On Prayer and a Pakistani Childhood

  
Before my family moved to Pakistan, prayer was relegated to the Sunday morning church service, the evening service and Wednesday night prayer meeting at McLauren Baptist Church. Our family had “family devotions–a daily time for short Bible readings and prayers–and we prayed before each meal. However my perspective on prayer was largely first formed in Pakistan—the place where most of my childhood was lived out. Remarkably, these were lessons which Muslims who prayed taught me. Even now when I pray to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am nonetheless grateful for what I learned about prayer as a practice from my Muslim friends and neighbours.


I remember vividly those first weeks after our move to this unusual and new land. New sounds, new sights, new smells affronted my small self.
Overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all I remember tears and a funny feeling in my tummy. I felt ill at ease as new friends prattled away with extraordinary sounds in an unaccustomed language. I felt disconnected and disjointed as I tried to make sense of it all. In the middle of all the chaos there was one sound, poignant, and pronounced, that I loved from the start and that was the Muslim Call to Prayer. Five times a day, loudly and intrusively, there came from the loudspeakers the invitation to pray from the muezzin. Chosen for his melodic voice, and possibly his volume, he called out the need to pray.

Admittedly it was bewildering at first. I remember playing during those first few days with some neighbor girls on my auntie’s front verandah. We were colouring, if my memory serves. Suddenly, out of the awkward silences that form when little girls who don’t know each other and can’t talk to each other, there was, what felt like, a cacophony of noise. I remember being startled by it. Soon the entire sky was filled with layer on layer of sound as other muezzins joined in from other mosques. As soon as it started the crescendo mounted, and equally suddenly it was over! Normal sounds of camel bells, and vegetable sellers and donkey brays and barking dogs quickly filled the space.

The call to prayer punctuated my childhood. As I look back on it now there are a few striking lessons I learned during those years. Here are a few of my thoughts on prayer and my Pakistani childhood–

1. Pakistani Muslims, like their counterparts around the globe, bow to pray. Prayer is living and it involves motion and movement. There is a specific posture to each phase of the prayer. They stand, bow deeply, lower their foreheads to the floor, and sit. Pakistani Muslims understand intuitively the deep connection between body and soul and spirit. Their whole bodies are involved as they prostrate themselves humbly before God. They know they were created to worship and for them prayer is worship.
The older I get the more I am realizing the profound truth that was modeled for me as a child. We are whole people. Our bodies are not disconnected from our inner reality. We go together, my body and I. As I watched Pakistanis, with their heads lowered before God, as they kept their bodies in line with their spirits, in seeming submission, I was challenged to bring my own self in alignment. Nowadays I occasionally raise my hands in supplication. Often I sit. Occasionally I pace out my petitions, walking back and forth before the Holy Throne of God. Often I kneel. Occasionally I bow face down before God, acting out what is true—that He is God and I am not. My prayers are directed to a Living God and often they are moving and motional.

2. My entire theology on prayer expanded as I watched with childlike curiosity my neighbors pray. For them, prayer wasn’t static and quietly compartmentalized. Prayer was a part of every single day. There were no exceptions. If you were in the middle of something, you stopped to pray. If you were busy and distracted, you were called back to prayer. No one was exempt: the rich prayed, the poor prayed, the villager prayed, the city dweller prayed, the tribal elder prayed, the plains person prayed. They were a praying people and that influenced me in significant ways. Prayer became for me a normal requisite to a normal day.

3. Pakistanis also understood the benefit of community in collective accountability. It was assumed: you pray, I pray, we all pray. Business contracts were paused while prayer mats were unrolled. Conversations over tea, kitchen gossip, homework all took a break for prayer. If your brother-in-law wasn’t praying you knew something was amiss. Everyone prayed. I love that community element. I love the structure that provides for a populace. There is routine and rhythms built around the call to prayer.
I think it was this measured out, predictable schedule that warmed my heart to liturgical prayer. The stage of my heart was set for the high church’s loyalty to traditional written prayers. I love that those words have rung out in churches around the world and around the centuries. What stability is procured in that! I’ve always been intrigued by the monastic commitment to praying the liturgical hours. This official set of prayers marks the hours of each day and sanctifies the day with prayer: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers and compline. There is regularity in it. There is holy rhythm and purposeful pacing.

