You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught


Last night I went to an Iftar celebration. It was sponsored by the Greater Boston Muslim Health Initiative – a group that periodically meets to focus on specific health needs of the Muslim community in the area. It was an eclectic group of people, each of us with strengths in different areas, community members and advocates.

And of course – Nabra’s death came up. You may not know the story. Nabra Hassanen was a 17 year-old who lived in Northern Virginia. Early on Sunday morning, Nabra prematurely lost her life to a man filled with rage and bent on destroying life. She was assaulted and beaten with a bat, her body left in a pond to be found by law enforcement a few hours later.

Nabra had celebrated a Ramadan meal with friends and was on her way to the mosque with the same group of friends when the incident occurred.

Seventeen. Muslim. A young woman. A person of color. Now dead.

A death like this makes no sense – indeed it is put into the album for the unexplainable. Is it road rage? Is it a hate crime? No matter what you call it, it won’t bring Nabra’s life back. She’s gone – gone way too soon.

A song in the old musical South Pacific unwillingly goes through my head:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Taught to be afraid. Taught to hate. Taught to kill. Taught to think of people as less than. Because when you are carefully taught these things, you can treat people as you like without conscience or remorse. 

What might our world look like if we were taught to see the image of God in each person? If we were aware of how bound together we are in our life journey? What might it look like if we saw people as God sees them – beloved and worthy? If we changed our worldview from glorifying the individual to humbly loving collective humanity.

My heart weeps for Nabra’s family and community. This assault must feel so big and so awful, so personal during the month of Ramadan.

My heart also weeps for the cancer of prejudice and racism in our society, that we are so carefully taught to despise and hate, without even being aware. 

And even as I write this, I know I am not innocent. For any time I ignore others, anytime I dismiss another as unworthy, I’m doing the same thing. The consequences are less, the action and heart attitude is the same. When we deem people as unworthy, we can do whatever we like to them. 

How can we change this societal narrative? How can we begin to see ourselves as integrally connected, bound together in this journey? Your grief is my grief, your sin is my sin, your joy my joy, your burdens, my burdens. 

How can we rid ourselves of what we have been carefully taught and soften our hearts? 

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, monasticism is alive and well. Contrary to what many believe, monks and nuns do not merely seclude themselves from the world. Instead, they align themselves with the world through prayer. They pray for the world. They are “intentional in living this mystery of our mystical unity and responsibility.”*

St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “and what is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of merciful men pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grubs his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear if or see any injury or slight suffering of anything in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually…” 

What more is there to say, but that God would “unteach” us that which we have been carefully taught; that he would give us hearts of mercy instead of stone. 

And that we would take seriously our mystical connection and our mutual responsibility and act upon it. 

*Scott Cairns in The End of Suffering

I Like Family – Family is my Favorite

In a faded, old photo album I read the words “Family makes you feel whole and strong – vibrant and needed.” The words are typed on an ancient typewriter, long gone in our travels and moves from house to house and country to country. The pictures that surround the words have lost their color and appear true vintage with no filter.

I typed those words when we were living in Islamabad, Pakistan – miles from blood relatives. I wanted to create something special for my husband, a photo album of our family at the time. We were young and had a boy and a girl. We were all quite perfect in those days. Pretty and fresh-faced, without the weathering that life brings with its hard fights and its days of no return.

The truth is that in this age where family often loses its meaning, I like family. Family is my favorite. I more than like family – I love family.


We have just returned to Cambridge from a family wedding. My niece, Allison, married Paul. Paul comes from a large Italian family and I instantly loved his mom, Patty, and his Aunt Joan. They are women I would go to war with – or at least gossip with at a family wedding.

The wedding took place outside in a rustic setting, on the shoreline of Irondequoit Bay.  Chairs were set up outside beside a small dock, while the dinner was set to be served at the waterfront lodge, with stunning views of the Bay. A sudden, and violent summer storm had all of us scrambling and rearranging the ceremony venue to take place in the lodge. It was a picture of a family willing to go with whatever happened, determined that marriage would win over weather every time. A more brilliant metaphor for marriage is not possible and I know in my gut that these two will make it.

