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.

New Lives and Portable Memories


Every time I leave home, I’m struck by the fact that I have that choice. I’m not being forced out by violence, persecution, or a crooked landlord. 

I choose when to go. I choose how to go.  I choose what to take. 

An article in the NY Times called “In a Refugee’s Bags, Memories of Home”* paints  a poignant picture of things left behind when refugees and displaced people have to leave their homes and possessions. But the picture is juxtaposed with creative ways that refugees bring pieces of their homes and places with them. For one woman it’s a dress that holds the landscape of her beloved city in Iraq. For a musician it’s the melody of a song sung in his native Syriac; for another it’s a wooden string instrument. All of these are reminders of who they are and where they come from. 

More so, they are a picture of their resiliency and willingness to keep on living, to not believe that all is lost. 

… their stories….reveal not only what they have lost, but also the beautiful things they have saved, or remade.

I am far from home today, and I write this while sitting in an airport, surrounded by other travelers. I carry these stories with me, treasuring them for what they teach me about hope, about resiliency, about keeping on living even when it seems all is lost. 

Take a look at the story today by clicking here. You won’t be disappointed! 

*by STEPHANIE SALDAÑA

The Grand Unraveling

For several months I had been calling Trump’s impending presidency The Grand Unraveling. He made campaign promises that seemed horrifying to me, he boldly made declarations of things he would do, things he would undo. During those campaigning days things seemed bleak, ominous even, but most of the time I assumed he was using loud words that would surely prove hollow.

And now here we are. President Trump has been in the White House for just over a month and The Grand Unraveling has begun in earnest. Or at least that’s how I’ve felt over the past two weeks. To make matters worse I’ve also felt powerless to prevent it. Yes, we’ve prayed persistently, our family has participated in peaceful protests, I’ve made calls to Representatives and Senators. Still it has felt like I’ve been helpless to do anything. Things have been coming undone and the world has seemed scary and unstable.

Thinking about unraveling however, made me remember a story from my childhood which has given me cause for pause.

When I was a girl we used to go to the Lundah Bazaar on the main street of Layyah, the town where I grew up. Lundah Bazaar was a wonderful prequel to Good Will and other secondhand stores I’ve come to love. There were piles of used clothes laid out on plastic sheets on the ground. Rumour had it that these were clothes sent into Pakistan as foreign aid but sold instead to retailers who in turn sold it to eager customers. Auntie Helen, Mom and I were some of those eager customers. We loved to go and rummage. If we saw something in the stack, we’d reach in and grab it, hold it up, inspect it, and either toss it back on top of the cloth hill or hand it to the shopkeeper to add to our own growing pile of things to buy.

Auntie Helen always bought sweaters. She’d inspect them carefully before purchasing them. These sweaters weren’t examined for being fashionable or trendy, but for the quality of the wool or yarn that was used. Auntie Helen would take them back to her friends in the villages, who would unravel the sweaters carefully. Younger women would roll the recently undone sweaters into skeins to be later used in the making of something new.  Auntie Helen was always very generous with my brother and me. If she thought we might like something she went out of her way to make it happen. She doted on us with treats and new books; with silly games and impromptu parties. More than anything, Auntie Helen wanted us to have a happy Pakistani childhood. But, having said that, she was quite protective of the sweaters she chose that had potential to be remade. I remember a fuzzy pink sweater with wonderful buttons that I noticed almost at the same moment Auntie Helen did. I hoped against hope that it wouldn’t pass her inspection. I groaned inwardly when she added it to her pile. When I sighed a little and maybe suggested that I might like that sweater to wear myself, she simply smiled and picked up the next woolen garment.

Auntie Helen had bigger things in mind. She knew the procedure and normally I loved to see the process unfold as the sweaters were unraveled, rolled and reworked into booties, and baby hats, sweaters and sweater vests. It felt like redemption. Auntie Helen was careful in her selection. The women were gentle in the undoing of the sweaters she brought them. The rollers did so with precision. The new knitters took pride in their creations. The old was gone; the new had come.

The unravelling wasn’t in vain. Even the pink sweater I loved, lost, and grieved had a higher purpose. Eventually somebody’s grandbaby would be decked out in a matching layette with a bonnet, a sweater, and drawstring booties with lovely large tassels of the same bright pink.

If Auntie Helen were still alive I think she’d have us pick up the frayed bits and start rolling them up, start making skeins, start twisting what we have into some sort of coiled ball. I suspect she’d refuse to think this was the end. She’d insist that this ratty remnant of what used to be a stable country might be put to good use. She’d see potential and hope. She’d examine it and imagine new things made from the old.

It takes energy to stand ready to collect what’s falling apart, what’s falling off, what’s fraying away. It takes discernment to see which parts are worth salvaging. It takes strength and stamina to roll, and wind, twist and coil the strands of an unwound country onto a reel. It takes courage and creativity to see what might yet be. It takes a prophetic imagination to see the Kingdom beyond and past and outside the borders of the country. It takes a sacred vision to imagine a country so radically different that we wouldn’t recognize if but for the scant shades of blue, white and red worked under the tapestry of red and yellow; black and white. It takes hope to see past the present desolation to the promise of full redemption and restoration.

