“I have waited for a book like Pillars all my adult life, a personal book that discovers similarities and honors differences between Christianity and Islam, a book that . . . shows what can happen when we connect rather than collide.”
Marilyn R. Gardner, author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging
I think it was in 2012 when I first “met” Rachel Pieh Jones. We connected online over a mutual love and struggle over lives lived between worlds, over writing, and over a shared connection to Muslim majority countries. Meeting Rachel has been a gift that keeps on giving. Through the years we have shared our hearts and our stories and I have learned much through my friendship with this extraordinary woman.
Today, Rachel’s second book Pillars is released and I cannot tell you how excited I am about this book! I had the honor of reading an advanced copy and feel like I have been waiting for it my entire adult life.
Below is an interview from the press release for Pillars developed by Plough Publishing.
When Rachel Pieh Jones moved from Minnesota to rural Somalia with her husband and twin toddlers eighteen years ago, she was secure in a faith that defined who was right and who was wrong, who was saved and who needed saving. She had been taught that Islam was evil, full of lies and darkness, and that the world would be better without it.
Luckily, locals show compassion for this blundering outsider who can’t keep her headscarf on or her toddlers from tripping over AK47s. After the murder of several foreigners forces them to evacuate, the Joneses resettle in nearby Djibouti.
Is there anything you find daunting about putting your story out like this for the world? Absolutely. Spirituality is deeply personal. Sharing such a personal story makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. I hope to honor my Christian tradition, even as my ideas of what it means to be a Christian have been transformed and I’m not sure how people will respond to some of my conclusions. I also aim to honor Islam as I experience it in the Horn of Africa and it is daunting to present another faith tradition as an outsider. I hope to have done so respectfully.
Why do you choose to do it in spite of those apprehensions? I’m a peace-builder at heart and have learned that peace does not come through avoiding hard conversations, and that peace does not mean homogeneity or agreement. Peace is built right in the middle of complexity as we learn to honor another’s perspective. This is something our communities desperately need. Peace is built through shared experiences of joy, grief, fear, and celebration, through choosing to love people without needing to change them, and through realizing that we are the ones being loved too. That conviction compels me to share this story as one example of what peace-building can look like.
How do you imagine your story will be received by North American evangelical Christians? By the Muslim community? I don’t expect all readers, whether Christian or Muslim, will agree with all the conclusions I come to in Pillars. I even anticipate some pushback because Christians and Muslims have a complicated history that can make it hard to see positive aspects in the other. I hope even in the places that feel uncomfortable, readers will find intriguing possibilities for conversation andfurther exploration. At the same time, I know many Christians and Muslims who have developed meaningful relationships. I hope these readers will feel less alone in their quest to find common ground.
Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation “This is a beautiful story, beautifully told. It’s much more than the memoirs of a Christian American living in Africa and exploring Islam with devoted Muslims; it’s about learning how to be a good neighbor to the people around you, wherever you might be in the world. This is the kind of book we need right now.”
Amy Peterson, author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World “Filled with hard-won insights of a mature faith lived in long community with Muslim neighbors, Pillars refuses sentimental calls for the kind of peace that glosses over differences. Instead, Jones finds her faith unraveled and rewoven, stronger for what she’s learned in the Horn of Africa and from her Muslim friends. Anyone whose faith has been challenged by life experiences will find a helpful model for spiritual growth here.”
At the end of my full review I said this, and I leave you with it now:
“Read and savor this book, which shows what can happen when we connect rather than collide.”
In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.
“While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.“
She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*
Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.
Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.
Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.
I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.
There are two types of ambiguous loss:
Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*
Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.
There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.
Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.
Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.
Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.
Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.
Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.
Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.
Lastly,God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.
Note: This post was originally published in A Life Overseas
It is International Women’s Day and I pause as I think about the different women in my life who have shaped me, who have helped me grow in areas that I wouldn’t have otherwise. This group of women don’t look like each other – they range in color, size, shape, and personality. They are from different countries as well as different racial and ethnic backgrounds. But where they differ in those attributes, each one is a strong force of faith, hope, and love.