4. The muezzin begins with a recitation of the Islamic creed. Millions of Muslims repeat back to themselves, no less than five times a day, what they believe to be true. There is great benefit in learning this lesson from our Muslim friends. We have the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. What if we too deliberately remembered what is true? What if we recited back to our weary-from-life souls the character of God, his faithfulness, his sacrifice, his provision? Imagine the reassurance that might wash over our reactive emotions, our crises, our desperations, our superficial happinesses? We could learn a lot from this repetition of doctrine throughout each of our days.

5. “The Arabic word for prayer is salah and interestingly it is a word that denotes connection. Prayer is our way of connecting with and maintaining a connection with God. Prayers at fixed times serve as a reminder of why we are here and helps to direct a person’s thoughts and actions away from sin and onto the remembrance of God.” (source:www.islamreligion.com)
Growing up, I watched a whole community decide collectively to connect with God. They were given regular opportunities to have their obsessions with fickle and frail things pried away. I would love to claim that I learned this lesson as a child. I did not. But as I think of it now and reflect on it more, I wish I had. How often I’m distracted! How often I forget to remember my living connection with the Living God. I wish to live spiritually connected to the God who loves me and initiated relationship with me. I long to live from that reality all day long! Punctuating my day with intentional prayer would certainly help.
6. The idea that we can talk to God baffles me and strikes me as marvelous. I firmly believe that every prayer need not start with “Dear God” and shouldn’t necessarily end with “Amen”. Some of our deepest groans and yearnings float up as prayer. A thought unbidden of a faraway friend surfaces memory and prayer. To-do lists sighed over are heard by our kind Father as the true prayers of our overwhelmed hearts. Tears and sorrows become intercessions and laments. If we bounce our hearts up to the divine we live out our prayers. I watched my Pakistani Muslim friends stop, toward the end of their ritual prayers, for the silent session of “dua”. This was the space in their recitations for them to lift up their hearts in prayer. They prayed for whatever was on their minds: a sick relative, a final exam, a financial need.

I love to pray. I don’t understand how it works but I believe it does. This is true, not because of who we are and how we pray, but because of who God is and how he receives the “earnest prayer of a righteous person (which) has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16). I realize now that a lot of our thoughts on prayer are developed while we are yet formative—and for me that was when I was surrounded by Pakistan and her people of sincere faith. My theology on prayer is wider and deeper for having learned from them some on what it means to pray.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:4-7

What has influenced your views on prayer, in positive or negative ways? We would love to hear from you through the comments. 

Forget Diversity! It’s Cultural Competency that We Need.

cultural competency

I live in a diverse neighborhood in a diverse area. Every day I ride the subway with people of many different backgrounds and ethnicities. I go to work and sit next to a man from Malawi and have friendships and work with women from Haiti, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Senegal, Portugal, Cameroon, and Roxbury – and that’s just naming a few.

But so what? Just because there is diversity in my life doesn’t mean I know how to navigate diversity. It doesn’t mean I exercise cultural humility in my interactions. It doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes and show my prejudice, sometimes well dressed and well hidden, other times more overt.

It’s not enough to recognize, and be sensitive toward, diversity. We need to learn how to navigate diversity.

In the 2012 census, census officials in the United States said that by the end of the decade “no single racial or ethnic group will dominate the majority of children under 18.” By the end of three decades, the same will hold true for the population at large.

More and more, the United States is seeing communities change from predominantly white, to a veritable ‘salad bowl’ of color. A place where people from many ethnic and racial backgrounds live, work, play, and fight together.

I’m tired of hearing about diversity. As long as we just talk diversity, nothing will change. Because diversity just means ‘difference.’