God bless us all as we do the work of collecting, rolling, sharing, knitting and recreating.

 

(*Photo credit: Kari Patterson)

 

 

 

Scanning the Horizon 


We took off from O’Hare Airport in Chicago in the early morning. On the ground the weather was cold and rainy, but as the plane ascended we flew above the thick grey into golden sunshine. It was beautiful.

It’s an old cliche — that beyond the clouds is sunshine. But it’s true. The sun may hide but it can’t be removed. The sun, stretching across an expansive horizon, always wins.

I think about this as I sit in the window seat of row 26. I look past my sleeping husband to my son and mouth the words “Isn’t it beautiful?” He nods and smiles with knowing. We quietly scan the horizon and then go back to our books.

*****

In my faith tradition, this season is the Advent season. After the indulgence of a recent holiday, this is a time of fasting, a time of waiting. In a beautiful poem, Madeleine L’Engle calls it the “irrational season.” 
We needs these times in the church. Times of longing and expectation, times of hope.

My friend Laura says it well:

Advent reminds us that we are the farthest we could find ourselves from optimism and bootstrap-tightening. We don’t need a new gym membership. We need rescue. We are plunged into the woes of Israel, their wandering, their panting for life-transforming, globe-spanning salvation. If we are wise — and I pray for renewed wisdom this Advent — we will make room in our overly taxed bandwidth to let the Holy Spirit guide us out of our numbing addictions and down into the thick of it. Let the gnawing ache ring and discover that we are scanning the horizon for the Messiah.

And so I begin this season — this irrational season of scanning the horizon for the Messiah, knowing that when we seek him, we will find. 

Will you join me?

Blogger’s Note: You can purchase Laura’s beautiful Advent book of poetry here!

The Simple Pin

Since November 8th, the day that shall live on in infamy, people have started wearing little safety pins. I was unaware of this until my friend Jill explained their significance and gave me one to wear.

To wear a safety pin is to make a statement. Where this began is a little uncertain. There are stories from World War II of Dutch resistance members wearing the safety pin in loyalty to Queen Wilhelmina. More recently, after the Brexit vote in the UK, there was reportedly a woman, who used the twitter handle @cheeahs, who wanted to demonstrate publicly that she stood in solidarity with the immigrant community. Immigrants were treated with suspicion in the UK. The Brexit vote seemed to open up a door for hatred, threat, and violence. Hatred had a voice. What about a voice for safety? So this woman wanted members of the immigrant community to know she was a safe person. She wanted to stand with them. Here in the US people are wearing the safety pin to similarly align themselves with people of color, women, members of the LGBT community, and immigrants.

On Thursday, following the election, our youngest daughter came home and reported a story about her Muslim friend. His mom was nervous to go out of the house wearing her hijab. The world now felt like an unsafe place for her. I know of another young woman, this one white, who is a victim of sexual abuse. Fear and a renewed sense of her vulnerability left her paralyzed for several days after the election. I wish with all my heart that these two women would know that I and so many many others are safe spaces in this new atmosphere.

While the safety pin has been a meaningful symbol to many it’s also been met with eye rolls and it’s share of sighs and “Oh brother!”s. The Internet is full of sarcastic posts and tweets and articles that disclaim it. Perhaps it’s another meaningless attempt by white people to band aid up a fatal wound.

I’m not naïve enough to think that wearing a safety pin is all that we have to do. But surely we have to do something even to communicate hope to those suddenly a feared? Maybe the safety pin is a good place to start.

Perhaps the pin serves as more of a statement to myself. I will do something. I will respond. Maybe it emboldens me to reach across community divide, to smile at a stranger who looks differently than I do, to make conversation with someone I don’t know at the grocery store, on the bus, at the library. Maybe it reminds me that there is always something I can do—something small, something a little bigger, something bold.

My friend Jill is a perfect example. Jill is a gregarious extrovert. She loves people without restraint. This election cycle has been hard for her too. She sees the ostracized further marginalized and it’s hurt her. She hears the racial slurs, the negative stereotyping and she sees what it’s doing to her country, her community, her family.

A week ago, Jill donned a silver safety pin. She wore it to the airport, through security, to the departure gate. In the departure lounge she looked around to see who might need someone to connect with. She approached a black man across the way and commented casually about his t-shirt. He was wearing the team mascot from the same high school where her freshman son attends. They struck up a conversation about teenage sons and sports.

Fully aware of the pin on her lapel, she crossed the lounge again and sat next to an elderly black woman. Jill struck up a conversation. Before long the two women discovered they had Albuquerque in common, and interesting family systems and a love of cookies. After they boarded the plane and were en route to Dallas, Jill escaped her seatbelt and sought out her new friend. She handed her a card with her phone number and address on it. She told Ms. Johnson she would be bringing her cookies. “No you won’t!” Ms. Johnson responded in disbelief. “Oh yes I will,” Jill laughed!

When the plane reached Dallas and Jill was deboarding, the flight attendant made eye contact with Jill’s safety pin and then with Jill. Tears filled her eyes and she reached out and hugged Jill.

Jill sent me this text message: I think the safety pin has meant more to me as a reminder to be bold and seek out others. I was not afraid to look for those who might need a smile. Honestly I have not worn my cross necklaces lately-even before election. It just has too many negatives. But the safety pin felt right-be an ally, just be there, show that you care and are not judging. 

