Full Heart at #FIGT17NL 


I’m sitting in bed in a modern hotel room in  The Hague – that famous city known for tribunals and the Peace Palace. 

There is much I could write about this city from the small amount of time I’ve been here, but it is nothing compared to what I could write about the people and new friendships budding at Families in Global Transition. 

From sun up until way beyond sundown  my heart has been full – of laughter, of reconnecting, of amazing conversations and new connections. But most of all, full of the best sort of belonging. 

When you move a lot, you pack up your life along with your material goods. And when you pack up a life, you also pack your heart. After awhile you stop looking for belonging. It’s not because you are cynical – it’s because you recognize that belonging shifts a bit with each move and there are places and people where you will always feel more of a sense of belonging than others. So when you find yourself in a room full of kindred spirits, you catch your breath. “Is this quite real?” “If I close my eyes, will I find it’s my imagination?” 

My favorite moment of the day came in mid afternoon, when in a crowded room I ended up with a Pakistani adult third culture kid living in Dubai, and a Dutch adult third culture kid raised in Pakistan. In the middle of a crowded room two people I had never met were immediate friends through country and experience.  It was more than amazing – it was pure joy. 

In a television show called “Friday Night Lights” a high school football coach works to make his football team the best they can be. Before every game, this group of teenagers, who come from many different family situations, gather for one purpose: to play their absolute best, to play with their hearts. The captain of the team leads them in what becomes a resounding cry in the show. Clear Eyes, Full Hearts. Can’t Lose. 

And that is how I feel tonight. 

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.

Note: check out Mariam’s blog: And Then We Moved To… – it’s great! 

New Lives and Portable Memories


Every time I leave home, I’m struck by the fact that I have that choice. I’m not being forced out by violence, persecution, or a crooked landlord. 

I choose when to go. I choose how to go.  I choose what to take. 

An article in the NY Times called “In a Refugee’s Bags, Memories of Home”* paints  a poignant picture of things left behind when refugees and displaced people have to leave their homes and possessions. But the picture is juxtaposed with creative ways that refugees bring pieces of their homes and places with them. For one woman it’s a dress that holds the landscape of her beloved city in Iraq. For a musician it’s the melody of a song sung in his native Syriac; for another it’s a wooden string instrument. All of these are reminders of who they are and where they come from. 

More so, they are a picture of their resiliency and willingness to keep on living, to not believe that all is lost. 

… their stories….reveal not only what they have lost, but also the beautiful things they have saved, or remade.

I am far from home today, and I write this while sitting in an airport, surrounded by other travelers. I carry these stories with me, treasuring them for what they teach me about hope, about resiliency, about keeping on living even when it seems all is lost. 

Take a look at the story today by clicking here. You won’t be disappointed! 

*by STEPHANIE SALDAÑA

Lenten Journey: A Lenten Vent

Over my personal church history, I wasn’t really exposed to Lent as a practice. As a young girl we attended a Baptist church, and later I went to an interdenominational boarding school and a Bible college of the same variety. There was a brief season at St John’s Shaughnessy, an Anglican church in Vancouver, before I met Lowell and we headed to India. There we attended an international fellowship made up of a wonderful blend of countries and cultures. Now Lowell and I go to an Evangelical Free church of Scandinavian descent.

I suppose it was in India at the international fellowship where I was first really introduced to the idea of Lent. I remember my friend, Ellen, who had grown up Methodist, deeply contemplating what she would take up for Lent. That intrigued me. She seemed to really examine herself, she took her propensities and weaknesses seriously. Motivated by nothing but true longing that Christ be more fully formed in her she chose carefully a self-imposed discipline or a fast to serve as her trainer.

I had never really entertained the idea before but here was a close friend modelling what it might be like to intentionally choose a path of preparation for Holy Week. Since then Lent is something I anticipate. I look forward to the lean long days of discipline. I think and pray about abstinences and observances. I consider areas of my life where I seem to have given over control to calories, or indulgences, or sloth. I search out my sore spots, my weak places, my gluttonies, my greed and I seek out the Great Physician and his suggested treatment. Some years I’ve given up social media, other years sugar in my coffee or sweets. I’ve given up certain television shows. I’ve given up bread. I’ve written a daily thank you note. This year I’m going for a daily walk.

Last year just as Ash Wednesday was dawning and friends on Facebook were saying goodbye-announcing their intentions to be absent from that digital social space for the duration of their Lenten journey—another well-meaning friend, boldly posted that Lent is unnecessary and unuseful. He flouted his freedom to not participate. He proclaimed that he’s always aware of the death and resurrection of Christ, that no preparation is necessary for him, since Christ himself made all the preparations necessary for our redemption. His Facebook post stirred something up in me. To be honest, it made me more than a little angry. It seemed to me that he had missed the entire point.

I don’t have to observe Lent. There is nothing in scripture that commands that I do so. I do not assume that it impresses God, that my denial of self accumulates any heavenly points. I don’t fast during Lent because I have to, rather I observe Lent because I get to.

I think many Christ followers are so committed to grace and to the freedom they’ve experienced as a result of the deeply freeing knowledge that there is nothing they can do to earn God’s favour that they’ve thrown out many of the spiritual disciplines we can choose to engage for the purpose of deepening our faith. It’s as if, in a visceral response against legalism, they’ve actually legalized grace. Any ancient spiritual practice that hints at a rule or an imposition has been abandoned. They no longer want to think about obedience, or confession, or fasting.

But there’s great benefit in practicing Lent that I don’t want to miss out on. There is a sense that in observing Lent, we participate in the sufferings of Christ. We identify with the great sacrifices he made on our behalf. It’s a way to cultivate empathy with our Saviour. It’s a way to pause and remember all that he did for our great benefit, our great blessing.

Lent also humbles me if I let it. It’s big and long and beyond my normal capacity for self-deprivation. In order to do it well I must throw myself on the mercy of Jesus. I need his help in giving up myself: my cravings, my self-obsessions, my fickle wants. And when I fail I get to experience the humiliating reality that I have simply done that: fail. Nothing changes in the spiritual realm. I’m still deeply beloved. I’m still invited to continue to pursue, even as I am completely pursued. I can experience the profound God of A Million Second Chances. I can come back, soak in his undeserving grace and start again.

Lent also affirms the reality that our bodies and our spirits are braided together. We are wholly one—our bodies providing the container, the temple, the vessel– for our souls. How I live in my body matters. Our emotions, our faith, our food, our sleep habits, our exercise routines, the prayers we pray, our splinters and bruises are all inextricably linked. As I drag my body out the door for my morning Lenten journey/morning walk I know this full well.

In participating in Lent I’m joining together with my brothers and sisters worldwide who are also observing Lent. The communion of saints from yesteryear who’ve given something up to better remember the death and resurrection of Christ—I’m part of that circle. Those that have yet to be born, yet to choose to live leanly during their Lenten expression—I’m part of that circle too.  Lent connects me to a larger reality outside my own self. It allows me to join with others on a pilgrimage journey that winds around the wide world, picking up people from the far away gatherings of scattered believers, to the cross of Christ. From where I stand I can see people from every tongue, tribe and nation.

