Reclaiming Lost Things

We used to rent out our beloved cottage in Rockport for a 9-month season. From a financial standpoint, it was smart. From an emotional one, it was awful. At the end of each rental period I would walk into the cottage with a sense of dread. How had the renters treated our beloved space? How had the cottage survived a group of strangers? What would be broken? Dirty? Irreparably damaged?

The first thing we would do is clean. We would scrub and polish until it regained some of the sparkle. Then I would redecorate. I would change things around and make it ours again. I would reclaim it for our purposes.

When something happens that you have no control over – losing a job, having to leave a country, getting a cancer diagnosis, a death, a pandemic, or a myriad of other things in life – you feel like your life is not your own. Things are happening to you and around you. Things that you did not choose. Your place and purpose suddenly change, and you are left in a tornado of doubt, fear, anger, and loss. Part of recovering is reclaiming.

How do you reclaim what is lost?

How do we reclaim our spaces, our bodies, our marriages, our places of refuge, or our very identities that sometime feel lost in crisis, betrayal, or death? How do we reclaim our faith? How do we scrub, polish, redecorate, and reclaim?

It’s a slow process, but the spiritual truth to this is profound. Perhaps the biggest piece is realizing how little control we really have over things that happen to us. It’s a paradox to be sure, but reclaiming is about getting honest, admitting that there are very few elements of our lives where we have control. We cling tightly to so many parts of our lives, imagining that we have far more control than we actually do. Our hot fists hold on, like a child that doesn’t want to relinquish their favorite toy. “Mine!” we cry. “It’s not fair.” “Why us?” “Its’ my life.” So many responses, but all in the same hard-held fist.

After realizing how little control I do have, it’s about moving forward with what I know. Taking back what is lost.

In this season I’m thinking a lot about reclaiming and being reclaimed. I remember our Rockport cottage as it would once again become ours, its beautiful interior being scrubbed and made new. The same thing is happening during these quieter days, where time loses meaning and days blend together into the season of a pandemic. If I’m willing, I experience an inner housecleaning and reclaiming that can only take place when I lay down my right to control, when I allow the hard inner work of repentance and trust to replace the anger, frustration, and the “it’s not fair” that floats barely under the surface. Perhaps its really when I realize that reclaiming is really about being reclaimed.

My fist opens. My body relaxes. And, over time, my soul is renewed and reclaimed.

Race Reckoning and a White Third Culture Kid

The reckoning is how we walk into our story; the rumble is where we own it. The goal of the rumble is to get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives.

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

Like many of you, I have thought a lot in these past weeks about race and racism. Also like many of you I have posted, reacted, posted again, thought again, reacted again, and finally stopped to catch my breath. It’s only as I’ve stopped to catch my breath and pray that I have felt a measure of peace in moving forward.

As I look at the purpose of Communicating Across Boundaries, it is not surprising that there have been many posts by myself and others around racism, immigrants, refugees, and loving the one who is other. It is the “what”at the heart of what I do. It is the “why” at the heart of what I believe, for if a gospel cannot transform me and our world from the inside out, what good is it? Why does it matter?

This time I post with even more care than usual. We have a huge portion of the population of the United States who are in pain over injustice and racism. It is a callous person indeed that doesn’t recognize this and respond with deep love and care.

As a third culture kid growing up in the developing world, I had my own unconscious privilege to reckon with, and once made aware, to answer for. This privilege took different forms. From thinking “they” weren’t as smart as me to happily enjoying a life that would have been far more difficult if I had been born a different color or had a different passport.

A reckoning is, by dictionary definition, a “settling of accounts.” So what does that mean for me, as a privileged, little white girl growing up in a country where people had varying shades of brown skin? What does that mean to someone who is a guest in a country that had a recent history of colonization by the British Empire? For me, this primarily means being honest.

It took me a long time to recognize my prejudice and even longer to be aware of my privilege. Some of my recognition of this came when I began to write. The more I wrote, the more I articulated my perspective, the more I was reminded that that’s what it was – my perspective. I viewed the world through a particular lens and that lens affected all my experiences. I walked through the world with different skin on, and skin made a huge difference.

As I moved on to writing Worlds Apart, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land where colonization ended only 13 years before I was born.

To give context, a delightful activity for me as a child was “high tea” at a hotel near my boarding school. During the summer months, my mom would take us to a hotel that served mini pastries and savory snacks on three-tiered China platters. Tea was served in a pot and each of us had a separate pot of tea. There were waiters dressed in turbans and starched white coats, attentive to every need. They treated me like the princess I thought I was. I loved it so much. It was later that I realized there was another side to my experience.

There was a darker side to high tea I would only confront much later. This pleasure that so delighted me as a little girl was a survival of Pakistan’s colonial past. The “British Raj” era, or the era of British rule, lasted for almost 100 years. It included the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was born in 1948, and my parents arrived only five years later. I was completely blind to my privilege as a little, white, English-speaking girl. I cringe now at what I took for granted. 

Those who were white and English-speaking went to the head of the line. Those who were white and English-speaking could casually criticize Pakistanis without thought. We traveled where we pleased, we went first class or third class on trains –it was our choice. We were educated and would have a world of opportunity. I thank God for parents that had the conscience and determination to discipline me and teach me in various ways that I was not better than those around me. Still, with a strong personality and ego to match, those lessons sometimes fell on ears unwilling to listen and a heart that would need continual reminders that privilege is not something I earned or deserved.”

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Children grow up to be adults, and as an adult I’ve had to take responsibility for learning and growing in areas where I had a lot of pride and a lot of ignorance. That pride and ignorance led to wrong thinking and distorted theology.

Recently, I’ve focused more on the listening part of learning. My friend Caroline is one of the people I listen to. We became friends one cold, snowy evening as my husband and I made our way into a large room in New Hampshire for a church retreat. Caroline and her husband were helping to register us. It was pretty much love and friendhsip at first meeting. Caroline and I share a third culture kid background. She is ethnically South Asian, raised in several places in the world and a brilliant speaker and thinker. She said this in a sermon given in Wheaton, Illinois this past weekend:

Be on guard against cheap diversity! Cheap diversity settles for representation, cheap diversity is satisfied when the room looks colorful, Be on guard against cheap diversity. Representation is satisfied with people being present, justice says “I care about this person inside this room and outside of it.”  Justice says “We see and do not stand for the way that our society and our culture upholds oppression and racial violence.” Justice says “I won’t quit until all are seen as image bearers.” The kingdom cares about life and shalom and flourishing here and now. If one of us is in pain or grieving, we ALL are in pain and grieving. If one is experiencing injustice, then all are experiencing injustice.”

Caroline Lancaster

She then gives action steps to her listeners. With her permission I am sharing them here:

  • Get in proximity: how can you be in community or learn from a community different than your own?
  • What are your spheres of power or influence? How are you bearing the fruit of justice in those spaces? How can you distribute power, access, money, etc. to steward power and influence well?
  • Educate yourself about injustice in both your passport country and your host country. Don’t walk through the world oblivious.
  • If you are a Christian, choose a passage or a verse that anchors you in God’s heart for justice. Memorize it and meditate on it daily.

I will be on this long journey in the right direction for the rest of my life. Why? Because this is a journey directly related to who I am as a Christian. God cares about oppression. God cares about justice. God cares about hurting communities. God cares about color – he cared enough to create us in different skin tones with different hair textures.