My niece was dressed in classic vintage – lace, a netted veil, and stunningly beautiful. She walked down the unexpected indoor aisle, and the ceremony began.

Who gives this woman? 

‘Solemn vows that none of us can possibly keep without the grace and mercy of God.

Readings from the Songs of Solomon and Wendell Berry.

Rings exchanged.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The sacramental pronouncement of a union authored by God, ordained by God, kept only by God’s goodness. 

You may kiss the bride. 

And then wild cheers and the song “Will the Circle, be unbroken, by and by Lord, by and by?”

A celebration followed where there wasn’t enough time to talk to everyone that we wanted to; where we enjoyed great food and amazing company; where family gathered, at one with each other and the spirit of the day. Even a nest of bright, blue robin’s eggs joined in the celebration. Not a sacrament, but a symbol of our God’s love of beauty and life.

In a world that is fearful and cynical, a world where marriage is discarded for something far easier and less permanent, a world where the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have little to do with daily life, I once again bear witness to a family willing to live counter-culture. I once again witness the proclamation of the truth of marriage, once again hear vows that are humanly impossible being promised. 

For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, in health, to love and to cherish, until death parts us and we are ushered into something even better then the best marriage possible.

I fell into bed that night in happy exhaustion.

Because I love weddings and the families that go with them. Because family does make me feel whole and strong, vibrant and needed.

So, Yes – I like family. Family is my favorite. 

Living Effectively in the Here and Now (AKA I’m not in South Asia anymore so….)


June is the month of transition for overseas workers and their families. It’s the month where many make the decision to stay – or to leave. 

Decisions to leave are not made lightly – I know this. They are made with butterfly filled stomachs, hurting hearts, and a lot of soul-searching tears. The decision to leave a place where you have invested your heart also comes with many fears and questions.

What will it be like for us on the other side? 
I’ve learned how to live well here – and it’s taken time. 

How will those invisible skills be used in my passport country? 


How will we live effectively? 

We haven’t heard from Robynn in a while – but today she’s at A Life Overseas talking about what it was like to move to the United States after living so many years in India. 

In a talk she and her husband gave at their church, she speaks to these questions. For all of us who have asked, or are asking, these questions, this post offers wisdom and grace for living well in the here and now.


 I recently was asked to talk to our church about how I live out my faith. It got me thinking. In 2007 we were “redeployed”. It’s a long story but we knew God was moving us from South Asia to Manhattan, Kansas. As I processed that move it struck me that Jesus must have Kingdom of Heaven Purposes in mind and yet I had no idea how to minister to people here. I remember asking someone how to talk about Jesus here, how to do good works in His name here in Manhattan. Her response was, “I don’t know! You’re the overseas worker!” She seemed like such an intentional person. I was so shocked by her response. I asked a few others. No one had anything very tangible or helpful to tell me. So….I consciously decided to pretend that everyone here was from South Asia! I would do what I knew to do! I would do what I’d been sent out by my church to do….but I’d do it here!

Here’s a little bit of what I mean:

I recognize I’m here for the Kingdom’s sake! My life has significance. I firmly believe Jesus asks us to live somewhere for a reason. We were brought here on purpose!

Intentional Involvement:Lowell and I intentionally think how we can get involved. I joined the PTO. I volunteered in the lunch room at Bluemont Elementary and then TR. Lowell joined the Friends of Sunset Zoo board. He’s now a court appointed special advocate for kids in the legal system. Those were all strategic decisions. How can we hang out more with people that needed hope? That seemed to be a good place to start. 

Read the rest here

On Monasteries, Children, and Loving Our Enemies

Gunmen Kill at Least 28 Coptic Christians in Egypt

The headline spares nothing, except that there were children. I numbly read the article describing the pilgrimage. The group was headed to St. Samuel Monastery for a pilgrimage when pick up trucks reportedly drove up to the busses and began firing automatic weapons. I read as little as I have to to get the story. Then I stop and I feel myself getting sick. 


