Advent Reflections – Faith in the Irrational

If you are like me, everywhere you turn you will see someone writing Advent Reflections. While I’d like to apologize for joining the crowd, I find I can’t. One look at headlines around the world and I’m convinced that our world needs as many Advent Reflections as possible.

From suicides to refugee traumas, from wars to famines, from deep loneliness to deeper despair, we are a people in need of hope. My job takes me into this hopelessness (if not physically, emotionally) on an almost daily basis. From statistics to stories, I witness so much difficult news, so much sadness, so much despair. It is in these darkest days, when even the physical days grow dimmer and shorter, that we come upon Advent – the coming of the Christ Child.

As I was reflecting on Advent and all it means this afternoon, I was once again overwhelmed with the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of Christ coming, his channel for coming a woman’s womb. For nine months he was nourished through what his mother ate and drank, protected by his mother’s body. He was, like all babies, connected to her through his umbilical cord, his life sustained by God through Mary’s placenta. The God who said, “Let there be light” and so there was light, reduced to the smallest of cells to become one of us. There is a line in one of the hymns of the Orthodox Church that says, “All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace…. He made your body into a throne, and your womb become more spacious than the heavens,” and when I first heard these lines, I could hardly breathe for the wonder of them.

I get it when some of my friends and family say to me “I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t make sense. I just can’t believe it.” It IS irrational and yet, every day, I choose this over all else.

Perhaps this is why the first Sunday of Advent focuses on faith. Because faith is foundational to Advent. How can I possibly move into hope, love, and peace unless I first acknowledge the faith it takes to believe that God is the creator, author, and perfector of all of those?

I choose faith to believe the seemingly impossible. Faith to get up every day and live by this impossibility. Faith to not get defensive when others challenge that belief. Faith to say, “I don’t know how this all works, but I’m still going to believe.” Faith to believe in the irrational, hope in the impossible, and love with abandon. Faith to believe that somehow in the presence of God, all of this will make sense, mystery wrapped up in indescribable love.

This is the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild! Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child

Madeleine L’Engle

If you are one who celebrates Advent, may you be encouraged to continue on in this wildly irrational faith journey that ultimately leads all of us Home.

Finding Beauty Between

I was caught in traffic today. I sat in the driver’s seat just five minutes from my house, craning my neck to see what was blocking cars and trucks from moving more than a couple of feet every few minutes. We inched along, caught in a concrete and steel maze. To my left was an iron fence, the top of it oddly ornamental but lost in the garbage and chaos that is city living. To my right, bright yellow graffiti tried to make a statement, perhaps encouraging those of us who were stuck in traffic to see beyond the city scene.

In the middle of this, I began to think about a talented artist and her ability to take the common of the city, infuse the starkness with colors and shadows, and in her own words “beautifying the banal.” She takes the scene I see in front of me and creates beauty. Chain link fences, stop signs, concrete buildings, barriers, all of it painted with precision and care.

I paint spaces that most people pass daily but don’t notice, like alleyways, fences and parking lots.

Christine Rasmussen

Christine Rasmussen is an LA-based artist who describes herself as “painter of the in between.” She is also daughter of one of my dear childhood, now adult, friends. Her artist statement gives the viewer a sense of what she is doing. Beyond the words are, of course, the paintings themselves.

As a painter I investigate the in between, depicting cityscapes that hover between familiar and imagined. In observing these urban spaces devoid of people, I play with themes of belonging versus aloneness; memory versus daydream; and narrative versus abstraction. The “story” continues off the canvas, letting the viewer’s imagination step in.

These themes interest me as a global nomad who has often found myself hovering between multiple cultures, time zones, languages and identities. Close observation of my surroundings in every city I encounter reveals recurring materials, shadows or shapes that I paint as symbols of our shared humanity across perceived differences. Through capturing these commonalities – the wondrous details of urban environments – in my paintings, I explore the many complexities and multiple identities of our rich inner lives.