This is what the dictionary says when defining diversity:

  • the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc.
  • the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization

When it comes to a health care organization, a school, even a church, that definition is singularly unhelpful. Because all it gives you is the what – not the how. It gives you nothing about the good and the hard of a diverse population of people living, working, playing, and fighting together.

I think we need to stop talking ‘diversity’ and start talking about ‘navigating diversity.’ One of the ways to do this is by learning what it is to be culturally competent — learning how to function effectively across cultural differences.

As I think about the many tragedies that have affected the United States in the past few months, I am struck by the fact that no one has been talking about the importance of learning how to function effectively in the midst of difference – whether that difference be racial, socioeconomic, cultural, or physical.  And that is just naming a couple of areas where we see diversity in our communities.

We can talk all day long about diversity, but if we don’t have tools on how to navigate this diversity, than the talk is empty and nothing will ever change.

So for a moment, I want to talk about cultural competency. A disclaimer here – when it comes to cultural competence I am most familiar with how this plays out in the world of health care. This is where I see difference and inability to navigate difference played out regularly. So the way I approach this is from that perspective.  I want to talk about what it is, why we need it, and some tools for how to move forward in this area.  I hope to do this in the next few blog posts so I would love it if you tracked with me.

Cultural competency is a field of study, a series of behavioral changes, and a strategy for working with and serving diverse populations. The term was born in the field of mental health but didn’t make its way into medical literature until the early 1990s. The words and ideas behind cultural competency began to get more recognition in 2002 when the Institute of Medicine published a report (now a book) called Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care. This report highlighted extensive areas where racial and ethnic minorities receive lower quality health care, even when their income and insurance status were the same. Among several recommendations given at the end of the study was the need for systematic cultural competency trainings.

There are several different definitions for cultural competency.

A colleague and I use prefer this one, partly because it is simple and short:

A learning process that enables individuals and organizations to respect, value — and function effectively in the midst of — cultural difference.

The definition accurately portrays cultural competency as something that is ongoing, something that has to be learned and practiced. Cultural competency is a continuum and needs to be seen in stages. 

Why do we need it?

We need cultural competency because there are overwhelming disparities in almost any area we could mention. In health care, everything from access to pain medication to being offered treatment for cancer shows overwhelming differences in quality of care. For example, in one study minority patients were more likely to be under-medicated for pain than white patients (65% vs. 50%), and more likely to have severity of pain underestimated by caregivers. Another study in the area of mental health indicated that 44% of White English speakers to 27.8% of Blacks received treatment after a diagnosis of depression. These disparities are well-documented in the book I cited above.

In an extensive survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showed that racial disparities are well documented and pervasive in various areas of education. Here are some of the key findings from this survey:*

  • Access to preschool. About 40% of public school districts do not offer preschool, and where it is available, it is mostly part-day only. Of the school districts that operate public preschool programs, barely half are available to all students within the district.
  • Suspension of preschool children. Black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment but 42% of students suspended once, and 48% of the students suspended more than once.
  • Access to advanced courses. Eighty-one percent (81%) of Asian-American high school students and 71% of white high school students attend high schools where the full range of math and science courses are offered (Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics). However, less than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses in their high school. Black students (57%), Latino students (67%), students with disabilities (63%), and English language learner students (65%) also have less access to the full range of courses.
  • Access to college counselors. Nationwide, one in five high schools lacks a school counselor; in Florida and Minnesota, more than two in five students lack access to a school counselor.
  • Retention of English learners in high school. English learners make up 5% of high school enrollment but 11% of high school students held back each year.

We need cultural competency in health care because it is one of the ways we can provide quality care. We need cultural competency in education because our schools have students of all colors, backgrounds, and religious beliefs. Cultural competency is one way to serve these diverse students and their families. Learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum and the student’s family and culture are critically important to their education. We need cultural competency in law enforcement because those in the field often encounter the challenges of interpreting and understanding the behavior and attitudes of those who are culturally and linguistically different than they are.

