“How do we say that God is good when life is not?”

 

heartbreak-1209211_1280

“How do we say that God is good when life is not?”

I read the words and my eyes brim with tears. I’m sitting by the window and bright sun radiating off fresh snow bathes the room in cold light.

I continue reading: “And what, if anything, can be made of the prayers we’ve whispered in the middle of nights, restless with fear and the threat of loss, prayers that have had no apparent answer, no just-in-the-nick-of-time rescue?” *

I read the question again “How do we say that God is good when life is not?” When you bury a child or a parent too early, and Job’s comforters tell you they are in a “better place”. When you watch your body succumb to cancer, and you know that you will not live to see your daughter’s fifth birthday; when your husband of less than a year dies in a tragic accident – how, then, do you say that God is good?

At the end of a life, every single human being has a reason to believe God is not good. But the opposite is also true. At the end of every life, there is evidence of God’s goodness in every breath we’ve been given.

It is tempting to want clean answers, to be able to point to healings and miracles. But clean answers have never helped the one who is suffering.

How do we say that God is good when life is not?

There are no easy answers. We limp our way through this question, sometimes full of faith and confidence that the character of God is ultimately good; sometimes shaking our heads saying “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Theologians call this ‘theodicy’ – a noun that literally means “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” Vindication of divine goodness – God on trial, his very character being questioned.

As I think about this question, I realize that this is some of the thread through Passages Through Pakistan. Yes, Passages is about Pakistan, and being a third culture kid/missionary kid, and living between worlds. But ultimately, Passages is my testament of faith. In Passages I work through what it is to believe God loves, God cares, and God is good when life is not. The tapestry of God’s redemptive plan is not without pain or suffering, but ultimately I have deep confidence that God is good, even when life is not.

This I knew, and I knew it well: when you’re six and you wake up at five in the morning, away from home and unconditional love in a dormitory of seven other little girls, just as young and equally homesick and insecure, there is no one to comfort you. When you are twelve, and your backside aches for a week because of the beating of a house parent, there is no person to comfort you. When you question why dads and babies die in the middle of the night, there is no person to answer you. When you are sixteen, and you feel misunderstood by all those around you, unable to articulate your heart, there is no person to comfort you. When you are eighteen, and your heart is breaking at the thought of leaving all you know and all you love, there is no person to comfort you.

My faith was more than theology – it was a living, breathing entity. It wrapped me with a profound sense of comfort and love, and I knew beyond any previous doubts that God was real. I knew in the marrow of my bones, and the depths of my soul, that there was something greater than boarding school loss, stronger than the grief of goodbyes, deeper than the pain of misunderstanding. I knew that redemption was not just a theological idea, but that somehow it was more real than anything on this earth. Faith was the story written on my life, and my life was witness to a greater reality.**

*Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel

**Passages Through Pakistan pages 165-166

Readers – Rachel Pieh Jones has published a review of Passages Through Pakistan. You can read it here. 

 

Passages Through Pakistan – An Excerpt

passages-cover

The train rounds a bend.
The rest of the cars appear
one by one,
all tied to one another
far into the distance
It comes as a surprise
to be tied to things so far back
Nazım Hikmet,
Human Landscapes from My Country

We moved from town to town during my childhood, but I was unfazed. My constants were my boarding school, based in a solid stone building in Murree, and my parents, who, though flesh and blood, seemed equally solid and immoveable. Pakistan was home. She adopted me, a foreigner, and took me in. I belonged. I belonged in the family and in the community into which I was born. I belonged in the country where I took my first steps. Legal documents might say otherwise, but they were unimportant to the reality of my experience.

I learned early on of the beauty and hospitality of Pakistan. My eyes captured landscapes that the best photographers in the world could not capture, and the music and colors are etched on my mind. I was welcomed into homes and churches, played in courtyards and on canal banks.

In my childhood, the Pakistan I knew was a place of color and life: bright oranges, reds, yellows, and greens of spices and fabrics. I knew the ready invitations to come for tea that brought smiles to my face and delight to my heart. I knew the best food in the world – mouthwatering and piping hot pakoras; kebabs purchased in the middle of the bazaar in the afternoon; spicy, red-orange, charred chicken tikka with naan and fresh lemon; the cold tang of lemon squash; and chicken masala’s thick, onion-filled sauce that made my nose run through an entire meal. The tastes and spices lingered long after the meal was over. I knew Pakistan as a place of food, music, colors, and laughter.

This was my home, the setting of my earliest memories, my first steps, my first kiss, my first love. I literally cut my first teeth in this land. Pakistan was a place of life and faith. I was surrounded by Pakistanis who loved me and put up with the immaturity of my childhood. This was where my physical  and faith journey began. Would I ever love another place so much? I didn’t think so.

Later, I would come to know the complexity and contradiction that defined this homeland that had adopted me, but in early years I knew only the good. I would later discover more of her history. I would learn of a Pakistan birthed in violence and tragedy, a land that continues to face crisis after crisis – some at the hands of other governments, and some of its own making. I would learn of the difficulty of a country that struggled to find her identity apart from the larger Indian subcontinent. I would see the struggles in my friends around marriage and family and learn of the massive disparities between the wealthy and the poor. Later, I would learn that in addition to the beauty of friendship and hospitality there was also the horror of violent fundamentalism. I would be introduced to and angered by the one-dimensional Pakistan of Western perception and media. I would understand that alongside stunning landscapes of high mountains and clear lakes was the dirt and raw sewage of cities. I would later face disease, high infant morbidity and mortality, inescapable poverty, and the light hair and big bellies of malnutrition. I would grow to see many dimensions of this beautiful, complex land.

But the Pakistan of early childhood was a beautiful home, and I loved that home.

Excerpt copyright from Passages Through Pakistan, Doorlight Publications, March 2017, Pages 29-30

Available for pre-order and on sale TODAY! Click HERE to order. 

When No One Shares Your Grief

A week ago my mom called with some sad news. Stefanous had died. I was so shocked. He was only 5 years older than I am. His youngest daughter was only just married two weeks ago. A flash flood of memories instantly floored me and I began to cry.

For those of us who grew up in far away parts of Asia and South Asia and I suspect in the great continent of Africa, our families, our households, included extra people. It was impossible to attend to all the work of living on their own in places where conveniences were few and life was hard and so our mothers hired house helpers and sometimes gardeners and cooks and guards or watchmen. These extras were a vital part of the cast of our theatrical lives. They were in the background many times, but they were there, constants in a sometimes-chaotic childhood. In some ways they were family, but those ways are stretched and extended. From this side of the ocean looking back on the strange story that is my childhood it feels awkward and difficult to explain the connection to these beloved extras.

Stefanous came to work part time for my family when he was only 14 or 15 years old. Mom taught him to wash dishes, to clean the house, to help with basic meal prep. Later, as Stefanous grew up, he fancied learning how to cook. He learned how to bake bread. He learned several Western dishes. He could make a few desserts. Mom would demonstrate how to do it. She would tell Stefanous the recipe and he would write it down slowly in a small “copy” (notebook) with his pencil. Our strange and foreign favourites were now captured in Urdu in a Pakistani copy and in the heart of a Punjabi man.

Stefanous lived in a small room behind our house. After he got married he brought his beautiful Parveen back to that simple room. Their babies eventually joined our circle; first Lubana, then Aksah and then the boys: Amoon and Shani. I was a teenager by the time those adorable girls were toddlers. Lubana and Aksah were in and out of our home. They were my playthings. I loved them. Lubana, the precocious beautiful first-born daughter especially stole my affections. Like a real life doll, I dressed her and toted her around all over the courtyard and through out the house.