Artist Statement – Christine Rasmussen – Painter of the In-Between

There are many things in cityscapes that are barriers carrying messages that tell us we don’t belong. Red and white signs that give harsh orders of “Do Not Enter,” stop signs, large concrete structures, traffic lights that dictate when you can go and when you must stop, boarded up buildings, and anonymous drivers in snob appeal cars. That is what makes Christine’s desire to introduce us to these as shared symbols of humanity and eye for beauty in the commonplace of the city unique and imaginative.

In a review of her solo exhibition called “Liminal Transcendence” that recently opened in LA, her work was described this way:

In these paintings, we are getting a view of where the sky meets the earth. The horizon is filled with concrete, metal, glass, shadow and urban stories. The sky in her works is filled with clouds (and chemtrails) Angelenos will easily recognize. Christine is asking us to take notice of that in between space where the magic happens.

Kristine Schomaker in Art and Cake Magazine

Take notice of that in between space where the magic happens.

Pay attention to the beauty in the banal.

Never stop finding beauty in the ordinary moments of life.

It is easy for me to see beauty in the in between of the natural world where the sky meets the earth, where the ocean rises up to the horizon, and where the sun shines through the clouds. Bearing witness to all that beauty gives birth to heart-bursting moments that keep me longing for an eternity where beauty will never end but last forever.

It is more difficult for me to see beauty and magic where concrete meets clouds and chain-link fences connect with the sky, where birds perch on electric wires strung between poles on city streets. And yet, these are part of the sum of where I live. Christine’s work, created from a background that resonates with my own, invites me to see color and perspective, asks me to pay attention and look for beauty beyond my immediate vision. She captures life between far more realistically, precisely because there are so many sharp corners and fences in a life between. Her paintings encourage me to move past the cityscapes and into the coffee shop on the corner where my heart connects with a friend and the saudade is killed. I move from there to my office with sleek black walls and industrial fixtures, finally back to the constant creation and recreation of home and place. And in all of it, the invitation is there – find beauty, look for magic.

When I first began processing a life lived between worlds through writing, it was more about the pain and discomfort of the process. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to see the sharp objects in this life as part of the beauty. Our appreciation for beauty perhaps has more to do with our understanding of suffering then it does with our eyesight.

For all of us, this life on earth is a life lived between. None of us knows what is next. While my faith tradition gives me clues and in faith, I accept those, it also reminds me that this is a mystery. I analyze it and dissect it, but what I really long to do is use my words to articulate the beauty and magic of this life. I want my words to do what Christine’s art does. I want them to say “Look beyond the dirt and garbage, beyond the stop and go, the insecurity and anonymity of the city. Take notice! Pay attention!” Pay attention to the straight edges that meet the cloudless blue sky, or the petunia that grows through the crack in the concrete. Pay attention to the steel objects and the velvet fabrics. Chase beauty like you chase belonging and you will find both.

Let your imagination run with your longing and find rest in a promise far greater than magic, the promise of an eternity better than you could dream it to be, all of our longings and belongings finally fulfilled, wrapped in something far better and greater than we can imagine.

Note – you can see Christine’s work by clicking the link for her website above or by following her on Instagram @christinerasmussenart.

Gratitude and Grace

It’s the day before American Thanksgiving and I’m sitting in my mom’s living room looking out at the quickly fading daylight. Soon it will be twilight and lights around the city of Rochester, New York will come on, our 21st century way of prolonging daylight.

The mashed potato roll dough is in the refrigerator, pumpkin pies are cooling, cranberry sauce is made, and everything else will happen by tomorrow. While no one would ever call me a traditionalist, when it comes to Thanksgiving, I love traditions of food and activities. I love it all – the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and homemade cranberry sauce. I’m happy to add extras like saag paneer and parathas but bring on the traditional foods and I’m content. I love the tradition of sharing memorable Thanksgivings from the past and favorite foods. I love playing games and easy conversation.

