Words to End the Year

It’s noon on December 31st and grey fog fills up the space outside, making its way indoors only to be greeted by light and warmth. New Year’s greetings from around the world have begun, the first one being from my niece in Thailand, where papaya trees dot her yard and memories of our gathering immediately after my brother’s death flood my mind.

Many of us are ready to put this year behind – but for what and toward what? Will next year really be better? We don’t know. We forge forth, willing it to be so, shocking ourselves with our strength and perseverance. Believing somehow, without evidence, that “If something so impossibly catastrophic and unimaginably awful can happen, perhaps something impossibly beautiful and impossibly redemptive can also happen.” (paraphrased from @nightbirdie as quoted in Ann Voskamp blog) And yet, that is the very definition of faith.

Rather than try to pull words from an empty place today, I want to give you some words that others have written that have resonated with me. These are words of hope and wisdom, words to start a year.

On The Word: “This year would have been crushing without God’s Word, shining like a pillar of fire, hovering like a daytime cloud, in what has often felt like a wilderness of worrry and woe. There is so much gooness to savor in this life, and learning to be ruthlessly regular in savoring it is a discipline that I know I’ll have to keep practicing, forever.” Laura Merzig Fabrycky

On Hope: “Our God doesn’t swoop in and save us at the end. He’s here for the whole journey. The whole dark and broken experience of life among messy and messed up people. He’s the friend who sticks with us when we’re not nice to be around. He’s the one who will sit with us in silence, not just offer cliched words of “comfort.” He understands that hope isn’t about twirling in the sunshine; it is about believing in light while living in utter darkness.” Tanya Crossman in When Hoping Hurts

On Loving Others: “The problem is that people we cannot stand are loved just as much as we are by a God iwth an upsetting sense of community.” Barbara Brown Taylor

On Forgiveness: “Human beings need forgiveness and kindness like we need oxygen. A nation devoid of grace immiserates its people. A church devoid of grace rebukes the cross” David French from The Dispatch

On Dwelling: “But I know the place that comes next won’t be a place of stable ground, of settling. I don’t think that’s in the cards for me – of for many of us with wandering hearts and souls that chase after wherever God calls us next. It’s not a place or people or a single purpose that brings our hearts to rest. It’s not stablitiy or control. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O lord and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” said St. Augustine of Hippo…..and yet, my heart feels at rest among the mysteries of what is next and who I am becoming, of where my family’s story is headed and how God will lead. I coudn’t ask for a better place to dwell than here in the unknowing with the God who knows it all.” Nicole Walters in A Place to Dwell for Restless Hearts.

On Stories and The Word: “In the beginning was the Word, after all, as I suspect is shall be in the end: stories will remain our transit points, our shorelines, and our home.” Edwidge Danticat as quoted in Plough Magazine

And so as we end this year, making the small mark in history as the year that was 2021, I am reminded of words I wrote earlier in November, words that remind us that each of us walk a hard human path, and giving grace becomes not just important, but necessary.

“We all have something. We all have something that hurts, something that takes up our thoughts and interrupts our dreams.

“And so, in this New Year, I pray – I pray that God will help us with the somethings, from cancer to depression. I pray that God will ease our pain with his presence. I pray that the broken will be mended and the jobless will find jobs. I pray that the depressed will find comfort and the grieving will have permission to mourn. I pray that brains and bodies will be mended and hearts and minds will know the grace that is sufficient. I pray that we who walk this human walk will walk it despite the somethings. That we will chase beauty in the midst of the hard, that we will find light in the darkness. I pray that we will breathe in “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and breathe out “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I pray “God, Help us with our somethings.”

And to you, who continue to read words in this space, thank you! May your hopes for the New Year transcend your helpless somethings, may you know peace, joy, and the incredible grace of God.

Waiting with Hope

Of all the books I’ve read, Wendell Berry’s character of Hannah Coulter is perhaps my favorite fictional character. You journey with Hannah throughout her life from when she is a girl until she is an old woman, entering into events and relationships that tell you who she is and what she longs for and loves. As Hannah enters her later years in life, she has some things to say about the difference between hope and expectations.