White people wear your safety pins! Don’t pretend to think that this enough…but understand fully that this is a beginning. You’re making a statement even to yourself. We have work to do…. We are going to need all the courage we can get and if a pin can poke our consciences and wakes us up to do something it’s worth it!

I just got another text message from Jill. “I just took my new friend, Ms. Johnson, cookies! It was very special.” Wow! Maybe the safety pin can also serve the same function as strings tied around our fingers, reminders to actually act on our best intentions.

 

You can read more about the pin:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-poignant-reason-people-are-wearing-safety-pins-after-brexit_us_5773da43e4b0352fed3e8368

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/11/11/safety-pins-brexit-donald-trump-election/93639074/

https://www.bustle.com/articles/195044-wearing-a-safety-pin-isnt-enough-here-are-8-concrete-ways-to-be-an-ally

 

Election 2016 Detox Plan

kind

No matter where you live, you are probably completely fed up and exhausted by the U.S Election 2016. If you are a U.S. citizen, you are even more tired of it, even if you were on the winning side. So it’s time to purge and detox. Like a colon cleanse, this list is designed to rid yourself of the impurities that collected in your system. Add your own through the comments — that way we will have more ideas.

  1. Bake. Baking not only fills your home with delicious aromas, it also is a way of creating and getting your mind off that which is disturbing.
  2. Read a book about a group of people who you know nothing about. You will grow. You will learn. You will grow more empathetic.
  3. Apologize to someone who you offended during the election cycle. If you think you didn’t offend anyone, think again. If you were on social media expressing your opinion, you probably did.
  4. Hold and cuddle a baby. Babies will remind you of all that is good and holy in our world. Babies will remind you that God still wants the world to go on.
  5. Don’t post false news and information. There is a plethora of false news going around. It’s worse than it has ever been and it is hurting people. Before you post anything, please do the following:
    1. Read it – People post things without reading them all the time and then they’re upset when others call them out on something the article says. If you post it, first read it.
    2. If it’s from The Onion, The Babylon Bee, or another satirical site, remember — it isn’t real. The goal of those sites is to make us laugh at the ridiculousness of news headlines.
    3. Check the date! There are so many pictures going around from a year ago, two years ago. Check the date and the story. The story may be outrageous, but if it’s an old story, then we already had our chance to be outraged and for god’s sake, don’t make us get outraged again!
  6. Eat homemade bread with raspberry jam.
  7. Put on classical music and let it flood your soul.
  8. Make friends with someone who doesn’t look or believe like you do.
  9. Take a long walk.with a good friend and make election talk off-limits.
  10. Get involved in some sort of service project. Whether it’s feeding the homeless, volunteering at a shelter, making refugee kits or something else, I guarantee that there are organizations that need your time and skills. Winter is a time when social service agencies need all the help they can get. Check with your local homeless shelter, community health center, Salvation Army or other community based organizations.
  11. Limit your time on social media. Hide the posts of people who you feel aren’t helping. Give yourself a one day sabbath. Consider Pico Iyer’s quote “In an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness.” In a book called The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Iyer writes that many people who work in Silicon Valley try hard to observe an “internet sabbath.” For 24 or 48 hours each week they go completely offline to get a sense of focus and perspective, so that when they go online again, they will have the creativity to do what they are paid to do. The irony is profound. They sit in stillness in order to create programs and platforms so that we never want to go offline. Defy the creators of social media and find time every day to be still and away from social media of all types.
  12. Invite someone for a meal or tea.
  13. Play a board game with friends. On Thursday of last week, we played Ticket to Ride India version with my daughter and her boyfriend. It was perfect timing. We didn’t once talk about the election – we just concentrated on building trains from Bombay to Calcutta. It was therapeutic and fun, just what we needed.
  14. Set boundaries for yourself. If you are going to be having Thanksgiving Dinner with people who you disagree with politically but love deeply, then decide ahead of time that you won’t go there. It’s not worth it. Relationships last – politics and elections don’t.
  15. If you are someone who prays, pray that you will be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
  16. Read these books to better understand the worlds of others:
    1. Between the World and Me – Ta Nehisi Coates
    2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    3. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (I’m in the middle of this one now – hard but excellent read.)
    4. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
  17. Read the beautiful When Breath Becomes Air and thank God you are alive.
  18. Head over to this piece and think about what it is to love well. What does it mean specifically for you?
  19. Watch The Crown on Netflix. It is an excellent series that follows the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Watching another country’s system of government that includes a monarchy is a breath of fresh air. The resounding cry of “God save the Queen” and “Bring back the monarchy!” are on my lips after every episode.
  20. Lastly, you will never regret being kind. A couple of months ago I was in a hard spot. I felt hurt and sad about something that had happened. As I was thinking about it, I realized this: I would rather be sad and hurt then bitter and angry any day. Sad and hurt can heal, bitter and angry tends to fester into a wound that needs surgery. So I’ll continue to choose kind.

“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”
―  When Breath Becomes Air

That’s all I have. What can you add? 