As I sit with my mom, a lot of our time is spent reminiscing. Her childhood and early adulthood come up often in these conversations, memories of people and events long gone. Memories return through all our senses – the taste of cranberry sauce, the smell of pumpkin pie, the sight of an old recipe, the sound of a song, the texture of a piecrust – and with their return the stories tumble out, often flowing into the next story before the first one is finished. These stories somehow live deep in our DNA, sometimes pushed far down but never truly forgotten. Listening and absorbing these stories becomes ever more precious knowing that at 94, any event could be my mom’s last.

As I sit in the quiet, gratitude for this season is a welcome companion. While Christmas brings its own peculiar pressure, the gift giving never seeming quite enough and the pressure to please sometimes overwhelming, Thanksgiving is enveloped in traditions and gratitude. No matter where we are in the world there is room for gratitude and feasting. No matter the tragedy or sadness that may be circling around us, Thanksgiving helps us stop and breathe, opening up space to remember friendship, protection, hope, and grace.

And with this, I am grateful to you all – some who I know in real life, some who I know online, others who reach out with kind affirmation and still others who read on the sidelines. I have processed through writing for eleven years….it’s a long time to walk with someone. Thank you! I will never take it for granted.

Image by Denis Naumenko from Pixabay

In Memory of a Friend, In Memory of a Community

The news came, as it does these days, over the waves of social media. It was the death of a childhood friend, the news posted by her brother. Within minutes, a community of us, some who hadn’t seen Ruthie for many years, others who saw her this past June, and still others who were with her recently were collectively remembering, collectively grieving.

Ruthie was three years younger than me, a classmate and friend of my younger brother, Dan. She was petite and pretty with a smile that radiated from her bones to her face. She came from a dynamic family, all of them uniquely gifted musically and relationally.

I had the chance to see Ruthie in early June at a reunion for those of us connected to Pakistan. It was the first time I had seen her since 1993 when she visited Cairo with her boyfriend Mark, the man who would later become her husband. We had just left our beloved Maadi community and moved to a different area of Cairo. I was getting used to a new flat in a new part of the city, the kids were anticipating a new school, and my husband was starting a new job. In the midst of all that new came the familiarity of an old friend. Every morning before she and Mark went off exploring the city we would laugh and talk. Every evening we would do the same. The familiar mixed with the new, a gift of memory and discovery.

As I talked to her this summer, I brought up the memory. I was delighted that she, too, remembered. I learned that it had been a key moment in her life with Mark. I knew as I was speaking with her that cancer cells were overwhelming her healthy cells, that she was fighting a hard battle with the tools of chemotherapy, gifted doctors, and prayers of “Thy will be done.” I saw the deep love that she and her husband had formed through the years, a love large enough to embrace four biological and twelve adopted children. But I knew that I only saw and heard a fraction of what her journey had included.

The service was at two in the afternoon, Albanian time. It was broadcast as a gift to many around the world who, through computer screens, could participate in honoring her life.

As I sat in my living room in Boston, miles away from Albania, I began to see others from my Pakistan family and community sign on. With each one, came a rush of memories and thoughts. Ruthie was little sister, mentor, friend, classmate, big sister, and more depending on who you were and how you knew her. Most of all, she was one of us.

In our small community we shared tragedies like they were our own. When a father or mother of one of our friends died, it was like losing a beloved family member. The limbs on our missionary community tree stretched wide and when one of them was gone, no matter how we lost them, it meant leaves and fruit, nourishment and love were gone. These many years later we still feel losses when we hear of the death of someone we loved, someone we knew. No matter if it was another lifetime, they were part of us, and we feel the ache. The names still come to me – Dale, Carolyn, Angela, Val, Joy, Roy, Stan, Tim….and these are only a few of the ones that we have lost. Some were long, slow deaths, others were quick, tragic accidents – no matter, the way they died, their deaths put another nail in a community coffin.

Yesterday we grieved the loss of another. Yet, it was not only her life that we grieved. It was all of it – the loss of one brought up many other losses. In grieving for Ruthie, we had permission to grieve for lost community, lost time, and lost childhood. In grieving the loss of one of us, we once again felt saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. In seeing her life, the adult version of Ruthie featuring a life lived large with joy and love, we perhaps questioned our own scarcity and unwillingness to live large, our inability to love with abundance and live generously.

