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats,
The other spread God-given peace and rest.
A Question…
Who fears the other?
The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

“Two Rows by the Sea” ©Bible Society of Egypt

Masked Mourners & Bagpipes

Across the street from our house stands an old Catholic church, its magestic steeple reaching far into the sky. From eight o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, the church rings out the hours on bells that echo across Charlestown. During this time of year, along with the bells are old Christmas Carols – “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are all treats for the ears during this season. The carols start at the beginning of Advent and go through Epiphany on January 7th.

It is also a church that holds a lot of funerals. Almost weekly, parking signs will appear warning us not to park across the street by the church. The unspoken message is for us to give honor to those attending the funeral by giving up our hard fought parking spaces, for it is a city, and fights landing people in jail have happened over parking spaces. Most of us willingly give up our spots, our contribution to what is already a grief-filled time for those who attend.

In recent months the most common scene at the church has been masked mourners, the most common funeral sound bagpipes, their melancholic sounds echoing through the neighborhood. It has brought me to tears more than once. Could there be an instrument more mournful? I don’t think so.

Whenever I hear the bagpipes I know that a hearse is not far behind.

Though I feel sad, I also feel hope with these funerals. People are gathering. They are mourning together. As a family that has gone through profound grief alone, postponing a memorial service for months following a death, I delight in seeing these masked mourners gather. They are bearing witness to grief and in doing so showing the strength of community.

As I think of the regular occurrence of funerals across the street, and the millions of other deaths and subsequent funerals from this past year, I think of the words of Psalm 139, a Psalm that I have been reading and rereading during these first couple of days of the New Year.

More than any other Psalm or words in scripture, this one gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us. The words “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” are a powerful reminder that God knows the number of our days. He knows when the masked mourners and bagpipes or their equivalent will be played for each person.

But the Psalm is so much more than just knowing our days. The messages are profoundly comforting: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen clearly, known fully, and loved extravagantly, would I not rest easier? Would I not be more secure? It’s something I’ve struggled with for possibly my entire life.

The Psalmist, because he is human, seems to understand the disconnect. Indeed, he admits his own inability to understand saying that it is too much and too wonderful to understand.

Our world offers a lot of substitutes for the truths in Psalm 139, and many of them feel quite real, but the past year has shown that they are fleeting at best. Our security in health, jobs, travel, friendships, and safety is an illusion. While the “enemy” used to be something that the West thought they could keep out with high fences and strong borders, an invisible virus has broken through all of those illusions, making us servants to fear and grasping and gasping for hope.

What better time then, to lean in hard to these truths of being seen, known, and loved, for the more I lean in, the more aware I am of false substitutes and the more I find rest in God’s safety net.

All things find refreshing calm and peace when they have found their center.

Based on writings from St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain written in verse by Scott Cairns in Endless Life

On Duty & Dreaming

A couple of years ago my oldest daughter texted me with words that were deeply affirming, if a bit humorous. The text said “I am so glad that you were a mother so committed to leisure.”

I started giggling. Committed to leisure? If she only knew the guilt I felt for not doing enough. For not getting them into more sports and more ballet, for not insisting on more piano and flute. For not doing more crafts and music. The one thing I was really good at was reading and resting. I remember being on our front porch in Massachusetts, all of us just sitting, eating, and lounging. I don’t even remember the conversation – I just remember the summer breeze and being perfectly content.

Here she was affirming what I thought I did wrong. Affirming an unknown but fully experienced commitment to leisure.

I’ve thought a lot about that text in the past few years. Unbknownst to my daughter, it was profoundly moving, encouraging me out of a depth of insecurity about motherhood that I didn’t even realize I had.

I entered motherhood in the 25th year of my life, young by today’s standards. I remember the wonder with which I looked at my newborn daughter, her perfect toes, fingers, and truly rosebud mouth pursed up ready to try out the suck reflex. I remember thinking I had never known a love that could so utterly consume me. I remember the well of emotion, knowing in those first days postpartum that the world would have the potential to hurt my little human and I didn’t know what to do with that. All I could do was cry, and in those moments open my heart to God and his blessed mother, who surely knew hurt like few do.

