Rumors of War – musings from Kurdistan

“History was a recording that played continuously, so that you did not realize it was the same song, over and over.”

David Ignatius in Bloodmoney

The messages began early yesterday.
“Are you okay? Will you be leaving?” “What are your thoughts on the news? When are you all coming back?” “Hey! What’s going on over there?”

At this point, I was involved in a totally different crisis, seemingly unrelated to the one that was being broadcast by all major media outlets in the United States and evidently, around the world.

A message from my amazing nephew who works at the State Department gave me more information, and I began responding to the messages that we received. Evidently the United States had called for all non-emergency government personnel to leave Iraq and the Kurdish Region of Iraq citing tensions with Iran as the reason. Rumors of war had begun and the news was everywhere.

Everyone knows this, but it’s really important to repeat: Behind the clean yet oh-so-dirty fingers of every politician that supports war there are real people who get caught in the middle and lose. They lose every, single time. People in the middle are caught between and never win. They lose. They lose security. They lose jobs. They lose peace of mind. They lose hope.

We live in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and the rumors of war involve Iraq because the tensions are rising between the United States and Iran. Geographically Iraq is next to Iran; politically Iraq is caught between. Our region is finally feeling a measure of hope after a massive financial crisis and the chaos of D’aesh, or ISIS. People are beginning to feel more settled, more secure. They are receiving salaries regularly after a long time of not being paid.

And now this.

I am not a political analyst but I do suspect that wars are sometimes started to detract from real life problems. What better way to distract people then to go to war? Suddenly all the news and focus is not on poor national policy, or the latest tweets, but instead on what is happening the other side of the world.

I just finished reading a book by David Ignatius, a prize-winning reporter from the Washington Post who covered the Middle East for many years. Bloodmoney is a spy thriller that is set between Los Angeles, Pakistan, and London. It’s fast paced and interesting, a book that seems made to be a movie. At the very end of the book, Ignatius talks about how the book is about how wars end. Though he spends some time toward the end of the book discussing this, from a reader perspective, I wish he had spent more time on this.

One of the dynamic characters in the book is a Pashtun from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan called “the Professor.” At one point he is thinking about the tribal code of revenge. He thinks about how often wars end just because people get tired. They lose people and money, and suddenly both sides are done, exhausted by the bloodshed, unable to even remember what the war was really about to begin with. But, he surmises, wars that end that way don’t bring about “good peace.” Instead, they bring “dishonor, shame, and a shimmering desire for revenge.” This is something that the Professor feels the Western world doesn’t know or understand. “The victor in the war must find a way to salve the dignity of the vanquished; otherwise, there would just be another war.” (page 348, Bloodmoney)

The tribal code for restoring harmony was called nanawatay in the Pashto language. That was how wars ended among honorable men. The vanquished party would go to the house of the victor, into the very heart of his enemy, and look that man in the eye and request forgiveness and peace. The defeated man was seeking asylum, and the victor could not but grant him this request. To refuse would be dishonorable and unmanly. When a man is asked to be generous, he can unburden himself of his rage toward his enemy. He can be patient in forgiveness and let go of the past.

Bloodmoney by David Ignatius, p. 348

A couple of pages later, our professor is on a plane, ready to fall asleep: “He fell asleep thinking of his favorite word in the Pashto language, melmastia, which meant “hospitality.” That was the way wars ended.”

I read these words yesterday afternoon, after I had responded to many messages and written an email off to family and friends.

Hospitality. Communication. Communicating Across Boundaries. Backing down. Forgiveness. Generosity. Looking people in the eye and requesting forgiveness and peace.

Yes – this may be the way wars end. More importantly, this is how they never start. This is prevention at its best.

When will we learn? If we can’t have a conversation with someone who thinks differently then us, then there is no hope that wars will ever end. When I look in the mirror, I see someone looking back at me who is just as culpable in the little picture as the war mongers of the world are in the big picture. Everyone of us is probably at war with someone in our lives. Though the outcomes may seem different, on a small scale they are the same. Are we tired yet? When will it end?