“Everything precious is costly” were words that were said of Ruthie at the memorial service. Her beloved Mark, her children, her parents, her siblings, and her community are already experiencing the costly loss of wife, mom, daughter, and sister. And we on the periphery, we hear those words and know their truth, for we have lived and witnessed an extraordinary and precious community, gone but still glimpsed in memorials and memories.

But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.

Frederick Buechner

How We Return – Anafora

How I wish words could accurately describe this unique retreat center in the desert that has provided peace, safety, rest, council, and retreat for so many years!

We arrive at night traveling the Cairo-Alexandria Road at dusk. A starry sky with no light pollution is the only light as we drive into the compound. Night comes quickly in the desert, the bright sun replaced by a cloudless night sky, billions of stars light years away are a reminder of how small I am in this big universe.

My room is simple and charming, domed ceilings, stone floors covered by bright colored rugs, and a bed covered by mosquito netting welcome me. I haven’t slept in a bed with mosquito netting since Pakistan, and I have always loved the feeling of being protected so completely with the gossamer mesh. Dinner is by candlelight in the large communal dining room, sitting on rattan chairs covered by bright blue and white patterned cushions,

A candle lights my room, creating shadows on the whitewashed walls and I read by its light. Within minutes, my shrunken heart weighed down with fear, worry, anxiety, and anger is made larger. “How fortunate I am to be here!” was the only thought on my mind.

Before I fall asleep I whisper a prayer “Thank you O Lord, Thank you. Let me not waste this precious, precious time. Instead, let me observe it with gratitude.”

I wake up early the next morning, the circled sky lights in the ceiling providing multicolored light that fills the room. I look out at the arched door that leads to a patio. My room looks out on date palms and olive groves that stretch as far as my eye can see. For the millionth time in my life, I wish I was an artist and could capture my surroundings. Palm trees wave at me past the peach-colored stucco archway and wall. There are multiple shades of desert green, none of them the bright of my New England home, all of them perfect for this setting. A round table less than a foot off the ground sits to my right with a chair of cushions to the side of it for comfort from the hard stone floor. It is quite simply, perfect.

I quickly realize that my distractions follow me. As much as I want to quiet my mind and take every advantage of this desert gem, a phone, my thoughts, and my circumstances all follow me, begging me to pick them up and fret. I know it will take effort to release them. But I have time, that beautiful and sometimes fleeting commodity. The concrete walls and stone floors are a comfort to my distracted thoughts, the date palms outside my door spreading their dates all over the ground are a reminder of a past life in Pakistan, a reminder of a God who has never let me go, who has always been there since my earliest days.

Anafora is a Greek word that means “to lift up.” The community was formed under the leadership of Bishop Thomas, a man that I was able to meet on my second to last day. His desire is to see people come to this place and be refreshed, be lifted up, and meet God. Through the years the community has grown to be a vibrant multicultural space with a constant flow of worldwide visitors intersecting with those who live and work at Anafora. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are communal meals served in the large dining hall. Dinners are served by candlelight, adding to the rest that the entire space cultivates. Food is served in beautiful pottery pots, and the silverware is arranged in beautiful patterns every meal. Large bottles of olive oil, and jars of olives are ever present, as are different kinds of loose leaf tea – mint, karkade (hibiscus) and chamomile to name a few – that can be accessed any hour of the day. I am quickly aware of the many hands and hours of work that go into making sure everyone who stays at Anafora feels welcome.  Coptic services are held daily as well as evening vespers. Evening vespers are particularly beautiful, the large church lit with candles in alcoves around the room. While the service is primarily in Arabic, the Gospel reading of the day is read in every language present – English, Greek, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian.

My purpose is primarily a solitary retreat, but it is a perfect mixture of solitude and people. From my patio I hear laughter and voices chatting away in Arabic, but I can’t see anybody and it feels completely private.