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

 

The Welcome Prayer

I have to admit I’m really struggling this week. I’m angry at some recent news from an organization close to my heart. I’m disgusted by the political situation in the country where I live. I’m horrified by the people that excuse sexual indecency and the language of predatory sexual assault. I’m embarrassed by those Christians in leadership that refuse to remove their blinders and truly see what’s happening.

Meanwhile racial imbalance continues to effect communities across this country. More Syrians fleeing their ravaged homeland have died this week in trying to escape. Much of Haiti’s infrastructure has been erased by fierce winds and waters. Over 800 people died in the wreckage. Thailand’s beloved King has died leaving thousands mourning and in uncertain transition. Yemen is still reeling from the double bomb attack at a funeral last week which left 140 people dead and over 500 injured. The situation in Kashmir is heated and precarious. The Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, once again on trail for blasphemy, has had her case adjourned for the time being with the threat of false accusation still hanging over her.

It’s too much. Never before have I been so tempted to cancel everything, stay in my pajamas, and curl up in my bed for a few days. I’m heart sick and worn out from it all. I want to make friends with denial and ignorance. I’m done.

I was awake early this morning working on a different blog post. It was an angry rant full of passion and fury. As I was madly pounding at my keyboard I realized that the piece had taken on a life of it’s own. The words were nearly typing themselves. Anger was colouring in ugly shades outside the lines of reason and wisdom. I pushed my chair away from my desk, poured myself another cup of coffee and paused.

Leanna Tankersley tucks into her very insightful book, Brazen: The Courage to Find the You That’s Been Hiding, a chapter entitled, Welcoming It All. In it she includes the Welcome Prayer as written by Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk:

Welcome, welcome, welcome. I welcome everything that comes to me today because I know it’s for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions. I let go of my desire for power and control. I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure. I let go of my desire for survival and security. I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself. I open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.

Tankersley goes on to say, “I love these lines, this concept, this practice. The Welcoming Prayer takes us out of our heads and into a space where we stop, even for a very few minutes, our analyzing and figuring. We relinquish our strategies and allow God to work within us, in the place where we are far more malleable than our mind. We are opening ourselves up to a divine encounter which is never a bad idea.” (Leanna Tankersley, Brazen, 2016. pg 200).

Admittedly it’s a hard prayer to pray today. I don’t want to “let go of my desire for power or control.” I don’t want to “let go of my desire to change any situation.” I’m rattling at my chain for change and decency and solutions and justice. But, if I’m honest, the rattling isn’t doing my soul any good. I’m worked up and out of shape. I’m a mess. I’d love to escape and avoid and hide.

Even as I sip my now lukewarm coffee, I think there might be a meaningful way to separate myself from the mess of it all. It strikes me that there’s a profound difference between burying my head in the sand and lifting my eyes up to see above the muck. Both refuse to focus on the crud and horror of what’s happening. But one gives me permission to welcome what God is doing. Looking up allows me to make eye contact with a broader perspective and with Hope itself! If I look up I see above the landscape, I see the horizon, wide and eternal, stretching beyond what I now know, making way for what’s to come.

Perhaps today is a day to breath deeply: in and out. I need to remember what is true. I need to be faithful to what I cannot see. I need to call to mind the presence of Christ and the Living Hope that dwells in me. I need to make space inside to choose to welcome what God wants to do in me.

My husband Lowell often quotes from the novel, Brothers K, by David James Duncan. There’s a scene in the novel where an old baseball coach is advising a young batter, “He said there are two ways for a hitter to get the pitch he wants. The simplest way is not to want any pitch in particular. But the best way, he said—which sounds almost the same, but is really very different—is to want the very pitch you’re gonna get. Including the one you can handle. But also the one that’s going to strike you out looking. And even the one that’s maybe gonna bounce off your head.”

Welcome, welcome, welcome. I welcome everything that comes to me today—even the pitch that’s going to strike me out, even the one that’s going to hit me in the head and knock me out— because I know weirdly enough it’s for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions—including trying to sort out the world’s wounds. It’s not easy but I’m going to try to let go of my desire for power and control. I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure. I let go of my desire for survival and security. I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself and the anger and angst I feel when I can’t. Oh God please help me open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.

 

Widening Our Embrace

Ronald Rohlheiser, in his book, Sacred Fire, addressed especially to older pursuers of the faith has a short section entitled, “Be Wide in Your Embrace.”

We are constantly being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing is safe for long. More than any previous generation, we are being stretched beyond what is familiar. Often that is painful and disorienting….(p 267) The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It is not easy to be comfortable with, at home with, and welcoming to, what is other, different, and often seemingly deviant. (p269)

However there is a side benefit of this widening embrace that I had never thought of before until a couple of weeks ago. Rohlheiser goes on to suggest an interesting correlation:

Ultimately we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, what is foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we will find it impossible to avoid what is foreign to us. What is strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighborhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things.

 Moreover, welcoming what is other and different is in fact, a key biblical challenge… God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what is beyond imagination, outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God holy. Biblically holy is not primarily a moral quality but an ontological one—namely, otherness and different from us.