During our years living in Egypt, my husband used to love taking our oldest son, Joel, to monasteries. The first time he went, Joel was only three years old. He went off happily into the desert with his dad, secure and excited.  The pictures taken later that day show a tow-headed pre-schooler with a bearded monk. They are absolutely comfortable with each other and the camera captures this well. 

Our introduction to Orthodoxy came through the Coptic Orthodox Church. My husband went on countless trips into the Sinai desert, enjoying the hospitality and growing through the spirituality of monks who had devoted their lives to prayer in the desert. Christianity in Egypt is alive because of these havens and those that set themselves apart to pray for Egypt and the world. It was a monk who said to my husband “Cliff, you are Orthodox. You just don’t know it yet!”  This was years before we entered the Orthodox Church. My husband just thought this is what the monks say to Protestants who they liked. It turns out it was more prophetic than we could have imagined. 

These trips to monasteries are a respite from the chaos of the massive cities in Egypt. But they are so much more! Pilgrimages to monasteries are part of the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, so when I read about the group who were attacked it felt personal. It should feel personal. These are fellow Christians, members of what we call the “body of Christ”.  


The commands to “love our enemies” and “do good to them that hurt you” are not ambiguous. They are clear and forceful. Along with this, we have the words said by Jesus as he died on the cross:

Father – Forgive Them. 

In the most outrageous act of love the world has ever witnessed or will ever witness, we have these words. They are recorded and echo through history. They are heard in great cathedrals and small,village congregations. They are said aloud, and they are whispered in the soul. 

These words – they feel too hard. How can a grieving mother say them? How can an angry father believe them? 

And yet – still they echo. 

After the attack on Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday, a television station interviewed the wife of a security guard who was killed during the attack. It was this man who stopped the suicide bomber and made him go through the metal detector, an act that cost him his life. His widow’s words echo the words of Christ on the cross:

‘I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you. I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds,’ 

Violence lasts but a moment, forgiveness echoes forever. 

A Life Overseas – On Home and Keeping Place

Longing for home

“Home is a human place. Instinctively, each of us, male and female, knows the sound of its welcome – and the joy of our possible return.

Readers – Today I am at A Life Overseas talking with Jen Pollock Michel about her newly released book Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home. Will you join me there? I’ve given you a brief preview below!

This community knows the challenge of creating home in odd spaces and places around the globe. We also know what it is to be homesick, to long for familiar sights and sounds, to occasionally cry during the dark of night, reaching out to a God who created place.

In her newly released book, Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel writes about this human longing. The back cover eloquently conveys what the book extends to the reader:

“Keeping Place offers hope to the wanderer, help to the stranded,and a new vision of what it means to live today with our longings for eternal home.”

I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Keeping Place. Throughout my reading, I thought about my upbringing, as well as the many moves I have made in my adult life. I also thought about this community and the ways we leave one home and create a new one, always aware that in home and place, the temporal and the eternal meet.

I asked Jen if she would meet with our community here at A Life Overseas and talk about the book – which really means have a conversation about home and place.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!

Interview with Jen Pollock Michel

Can you give us a sense of how you came to write a book about place and home? 

I feel like I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. This is partially because we were a very typically mobile American family during my childhood: my dad chased the tail of opportunity, and we moved for those opportunities. And although I wanted to give a more rooted life to my own children, we’ve also moved a lot for my husband’s career, including a move to Canada six years ago.

But it’s not just mobility that has left me longing for home. I’ve also experienced a lot of loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s these life experiences that springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book.

You currently live in Toronto, Canada – a place where you didn’t grow up and a country where you don’t legally hold citizenship. How has living where you are a guest shaped your view of home?

It’s now been six years that we’ve had no permanent immigration status in Canada, so I’m writing about home from the “stranger” perspective, for sure. In an ex-pat life, the longings for permanence and belonging are particularly acute, and it’s easy, of course, to nostalgically think of the place we’ve left behind as the home that would settle those longings.

But truthfully, I’ve realized in writing the book that these longings aren’t just characteristic of the ex-pat life. It’s not as if we’re the only ones to feel dislocation in this world. No, I think it’s most true to say that exile is the human experience and has been since Genesis 3 when we left the Garden behind. This exile can be dislocation geographically, but it can also be estrangement in our relationships with others and most importantly, with God.