And to our leaders I say the same: Are you tired yet? When will it end? When will you get tired enough to have bad peace, or smart enough to forgive, extend hospitality and have good peace?

If wars end with hospitality, surely with true hospitality they should never begin.

Communicating Across Boundaries

As for us, we are staying – at least for the time being. We are continuing to enjoy the love and hospitality that surrounds us. We are in the month of Ramadan, where all of day life slows down and the evenings light up with food and joy at the breaking of the fast. What happens next, only God knows.

A Life Overseas – Saint Photini: Missionary, Martyr, and Beloved One

pot-2192123_1920

I’m at a A Life Overseas today! I would love it if you joined me there to talk about a story familiar to many. 


One of the best-known yet least known stories in the Gospel of John is about a woman known simply as the “Samaritan Woman.” The familiar story tells us that Jesus had left Judaea and was returning to Galilee. The trip took him through the region known as Samaria where, tired and thirsty, he sits down by a well. A Samaritan woman comes to the well in the middle of the day to get water.

Jesus, breaking every cultural rule possible, engages her and asks her for water.   As the conversation unfolds, we learn that this woman has a past. She is an outcast who comes to the well in the middle of the day instead of in the cool, early morning hours when the other women come. She has had many husbands, and who knows how all that came about. Plus, she is from Samaria and Samaritans and Jews did not mix. The Samaritan/Jewish conflict was centuries old and, like many old conflicts, it was likely people did not even know how it all began. Never one to be put off by a past, Jesus keeps the conversation going and finds the woman a willing, if a bit evasive, participant. From living water to husbands to the Resurrection, Jesus speaks to her heart and her conscience.

The story ends with the disciples coming. It turns out that they are none too pleased about a woman with a past speaking to their respected teacher. The woman leaves her water jar and runs back to the town. There she utters some of the most beautiful and terrifying words written in the Gospel: “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did!” 

For much of my life, that is all I knew about the story of the Samaritan woman. She had no name, just this one story. Despite the fact that Jesus wasn’t put off by her past, many Christians know her purely because she had a past.

Church tradition reveals much more about this extraordinary woman, and it is a beautiful picture of redemption, faith, and missions. The woman’s name is Photini, meaning “the enlightened one.” She was baptized at Pentecost, and went on to join this early Christian movement. Photini is considered a leader in the missionary movement, going to North Africa and preaching a message of love and redemption. While there, she had a dream that she should return to Rome and confront Nero. It didn’t go well, as was the case with most Christians and Emperor Nero.

Most of the accounts of Photini end with her martyrdom. She, who learned the true meaning of “living water”, died by being thrown into a dry well.

Photini knew what it was to encounter Jesus. Her heart had the ability to both hear and respond to truth. She knew what it was to be fully known, and fully loved. It was this that compelled her to tell others. It was this that was foundational to her faith. It was this that gave her a voice in that initial missionary movement that spread Christianity so long ago. In the Orthodox Church, Photini is not only known as a Saint, but also as equal to the Apostles.

Photini is not someone without a name. Photini is a beloved one

Join me at A Life Overseas for the rest of the article!

How Do You Draw Mercy?

dock into ocean mercy of God

If you were asked to draw a picture of mercy what would you draw? How would you take the tools of pencil and paper and use them to craft a concept like mercy? Would you draw an event in your life; an event where you were shown mercy and after that you would never be the same? How do you draw mercy?

But all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.” William Langland

Though crafted with words and not a drawing, this quote has given me a picture of mercy that I never want to forget. I found the quote through Madeleine L’engle’s book One Live Coal to the Sea; a book where she explores mercy in the life of a family. Mercy in the midst of evil and dysfunction; mercy despite selfishness and betrayal; mercy when life demands justice.

In the midst of life’s journey, in the middle of hearing, seeing or thinking about evil, it is easy to forget the mercy of God. Mercy for apathetic teens and adults, mercy for passionate teenagers shot out of evil intent, mercy (dare I say it) for the men who shot her, mercy for me.