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.” It is not surprising that Hannah is talking about her adult children when she says this. Every time I read this book, I find myself nodding in agreement, for parenting has been one of my best teachers about hope vs. expectation. When you are a parent, it is easy to get these two confused. Hoping for your children vs. expecting for them gives a parent a necessary freedom. You realize you cannot control the outcome. Instead, you must trust the process.

This distinction between hope and expectation feels profoundly important in our world. Hope means to cherish or desire with anticipation. It’s about a process, a state of being, about faith and trust. Expectation is about an outcome. It depends on certain things happening that we may have no control over.

On this first week of Advent, hope is the theme, and it is a good theme for me to reflect on. In truth, I have not felt hopeful lately. I have felt desolate and resigned. It is difficult for me to imagine resolution in some areas where I am struggling, some areas where our world is struggling, and I realize I have neither expectation nor hope. I simply have resignation and sadness.

How do I turn this into hope? We cannot conjure up hope like magicians who produce rabbits out of hats, but there are times when we can take baby steps that move us toward hope. Hope is often a long wait and walk in the dark. But when we’re walking in the dark, even one step towards a glimmer of light moves us closer. And so it is with hope. Fractions turn into wholes and small sparks into full fires.

You think the winter will never end, and then, when you don’t expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Then there are those times when we need others to hope for us. I remember a few years ago saying to someone “I know you don’t have any hope, but I can hope for you.” And so it is with me right now – I don’t have a lot of hope, but I do have others who are hoping for me. This is what it is to belong to the living body of the Church. When I begin to fall, others reach out to catch me. When I lose hope, others hope for me.

I have often wondered why hope is the first in this season, why we cannot begin with something else like peace or joy, but I think hope sets a foundation for us as we wait. A sure foundation that begins this season where we wait for the Incarnation and the one who is Hope personified.

In a beautiful reflection, writer Ann Voskamp recently offered these words about hope:

Hope against hope- that the emptiness will fill, that the wound will heal, that the miracle will happen, that the ashes will rise, that the prodigal will come home, that the marriage will mend, that the page will turn, that the next chapter will dare to bring any dreams come true and more than enough grace to meet you and carry you through, regardless. What you don’t know how to live through, Hope Himself will carry you through.

Ann Voskamp

Perhaps this year, you are one walking in the dark without hope. If so, can I and others hope for you? Can we offer a fraction that can turn into a whole? Or perhaps, you are one who can hope for others this year. Will you offer it this Advent Season, without reservations or conditions?

“I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.” Psalm 130:5

Winter Fruit Pie and the Taste of Memory

My father was not a cook. While my mother’s early journals record his cautious steps into baking cookies and occasional cakes, he was far more comfortable asking “What’s for dinner?” than he was making dinner.

It was in his last few years of life that he developed one baking specialty, and that was his famous Winter Fruit Pie.

While he was alive we never really knew what was in the pie. It was full of fruit, nuts, flavor, and texture, but the exact ingredients remained a mystery. I don’t think he purposely withheld the ingredients, I don’t think I ever asked. When complimented on his offering, Dad would just smile and willingly accept the praise.

In the fall of 2017 we knew that my father’s health was declining and that his days this side of Heaven were numbered. So it was that in October, on Canadian Thanksgiving, our extended family gathered together in Rochester, New York for a feast that could send a man straight to heaven.

We gathered outside at my brother’s house, seated around long tables, plates filled with every kind of Thanksgiving delicacy. Homemade rolls, mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, vegetables, homemade cranberry sauce – it was all there and with it, the goodness of conversation and family banter. There was laughter and joy, running children and toddlers, new marriages and new grandchildren. It was glorious.

And for dessert, there was pie.

Because of my dad’s health decline, I had proudly designated myself the ‘Baker of the Winter Fruit Pie.’ “How hard could it be?” I said to myself and my dad. He smiled knowingly. My pie was terrible. It was dry and crumbly. It had none of the rich, moist sweetness characteristic of my dad’s recipe. I humbly acknowledged that, despite being a good baker, I had failed. Being the good-natured, easy person that he was, he ate it, remarking that’s “it was delicious!” But I knew better.

Just two weeks after that memorable weekend, my father died.