I, for sure, do not have to sacrifice for Lent but it’s what I get to do. It’s a privilege that I’m pleased to practice.

The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, doing penancerepentance of sins, almsgivingatonement, and self-denial….In Lent, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penance. Many Christians also add a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional or praying through a Lenten calendar, to draw themselves near to God. The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ’s carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed. Many Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches remove flowers from their altars, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious symbols are often veiled in violet fabrics in solemn observance of the event. Throughout Christendom, some adherents mark the season with the traditional abstention from the consumption of meat, most notably among Roman Catholics. (Wikipedia)

 

The Story of a Christian/Muslim Friendship – a Guest Post

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Every September, when cool breezes off the Nile River replaced the sweltering heat of summer, the expatriate community in Cairo, Egypt would reunite. Most employers planned a variety of activities to introduce any newcomers to Egypt in general, and the gigantic city of Cairo in particular.

Our employer, the American University of Cairo, put together an orientation week full of events and talks all designed to ease these overwhelmed rookies into life in both the city and the university. It was during orientation week that I met Lubna for the first time.

On the first day, I noticed Lubna standing alone at the break. I ignored my conscience and left her alone. On the second day, the internal nudge was too strong to ignore. I felt compelled to go and speak with her. I was nervous. Lubna was fully veiled. She wore both the abbaya (long black coat) and a niqab, the veil that covered all but her eyes. While I was used to communicating with women in the hijab (head covering), I had no friends who wore the full veil and I felt my discomfort acutely. I stumbled a bit as I asked her how long she had been in Cairo.

After seconds, we were engrossed in a dynamic conversation and within minutes found significant commonalities. Raised in Canada by an Egyptian family, she had married a Tunisian man who had immigrated to Canada just a few years before. She had one child, a baby girl.

A couple of weeks later, Lubna invited me to her home. Until this time, I had only seen her at outside events and I looked forward to being able to sit with her over tea and get to know her better. I arrived at her apartment around 10 minutes late – a little early for a Middle Eastern visit. I knocked on the door and …..

You can read the rest of the piece here!

Passages Through Pakistan is available here for purchase.

Lenten Journey – “I was a Stranger”

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What is our first reaction, our spontaneous response, when we meet the stranger? 

“Who let’s these people in here anyway?” asked the man. He was agitated, shaking his head in complete dismay. “I mean” he paused “The woman who served me coffee the other day was Moroccan!” His voice was raised in incredulity at the end of this declaration. The man was a casual friend of ours and he was speaking to my husband on a chance meeting at a convenience store nearby.

My husband took a second then responded calmly “Who let your people in here?”

Brilliant.

But our friend didn’t hesitate and was not to be silenced. “My people came on the Boat!” he said with authority and pride. He did not have to specify “which” boat. Depending where you live, this conversation is not uncommon. It is not nearly as rare as I would wish it to be.

The French philosopher Zvetan Tdorov puts this response well when he says that “our first spontaneous reaction in regards to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us”.  If one could see the unfiltered version when any one of us confronts difference in the form of a stranger, they may see this response.

Daily in our world we encounter the stranger.

Some times the encounters are interesting, intriguing, fun, joyful. Other times encounters are troubling, assaulting us with faces, smells, clothes, and accents that exacerbate the differences we feel and make us uncomfortable. Sometimes those feelings of discomfort spill over into anger or judgment.

And now I speak to the Christian who is reading — the one who believes that the gospel message is for all people. Hear this: the way we confront difference, the way we treat the stranger, reflects what we believe. If we consider the stranger to be inferior because he or she is different then we’d best ask ourselves ‘why’, best examine our motivation and our heart.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”*

The stranger – that one who is foreign, not one of us, the unknown.  From Genesis to Hebrews to James we have clear instruction and wisdom on how to treat the stranger. The words of Jesus call us to feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, come to the prisoner. The writer of Hebrews asks us to show ‘hospitality to strangers for by it some have entertained angels’. Hospitality holds a high premium in Middle Eastern culture, both now and in Old Testament times. The verse below is not ambiguous in its command:

‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’

We are told to “love” the stranger. Not just tolerate, not pass by, not ignore – but to love.

International students, immigrants, refugees – they all fall under the category of the ‘stranger’. The journeys that brought them to the United States are as varied as the tapestry of experiences that make up their lives.

Take international students as an example. Figures vary, but the United States has over 800,000 international students that arrive every fall for the academic year. Statistics on international students show that 80% of them never set foot in and American home. Never. Former world leaders who were international students at one time include Benazir Bhutto, Fidel Castro, and King Abdullah of Jordan. The state department maintains a list of current world leaders who at one time participated in American academic programs. The list includes almost 300 former or current leaders.

I have to ask myself – were they ever invited into the home of an American? Was hospitality extended to them during their tenure as students? Or did they come to this country and leave, without so much as a cup of coffee in the home of someone from the United States?

Who is the stranger in our midst? Who is the stranger in your midst? 

And how do we respond to that stranger?

Can we ask ourselves this question and be honest in our responses? What is our first spontaneous reaction in regard to a stranger? What is our response to difference?

Do we consider some worthy of our hospitality and others unworthy? Some superior because they are attractive, or white, or clean, or smart, or beautiful? Do we love only those with whom we agree, because we believe the same things on faith and God? Do we believe those who look like us are somehow more worthy of God’s love and of ours?  Do we love because of obligation or duty which is really no love at all? Do we believe we are more lovable because of who we are and how we live?

Or do we love because first we were loved?

Two weeks ago, I began my Lenten journey. Daily I am reminded of the journey to the cross, made possible by the love of God. If there was ever one to meet the stranger it was Jesus, the God-Man. Leaving all that was rightfully his, he came into our midst and encountered a world that didn’t know what to do with a Messiah. He engaged the stranger and found out their story, he entered into their story, and by entering their story – their lives were never the same. He lived, died, and rose again for the estranged and the stranger. Loving the stranger is not a philosophical idea, it is a spiritual command. 

Reflection Question: During this Lenten season, how will I better love and care for the stranger? 

Purchase Passages to Pakistan and give to refugees! A portion of every purchase goes toward refugee work in the Middle East.

*Matthew 25:35

Memories of Home – A Guest Post


Murree Christian School
P.O. Jhika Gali,

Murree Hills,

Pakistan

I can picture the scene as if it was yesterday.  I am lying on the top bunk in my dormitory. The louvered windows allow a mountain breeze to come through and the sun shines brightly through pine trees.  It is springtime in Murree and I am seven years old.  In the distance I hear the sound of musical scales in major and minor keys being played on old pianos, slightly tinny and out of tune. The players are disciplined, but clearly young with limited skills. Pungent smells waft through windows from the large kitchen two floors below alerting me that today our lunch will be curry and rice. The sounds of Urdu, Punjabi, and English meld together, a kaleidoscope of diversity unrealized until I am older. As the memory returns, I close my eyes and I am completely content.