Two weeks ago one of Stefanous’s sons sent pictures of his sister’s Aksah’s wedding. I stared at each picture and tried to find the little people I had known in the adult faces. I marveled at how Stefanous himself looked remarkably the same. Parveen Bhaji (my big sister) also seemed the same, maybe slightly softer and rounder, but essentially the same.

And now Stefanous is gone. The news is cryptic and insufficient. We suspect it was a heart attack, although we’ll probably never really know the details. What do I do with this strange grief? Where do I go to ‘ofsos’? Where do I go to give my condolences? Stefanous wasn’t family in the traditional sense. How do I post on FaceBook, “my parent’s servant died”? There’s no way to explain it.

I called my Lowell. He responded with comfort and joined me in my sadness. I tried calling Marilyn, even though I knew the chances were slim that she would answer. Still I knew that if I could get a hold of her she would understand. I tried calling another childhood friend, Kiran, whose childhood was just as far away as mine. She missed the call but called me right back. Kiran held my memories with reverence. She let me cry. I told her some of the funny foibles of Stefanous’s work habits. I remembered how he just about drove my dad nuts. He was such a slow worker, especially in those early years. Stefanous was also one of the most honest people I know. He was faithful and loyal and consistent. Stefanous was a good husband and a devoted father. He loved his family well.

When Lowell and I got married and moved to India I missed Stefanous so badly. I wasn’t sure how to live in South Asia without him. He became this larger than life thing in our marriage. What I remembered of him and all he could do grew to mythical proportions as I struggled to set up household routines in a foreign country. When Lowell actually got to meet Stefanous and heard the real stories from my parents he never let me live it down.

I know I’m not just grieving the loss of Stefanous. I’m grieving another deathblow to my childhood. I’m mourning the miles and miles that keep me separated from those memories. I cry because somehow the death of Stefanous serves to remind me of how strange my story seems. My tears tell of a strange sort of weariness. There are days I long for a more normal narrative.

But for today I mourn for Stefanous. His widow, Parveen, is a strong woman and she has her two sons to care for her, but it’s too soon to lose Stefanous. I’m so sorry for her loss. I’m grateful Stefanous was able to get both of his precious daughters married off but those daughters will always miss their Abhu Jaan. The sons, Amoon and Shani, still need their father to shepherd them through their journey into adulthood. Death is always difficult. Death so young is impossibly hard. Death so far away seems doubly so.

Stefanous Massey, 51, died suddenly of a suspected heart attack. Stefanous was born to Bharakat and Khurishida Massey in Bees Chuk, District Layyah. The second youngest of eight children, he spent most of his childhood, along with his immediate family, in the home of Norman and Helen Gamble. He was employed by Gary and Joan Allyn from 1980-2000. Since then he has worked in Lahore for the Seven Day Adventist guest house, and for a general in the Pakistani army. Stefanous was a loving husband and a devoted father. He had a great sense of humour and he especially loved playing jokes on people. He loved music and would often listen to it and sing along while he worked. During their years in Layyah he was a member of and faithfully attended the church there. He is survived by and will be sorely missed by his wife Parveen, his daughter Lubana and her husband, one grand daughter, his daughter Aksah and her husband, and his two sons, Amoon and Shani, several siblings, many nieces and nephews and countless cousins.

Rest in peace, Stefanous, rest in peace.

On #InternationalDayofTolerance – Fight for Asia Bibi!

slide1

I’m angry. 

A Christian Pakistani woman is sentenced to death in Pakistan. Her crime? She is allegedly accused of insulting Islam after a group of Muslim women did not want her sharing the same water bowl as them. She offered them water and they refused stating it was “unclean.”

I wish this was hyperbole. I wish that I didn’t have to write this piece. But I’m angry. I’m angry that calls for tolerance don’t include the likes of Asia Bibi. I’m angry that Christians, Muslims, or non religious people who care about human rights are not standing up for this woman, insisting on her release. I’m angry that to date, very few people have signed the petition requesting her release.

Her life is clearly of no value to the United Nations, to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, to Human Rights Watch international, and Amnesty International. This should be headline news every single day until she is released. This should not be allowed to happen. The last article I have seen on this from Amnesty International is from 2014. That’s ludicrous for a group that purports to care about human rights.

Asia Bibi has been in jail since 2009. That is seven years!  But obviously, her life as a woman, as a minority, and as a Christian is not something that people who generally fight for these things are willing to fight for. 

Today is the International Day of Tolerance – and yet I saw nothing about Asia Bibi. I saw a lot of rainbows, I saw hands held ad nauseum across the globe. But no one is speaking out for her.

My question is: Why? Why can’t the International Day of Tolerance include the likes of Asia Bibi? Why can’t the International Day of Tolerance look at the plight of Christian women throughout Pakistan?

They have no voice. They have no rights. There are many like Asia Bibi who day after day are discriminated against without anyone paying attention.

Christian friends – will you speak up?

Muslim friends – I will fight for you, and speak up for your rights any day, hour, or minute of the week in this country because it is the right thing to do. I care deeply for you and your community. You are my friends,neighbors, and colleagues. Will you speak up for Asia Bibi.

Other friends – will you speak up and sign a petition for a woman who has nothing and no one fighting for her?

Here is what I am going to ask you to do:

  1. Sign this petition
  2. Email others to sign the petition.
  3. Share this post

Here is the summary: 

Asia Bibi is a Christian wife and mother awaiting execution in a Pakistani prison. She was accused by Muslim coworkers of blasphemy. More than 150,000 Christians in Pakistan signed a petition protesting the injustice against Asia and other Christians in their nation. Now there’s a way for people around the world to add their voices to those Pakistani voices, through an online petition at http://www.CallForMercy.com.

I just signed the petition, and I hope that you’ll click on the link and sign as well. As of today, 702,760 people have signed. The goal is to have one million signatures to deliver to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC.

Please add your name and speak out on behalf of Asia Bibi.

Folks, this is 2016 and a woman is sentenced to death because of a poorly constructed blasphemy law. We can’t sit silent on this International Day of Tolerance. 

Blogger’s note: The bigger issue is the huge problem with the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan which has come under severe attack but nothing has yet been done to change it.

Daughter, Your Faith has Healed You – SheLovesMagazine

Readers, I would love it if you joined me today at SheLovesMagazine.com.  It is a privilege to be there and to introduce many of you to the writing over at SheLoves. SheLovesMagazine is “a global community of women–a Sisterhood–who want to know and experience freedom, justice and transformation, for ourselves and others.” The mission is clearly stated on their site.

Our mission is: To mobilize and empower women, so we may transform our world together.

This was largely the inspiration of Idelette Mcvicker who is an amazing person. So I would love for you to head there after reading the trailer below!

*****

Pakistan - Family

I grew up in Pakistan. As an only daughter in a house full of boys, my family treated me like a princess.

I loved Pakistan. Pakistan was my home, the place of my earliest memories. All of my firsts happened there. As I grew up, I learned more about my adopted land. I learned about the amazing and complex country of extremes. Pakistan has some of the highest and most beautiful mountain ranges, a reputation for being graciously hospitable, and arguably has the best food in the world.

And yet, women there are in difficult situations.

Throughout my childhood, I have met women who were strong and beloved, but were in some of the worst conditions imaginable.

I was 16 years old when I first encountered a woman with a fistula. I was volunteering at a women and children’s hospital in the southern area of the country. I remember opening the door to the hospital room and seeing a young woman sitting on her bed wearing a look of defeat and resignation on her face. The smell of urine was overwhelming and the fan that whirred above me did nothing to take away the smell. Read the rest here

On Belonging


Recently I watched a group of younger colleagues. They seemed so at home with each other, so comfortable.  Like pieces in a puzzle, they all fit. There was without doubt some diversity among them, but they spoke the same language, had the same Masters of Public Health (MPH) after their names, had gone to similar colleges, and knew the same vernacular.