 Thus, biblically, we have the tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, in the unfamiliar, in what is different, in the surprise. For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. (p270)

 

Some of you know I’ve been working for ages on a book I’m calling, God is Weird. (And when I say “working” what I really mean is I’ve tossed the idea around, opened a file by that name on my computer and generated a very rough outline and a couple of chapters.) The notion of God’s weirdness struck home 17 years ago when a dear friend from childhood died too young. She left a four-day-old infant daughter, a desolated husband, grief stricken siblings and devastated parents. I was floored by God’s response to our prayers for healing. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t come barging in and restore health and order and a mother to the tiny child. I was beside myself with anguish and I was very angry. The only thing that made any sense in that moment was how obvious it was that God himself made no sense whatsoever. He was, in my mind, completely strange. He was weird.

And he is. He’s strange. He’s completely foreign to us. He does things differently than we do. Often we shake our heads, completely befuddled. We grieve, we stomp our feet—angry, our worlds upset. We cry out confused to the core.

It’s not like he didn’t warn us. Scripture is full of references to the Otherness of God. God is Holy and the word Hebrew word “qodesh”, holy means “apartness, set-apartness, separateness, sacredness”. It also means, “otherness, transcendent and totally other” (patheos.com).

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
   For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8 NLT)

If we close off our hearts to anything or anyone that’s different than our souls will suffer. The unintended consequence is we risk closing our hearts off from God. We think we’re protecting ourselves—protecting our children—we build walls, put up fences, grow shrubbery to block out our neighbors. We keep our eyes averted. We look away. We cross the street. We pick up the pace.

Admittedly the temptation exists to protect ourselves from God himself too. I understand that. He seems so unpredictable in his strangeness it often feels super scary to continue to open our hearts to Him. We fear what he might do. We panic at the prospects of where he might push us. He might mess with our personal status quo. It’s too terrifying to think about.

But what kind of life do we want? It’s a dark death-life if we seal our souls off from living. It’s impossible to close off only the things that make us uncomfortable. When we shut down we shut out all of it: the good, the bad, the joy, the sadness, the exhilaration, the risk. We shut out the familiar and the Stranger.

In the moment we chose to accept strangers—those previously considered “strange” to us—we’re choosing to open ourselves to God’s wide mercy and to his wild ride. He meets us in those moments of choice. He sees our fear and he steps in with courage. When we deliberately incline ourselves to the other, we find not only a potential space for friendship and human kindness, we might also find God.

 

‘Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’ (Matt 25:40)

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Heb 13:2)

The Frozen Sadness of Ambiguous Loss

rose-hip-1157297_1280

When my parents first went to Pakistan, they traveled by boat. They would embark on the journey at New York Harbor, heading to the balcony of the ship so that they could see those they loved, family members and friends, for as long as possible. They would wave goodbye for as long as they could, until finally, land and their loved ones disappeared. I think about this and my throat catches, an ache rising to the surface. Mom and Dad were a young couple and family was critically important to them. They left that family and it cost them.

I would grow up to wave goodbye to Mom and Dad, not from a ship, but from a busy airport gate. I would turn around and wave, finally realizing that leaving was inevitable and I had to keep going. And I in turn have had some of these same experiences with my children. Travel and living between worlds is in our blood, woven through our DNA. But there are losses along the way.

Last week, as I was looking up something for work, I came upon a phrase that is new to me. The phrase is “frozen sadness” or “frozen grief.” The phrase comes from what is described as a “newly identified type of loss.” The researcher, Pauline Boss, introduced the concept in 1999.

In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief,confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict. While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.

She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment, but its cause is not always a weak psyche. In the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*

I read that ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed to mourn, you are expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.

Boss and others identify some of the characteristics of ambiguous loss as these:

*Ambiguous loss is unclear loss.
* Ambiguous loss is traumatic loss.
* Ambiguous loss is a relational disorder.
* Ambiguous loss is externally caused (e.g., illness, war), not by individual pathology.
* Ambiguous loss is an uncanny loss—confusing and incomprehensible.

I move on and find out there are two types of ambiguous loss: One is that the person/place/family is physically absent, but psychologically present, in that they may reappear. This can be loss from divorce, moving, boarding school, migration. The other is that the person is physically present, but the core of who they are is absent. Examples of this are people with dementia or alzheimers.

Culturally, the Western World places high value on closure, high value on solutions to problems. Traditional grief counseling would encourage closure and resolution of grief. This is where ambiguous loss differs, there is no closure. Instead, the goal is to become comfortable with paradox.

At this point, it comes to me: this is it! This is the grief of the adult third culture kid. This is what we are talking about. At one point, we longed to express our grief, but felt foolish. What was there to grieve? We loved the unique experiences that defined our childhood. Plus, our experiences were years ago. We have a different life, we have moved forward. But in more honest moments, we realized there was grief, but it was hidden. We realized that being able to see the people and places we loved, even if it was just one more time, would be a gift. But we also realized that sometimes that is not possible. We can’t go back to what was. Perhaps we then recognized that closure would be impossible.  Instead, we would learn to be okay with ambiguity, be at peace with paradox.

And somehow along the way, being at peace with paradox happens. We rediscover who we are, we become confident within that paradox, and we grow to love living between.