I am so incredibly fortunate to have these role models and mentors in my life. But she who has been gifted much has a mandate to give back.
Everyone of us view the world through a different lens. My lens is public health, and it’s through a public health lens that I think about justice for women in the world on this International Women’s Day. What I see through this lens troubles me greatly. Consider these facts from the World Health Organization:
Approximately 810 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth
94% of all maternal deaths occur in low and lower middle-income countries.
Young adolescents (ages 10-14) face a higher risk of complications and death as a result of pregnancy than other women.
Skilled care before, during and after childbirth can save the lives of women and newborns.
Violence against women – particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence – is a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights.
Global estimates published by WHO indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
It feels like a desperately slow road for women’s health and wellbeing. I remember my dismay at my first visit to the women’s and children’s hospital in Rania in 2018. It reminded me of hospitals in Pakistan from my childhood, many, many years ago. Though things in western countries have improved dramatically through the years, little has improved for women in the developing world. I struggle deeply with all of this. I long to see better health outcomes for women, long to see real change occur. I long to see greater justice and focus on women’s health and education, because they are so integrally connected.
I long to see us working toward greater justice and equity in women’s health around the world.
And even as I write this, I am acutely aware that justice and equity are not found in a blog post.
Justice is not an instagram story or a facebook post. Justice is not loud outrage followed by a hot latte. Justice is not one stop shopping or a one time event. Justice is not fired up mirror neurons or copycat anger.
Justice is not pity. Justice is not “poor you!” Justice is not a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Justice is not meaningless nods or empty words.
Justice, true justice, is hard work and community giving. Justice is partnership over pity. Justice is daily humility, letting others be the teacher. Justice is knowing we will get it wrong, but working to get it right. Justice is loving and serving others when it hurts. Justice is quiet acts of courage that people don’t always see. Justice is hard repentance and soul searching.
Justice comes from a heart of love and a spirit of generosity. Justice without love is like bread without salt – it looks good but it tastes all wrong.
So on this International Women’s Day, I publicly reaffirm a commitment to my small part in this journey. I commit to learning, to growing, to cultural humility, to working toward greater equity in healthcare, to loving and serving well this group that holds up half the sky.
Here’s to the women around the world who have never heard of International Women’s Day, but faithfully do what they have to do to care for their families and communities. Here’s to the unsung heroes, the stories that may never be told, and the the daily sacrifice of so many. Here’s to resilience and strength, resourcefulness and tenacity. Here’s to the million choices that are made by women daily – choices that hold up half the sky. Here’s to women.
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Earlier this week there was a high wind advisory in our area. It was well warranted. The winds raged from 44 to 50 miles an hour and shook everything around. Though it must have been predicted, for me it was sudden.
We happened to be in Rockport at the time and our entire condo quivered and shivered throughout the night. Beyond the whistling sounds typical of high winds were the sounds of shutters and vents banging, branches hitting the outside walls, and overall ghost-like moans of the storm.
I lay in bed unable to sleep for a long time. The storm felt insurmountable. When would it end? Would the electricity go off, taking with it the heat and hot water? Would there be damage to the condo? So many questions. I fell into an uneasy sleep only to wake again to the seemingly never-ending storm.
The storm reflects my life right now. A sudden storm of events brought with it howling winds and shaking circumstances. The questions too were similar. When would it end and what damage would it do? These questions crowd my mind as I fall into an uneasy sleep.
But the actual physical storm did end. The electricity didn’t go off. There is no damage. There is no evidence of the violent winds that ripped through the area. Today came and with it sunlight reflected through every window. Beauty and light after a storm.
And with the sun came a quiet hope for the life storm, a tiny capsule of rest and redemption. In this light I begin to believe that somedaythis will all be redeemed.