Talking about navigating effectively through difference is far more difficult than talking about being sensitive to, or appreciating difference. Navigating or functioning effectively in the midst of diversity is hard work. It is a learning process. It takes tremendous humility – recognizing that the way you view the world is not the only way. It takes guts. It takes a sense of humor. It takes willingness to say sorry, to admit we are wrong. It takes negotiation and communication.

In the next couple of blog posts I hope to discuss a fraction of how I think cultural competency can help us to work, serve, and form friendships more effectively as well as some tools that increase people’s ability to navigate across cultural differences.  In the mean time, what do you think? Do you talk about cultural competency in your area of work? Why or why not? 

*http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/expansive-survey-americas-public-schools-reveals-troubling-racial-disparities

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/photo-montage-faces-photo-album-556806/ word art by Marilyn R. Gardner

On Culture and Crayons

I have just returned from the Families in Global Transition conference held in Washington DC this past weekend. It will take some time to process all of the talks, quotes, and challenges that were given formally at the conference, and even longer to process the individual conversations. They were rich and meaningful at every level.

For three days I was with a group of people that get identity struggles of the person who lives between; that understand the paradox of place and home; that struggle at different times with belonging; that have said hundreds and hundreds of goodbyes.

I will be doing separate blog posts about the different sessions I attended but for now I want to leave you a quote.

This morning on social media I shared this quote from the conference key note speaker, Teja Arboleda: “the color of your skin has no bearing on your culture…there can be no multicultural crayon.” Teja gave an excellent talk called “The Ethnic Man.” His ethnicity and background are complicated, so he has used his experience to speak into issues of culture, race, and identity. He talked about finding out that Crayola had come up with the idea of marketing a box of “multicultural crayons” and his reaction to that. He also talked about his frustration when he first saw a ‘flesh-toned’ crayon. Because flesh is all kinds of colors, and with a simple child’s tool, the creators of those crayons dismissed a huge number of people who live in our world and also have flesh.

The quote resonates with a friend who responds within minutes:

“…here in Toronto, we’ve met a family from Jamaica who look Chinese…a family from Trinidad who look Indian…and another family from Zambia who look Indian! Meanwhile, my own 3 children could hail from any country in the world with their mixed-race skin color! I just wish there was a question on forms to allow them to claim “mixed race” status instead of ‘other’.”

My friend is living in a multicultural city, in a multicultural marriage, raising a multicultural family. And crayons won’t do it. The marketing of this small box of crayons, complete with eight ‘skin tone’ colors makes strong and incorrect assumptions about culture and race.

While I appreciate that companies want to be ‘inclusive’, there are ways to achieve this objective that are smart and true, and there are ways that just perpetuate division. Culture, in all its complexity, can never be reduced to a box of multicultural crayons. It’s too important.

What do you think? 

crayons with quote

Who Made You the Spoon to Stir the Sugar in my Tea?

Idioms are a mystery and a delight! And until you know at least a couple of them, some of the nuances of a language and culture elude you.

Recently I learned an idiom from a Yezidi teenager, a Kurdish idiom that I love. The girl was standing outside, casually chewing gum. A teenage boy looked over at her and said to her “You shouldn’t be chewing gum.” To which she responded without hesitation “Who made you the spoon to stir the sugar in my tea?”

As a bystander I didn’t understand any of this. I did however understand the ensuing laughter and so right away asked about the interaction. My translator laughed and tried to explain and what came out was “Who made you the spoon to stir the sugar in my tea?”

Basically, who gave you the right to tell me what to do?

I love this!

It brings up the beauty of idioms, that way of saying things without really saying them. Around the same time that I heard this idiom a friend sent me an article called “Idioms of the World Infographic.” It is a fabulous, illustrated guide to ten phrases from around the world.

Here are three favorites of the ten.