“Any third culture kid who lives effectively in her passport country has a moment of truth when she realizes it’s okay to live here; it’s okay to adjust; it’s okay, even if she never feels fully at home, to feel a level of comfort in who she is in her passport country. To adapt doesn’t mean settling for second best. To adapt is to use the gifts she developed through her childhood in order to transcend cultures and to find her niche in both worlds.” Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

*Pauline Boss on ambiguous loss

The More I Learn, the Less I Know

I have the extraordinary privilege of being in Lebanon and just returned from a trip to Bekaa Valley.   There are thousands of refugees in the valley and we are with a group called Heart for Lebanon. Heart for Lebanon is working with 1300 families in 13 different camps. We visited the largest camp today. 

I so wish I could come away from these trips with more answers to a crisis, but the more I learn, the more I feel there are no easy answers. And sometimes I feel that there are no human answers at all. 

Human answers may provide an important packet of food, some medication, occasionally schools, but they can’t guarantee safety.  They can’t guarantee a hope or a future. They can’t guarantee a return home. 

We left early morning and returned well after sundown. As we drove back, a thick fog covered the mountain. Even with the head lights on bright, it was difficult to see more than a couple of feet ahead. And I thought how much this fog is like this refugee crisis. You can only see what’s right in front of you, everything else is the fog of the unknown.

But God knows. It’s what I cling to for those who I meet. God knows. He is the “God who Knows.” 

God sees. God hears. God remembers. God knows. I cling to this as I see the small offerings of help in response to massive human need. 

I said goodbye with the Arabic phrase “Allah maak” – “God be with you.” 

And I meant it with every fiber of my being. 

   

    
    
 

The Darkness is Not Winning – A Life Overseas

Cairo, Light

I’m at A Life Overseas today where I quote my brother and sister-in-law!

I read these words from their newsletter yesterday morning and immediately asked permission to use them. These are words that reflect a future and a hope.

“The darkness is not winning!

“The truth is that wherever the news on television has been particularly bad this year, the Light is there shining and overcoming the Darkness. Refugees in the Middle East are being taken in by Christians, hatred is overcome by love. The hungry are being fed and the wounded healed in Jesus name. Discouraged and dislocated people are hearing about Jesus and receiving him and finding life and community and safety. Slaves in South East Asia are being set free from sex and labor imprisonment and the Light is even shining into the places where these slaves are working while they are still in slavery.” Stan & Tami Brown

Will you join me at A Life Overseas today? 

 

Hope in Exile: A Broken Ankle

This is the first of a few stories from my time in Iraq. Thank you for reading. 

I met Anees in the management office of Al Amal, an unfinished building that houses internally displaced people from the Nineveh Plain in Iraq. Al Amal literally means “The Hope,” and indeed, the people here embody hope. All together, Al Amal houses around 650 people on four floors. There are no permanent walls, instead prefab walls have been fashioned, giving a bit of privacy and small living spaces for each family. Over a hundred and twenty people share a kitchen and bathrooms on each floor.

Anees looks to be in his sixties, but it is difficult to tell. Prior to being displaced from the only home he had ever known, he owned two factories. One produced ceramics and the other machinery. He is a skilled electrical engineer and obviously a good businessman. Although Anees is Chaldean Catholic, he hired people who were Muslims, Christians and Yezidis, not discriminating between groups. All that changed on August 6 of last year, when the city of Qaraqosh fell to the Islamic State. Overnight, Anees and his lovely wife, Shatha, had to flee to the city of Erbil.

I met Anees because he had broken his ankle while walking up the stairs into the building. The stairs are rough and uneven with jagged pieces sometimes tripping the unsuspecting. Anees had been one of those, resulting in a bad break. To complicate the injury, it happened on his right leg, the same leg he broke two years ago in Qaraqosh. At that time, a rod was placed in his leg and this break had done damage to the rod. The ankle bone was misshapen, badly bruised and swollen. Anees was in a great deal of pain.

I took a look at the ankle, checked his circulation, and realized there was nothing I could do but give pain medication and encourage him to see a doctor. He told me he had gone to see the same surgeon who had placed the rod in the leg and that the recommendation was for him to have two complicated surgeries. The cost? $1500 – a mere pittance by standards in the United States, but a huge amount of money for a man who had lost two factories and now lived in a room the size of my work cubicle. We talked for a bit and I promised I would bring pain medication back that evening.

I returned in the late afternoon, when the hot sun of the morning had turned into a pre-evening glow. I was armed with a skilled interpreter and pain medication. The couple welcomed us into their space without hesitation. The room was tiny and immaculate. Two beds lined the walls and shelves on one side stored clothing, bedding, and food. A rosary and picture of the Theotokos were the only decorations on the wall.

A small table was set up in front of us and we sat, talking, laughing and drinking hot, sweet tea. Shatha fed us grapes and flat bread with a cheesy topping that she had made earlier in the week. The room and the hospitality were both warm and I felt my cheeks flushing with the joy of it.

The couple talked about their children, two grown daughters who had left Qaraqosh with their husbands and were now in Canada. They have a grandchild who looks out from a photograph smiling, unaware of the depth to which his grandparents miss him. “Every time we talke to our daughters, my husband cries!” says Shatha with a sweet smile. “He misses them so much.”

We talked about his leg, how he cannot afford surgery because work is so limited in this new world they inhabit. We talked about faith. “Every night at sundown we go outside and pray,” they say. “You should come!” The invitation was completely genuine and I feel deeply honored. We talked and drank tea and felt time stop for a few moments.