Last night I made Winter Fruit Pie. I had learned my lesson and wisely, I asked for the recipe in our extended family group chat. The aroma of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and fruit filled the kitchen and my heart. As I made it, taste testing at least once, my heart was full – full of gratitude and of the sweet taste of memories.

Feast days, like thanksgiving, are times of gathering and with the gathering comes memories and the taste of memories. Whether you are a family that sticks to die hard recipe traditions or a family that forges new foods and gathers new places, most of us will have the taste of memories as we fill our plates. It could be Grandma’s raisin cookies or YaYa’s baklava. Perhaps it’s saag served next to turkey, a tribute to a childhood spent in Pakistan, or spanakopita as a side dish. It could even be the ghastly brussels sprouts that your aunt made (and your mom made you eat.) Whatever it is, food at holidays is so much more than food. It is stories and memories, gathered pieces of history and tastes of belonging.

Food memories and feast days are part of the strong glue that hold families and friendships together. We taste, we remember, we laugh and we cry. We break bread together and with it there is an opportunity for resentments to dissolve, for the arguments and ideas that break us apart to be overcome by the sweet and savory flavors that bind us together.

This Thanksgiving, wherever you are, whatever you eat, may you know the joy of gratitude, the mystery of how friendships and families survive, the delight of making new memories, and the sweet taste of old memories.

And may your pie, whether it be pumpkin, apple, or winter fruit, be especially delicious.

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

Sacred Meals and Invitations

This morning I slowly opened my eyes to bright sunlight. As I lay in bed, still sleepy, I reflected back on the last few days and on Thanksgiving, just hours before.

A dear friend arrived on Tuesday from Ghana to stay with us. The first time she ever came to the United States was as an 18-year-old from Karachi, Pakistan, here to attend college in Western Massachusetts. She arrived just days after the 9/11 attacks that sent the world into a spin and redefined wars and border crossings. Mariam has now lived in multiple countries with her family, and writes well on what it is to be globally mobile. She is the epitome of what it looks like to learn and grow across cultures and communicate across boundaries.

Her arrival sparked stories and conversations that have been lying dormant in my heart. These global connections are more than friendships – they are opportunities to share stories, they are ways to promote understanding, they are journeys into our hearts and what is really going on. Every morning we have curled up on my couch with homemade lattes, savoring the sweetness and time. These hidden stories don’t make sense to everyone, but they do to Mariam.

Yesterday we worked together to prepare a Thanksgiving feast. Traditional turkey and stuffing blended with Palak Paneer and parathas with a goal to make sure every guest was suitably full to the brim with food and thanks.

It was an eclectic group of us around the table. In today’s climate, some may consider it a dangerous Thanksgiving. An American raised in Pakistan and an American raised in the military feasted with friends from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Iran. There were no walls and there was no talk of walls.

There were stories topped with cranberry sauce, thankful hearts accompanied by whipped cream. There were linguistic comparisons and nostalgia over favorite foods from passport countries, there were missed references and laughter to make your stomach hurt.

There is something sacred about sharing a meal. In the liturgy of our faith tradition we experience the bread and the wine, the body and the blood in remembrance of a meal. But the sacred act of sharing a meal continues when we, equipped through the liturgy, go out into the world. That is why the meals that Christ shared while on earth feel so important. As humans, our need for food and water, the reaching across a table to share these with simple words like “please pass the bread” bind us together in mysterious and hopeful ways. Author Leslie Verner says “A meal equalizes, for as we dine together, we lift the same utensils to our lips and touch the same bread to our tongues.”

There are times when I lose hope for this country, land of my birth and my passport. I wonder how a place with so many resources and such abundance can collectively operate without generosity, with an ethos of scarcity instead of abundance. I think about the lessons I have learned about hospitality and invitations, living out of abundance from the land of my childhood, and the lands that I have loved and lived in as an adult. I lose hope for myself, for how quickly I get caught up in the pervading attitude of “me first” and others last. I feel anger toward the fact that in a worldwide crisis of displacement and refugees, a nation with room to spare has stalled resettlement.