What truths (characteristics) of God did you learn through writing this book? 

Probably most importantly, I’ve begun to see God is as “homemaker.” That word tends, for many Westerners, to connote a woman who abandons career to stay at home with her children, and this conception has given us a very narrow view of homemaking. But to look carefully at the arc of Scripture (which begins and ends at home) is to see a homemaking God. At the very beginning, Genesis 1 drives toward this idea that God is making a habitable world for his people. “It is good” is a way for God to say, “It is homelike. People can live here.” And then of course in Revelation, we see God bringing heaven to earth and welcoming his children to dwell with him.

For me, a view of God’s homemaking inspires a whole new affective quality to his work of redemption. It’s not just that God has sent Jesus so that he can “acquit” sinners in a kind of impersonal legal transaction. It’s that God has made His own Son a stranger for our sake.

Salvation isn’t just pardon: it’s welcome. It’s homecoming.

You can read the rest of the piece here

That Holy Ache

Spring 2017

 

I awake with that Holy Ache.

If there is any time I feel this acutely it’s on Monday mornings, where I try to move between a resurrection Sunday and the real-world Monday. Where I move from the weekend rest and peace, to the week day chaos and problems.

We who are human know this Holy Ache. It is something that transcends cultures and generations, something that will be part of us until our life on this earth is complete.

It’s the one that reminds us that we are in between. We are in the not yet; the messy middle. That place where we know what we see is only a fraction of the real story, yet we ache for that real story to be revealed, to come to fruition. We are ‘between the lost and the desired’.

A Holy Ache.

That ache we feel when we read or hear the news and our hearts stop with the horror of it all, the longing to make all right, to gather up all the orphans, the widows, the sinners and show them the love of God. The holy ache that acknowledges we are capable of so little in comparison to the great need. That ache we feel when we are at a funeral of one we love, knowing we will never see their faces, hear their words, hug their bodies again. That ache we feel when the rich thrive and mock while the poor struggle to survive. That ache we feel of injustice and wrong and all those things that remind us we are in the between.

It used to be that the holy ache would direct me to despair. It’s all too much, I thought. It’s too hard. Seeing through a glass darkly is not enough. But lately I have embraced the holy ache as an integral part of my faith journey – a critical part that brings me to a greater love and desire for God.

Yesterday our priest said it well. We are caught, he said, between irrational joy and sorrow.

I have embraced the holy ache as an integral part of my faith journey

Irrational joy and indefinable sorrow.  Waking to the smell of spring, knowing we are alive, seeing new buds coming out on trees and bushes fills us with joy, even as we face the sorrow of a world that is not as it should be.

So welcome to today’s Holy Ache – may we walk in faith that aches will be redeemed and in the middle of Holy Aches we may know Holy Joy. 

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.”

Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” from The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

Holy Saturday 


Yesterday was Good Friday, a day when all of Christendom takes a moment to stop and pause at the memory of sacrificial love. 

But what happens between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?
What happens to us on the days between tragedy and healing? What transpires when the crisis is over, but the end is not yet revealed? The days after the car accident, but before the broken leg has healed and the insurance has been paid. The days after diagnosis of cancer, but before treatment. The days after a funeral, but before we’ve adjusted to the loss.
These are the days between, when instead of darkness or light there is a lingering nervousness and knowledge that something is not quite settled, not quite right. The days between are often the most difficult and the most lonely, and they are undoubtedly the most common.

So has this day often seemed to me – this day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, where we are suspended between death and life. 

“It is Finished” has been spoken, “He is Risen” is yet to come. 

In the West the day is often filled with shopping for marshmallow chicks, chocolate bunnies, and fake grass to line plastic easter baskets. 

 As I’ve moved into the Eastern Orthodox Church, I’ve formed a different view of this day between. A day between – yes, but a day of immeasurable importance in the Christian faith tradition. 

Madeleine L’Engle describes her journey of greater understanding of this day in her book, The Irrational Season:

In the Western Church, we jump directly from Good Friday to Easter Day, with Saturday a vague blank in between. But in the Eastern Church, Great and Holy Saturday is one of the most important days of the year.”