Two distinct places come to mind when I think of the place and concept of ‘home.’ The first is that of several different cities where my parents lived in Pakistan during my childhood. The second place is the more constant: My boarding school near the town of Jhika Gali, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan range of mountains in the country of Pakistan.

My memories are strong of the place that shaped me, that formed me into who I am today. I was six years old when I first went to boarding school. I could barely tie my shoelaces; much less navigate the sometimes cruel environment of an institutional setting. But it was in the institutional halls of boarding school where I encountered the God who I would grow to love.

You can read the rest of the piece at Jen Pollock Michel’s blog by clicking here

Jen’s book, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home will be available in May. 

Lenten Journey: Waiting for Aslan

“WHAT an extraordinary place!” cried Lucy. “All those stone animals – and people too! It’s – it’s like a museum.”

“Hush,” said Susan, “Aslan’s doing something.”

…..Everywhere the statues were coming to life. The courtyard looked no longer like a museum; it looked more like a zoo. Creatures were running after Aslan and dancing round him till he was almost hidden in the crowd. Instead of all that deadly white the courtyard was now a blaze of colours; glossy chestnut sides of centaurs, indigo horns of unicorns, dazzling plumage of birds, reddy-brown of foxes, dogs and satyrs, yellow stockings and crimson hoods of dwarfs; and the birch-girls in silver, and the beech-girls in fresh, transparent green, and the larch-girls in green so bright that it was almost yellow. And instead of the deadly silence the whole place rang with the sound of happy roarings, brayings, yelpings, barkings, squealings, cooings, neighings, stampings, shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter.” from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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During our summer weekend walks in Rockport we pass by some amazing houses. Each one is different in color, size and style. Each one with character and charm: wrap-around front porches on some, outside spiral staircases to rooftops on others, gilded turrets on still more. They are blue, white, deep orange, and green. They have gardens and window boxes full of flowers, driveways and wide porches.

Just to look at them is a treat for our eyes.

One of the houses we aren’t able to describe. It sits down a hill closer to the ocean. Large trees block the view and it’s clear by the No Trespassing sign that strangers are not welcome. A large plot of land opposite the driveway belongs to the house and in recent years the land was developed. Trees were removed and the land is now sculpted with bushes, plants and flowers all artistically pre-arranged so they fit in with large rocks in the area.

But that is not enough.

A couple of years ago, the owners introduced stone statues of animals to the landscaped area.

First we saw a haughty ostrich at least 10 feet tall, its neck rising above its body.

Next we saw a proud lion on a rock.

Then we saw a lioness.

And her cubs.

Stone monkeys, children, and more lions have been added to the stone menagerie.

They stand, poised to pounce and play. But they can’t, because they aren’t alive. They are merely stone and granite statues fashioned by a talented artist.

These stone animals remind me of the castle of the White Witch, Queen of Narnia, where “Her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands” turns her enemies into stone and they sit in a large courtyard, seemingly forever trapped under a curse. Moments before they offended the queen, these animals and people were fully alive with a purpose ordained by their creator. Then, through the curse of this queen, they became stone.

They are waiting for Aslan.

I think of how like these stone statues I am at times. Hard. Immoveable. Lifeless. Paralyzed. Stationary. Like I’m waiting for Aslan, waitng for the great lion to breathe life into me so I can live the way I was created to live. 

In Narnia, Aslan is on the move and even stone statues are not beyond his reach. The breath of Aslan touches the statues and moves them from cold, grey stone to living, breathing reality full of color, movement and life. They become who they were created to be – the strength and glory of the Lion in their bearing.

I sit stationary, praying for the breath of the Spirit of God. Just one breath is enough to be fully alive.

Reflection Question: How has the Spirit of God used your Lenten journey to breathe new life into your heart and soul? 

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 Note: This post has been adapted from one published in 2013.

International Women’s Day 2017 – #BeBoldForChange

Every year I write about International Women’s Day – the day set aside to honor women, to highlight the critical role they play in all of life. From nurturing life at its earliest stages to nurturing families, communities, and countries, women are critical to human survival. Not only do women change the world within homes and communities, but they also change the world in their workplaces. But there are still huge changes that need to happen so that women can not only survive, but thrive.

The very first International Women’s Day took place in New York City in 1909 on February 28th. In 1917, the Soviet Union declared March 8th a national holiday. It is interesting that the first countries to embrace International Women’s Day were socialist and communist countries. (That, my friends, is an observation, not an opinion.)

Though I believe implicitly in the importance of this day at every level, this year I find it more difficult to write about. I feel curiously uninspired and not a little discouraged. It seems that we can’t even agree on Women’s Day, let alone anything else. Sometimes we women are our own worst enemies.

As I was thinking about this, I decided that today I would highlight a project that I have been involved in this past year and introduce some of the unique women who have participated in the project.

Let me give you a little history: I began my job working for a state department of public health nine years ago. I began in a consultant role, and three months later I was hired as a full-time employee. The program I work for is a federally funded women’s health program that focuses on breast and cervical cancer screening in underserved communities. Two years after I started I began asking aloud if we might think about doing a project with the Muslim community in Massachusetts. It’s a big, diverse community and I believed we had a lot to learn about the community. Every year I brought it up. Like a record that is scratched and broken repeating the same thing over and over I would say “What about the foreign-born Muslim community? What can we learn in this community?

A year and a half ago, we received funding to do an assessment on attitudes toward breast and cervical cancer screening in the foreign-born Muslim community. I was over the moon.

We finished the assessment this fall, and our next steps are working side by side with the community and taking what we have learned to develop community and health provider trainings.

This project has been a gift. In an era where Muslims are seen as ‘other’ and therefore suspect, I have had the privilege of meeting with Muslim women from many parts of the world. All of them were born elsewhere and most came here as refugees. I have met doctors from Syria, Algeria, and Iran. I have met public health professionals. I have met housewives and many in the service industry. Every one of them has experienced untold loss, and many can never go back to their countries of origin; many cannot go home.

There’s Heba, a brilliant doctor from Syria. She has embraced this project and opened her heart. She is a gifted teacher and watching her speak to her community is amazing. Besides this, she has a new baby boy and a four-year old daughter.

There’s Afsaneh. Afsaneh is from Iran and she is also a doctor. She too has welcomed the project, leading dynamic focus groups so that we can learn from her community.

There’s Houria from Algeria; Saida and Naima from Somalia; and Annam from Pakistan. All of them have offered their unique perspective and stamp on the project. They are diverse in age, culture, and views of Islam, but all of them care deeply about their communities and their faith.

Those of us who are working on the project have been received into the broader Muslim community with uncommon generosity and grace, sharing meals and conversation, brainstorming sessions and ideas. Although we could easily have been viewed suspiciously, we weren’t. Instead we were welcomed with arms and hearts wide open.

And we have learned so much. Women shared honestly and openly about their views towards women’s health in particular, and the health care system in general.

I’ve learned a lot in this project, but one of the biggest things I keep coming back to is that change takes time. For me, being bold for change meant being persistent in my request for time and funds to do this project. Being bold for change means humbly going to a community and saying “I don’t know enough. Please help me understand more.” Being bold for change means going out of your comfort zone and hearing another point of view, another side of an issue. Being bold for change means building bridges that connect, not walls that divide. All of this takes time.