The grounds are simple and lovely. Low buildings with domed ceilings are connected and I am told by my friend Marty that the block of rooms where I am staying are in the shape of a question mark with the dot at the end of the question mark being a prayer chapel “Because at the end of every question is prayer” – she quotes Bishop Thomas as she tells me. Pools and fountains of turquoise and blue run alongside paths, small bridges linking parallel paths. It is easy to find one’s way around in the daylight. What felt like a maze the night before quickly becomes familiar. The date palms are ever present, squishy sticky dates left over from the harvest fall over the ground. It is clearly date season! Pottery with desert plants of bright-colored bougainvillea and other species that I don’t recognize are the only décor and it is perfect. I am so grateful for the simplicity and beauty, a welcome respite from my overcrowded world.

As I sit on the patio, journal in hand, thoughts finally resting, a pesky fly begins to bother me. I laugh, amused at how perfectly imperfect life always ends up being. My husband and I have this theory we call “Ants in Paradise.” We thought it up on a family vacation. Everything was perfect. The most perfect beach, warm water, amazing food, great room – and suddenly we were bothered by a line of ants. We had no idea where they came from – we certainly had not invited them to come. But there they were. In that moment, we had the laughing realization that no matter how perfect our circumstances on earth, there will be ants, flies, or worse that remind us we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead of letting this depress us, we instead laughed it off, vowing to remind each other of this on a regular basis. There I was in the perfect setting of beauty and simplicity, but a fly kept on buzzing around me, annoying in its persistence. I decided to go brush my teeth and wash my hands with hopes that the smell of clean would annoy them and they’d find another victim.

It worked.

Fly gone, I begin writing and reflecting. I have five days here and because I fail so often at stopping and being present at the moment, I am already planning my next trip and know that it will be longer. I stop and breathe, reminding myself that all I have is this moment.

This moment for rest, for retreat, for Anafora.

How We Return

Cairo – October 15, 2022

There is something about returning to a place that shaped you so profoundly, something about the mixture of thoughts, feelings, and reactions – all lobes of the brain engaged in a dialogue labeled “Return.” Whether by car, train, boat, or plane, the exhausted euphoria has as much to do with your mind as it does with your body.

Cairo airport was busy at 8pm on Saturday, October 15th. I left Boston the day before at almost midnight Eastern Standard Time. The overnight flight arrived in Istanbul at four in the afternoon leaving time for a coffee and croissant in the Istanbul airport before boarding the Cairo flight. It’s a short flight and before I could doze off, I saw the lights of the massive city of Cairo below me, a shining beacon rising from the desert.

Memories of arrivals past flooded over me. The first time I visited Cairo was as a 23-year-old. I was with my boyfriend, the man who would become my husband just 7 months later. All our luggage was lost enroute so there I was in a strange city with a man who had suddenly become a stranger to me. A friend he had made a few months earlier picked us up and he, too, was a stranger. In other words, it was all strange and unfamiliar.

Six years later I would arrive with three children, four years and under, to make a home in the city. What was initially strange became dear and familiar, the city pushing its way under my skin, up through my blood stream and into my heart. It made its home there, squeezing in between space I had reserved for other things and planting itself, a pacemaker of sorts that quickened or slowed my heartbeat. You don’t take out a pacemaker just because you move. It stays there, not always working as well as you want it to because it’s so out of sync with its surroundings.

Through the years I have arrived and left Egypt around 26 times, but who or what is really counting? The pacemaker, that’s who.

On arrival, the familiar mixes with the strange, almost like a recipe changing. You don’t remember the recipe quite the way it now tastes. And so it is with return. The picture that you have planted in your head conflicts with the images you are seeing, initially feeling like a betrayal. What happened to that restaurant? That coffee shop? That family? I thought they would always be there. Once the betrayal is confronted, I feel a new freedom to relax and enjoy.

Marty, a dear friend of many years picked me up from the Cairo airport and we happily chatted as the driver dodged the ever-present traffic, finally arriving in Ma’adi, the place where Marty has made her home for 34 years. If outside had changed, inside was the comfort of familiarity in a dear place with dear friends.