She goes on to say:


“Where was Jesus on that extraordinary day between the darkness of Good Friday and the brilliance of Easter Sunday? He was down in hell. And what was he doing there? He was harrowing hell, or to put it in simpler words, he was ministering to the damned.”


Madeleine L’Engle says this about the first time she ever saw the fresco of the Harrowing of Hell over the altar in the Chora Church in Istanbul: 

“I stood there, trembling with joy, as I looked at this magnificent painting of the harrowing of hell. In the center is the figure of Jesus striding through hell, a figure of immense virility and power. With one strong hand he is grasping Adam, with the other, Eve, and wresting them out of the power of hell. The gates to hell, which he has trampled down and destroyed forever, are in cross-form, the same cross on which he died. . .”

This same icon has become a part of my church tradition. 

I am almost ready to head out the door to our Holy Saturday service, because I have come to realize that what happens in the days between, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is crucial to the final outcome.

Broken


Over the weekend, the father-in-law of one of my colleague’s was badly injured in a bike accident. When I inquired as to how he was doing, he simply said “Broken”.  With multiple fractures and bruises, that is the most descriptive word possible. 

Broken. 

Early this morning we received word that my mother-in-law died. Her body was broken and could no longer sustain life. Tears well up as I think of my father-in-law kissing her one last time, saying “I love you,” those words that formed their union so long ago and her slipping away. It only takes a moment to go from life to death. 

Broken. 

In my faith tradition, this week is all about broken. Beatings, betrayal, denial, and a cross. You can’t get much more broken. A mother who has to watch her beloved son die, his body broken and on display; a beloved and trusted friend denying even knowing you; a crowd condemning and wanting blood. 

In truth, I don’t want broken. I don’t want death. I don’t want betrayal. I don’t want denial. I don’t want pain. I want to rush to Sunday and the resurrection.

But life doesn’t work that way. Our world is not as it should be. And though we see beautiful glimpses of redemption that startle and amaze us, we still face all that is part of this broken world. 

This week is not about platitudes, it is not about trying to rush to the Resurrection. It is about praying in the midst of all that is broken. It is about identifying with the suffering Christ. Only then does the Resurrection become real to us; only then can we grasp the significance and glory of a risen Saviour. 

So I sit as one broken – broken by sorrow of death and loss, by pain, by the weight of difficult relationships. And in the silence of the broken I know God is near. 

If you are weary of sorrow and pain, if you are face to face with tragedy and death, with the broken bones of a weary world, know that you are welcomed into the arms of God.*

*from A Broken World Meets an Advent Season

Lenten Journey: Instant Gratification or Slow Process

God of Process

On my work space shelf, I have a box of instant oatmeal. It’s relatively healthy, full of fiber, and low in the bad stuff. I have it on hand for those days when I rush off to work, my tummy empty since the night before, my blood sugar low, and nary a minute to sit on my couch and eat breakfast while contemplating life. It is my breakfast safety net.

As far as instant breakfasts go, it’s good. Maple and brown sugar, with dried cranberries and walnuts thrown in for extra fiber and an antioxidant effect. But compared to real breakfasts, in the privacy and comfort of my home with no job anxiety yet before me, it does not satisfy. I would far rather eat breakfast at home any day of the week.

We live in a society where the instant is highly valued. Instant breakfast. Instant cash. Instant internet. Instant messaging. Instant cures. Instant results. You can even get instant degrees. I am affected by this instant value and mantra far more than I would like to admit. One of the observations I have made about the “me” who lives in the United States as compared to the “me” who lived (and still travels) internationally is that I am far more patient in Egypt, or Pakistan, or Haiti, or Mexico. I go into a different place where I am more reliant on God, less on self. I do well when the instant is not available.

I don’t only want instant when it comes to daily life; I also want instant when it comes to relief from pain and suffering – I want the magic wand to sprinkle fairy dust that turns peasants into princesses, and villains into frogs.

We are a people of instant gratification communicating with a God of process; a people who want immediate results in relationship with a God who says “Wait – I’ve got this.” No wonder there are some discordant moments. 