So today, on International Women’s Day 2017, I celebrate this project even as I remember the bigger picture that shows me so much more needs to be done. Happy International Women’s Day 2017 – All is not lost. 

“Building bridges means moving beyond my enclave of cultural comfort to a place of cultural humility and willingness to learn.”*

____________________

*from Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging

 

Lenten Journey – Turn the Whole World Upside Down

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Around six years ago, an eye doctor named Tom Little was killed in a massacre of 10 international aid workers in Nuristan province in the country of Afghanistan. The story made international headlines as the largest massacre of aid workers during the entire Afghan conflict. Many who didn’t even know this man paused to take inventory of their lives. That’s what happens when a tragedy occurs. You stop for a moment; you reassess and reevaluate. Often you make changes.

Tom Little had been in Afghanistan for over 33 years. He was from Albany, New York, son of an eye doctor and he loved Afghanistan and the Afghan people. To say that Tom Little lived outside of any box is a serious understatement.  In an interview with a film maker who hoped to highlight the story of Tom Little, the producer said that all the news stories of the massacre focused on the last five minutes of his life. This film maker wanted to find the story behind the 33 years before he was killed.  

I’ve watched the trailer for this film called  The Hard Places five or six times – every time, I cry. The film challenges my comfort, my security, most of all challenges me to live life fully wherever I am called to go.

Now this is a hard call in my current situation. My “government-sponsored” cubicle is often a hard place to be. There are times when I feel underused and unproductive; times when I question whether I’m making a difference.

A grey cubicle is not sexy. It is not a place where the type of headlines that mean something to eternity emerge. It is a place that tests my patience, challenges my creativity, and often defeats my spirit.

But it is currently my reality. It is where God has placed me. And the call to live fully is no less applicable to me as it is to those in far harder places, far more difficult situations. I am weak in this context – and God delights to make the weak strong.

In the trailer, Libby Little, Tom Little’s wife who was by his side throughout their years in Afghanistan, is heard reading a poem by Hannah Hurnard:

O blessed are the patient meek
Who quietly suffer wrong;
How glorious are the foolish weak
By God made greatly strong;
So strong they take the conqueror’s crown,
And turn the whole world upside down.

As I embark on this  year’s Lenten journey, I am challenged to remember that the world is not changed through one momentous event, it is changed through the often boring, simple acts of obedience that I am called to every single day. The world is changed by showing up. Arguably, Tom Little’s life did not affect the Afghan people through his last 5 minutes of a martyr’s death; his life affected the Afghan people in his daily choice to deliver excellent eye care to people in need.

It is in the strength of God as shown through the weakness of men that the world is turned upside down. So it is today that I am called to be obedient to what I know. No more and no less, trusting the outcome to a faithful Creator in doing what is right. Today I am called to show up. 

Reflection Questions: This Lent, what does it mean to be obedient? How can daily obedience turn the world upside down? Where are you called to show up? 

Readers – Passages Through Pakistan is available on Amazon or Barnes & Noble

“Pardon Our Dust”

We invite you to follow along with Marilyn and Robynn, both grace-desperate Christ followers– one a newly welcomed Orthodox the other a patchwork Protestant– on their Lenten journey. This is the first in this honestly human series.

 

Lowell and I, together with some friends, attended the evening Lenten Service at St Paul’s Episcopal church on Ash Wednesday. The nave is under construction and we met in the basement of the annex. Father Patrick took that inconvenient and unfortunate circumstance and skillfully wove it into the homily. He recalled another renovation experience he had when he was in grade six. At that time the Kansas City airport was under a significant renovation process. To his boyhood mind it seemed to be in disrepair for years. What stands out in his memory is the sign that was posted all over the airport for the duration of the project, “Pardon our Dust.” He went on to use the same disclaimer in connection with the church’s current construction project, pardon our dust.

During the homily Father Patrick said something I’m not likely to forget, “Ash Wednesday is the most honest day of the Christian calendar.” And it’s true, isn’t it? Ash Wednesday is a day we intentionally declare our brokenness, our need of rescue, our deep understanding that there is nothing we can do in our own strength or ingenuity to bring about the transformation we all need. We are marked with the sign of the cross, “Remember that you are dust and it is to dust you shall return.” We are reminded of our fragility and our brevity. Wearing the ashes on our forehead we announce to ourselves and to the world that we stand in need of grace and perpetual mercy.

Pardon our dust.

When we lived in North India we rented an ancient old stone house on the banks of the Ganges river. When we first moved in there were walls down and thick weeds growing up over some of the debris. The room that would later be transformed into a guest room had a hole in the roof and bird nests in the rafters. Mold grew up the walls of the courtyard. There were rocks piled up in front of the house. Termites had eaten door frames and window ledges. Another building that would later be changed into a retreat center was completely over run with branches and buried in its own brokenness.  Slowly we began to clear things out. Working together with friends we hired a contractor who rebuilt the guest room, added a bathroom and toilet and a sitting room. Over time we reclaimed corners in the courtyard and we planted flowers. We cut back the mango tree to allow in some sunshine. A kitchen was built, windows were screened, doors were repaired. Rocks were eventually cleared out, grass was grown, more flowers planted. Friends moved in after we left and more space was sanctified. It became this beautiful sacred place.

The thing that used to irk me the most, was when visitors would come, and like us, they would see the potential in the property. They had, of course, no idea how much work had already been done. All they could see was what could be done. They saw implicit promise and they’d remark on it.

Wow… this property is amazing!

Think about what you could do with the place!

The possibilities are limitless.  

Have you ever thought about planting a garden?

How did you find this place? It has so much potential.

Perhaps we should have posted signs, Pardon our dust. Acknowledging the potential seemed to deny the ongoing agonies of transformation we had already embarked on. It didn’t honour the work, the tears, the frustrations, the sweat, the struggle, the effort we had already expended. What we needed was for our guests to Pardon our Dust. We longed for them to admit the work of transformation, to see our desperate need for grace in the ongoing work of redemption. To sit with us in the place of brokenness. To have eyes to see the beauty in all of it–the broken bits, the cleaned up corners, the salvageable spaces. To clearly imagine what yet might happen, what glory might yet be shed across the yard, what visions of continued growth might be just around the corner.

Pardon our Dust also serves to remind us that these are temporary times. There is an end in sight. It’s true we’re limping along now, accommodations are being made, we’re making the appropriate changes. Like any renovation or construction project there is a beginning, a middle and an end. We will get through this. We will be made over. Transformation will happen.

Lent gives us this profound opportunity to admit our great need for a savior. For a season we’re honest about our propensity to sin and selfishness. We acknowledge our need. As a community we readily admit we need each other. We journey toward the cross. We travel together, human and humbled, knowing we’re on the way to reformation, all the while aware we are dust and our terrible need for pardon.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a

season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the
earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our
mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is
only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

(from The Book of Common Prayer)

“How do we say that God is good when life is not?”

 

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“How do we say that God is good when life is not?”