I sat in the background, observing.  I found myself in the place I’ve been so many times — not belonging. From my education to my background to my age, I was different. I was other. 

If we are honest, we have all experienced this — though some substantially more than others. That sense of being other, of yearning to belong.

It is this that has led me to really think about how I would live if I truly believed in my heart that I am loved by God as much as my intellect and faith tell me I am loved. How do we live when we are fully loved? How would I live if I truly felt I belonged?

And I know the answer. Because there are times when I feel a sense of belonging that is sto strong it drowns out any other feelings. I know what it is to belong. 

This weekend I will be at a reunion. It’s sort of like a family reunion, but only a few are blood relatives or relatives by marriage. It’s sort of like a school reunion, though many parents are also invited. It’s a reunion of place and people. It’s a reunion where, in a myriad of ways, I belong. 

I don’t have to explain early separation from parents or boarding school. I’m never asked at this reunion if boarding school was difficult – because we all get it. We all knew that it was difficult — and it was wonderful. I don’t have to defend a country that is always in the watchful eye of a military drone and on a terrorist watch list, because I’m with people that have a three dimensional view of the country of Pakistan. 

I get into conversations on how faith is hard and a long journey, and my words are met with nods and tears of understanding. I am with people that love curry and chapatis as much as I do, and we reminisce with our tongues burning just with the thought of it. 

We come from a line of people that shared text books, clothes, dolls, and teachers. We speak the same language, we know the same stories. 

For a short time, like pieces in a puzzle, we will fit. We will belong, and it will be glorious. 

And I will remember what it is to live like I really belong. 

A Moment Between Worlds

moving train quote

I’m sitting in a Pakistani Restaurant in Los Angeles, just two miles from the airport – because that’s what we do when we are global nomads. We find comfort foods and places wherever we go, places where we can kill the saudade.

I arrived just a couple of hours ago from New Zealand and knew I had too much time to stay at the airport, but too little time to go very far. So I looked up restaurants near the LA airport and found Bihar Halal, described as an authentic Pakistani restaurant a short ride away. It is indeed only a short ride from the airport and I walk into the smell of naan and curry. There are mostly Pakistanis in the restaurant, a sure sign of its authenticity. I sit down and order a chicken curry, raita, and tandoorki roti. No fancy Americanization of this delicious food – just authentic curry.

I eat with my fingers and soon my nose is running, the spicy taste delighting my palate and forcing me to wipe my nose. The TV is set to a station in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Periodically an advertisement comes on and the Pakistani National Anthem plays in the background. I hum along with it. My Urdu is challenged as I try to follow the plot line of a crime show.

Suddenly my situation strikes me as absurdly surreal – I just arrived from New Zealand, I’m sitting in a Pakistani restaurant, and I’m watching a crime show on Pakistani TV in the middle of Los Angeles. Just yesterday I was sitting in my friend’s garden in Christchurch, New Zealand eating breakfast. Sometimes my worlds change too fast and I am left spinning, like a top spun over and over again by a child who won’t give the toy a rest.

When my mom and dad first moved overseas they would travel by ship. Instead of frenzied airport arrivals and departures, they would wave from the balcony of a ship. They would wave until those they loved faded out of sight, and all that was left were tears on their faces and a wide ocean that would be their landscape for the next six weeks. They left slowly, and they entered slowly. Those long days and nights at sea prepared them for their next steps on land. It was a good way to travel. For six weeks you were literally between worlds, without expectations from either.

Sometimes I wish it were still that way. We move so quickly between countries that it is hard to breathe. Currency, language, food, and customs change in a short plane ride. The cultural lines get blurred and we have high expectations of how quickly we will adjust to whatever culture we find ourselves. No wonder we find ourselves exhausted, collapsed on beds with tears on our pillows. It’s all a bit much.

As light fades outside the restaurant, I realize I have been traveling hard and fast.  The crime show has finished and I am now watching recaps of the Pakistan/India cricket game. I am alone, but not lonely. Instead, I am content in this world I live in. In his book, The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer says this: “In an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.” A busy restaurant may be an unlikely place of stillness, but for me that is just what it is.

I paid the bill a long time ago and it is the goodness of the restaurant owner that he has allowed me to rest without distraction. I sigh and pack up my things, reluctant to give up this moment between worlds.

But it is time for the next journey, one that will take me back to an apartment building in Cambridge.

The top is still spinning, but curry and naan have slowed it down and eased me into reentry. I am content.

At least for now.

___________

Note: Tomorrow I will be announcing the two winners of the Meditations coloring book! Stay tuned!

Also, please continue your thoughts and prayers for the people of Pakistan as the country mourns for those who died and hopes that those who are wounded will heal.

  • Evil in Not the Final Word ““Has not Pakistan suffered enough?” I shout the words inside, knowing that few would understand my reactions. Yet, the Pakistani flag lights up my newsfeed and I am grateful for friends who do understand, who know and love this place that so many of us called home.”
  • I am Pakistan? “Our humanity has constraints; limitation is after all a characteristic common to all people. We do not therefore have the emotional capacity to mourn all who die in this world and to scream at all the wickedness that weaves so deeply through every culture. But while  our tears are reserved for Western nations, the rest of the world is right to be suspicious of us.”
  • Keen Pain in Pakistan over “Lives Shattered into Pieces”  “Shock and grief enveloped Pakistan on Monday as the official death toll from the attack in Lahore a day earlier rose to at least 72, with 341 people reported wounded by officials.”

Meditations and Truth – A Book Giveaway


Sun streams through lace curtains as I sit in my living room. Except for the low buzz of my electronic servants that sit in my kitchen, it is completely quiet.

It has felt like a rough week. Orthodox Lent began on Sunday night, a night when I was sitting in an  immigration line that stretched to the airplane gate at Logan International Airport. The week did not get easier. Family sickness that led to urgent care visits and intravenous fluids, jet lag exhaustion, multiple priorities at work, and adhering to a strict first week fast had me face to face with my human frailty and my anger. I didn’t like what I saw. This morning I woke to news that a suicide bomb went off in a busy street in Istanbul. A street where my brother and sister-in-law walk many times a week for church and jobs, where Turks gather by tens of thousands every week. I am acutely aware of a world broken and my own part in that world.

///

Over a month ago I received a coloring book from Doorlight Publications. Would I be willing to take a look and review the book? I had sort of kept up with the “adult coloring book” trend, and I love coloring so I said yes — I would be glad to.

The book arrived late afternoon one day and I began flipping through it. I was taken aback by how beautiful the drawings were.  Each one is a hand drawn masterpiece. The artist, Lorien Atwood, grew up in Pakistan and the Middle East, and the designs are clearly inspired by these parts of the world that I love. They are a rich ensemble of lines and circles that flow into gorgeous designs. But this coloring book is different – because in the middle of each drawing is a verse taken from the Bible. Each drawing expertly symbolizes the verse and the result is remarkable. As you color, you find yourself meditating on the words before you and truth soaks into and awakens your soul.

As I looked at each drawing, and thought of the hours of work of this artist, an artist who loves God and uses her God-given gift to create, the words of Madeleine L’Engle came to mind:

“God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling. It is the calling for all of us, his creatures, but it is perhaps more conscious with the artist–or should I say the Christian artist?”

Setting out my colored pencils, I picked my colors and began to add to what Lorien started for me. I had no real plan, just the pencils and the art in front of me. Before long, the picture began to sing through the black and white. Colors and words flowed together and I found myself relaxing, meditating, and thinking of how, when we give it a chance, truth changes us.

///

I think about this now, as I remember the week before. Truth changes us. But sometimes we have to sit still long enough to let it happen.  

__________________

img_1273

Blogger’s Note: I am not one to quickly buy into trends, but this book is no trend. It is a beautiful, reflective work of art created specifically to use as meditation and encouragement. I will be giving away two of these books at Communicating Across Boundaries through Western Holy Week. If you want to be considered, please leave a comment here. I look forward to sharing these with you! They are remarkable.

If you are interested in purchasing a book and don’t want to wait for the giveaway, the books are for sale at Coloring in Truth USA. 

Read an interview with Lorien here

Sharmeen Obaid and the Power of Story

Sharmeen_Obaid_Chinoy_World_Economic_Forum_2013

Watching the Oscars has long been a tradition in our family. When our kids were younger, an Oscar party was a yearly event. We would literally roll out a red carpet, serve fancy food, and dress up as characters from the year’s films. The kids invited their friends and we had ballots where we would attempt to guess the winners. Though always on a Sunday and thereby a school night, we always watched until the end when the year’s best film was announced.

Engaging with film and story is something everyone in our family loves to do. Perhaps it is no surprise that one of my children lives with his wife in Los Angeles and works in the industry.

Though we didn’t have a party last night, we did watch the Oscars and eat gorgeous, fancy food.

I’ll confess that I have not seen a lot of the films that were nominated so I felt a bit out of touch. But for me, the best part of the evening was when Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid won her second Oscar for the film “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.” The film in the “documentary short” category is about “honor killings,” a practice that still goes on in the world today where a woman is killed so she will not dishonor her family. Tragically, many women die every year from this practice.

Her particular film was about a Pakistani woman, Saba Qaiser, who survived an attempted honor killing by her father and brother.

It was Sharmeen Obaid’s speech that had me cheering her on from my spectator spot on the couch. She used her 45 seconds in the best way possible by saying this:

This is what happens when determined women get together. From Saba, the woman in my film who remarkably survived an honor killing and shared her story, to Sheila Nevins and Lisa Heller from HBO, to Tina Brown, who supported me from day one. To the men who champion women, like Geof Bartz in my film, who’s edited the film, to Asad Faruqi, to my friend Ziad, who brought this film to the government.

To all the brave men out there, like my father and my husband, who push women to go to school and work, and who want a more just society for women.

She ended her speech by saying this:

This week the Pakistani Prime Minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.

There are so many things about this that I love. I love her emphasis on determined women, her recognition and honor of the woman in her story. I love that she praised the men who are a part of this, recognizing that men standing up for the rights of women is also an important part of changing a society. Most of all, I love that this film has the highest office in the country of Pakistan realizing the need for a law to change.

The well-told story of one woman changing the lives of millions. That is the power of story folks! 

I join the thousands around the globe who are cheering on Sharmeen Obaid and story tellers like her – story tellers who use their craft to create change.

[Photo source: Copyright by World Economic Forum.swiss-image.ch/Photo Sebastian Derungs, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 ]

Evil is Not the Final Word

Note: due to a WordPress error, the post looks like it was published on February 3rd. It was, in fact, published on the morning of March 28th.

On Easter Sunday evening, a suicide bomber targeted a busy park in the city of Lahore, Pakistan. Boasting a water area and a playground, Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park is a popular place.The victims of the bomb blast were primarily women and children, likely out for an Easter celebration in the city before heading back home for the evening. A splinter group of the Taliban claimed responsibility and unapologetically stated that “The target were Christians.”

The cowardice of the act nauseates the stomach; the horror sickens the mind. Along with those that are dead are the wounded, sent to hospitals in resource-poor settings, where good medical care is difficult to get and people who might live, should the resources be available, end up dying.

Istanbul, Brussels, Baghdad, Pakistan – it goes on and on and on. We grow weary and have bomb fatigue, our humanity challenged to remain compassionate, our spirits challenged to pray even as we wonder what good it will do.

“Has not Pakistan suffered enough?” I shout the words inside, knowing that few would understand my reactions. An opinion piece in the New York Times echoes some of my thoughts:

For much of the world, the deaths of Pakistani children are forgettable. They are, after all, the progeny of poor distant others destined to perish in ever more alarming ways. It may not be said, but it is believed that they are complicit in their own deaths, guilty somehow — even at 2 or 4 or 6 years of age — of belonging to a nation that the world has appointed as its own boogeyman, a repository of all its vilest trepidations. In December 2014, Taliban militants gunned down more than 140 people at a school in Peshawar, a vast majority of them students. A former American ambassador, speaking of his government’s lack of desire to help the Pakistani government fight extremists, put it succinctly: “There is great Pakistan fatigue in Washington.” NYTimes OpEd by Rafia Zakaria “The Playgrounds of Pakistan.”

Yet, the Pakistani flag lights up my newsfeed and I am grateful for friends who do understand, who know and love this place that so many of us called home.

Where do we go during times like this, when evil stalks and lurks? Where do we go when the world feels crazy and safety is as illusive as winning the lottery? What do we do? Where do we go? How do we respond?

I have become tired of judging others for reactions that are just as valid as mine. We create a people’s court, judging the hearts of people by the status of their social media pages. As though judging the hearts of others will add comfort to the situation.

Still, the familiar green and white of the Pakistani flag brings me deep comfort, and knowing there are so many of us that love and pray for this country is a balm to my soul.

I have written about evil before, and my words grow stale in the face of more and more tragedies. But I am compelled to continue to write. I am compelled to continue to feel through writing.

“The extreme greatness in Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it” says Simone Weil. 

So I go to the words of Scripture, knowing that they have brought comfort through the ages to men and women who have faced evil, men and women who have gone through suffering and lived to write about it. 

They all have one thing in common, and it’s something that I think about as I write. They all knew that evil wouldn’t win. They all came to an understanding that there was something bigger going on, that suffering and pain were not the end game. They all knew that when you walk through the fire, there is a God who suffers with you, you are not called to suffer or face evil alone.

I am not given answers. I’m given something better than answers: I’m given a glimpse into God’s heart as seen through people who never gave up their faith. Evil does not get the final word. Suffering will somehow, in a way that I cannot possibly understand, be redeemed.

Somehow that is enough for me. It must be enough, for I have nothing else.

It is now the evening of Western Easter, and I know only one thing: that He who endured the cross and  continues to redeem the world has not left us to suffer alone. He is with the men, women, and children of Pakistan. And I defy anyone who would say differently.

“The Resurrection is not a peacetime truth for occasional, feel-good, religious nostalgia. The Resurrection is a wartime truth for everyday, tear-smeared, blood-stained allegiance to Jesus.” quote from Duke Kwon 

___________

A friend who also grew up in Pakistan reminded me of this Psalm today:

The LORD is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.

Blessed be the name of the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore!
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
the name of the LORD is to be praised!

Psalm 113

 

Memories of Eid Celebrations عید مُبارک

Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim friends and readers today.

Each year, the sighting of a crescent moon tells Muslims around the world the date of Eid al Fitr. With that date, a month of fasting ends and festivities and celebrations begin.The second Eid celebration is always held on the tenth day of the Lunar month. This Eid celebration is called Eid al Adha or “Feast of the sacrifice” and is usually celebrated by sacrificing a goat.

Today is Eid al Adha and I wake up full of memories of past Ramadans and Eid celebrations.  I indulge these, even as I head out into a world far different from the one where I grew up. 

I’m seven or eight, holding tight to my dad’s hand. We are across the street from the largest mosque in the city of Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. There are thousands of men gathered to pray before heading home to their Eid feasts. I still remember brilliant white, starched cotton shalwar/kameez – the Eid clothing glowing with newness.

I’m in junior high and we are on vacation in the Swat valley. We stay at a rest house with views that make it into National Geographic magazine. Our scenery is rushing rivers with small foot bridges that perch precariously over certain tragedy should you fall, beautiful green mountains and valleys, nature in all its glory and lack of pollution. Later in the day, we begin to smell goat cooking over an open fire – the pungent, delicious aroma wafts through the open area below the rest house. We are treated to some of this goat by Pakistanis, hospitable beyond words to these strangers, white people in their territory.

I’m 15 and thrilled to have a day off. I think little about Ramadan or Eid celebrations other than grabbing sweets from a box on the table. My world is me and I don’t realize how much I will regret how little I care about the culture that surrounds me.

I’m 27 and I’m in labor. I know the Eid celebration is coming but it’s still Ramadan. Okay. Breathe. Whoo. whoo. whoo. Slow and steady, make it through this pain. I must be around 7 centimeters and I know it will get worse before it gets better. This is the second baby I’ve birthed. I look at the clock and think “I hope Dr. Azima comes soon!” I know she’s breaking the fast for one of the final days of Ramadan, and the days are long with sunset coming around 9pm, but my baby is coming and she better be here. I care not about culture or Ramadan or Eid celebrations. It’s about me, damn it, and ‘they’ all better know it. Just before midnight I give birth to the most beautiful, blue-eyed boy I have ever seen and I am smitten.

I’m 36 and it’s our last year in Cairo. I hear the drums of Ramadan and know it will be a long time before I hear them again. I can’t give in to my deep feelings of loss and grief. The call to prayer, my alarm clock since birth, will no longer be heard echoing across the city of a thousand minarets. Instead mosques will be far away and familiarity even farther. But I can’t indulge on what will be. I have kids to care for, people to see, friends to enjoy.

I’m 53 and I wake in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be business as usual as I head to work on the subway. Muslim friends will take the day off but overall it will go largely unnoticed. There was no last day of Ramadan frenzy and today holds no air of festivity. I pray that I will see people on the subway who will remind me of where I’ve been. As I get to the station, an entire Muslim family is waiting on the platform, dressed in beautiful silks and cottons. I wish them “Eid Mubarak,” knowing what it’s like to feel alone and homesick for family on holidays like Christmas and Easter when you are far away from family. Thinking how similar this must be for them. They smile in surprise, and I am blessed.

I’m 55 and I’ve been waiting over a half hour for the subway. This is the last day of my work week and I am tired. A computerized announcement has told me three times that “we are experiencing delays because of a disabled train.”  The platform fills up with people, anxious and irritated. The train finally comes after 45 minutes. The train is so crowded that I don’t think I can get on, but I am determined. As I cram into a space, I see that the young man next to me is wearing a kurta shalwar, and without a thought I say to him “Eid Mubarak!” He looks at me in surprise, and then says “Khair Mubarak!” followed by “That’s a welcome surprise!” The next 20 minutes we talk and the wait no longer matters. He is Pakistani, raised in Pakistan until teen years, when the family moved to Virginia. We talk about Pakistan and share some family stories. He goes to Harvard and graciously invites me to a celebration at eight in the evening. He is on the train with several other Harvard students, all Muslims heading to the Eid prayers at the main mosque in Roxbury. My stop comes too soon, but I leave with a full heart. What a gift to be able to have this conversation, to connect at a time when the world is so at odds.

My heart travels far away during times of celebration and holiday, but today, in the place where I am learning more about writing my name in the land, I can come back to earth and connect in real time. It is a gift. 

As I write, I think about the honor of growing up where I did and of having lived where I have lived. To have participated in countless Eid celebrations in both Pakistan, Egypt, and now the United States; to have learned more about my Christian faith through the faith of my Muslim friends – this is a gift. 

On Prayer and a Pakistani Childhood

  
Before my family moved to Pakistan, prayer was relegated to the Sunday morning church service, the evening service and Wednesday night prayer meeting at McLauren Baptist Church. Our family had “family devotions–a daily time for short Bible readings and prayers–and we prayed before each meal. However my perspective on prayer was largely first formed in Pakistan—the place where most of my childhood was lived out. Remarkably, these were lessons which Muslims who prayed taught me. Even now when I pray to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am nonetheless grateful for what I learned about prayer as a practice from my Muslim friends and neighbours.


I remember vividly those first weeks after our move to this unusual and new land. New sounds, new sights, new smells affronted my small self.
Overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all I remember tears and a funny feeling in my tummy. I felt ill at ease as new friends prattled away with extraordinary sounds in an unaccustomed language. I felt disconnected and disjointed as I tried to make sense of it all. In the middle of all the chaos there was one sound, poignant, and pronounced, that I loved from the start and that was the Muslim Call to Prayer. Five times a day, loudly and intrusively, there came from the loudspeakers the invitation to pray from the muezzin. Chosen for his melodic voice, and possibly his volume, he called out the need to pray.

Admittedly it was bewildering at first. I remember playing during those first few days with some neighbor girls on my auntie’s front verandah. We were colouring, if my memory serves. Suddenly, out of the awkward silences that form when little girls who don’t know each other and can’t talk to each other, there was, what felt like, a cacophony of noise. I remember being startled by it. Soon the entire sky was filled with layer on layer of sound as other muezzins joined in from other mosques. As soon as it started the crescendo mounted, and equally suddenly it was over! Normal sounds of camel bells, and vegetable sellers and donkey brays and barking dogs quickly filled the space.

The call to prayer punctuated my childhood. As I look back on it now there are a few striking lessons I learned during those years. Here are a few of my thoughts on prayer and my Pakistani childhood–

1. Pakistani Muslims, like their counterparts around the globe, bow to pray. Prayer is living and it involves motion and movement. There is a specific posture to each phase of the prayer. They stand, bow deeply, lower their foreheads to the floor, and sit. Pakistani Muslims understand intuitively the deep connection between body and soul and spirit. Their whole bodies are involved as they prostrate themselves humbly before God. They know they were created to worship and for them prayer is worship.
The older I get the more I am realizing the profound truth that was modeled for me as a child. We are whole people. Our bodies are not disconnected from our inner reality. We go together, my body and I. As I watched Pakistanis, with their heads lowered before God, as they kept their bodies in line with their spirits, in seeming submission, I was challenged to bring my own self in alignment. Nowadays I occasionally raise my hands in supplication. Often I sit. Occasionally I pace out my petitions, walking back and forth before the Holy Throne of God. Often I kneel. Occasionally I bow face down before God, acting out what is true—that He is God and I am not. My prayers are directed to a Living God and often they are moving and motional.

2. My entire theology on prayer expanded as I watched with childlike curiosity my neighbors pray. For them, prayer wasn’t static and quietly compartmentalized. Prayer was a part of every single day. There were no exceptions. If you were in the middle of something, you stopped to pray. If you were busy and distracted, you were called back to prayer. No one was exempt: the rich prayed, the poor prayed, the villager prayed, the city dweller prayed, the tribal elder prayed, the plains person prayed. They were a praying people and that influenced me in significant ways. Prayer became for me a normal requisite to a normal day.

3. Pakistanis also understood the benefit of community in collective accountability. It was assumed: you pray, I pray, we all pray. Business contracts were paused while prayer mats were unrolled. Conversations over tea, kitchen gossip, homework all took a break for prayer. If your brother-in-law wasn’t praying you knew something was amiss. Everyone prayed. I love that community element. I love the structure that provides for a populace. There is routine and rhythms built around the call to prayer.
I think it was this measured out, predictable schedule that warmed my heart to liturgical prayer. The stage of my heart was set for the high church’s loyalty to traditional written prayers. I love that those words have rung out in churches around the world and around the centuries. What stability is procured in that! I’ve always been intrigued by the monastic commitment to praying the liturgical hours. This official set of prayers marks the hours of each day and sanctifies the day with prayer: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers and compline. There is regularity in it. There is holy rhythm and purposeful pacing.