My longing for instant is far from God’s truth. In the famous “Faith Hall of Famers” passage in the book of Hebrews, the abbreviated life stories of several people, heroes of the Christian faith, are told. Their longings and promises were not fulfilled in an instant. In verse 13 the words say “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.” The end of the chapter gives the final explanation: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” 

I want the magic wand to sprinkle fairy dust that turns peasants into princesses, and villains into frogs.

There are many, many times where I have screamed at God “You’re too late” and I wonder if there were times when the people mentioned in Hebrews 13 did the same. All of them were people waiting for promises to be kept; all of them were people who died waiting.

But this I know: God is a God of process, a God who doesn’t tell me the end of the story, but continues to write it day after day. He is a God who asks me to trust the process, to honour the struggle.

My world calls me to instant access. God calls me to slow process. My world promises instant change. God promises slow and lasting transformation. May the voice and promise of God be more compelling than the voice of my world.

A Life Overseas – A Third Culture Kid’s Story of Faith

pakistan-71671_1280

Readers, I’m over at A Life Overseas today and I would love it if you joined me!

There is no single story when it comes to the third culture kid; the missionary kid. While we can learn and grow from research and the common themes that have emerged to form a perspective, each child has their own story. Like fingerprints, these stories are unique, formed by family of origin, personality, and life experience. There is no single story around faith either. Instead, the mystery of faith weaves through a life – sometimes accepted, sometimes rejected, but always present. 

When I set out to write my memoir, Passages Through Pakistan, I thought it would be about belonging. After all, wasn’t that what I had worked through for a number of years? Wasn’t that part of my identity? But the more I wrote, the more I realized that the common thread woven through the narrative was not belonging. It was faith. So today I have included two excerpts from the book. My prayer is that if you are a parent or a third culture kid,  you will know beyond doubt that your (and your child’s) faith journey is infinitely important to God; that he can turn ashes into beauty and mourning into oil of joy.*

*****

…the mystery of faith weaves through a life – sometimes accepted, sometimes rejected, but always present.

All adults can point to a time when they go from the naïveté and simplicity of childhood and cross over into the complicated world of the adult. Some of these coming of-age moments are dramatic, some are profound. All are life-changing.

It is easy to dismiss these moments. They may seem undramatic, insignificant. But to the individual, the drama they represent is a one-way passage out of childhood. Once we pass through we can never go back.

For many years, I would only tell happy stories about my childhood, stories of midnight feasts and camp outs, of traveling to beautiful places and life-long friends. Years went by before I could admit that some of my childhood memories were deeply painful. If I acknowledged just how difficult they were, I would be betraying my parents and my childhood. More than that, if I mentioned the painful parts, I would have to deal with the pain, and some of it went deep.

The real reason I didn’t want to tell these stories was more complicated than I wanted to admit. My parents’ faith had led them to Pakistan and sustained them through the years they were there. If I was a healthy child, then teenager, then adult, no one could criticize their life choice. Here was their best defense against those critical of the missionary life. If I admitted the pain, if I was truthful about the hard stories, their defense was stripped.

But was I really worried about them? Or was I more worried about what would happen to my own faith?

Read the rest at A Life Overseas – A Third Culture Kid’s Story of Faith

Lenten Journey: Palm Fronds and Hosannas


Palm fronds await us as we enter into our parish. It is Palm Sunday – that joyous day before Holy Week, where all of life makes sense as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, greeted by masses of people proclaiming him king. Unlike those crowds who gathered that day so long ago, we know what is coming. We know the grief and sadness, the immense pain and suffering that filled the following week. 

I think of this as I stand listening to our choir chanting. Two things blot the joy of this day: a bomb has exploded at a church in Alexandria Egypt, killing people as they too worshiped on Palm Sunday. The second is that my mother-in-law is dying. She is surrounded by family and excellent hospice care, but that does not take away the fact that soon she will no longer be on this earth. 

How did Jesus feel as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when he already knew the tension between joy and sorrow that would take place the week following? How did he feel knowing the very people who waved palm branches would shout “Crucify him!” This is when I am more interested in the humanity of Christ than the divinity. 