I read the words and my eyes brim with tears. I’m sitting by the window and bright sun radiating off fresh snow bathes the room in cold light.

I continue reading: “And what, if anything, can be made of the prayers we’ve whispered in the middle of nights, restless with fear and the threat of loss, prayers that have had no apparent answer, no just-in-the-nick-of-time rescue?” *

I read the question again “How do we say that God is good when life is not?” When you bury a child or a parent too early, and Job’s comforters tell you they are in a “better place”. When you watch your body succumb to cancer, and you know that you will not live to see your daughter’s fifth birthday; when your husband of less than a year dies in a tragic accident – how, then, do you say that God is good?

At the end of a life, every single human being has a reason to believe God is not good. But the opposite is also true. At the end of every life, there is evidence of God’s goodness in every breath we’ve been given.

It is tempting to want clean answers, to be able to point to healings and miracles. But clean answers have never helped the one who is suffering.

How do we say that God is good when life is not?

There are no easy answers. We limp our way through this question, sometimes full of faith and confidence that the character of God is ultimately good; sometimes shaking our heads saying “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Theologians call this ‘theodicy’ – a noun that literally means “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” Vindication of divine goodness – God on trial, his very character being questioned.

As I think about this question, I realize that this is some of the thread through Passages Through Pakistan. Yes, Passages is about Pakistan, and being a third culture kid/missionary kid, and living between worlds. But ultimately, Passages is my testament of faith. In Passages I work through what it is to believe God loves, God cares, and God is good when life is not. The tapestry of God’s redemptive plan is not without pain or suffering, but ultimately I have deep confidence that God is good, even when life is not.

This I knew, and I knew it well: when you’re six and you wake up at five in the morning, away from home and unconditional love in a dormitory of seven other little girls, just as young and equally homesick and insecure, there is no one to comfort you. When you are twelve, and your backside aches for a week because of the beating of a house parent, there is no person to comfort you. When you question why dads and babies die in the middle of the night, there is no person to answer you. When you are sixteen, and you feel misunderstood by all those around you, unable to articulate your heart, there is no person to comfort you. When you are eighteen, and your heart is breaking at the thought of leaving all you know and all you love, there is no person to comfort you.

My faith was more than theology – it was a living, breathing entity. It wrapped me with a profound sense of comfort and love, and I knew beyond any previous doubts that God was real. I knew in the marrow of my bones, and the depths of my soul, that there was something greater than boarding school loss, stronger than the grief of goodbyes, deeper than the pain of misunderstanding. I knew that redemption was not just a theological idea, but that somehow it was more real than anything on this earth. Faith was the story written on my life, and my life was witness to a greater reality.**

*Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel

**Passages Through Pakistan pages 165-166

Readers – Rachel Pieh Jones has published a review of Passages Through Pakistan. You can read it here. 

 

An Angry Diva and a Fragile Psyche

Yesterday my book, Passages Through Pakistan, was released. I have been looking forward to this day – a day when my 8-year-old baby is born and the world sees it. I’ve also been nervous. This journey of writing is a vulnerable journey. Whenever we put words on paper and they are released to the world there is a chance that they will not be well received. That’s life and it comes with any public creative process.

Advance copies were sent to several folks who would assist with the book launch. Everything was ready. Until we realized that the advance copies were poorly printed, the font color uneven and distracting.

It’s a small thing, but to my fragile psyche it felt huge. Emails and messages flew back and forth yesterday afternoon and I couldn’t rest. I became an Angry Diva, convincing myself that this was the most important thing that anyone could or should think about.

At seven o’clock, I collapsed on the couch in tears. My book baby with its eight year gestation had birth spots. Suddenly I wanted to pull the whole thing. Uneven color font be damned, I was done. Why on earth did I think I could write anyway? Why did I even try?

The downward spiral didn’t stop. Instead it continued and soon I moved on from questioning my ability to write to questioning why I existed. I was questioning my worth as a mom, as a wife, as an employee, and ultimately as a human being.

Earlier in February my husband and I watched an interesting film featuring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. The film is called Florence Foster Jenkins after a historical person of the same name. Florence Foster Jenkins was an opera singer who lived in New York. She had inherited a lot of money and no talent.

“The historian Stephen Pile ranked her ‘the world’s worst opera singer’. ‘No one, before or since,’ he wrote, ‘has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.’*

The movie portrays the way her partner, a Shakespearean actor, protects her. He hides reviews of her concerts so she doesn’t see the criticism; he pays other reviewers to write glowing and effusive reviews; he even pays people to attend her concerts.

As you can imagine, one day the charade crashes. You can only hide the truth for so long. Sooner or later it will be revealed. So Florence reads some nasty reviews, and she is shaken to the core.

In a poignant scene toward the end of the film, she looks at her partner and says to him: “They may say I can’t sing, but they can never say I didn’t sing.” 

This morning as I was reflecting on how I acted like a diva to disguise my fragile ego, how I suddenly began questioning my worth in every area of my life, I began thinking about Florence Foster Jenkins and how her spirit was wounded, but not completely crushed when she realized the truth. And I thought about my writing, how its been an unexpected gift these past eight years, how no matter what happens with this book – it has been a cathartic, healing process.

I have put down memories and feelings. I have revisited my faith. I have processed boarding school joy and pain. And I have met incredible people in the process.

So in the spirit of Florence Foster Jenkins I give you the honesty of an angry diva, the humiliation of a fragile psyche, and the words “They may say I can’t write, but they can never say I didn’t write.” 

Also, the printing problem is almost corrected, so I can assure you that you will get a good copy should you choose to stroke my ego and buy my words! And I would love, love, love it if you did.

*

The Grand Unraveling

For several months I had been calling Trump’s impending presidency The Grand Unraveling. He made campaign promises that seemed horrifying to me, he boldly made declarations of things he would do, things he would undo. During those campaigning days things seemed bleak, ominous even, but most of the time I assumed he was using loud words that would surely prove hollow.

And now here we are. President Trump has been in the White House for just over a month and The Grand Unraveling has begun in earnest. Or at least that’s how I’ve felt over the past two weeks. To make matters worse I’ve also felt powerless to prevent it. Yes, we’ve prayed persistently, our family has participated in peaceful protests, I’ve made calls to Representatives and Senators. Still it has felt like I’ve been helpless to do anything. Things have been coming undone and the world has seemed scary and unstable.

Thinking about unraveling however, made me remember a story from my childhood which has given me cause for pause.

When I was a girl we used to go to the Lundah Bazaar on the main street of Layyah, the town where I grew up. Lundah Bazaar was a wonderful prequel to Good Will and other secondhand stores I’ve come to love. There were piles of used clothes laid out on plastic sheets on the ground. Rumour had it that these were clothes sent into Pakistan as foreign aid but sold instead to retailers who in turn sold it to eager customers. Auntie Helen, Mom and I were some of those eager customers. We loved to go and rummage. If we saw something in the stack, we’d reach in and grab it, hold it up, inspect it, and either toss it back on top of the cloth hill or hand it to the shopkeeper to add to our own growing pile of things to buy.