I realized that I don’t know how long I’ve been there, and I’m expected upstairs at the art therapy session. Before I go, I ask if I can pray with them. They don’t hesitate with their yes. We pray and it is a holy moment, holy space in this unfinished building, set apart for those exiled from their homes.

Before I leave, Anees looks at me and says this: “What do you in America hope for Iraq?” The weight of the question is heavy. He, like most Iraqis, is so aware that our foreign policy has an impact on the everyday life of people in this region.

I hear both desperation and hope in his voice. I pause and pray the Jesus Prayer before I answer. I know that how I respond is critically important.

“I don’t know what the government hopes for you,” I say. “But I know what I hope for you, and that is for you to return to your home and live out your faith in peace.” 

“Al-ḥamdu lillāh!” he says. And he is satisfied. 

Note: If you would like to donate funds to pay for surgery for Anees, please contact me. We are hoping to do this through Conscience International. Here is the link: Conscience International Iraq Crisis. If you choose to send a check, please write Surgery for Anees in the memo line. 

Talking About Hope

A light rain falls on my way into work. The pavements that only a few weeks ago were piled high with dirty snow are now clear, even the puddles are gone. Spring is in the air.

The winter has taken its toll. Everyone you meet is oh so tired. They speak of going to bed at nine at night and still waking up exhausted. But there is hope. Hope in clear sidewalks. Hope is shrinking piles of dirty, pollution-filled snow. Hope in rising temperatures. Hope in goslings and geese. Hope in new babies and new life.

Three years ago I wrote about hope being in middle of the well-known verse from the Bible in the New Testament book of Corinthians:  And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.”* I wrote these words and I remember them today: 

***********

I’ve often wondered why ‘hope’ is in the middle. There’s faith on the one side – faith in all its strength, setting a foundation. There’s love at the end – love as a benediction, a blessing, put at the end and recognized as the greatest of the three. Then there’s hope. And hope is in the middle. It is neither foundation nor benediction.

Its place in the verse is symbolic of hope’s greatest gift, for hope is most needed in the middle. I need hope most when I am in the middle of a crisis. At the beginning my adrenaline kicks in and I run on autopilot doing what I need to do to survive.  Towards the end of a crisis, I know I have gone through the worst and I have survived. But in the middle? In the tunnel that is the middle I am at the end of myself. There seems to be no future, no help, no hope. This, then, is where I need hope.

Hope in the middle of chemotherapy for cancer.

Hope in the middle of the nightmare of losing a child.

Hope in the middle of a messy divorce.

Hope in the middle of addiction recovery.

Hope in the middle of the night when echoes of loss or sadness keep us from sleep.

Hope in the middle of a move, the middle of the journey, the middle of life, the middle of chaos. Hope.

So there is hope. Hope in the middle; the in between where spring is not quite here but winter has gone.

And for me, what in my faith tradition is the greatest hope of all – the season of Lent. A season that leads me through denial of self, to death on a cross, to that hope of all hopes – a glorious resurrection.

*1 Corinthians 13:13a

An Unusual Blog for a Usual Birthday

Robynn bday post

An Unusual Blog for a Usual Birthday by Robynn

*Reader beware: This particular blog was written from the heart of Angst, a small place off the beaten path of Nowhere in particular by a decidedly middle aged woman of stout stature and quirky humour. It’s an odd blog in that the title is very long and the article itself is very short.

A Piece on Turning Forty-Five

It’s My Party And I’ll Cry if I want to

Forty-Five is so Mundane

From Mundane to Meaningless—a retrospective from a Middle Aged Mom Stuck in Middle America and Middle Life

Nothing Exciting Happens When You’re Forty Five

Forty-Five Schmorty-Shmive

At Least I Have My Health

My Trifocals Are Trying Me

What Did you Grow Up to Be?

On Meaning and What Really Matters

When Your Metabolism Mocks

I Left My Heart in My Thirties!

How To Disentangle From the Fetal Position Without Putting a Hip Out

“A Wrinkle in Time”—Madeleine L’Engle had One, Robynn Bliss Has Many (Wrinkles that is!)

The Monotony Of Middle Age

I Remember When My Mom was Forty-Five and She Was Old!

Rolls, Wrinkles and Reptilian Elbows—Living With What’s Real

The Struggle IS Real

When Your Older Friends Roll their Eyes and Your Younger Friends Smile Politely

Oil Of Olay is Failing Me

When Stability Feels An Awful Lot Like Being Stuck

The Year I Gave Up Birthdays For Lent

No Turning Back; Holding On To My Forties But Losing My Grip

Before You Know She’ll Be Fifty

Bravely Going Where Most of You have Already Gone

Still Have (Most Of) My Faculties

Dying Your Hair is Cheaper Than Air Travel

Resolve, Resolutions and Robynn: Facing The Future Head On

No One Is Alone

We’re All in This Together

Climb Every Mountain

Slipping Through My Fingers

(Finally) Facing her Forties with Fortitude!