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I just finished watching the Apple TV show, Ted Lasso. For the uninitiated, this show is about an American football coach who is recruited to coach a failing British football team – the sport known as soccer in the United States. The show is delightful. While the language is salty and my eyes rolled at some of the innuendo (mainly because both feel lazy) you have this truly good man who is thrown into an impossible situation. He knows nothing about football that is not American (ie soccer),he knows nothing about the UK and their ardent and tumultous love of football, and he is clueless that he is being exploited and used. Despite that, he goes into the situation with optimistic joy. He has this ability to make everyone he meets feel a little bit better about life and about themselves. Even the most cynical character is changed by meeting Ted Lasso.
Very little in the show is predictable. While we humans love a story line of the underdog becoming a hero or the losing team suddenly winning, this is not a story that follows those feel good predictable narratives. Instead, it does something far better: It gives the viewer a sense that no matter how bad things get, it really is okay, that resilience is not developed by overcoming a flatline, but by coping with mountains, valleys, and flatlines. That’s the magic of the show.
A marriage fails, an aging soccer star hangs up his jersey, a scorned woman continues to be completely mocked by her ghastly ex-husband, and a team does not win. But despite all of that, the players, the coach, the assistant coach, the locker room assistant – even an arrogant journalist – all become better people.
The players learn to play as a team. The locker room assistant learns that his observations are worthwhile. The arrogant journalist learns to give someone grace instead of maligning them. The scorned ex-wife/owner of the team learns to apologize and really mean it.
It is remarkable.
The last episode of the season is called “The Hope that Kills You” and it is one of the only times when you see Ted Lasso angry. He’s angry about the phrase. His philosophy is not about winning, it’s about playing – specifically, playing well, playing as a team, and having fun. But this last game is against a significant rival and has far-reaching implications for the team. Over and over he’s told “Hope will kill you.” It’s a phrase that grew out of a downtrodden people and team; a phrase that spoke of hope deferred over and over and over until it was no longer viable. Hope is a disaster, or worse – it’s a fatality. This, for Ted Lasso, is unbearable. He can handle multiple insults coming from every side, he can handle outright and subtle ridicule, but he cannot bear watching people dismiss hope.
This is where Ted Lasso and the current state of the Pandemic world collide. Hope within this pandemic has died. It’s a disaster, or worse – it’s a fatality. We are daily given doses of why we can’t hope, why we must be cautious, why nothing will ever get back to “normal.”
It’s exhausting to have so many voices telling us that hope is going to kill us. And I for one, am done. Not only does the pessimism exhaust me, it defeats every thought, every dream, and every plan. It’s not just a disaster, it’s a fatality.
So I’m going to go all Ted Lasso on you – I’m going to loudly proclaim that hope is not what will kill you, it’s the opposite. No – hope won’t kill you – it will help you live.
Somehow in our world we give gold stars to sophisticated cynicism and educated skepticism. Those with hope are audaciously childish and need to be put in their place. So we put them in their place. We put them in their place with statistics and data, with charts and graphs, with “that will never work” and snide side glances. And if that doesn’t work, we put them in their place with mockery and ridicule. Just like the crowds in Ted Lasso.
He responds with unrelenting optimism, with tireless goodwill, with determined effort to see the good in each human being and situation he encounters, and it drives some people crazy. But he keeps it up.
I want to be like that. And if it’s put on my tombstone “Above all, she had Hope” then what a grace.
What a grace indeed.
“The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible…..They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.”
“The shifts of time unearth our longing for a permanent residence, unshakeable, immovable, wholly given and wholly ours. Scattered across this great globe, now and then, we stumble across gifts of happiness from a God who, kindly, with an absolute patience that the trees themselves were taught to imitate, guides us up into the security of his own life”
Recently I have been longing to purchase a home. For a long time we did own, first in a small town in Massachusetts, then in the city of Phoenix. I loved those homes. They were our spaces, places where we could share our lives. One was an old Victorian home with 36 windows, five bedrooms, and a side porch with a doll house and wicker furniture. Our children climbed the trees in the side yard in the summer and fall and sled down a small hill in the back yard in the winter. We would order and stack chopped wood each fall to use in the wood stove in the living room, where we would gather each evening after homework to drink tea and talk.