Everyone has a different routine when going back to places they have lived in the past. For me, it means carving out of a new niche. This is not metaphorical but concrete. I have to find a new coffee shop, the space where I will go daily while I am visiting. I found it quickly, a small outdoor space with perfect lattes and delicious mint, lemon smoothies. The first few days found me content to just be, casting off the stress of my U.S. life and taking on this extraordinary chance to rest.

I chose the perfect month to return. Cairo in October is generally spectacular, the heat of summer making way for cool mornings and warm days, gentle breezes and even occasional rain. There is a new energy and gladness in folks who had previously succumbed to summer’s lethargy, knowing that fighting it is useless.

A desert retreat, chance to speak, and time with friends would come later. For now, all I knew was that I had returned to the pacemaker, the place where two of my children were born, the place where I learned to be a mom, where some of my most enduring friendships were born. I returned to a desert with splashes of fuchsia, orange, and white bougainvillea creating a striking and beautiful contrast to the dust. I returned to old memories and friendships and to creating new memories and new friendships.

I had returned. I was back and the world was alright.

Author’s Note: Dear readers, I’ll be taking you through a tour of my recent trip to Egypt and Turkey these next few days! Thank you for following along. Here are a few pictures to go with today’s post!

Weary of Walking in the Dark

At the time of darkness, more than anything else kneeling is helpful.

St. Isaac the Syrian

I’m weary, and I wonder about you. Perhaps you are weary as well.

When I try and get to the bottom of this I realize that I’m weary of doing the next right thing. I’m weary of praying for my enemies and loving those who hurt me. I’m weary of family fractures. I’m weary of getting up every day and working. I’m weary of walking forward with so many unknowns.

Most of all, I’m weary because all seems dark and God seems so very distant.

Job’s friends would stop me right now. “Have you looked at your life?” they would ask. There must be some unconfessed sin. There must be some reason why God is distant, why all is dark. But here’s the thing – to believe that all of the dark and difficult things we go through are a result of our behavior is distorted theology. Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew are clear: “for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” In fact, in the Old Testament, the Psalmist is constantly asking why the evil prosper and do well, seemingly free of trouble, something that turns a health and wealth gospel upside down.

Sometimes there is not an earthly answer. Sometimes all we get is silence. Sometimes darkness is everywhere we turn.

It’s in this season that I have taken to reading the book Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. This book is an interesting study on darkness. When asked in an interview what her ‘working definition’ of darkness was, she said this:

Darkness is everything I do not know, cannot control, and am often afraid of. But that’s just the beginner’s definition. If I am a believer in God, then darkness is also where God dwells. God may also be frightening and uncontrollable and largely unknown to me, yet I decide to trust God anyway.

Barbara Brown Taylor in Religion News Services 2012

Taylor’s search led her to explore darkness literally and metaphorically. Through exploring a cave; being led in complete darkness by a blind person, physically experiencing life through her other senses; and by spending the night in a solitary cabin with no light to be found, she experienced the physical absence of light. Beyond that is her deep exploration of “dark nights of the soul” and how the physical experience of dark can perhaps teach us something of the spiritual. Her search is not to diminish the need for light, rather, she wants the reader to appreciate the importance of darkness both physically and spiritually.

The book is marvelously free of platitudes and that in itself is a gift for me in this season. But it is also a reminder of a truth I know, but regularly need reminders. When we are in hard, dark places, God may seem distant, but He is as fully present as in the light. He dwells there with us. Psalm 139 verse 12 reassures me of this: “Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

So here in the dark, where I am exhausted in weariness, where I have no words, and where the way forward seems absent of light, will you join me in a quest to believe it is okay, to believe that he is here with us in the dark? To sit as companions, free of clichéd conversation, and know he can be trusted? I don’t have much beyond that for you today – but perhaps that is enough.

“Even when light fades and darkness falls–as it does every single day, in every single life–God does not turn the world over to some other deity…Here is the testimony of faith; darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.”

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor