A Slice of Life – Kurdistan: Volume 3

I woke up this morning to bright sunshine creating shadows on the walls. It is almost spring in Kurdistan. While indoors it is still brutally cold because of concrete buildings and lack of insulation, all of nature is breathing signs of spring. From goslings to buds on trees, life is bursting forth.

We have heard that March is a spectacular month in Kurdistan. It is a month long celebration of life and the new year. Nowruz (Persian and Kurdish New Year) is celebrated on the 21st of the month and we have heard that people picnic both that day and all the days surrounding the celebration. Winter has felt long here, even without snow. The rains come and seep into your bones and through cracks in the walls so that your body and your environment are constantly wet. It’s a bit like monsoons in Pakistan. With the dryer, warmer weather all of life feels easier.

A Daughter Visits…

Our younger daughter visited us this past week and in her presence we felt once again the joy of belonging. We rearranged our schedules to maximize our short time together and let her experience as much as possible.

We visited Darband and looked out onto a brilliant blue lake with snow capped mountains in the distance. We hiked up a small mountain behind the university and took in the expansive views of the area. But the highlight was a friend driving us up a steep mountain road where hairpin turns and switchbacks had us gasping and wondering if we were all going to die. We didn’t die and as we stopped to take in our surroundings it was all worth it. The view from above was magnificent. The sun was setting and the entire area was bathed in shades of fuchsia, gold, orange, blue, and grey. We could see where the lake detoured into smaller pools and rivers. We saw mountains beyond mountains and hills beyond hills. Almond trees dotted the landscape, their small pink blossoms whispering the hope of spring. Kurdistan’s beauty was on full display as if to say “I’m so much more than people realize!”

And it is.

In addition we were invited into homes of dear friends who showed Stefanie the warmth and hospitality we have been bragging about since we arrived in Kurdistan. It was an incredible gift to have her here with us and to show her why we love Kurdistan so much.

Beauty & Kindness of the People,
Stunning Landscape,
Generous Hospitality

There are times when I feel like our life resembles a National Geographic magazine article. Surrounded by adventure, beauty, and uncommon experiences as compared to the Western world, we find that each day holds a story or ten. But far more than that, what I long to communicate from our time here it is the beauty and kindness of the people, the stunning landscape, and the generous hospitality that is shown to us at every turn. I long to challenge stereotypes and show people how much they miss when they are locked into media perceptions. This is why these slice of life posts are so important. They are read all over the world and I can only pray and hope that my small words will make a difference.

But my words are inadequate to describe the beauty that we have seen, so I will leave you with pictures. Enjoy and as you look at them, think of Kurdistan.

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Christmas Eve Reflection from Thessaloniki

Every year I write a Christmas Eve Reflection. Usually it’s in a fully decorated home with Christmas music playing in the background. It’s written in the midst of the frenzied joy of Christmas in the West and I usually have presents to wrap and stockings to fill.

This year I write it from the sunshine of Thessaloniki and a 4th floor apartment. The sun is starting to set and the fading light peaks through floor to ceiling windows. My youngest son is sitting near me in what can only be described as a “companionable silence” – trite except it’s not. It is delightful.

Our Christmas reflects the year we have had. It is unusual but we are grateful. There is little stress as we prepare for a midnight Liturgy and the dawning of Christmas morning. It is a gift.

Earlier today I sat in a salon and got my hair cut. The longer I sat, the more Greek I became and the result pleased the stylist greatly. Later I walked toward Aristotle Square, joining crowds of cafe goers, musicians, and city dwellers. I thought about my family members who are not here and missed them.

I got back to the apartment where we are staying and read about a friend who is dying. She has lived life so well, she has loved so well. Tears and the juxtaposition of the joy of a holiday combined with an imminent death flood over me.

I am so aware this year of the many events in all of our lives that we keep hidden from the spotlight of social media. Despite what the social media developers would like us to believe, we share only the highlights and the well-edited photographs of our lives. But the truly important things we share with those who don’t need edits or highlights, those who walk us through shadows and into the light of grace.

The betrayals and separations, emergency room visits and hospitalizations are left out of the public narrative. We don’t share the trips to the counselor’s office and the hard soul work of confession. We don’t share the nights of tears we shed for those we love or the sadness of a womb that is empty. We don’t share those moments of grace when we have prayed for the impossible and have received.

We share the newborn baby – we don’t share the 35 hours of labor that birthed the baby.