The other was a much younger southwest home with archways and tile, cool stucco and high ceilings. Fans whirred most of the year and the diving pool was in constant use. A large back yard faced the desert and the famous Phoenix sunsets brought on quiet beauty and longing almost daily. We created a large patio at the far corner of the yard, and spent hours sitting, talking, and listening to our teenagers hone their guitar skills. In those completely different venues, we created space and place so that any guest or stranger would know the space was undeniably ours.
Growing up we never owned a house. We went from mission house to mission house and each one I loved. There were similarities in all of them – ceilings taller than 20 feet, archways, small windows just below the high ceilings called roshandons, often made of stained glass that helped to circulate air, and fans hanging from the ceilings with 12 foot thick wire. Salts crept up the walls causing them to bubble and crumble, but they were home. Courtyards with dusty Bouganvillea and Hibiscus grew wild with brilliant color, a sharp contrast to the dust of the ground and walls. The flat roofs allowed us to look across houses and trees, mosques and shops giving us a birdseye view of whatever city we lived in. They were all home. They were, above all, safe.
As an adult I’ve called four countries home and always welcomed the challenge of creating beauty out of odd colors and spaces, of transforming kitchens and living rooms into places we could call home. With all their warts and impermanence, we still called them home.
We’ve rented now for many years. I don’t think we set out to rent. I think we didn’t think about it, and the next thing we knew, prices around us had risen and owning was far out of our affordability. This worked out well when a dream of being back in the Middle East became a reality and we rid ourselves of seventy five percent of our posessions, taking on a journey that would have us fall in love with a place and people more than we’d ever imagine.
But, as those who read my writing know, that ended and we found ourselves back in the Boston area rebuilding what we had left, grieving even as we moved forward. Six months into our move, the world stopped, borders closed, and we experienced limited movement like we’ve never had before. It was soon into this closure that a longing for a house began in me. While we have our beautiful cottage in Rockport, it is too small to host our kids and our guests, and I long for something that can create memories for this next stage of life.
In recent weeks, its reached a feverish level of longing. Almost before my prayers in the morning I look at my realestate app. I try to imagine living in places that I don’t even like, and then shake my head in frustration. Why has it reached this sort of longing? Why is my heart so aching for place?
I’ve written a lot about place. And indeed, I want my next book to be about place. From Paul Tournier’s A Place for You to Wendell Berry’s Port William series, I read words that remind me place is important. We are created for place. Our longing is not misplaced so much as it is affected by our limited vision of what place is and where it fits in our spiritual and physical journey.
I don’t know what will happen with this longing. I don’t know if it will be fulfilled. Even as I write this, I know how incredibly fortunate I am, how I do not wonder where my next meal will come from or where I will sleep tonight. I am warm. I am safe. I have place even as I long for place. This longing is real to be sure, but it is not like the longing for a child, an empty womb and hands a continual sword in the heart. Or like the longing for a close one who has died. But longing is longing, and telling myself it’s minor is like slapping myself.
That God meets us in our longing is something I know in my bones, but even as he meets us, we are flesh and blood. We ache and long for permanence in the impermanent; in a world that can’t possibly deliver. As I wrote several years ago: We are tethered to earth with hearts made for Eternity. Surely Christ, who experienced the impermanence of place and a human body on this earth knows this. In the quiet of my heart I sometimes feel his whisper of the permanence that awaits me, more glorious than I could imagine, but seemingly so very far off.
In Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter, he writes poignantly of place. And whether place is rented or owned, there is something in the keeping of it that matters. I grab onto this on this day, a day when I looked yet again at the real estate app, desperately searching for something. As I grab hold, the words settle into my spirit. I sigh, close the app, and bake a lemon blueberry cake. It is enough for this moment.
There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven…
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
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