But when I think about yesterday, about a room full of people from around the world who gathered with laughter and joy for a shared meal, I know that’s not the whole story. I know there is more. I know that there are many opening up their homes and making room for more; many who hate walls and want to build bridges.

And I am convinced that inviting others into our homes is one of the most hopeful acts of resistance possible.

We are going into a season of excess and abundance – my prayer is that we – that I – channel that abundance into loving well and serving more, that I channel it into invitations and hospitality.

The ending paragraph of the book Invited is nothing less than inspired. Throughout the book we see an invitation to a different way of living and being, a way of living out of abundance not scarcity. So I close with her words on this day after thanksgiving, inviting all of us into another way to live.

Lord, pry the film from our eyes, the scales from our skin, the shield and sword from our hands. Equip us to notice the stranger and the strange. Embolden us to be the stranger and the strange. Pull us into the flow of your Spirit at work in the world, infusing our ordinary days with your extraordinary presence. Hold open our eyes to to admire your wonders and delight in your mysteries. Fill us with gratitude for the paths you’ve paved for us, and all the ways you’ve proven that you are Emmanuel, God with us.

Motivate us to always invite, because you never stop inviting. Inspire us to welcome, because you lavish generosity on us and promise to refill the gifts we give away.

Come Lord Jesus.

Let us live like invited ones.

Epilogue of Invited by Leslie Verner

Amen

A Life Overseas – ‘Tis the Season of Incongruity

Deck the halls with calls for charity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

‘Tis the season of incongruity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

#CottageChristmas or starving children? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

My heart is caught and I cannot win this thing! Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.


I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this. The sense of incongruity is overwhelming me this Christmas. I go from essays and photos of unbelievable beauty to my current reality, which includes messy, messy relationships, rain and mud up to my knees, no sign of Christmas lights and beauty,and long, long hours of no electricity.

I scroll through Instagram and the abundance of beauty is eye-popping. Pristine cottages bedecked with lights and color and living rooms with soft lights and all white furnishings with that splash of red and green color that just makes them pop. And then in the next picture, I catch my breath as I see a starving child in Yemen and an organization begging the world to take notice.  I breathe fire as I see another picture reminding me of the never-ending war in Syria and the continued devastation on people. And it hits home as I take my own pictures here in Kurdistan and I am reminded that there aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the population, honor killings are still part of the landscape, and we can barely get funds for a single project.

‘Tis the season of incongruity – the season where the contrast feels too stark and I don’t feel like I have the ability to cope with these conflicting images.

And yet…

And yet, God’s story has always been a story of conflicting images. There is the image of the manger and the image of the cross, the image of judgement and the image of mercy, the image of truth and the image of grace. What I am seeing and feeling is nothing new to God.

God came into a world of contrasts. A world of the beauty and the broken. He came in a way that was so gentle, so unassuming – how could a baby threaten anyone? He came into a setting that was the height of incongruity – a king in a manger. For 33 years he lived as one who is unknown, going through daily life as we do – an image that is so mind boggling I stop thinking about it. We are told that he set aside greatness and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death” – a violent, horrific death. And then, the glorious resurrection and the words that we live by every single day: “He is not here! He is risen!”

My heart longs for peace and harmony in a world of broken incongruity. Read the rest of the piece here.

On Patriotic Parfaits and Competing Loyalties

patriotic parfaits

The picture shows a perfect patriotic parfait: blue jello, white whipped cream, red strawberries. Above the perfect parfait was a sign that read “Patriotic Parfait. These Colors Don’t Run!” Click the mouse and there’s another version – blueberries, whipped cream, strawberries, more whipped cream. Red.White.Blue.Red.White.Blue – the colors echo through the dessert. And indeed, it is gorgeous. 

At an early age we learned that God is not North American. He spans nation and ocean, culture and ethnicity. To bind him to one nation is idolatry. To attach Him to one country elevates our own perceptions of that country. Secretly believing that God is North American justifies our private beliefs that we are superior. It’s not true

Even if you wanted to, you could not escape that there is a national holiday in the United States this week. From patriotic table settings to patriotic menu themes, red, white, and blue abound. July 4th is the quintessential holiday in the United States. It brings out a fierce patriotism and loyalty, along with the ever-present colors of the American flag on everything. From cupcakes to plates, from store decor to napkins — everything screams nationalism. There are even instructions for patriotic manicures! 