4. The muezzin begins with a recitation of the Islamic creed. Millions of Muslims repeat back to themselves, no less than five times a day, what they believe to be true. There is great benefit in learning this lesson from our Muslim friends. We have the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. What if we too deliberately remembered what is true? What if we recited back to our weary-from-life souls the character of God, his faithfulness, his sacrifice, his provision? Imagine the reassurance that might wash over our reactive emotions, our crises, our desperations, our superficial happinesses? We could learn a lot from this repetition of doctrine throughout each of our days.

5. “The Arabic word for prayer is salah and interestingly it is a word that denotes connection. Prayer is our way of connecting with and maintaining a connection with God. Prayers at fixed times serve as a reminder of why we are here and helps to direct a person’s thoughts and actions away from sin and onto the remembrance of God.” (source:www.islamreligion.com)
Growing up, I watched a whole community decide collectively to connect with God. They were given regular opportunities to have their obsessions with fickle and frail things pried away. I would love to claim that I learned this lesson as a child. I did not. But as I think of it now and reflect on it more, I wish I had. How often I’m distracted! How often I forget to remember my living connection with the Living God. I wish to live spiritually connected to the God who loves me and initiated relationship with me. I long to live from that reality all day long! Punctuating my day with intentional prayer would certainly help.
6. The idea that we can talk to God baffles me and strikes me as marvelous. I firmly believe that every prayer need not start with “Dear God” and shouldn’t necessarily end with “Amen”. Some of our deepest groans and yearnings float up as prayer. A thought unbidden of a faraway friend surfaces memory and prayer. To-do lists sighed over are heard by our kind Father as the true prayers of our overwhelmed hearts. Tears and sorrows become intercessions and laments. If we bounce our hearts up to the divine we live out our prayers. I watched my Pakistani Muslim friends stop, toward the end of their ritual prayers, for the silent session of “dua”. This was the space in their recitations for them to lift up their hearts in prayer. They prayed for whatever was on their minds: a sick relative, a final exam, a financial need.

I love to pray. I don’t understand how it works but I believe it does. This is true, not because of who we are and how we pray, but because of who God is and how he receives the “earnest prayer of a righteous person (which) has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16). I realize now that a lot of our thoughts on prayer are developed while we are yet formative—and for me that was when I was surrounded by Pakistan and her people of sincere faith. My theology on prayer is wider and deeper for having learned from them some on what it means to pray.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:4-7

What has influenced your views on prayer, in positive or negative ways? We would love to hear from you through the comments. 

Hand of Blessing

Hand of Blessing by Robynn 

You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. ​Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,too great for me to understand! (Psalm 139:5-6)

When I was a kid, growing up in the Punjab province of Pakistan, I was taught to seek out the blessing of the elders in the room. We were instructed, together with all the children in the region who had been schooled in this from birth, to approach an older person, tuck down our chins, bow our heads, and wait patiently for the hand of the older one on the top of our heads. Punjabi children had been nudged forward by eager moms since they were barely walking, their tiny heads pushed into position. We followed their example, doing what they did, and with the first whiff of a weight on our heads, we were gone, running around with the other children.

I suppose it really was less about the blessing conferred as it was about honour. This was a tangible indicator that the elderly were respected. We bowed our heads to those who had earned that homage by virtue of having lived life before us. These people had experience. They knew grief and joy. They had tasted loss and generosity. They had worked hard, from sun up to sun down. Their hands were calloused and rough edged on our heads. They were worthy of our respect and so we bowed our heads to them and waited, however impatiently, for their hands on our heads.

It wasn’t just a custom for children. I remember my dad, middle aged at the time, approaching an old grandma in one of the villages, or an elderly grandpa in another, with his head bowed, in anticipation of the blessing.

This blessing didn’t result necessarily in a tidy tradition. Whenever we’d arrive in a village, stirring up the Thal Desert sand under the wheels of the old green Land Rover, people would gather to welcome us. We would peel ourselves off the vinyl seats, exit the vehicle, and the greetings and blessings would begin. My brother and I would approach all the aunties and uncles and grandmas and grandpas. Children would circle around my mom and dad. Hands were up and down and new heads were underneath and around for the next hand. Of course there were some hugs in the mix, as my parents greeted their Pakistani peers and friends. If we had others in the jeep that had caught a ride with us they were also welcomed with hugs and blessings from their elders. It was a wonderfully bobbing chaotic circle. No one ever felt uninvited, or unwanted.

Soon the greetings were over and the crowd disseminated. The women moved toward the outdoor kitchens to stir up the coals and put milk on for chai. Teenagers were sent to get fresh covers for the out door bed benches. The men wandered off to check out the sugar cane fields, or to examine a water buffalo, or to sit on the bed benches waiting for the chai and to enquire after one another’s health and the health of their children. The kids scampered off to play.

It was a mutual moment. The younger had to approach the older. They had to position themselves to receive the blessing. But the older person also had to be willing to extend their hand and place it on the heads of the younger. My paternal grandmother once came to visit. Our lives didn’t really slow down while she was with us. We still made several trips out to the villages each week. Often she would come with us. Now we brought our own elderly person with us. The circles of blessing and greeting were widened. Middle-aged Pakistanis queued up to receive a blessing from her. Children and teenagers also formed a line. They deemed her worthy of respect and they wanted to show that. They wanted to seek out a blessing from her. It was everything she could do to keep placing her hand on various and strange heads. The mustard oil they used on their hair repulsed her. The risk of lice or worse was always in her mind. For the most part she was a good sport but every once in a while it became too much for her. The shock of this particular culture rose up within her and she couldn’t bring her self to extend her hand.

You go before me and follow me. ​​You place your hand of blessing on my head. ​Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand! (Psalm 139:5-6)

Meditating on Psalm 139 brought back these memories of those village blessings I knew as a kid. The psalmist songwriter mentions that same sort of blessing. Whereas as a child I was expected to show the posture of honour to my elders in this way, now I’m invited to bow my head to the God of the universe and He marvelously, miraculously, mystically places his hand of blessing on me. I tuck in my chin and know that I am in the presence of holiness. I wait with expectation, acknowledging his presence, knowing he is infinitely worthy of worship and respect and honour… and he graciously extends that hand and places it on my head.

Even more astounding to me is that he is not repulsed by me. He does not shrink back. He does not push me away, or wish me away. I’m not too much for him….nor too little. It’s unfathomable, but true, he loves me. And he blesses, deeply, sincerely. The weight of glory rests now, undeservedly, upon my head.

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/en/bible-alliance-blessing-prayer-556720/

A Life Overseas – A Note from an Impostor

impostor

Readers – will you join me this Monday at A Life Overseas? Here is an excerpt from my brutally honest past history with missions.

On Wednesday of last week, Laura Parker announced changes and new leadership at A Life Overseas. Later that day I received a lovely note on Twitter from Denise James, co-author of the amazing blog Taking Route. Two days later, I received another encouraging note from Jillian Rogers, another woman from this community.

And with that encouragement and love from afar, I write this honest response to this community.

As a missionary kid/TCK I never wanted to be a missionary. When good folk at the Baptist churches that gave sacrificially of their time and money, not to mention a good part of their prayer lives, asked me if I wanted to be a missionary when I “grew up,” I would look at them and pray they didn’t see the panic under my response. No. No. NO. I did not want that. My best friend and I — we were heading off to Emory University to wear mini skirts and smoke cigarettes. Oh yes we were. Nancy was from Macon, Georgia, and I had fallen in love with Macon through her, though I had never been there.