Here are some things that continue to be a part of my long journey:

  1. Confession – I had to begin with asking God to heal my thoughts and my eyesight. It was and still is hard, but in searching my soul I have realized that this sin is against God and fellow man.
  2. Learn to recognize and confess my own bias. None of us is without bias and our bias comes from many things. But we can be crippled into wrong belief when we don’t recognize and confess it.
  3. Develop real friendships with those who don’t physically look like we do. We walk through the world with skin on. That skin is perceived differently depending on its color. I walk through the world as a white woman. I have many friends who walk through the world as Arabic speaking, Kurdish speaking, and Urdu speaking brown women and men. I have other friends who walk through the world as black, English speaking women and men. Jesus himself walked through the world as an Aramaic-speaking brown man. Tamika in a recent post on Taking Route says this about color “If you say you don’t see color, then it means there is something about me that you can’t acknowledge.” Developing real friendships and relationships with people that don’t look like us challenges us and changes us.
  4. Always, whether in leadership or as a follower, have a posture of humility and willingness to learn from people who look different than we do.
  5. Be prepared for that leadership to look different – leadership is culturally based and may feel uncomfortable for a while.
  6. Read and listen and learn. Let me say that again: Read and listen and learn. Then read and listen and learn again.
  7. We will get it wrong. Our proverbial old habits die slowly and often painfully, but if we remain open to correction and change, to true repentance when we hurt others, to not letting pride block us, we will continue to move forward.

In my journey I’m learning more about empathy and standing beside – not in front of – people. Most of all, I’m learning that this is critical to my faith and my belief that we are all made in the Image of God.

This is my long and important reckoning.


Note: Other voices that I’ve been listening to include:  Fellowship of St. Moses the Black, Osheta Moore, Black Coffee with White Friends, Caroline Lancaster, Eugene ChoArchbishop Sebastia TheodosiosElias Chacour, and Ramez Attalah.  They each offer different perspectives based on where they are from and where they live. I have been continually humbled as I hear and read perspectives outside of my own sphere.

[Picture Credit: Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/children-road-distant-supportive-1149671/

“The Friendship You Share is Priceless”

It’s our 36th anniversary today. 36 years of marriage to a person I will never fully understand, but who fits in my life like he is the missing puzzle piece.

Yesterday I had coffee with my friend Ava, the first coffee I’ve had with a friend since February. It was amazing to sit inside a cafe, talking together and enjoying the coffee and the company.

I mentioned to her that my anniversary was today – 36 years to the same man. Ava is much younger than I am and has been through more in her young life then I will ever understand. But she looked at me and said beautiful and encouraging words over our marriage.

The friendship you share is priceless.

She went on to talk a bit about what she has observed in our marriage. It was deeply encouraging. Ava is part of our pandemic pod and we have seen her more than we have seen anybody else in these past months. She has seen us in our good and our bad, has observed us through the stress of sadness and death and the unknown of a virus that has changed the world.

Sometimes you need an outsider to help you discern and understand the beauty of something you take for granted. Outside eyes see ingredients that you may have placed on a back shelf and bring them forward, helping you to marvel about all you can make and do with this gift. All the ingredients that western cultures say you need for marriage perhaps account for only a fraction of the lasting value of friendship.

“The friendship you share is priceless….” for what truly makes for the ingredients of a lasting friendship and a brave marriage? I don’t know for others, but for us I’ll give it a try.

Mix one cup of detail with one cup of spontaneity, add a few teaspoons of bitter with a full cup of sweet, a pinch of disaster with a few tablespoons of crisis. Pour in 18 homes and four countries. Mix with four international moves and three job losses. Add in a swiss watch and a sun dial. Mix with faith and a strong cup of the Jesus Prayer. Add 36 years of adventure, a whole lot of 6-second kisses, and some sleepless nights.

Bake at whatever temperature you want. Frost with five children and two (so far) grandchildren. Serve with a fusion of Pakistani, Middle-Eastern, Kurdish, and Southern food. Eat with friends and family from around the world.

And there you have it. Happy Anniversary to my Love. We are brave friends in a brave marriage, and that by God’s wonderful grace and love.

It’s Complicated

It’s a complicated time to be an American. From wearing masks to views of political parties to ideas for restrictions on police, we are a divided nation. So divided it seems, that when someone says something is purple, you are guaranteed a response of “well, maybe it’s not really purple. I mean – you think it’s purple but it’s really not.” Or worse “Let’s crucify them and cancel them on social media because they dared to say it was purple!” Bam. Canceled.

It’s exhausting. It’s defeating. It’s depressing.

As we end July 4th weekend, a weekend normally given to barbecues, fireworks, parades, and large gatherings, we have a skyrocketing number of COVID 19 cases, a huge segment of our society that is feeling the effects of inequality not only through virus deaths but through the injustice in law enforcement, and seemingly irreperable divisions between hardline party members of both sides.

People are angry. People are dissatisfied. People are depressed – and it’s not just about a virus.

Celebrating a nation’s idependence during this time is not easy.

Even before I learned about Juneteenth, I had a complicated relationship with America’s “birthday.” Living between worlds gives one the unique perspective of seeing through a double lens, of being able to both love and criticize across cultures and cultural values. I have loved some of the freedoms afforded in this country even as I am uncomfortable with the high view given to individualism, often at the high cost of community.

Through the eyes of my non-American friends, I have seen the United States as a place that has given many people and entire families great opportunities. The places I’ve lived here have been places of diversity of thought and appearance and many of my friends in Kurdistan, Egypt, and Pakistan dream of a ticket to this country. At the same time, through their eyes I’ve seen many of America’s flaws and weaknesses. I’ve also seen a different America through the eyes of my friends from minority populations in the United States. Through friendship, reading, and film I have seen two countries emerge – the one of opportunity and the one of inequality at best and oppression at worst.

The echoes of “Make America Great Again” ideology are ugly and have allowed racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism to grow in dangerous ways. Lady Liberty’s “Give me your poor” speech feels trampled by fear, poor policy, and hardened hearts.

I have always known that my allegiance is to something far stronger and greater than any nation. My loyalty and world view are defined not by a country, but by a faith. I am called to a higher calling and a far better identity than that which is indicated in my passport. The idea that God’s awesome redemptive story is aligned to or limited by a country, a people, or a political party is far from the truth I know and believe.

Believing that a national identity is greater than a spiritual identity is quite simply idolatry.

My faith calls me to pray for countries and the leadership of those countries. It is part of every liturgy and even though I sometimes cringe and think “No! I don’t want to pray for the United States!” I do it. I do it out of obedience, and when I do I feel a sweet relief, not because things are better, but because I have a clearer picture of God as not ruled or defined by any country or place. I know that leaders ultimately answer to God.

This weekend feels like a time of reckoning and sobriety. A time to pray harder for a nation that has tremendous potential but is part of an imperfect world and functions with an imperfect government. The absence of large gatherings and parades, with fireworks cancelled and travel limited feels appropriate, a reminder that perhaps we need to grow into the greatness we celebrate and the potential we have by challenging injustice, caring for the weak, welcoming the outsider, having empathy for the marginalized and feeding the poor.

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Hubert Humphrey- 1977

The Blessing

The Lord Bless You

The Lord bless you, and keep you.

It’s grey outside, a day marked by fog and sadness. It is a holiday weekend in the United States. It feels far from celebratory. But this year it feels right to be lost in a fog.

Make His face shine upon you, be gracious to you.

Maybe you are feeling like I am these days – that life and the world feel weighty. I hear and read bad news and evil on every page and around every turn. From too many deaths in the Black community to second waves of COVID-19 to division about both, our news is flooded with opinion and voices. It all feels like too much. It is too much.

The Lord turn His face toward you, and give you peace.

And then I pause for a moment, and I watch “The Blessing” for what feels like the thousandth time. This song (based on several different Bible verses and written co-written by Steven Furtick and Chris Brown and with musical artists Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes) began in the UK in early May. Since then, my husband and I have watched renditions from India, the Arab world, Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia, Sweden, Spain, France, Turkey, Cyprus, Qatar…too many to list and too many to count.

May his favor be upon you and a thousand generations.

The words and music fill my soul and I feel my eyesight and my heart healing. There on my screen are people of every beautiful color and hair of every amazing texture, from every country imagineable, singing a blessing. A blessing that is thousands of years old, originally penned by writers of books in the Old Testament.