Today I picture that live coal, burning hot; a coal that can ignite a fire or burn a body, causing great pain and damage. And I picture that red, hot coal hitting the vast ocean where it can no longer do damage; where it is overcome by something so much more powerful. It is so far beyond my understanding, so much bigger than I could ever imagine. Evil confronted by the mercy of God and in that confrontation losing its power — one live coal to the sea.

How do you draw mercy?

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” Micah 6:8

The (Political) Work of Forgiveness

Here at Communicating Across Boundaries we’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding the massive elephant (and the donkey) in the room. Both Marilyn and I, although this was not planned or discussed, have largely avoided politics in our writing this election season. I’m not sure what Marilyn’s reasons are but mine have been deep and wide: I don’t think either candidate needs any more free press, I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said, I can’t suspend my disbelief long enough to formulate an objective sentence, I’m too angry to write coherently. And quite frankly, I’m sick of it!

A couple of weeks ago, my husband Lowell, in his blog, The Liberator Today, quoted conservative commentator Erick Erickson who wrote “A Clinton administration may see the church besieged from the outside, but a Trump administration will see the church poisoned from within.”   Erickson went on to say, “I think Hillary Clinton will do lasting damage to the country. I cannot vote for her.  Having fully weighed my opposition to Trump, I think Donald Trump will do lasting damage to the witness of the Church in America and I therefore cannot vote for him. I am without a candidate. I will not harm my witness nor risk Trump’s soul to serve my political desires.”

You may or may not agree with Erickson’s opinion on Clinton or Trump—I’m not sure I completely do– but surely one thing we can all agree on is that this presidential race has been more ugly and more divisive than most. Trump and Clinton have joined up to divide more families, more groups of friends, more religious communities than anyone would have thought possible. Things have been said, opinions have been discussed, names have been called. Together, Clinton and Trump have successfully arrived at a new type of bipartisanship — both parties are divided and realigned, they’ve been shuffled and dealt out in surprising ways.

An American president will be voted for on November 8th,. One candidate will be chosen by the people. The other candidate will have to join the rest of us in coming to grips with the outcomes. Once the president is elected the real work will begin–and I don’t actually mean the work of the presidency. Each of us will have to get to work. We have some serious forgiving to do.

It’s folly to trivialize or minimize how difficult forgiveness can be. When we’re hurt there are a hundred physical and physiological mechanisms responding in us. Biologically we are wired with a fight or flight reaction to pain: our blood pressure rises, our heart rate accelerates, pupils dilate, our muscles tense up. These reactions were given to us to defend our bodies. There’s a reason we call them “defense mechanisms.” That response transfers into how we respond to emotional pain too. We clam up, shut down, freeze over, self-protect or we scream out in anger, rage or protest. Reacting is hardwired into us at our creation.

Forgiveness works against how we’re naturally determined to be. Part of the work of forgiveness is working against our natural selves. Up hill, up stream, against the current. We cannot will or make forgiveness happen. Poet Alexander Pope once said, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” It is virtually impossible to do the work of forgiveness without a measure of supernatural grace.

My husband Lowell went on to write:

We each bring our hearts to God with the humble prayer of examen, and ask him to reveal what each of us brought (or failed to bring) to our current state of affairs. God is generous …  Surely, he will examine our hearts with gentleness and woo us to the Cross. If we have said a harsh word to another person in the heat of 2016, did not speak the truth in love, or knowingly perpetrated a lie for argumentative advantage, then we should seek out that person or persons and ask for forgiveness. … Reform will also lead us to forgiving others, and I do believe God will not nurture reform without it involving forgiveness one to another.**

Collectively we’ve been through a rather traumatic election cycle. We’ll need to be kind to ourselves and to each other. It’s going to take time to recover. Foundations that we have presumed to be firm have suddenly revealed their fragility. Indisputables have been disputed. Unquestionables have been questioned. Presumptions have been poked and prodded. We’ve felt fear and dread. We’ve been incredulous and angry. Panic has poked through our patriotism. The spirit of the Trump campaign has given us permission to be rude and unkind, to not censor our commentary on those that are different than we are. The demons of our demagogues have been dark and destructive. Democracy is not the safe space we thought it was.