And yet, a few years later I did not go to Emory. Instead, I headed to Chicago and chose nursing as a career — largely because I knew I could use this skill overseas. I knew just one thing: there was no way I was raising my family in my passport country. I couldn’t fathom living in the Western Hemisphere, more specifically the United States. So as soon as I became a nurse, I began making plans to go back to Pakistan and work.

The year following my graduation into the real adult world of patients, supervisors, night shifts, and more was one of the most difficult of my life. While God’s voice was whispering into my heart, I wanted no part of it. Though on the surface I taught Sunday School to junior high students, and sang “special music” during services, I was dead inside. My days were spent with patients, my evenings at punk rock bars in Chicago. And so I decided I needed to go home. The easiest way for me to go home was to get other people (you know, the ones who give sacrificially) to pay for it.

So I joined a short-term mission. The impostor act was in full swing at this point.

Read the rest at A Life Overseas.

Have you ever felt like an impostor? How did that go for you? 

Hatching Baby Sea Turtles

sea-turtle

I’m in a cocoon of snow. The entire world around me is white and cold. I am happily non-essential so there is no need to go anywhere and I am so grateful. I wanted to take this day anyway, to think about life as I enter a new birth year, to do some writing, to rest. And I get all those things because of this snow.

As I sit here thinking about life, my mind goes back to the baby sea turtles of my youth. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s because it is my birthday, perhaps it’s because there could not be a greater contrast between the world out my window, and the world of the baby sea turtles.

But I remember the sea turtles as though it were yesterday.

The mama turtle lumbers up the beach in the moonlight. It’s a long, lonely walk. She is trying to find somewhere safe to lay her eggs, a place where she can dig deep, where predators will not find those precious eggs – her eggs, her babies.

She is heavy – hundreds of pounds – and this journey from sea to land is not only arduous because of her size, it’s miles and miles long. She knows her job. It’s to find a place on shore, excavate a large hole big enough to put around 80 eggs. Then she will need to cover it with sand and make it look as though there is nothing buried there. As if it has already been disturbed and nothing was found, tricking the forces that would harm her young into believing there is nothing there.

Exhausted she heads back to the ocean, finally resting her heavy, weary body, allowing herself to be carried away in the ocean waves of the Arabian Sea.

She doesn’t know that she is being observed, watched by a family who is staying in a small hut nearby. She will never know the life lessons she brings, the quiet that comes upon us so that we don’t disturb this important work.

The eggs will hatch in around two and a half months. And we, the missionary kids of Pakistan, will be there to see them.

And it will be magical and amazing. But we won’t realize this until later. 

A lone dog will be the one that alerts us to their arrival, sniffing at a pile of dirt and beginning to frantically dig for the tiny turtles. But we will run and shout and wave them off, fiercely protective, taking on maternal roles as we ensure that these turtles make their way in a safe passage to the sea.

These baby turtles are like us. They are vulnerable and small. They are facing a big, dangerous world and their task is enormous. Make it to the ocean. Survive. Grow. Thrive.

We who were raised across oceans and boundaries of nations are so much like these baby turtles. We are cocooned for a while, and then we have to go, we have to make it in a world that can be hostile to who we are and what we believe. While buried in our sand there are those that wave off the predators, but once we begin the journey to the sea, it’s a journey we make alone in many ways.

As a child, I never tired of watching baby turtles make their way to the sea.
As an adult, I never tire of remembering, of seeing faded photographs of Hawke’s Bay, where children gather around baby turtles anxious to help yet knowing they can’t. Because for sea turtles to make their way to the ocean without help is critically important. It’s their first step in gaining the strength to survive.

All of this magic happened in Pakistan, a land that has sustained many catastrophes, much political upheaval, and tragedies from both man and nature. Yet on Hawke’s Bay you could always forget the bigger world and succumb to the spell of the ocean, get lost in the waves, and fall into the magic that is baby sea turtles.

Today in the snow, I remember the baby sea turtles and smile.

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/sea-turtle-baby-young-survival-356125/

Forget Culture Wars, It’s Chai Wars!

Chai Chai Garam Chai

Cultural (Chai) Wars by Robynn

It’s time to speak out. The writers and editors here at Communicating Across Boundaries have been silent on the subject for far too long. But that silence is over. For the record, let it be known, this is the time for clarity and decisiveness. It is the time to speak truth. As a society we’ve been duped. We’ve been deceived. We’ve been kept in the dark.  Normally Marilyn and I reluctantly write on these types of issues. Our cross-cultural training demands sensitivity and respect. We’ve been well versed in appreciating value differences, in respecting nuance and cultural norms and conventions.

However, having said all that, sometimes things are not just different they are plainly and universally wrong. Under those circumstances, in those specific situations it is not only appropriate, it is necessary–our prophetic mandate–to identify the wrong and to bring it out into the light.

Today is that day.

Chai is chai. It is a particular beverage. It is not the mamby-pamby, shallow hearted, skim milk based, foam topped, overly cinnamoned, limply spiced, paper cupped drink you’ve been trained to think it is. It is not available in grocery stores in tetra pack boxes. It cannot be reduced to a small mesh tea bag. Merely mixing cinnamon and a pinch of cardamom into the tea bag and sealing it in a box with a fancy label doesn’t make it chai. It cannot be pimped in packaged plastic cups that are hidden in the depths of a cold machine and then punctured and perforated and dribbled into the meaningless cup below

Chai, true chai, is an experience. It’s a marvelous marriage of milk and water and dark tea and sugar and spices. It takes time and love to make the complexities of flavours shine.  The equipment needed is simple: a pot, a spoon, a strainer. Although there are variations on mixing methods and spices, one thing is certain, chai is an event.

In South Asia when a guest comes to visit, or a friend pops in, chai is served. Hospitality is incomplete without the warm ritual of chai. Hearts are better shared with a cup of chai in your hand. It’s the beverage that melts the heart’s reserve. Disappointments and sorrows are more keenly lamented over hot chai, strained and steaming. Celebrations and common joys are incomplete without fragrantly spiced chai.

Chai has meaning and hidden complexities. You drink chai with someone you are at peace with. If there is friction or betrayal at work in a relationship, that person is not served chai. If ever you hear, “They didn’t even serve me chai!” you can know there is something a wry in that relationship. Chai means reconciliation. It means harmony and restored friendship.

Chai is served at engagement ceremonies, at weddings, after a baby is born, after the news that someone has died. Chai is served when family comes to visit, or a neighbor comes to gossip. It’s served at church. When you go for a picnic you bring chai. First thing in the morning, last thing in the evening, chai. People drink it at sporting events, at the train station, at the airport, at school functions, at business meetings. When a contract is agreed on, and the papers are signed, the deal is sealed with chai. Whenever a house is sold, whenever a bank loan is negotiated, whenever a marriage is arranged there is chai. Shopping for saris, for silk, for carpets, for bangles, for pots and pans? Undoubtedly you’ll be served chai.

It’s served in china teacups, in small ceramic bowls, in little disposable clay cups. In Pakistan it used to often come in a colourful enamel tea pot, green or beige or blue. When it’s especially hot, mothers pour their chai into the saucer, they blow on it gently to cool it for their child.

The elderly and the very young drink it. The sick, the lame, the robust all drink it. The broken hearted and the elated drink it. The upper classes drink it. The disenfranchised drink it. It’s the drink of community, it’s the beverage of unity. 

You may continue to place your order for faux chai through your car window to the voice, crackling and distant, in the small box. You can rummage through your coin purse to procure the correct change before you, “see (them) at the window.” You have all the freedom in the world to specify decaffeinated, or 2% milk, or no foam. But know this: the drink you are consuming, the beverage you are sipping, may in fact be delicious, but it is not chai.