And your family, and your children, and their children, and their children

And I know that this story, this story God is writing is bigger than our immediate crises, it is holier and more beautiful than any response to injustice that humans are capable of, it is more powerful than any imperfect government or political party.

May His presence go before you And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you, He is with you, He is with you

The story God is telling is a worldwide story of people and redemption. It is far bigger than superpowers, politics, political parties, and opinions – it is a story that goes from Pakistan to Tasmania; from Iraq to Germany; from Russia to the Maldives; from Senegal to the United States; from North Pole to South Pole and all places between.

In the morning, in the evening, in your coming, in your going, in your weeping and rejoicing, His for you, He is for you.

It is a story that makes us laugh and weep, bow down and rise up. It is a story that sustains and delivers, that breaks the conscience and demands that we act. It is a story that convicts and comforts, that holds us and heals us. Because this God of the universe, who created us, who loves us, who transforms us – he is for us.

He is for you, He is for you, He is for you, He is for youHe is for you, He is for you

And when we believe this in our bones, than we are changed.

Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

So if you are feeling like I’m feeling, stop for a moment. Take a listen. And know that He is for you.

Dry Seasons

Photo credit: Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

The sounds of summer rain and thunder add music to my afternoon. We have had some glorious days of blue sky and perfect temperatures, days that dead poets used to write about, but last night rain came to water our earth. Then today, torrential rain has come while thunder booms in the background. Downtown Boston, visible from our upstairs guest room and my office, is grey with fog and mist.

I am a lover of sunshine and all things bright. I love yellows and golds, white lights and golden glows, sunshine that takes over the shadows. But in this area, rain is critical. The grass has been like straw and dust comes up from the ground as we walk on it.

Since I was a little girl, I have heard the Biblical metaphor of Jesus being the “living water.” I grew up singing a bright, bubbly song “Drinking at the springs of living water, happy now am I, my soul is satisfied…” While the tune was catchy, the song gave a false illusion of happiness – like it was something you conjured up and could keep forever just by drinking at those streams.

The song also neglected to describe what dry feels like. A throat parched, longing for water. Skin dry and flaky. Eyes burning and dehydration drying up all tears. Feet kicking up dust everywhere you walk. I have lived in several deserts around the world and I know dry. I know what my skin and nose feel like. I know that when it rains it floods because the earth is so hard the water cannot sink in. I know how the land looks and how my body feels.

Dry. Bone dry. So dry in fact, that you begin to see mirages of water everywhere – a trick of the mind to give hope to the one dying of thirst.

When you are bone dry, water in any form is a blessed relief.

The land is not the only thing that has been dry. My heart and life have been dry – bone dry and longing for respite. As much as I believe that Jesus is living water, I have also come to believe that there are seasons of dry in our lives; that no matter how much we drink at those springs, we may still feel dry and parched.

There are times when it helps to analyze feelings,  when evaluating what is going on and how I feel is important and necessary. There are other times when no matter how much I evaluate, no matter what I change, I still have the same feelings. So I continue to walk through the dry days and times, pressing ahead, knowing that seasons pass, new seasons come, and the dry will someday change to a cool, refreshing respite.

Rain– sweet, redemptive rain to water the earth and bring relief to dry, parched land. Faith – to believe that even in seasons of drought, Jesus is still here- offering water to thirsty souls.

This is my world and this is my heart today.

Eid Celebrations & Memories

عيد مبارك

Each year, the sighting of a crescent moon tells Muslims around the world the date of Eid al Fitr. With that date, a month of fasting ends and festivities and celebrations begin.

Today is Eid al Fitr and I wake up full of memories of past Ramadans and Eid celebrations. I indulge these, even as I head out into a world far different from the one where I grew up.

I’m seven or eight, holding tight to my dad’s hand.We are across the street from the largest mosque in the city of Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. There are thousands of men gathered to pray before heading home to their Eid feasts. I still remember brilliant white, starched cotton shalwar/kameez – the Eid clothing glowing with newness.

I’m in junior high and we are on vacation in the Swat valley. We stay at a rest house with views that make it into National Geographic magazine. Our scenery is rushing rivers with small foot bridges that perch precariously over certain tragedy should you fall, beautiful green mountains and valleys, nature in all its glory and lack of pollution. Later in the day, we begin to smell goat cooking over an open fire – the pungent, delicious aroma wafts through the open area below the rest house. We are treated to some of this goat by Pakistanis, hospitable beyond words to these strangers, white people in their territory.

I’m 15 and thrilled to have a day off. I think little about Ramadan or Eid celebrations other than grabbing sweets from a box on the table. My world is me and I don’t realize how much I will regret how little I care about the culture that surrounds me.

I’m 27 and I’m in labor. I know the Eid celebration is coming but it’s still Ramadan. Okay. Breathe. Slow and steady, make it through this pain.I must be around 7 centimeters and I know it will get worse before it gets better. This is the second baby I’ve birthed and I glance at the clock and think “I hope Dr. Azima comes soon!” I know she’s breaking the fast for one of the final days of Ramadan, and the days are long with sunset coming around 9pm, but my baby is coming and she better be here. I care not about culture or Ramadan or Eid celebrations. Laboring to bring a baby into the world has changed any outward focus to inward. Just before midnight I give birth to the most beautiful, blue-eyed boy I have ever seen and I am smitten.

I’m 36 and it’s our last year in Cairo. I hear the drums of Ramadan and know it will be a long time before I hear them again. I will no longer hear the call to prayer, my alarm clock since birth, echoing across the city of a thousand minarets. Instead mosques will be far away and familiarity even farther. But I can’t indulge in what will be. I have kids to care for, people to see, friends to enjoy.

I’m 53 and I wake up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be business as usual as I head to work on the subway. Muslim friends will take the day off but overall it will go largely unnoticed. There was no last day of Ramadan frenzy and today holds no air of festivity. I pray that I will see people on the subway who will remind me of where I’ve been. As I get to the station, an entire Muslim family is waiting on the platform, dressed in beautiful silks and cottons. I wish them “Eid Mubarak,” knowing what it’s like to feel alone and homesick for family on holidays when you are far away from family thinking how similar this must be for them. They smile in surprise, and my day is made.

I’m 55 and I’ve been waiting over a half hour for the subway. This is the last day of my work week and I am tired. A computerized announcement has told me three times that “we are experiencing delays because of a disabled train.” The platform fills up with people, anxious and irritated. The train finally comes after 45 minutes. The train is so crowded that I don’t think I can get on, but I am determined. As I cram into a space, I see that the young man next to me is wearing a kurta shalwar, and without a thought I say to him“Eid Mubarak!” He looks at me in surprise, and then says “Khair Mubarak!” followed by “That’s a welcome surprise!” The next 20 minutes we talk and the wait no longer matters. He is Pakistani, raised in Pakistan until teen years, when the family moved to Virginia. We talk about Pakistan and share some family stories. He goes to Harvard and graciously invites me to a celebration at eight in the evening. He is on the train with several other Harvard students, all Muslims heading to the Eid prayers at the main mosque in Roxbury. My stop comes too soon, but I leave with a full heart. What a gift to be able to have this conversation, to connect at a time when the world is so at odds.

I am 59 and living in the small city of Rania in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. I have just learned that we have to leave Kurdistan at the end of June and my heart hurts. I am angry. Angry at the government and angry at the university. I’m also sick with a bad cold and feeling the misery of self-pity. We hear an unexpected knock on the door in the evening. It is our friend Rania and her brother. They have come with beautiful homemade sweets and this hospitality and generosity make me weep. No wonder I don’t want to leave this place I’ve grown to love.

And today? Today I am in Rockport, Massachusetts – in a place I love though far from other places I’ve called home.

As I write, I think about the honor of growing up where I did and of having lived where I have lived. To have participated in countless Eid celebrations in both Pakistan, Egypt, Kurdistan, and now the United States; to have learned more about my Christian faith through the faith of my Muslim friends – this is a gift.