And this is as it should be. We don’t have the capacity to be emotionally naked with everyone, nor should we cast our great pearls of grace before the swine of social media.

Instead we live life in the light and shadows of daily grace, periodically posting snapshots of that grace for the world outside to see.

So as you see my snapshots, and as I see yours, may we not yield to the temptation to believe that these are anything more than snapshots. May we remember that there is enough sadness in all our lives to crush us, and enough grace to raise us up.

Most of all, may we remember that a baby in a manger changed our world and hope was born.

Merry Christmas Eve dear friends!

#Onlythegood – Volume One

 

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#Onlythegood – On Tuesday, I felt particularly low about our world, but at dusk I took a walk on the river with our two youngest children. The river, the view, the adult kids – all of it converged to make me sigh and say “This is Good.”

Readers, in light of the overabundance of tragic news from around the world, I am beginning a new project. Every Thursday I will be posting links to things that have happened in our world that are good; activities and people who bring humor, light, and justice to our world. I would love for you to participate.

Each week I hope to bring your attention to one picture and five different articles, essays, or events that speak to that which is good.

If you see something during the week that stood out to you, that made you smile and say “this is good!” then please send it on! I will feature it and attribute the content to you.

#Onlythegood 

New Citizens Hold Their Heads High, 102 Floors Above New York:

On Tuesday, high above the city on the 102nd floor of the One World Trade Center, 30 immigrants were sworn in as citizens of the United States. A judge who is the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany presided over the ceremony, the first ever to be held at this observatory.

“How fortunate we are to have you here, contributing your hopes, your aspirations, your skills, your heritages, your music, your culture, your literature, your food to the tapestry of this nation…The American story is your story.” Judge Katzmann, chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

PSG’s Neymar becomes Ambassador for Handicap International

Football (Soccer for Americans) star, Neymar, who made a huge move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month, is using his fame to promote Handicap International’s work giving dignity and empowering those who live with disabilities. Neymar will be acting as ambassador for Handicap International.

Neymar, wearing a T-shirt with “repair lives” written on the front, appeared in Switzerland on Tuesday, standing on top of a 39-foot wooden sculpture entitled “Broken Chair,” which the organisation said was “erected 20 years ago by Handicap International in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva to call for a ban on antipersonnel landmines.”

“I would like to begin by thanking you all for what you do for the least visible in the world, so they become more visible. I have to say that I am very pleased to be here and to be the new ambassador.”

“I Love Pakistan’s People More than it’s Mountains”

It’s not surprise how much I love my adopted country, so I read this article about a British mountaineer with a smile. Vanessa O’Brien is a 52-year-old American-British mountaineer who recently scaled K-2, one of the highest mountains in the Himalayan range and a mountain that is more difficult to climb than Mount Everest. Only 400 people have made the climb, and Vanessa is the 20th woman to successfully reach the summit. She carried both Pakistani and America flags to the top. On Tuesday, she said that the warmth and love she received in Pakistan was matchless.

O’Brien told media in a news conference at a local hotel here that she had found Pakistani people loving and caring. “I love Pakistan, its people and will like to travel it again,”

Blogger’s note: If you would like to see some beautiful pictures of some of the mountains in Pakistan, take a look here.

Malala Yousafzai, Shot by the Taliban, Is Going to Oxford

I still remember writing the story in 2012 about Malala called 14-Year-Old Courage. As most of you know, Malala was only 14 when she was shot in the head and neck while leaving her school in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. And today the news comes that she is going to Oxford! It is an amazing accomplishment by an amazing young woman.

“Amid the rush of joy, disappointment or dashed expectations for the thousands of students across Britain receiving their A-level results, Ms. Yousafzai’s news carried special weight on social media. The author Emma Kennedy wrote simply, ‘Take that, Taliban.'” 

5 Tips To Reduce Stress Using Humor, Your Best Weapon

We laugh in our family. A Lot. Nothing is beyond humor, there is little that is so sacred or sad that we can’t see a lighter side. In fact, I believe that laughter is a holy gift and I often wonder what it would be like to sit with Jesus and enjoy laughter – not at someone else’s expense, but just to laugh at the whimsy of life.