Yesterday I turned forty-five. To say I’ve struggled with this birthday is putting it mildly. (Turning 30 and 40 were a piece of cake compared to 45!) My aging TCK self longs for adventure and travel; I ache to have a global impact, to make a difference. The circumstances of my life just now mandate more settledness. My responsibilities have changed. I’m here in Manhattan, Kansas. And that’s not likely to change for many many years. Turning forty-five feels like it’s part of the conspiracy to keep me trapped here in the middle of smack dab in the middle of America, in the middle of generations, in middle age.

I often remember a group of adult Third Culture individuals I visited once when I was early into my twenties. I sat quietly, surrounded by middle aged versions of me. There was grey hair and worn skin in the room. There was laughter and some tears. They talked about wanting to travel, finding careers where they could find meaning, resisting buying houses in case it meant they were stuck forever in that one spot. I looked around that circle and I wondered if I would be “over” my TCK-ness by the time I was there age. I was horrified to think these same things would stalk me in to my middle aged years. Little did I know.

Of course with the mundane age of forty-five comes moments of great happiness and serendipity! Who really knows what adventures lie ahead? What hopes lurk in the shadows of monotony? Part of the Happy in Birthdays comes unexpectedly, quietly, long after the candles are blown out.

Yesterdays cards and birthday greetings assure me I am well (and undeservedly) loved. There is grace in the dawn and mercy in the morning. I nurse my cup of coffee, sipping it slowly. Hope rises up in the steam and wafts around my face and through my hair to the places beyond. I’m forty-five.

A note from Marilyn – Happy, Happy Birthday Robynn! You make a difference far more than you know. The best kind of difference to make. 

When I Want to Whine About Life….

When I want to whine about life I find this:

And I am struck by the resilience of the human spirit, the ability to find joy in the worst circumstances, and the hope found in a makeshift swing.

The Song of Mynah Birds

mynah bird

“Amidst all this madness, all these ghosts and memories of times past, it feels like the world around me is crumbling, slowly flaking away. Sometime, when it’s this late at night, I feel my chest swell with a familiar anxiety. I think, at these times, that I have no more place in my heart for Pakistan. I cannot love it any more. I have to get away from it for anything to make sense; nothing here ever does.

But then the hours pass, and as I ready myself for sleep as the light filters in through my windows, I hear the sound of those mynah birds. And I know I could never leave” Fatimah Bhutto in “Songs of Blood and Sword”

Of all the words penned on loving a place that has changed, loving a place that is such a paradox that your head spins and you feel crazy, these words from Fatimah Bhutto are better and more beautiful than any others that I have read. “Why don’t you leave?” say the skeptics and cynics. “How can you love a place like that?”

But anyone who has loved a person that seems to others unloveable, knows that loving a place can be similar. You can’t help that you love it, and you will defend that love and continue to hope when everyone around you shakes their head in confusion that you would even bother.

This is what Pakistan is – a paradox, an unexplainable place, a place that others, who have never been and know nothing of the country, despise. A place that has seen too much tragedy and violence, that bears the weight of a blood-splattered beginning, a place where those who hope and fight for it are too often silenced.

But poets keep hope alive by taking words that make the soul ache with understanding. Understanding that becomes determination to continue praying for a country I love. That’s what the words above do for me.

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/mynah-birds-starling-india-95063/

Seasons of Waiting

When the lights go out

Each year the season of Advent takes me by surprise. Instead of coming on with a shout, a “look at me, look at me,” Advent comes with a whisper.

It comes as I am busy with other things and whispers “Pay attention, I’m here.” It comes with cold weather and crowded sidewalks, it comes with humility and insistence. When my children were little I knew it would be hard so I paid closer attention. I was determined that we would feel the light of Advent in the midst of tinsel and baubles.

But now that they are older and away from the house I realize it is still difficult. Still difficult to cultivate an attitude of expectant waiting.

As I was thinking about Advent, about seasons of waiting, I thought back to my pregnancies. Five times on three continents I went through the process of pregnancy and birth. And in all five I knew there was something coming. Something life changing and amazing. Something that would require strength, love, discipline, and grace. From the time I first saw a light blue line appear on a plastic stick I knew that the next nine months would bring about change, both expected and unexpected. Sometimes that big event came during a busy day, requiring me to stop everything I was doing and all I had planned, other times it came through a painful whisper in the night. And each time was a miracle – a miracle of tiny fingers and toes, little legs kicking out into a world unknown, a lusty cry appeased only by the touch of a mom.

This expectant waiting that I felt during pregnancy is like this season of Advent, a season where I remember another birth, a birth that changed our world.

I am waiting on many things this year. Waiting that sometimes causes anxiety and a hurting heart. I am waiting on things that do not have a natural end point as a pregnancy does, waiting on things that may not be realized any time soon. It is this I think about as I enter this season of Advent.

That first Advent was long ago – after years and years of silence. The lights were out and the world felt cold and dark, void of hope. Yet there were still whispers of a ‘coming’. There were still those who believed and waited and prayed. Into this came not a ruler or king, but a tiny baby who needed his mom. Yet that tiny baby was worth the wait, was worth the silence. So I remember this during this season of waiting. And I pray my anxious heart will remember that time so long ago when the world watched and waited with expectant hope. 

What about you? Are you watching and waiting for something with expectant hope? With fear and anxiety? I would love it if you shared some of your heart through the comments.