Crashing Waves; Crashing Idols

We walked along the ocean on Saturday morning. The sun had not yet broken through the clouds and it was grey and misty. The waves were high, crashing and covering the rocks, receding quickly as another one crashed.

I love the ocean. I love it in any weather. I love it for its beauty, its complexity, its strength, and its sound – the sound of my childhood vacations.

Often ocean waves feel safe, but not on Saturday. On Saturday I was glad I could stand on a solid rock above the tide and watch from twenty feet away. The waves felt like they could and would take out anything that was in their path, doing what the wind and current bid them to do.

I thought about the way the pandemic has crashed over the world, much like the waves on the rocks. I thought about how much it has crushed and crashed over our plans. From postponed memorial services to postponed weddings to virtual book launches, because the in person plans are no longer an option, our plans have been crushed. With tears we have fought the hard decision making, finally realizing that whatever it is we are planning must be postponed, canceled, or rethought.

It has also crashed and crushed our idols. Whatever our idols are – be they job security, government protection, economic security, business, the stock market, public speaking, living overseas, the perfect wedding, graduations, traveling, leisure, entertainment, sports, church ministry, academic success – it cares not. All of our idols have crashed, and if you are like me, you are picking up the pieces, wondering why you ever put your trust in something so fragile.

At the beginning of February, I was excited about some incredible opportunities. After the disappointment of the summer and our forced return to the United States, life was beginning to settle down. I had just celebrated my birthday. I was beginning a community health initiative in Kurdistan with my husband and I scheduled to travel there in late March. I had been asked to do a Ted Talk at Boston University. I was doing well at my job. I had written a grant that looked promising for the University of Raparin. I had even been nominated for an “Extraordinary Woman in Healthcare Award” for an organization in Boston. I kid you not. This is all strangely true!

And then came mid February. Death came with the force of a mighty wave, followed by border closures, shelter in place orders, travel restrictions, and cancellation after cancellation. The trip to Kurdistan was canceled. The Ted Talk was canceled. The grant was on hold. The community health initiative would begin, but slowly and in a completely different way. My brother’s memorial service was postponed. And believe me, I did not get any award. Instead, I curled up on my couch in tears most mornings, plans canceled and idols crashing, hands outstretched to God.

The pandemic waves have come with a mighty force, and have washed away any illusions I had about safety, security, and who I was. I am like one of the small snail shells that is taken by the waves, at the mercy of the sea and the tide.

Peter Mommsen in the Plough Quarterly writes this: “Whether or not this plague, like the biblical ones, is a punishment, it certainly is apocalyptic. I don’t mean this in an end-of-the-world way, but rather in the literal sense of apocalypse as an unveiling – a revelation of how things really are. This crisis has ripped the cover off certain truths about our souls and our society. Some of these truths are ugly.”

On the one hand, this could be deeply depressing, and some days I do sink into a sort of abyss. After a cup of strong tea and talk with my husband, who has the gift of both humor and helping things seem not so bad, I usually rise. I am not a phoenix rising from the ashes, but rather like one of those shells on the rocks, waiting patiently for the waves to calm down or the tide to change. I am left with a strange gratitude.

I did not know how dearly and closely I held some of the things I have lost, did not know how difficult it would be to give them up. Since last July and my floundering return to the United States, my questions have continually been “What is the next right thing?” and “With all the noise in my head, how do I figure it out?” I thought some of those things were indeed falling into place, but it turns out – that has not been so.

I don’t have answers either for myself or for you, if you perhaps find yourself in a similar position. I still feel like I could go under the wave any moment, gasping, unable to find my way to the surface.

Beyond answers, what do I do? I have found routine to be a good friend. A job, which I am more than thankful can be done from home, takes up some of the week. I do a lot of baking, a great deal of reading, and some just staring out at our bird feeder and thinking. And I try to walk, to strengthen my body and my mind.

At the beginning of February, I wrote an essay for A Life Overseas that I titled “On Safety and Sanity.” At the time that I wrote it, borders were not closed, shelter in place orders had not been given, but people were beginning to hear the roar of the waves that were to come. In that essay, I talked about “bookending with the Psalms” – starting with the Psalms and ending with the Psalms.

As the waves threaten to overpower me, as my plans and idols crash, it is there that I go, and I am not disappointed.

My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.
*

*Psalm 42: 6-8

The Oxygen of Faith – Pre-Paschal Reflections

Every year before our Paschal celebration I write a reflection. I usually write it after a busy day of services and preparation, a quiet moment before heading to the church for the midnight liturgy. This year, like the world around us, has been completely different.

Last year we traveled eight thousand miles and spent an entire month’s salary to get to our home parish for Pascha. That’s how precious it is to us. This year, though we live 20 minutes away from the church we are under a shelter in place and like Christians around the world, are live-streaming the service.

But I still find myself reflecting on this life-giving faith during a quiet moment. A few years ago, I was finishing up a film project with a friend of my son’s. We decided to go out for lunch before he headed back to New York City. We began talking about faith in general and the conversation then veered toward my faith in particular. He began asking questions. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember with absolute clarity saying to him “My faith is my oxygen.”

Every time we breathe we take in the life giving gas of oxygen. It enters into our respiratory system from outside our bodies and goes into our lungs. It crosses into the alveolar membranes and capillary endothelium, arriving in our blood stream and settling in our red blood cells, ready for a complex transfer system to every cell in our body. Anyone who has read about COVID-19 has a better appreciation for oxygen, the lungs, and the entire respiratory process.

My faith is like oxygen, my soul the lungs. I need it to breathe, to function, to get up each morning. I doubt, I scream, and I cry out to God for the pain and unfairness in life. I have sleepless nights, I have occasionally been in the intensive care unit needing life support for my failing faith, and I am too often a pitiful representative of my Christian faith. But ultimately I still choose it. To give it up would be like losing my ability to breathe.

In all my faults and flaws, I know deep within my soul that I am woven into the tapestry of his redemptive plan, and that somehow that matters.

And this is what I reflect on this evening. At 12 minutes before midnight, we will tune into our service. The entire room will be dark. A bell will chime once each minute until midnight. Then we will see the priest light one candle. We will hear him sing “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify you in purity of heart.” He will come out and say “Come, receive the light.” Though we are all over the Greater Boston area, we will move forward as one as we light our candles at home.

And so it will begin. for three hours we will celebrate the resurrection, periodically shouting Christ is Risen in every language we can think of. Our faith will be reaffirmed and I will breathe in its life-giving oxygen. In this, and this alone I rest.

Christ is Risen! In Truth He is Risen!

A Life Overseas – Grief and Gethsemane

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

On February 15, at five o’clock in the morning I received a phone call from my oldest brother. My second brother, Stan, had died tragically from a fall in Thailand. The news traveled fast to our large extended family. From Thailand to Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, to Greece and on to California, New York, and Boston and several parts between, the news stunned all of us with its magnitude.

Within a few short hours, a couple of us had tickets to Thailand. It was the beginning of the spread of the coronavirus beyond the borders of China, and along with the throat catching grief of death and loss was the background worry of travel and an epidemic that was rapidly crossing borders to become a pandemic. We went anyway. 

My brother worked alongside farmers in Central Asia, teaching them more efficient and effective ways of farming and working the land. He loved God’s good creation. His life, his work, and his photography reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for glory in the midst of a broken world that groans. For Stan, there was glory all around – nothing was mundane. 

A couple of days after we arrived in Thailand, surrounded by the beauty of a grief-laden garden, eleven of us gathered to remember my brother. The depth of love and bearing witness to grief that we shared as a group was indescribable. We spent four days together – four days of grieving which meant we wept, we laughed, we ate, we reminisced, and we talked about how we were angry at him for leaving us too soon. 