1. To feed the donkey sponge cake

Language: Portuguese
Translation: Alimentar um burro a pão-de-ló
Meaning: To give good treatment to someone who doesn’t need it

2. To let a frog out of your mouth

Language: Finnish
Translation: Päästää sammakko suusta
Meaning: To say the wrong thing

3. Not my circus, not my monkey!

Language: Polish
Translation: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje malpy
Meaning: Not my problem

Take a look below at the rest of them and enjoy! Then add your favorite idiom to the comments for a chance to win a copy of Between Worlds! 

Idioms of the WorldSource – HotelClub

See more at: http://www.hotelclub.com/blog/idioms-of-the-world-infographic/#sthash.Jj7PK2vD.dpuf

What’s Wrong With Halloween?

Halloween pumpkins

Maybe it’s that I’m sick of the sexy nurse costumes, completely demeaning my profession. 

Maybe it’s that I think making a “sexy Olaf” costume, sexualizing a little snowman from the movie Frozen is despicable.

Or perhaps it’s that Halloween is a six billion dollar, yes – six billion dollar – industry. 

But what really pushed me over the edge is the cute baby in the marijuana costume. For a mere $29.99, you too can dress your cuddly, darling to look like a pot plant. So let’s get this straight: Refugee moms are fighting to keep their babies alive, free from dysentery, scabies, upper respiratory infections, and numerous other diseases that one has to fight against in resource poor settings while moms in North America are purchasing costumes that resemble marijuana. 

If I thought I couldn’t go farther over the edge, I was mistaken.I became incensed when I found out that people are actually planning on dressing up as sexy Ebola workers. Yup. You read that correctly. A disease that has claimed countless lives, that has family and community members weeping at graves where they aren’t even allowed to wash the bodies of their loved ones, the spoiled West decides this is funny. So they decide that going as a Sexy Ebola Worker is a good idea? On what planet is this a good idea? I wouldn’t wish Ebola on anyone…but I’d like them to see the disease up close. Maybe it would change them. One can hope.

And that’s what’s wrong with Halloween. At some point Halloween stopped being about kids and cupcakes, about jack-o-lanterns and Trick or Treat, about dress up and bobbing for apples. It ceased being about children and it became about spoiled adults. Adults who evidently think it’s funny to sexualize a profession that they will cry out to at many times in their lives. Adults who want to party hard and drink harder. Adults who haven’t grown up, instead foisting their pitiful excuses for fun onto children who should be able to be pirates and ghosts and cowgirls. Adults who are callous to addiction, pain, and suffering.

So what’s wrong with Halloween? It’s been co-opted by spoiled grown ups – that’s what’s wrong with Halloween. 

You’re Welcome.

P.S – “The UN health agency said that 4,555 people had died from Ebola out of a total of 9,216 cases registered in seven countries, as of October 14. A toll dated just two days earlier had put the death toll at 4,493 out of8,997 cases.” See Source

Oh Yeah! That’s Sexy….!

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/pumpkins-hokkaido-autumn-october-469641/

In Defense of Married Love

We wondered if we should post this piece today after yesterday’s excellent essay from the perspective of a single woman. But this piece is a tribute to commitment in an age where it is often mocked. So yesterday was to celebrate being single and today we will defend marriage.

In Defense of Married Love by Robynn

These are the days of relational erosion. Marriage is mocked. Intimacy is insecure and therefore superficial. Few risk authentic openness. Vulnerability is protected against. Sex is cheap and misunderstood.

Sensitivity to the lonely and the wounded has kept us largely silent on the subject of marriage.  Recent controversies surrounding the definition of the terms have meant that we are almost embarrassed of marriage. If you openly admit you love your husband you can almost hear eyebrows rise. If you talk about marriages that endure, marriages that have meaning, you can feel the collective eyes begin to roll. If your married sex is not only satisfying but sizzling everyone just assumes you are making stuff up!

I want to stand up in defense of marriage….good marriage.