“The signs of stress are all too familiar: the quickening heartbeat, tense muscles and explosive reaction to something small. Avoiding situations that test your patience may be impossible, but it is possible to reduce stress accompanying these unpleasant events. The secret, say the experts, lies in one crucial art: finding the humor….Humor and laughter are not the same, explains Dr. Steven Sultanoff, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Berkeley. ‘Humor is something that triggers laughter. Laughter is a physical response.’ Although research has found that laughter can lessen the effects of depression and reduce stress levels, focusing on humor is the best starting point. Looking for the humor in a moment, says Sultanoff, changes how we think, feel and process difficult situations.”

Lastly, I want end with a beautiful poem that speaks to our great need for healing.

A Prayer for a Torn Nation

by Kaitlin Curtice

Somewhere between the “us” and “them”

you’re holding together the least of these.

Somewhere completely outside of all of this,

you are ushering in a kingdom not of this world,

one that rights all wrongs and rules in love.

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Unite in full grace all that is divided.

Mend in full love all that is torn.

Resurrect us, we pray.


What is your #Onlythe good thing to share? I would love to hear it through the comments!

The Days We Never Laugh

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I am holding my grandson as my daughter enters the room. I watch as he shrieks and lets out a belly laugh. He loved his mama even before he has words to express it. And there’s something else – he already knows how to laugh. 

A few years ago I was working on a project called “People Profiles” for my job at a busy healthcare organization. The goal of the project was to create informative one-page fact sheets representing some of the ethnically diverse groups in the greater Boston area. These would then be used with healthcare providers to help them better understand how to serve patients who have differing views of health and illness.

It was an interesting and challenging project, mostly because for each people profile I had the privilege of working with someone from that specific country. 

China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Haiti, Puerto Rico and more were my world for a few weeks and the people who I worked with were amazing. The personal and informational things they shared were invaluable, not only to the project but to me. I learned about immigration patterns and warring groups; gender roles and views of the elders in  community; herbs and teas; tiger balm and hot/cold theories; dual causality and fate. The writers worked to educate – initially me, but ultimately future readers of the profiles –  and help us think beyond the surface so that we could learn to give excellent care.

One of the people I worked with was a lovely Sudanese woman named Shahira. With beautiful prose she helped to write the “people profile” on the Sudan. She helped to give personality to a place I knew only from limited interactions with people in Cairo, where Sudanese, as a marginalized group of refugees, have struggled. They live without a country and at the lowest levels of society.

Shahira began the people profile with a proverb that I will never forget.

“Our wasted days are the days we never laugh.”

I was struck by this for a couple of reasons. One was my appreciation for laughter and humor to get me through the difficult times, what Madeleine L’engle calls the Holy Gift of Laughter”. The other was the contrast between what I knew and read on the fact sheet, and the proverb. It made no sense. How can people laugh when they have faced war, rape, starvation, and other untold horrors? What can possibly be the foundation for the resilience of their human spirit through such times, allowing them to see this proverb as representative of their spirit? It makes my difficult times look like a hot day at Disney world when the lines are long. Uncomfortable and not pleasant, but when compared, embarrassing.

These are the times when I am utterly confident that we are created in the image of God. There is no other explanation for the resilience that many refugees show in the worst of circumstances.

To be able to face tragedy and continue to laugh is a gift that our world needs. It is something we can learn from those who have faced far worse situations than many of us, yet continue to laugh and find joy and meaning in life. 

I think about this proverb today. It is grey outside and heavy rain splatters the pavement. People hurry to get to dry spaces and buses and subways are more crowded. Our wasted days are the days we never laugh – in my mind the rhythm of the phrase goes with the sound of raindrops. And in the middle of the grey and the rain, I remember my grandson’s laughter. 

Lenten Journey: Palm Fronds and Hosannas


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credits: Cliff Gardner 

The Magic of a Picnic

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When our children were small, and our bank accounts smaller, we would look at each other, laugh, and say “At least we can picnic!”

And picnic we did. On lawns and in front yards, at rivers and on beaches, in play grounds and even indoors – there was always time for a picnic.

Picnics have captured a corner of my heart. Just the mention of them makes me smile. I love the packing and planning. I love deciding on a spot. I love picnics.

In my childhood, picnics took place on the banks of dusty canals on the outskirts of Ratodero, Larkana and Shikarpur. We would find spots beside the desert brush of Sindh, lay out a quilt and unpack food fit for palaces and kingdoms.