Auntie Helen always bought sweaters. She’d inspect them carefully before purchasing them. These sweaters weren’t examined for being fashionable or trendy, but for the quality of the wool or yarn that was used. Auntie Helen would take them back to her friends in the villages, who would unravel the sweaters carefully. Younger women would roll the recently undone sweaters into skeins to be later used in the making of something new.  Auntie Helen was always very generous with my brother and me. If she thought we might like something she went out of her way to make it happen. She doted on us with treats and new books; with silly games and impromptu parties. More than anything, Auntie Helen wanted us to have a happy Pakistani childhood. But, having said that, she was quite protective of the sweaters she chose that had potential to be remade. I remember a fuzzy pink sweater with wonderful buttons that I noticed almost at the same moment Auntie Helen did. I hoped against hope that it wouldn’t pass her inspection. I groaned inwardly when she added it to her pile. When I sighed a little and maybe suggested that I might like that sweater to wear myself, she simply smiled and picked up the next woolen garment.

Auntie Helen had bigger things in mind. She knew the procedure and normally I loved to see the process unfold as the sweaters were unraveled, rolled and reworked into booties, and baby hats, sweaters and sweater vests. It felt like redemption. Auntie Helen was careful in her selection. The women were gentle in the undoing of the sweaters she brought them. The rollers did so with precision. The new knitters took pride in their creations. The old was gone; the new had come.

The unravelling wasn’t in vain. Even the pink sweater I loved, lost, and grieved had a higher purpose. Eventually somebody’s grandbaby would be decked out in a matching layette with a bonnet, a sweater, and drawstring booties with lovely large tassels of the same bright pink.

If Auntie Helen were still alive I think she’d have us pick up the frayed bits and start rolling them up, start making skeins, start twisting what we have into some sort of coiled ball. I suspect she’d refuse to think this was the end. She’d insist that this ratty remnant of what used to be a stable country might be put to good use. She’d see potential and hope. She’d examine it and imagine new things made from the old.

It takes energy to stand ready to collect what’s falling apart, what’s falling off, what’s fraying away. It takes discernment to see which parts are worth salvaging. It takes strength and stamina to roll, and wind, twist and coil the strands of an unwound country onto a reel. It takes courage and creativity to see what might yet be. It takes a prophetic imagination to see the Kingdom beyond and past and outside the borders of the country. It takes a sacred vision to imagine a country so radically different that we wouldn’t recognize if but for the scant shades of blue, white and red worked under the tapestry of red and yellow; black and white. It takes hope to see past the present desolation to the promise of full redemption and restoration.

God bless us all as we do the work of collecting, rolling, sharing, knitting and recreating.

 

(*Photo credit: Kari Patterson)

 

 

 

Dear Seema: The Politics of Prevention

 

Note: Seema Verma is President Trump’s nominee to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the United States.

Dear Seema,

I’m a Registered Nurse who works in Boston, Massachusetts. I have witnessed first-hand what it is like for people to go without insurance, to delay preventive health screening only to find out that cancer is a far more expensive problem.

There are not a lot of things that make my proverbial blood boil, but reducing access to preventive healthcare, including maternity benefits, does. It makes me so angry I can’t see straight.

Look, I get it. Health care is expensive. Someone has to pay for it. But everyone bears the burden of an unhealthy society and while the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) was not perfect, it began to put some policies in place that have been needed for a long time.

I come to this not from any political party line. I am a proudly independent voter – in fact, prouder by the day that I don’t buy into that assanine system called “two party.” I also live in Massachusetts where a Republican governor put health care reform as a top priority over 8 years ago and we are slowly reaping the benefits.

 

When, at your confirmation hearing, you mentioned that coverage for maternity benefits should be optional, I shook my head in disbelief.

Optional? Optional? I had to repeat it to myself to believe that you actually said it. The argument goes that if you’re a man or too old to get pregnant, then why should you have to pay for someone to have a baby? The lack of logic and understanding in that idea astounds me! The logical conclusion is that I shouldn’t have to pay for any of the choices that others make. So, by your logic, I shouldn’t have to pay for the business man who has a heart attack and needs bypass surgery. After all, I wasn’t the one who ate and drank too much. It was him.

Maternity benefits are an essential part of a healthy society. Maternity benefits speak to the value of family and children, they provide essential care for a future generation.

As Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow at the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Women says: “We buy insurance for uncertainty and to spread the costs of care across a broad population so that when something comes up, that person has adequate coverage to meet their needs,”  But insurance is not designed to be an  “a la carte approach”. “Women don’t need prostate cancer screening, but they pay for the coverage anyway.”

When as a nation did we allow politics to co-opt our health, to feed us misinformation about insurance and that terror-producing term ‘socialized medicine’? Truth is the term ‘socialized medicine’ is a made up phrase. It was first heard in the early 1900’s but came into wide use when the American Medical Association fought against a national health insurance plan proposed by President Truman. It conjured images of a hammer and sickle approach to health care that would lead us down the slippery slope to communism. That was in 1947 – and it was a public relations coup, for in the six and a half decades since that time we have allowed the term to rule us, to be thrown around willy nilly to produce fear and anger, obnoxious and ignorant voices leading the way.

Here’s what happens when you let politics coopt prevention: 

A breast cancer lump ulcerates and eats away the flesh of a breast; a cervical lesion, easily removed, grows and turns into a completely preventable cancer; a gnawing indigestion and bloated feeling turns into cancer eating away at your colon – fully preventable had screening taken place early in the disease process. You know what else happens when politics coopts prevention? Abortion rates, already far too high, go up. You can’t have it both ways – you can’t want abortion rates to go down and yet reject the notion of maternity care and birthcontrol coverage.

Preventive health is not about being Republican or Democrat or Independent or Green Party or Libertarian. Preventive health is about the health of a society as a whole; it is about being human, living in a broken world where illness and death and “pre-existing” conditions are a reality. Preventive health and being sick is not about politics. When will we in the United States get that?

What you should want to do in your tenure is make the Affordable Care Act better! You should want to expand on it and leave a legacy that puts Obama Care into the water. You should want to make a name for yourself as a person who makes health care great, not just tolerable.

Instead, I’m shaking my head and saying: “What in the name of Sam Hill is she thinking?” 

C’mon Seema! Be a Woman. Stand up for what is right. 

 

I am Not Muslim: On Identiy Confusion Solidarity

Pakistan - Minaret

During the weekend, an “I am a Muslim too” rally took place in New York City at Times Square. A picture of the event shows a large crowd gathered, all mouths opened in unison. A couple of white women are front and center, holding signs of a woman in a hijab made up of stars and stripes – a poster courtesy of the talented Shepard Fairey that has gained popularity from sea to shining sea in the past month. I will spare you and not get into how problematic it feels to create a hijab out of the American flag – that’s another conversation.

For now, I want to focus on the rally. I did not participate in the rally and I’m shaking my head at what I consider the shallow acceptance of the claim:”I am Muslim too.”