Marriage is intended to bring stability. It brings equilibrium. There is a particular reassurance in the predictability of marriage. I know this man. He knows me. The rhythms of life are steadied by a relationship that remains.

Marriage is holy. It involves vows and promises. It also includes mystery and meaning. We have now essentially entered into a monastic community of two. We take vows of chastity, occasionally of poverty, and charity. It is a sacred institution that we have formed and entered into together.

There is comfort in a good marriage. Marriage is comfortable… Like yoga pants after a long day of zipped up denim! There is exhale, and the space to sigh. There is a place to relax. To be yourself. To learn who that even is.

A healthy marriage frames up a safe space for ongoing relational discoveries –like mining for ever-interesting treasures. Spouses change. People grow, evolve, discover themselves along the way. Being married means a constant story of discovery. There is never a dull moment when two individuals with diverse and varying interests openly engage one another and invite each other into those new places.

Married love has the capacity to redeem the sore spots of loves lost. Married love metaphors grace and undeserved kindness. Married love communicates deep acceptance. The virtues of love have a stage to act on in marriage. We can try on patience, and kindness. We can learn what it means to keep no record of wrongs. We can learn forgiveness as a second language as we are immersed in the language of marriage.

A good marriage provides a safe place for personal transformation, as two people connect honestly with one another in community. I have converted so many times to Lowell’s convictions. He has converted to mine. We’ve adjusted. We’ve adapted. And we’ve given each other the space to do the same.

It takes work and energetic ambition to make a working marriage. We are hard wired for community…. But everything in us wants to pull away when we are tired or terrified. We are tempted to isolation. We shut down. When marriage hurts us we shy away. Attempts to control the other are hurtful and damaging. Marriage requires selfless commitment to think of the other. It mandates a pledge that promises to resist the dark call to pull away and instead a promise to intentionally turn to one another even in the midst of great sorrow or shame or pain.

We depend on our Holy Helper. We have plenty of sex! We try to get good sleep. We eat healthy meals. We tell each other we love each other often—several times a day. We try to be kind to each other. We talk a lot. For us, this has resulted in a sure and successful union.

The media has done its best, in connection with jewelry stores, chocolate factories, greeting card makers and florists to convince us that Valentine’s Day is all about one time romances! The truth of the matter is that St. Valentine died in defense of marriage. Perhaps it’s time again to stand up and defend marriage. You can look at me strange.

You can shake your head at my naiveté… but I am taking a stand in defense of my marriage and married love.

Twenty years ago this month Lowell asked me to marry him! Happy St. Valentine’s Day sweet Lowell! Marrying you was the most interesting, joyful, consoling, principled and passionate thing I have ever done! It’s true, I love being married to you.Robyn Lowell & kids

Every Friday Robynn writes for Communicating Across Boundaries. You can find all her posts here.Enhanced by Zemanta

Culture – Weekly Photo Challenge

Google the word ‘culture’ and over 8 million results will pop up.

As Communicating Across Boundaries readers you know well the concept and the meaning of ‘culture’. As Edward Hall says “Culture is man’s medium”. It’s the way we make decisions, do government, create infrastructure, educational systems, court and marry, raise children. It encompasses all of life. So though I have never opted to take part in the weekly photo challenge hosted by WordPress, this week I had to. Choosing one picture to represent ‘Culture’ does not do the topic justice – but nor would a hundred pictures.

Today I’m posting three pictures that represent ‘culture’ to me. The first two are pictures of spices in spice shops in Cairo and Istanbul. The way the East sells spices is in stark contrast to the way the west sells them: the east in large burlap bags, the pungent aroma wafting through the air causing you to breathe in and sometimes sneeze; the west –  in pristine bottles with efficient labels to sit happily on your shelves. And the way Pakistanis store spices is also a contrast – so that is why I have posted the third picture – My Masala Dabba.

What I wish I could do is have all of you link up pictures that represent culture to you, instead I’ll ask you to use word-pictures. What picture would you post and why?

Culture

spices in baskets

IMG_2919