As I walked into those early days, I still remember the lazy mornings of breastfeeding, the moments when only I knew how to comfort her and the infinite wonder of that reality. I dreamt a lot during those days of what our future family would look like. Would there be siblings? Of course! What would our family look like? What would our family be? Would my children be dreamers like I was, losing themselves in books and films, ever searching for beauty, always with a touch of longing? Our daughter was followed by five more children, and the dreaming days were over….or were they?

I found out that a mother’s walk is a balance between duty and dreaming. Duty is what gets you up in the morning when you know you have to get them to school and yourself off to work. Duty is what gets you up in the middle of the night when you realize that the rasping, animal like sound from the other room is your child who can’t breathe properly. Duty is what has you in the bathroom, a hot shower running full force as you anxiously wait for your child’s breathing to improve. Duty is what has you chauffering children to birthday parties and libraries, doctors visits and Sunday schools.

Dreaming is what keeps you hopeful. Dreaming is what you do as you curl up on the couch reading books in front of a wood stove. Dreaming is what has you taking your kids to Egypt to see their childhood homes, to Florida to build sandcastles on the beach, to Quebec City to wander the walled city. Dreaming is what inspires you to create home and place, memories and traditions. Dreaming is what helps you as you ask your child about colleges they are interested in attending or ideas for plays and stories. Dreaming is what keeps you alive as a mom, determined not to slip into a duty only ethos, because what joy is there in that?

Duty is what pays the bills, dreaming is what makes paying the bills worthwhile. Duty is duty. It is necessary and it is what makes dreaming possible. Dreaming is dreaming. It’s what makes duty possible.

I’m thinking about all these things as I go into the new year. About duty and about dreaming. How duty can creep up and before we know it – all of life is just duty. There is no dreaming. There is just drudgery. Hope is lost in the duty of living. And yet if life is just dreaming, then nothing will ever get done, and life will feel just as meaningless. Like in motherhood, duty and dreaming are a necessary balance. Maybe that is what has felt so difficult in this year of closed borders and closed coffee shops – that dreaming feels impossible and duty overwhelming.

In just a couple of days, 2020 will in an instant change to 2021. Duty will have me changing the clocks, making sure my calendar is up to date, that my work schedule is clear. Dreaming will have me curled up on the couch, committed to leisure and joy on New Year’s Day, writing in my journal and looking at airline tickets. Duty will get me up on the cold mornings in the winter when bed is far more tempting and all of life feels trapped in ice. Dreaming will give me the joy I need to see sunshine sparkling on icy trees and know that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”*

Here’s to duty and dreaming. Like truth and grace, they are an interwined, paradoxical necessity.

Happy New Year from Communicating Across Boundaries. Thank you for sharing the journey.


*Julian of Norwich

On Blackwater Massacres and Christmas Eve

I rarely get political on this blog. While the theme of communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture doesn’t exclude politics, it would limit me too much. But I don’t think of this post as political. Rather, I see it as fitting for connecting the dots to a God who cared enough to walk among us

Last night the news came through that President Trump had pardoned several people. For me, the most disturbing pardon was given to four government contractors, who in 2007 massacred 14 Iraqi civilians and injured 17 others. Witnesses described the attack as a completely unprovoked ambush of innocent people. In Iraq, the tragedy is called “Nisour Square Massacre.” The group who were sentenced, now pardoned, worked for a private military contractor called Blackwater.

Among those killed was a 9-year old boy, shot in the head as he sat in the back of his father’s car.

The trial and subsequent guilty verdict was applauded by human rights leaders around the world. It showed the world, but especially Iraqi citizens, that military contractors would be held accountable for their actions.