Actually, I am not Muslim. I grew up with Muslims as my friends and aunties. I was cared for by Muslim women and learned from them. I went on to raise my children to live and love a Muslim country and the people who surrounded us. Muslims cared for my children when they were small. They were our friends, our neighbors, our babysitters. I continue to count Muslim women as some of my closest friends. But I am not Muslim.

And the grey-haired woman in the forefront of the picture I saw wearing a statue of liberty tiara? I am 99.9% sure that she is not Muslim either.

I am not in favor of participating in identity confusion solidarity. And that’s what this particular demonstration felt like. It felt like a shallow way of showing support. 

By contrast, I had no problem promoting and marching in a pro-immigrant march a couple of weeks ago. The message felt completely different.  It was solidarity without identity confusion.

To say I am a Muslim means that I accept the truth claims of Islam. To say I am a Muslim means that I accept an identity that is far bigger than a sign on poster board. I do not share the identity and I do not share the truth claims of Islam, just as my Muslim friends do not share the truth claims of Christianity. There are many commonalities, many things that can bind us together as friends and neighbors, but there are also key differences.

Why do I have to chant “I am Muslim too!” to show solidarity with my Muslim friends?  There has to be a better way. 

In the past two years I have had the privilege of getting to know the Muslim community in the greater Boston area. I have been doing a health project with foreign-born Muslim women and through it I have been welcomed into several of the many Muslim communities in the area. I have shared meals with Pakistani, Iranian, Syrian, and Somali women. I have been invited to hear their views on health care and learn from them more about how public health can better serve them. I have been to mosques and to homes. The connections and friendships that I have made are a testament to the generosity of the Muslim community.

For me to say “I am Muslim too” feels like it’s an insult to the resilience and experience of the community.

It doesn’t feel like solidarity. Just like it would feel like I was insulting the Black community if I held a sign saying “I am Black too.” Because I’m not black. We cannot assume that we know what the experience of another is just because we march with big signs. I have no clue what it is like to have to flee a country and know I can never go back. I have no clue what it is like to face prejudice because of my skin color. How on earth would I know what it feels like to be concerned for my sons because of their skin color?  I have no clue what it is like to be attacked because I wear hijab. These are experiences that I cannot claim as my own. 

What I can claim is to want to support the community in ways that are lasting and sustainable. What I can claim is a desire to know the community better, to invite people into friendship and connection. What I can claim is to be learning more about my own privilege and how that can be used for good or for ill.

As I looked at pictures from the march this weekend, I wondered how many of the people present actually had Muslim friends. I wondered how many have actually invited people into their homes to share a meal, to share a conversation. I wondered how we can take the obvious energy and time that went into shouting “I am Muslim too” and turn it into something that could help the Muslim community in the long-term.

So – no, I am not Muslim and I don’t believe that this kind of solidarity is helpful for the long-term. I don’t believe that identity confusion will help my Muslim friends. But, because I place high value on my Christian faith, I will do whatever I can in my small spheres of influence to support a community that I love.

Passages Through Pakistan – An Excerpt

passages-cover

The train rounds a bend.
The rest of the cars appear
one by one,
all tied to one another
far into the distance
It comes as a surprise
to be tied to things so far back
Nazım Hikmet,
Human Landscapes from My Country

We moved from town to town during my childhood, but I was unfazed. My constants were my boarding school, based in a solid stone building in Murree, and my parents, who, though flesh and blood, seemed equally solid and immoveable. Pakistan was home. She adopted me, a foreigner, and took me in. I belonged. I belonged in the family and in the community into which I was born. I belonged in the country where I took my first steps. Legal documents might say otherwise, but they were unimportant to the reality of my experience.

I learned early on of the beauty and hospitality of Pakistan. My eyes captured landscapes that the best photographers in the world could not capture, and the music and colors are etched on my mind. I was welcomed into homes and churches, played in courtyards and on canal banks.

In my childhood, the Pakistan I knew was a place of color and life: bright oranges, reds, yellows, and greens of spices and fabrics. I knew the ready invitations to come for tea that brought smiles to my face and delight to my heart. I knew the best food in the world – mouthwatering and piping hot pakoras; kebabs purchased in the middle of the bazaar in the afternoon; spicy, red-orange, charred chicken tikka with naan and fresh lemon; the cold tang of lemon squash; and chicken masala’s thick, onion-filled sauce that made my nose run through an entire meal. The tastes and spices lingered long after the meal was over. I knew Pakistan as a place of food, music, colors, and laughter.

This was my home, the setting of my earliest memories, my first steps, my first kiss, my first love. I literally cut my first teeth in this land. Pakistan was a place of life and faith. I was surrounded by Pakistanis who loved me and put up with the immaturity of my childhood. This was where my physical  and faith journey began. Would I ever love another place so much? I didn’t think so.

Later, I would come to know the complexity and contradiction that defined this homeland that had adopted me, but in early years I knew only the good. I would later discover more of her history. I would learn of a Pakistan birthed in violence and tragedy, a land that continues to face crisis after crisis – some at the hands of other governments, and some of its own making. I would learn of the difficulty of a country that struggled to find her identity apart from the larger Indian subcontinent. I would see the struggles in my friends around marriage and family and learn of the massive disparities between the wealthy and the poor. Later, I would learn that in addition to the beauty of friendship and hospitality there was also the horror of violent fundamentalism. I would be introduced to and angered by the one-dimensional Pakistan of Western perception and media. I would understand that alongside stunning landscapes of high mountains and clear lakes was the dirt and raw sewage of cities. I would later face disease, high infant morbidity and mortality, inescapable poverty, and the light hair and big bellies of malnutrition. I would grow to see many dimensions of this beautiful, complex land.

But the Pakistan of early childhood was a beautiful home, and I loved that home.

Excerpt copyright from Passages Through Pakistan, Doorlight Publications, March 2017, Pages 29-30

Available for pre-order and on sale TODAY! Click HERE to order. 

Yesterday I Baked a Cake

Yesterday I baked a cake. It’s my birthday on Sunday and yesterday I baked a birthday cake for myself. Later this morning I will spread a raspberry filling between the layers, I will make an almond-flavoured frosting and I will ice it generously. I’ll sprinkle the cake with almond shreds and I’ll carefully load the cake in to the car and take it down the road to share with a group of Catholic nuns and fellow spiritual direction students.

Over the years—the nearly 47 years, I’ve had many marvelous cakes lovingly prepared for me. When I was a little girl my mom made wonderfully creative cakes. She had a green plastic box small filing box filled with cards that each contained colourful and fanciful cake ideas. Mom turned out train cakes and clown cakes and heart shaped cakes. But the cake I remember the most fondly was the one that became my favourite, the one I’d ask for each year, it was her homemade angel food cake. She’d wrap coins in plastic wrap and push them deep into the light and luscious cake. She smothered the cake in a lavish layer of Quick Fluffy Frosting (because I loved it, but also because it was made from granulated sugar and good powdered sugar was impossible to find in our back corner of Pakistan).