The holiday is a strange one for me. It forces my divided loyalties and living between worlds to the forefront and it’s not necessarily comfortable.

What is the ‘right’ response for the third culture kid, the one who lives between worlds, at home on both sides of the globe to independence day celebrations in their passport countries?

More importantly, what is the proper response for a citizen of Heaven? One who defines their loyalty less on their country and more on their faith?

The first one is less complicated than the second. I always loved the 4th of July overseas. Throughout the world, amazing 4th of July parties hosted by embassies are held. These parties are like nothing I’ve ever experienced in the United States. From hot dogs to face painting, they are incredible celebrations. One of my personal favorite stories is about winning a trip to anywhere in the United States at a 4th of July celebration in Cairo. It came at a time when I was aching for extended family and the trip was a gift of grace. On those days I held my American passport and citizenship with pride and excitement.

I’ve come to recognize a phenomenon of many of us who live between worlds: when we are in the West we are fierce supporters of the East, challenging those who would criticize these places we love; when in the East we veer toward fiercely defending the West, aware of all its faults but wanting to explain it to others. It’s like family – I can criticize my family, but if you criticize them you are in big trouble.

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. So from a third culture kid perspective, I had no problem accepting the party piece of the celebration and not thinking too deeply about the rest of it. And truth be told, I like it that way. I don’t want to think too deeply about it other than this is a holiday celebrating an event in history. Just as August 14 is a holiday in Pakistan celebrating Pakistan’s independence from British rule as well as from its neighboring country, India, so July 4th is a holiday celebrating independence, where friends and food, small town parades and fireworks come together in a day off from work.

There are many things I love about the United States. This is a country of extraordinary diversity and the cities that I have been privileged to work and live in offer opportunities to interact with people from all over the world. From restaurants to cafés, from hotels to green spaces, from recreation activities to public transportation there is much to enjoy, to be grateful for. And we do have freedom.  I wake up daily to the sweet smell of freedom and it is a gift.

There are also things I love about Pakistan – from food to hospitality; from the beauty of the north to the Indian ocean in the south; from the resilience of a people to the friendships I’ve been privileged to have. And then there is Egypt – one of my beloved places. I have learned what it is to love on both sides of the globe, and this is a huge step for me. And with this in mind the TCK question I posed is easy: I can enjoy barbecues, I can enjoy burgers, I can enjoy fireworks, I can enjoy parfaits — no matter what color they are.

But the second question is more difficult. We are in an era where American exceptionalism is touted by many, where the United States is seen as a country “blessed” by God and therefore superior.

More recently, the “Make America Great Again” ideology is an ugly one that has allowed racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism to grow in dangerous ways. Lady Liberty’s “Give me your poor” speech is trampled by fear, poor policy, and hardened hearts.

This thinking is highly concentrated in many conservative Christian groups. This is deeply troubling. When the underlying message becomes about the supposed moral superiority of the U.S. – that it is intrinsically ‘better’ than other countries, I cringe and step back. The pretty parfaits turn to bile in my mouth and I struggle to find words that articulate my issues with this thinking.

I do not believe that the United States is uniquely “blessed”. I do not believe it has a divinely appointed mission to police and save the world. In fact, right now I believe the United States is in an age of reckoning.

I do not believe that my friends, from all parts of the world, are to be pitied for where they live and what nationalities they hold. And in no way do I believe that America or Americans are more deserving, more unique than others that God has placed on his earth, in his world.

My allegiance is to a citizenship far stronger and greater than any nation. My loyalty and world view are defined less by a country and more by a faith. I am called to a higher calling and a far greater identity than that which is indicated by my passport.

So as a Christian, I will enjoy July 4th — because it’s a holiday, because I love a good barbecue and a small town parade, because it’s a day off, because there are many things I am grateful for – and freedom is one of them. But if I ever confuse my identity as an ‘American’ with that of being a ‘Christian’ may I be called out and challenged by those around me. Believing that a national identity is greater than a spiritual identity is quite simply idolatry.

*****

 *Robynn and Marilyn in What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us