Within days after arriving back in the United States, our world had changed. Suddenly dinner table conversations became about working from home, shelter in place, the number of fatalities, and borders closing in countries all over the world. The solidarity that we shared as a group together in Thailand, grieving my brother and taking comfort in each other’s love and grace, was overshadowed by a global pandemic. Suddenly the vice grip of grief and loss became a world-wide vice as the death toll began to rise in country after country. My brother’s death faded in people’s memory. He was just one more dead in a world where death was becoming numbers instead of people. With gallows humor we talked about putting an engraving on his as-yet unordered tombstone with the words “He did not die of COVID-19,” but realized it would be far too expensive.

We waited with dread, knowing that the church where his memorial was to be held would be cancelling the service. We would have to postpone grieving with others who loved him, with my mother who had lost her son, with my oldest brother who had not been able to make it to Thailand because of a separate tragic death, with friends from around the world who were sending expressions of love and grief through cards and messages. 

In the meantime, we were still spread around the world. We waited anxiously as different family members made plans and then watched them fall apart as borders closed and planes stopped flying. We welcomed some family back and began communicating daily with other family who were staying in their host countries. Our collective grief spilled over in messages and phone calls, trying to comfort each other, to see silver linings where there were only frayed edges. 

I felt the grief of my brother’s absence in every statistic I saw of those who had died from the pandemic. I felt it in every article I read that took the statistics and changed them into actual stories of those who had died. Who were they? Who had they loved? Who would miss them? Who would mourn their absence for years after the pandemic ended?

And where was God in all of this? God of the individual and God of the masses, God of the broken-hearted and God of the joy-filled. God of Gethsemane, another grief-laden garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus reckoned with the mission he had come to accomplish. Where he, overwhelmed with sorrow, poured out his human heart before the Father.

We see Jesus, in the mystery of being fully man and fully God, taking friends along with him to bear witness to his sorrow. And yet, in his hours of great grief, they fell asleep. They disappointed him. Anyone who has known grief knows the pain of grieving alone, the discomfort of awkward interactions where people don’t know what to say, and the sense of disappointment when our friends don’t understand. In this time of worldwide grief, we are witnessing families broken apart by grief, unable to honor those who have died and bear witness to each other’s grief. Yet, it is in this place of deep sorrow that we find a comforter and counselor.

So it is to this garden that I go today; a garden significant in this Holy Week for Protestants and Catholics around the world. A garden that stands as a symbol of grief and the costly weight of the journey to the cross.

It is here that we see Jesus in his frail human state speak of his soul, overwhelmed with sorrow. We watch as he begs the Father to “Take this cup from me.” We feel his grief, we see his sorrow, we enter into his suffering. We bear witness to his journey to the cross.

The journey of Lent leads us to the Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t stay there forever, but right now, let us pause a moment and gather in Gethsemane. Let us stay with the broken world of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – with the cry that echoed to the Heavens “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Let us stay with the grieving and those who have lost, let us bear witness to pain, to suffering. Let us grieve for our broken world and let us do it together. Let us not be alone in our suffering, but let us journey to the cross as a people who are living out the “fellowship of his sufferings.” And there, at the foot of the cross, let us fall down and weep.

[Scripture from Matthew 26: 36-39]

Author’s Note: in my faith tradition, we are going into Holy Week with Palm Sunday this Sunday. Because I write for A Life Overseas which is a largely Protestant group, I have posted this today.

The Rhythm of Grace

I woke up to a cold house. Shivering despite being in a warm robe, I knew something was wrong. The temperature gauge showed a cold 58 and lowering. No heat came from the vents. The furnace was clearly not functioning.

“Could one more thing go wrong?” I thought. Which, of course, is a foolish thought. Yes. Absolutely. A lot more could go wrong. We could have another death. We could have another tragedy. That’s the thing about life – the horrid and tragic things that could happen are limitless. If it were not for grace, why would any of us want to get up in the morning?

And yet – there it is – the last best word one writer called it – Grace.

There is grace. There is hope. There is incredible beauty. There is laughter. There is resurrection. And there always has been.

It’s only been in the past 75 years that life became easy for so many. It wasn’t until the 1940s that wide-spread use of antibiotics became possible, helping people who would have previously died fight infection. It’s been in the last 100 years that we have seen massive advances in infant mortality and morbidity rates, changing the landscape of maternal child health. It was only 102 years ago that the last world-wide flu pandemic killed millions. But even then, there was grace. Even then people lived and loved, laughed and hoped, longed for restoration and resurrection.

Growing up in Pakistan I was introduced at an early age to food rations, no running hot water, no flush toilets, diseases like malaria, dysentery, hepatitis, malnutrition, blackouts, curfews, war, tragedy, and death. While Pakistan was far more than these things, living there meant I was not isolated from many of the things that my peers in the west never experienced. I am not a stranger to the uncomfortable, irritating, and sometimes tragic things of life.

And yet, when I met with a cold house and malfunctioning furnace, I still asked “Why?” I still questioned what else could go wrong.

And then the tears came. First hesitantly and then, when they realized they met with no resistance, they rushed to the surface.

Like so many in today’s world, I don’t know what I’m doing. All that I held dear, all that I planned, all that I worked for earlier feels as though it is no longer a reality. I cried and cried and cried. I didn’t hold back worrying that someone would see or hear these tears. That’s the thing about grieving alone – you don’t will yourself to stop for fear you will be misunderstood, you don’t try to compose yourself. You let the waves of grief move over you, like waves over the sand.

I cried that my brother left us all behind. I cried for my sister-in-law. I cried for my niece and nephew. I cried for my mom, grieving the loss of a child. I cried for all of us who knew and loved this remarkable man. I cried for the suffering around the world – Italy, India, Spain, Pakistan, the United States. I cried for all the people who have become statistics on a sophisticated, computer-programmed map. I cried for morgues that are too full and hospital staff that are too stressed. I cried for the refugees and those who are displaced. I cried for the world.

I don’t know how long I cried. It really didn’t matter. After a while, my sobs subsided, my breathing slowed and I sat still, taking it all in. Nothing had changed, but everything was different.

And then I got up and did what had to be done. Shower. Emails. Meetings. Curriculum development. More meetings.

The rhythm of life in the midst of quarantine. The rhythm of grace.

This is not the end  This is not the end of this  We will open our eyes wide, wider This is not our last  This is not our last breath  We will open our mouths wide, wider And you know you’ll be alright  Oh and you know you’ll be alright This is not the end  This is not the end of us  We will shine like the stars bright, brighter

Gungor

A Salute to All of Us

Photo credit – Stefanie Sevim Gardner

Here’s to the moms, homeschooling when they always said “I’ll homeschool when it snows in Djibouti… or Miami … or Chiang Mai.” In other words “Never” and never has suddenly become now.

Here’s to the restaurant worker, who is suddenly furloughed from an eighty hour work week.

Here’s to the teachers turning their carefully thought out lesson plans into online classes.

Here’s to the young woman who just got a job at Target excited for her first paycheck only to find out there will be no more.

Here’s to the nurse, carefully isolating herself from her family to keep them safe.

Here’s to the student, lonely and feeling trapped.

Here’s to the graduate who will not be able to walk.

Here’s to the bride, who tearfully postponed her wedding Unsure of when it can be rescheduled.

Here’s to the women and men setting up home offices and new systems, trying to continue their jobs.

Here’s to the grocery store employee, wiping down carts and checkout counters with bleach.

Here’s to the healthcare workers, on the frontlines of care.

Here’s to the priest and the pastor, the imam and the rabbi, praying for congregations in crisis.

Here’s to the homeless, fighting one more difficult day, one more crisis in a long list.

Here’s to the families trapped on three sides of the globe, to the third culture kid trying to get home, to the parents and siblings, brothers and sisters separated.

Here’s to the family grieving with no funeral, the community rallying with no physical contact, the church seeking to function while apart.