In a spirit of reconciliation we need to roll up our sleeves and engage our broken communities with acceptance and hope and work towards healing. We need to grieve our losses, own our despairs and our disappointments. Now is the time to begin the work of forgiveness. It won’t be easy. Forgiveness never is. But it’s important work for the sake of our souls. For the past two years we’ve bitched about political polarization. Unity can only be realized on the holy ground of forgiveness. It’s the start line, a place for both sides to meet, in the ongoing political race. Forgiveness alone provides the freedom to move forward for the forgiven and for the forgiver. It gives us a vision for hope. Slowly our focus shifts away from the ugliness of the past to a glimmer of hope for the future.

Ronald Rolheiser in his book, Sacred Fire, writes, “As we age, we can begin to trim down our spiritual vocabulary, and eventually we can get it down to three words: Forgive, forgive, forgive! To die with a forgiving heart is the ultimate moral and religious imperative. We should not delude ourselves on this. All the dogmatic and moral purity in the world does little for us if our hearts are bitter and incapable of forgiveness.” (p256)

**(http://www.theliberator.today/blog/2016/10/12/naamans-voters-guide-for-2016-4how-quickly)

*Photo credit: johnlund.com

 

Called by Grace; Called to be Gracious

grace-is-amazing

“There comes a point in life when our major spiritual struggle is no longer with the fact that we are weak and desperately in need of God’s forgiveness, but rather with the opposite, with the fact that God’s grace and forgiveness is overly-lavish, unmerited, and especially that it goes out so indiscriminately. God’s lavish love and forgiveness go out equally to those have worked hard and to those who haven’t, to those who have been faithful for a long time and to those who jumped on-board at the last minute, to those who have had to bear the heat of the day and to those who didn’t, to those who did their duty and to those who lived selfishly.” – Ron Rohlheiser

I am the recipient of much grace and forgiveness in my life. From my parents; from my spouse; from my kids; from my friends. I have mostly received this delicious, never-ending, unmerited favor from God.

And so I think a lot about grace — about what it is, about what it isn’t.

I’ve come to believe that it doesn’t matter how much we’ve been hurt. It doesn’t matter if we hate what someone stands for. It doesn’t even matter if we feel angry and we are justified in our anger.

If I was called by Grace then I am called to be Gracious. If we hold fast to scriptural teaching – we are called to be gracious. Full stop.

I hear the “But…but….but…” on your lips, because it’s on mine as well. I hear the rationalization, the explanation, the “You have no idea what this is like.” I’ve said the same things. I hear the cry “But what about truth? Do I give up truth for the sake of grace?” The two are not mutually exclusive – the two are made to compliment each other, to be lived out together – in tension but in communion.  Truth by itself is a prison and grace by itself is chaos. So I will remain insistent – we are called to be gracious. We are to extend grace in all mediums, whether it be conversations, comments on social media, tweets, or emails. We are to extend grace to those we love – and those who we consider enemies.

Will you extend Grace today? Will you be Gracious to those who you feel don’t deserve Grace? Will you take Abigail’s Bread and offer it to mend offense? Will you give Grace to those you disagree with? To those who you feel are wrong and undeserving? These are the questions I ask myself every day. And the answer is always the same.

If I was called by Grace, then I am called to be Gracious. 

“In the end, we need to forgive God and that might be the hardest forgiveness of all. It’s hard to accept that God loves everyone equally – even our enemies, even those who hate us, even those who don’t work as hard as we do, even those who reject duty for selfishness, and even those who give in to all the temptations we resist. Although deep down we know that God has been more than fair with us, God’s lavish generosity to others is something which we find hard to accept. Like the workers in the Parable of the Vineyard who toiled the whole day and then saw those who had worked just one hour get the same wage as theirs, we often let God’s generosity to others warp both our joy and our eyesight. 