How did he feel knowing the grief and suffering his mother would experience as a sword pierced her heart? 

In the midst of joy, did he feel grief for what was ahead?  And then the reverse – on the cross when he was in anguish, did he also experience the joy of knowing that finally, death would be conquered? 

It will take a lifetime for me to understand the grief/ joy paradox and there is no week where it is more profound then Holy Week. 

I’ve written before about my friend Kate, and her experience during a church bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan. But I share it again, because I can’t think of a more profound illustration of the grief/joy paradox. So on this Palm Sunday, as I prepare to go into Holy Week, I give you this story. 

A couple of years after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, there was a terrorist attack on the International Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. The attack felt personal. It was a church we had attended for a year and a half while living in Islamabad; a church my oldest brother had pastored; and it was a church where many of our friends worshiped. There were several of our friends present in the church that day, one was Robynn’s father. Another was a friend who was there with her husband and small children. In the attack she shielded her small child from flying shrapnel and was severely injured in the process.

In a poignant letter describing the event, she and her husband speak of the indescribable joy she felt in saving her son.

I wanted to save my boy. I knew I was hurt badly, but when I looked down and saw that Iain was unhurt, in the midst of the pain and shock of the blast I felt an indescribable joy, knowing that I had taken the violence intended for him.

In the face of terrible violence and possible death, my friend felt indescribable joy at saving her boy.

This is the absurdity and irrationality of my Christian faith; an absurdity and irrationality that I will hold to for all my days. In the midst of suffering, in the midst of sorrow, there can exist indescribable joy.

A bomb in Egypt, a family member’s imminent death, palm fronds and hosannas, death and a resurrection – in the midst of grief and sorrow, indescribable joy. 

This I cling to as I enter into Holy Week, covered with an umbrella of grace. 

Photo credits: Cliff Gardner 

Lenten Journey – On Forsythia and Hope


“You can cut branches of forsythia before they bloom and bring them inside and they will bloom quicker.” 

It was Western Easter a few years ago and we were at my mom and dad’s. Large branches of forsythia were in a vase on the windowsill, bright with yellow blossoms that defied the remains of winter outside. I still remember how surprised I was at my mom’s words; how surprised I was that I didn’t know this before.

Forsythia is the first plant to bloom in the Northeast. Its buds begin turning to stunning yellow flowers as the first days of spring arrive.

I remember my mom’s words as I put large branches into a white pitcher and smaller ones into a jar. The buds shyly peek out and I imagine them to be scared; scared that if they make a commitment and leave their plant cocoon, they will be betrayed by our fickle weather. I know how they feel. I know this is anthropomorphizing at its finest, but I don’t care. I still imagine we are comrades in our fight against winter’s never end date.

I realize as I arrange the branches that I am desperate for forsythia – desperate for a sign of spring, a sign of hope, a sign of new life. When all around feels dead, when relationships feel strained without reason, when I anxiously look toward the horizon, longing for Pascha when it is still Lent – this is when I need forsythia. This is when I need hope, this is when I need to know that what I see now is not the end of the story.

So my husband cuts large branches of forsythia and we stick them in water. We force them to bloom. We look for bright, beautiful yellow blossoms to fill our house and our lives.

…I need to know that what I see now is not the end of the story.

Often healing begins by embracing beauty, by voicing gratitude for the amazing signs of life that surround us, by expressing thanks for what is, instead of longing for what is not.

So we resolutely cut and arrange the forsythia, waiting for bright, yellow blossoms to fill the room.

And we begin to hope.

Lenten Journey: The Christ Candle

I wrote this years ago for a dark spring day. It seems appropriate again. Truth be told, my Christ candle has been burning every day since January 20. The candle has been a faithful reminder this Lenten season too. 

Advent is the season of waiting for the Christ. It’s typically celebrated during the month of December as the church collective waits, again, with eager expectation for the arrival of Jesus—joining in the ancient longing for His first coming and looking forward to His second arrival. Often a special wreathe with four candles encircling it is used to count down the weeks. Each week a different part of the narrative or a different virtue is commemorated. A pink or lavender candle is lit for joy or for hope or to remember the shepherds or the angel’s part in the Old, Old Story.