Here’s to the poor and the refugee – those whose reality has changed little, but whose hope looks even bleaker.

Here’s to the helpers, the doers, the prayers, the seekers, the scholars, the researchers, the neighbors, the givers, the comforters, the organizers, the activists, the optimists, the pessimists, the realists, the pragmatists, the lonely, the sad, the fearful, and the angry.

Here’s to our collective humanity and image bearing. May we reach across what divides us and open our hearts wide to the God who loves us. May we be willing to give of our abundance and receive from our need. May we have patience and resilience, may our eyes be open wide to the world and our small part in that world.

And may God be with us and comfort us.


Advice from a friend in Shanghai:

Since we got a head start with the COVID-19 over here in China, some friends have asked me for advice in navigating this time. Take only what’s helpful for you!

  1. Stay at home. Yes, I totally understand the urge to resist this, but the sooner you can accept it and stay home, the better it will be for everyone, including you.
  2. Assume that you could be the carrier. I haven’t been too worried about contracting the virus myself, but I became much more careful when I started thinking how I could potentially spread it to others.
  3. Don’t bring germs into your house. Wash your hands as soon as you come home. In Asia, we take off our shoes at the door, and this might be a good practice for everyone right now. Consider changing your outer clothes or showering if you’ve been out in a public place. Don’t forget to clean your phone and your keys!
  4. Focus on what you can control (yourself). There are too many things that are outside of your control right now. Instead, find ways you can boost your immune system and/or prevent your exposure. For many Asians, that means wearing face masks and opening the windows. I personally use essential oils to support to our immune systems and buy fruit for my family like a mad woman. Whatever strategies can strengthen you, whether it’s making grandma’s chicken soup or deep cleaning your house, I say go for it!
  5. Take care of your own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The stronger you are, the better you can survive and even thrive during this time. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise daily. Pray like crazy. Turn off the news. Watch something funny. Call a friend. Do a conference call with a group of friends. Listen to a podcast. Read a book. Get e-therapy. Learn something new. Go for a walk or a drive. If you have a balcony or a yard, sit outside in the fresh air and sun.
  6. If you have faith, put it into action. Trust in God. Meditate on His promises. Listen to worship music. God is greater than our circumstances, and He provides for us even in times of uncertainty. Be a light during this dark time. Don’t give in to fear or settle for mere self-preservation; your neighbor needs the hope and the love that you give, albeit in creative ways. Look out for those who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to domestic violence.
  7. Be generous. Give a gift card to someone who is not able to work during this time. Support your church even though the services have been cancelled. Pay your employees. Order take-out. Support small businesses. Donate blood. Give a phone call to someone who is vulnerable. Send a card to someone in a nursing home. Offer to shop for someone else. Donate to a food bank. Sew cloth masks. There are endless possibilities to sow seeds of generosity during this time. [From my friend Ruth and used with permission.]

Muted Colors – Lenten Journey

There is nothing ambiguous about Lent in the Orthodox tradition. No one contemplates what to give up, or how to spend more time in prayer and repentance. Everyone pretty much knows that you’re going vegan for the next seven plus weeks. Orthodox countries pull out their “Fasting” menus and we, sometimes reluctantly, get rid of all the cheese in the house.

Church services are more frequent and we don’t need thigh masters because our thighs get such a good workout from prostrations.

Coming from a background where Lent was mentioned, but it was more about giving up chocolate or, god forbid, coffee, and sometimes signing up for a daily meditation that would arrive in my inbox reminding me of the importance of this season, it has taken me some time to fully appreciate the intentionality of this faith tradition. I have come into it slowly, but I am embracing it fully.

This year, grief is the background of Lent. It colors everything with muted shades. The sky is not as blue, the brick houses are not as brown, our house is not as red, instead all of life feels muted. I know this will not be forever – instead it is a season. I remember hearing a speaker once talk about grief. “Our churches are full of hurting people,” she said “that don’t take a season to heal.” When we don’t take a season to heal, our grief comes out in other ways. When grief is frozen in time, it can take years to thaw.

Somehow, since it is Lent, and a season of repentance and preparation, I’m feeling the relief that comes with the freedom to cry, to mourn a broken world even as I experience the incredible grace that falls down on the broken and wounded. Lent gives me that time. It invites me into self-reflection in the midst of community, lest I become too inward focused.

And even as I repent and grieve, I’m also invited into a time of preparation that ultimately leads to the Resurrection and glory of Pascha. It is a time of repentance to be sure, but it’s also a time to experience fully the joy of forgiveness and delight in the mercy of God, given so freely to all. It is a time to remember that what I see is only part of the picture.

The muted shades of my life at this moment will one day be replaced with the glorious colors of a world beyond grief, where Lent will be no more, and every color will be richer and more glorious than we’ve ever seen.

“No Such Thing as Mundane”

Photo taken by Stan Brown on February 4, 2020

“Wonderful! No such thing as mundane!” The caption is typed over a picture of a book titled Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Every Day Places. Of the many things that have struck me these past days, I keep on coming back to this caption – for it captures my brother and his view of creation and the world.

My brother Stan is my second brother of four. Growing up, Stan was the life of our family with a quick wit, a fast tongue, a quick temper, and a passion for all of life. He was a spicy child and a spicy teenager. Both of us could raise our parents’ wrath more quickly than our siblings could. We did not fear conflict; we often looked for it. The story goes that our siblings looked on at the grief that we caused our mom and dad and decided “it’s just not worth it.” So if you look at it that way, Stan and I were real gifts to the family.

When I was in junior high, Stan came to me in a rage one day. The boarding school grapevine had relayed to him that his little sister had been smoking. He didn’t come to confirm whether it was true or not. He knew, of course, that it was. He looked me in the eye and he said to me “If you don’t write and tell our parents that you’ve been smoking, then I will.” “Okay” I sniffled “I will!” And I did.

In high school, Stan’s favorite jeans got two holes in them. One on each butt. How he managed that is extraordinary, still more extraordinary was that he cut out two perfect round patches, about 4 inches in diameter made of bright Sindhi Ajrak. He sewed the patches with tiny stitches all around. To the family, it was a work of art. Not only were his jeans now wearable, but they had these bright butt patches that were incredible. His work was uniquely unappreciated by staff and he was sent to the principal’s office and told he was indecent. When our mom found out, she was mad. Why on earth didn’t they appreciate the careful stitching and ingenious patches? Indecent how? He won that round with our mom, which was good as it turned out to be a far longer lasting relationship than that of the teacher who turned him in.

Stan’s passion for justice and advocacy began early. He was quick to see injustice and to stand up for it. I benefited from this on more than one occasion, but the one I remember best was when he took my 11th grade Physics class to task one day, including the teacher. It was an all male class besides me, and usually I tolerated the teasing fairly well. But not this time. This time it sent me into tears. It was one joke more than I could handle about my body or my brain. Stan, who was volunteering at the school during a year off from college, marched up to the Physics lab and told the teacher off. Though I don’t know exactly what he said, his words packed a mighty punch. I know this because that was the point where my teacher’s treatment of me changed, and the class – ever the adolescent boys of hero worship, followed their master.

Life moved on and we both became adults. I was the first family member to meet his wife, Tami, in Chicago. Stan introduced us and then left for California. As hard it was for them, for me it was a gift. Tami became a friend before she became my sister-in-law. Stan was smitten and on a rainy day the following August, Stami was born. He had found the one who his soul loved, and his life changed.

Through the years, being able to see each other became more of a challenge as life took their family to Kenya, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Colorado and our family to Pakistan, Egypt, the US, and Iraq. Yet always when we did connect, it was the gift of being with a person fully alive and fully present.

On the past couple of years, Stan has had this uncanny ability to show up and surprise us. At one point we looked out our window in Cambridge and there was Stan! Peeking in our front windows like a wanted man, except that he was grinning from ear to ear. He did the same thing three days after our daughters wedding in September. Suddenly there was a knock on the door of the home we had moved into less than a month before. It was Stan! It would be the last time I would see him on this earth.