I remember living in Phoenix at the time when news of the attack was broadcast. I remember being horrified but in an impersonal way. This was before I had visited Iraq; before I moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and had the privilege of working under a boss who was from Baghdad; before I had worshiped in churches with Iraqi Christians. This was before all of that. I felt it, but not the same way.

I hear this news, news of justice rolled back, with a heavy heart. It contributes to what my friend calls a year of “incomprehensible sadness.” And this, just a day before Christmas is celebrated by a majority of the Western world.

The questions go through my mind – who paid for this pardon? Whose connections reversed justice? And though I know I can connect the theological dots, as it were, to what any of us deserve versus what Christ has done for us in his mercy and grace, I’m not going there.

Rather, I think about who is so far removed from this event that they make a decision with so little thought to the agony of the victims’ families? Who would dismiss the importance and significance of what a guilty verdict meant in the case?

A quote by John le Carré says that ‘a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.’ This decision was surely made from a view behind a large desk.

As usual, when I encounter something like this and try to make sense of it, I turn to reflective writing. Where is the ‘But God’ in this? Where, on Christmas Eve, can I find some measure of hope in what has proven time and time again to be an unjust world?

So I go back to the desk quote by John le Carré and there is where I find my hope. When Jesus entered our world as a small helpless baby, he moved away from the desk and entered the place of action where all of life happens. He encountered deep pain, anger at injustice, joy at weddings, dining and drinking with sinners, the beauty of a sunrise, the sadness of a woman cast out. He got out from behind the desk and got into the thick of it. We are told he “emptied himself and took on the form of a servant.”

That God, in his love for us, entered gladly through the person of Christ to live out the joys and struggles of life locked within the limitations of the human body, ultimately conquering sin, suffering, and death is the ultimate moving away from the desk scenario. This is the incomprehensible story of the incarnation.

He loves us enough to get away from the desk. And on this Christmas Eve of 2020, a year where I have grieved and mourned personal and collective death and loss, injustice and wrong, I find my only hope is to rest in the promise that some day evil will be conquered and it won’t be from behind a desk.

So I pause, close my eyes, and hear the beautiful words sung on Christmas Eve “a thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and gloriously morn.”

May Christmas Eve 2020 bring a measure of hope to your world.

And So We Wait – A Brighter Light

Week 4 – Advent

Tomorrow, December 21st, marks the longest night of the year. While living in Kurdistan we found out that Kurds and Iranians honor the longest night of the year with a celebration. They gather together with family and friends eating, drinking, and reading poetry of which the poet Hafez born in Shiraz is said to be a favorite.

I love this. I love that they have taken the shortest day and replaced it with the longest night, making it a celebration instead of a depressing mark of winter. With this celebration they replace resignation with gratitude, and in so doing bring light to the darkness.

After December 21st, the days slowly and steadily get longer. We see earlier and brighter light as daylight increases by around a minute and a half each day.

In the middle of the longest night there is an invitation for us. An invitation that doesn’t have to be old and tired, but instead can rise with new life during this year where sadness and lament threaten to overwhelm us.

It’s a lesson of celebration and life, of hope and a brighter light.

This long year has held a mirror up to many of us individually and all of us collectively. We are more aware of our selfishness, of our need to be entertained, of our desire for comfort and freedom to go where we want when we want. We are more aware of what it is to be lonely, of what it is to collectively grieve. We are more aware of our need for each other and our quest for security and safety in places and from people and governments that can’t give it.

It is still the Advent season and we are entering the longest night. Then, as we journey toward Bethlehem the light will get brighter and by December 25th, though it will barely be perceptible, daylight will be longer. I want to take the longest night and be filled with gratitude. Gratitude that light came into the World, a light that the darkness could not comprehend. Gratitude that it takes long nights of the soul for us to understand how beautiful this light is, how deeply we need it.