But that struggle points us in the right direction. Grace is amazing, by disorienting us it properly orients us.” Ronald Rohlheiser

Good News on a Good Friday

 —For those who Celebrate Good Friday and for those who don’t!
Newly arrived humans lived simply and they related to God personally. He would show up at their house in the evenings and hang out with them. I imagine they talked about their days, the wonders of the created world, how they really felt about things. Eventually though the humans made an unfortunate choice. They chose to ignore some basic boundaries God had set. They chose independence and self. They chose to disrespect God. They chose their own way.

Everything changed that day. Where there had been intimacy, openness and sweet vulnerability now there was shame and suspicion. Difficulty and opposition and relational competition were all born from those misinformed choices the humans made. Evil and selfishness and sin all entered the world that day. I guess it goes without saying, but relating to God was no longer a walk in the park either. God gave them over to what they seemed to want—their own way.

God set up an elaborate reward system and sticker chart based on an even more complicated plan of laws. If the humans wanted to reconnect with God they’d have to work at it now. And the laws were elaborate and complex. There were ceremonial laws that told the humans how to worship. Civil laws outlined how humans should live each day and moral laws dictated the goodness and badness of everything. The whole point of the system was really to highlight that the humans couldn’t do it. There was no possible way for them to obey every single law. There was even a law saying that if they couldn’t obey all of the rules then they were guilty of breaking every one!

God let that system go on for quite a long time.

One summer when I was a college student I worked as a nanny for two children, Jamie and Kristen, a six year old boy and a four year old girl. At the beginning of the summer, the mother, who was a librarian at the local public library, asked me to help train her son. It seemed he had taken a class on sexual abuse. The parents and teachers assumed it would provide language to children if they were ever in that situation. An unintended consequence was that it provided little Jamie with an entire arsenal of body part language to use to horrify and provoke. He had taken to calling people shocking things!

I tried all kinds of ways to motivate Jamie to curb that kind of talk. He was in time out. He wasn’t allowed to watch TV. I tried everything in my amateur discipline tool box. Finally, I set up a sticker chart. If Jamie could go for five days without calling me the vulgar name of choice I would take him to Dairy Queen for ice cream. Jamie loved ice cream. I had found a currency that communicated. Day one was a success. Jamie got a sticker! Day two went well. Jamie got another sticker. Day three and day four meant two more stickers. He was doing so well. On day five after lunch I was loading the dishwasher when Jamie came running through the kitchen. As I bent over to add another plate, Jamie came dramatically toward me almost in slow motion, he kicked me in the behind and burst out with the word he had kept so carefully under wraps all week. “Penis head,” he yelled, and kept running. I was so shocked and so disappointed. I had been looking forward to ice cream too.

I found Jamie in his room crying. He already knew the gig was up. He knew he had blown it. Angry tears rushed from his face. Jamie was mad at himself for not being able to do it and he was mad at me for setting up the dumb sticker chart that highlighted his failure. All the chart had successfully shown was that Jamie was incapable of earning the ice cream.

The same was true for the rules and law system God set up. It served to demonstrate that people cannot, on their own, keep the system satisfied. The laws highlighted their failure to keep them. And really that was God’s whole point. Humans wanted to do it on their own, the choices they made at the beginning proved that, and yet they couldn’t. If Shalom was ever to be reestablished in their relationship with God, if they were ever to be at peace again, God would have to step in.

And that’s where Jesus shows up.

A couple of months ago I was on an airplane. My seat mate asked me why I was going to Thailand. I told her I was a spiritual director and I had been invited by a group that were meeting for retreat to offer soul care. She wanted to know what that was. I told her that I firmly believe that Jesus wants a relationship with each of us. I think he’s involved in our stories. He’s lurking. The spiritual director comes along side with curiosity and helps identify where Jesus might be and what he might be up to. It intrigued her.

I really do believe it. Jesus is present in your story. He’s calling you deeper. He doesn’t care where you come from, what passport you carry. He’s inviting people from every religious or irreligious background: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics to relate to him with honest hearts. Your previous religious experience doesn’t disqualify you in anyway. Rather he longs to breath a whole new way of thinking about relating to God into your soul.