My first birthday in India my friend Dianne made a delicious cake. She had heard stories of my childhood favourite and she went out of her way to replicate that nostalgic cake memory including the plastic covered rupee coins placed strategically in the cake. Ellen once made me this unbelievable lemon log rolled cake filled with a decadent lemon curd. The thought of that cake still make my mouth water.  Several years ago, Susanne, made me an almond layered cake drenched in almond liqueur. It was delicious! Other dear friends have made other dear cakes. There have been cakes at team meetings, cakes after our International Fellowship church service, cakes with friends at birthday tea parties or birthday lunches.

When I turned 40 my friend Yvonne made and decorated my birthday cake for the party that Lowell had organized and planned. It was perfect. Onto the sheet cake she designed a flag that incorporated the Canadian flag, the Pakistani flag, the Indian flag and the American flag. It captured my strange story so wonderfully and the memory of it brings tears to my eyes. I’ll never forget that cake!

Some of the most special cakes I’ve received have been ones that my daughter Adelaide has made and decorated. She’s mastered cake making and beautifying. It’s the perfect mix of math, science and creativity for her. She’s good at it! She made me a cake shaped like a tea cup once. A couple of years ago she made one that I especially loved with a bird cage piped on to it.

Yesterday I baked my own cake.

There are many years where making my own birthday cake would have made me very sad. I would have spread the cake with loneliness and sprinkled it with tears. Memories of other cakes from other years made by others who love me would have choked me as I creamed butter and sugar and eggs. The cake would be heavy and dry and tasteless.  But not this year. This year, as I baked, I was filled with gratitude and joy.  Lowell and I have taken a fast from sugar and carbohydrates. The anticipation of cake contributed to my happiness, I’m sure. But I also realized how much I am thankful for. I stirred that gratitude into the batter——for a warm house, sweet memories of cake and dear friends, for my children—all three passionate leaders true to their convictions, for my parents who are actively engaged in our lives, for my kind hearted mother in law, for Catholic sisters, my morning coffee, a refrigerator and pantry well stocked, bills paid, my one true Lowell.

I experienced wonder at the diverse and precious group of friends I’ve been given. I have close friends that keep my secrets. Each of the chapters in my story have included deep friendships—many of those friends I’m still connected to, they still very much matter to me, I miss them keenly.

There was worship blended into the cake dough too. I’ve been given so much. Jesus has been faithful. He’s been leading me, he’s been deepening my experience of the freedom he’s given me. I’ve learned so much these last years and months about the ways that I’m wired, the ways that I bear his image to the world, about my emotions, my personality, his emotions and his personality. I’ve discovered things about my identity—who I truly am—that intensify my connection with Christ himself.

Birthdays are a grace. I’m alive and I am loved. Cake is a luxury. I can afford sugar and flour and flavouring. Icing is mercy undeserved. I’ve been given so much I don’t deserve. There is so much to say thank you for. Yesterday I baked a cake and today I get to eat it. On Sunday Lowell and I plan to have dinner out with other beloved friends. By Monday this cake will be added to the list of treasured treats I’ve been bounteously blessed with.

Yesterday I baked a cake. Thanks be to God!

Finding Your Niche at #FIGT17NL

In 2014, I hosted a blog series called “Finding Your Niche: Using a Multicultural Past to Create a Meaningful Present.” The result was a set of essays from adult third culture kids, each different and each exploring what it was to find a niche as an adult. Writers talked about the jobs and communities they had found that complemented their multicultural past.

The series ended up being the inspiration for a panel discussion that will be held during the Families in Global Transition Conference in The Hague this March. I am excited to be facilitating this panel, featuring other adult third culture kids who will speak to the journey, joys, and challenges of finding a niche that connects their multicultural past to a meaningful present.

If you are an expat, a global nomad, a third culture kid, an adult third culture kid, or someone who loves and works with all of the above, then this is the conference for you! It’s not too late to register for FIGT17NL! Just click here and it will take you to the registration page. You will be so glad you came!

In the meantime, I am reposting one of the submissions from the series. Cindy Brandt has written for Communicating Across Boundaries before and I’m so happy to welcome her again with this repost of her essay for the “Finding Your Niche” series.

*****

TCKs and “finding your niche” seems to be an oxymoron.

 After all, we are TCKs, Third Culture Kids, as in, they couldn’t fit us in any category so they created an extra option just to throw us all in there.

 We are the miscellaneous crowd. We are the ones who can thoroughly enjoy the company of whoever it is we keep during the day, but when the sun sets, we look in the mirror and see a different color skin, or go home to speak a different language; we don’t ever fully belong anywhere. No matter which group of people we are with, there always seems to be a slice of insider information we can’t access. We scramble to uncover that knowledge, but feels a bit like flailing awkwardly at the fringes of each particular culture.

 I am reminded of my favorite children’s book, Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees. It’s a story of a giraffe named Gerald,

“whose neck was long and slim. His knees were awfully crooked and his legs were rather thin.” 

Each year at the Africa Jungle Dance, he freezes at the thought of dancing in front of his peers with his gangly limbs. Like Gerald, TCKs know intimately the feeling of crippling self-consciousness, and the fear of being found out we are not really one of them.

Of course, there are ways that TCKs are just like other people. We go through normal developmental phases in which we discover our own likes and dislikes; our skills and assets. We have different passions and desire to live into them. It’s just challenging to simultaneously walk this journey of self discovery while skittering on the outskirts of cultural worlds. It’s too difficult to hear the true calling inside of us over the noise of banging cymbals keeping us away from the mainstream.

In order to find our niche, we must cut through the noise and stop being led by fears of exclusion. TCKs are rich with benefits. We make the best spouses, friends, neighbors, and employees by bringing our dynamic stories and a myriad of experiences. We are strong from having endured difficult life transitions, yet sensitive from having been conditioned by a diversity of worldview. We are flexible from years of shifting from one culture to another, yet firm in our convictions having learned to hold on to core values while physically moving to and from. We are not either/or, we are both/and. We may not belong one hundred percent; but we can be one hundred percent present when we show up.

When we dart from one place to another, distracted by finding a place to belong, we miss investing the whole of ourselves in any one single space. In order to find our niche, we must bravely claim the life we’re in and start acting like we have already arrived. We don’t apologize for being different, instead, we bring our divergent ideas to sharpen the existing ones. We don’t dismiss monoculturals around us, instead we listen and learn from them, insistent upon building meaningful relationships. We vehemently find common ground until the fears and lies and insecurities of being excluded melt away by shared passion.

Gerald the giraffe was booed off the dance floor competition because he listened to the voices telling him there is no way he can dance. He retreated into a quiet clearing, lamenting his situation beneath the gleaming moon, when a small cricket coaxed him to cut through the noises of the jungle and listen to the music only he can hear. Slowly, he began moving his body to the rhythm of that music and by the end of the story, every animal stood in awe of his beautiful movements.

We don’t have to flail awkwardly on cultural perimeters. We need not continuously seek approval for being the unique persons we are. We can walk confidently onto the dance floor, clothed in the many colors of our background, take a deep breath, and just begin to dance.

It’s like what Gerald learns by the end of the story:

“We all can dance, if we find music that we love.”

You can find Cindy at http://cindywords.com/

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