In my faith tradition, the Eucharist is not something that we take. Rather, it is something that we go forward and receive. Mouths open, arms across our chests, we lean forward to the priest. He reaches toward us across the cup, “The Servant of God, Sophia Maria, receives the Body and Blood of Christ.” We don’t do anything but walk up to the priest with the chalice. The rest is given to us. This is deeply powerful, a striking reminder that we have done nothing to deserve grace and salvation, rather it is a gift that is given to all. It is up to us to receive it. When we as Orthodox speak to each other about communion, we talk about receiving. We don’t talk about taking communion, instead the words are always around receiving; receiving a gift.

Each time I receive, as I walk away making the sign of the cross, I am filled with gratitude. Gratitude for this gift, this light that came into the world, the “word made flesh.”

This is what I think of as I think of moving into the light of Christmas. Moving forward with gratitude and receiving the light, a gift given to all of us.

Oh God, We come with fragile human hearts, broken by grief, by loss, by so much that hurts in this broken world. We come forward, empty of everything except deep longing. We walk through the longest night and enter into the bright light of morning and in gratitude, we receive you – the word made flesh. Fill us with you, for nothing else will truly satisfy.

Advent 2020

If you would like to catch up on other Advent readings, please see these:

A Boy and a Bunny

When my brother Stan was in high school, he rescued one of our baby bunnies who had been rejected by its mother. The bunny was so young that it had not yet grown fur. He set up an incubator type space for the bunny in a box with a lamp and a soft cloth, feeding it with an eye dropper every few hours and watching over it constantly. Despite his efforts, the bunny died. I remember all of us feeling the sting of loss and death. It was deeply sad. It might have been only a bunny, but it was a bunny that had a devoted caregiver determined for it to live.

We cried the sobs of the young who encounter early experiences with death only to discover that it is not something we have power over. Instead, it would come and it would bring sorrow and pain throughout our lives.

Growing up in the developing world, I understood early on that sickness and death were part of our world. We were not shielded. I have found that this was not necessarily the case for those who grew up in the western world. Yet, if there is anything that this year has shown to all of us, it is that we don’t have nearly as much control over our lives, over sickness, over death as we may have thought we do.

I can fight this, but it doesn’t change reality. Sickness and death seem to be excellent teachers. When faced with these, I don’t know what the next minute will hold, let alone the next week.

I’ve always known in my head that I have no control over death, but I think in my heart I somehow felt I might be able to stall it, to negotiate it for better times. Like making a doctor’s appointment: “I’m sorry, that time won’t work for us. Could you make it for Tuesday at ten? Thank you so much!”

It doesn’t work like that. The death of the bunny was only the beginning. And it was a small prick of pain compared to pain that would come later.

One of my biggest honors in writing is hearing from people around the world. I get emails and messages that tell me of hurts and struggles, of family members near death and of struggles in life. This Monday morning I have received messages that have made me weep, made me realize the fragility of life. One reader tells me of an early morning trip to a hospital for his child, another tells me of their daughter facing such deep loneliness during this pandemic isolation that she has been hospitalized, another tells me of his family member who is dying. Each story has so much more to it than the few lines that have been shared. Each story involves multiple hurting people and families.

It is a Monday morning and the world feels deeply broken and hurt, deeply wounded. Like the bunny in the homemade incubator, our world feels to be hanging on to life by a thread.

I have no words of comfort other than this: If a teenage boy can care so much about a baby bunny that he sets up an incubator and watches over it, feeding it with an eyedropper, then surely the God whose image that teenage boy bears can care about the deep pain present in all these situations.

So today, if you are in pain, if you are grieving and hurt, if you are watching someone you love die by degrees, may you know that God – a God who cares about teenage boys and bunnies, a God who whispers in the quiet nights of our pain, a God who not only bears witness to a suffering, fragile world, but also entered it – may you know that God cares infinitely about you. May you have people to walk with you through your pain.

There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to be present through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.”

from Just Your Presence

[Image by Milchdrink from Pixabay]