Siblings are a precious gift, a solid geological formation* in the midst of a world that is constantly changing. Friends may come and go, but family has to be there. It’s the law. And it’s a given that we take them for granted – we just know they will always be there. Until suddenly – they’re not. Until suddenly, they are gone with a phone call. I used to think everyone got “the phone call” once in their life. But I don’t think that’s true. Most people I know have not. In my sleepless nights I wonder “Why us?” Why were we the ones to get the phone call. What I’m really saying is “Why did you leave us? We miss you so.”

And then I think of all the times I missed telling him I loved him. All the times I thought “I need to call Stan.” but I didn’t call him, because he’s a sibling, and he’s always going to be around, and I knew he’d still love me if I didn’t call. Even my call to him before he left for Thailand came after he had boarded the plane and went immediately to a voice mail message.

My last text to Stan was horribly perfect. He had sent a screen shot of the weather here in Chiang Mai. It was 79 degrees, a clear starry sky, and Valentines Day. I texted back “I love you. I hate you.” It was the day before he died.

The tears come at odd times and they flow like they will never stop. The hole he has left is enormous. The collective grief and loss without doubt, but beyond that is the deeply personal, unshareable grief and loss of his beloved wife, daughter, and son. It is too deep to grasp, and yet, the God he loved is deeper still.

My brother’s life on earth is over. His life now has a dash in it: 1956 – 2020. The most important part of our lives is in the dash between – told and untold stories, lessons learned, people loved, all of life in a single dash.

It was back in December when Stan posted the cover of the book on glory. And though it was about a book, all of his pictures, indeed his life, reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for that glory in the midst of a broken world that groans.

This was Stan. From a leaf on a tree to a beloved grandchild and everything in between, nothing was mundane. The gift of Stan was a gift indeed. A gift from God, to and for the glory of God.

Note: People around the world have stories of Stan – this is just one of the many that will come out in the months that follow his death.

*Our son Joel first used this when speaking of his brother Micah. I love this description of siblings.

A Life Overseas – On Safety & Sanity

Safe passage cannot be bought. We have no holy passport to protect us and so we venture forward, fragile maps in hand, flying our banners of courage and of hope.”

CALL THE MIDWIFE, SEASON 6

When life feels like it is too much, and I can’t make sense of our broken world, I turn to Call the Midwife, the television series based on a midwife’s memoir of working in the East End of London. I’m only half kidding when I say that.

News on the world stage is of quarantines and evacuations because of the new coronavirus, a virus affecting world economies, social structures, and everyday living for millions of people. News in your particular area may not only be coronavirus, but also local storms and tsunamis, civil war, or other threats to your safety. 

In the midst of any of these, the questions for many become what will happen next and how do we keep sane and safe? 

These are both good questions. The first we have little control over. Anyone who has lived overseas for even a short time knows that there are things you have no control over. From viruses to visas, you enter a life where you are regularly asked to give up your timetable and your control. If you insist on keeping them, they will mock you during a night where you toss and turn in your bed. The reality is we don’t know what may happen next. 

The second question may seem to offer a few more options, but there is much unknown there as well. 

Rachel Pieh Jones, writer and longtime contributor to A Life Overseas, writes about safety in a stunning essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear.” In the essay she describes having to flee Somaliland after three expatriates were murdered at the hands of terrorists. At one point in the essay she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.

“Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe.” are perhaps the most honest phrases that describe a life overseas. My first memories in life are of blackouts during a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. My parents’ had the only room in the house that did not have a window so it was safe to have the light on. We would gather and listen to the BBC World Service and drink hot cocoa, after which my mom would read to us until we fell asleep. Safe? Not safe? Who knew? 

How do we keep sane and safe during coronavirus warnings, wars, evacuations, and sometimes just plain traffic that seems to disregard human life? When it comes to decisions on safety, our lives stopped resembling those of our peers a long time ago; even so there are times when events happen that urge us to think more seriously about where we live and and weigh the inherent risk in staying or leaving. 

Here are a few things that may help: 

Start with the Psalms. If ever there was a model of crying out to God in times of despair and in times of hope, it is in the Psalms of David. They offer the full spectrum of feelings and responses to life and death situations. Reading these regularly is a good practice. You are not alone. You have never been alone. CS Lewis says  “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” The Psalms are a comforting reminder of that truth. 

Connect with those you trust and those who can help you work through your feelings and decisions. You may want to reach out to your parents or other family members in your passport country, but you know that their worry will cause you great stress and make you second guess your decisions. As much as you love them, they may not be the best people with whom to review your options. Pick the people that you share with wisely. Make sure that they can walk you through your decision making without passing on their own fear over a situation that they may not fully understand. 

Keep as regular a routine as you can. Whether you have young children or older teenagers, keeping a routine is critical. Particularly at bedtime so that everyone can get a good sleep. Family meals (even when food may be rationed), bedtime stories, gathering together for games is critically important during times of uncertainty and crisis. Keep those routines going throughout the time of crisis. 

Be careful of the amount of news you discuss in front of your children. Our world is over saturated with news and information. It makes people miles away from a crisis afraid, let alone you who are directly affected. Discuss the news in age appropriate ways with your kids. With older children, answer their questions with concrete information. Don’t have the news going nonstop on either a radio, the television, or your phone. It will not keep you sane – it will make you crazy. Keeping current on information is important, but there are ways to do it that preserve your sanity. 

Policies are your friends. If your organization has a policy, then trust that it was made for a reason. Let it be your friend. Let it guide your decisions. I say this to health organization supervisors all the time. “Let policies be your friend.” They don’t exist to be mean and arbitrary, but to guide and protect when you may not have the strength to make the decision on your own. You may disagree vehemently with the policy, but policies are often made to keep people sane and safe for the long term, not to burn them out in the short term. Rachel and her husband Tom did not want to leave Somaliland when they had to leave. They had only been there a year, and their lives were turned sideways. But they trusted a policy, and they left. It was the right decision. 

Don’t make decisions out of fear. Fear is not good currency. It will bankrupt you quicker than you can imagine. Make decisions based on reality and with regard to your organization’s policies, not based on fear of the “what ifs.” 

End with the Psalms. Start with the Psalms and end with the Psalms. They are good bookends. They keep all of life together in a clear image of human struggle and response. 

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13, ESV

I don’t know what is going on in your world. I don’t know what your struggles are, what threats may assault you from without and within. What I do know is that you are infinitely precious to God on this life journey. I offer these words of traveling mercy from my friend Robynn: 

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breathe. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination. But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

ROBYNN BLISS

May you venture forward, flying your banner of courage and of hope.

On Turning 60

This is 60!

I’m turning 60 on Monday, and I’m here to tell you that if you let it be, life is terrifying. Just today, four days before the auspicious birthday, a news article made its way across the algorithms of social media to inform me of the “Wuhan coronavirus.” Evidently even as I write this, a patient is being isolated in a tiny room, treated by robots, as doctors protect themselves and others from this deadly virus.

And here I thought I would die of old age and wrinkles – but no – it’s going to be Wuhan coronavirus – virus 2019-nCoV to be more exact. By the time I had finished reading the article I was that patient. As a true trauma thief, I had stolen the identity and the disease and instead of celebrating me on my 60th birthday, my children were gathering to say goodbye.

It was a beautiful moment, though just in my imagination. Every mother secretly longs for the deathbed remorse of their children, don’t they? The “if onlys” and “I wish I hads.”

But these moments were not to be, because this was all in my imagination. So, in the spirit of Ann Lamott, here is my “I’m turning 60 and this is what I know…” post, here you have it. (Except that she was turning 61, but whatever.) Do with it what you will, but please be nice to me.