Jesus isn’t like any other spiritual experience you may or may not have had. He cuts through the rules and the crap, the expectations and the ways you’ve always done things and he says, Look, See. I’m doing a whole new thing here. And there’s no point system or reward card in place. You don’t have to do this, subjugate yourself in that way, accumulate this, check that off, maintain these five things in order to score points with Jesus. He eliminated all of that. All you really have to do is come with an honest heart. There are no awkward silences. He has already initiated a friendship with you. He’s already started the conversation. Just respond. Just admit that you’re clueless to do it on your own. Just admit that other systems seem to bog you down.

Ask him to make himself known.

And then be prepared to be spiritually transformed.

 

 

 

Waving Olive Branches

IMG_6566

Olives are ubiquitous in the Middle East. Served with almost every meal, they vary in color and size, offering a pungent, salty taste. Eat them with bread and white cheese and you have a meal fit for royalty. The trees are everywhere – in gardens, along the sides of roads, and in churchyards. You cannot escape the olive branch.

For years, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace.  In early August, on my first evening in Iraq, I saw the symbol of the olive branch in a new way.

We had been invited to participate in a women’s meeting in late afternoon, but immediately following the meeting we were whisked away to a performance put on by actors from the city of Qaraqosh. Exactly one year ago that day, Qaraqosh had fallen to the Islamic State. Until that time, I had only read stories about Qaraqosh in the news. Now, I was meeting real people with real and poignant stories.

One woman, a lab technician, was walking home from work, only to have a neighbor rush up to her and say “You must leave! ISIS is coming!” She was the primary caregiver for both a father and sister who were disabled. In her words, she became “very afraid.” The next morning, her neighborhood was deserted and she saw the ominous, black ISIS flags in the distance. By a miracle, she was able to secure bus space for her family, but had to leave everything else behind.  When you are fleeing for your life, your priorities of what matters and what you should take change in an instant.

The play we were privileged to see was about the fall of Qaraqosh. The heartache and loss that people experienced as they had to leave their homes and community was palpable. Vivid color and music drew us in. The stage set alternated between dark and ominous, where ISIS soldiers took center stage, to a bright and vibrant background of churches and ancient city streets.

The play was in three acts with monologues by three main actors. It was all in Arabic, but like all good acting, it didn’t just rely on the spoken word.

There were many poignant parts of the play, but a couple parts stood out. During one scene, a  beautiful little girl came skipping and dancing on stage. She symbolized the story of Christina, a little girl who was pulled by ISIS from the hands of her mother while she was fleeing the city. Of all the stories of Qaraqosh, this one was the most difficult and symbolized all the loss and pain of a community.  As the main character reached for Christina, she was gone.

During another scene, one of the actors reminisced about Palm Sunday, a day when the whole city of Qaraqosh would wave olive branches as they remembered the coming of Christ to Jerusalem.

But it was the end of the play that left a defining imprint on my heart and soul. The three actors came out on stage, holding hands and raising them high. They practically shouted words of forgiveness and grace:

“Though the road may be long and filled with our blood, we will go back bearing olive branches.”

This play was not ending on a note of despair, but of hope. This play was a tribute to resilience, to perseverance, to faith, and to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not easy. We give up our rights to hold on to wrong-doing, we give up our rights to be victims, we extend grace to the perpetrator. Sometimes forgiveness costs us everything we have, everything we can give. But there is no ambiguity in the Biblical call to forgive, there is no grey area, there is no “but what about…?”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’…But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”*

The command is clear, and I was witnessing a group that didn’t just act this out, but lived this out.

The actors on stage and the people in the audience were witnesses to a greater love, to a greater command then our human desire for vengeance and revenge. When they left Qaraqosh, they lost everything but their lives. Yet here they were, publically proclaiming grace and forgiveness.

Their grace and forgiveness was as present and pungent as olives and olive trees in the Middle East.

I have seen a lot of examples in my life of forgiveness, but this one was the most powerful.

I fell asleep that night with my heart full, the images of olive branches waving above me, images of forgiveness and peace.

*Matthew 5:44