Recipe for Chai

(serves two—-chai can be had on your own, it’s a meditative drink that way, but it’s always better had with a friend or seven)

1 cup of whole milk

1 cup of water

1 tablespoon of loose leaf tea (Liptons Red Label, or Taj Mahal)

2 heaping teaspoons of sugar (or to taste)

2 pods of cardamom, broken

1 inch of cinnamon stick, broken

½ inch of fresh ginger grated or chopped*

1 pinch of black pepper*

Bring water and milk and spices and sugar to a boil. Add tea leaves. Simmer 2 or 3 minutes until it’s the wonderful warm proper rich colour of chai. Strain into cups or a teapot . Best served with something sweet and something savory. (*ginger and black pepper are only ever added during the winter! Summer chai is minimally spiced with a titch of cardamom and cinnamon.)

We, the writers at Communicating Across Boundaries, rarely ask you to share our posts. But this one? This one you need to share. Sincerely, the purveyors of real and fine chai.

Picture Credit: the incomparable Jason Philbrick!

“No one stares anymore!”

“Some of the people have no color,” says one of the boys who has made it to the refugee camp. [referring to the aid workers at the camp]

“That’s because they were born without skin,” “There are people here with no skin!” [Giggles from the children erupt]

“No one stares anymore!” I said this through tears and the people surrounding me were clueless and confused. What is she talking about? What do you mean no one stares? Staring is a good thing? On what planet?

On planet TCK, third culture kid, global nomad. That’s what planet.

As little, white missionary kids – and then older, white missionary kids in Pakistan we were stared at. All the time. In the words above from the film The Good Lie – we looked like we had no color, we were born without skin.

Think about it. If you’ve never seen someone with a different color skin they are a novelty. Many places where we went in Pakistan, we were a novelty.

And many times the attention was unwelcome. There were times when we hated being stared at, times when more than anything we wanted to lash out at those who stared, when we mocked them. And as those of us who were girls grew to be young women, there was more attention. But sometimes it was welcome. Sometimes it made me feel special. Sometimes it made me feel like I was better than those around me. 

I was set apart as a little white girl in Pakistan.  But when on home leaves going to churches in the United States, I was also set apart. In fact churches were far worse then being in villages in Pakistan. For the missionary kid, going to strange youth groups in New England was like being paraded as a new animal in a zoo.

“Look at the missionary kid!” 

“Do they talk funny?” 

“Look at their clothes!”

At that time New England was an area of the United States that saw far less movement than other parts. People had lived here since the Mayflower – their ancestors came on “the boat” and they knew if you didn’t. The only thing that troubled them more was if you, like my dad, had relatives who came on the Mayflower and then dared to leave.

I had learned how to work with stares and attention in Pakistan. I learned how to discern when the stares were rude and demanded response, and when they were just curious. I knew what to say and how to live. I didn’t know how to respond to Christian youth groups in the United States.

And then I moved to my passport country to go to college. No one stared. No one bothered to look at me at all. I was one of the crowd. And I hated it. I hated that I looked like the majority population and anyone who saw me assumed that I had never left the country. I hated that no one knew my story. I hated that nothing set me apart. 

And so my tears that day were about several things. Firstly, they were about how I was used to being different, used to being stared at, but also used to being privileged. And I was no longer different. I was no longer stared at. I was having to realize my privilege. I was one of many nursing students, all working hard to become nurses, and all gaining weight through late-night snacks of trail mix loaded with chocolate and Chicago deep-dish pizza.

Second – I may have been stared at in parts of Pakistan, I may have been ‘different’, but I had my people. And in this new land I not only had no stares, I had no people. My people were gone. They were far away, accessible only by thin blue aerogrammes that didn’t fly over the seas quickly. So the tears fell hard and long.

It’s lonely to be different and assumed to be the same. As third culture kids in Pakistan we had each other and we had our parents. We had a small community that we belonged to and that made being different in the outside world okay.

As I have grown I have come to realize that most of this is about pride. I hate to admit that – no one wants to admit the pride that has learned how to hide itself so well, has learned how to dress in socially acceptable ways. But there’s the reality. Oh the loneliness was real, still is real at times. The struggle to belong is real and valid. But there has been an element of pride that I have had to recognize — and confess.

A group of verses in the New Testament book of Philippians say something about dealing with pride:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!”

I have had to commit these words to memory so they can become more a part of my being. Jesus made himself nothing. Jesus took the nature of a servant. Jesus, equal with God, gave up all the privilege his status warranted, did not use it to “his own advantage.”

And all I’m being asked to do is accept that there will be times when people don’t know my story? Don’t see me as ‘special?’  Wow. Makes me stop and pause, and maybe cringe a little inside.

Maybe cringe enough to confess and move forward.

How about you? Have you lived in a place where you have been stared at? Did you learn how to cope so that when there were no longer stares, it was hard? How about privilege? Do you live in a place where you are one of the privileged? I know I’ve got a couple different things going here, but would love to dialogue about this.

The Courage to Begin Again – Peshawar School Reopens

For 16-year-old Shahrukh Khan, who was shot in both legs while pretending to play dead in his school’s auditorium, going back was traumatic.

“I have lost 30 of my friends, how I will sit in the empty class, how I will look to their empty benches,” he told AFP before the school reopened.

“My heart has been broken. All the class fellows I had, have died, now my heart does not want to attend school,” he added.

***********

Pakistan - school boy

I happened on the article unexpectedly. It wasn’t a front page story, rather it was a reprint from Associated Foreign Press in Al Arabiya News and to date has only been viewed around 900 times. But it is an important story. The headline shouts to me of courage and vulnerability, of people who even in their grief are moving forward.

“Peshawar schools reopen after Taliban massacre”

The attack was almost a month ago – December 16 – and captured the world’s attention for a record 24 hours before another major event took its place.

Trauma has a domino effect. It not only affects those who were directly impacted, but moves on to third, fourth, fifth degrees. Millions of children, parents, teachers, and school administrators, as well as the general population were affected by the attack on one school. Schools around the country were closed as the government discussed strategies on how best to provide protection for children.

Though difficult for any school to open, the Army Public School where the attack occurred has faced the most trauma and pain. So the courage to begin again, the courage to put fear aside and to move forward is huge.

Why do I think this is particularly important in the case of the Peshawar attack? 

Because Pakistan is never in the news for their bravery. Never in the news for those millions who continue to get up day after day and display tremendous courage doing things that most of us dismiss because they are so mundane – going to school; going to work; going to the bazaar.

An old article in Psychology Today highlights some attributes of courage and four of these resonated with me:

  • Feeling fear yet choosing to act
  • Standing up for what’s right
  • Persevering in the face of adversity
  • Facing suffering with dignity or faith

All of these are present in the decision to open the school where the attacks occurred. Every parent, every child displays these qualities as they enter the doors of a place where they saw and experienced trauma and violence, where classmates died and life changed. They are choosing to not succumb to paralysis. They are defiant in the face of terror, daring it to stop them. They are courageously moving forward.

Malala Yousafzai has rightly won the world’s respect, admiration, and attention for surviving an attack by the Taliban in Swat Valley. With the opening of the Army Public School we see more and more with the same spirit and courage as Malala. Let us commend these students, these teachers, and these school administrators for their bravery. Let us salute them for their courage to begin again.

“I am not scared, no force can stop me from going to attend my school, I will go and will tell the attackers, ‘we are not afraid of you’,” 16-year-old Zahid Ayub, who sustained minor wounds, told AFP.

“It is the miracle of movement.  People who have experienced severe accidents with trauma to the spinal cord will often say that learning to walk again is one of the hardest things they have ever done….It’s learning how to walk in a new way, learning how to live differently, first in baby steps, gradually gaining strength and momentum. It takes time and it takes work.” from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging 

Picture Credit: Tim Irwin taken in Pakistan 2010