  1. 60 is not an age. 60 is a concept. “I’m turning 60!” I say to the mirror, trying to get used to is, but it won’t happen. My internal middle age self won’t have it. I’m going to be one of those people that looks in the mirror when I’m 80 and says “Who are you, and why are you in my mirror and where did you put my chin? Show me my real self!” Which leads me to my second point…
  2. Real is not what we see. Real is much deeper than that. We spend so much time curating and cultivating, pretending and posturing – but real is beyond all that. Real is wondering how anyone can truly love you, yet moving forward believing that anyway. Real is knowing that the eternal is forever and the now is just now. Real is knowing there is a greater reality in this thing called life. Real is the paradox and dance of joy and sorrow in this thing called life.
  3. God will never give you grace for your imagination – so, my mom taught me this many, many years ago. I believe I first heard it when I talked to her, crying, saying I was afraid that my husband was going to die. He didn’t die, though I went to his funeral that day and wept. It was a beautiful funeral and I was a beautiful widow…..of course it wasn’t real, and I wasted a lot of time crying that day. “God doesn’t give you grace for your imagination, he doesn’t give you grace for what you think might happen. He gives you grace for the real thing – and that in abundance.” Ask anyone who has gone through a tragedy, and they will echo this.
  4. Motherhood is hard. You will never love more, you will never have your heart so broken, you will never have more sleepless nights – and not because of babies that don’t sleep. But if you can get through it, and that is a big if, the friendships of your adult children and the grace that they find in their hearts to give you is just miraculous. Trust me on that one.
  5. Find yourself a faith. I borrowed that from this past season of The Crown. As Prince Philip’s Orthodox mother enters the scene, she says this to her son: “Let this be a mother’s gift to her child – the one piece of advice. Find yourself a faith. It helps. No. Not just helps. It’s everything.” Life is so dang hard. Faith for me has made it not just easier, but so worth it. Just the other day a stranger told me “you wear your faith in your cross and in your eyes.” I’ve never had a more lovely compliment. I just hope it’s true.
  6. Make friends with people who are younger than you. When our son visited us in Kurdistan, he looked at us and said “Mom and Dad! All your friends are my age!” It was true, and there were reasons for it within that context, but beyond that, we’ve always had friends – good friends – who are younger. They keep us grounded. They remind us that we don’t have to have our lives all together. They accept things in us that our peers find tiresome. They remind us that life will go on once we are gone.  
  7. There is nothing like a good cry. It’s like the first signs of spring after winter, like the longing and release when you see a stunning sunset. It’s the release of all those things we bottle up and think we can control. Have yourself a good cry when you need it.
  8. Get your preventive health care appointments. I mean it. That colonoscopy? It will find the polyp that turned into cancer for your friend 6 years ago when she was due for one. That mammogram? Get it – I mean it.
  9. Forgive, and forgive, and forgive again. The bitterness that wells up from lack of forgiveness is so much worse than the polyp that turned into cancer. It’s a poison that you drink every day. I have learned the hard way. Give people the proverbial “benefit of the doubt” – don’t assume the worst. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to assume bad intent. Especially when we’re tired, when we’re sad, or when we think we see the person’s middle finger angrily sticking out at us. But maybe they were just born that way. Maybe it’s not us.
  10. Love fiercely, protectively, and with abandon. You will get hurt – of course you will! You will want to smash things. You will cry. You will rage. But oh, to have on my gravestone “She loved God, and she loved others.” That would be success my friends! That would be true success.

Okay – I’m done. I haven’t died of Wuhan yet – but there’s always time before Monday.

Oh and also, if you are interested – what I really want for my birthday? I want my dear ones to support this community health initiative in a place that I called home last year, a place and people that I love dearly. Click here to give a dollar or ten! Community Health Initiative in Kurdistan

Love, Marilyn

Longing for Isaiah’s Light

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.

The Prophet Isaiah

Snow is falling outside my window. In the abstract and theoretical, it is beautiful. The flakes are big – the stuff of fluffy snow, easy to shovel, brilliant for play. A couple of inches have already accumulated. I see it on the ground and the top of our bird feeder. Birds are wisely taking cover – not willing to venture out and gathering in a nearby hedge.

Outside my window, downtown Boston – usually easily seen at this hour, is hidden by the clouds and fog of this winter storm. Inside the contrast is palpable as white lights cast a welcome glow on this grey morning. The dark and fog are kept at bay, not allowed in infringe on the light in our home.

I am lost in thought, wordless longing in my heart. It’s an other-earthly longing – a longing for wholeness, for wrong to be made right, for the broken to be fixed, for the hurt to be healed, for my own soul to rest instead of restlessly wander.

How weary we all grow from tragedies – the only thing that seems to connect us in this disconnected world. And even tragedies bring on the cynics and the tragedy police, willing all of us to grieve more than we are able when the crisis happened half a world away.

How I long for Isaiah’s light. How I long for the light to dawn. Like a sleepless night where I just can’t wait until the clock tells me it’s time to get up, like an endless trip where I can’t wait to land, like a boring talk or class that I think will never end – no, none of those do justice to the deep longing for a world to be made right and the light to dawn. It’s a longing all its own.

I look over at the white lights, noting how their glow creates warmth and hope on this grey day. This is what light does. It illuminates, it radiates, it brings hope. This is why we long for Isaiah’s light.

This longing for Isaiah’s light takes me into the New Year, urges me on to a faith that is based not on an ideology, a mantra, or a dogma, but on a person. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

Isaiah’s light, a light that shines in the darkness – a light worth staking my life on. The day is still grey, but the light shines on.

Merry Christmas Eve from Thessaloniki

The wind is rattling the door shutters in the apartment, but inside it is cozy and calm. It’s what I’ve always wanted Christmas Eve to be, yet what it rarely is. Thessaloniki itself is a bustling commotion of people, strolling in plazas and stopping at cafes and shops along the way. There is a festive sense of waiting, evoking childhood memories anticipating the joy and surprises of Christmas.

Thessaloniki is not a new city for us, so we drink in the familiarity even as we explore new places and sights. It’s a special city – a city of miracles and churches, of children caroling out of tune on Christmas Eve, pocketing money and chocolates, and priests coversing with strangers in coffee shops. Time stops as you sit in cafes or tavernas, in churches or apartments.


Being Orthodox we feel at home in these churches, the saints guiding us through every icon, an urgency and expectancy in their gaze, as if to say “Watch and wait – you’ll see. These things you worry over, the cares you hold tight, the burdens you bear – lay them down for a moment. Stop for a moment. Be enveloped in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” This faith is like this city – familiar yet new; timeless, enduring, ageless yet ever-available.

It is good to stop. It is a gift to be still. My life has taken on the familiar urgency of a large American city and I find myself longing for the time we had last year, longing to stop and reflect. We try and set aside time, and yet the endless tasks, scrolling, time-wasting, and real work creep in making us believe that we are trapped.

As I stop this afternoon, I can’t help but think about birthing babies. It’s something I know well, my earned fact as it were. Each birth was unique – seemingly the only commonality being myself and my husband. But there was one other thing that was common in my births, and that is that time stopped. Nothing mattered but the birth of that baby. Nothing. Each labor pain was separated by what felt like an eternity. And then, with the “I can’t take it any more” pain of transition, the work of pushing began until a cry broke time, and a baby was born. Time stopped, a baby born, a miracle.

The mystery of birth and the mystery of the incarnation – both invite us into a timeless miracle. A baby born, a world changed.

This afternoon, in the quiet of a rented apartment in a city in Greece I will myself to enter into the timelessness that I entered into during those long hours of labor. I will myself to enter the timelessness that believing the mystery of incarnation requires, the timelessness that this city, this season, and my faith urge me toward. The timelessness that birthing babies necessitates. The timelessness of a “long expected Jesus, born to set his people free.”

Merry Christmas Eve! May you too enter the timelessness of the miracle of Christmas.