I have memories of egg salad spread between two slices of my mom’s home made bread, home canned pickles adding just the right crunch. There was often chocolate cake for dessert — a depression-era recipe called Wacky cake that takes no eggs, no butter, and no milk.  It was a never fail recipe in a place where some ingredients were difficult to find, the tastes even more difficult to replicate.

Sometimes, while traveling, my dad would buy curry and chapatis at a local truck stop. We would sit, grease dripping down our chins, our eyes watering and noses sniffling from the pungent spices. With tummies filled we would pile into the car and head off on our journey.

As an adult, picnics have taken place at the base of the Great Pyramid and on huge wooden sail boats called feluccas; in back yards and on play grounds. Wherever we have lived we have found our favorite spot for picnics.

In recent years, we have picnicked in a place called Millbrook Meadow; a beautiful park with trees stretching up to the sky, providing shade and comfort. This meadow is a hidden gem in Rockport. While others crowd into the tiny beach across the street, we prefer the meadow where there is ample space to spread out. Out come sandwiches or fried chicken, potato salad or chips, and green or red grapes that pop in our mouths.

At times, our picnics have become more sophisticated with wine, special cheeses, olives, and fruit bites. Despite the sophistication, they retain the essential ingredients of relaxation and joy.

Picnics are multicultural and ageless. I have seen families that are Pakistani, Iraqi, Egyptian, Indian, Mexican, Turkish and so many more gather in all corners of the globe to picnic. Wherever they take place, picnics bring with them a certain magic and child-like fun.

In this life journey, picnics are a chance to forget the worries of daily life and take back lost moments.

So, next time life gets complicated – go on a picnic. 

Surprised by Spring

  
My heart’s been in a bit of a dither. I’ve had a strange week.

Last Friday afternoon was a tad unsettling. I was a part of a conversation that misfired. We couldn’t seem to connect. I kept misunderstanding her and I could tell that caused frustration.

Saturday I felt keenly my foreignness. Kansas was caucusing. I hardly know what that means and even my ignorance highlighted the fact that I clearly do not belong. Certainly I cannot vote. To be honest Donald Trump’s continued success is completely disconcerting. This is a year I’d love to be able to vote.

On Sunday I had a strange experience at church where I felt the tightening grip of anxiety in my chest just as I was about to go into to teach the elementary school kids the Bible story. I had a difficult time breathing. That has never happened to me before. I love those kids. Teaching is what I do. I hid in a bathroom stall for a few minutes, wiped tears from my eyes, took long deep drinks of oxygen and said some breath prayers. As quickly as it had surfaced, it was gone. I was fine. I went in and with animation retold the incredible miracle story of Lazarus dead and then Lazarus alive! But the anxiety freaked me out. It seemed so un-Robynn. What was happening to me?

Still the week wasn’t over. On Wednesday we received disturbing financial news from the non-profit we work for. They’ve been switching computer systems and the status of our account hasn’t been accurately reflected in our online statements. The weakened Canadian dollar, sending our son to university, my own studies in spiritual direction all have taken their toll. The deficit in our account is discombobulating to say the least.

My dad has been in and out of the ER the past couple of weeks. He has had kidney stones again this week and a strange and stubborn infection. Our youngest daughter hasn’t been feeling well. The middle one has been consumed with her future—career choices and college, ACT scores and the pressures of AP classes have kept her brain abuzz. There’s been some relational stresses simmering and those are never pleasant.

In the middle of this week, suddenly, we were surprised by spring. While the noises of the week were deafening my soul and doing their best to stomp out hope, spring silently tiptoed in. Lowell was on the front porch and he called to me to come look. Across the street, in full dress uniform, stood a magnolia tree dripping with huge pink corsages! I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before. Suddenly I had eyes to see. Daffodils and jonquils are peeking out mischievously. There’s a creeping bush next door that now boasts tiny coral pink flowers. Forsythia, the prophet bush that always announces the arrival of spring, is glorious and golden, and has popped out with a burst of yellow all over town.

There is consolation in the predictable rhythms of nature. Winter is over. Spring is here. We will have summer. We will see fall. Faithfully the seasons remind us of order and calm. Hope pushes through the dormant soil of winter, past the dead leaves of last year’s autumn and bursts into bloom again. Spring celebrates new life and the power of resurrection. The old is gone. The new is come. As quickly as this week’s stresses surfaced, they are quieted. I will be fine. Spring came in and with great animation retold the incredible story of the earth dead and then the earth alive! Miracles never cease.