And normally there is a fifth white candle, the Christ Candle, which is lit in tremendous elation on Christmas morning. Christ has come. He is here. The waiting is over. He has arrived.

Obviously I put away the Christmas decorations months ago. But the past several years I’ve kept the Christ Candle out into the new year.

I light it when the worries are too consuming and I need to remember that Christ is here.

I light it when the world is in shambles—Egypt is volatile, Pakistan is again attacked, Syria is still unrested, political corruption spreads here and around the globe. I light it and I bring to mind that Christ is Ever Present.

I light it when my friends are hurting: someone’s roof is leaking, someone’s child is sick, someone is overworked, someone is facing a new job and is nervous, someone struggles at family reunions to remember she is truly loved. I light my precious white candle and I recall that Christ Himself attends to my friends. He cares deeply and personally for each one. He alone is the light in their dark night.

I light my Christ candle when I fear for my own children, when I see the anxieties of their souls creep out on to their faces, when I know by their eyes that they are weary and worn down, afraid or battling loneliness and longings beyond their ages. I light my candle then.

I light it for myself too. Sometimes the sorrow is too great. Sometimes the sadness threatens to steal all joy. Sometimes my own weaknesses, my own sins, my own selfishness consume me. Sometimes I worry, I fret, I fear. Anxiety and panic dance on the edges of my sanity. I light it then. I deliberately recollect that Jesus is very near, he is Emmanuel, God with us. The waiting is over. I can breathe. I can trust. I can rest. The flickering flame repeats these seemingly fragile truths back to my knowingly fragile soul and I am comforted.

 

During Lent we also are in waiting. We wait with the seeds sleeping in the soil. We wait with the dead resting in the grave. We wait with Friday for the news of Sunday. We wait for Resurrection! We wait for new life!

                                    ~St Patrick’s Prayer~

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

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My Heart Bends East 


It’s early morning in the Netherlands. I have just left The Hague and with it, a rich time of friendship and learning. 

We are on a train headed to Schiphol Airport. Our family and friends in the United States are still in deep sleep. Our friends in the East have been wide awake for several hours. 

I sit and gaze out the window at a green and serene landscape. I watch an early morning sun rising in the sky on my far right. I smile at my elementary school learning as I realize that I know we are heading north-east because of the many times in my childhood where I heard the phrase “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”. 

Always my heart bends toward the east; toward bright sun and color, toward lands far from the west and ideas even farther. My heart bends east where time is more flexible and silohuettes of palm trees are etched on my memory. It bends toward the east, where the sun rises and daylight comes sooner. 

My heart bends east, where all my “firsts” took place. First steps, first tooth, first kiss, first heart break. It is no wonder then that my faith too now bends toward the east, toward the Church Fathers who lived far from the west; toward the early church and sustaining scriptures; toward rich colors on light-reflected icons. 

Today I will head west, where winter is still present and my body takes time to adjust. I will head west because that is where my heart now lives, where there are parents, friends, jobs, and children; where two cats await my arrival with eager expectation – though they don’t yet know it. I head west to continue creating meaningful work and continuing faith. 

My heart bends east, so when I arrive, I will remember to breathe, remember to take some time, remember to give thanks.

And I will remember that even when my heart bends east, I can still live and live west. 

Readers! Remember you can buy Passages Through Pakistan and proceeds go toward refugees! 

Lenten Journey: A Lenten Vent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lenten Journey – “I was a Stranger”

stranger

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

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

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

Brilliant.

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

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

Daily in our world we encounter the stranger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how do we respond to that stranger?

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

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

Or do we love because first we were loved?

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

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

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

*Matthew 25:35

Memories of Home – A Guest Post


Murree Christian School
P.O. Jhika Gali,

Murree Hills,

Pakistan

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

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

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

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

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

Lenten Journey: Waiting for Aslan

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is not enough.

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

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

Next we saw a proud lion on a rock.

Then we saw a lioness.

And her cubs.

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

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

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

They are waiting for Aslan.

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

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

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

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

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