A Life Overseas – Failed Missionaries and “But God”….

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Readers – I’m at A Life Overseas today talking about failure. I would love to have you join me!


When my husband and I left what was supposed to be a three-year missions commitment in Pakistan after one year, we were angry, hurt, and deeply wounded. We didn’t leave Pakistan, but we did leave a missions community that I had been a part of since birth. This community had raised me, loved me well, and shown me a lot of grace. Though there had been times of deep pain, loneliness, and misunderstanding in my childhood, I had been nurtured and loved in extraordinary ways, and those were the memories that I held to.

I had failed at the one thing that I thought I would be great at.

We moved to the capital city, Islamabad, and my husband began working for a USAID program. Pregnant with our second child, I stayed home with our little girl and began to meet other expatriates in the community. We ended up making deep friendships at our international church, and on the surface we were doing well.

A Time of Cynicism

But the wounds of failure went deep and soon gave birth to cynicism and anger toward the entire missionary community. “They” had hurt us.
“They” were hypocrites. “They” were spiritually superior. “They” made stuff up. “They” embellished facts to get money.

WE however? WE were real. WE were genuine. WE admitted failure. WE lived off our own hard-earned money, thank you very much. WE loved Pakistanis more than “they” did.

It was exhausting. Because we all know that bitterness and hatred are a bitter poison to drink. And while cynicism, when analyzed, can be a tool for discernment, we didn’t analyze our feelings. Because that would have taken work. Yes, we were hurt, but we were also lazy. We did what we had always challenged others not to do – we made broad, sweeping judgments and used labels. Ultimately, labels are lazy.

The Problem

We desperately wanted to cut ourselves off completely from missionaries, but here was one of the problems: My entire family was involved in missions in some capacity. My parents were career missionaries. I had brothers who were connected with missions in tent-making roles. I had other brothers who were pastors, or on missions committees. And then there were our friends around the world, working in some amazing, quietly world-changing projects. A Christian Ashram in Varanasi; medical work in various parts of the world; work in translation and education – people working in these projects couldn’t just be labeled, because they were our family and friends and we did believe that their work mattered, that they mattered. There were times when we longed to wear the title of missionary again. We had been schooled well, but incorrectly, that missionaries were a level above average. We struggled, feeling like we had fallen out of favor with an exclusive club. Sometimes it left us angry and cut off from connection with like-minded people. Other times it was a relief.

But God in His gracious big picture view knew that it wasn’t the title or the place for us.

Read the rest of the piece here. 


Hanging Our Hearts Around the Globe

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Through all the travel and all the moves, I’ve hung my heart a lot of places around the globe. But none is so special as Pakistan.

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever.”

Over the weekend we visited Pakistani friends in San Diego who are very dear to us. Rehan was my husband’s best friend during college. The friendship continued strong through marriage, kids, and now adult kids. We don’t see them often enough, but when we do it is non stop talking, eating the best Pakistani food in the world, and laughing hard. The conversation moves from one topic to the next without a gap. We interrupt each other, go off topic, and we’re loud.

It is always delightful, and this time was even more so.

Beyond the blue skies, Palm trees, and ocean was a house alive with warmth and hospitality. I didn’t want to leave. My heart was so full! Full of friendship and Pakistan; memories and curry. But too soon the visit was over and I’m now sitting back in Boston, in a house that feels cold, with a heart that aches with the leaving.

When you’ve lived across the globe, you end up sharing your heart with a lot of people. Each one of them holds a small piece that makes up the whole, rather like a mosaic with bits of colored tile that an artist fits together to create a beautiful piece.

But when you’ve left your heart in so many places, it’s also hard to come home, especially when home feels cold and lonely. Edward Said talks about exile and the “unhealable rift” between humans and their native places. My native place was Pakistan, a place far from the one marked as legal on my passport. So when I experience these times of connection, no matter how short, that unhealable rift is filled with the salve of understanding.

That’s what I feel right now as I sit on my couch. A lonely cat is cuddled as close as possible to me, willing me to never leave again. I know how she feels. I hate leaving those I love. I hate the loneliness I feel when I walk in to a cold house in a place where I have to work so hard to belong. My heart is a dead weight, my sighs fill up the silence.

Frederick Buechner says this about loss “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” I read it, but right now I’m not sure I believe it.

The thing with feelings is that they can change in an instant. So I sit with a heavy heart filled with memories of those I’ve loved around the globe. Some gone, some still present but far away. These feelings will pass, my heart will feel lighter, my memory bank fuller.

But right now, I sit, holding on to archived memories to give me strength.


* Edward Said ‘Reflections on Exile’

Masala Dhaba Memories


Sights, sounds, and smells can transport us to places we love in mere seconds.  I hear the Call to Prayer and suddenly I am in Pakistan, walking the dusty streets of Shikarpur. I smell curry and shut my eyes – I could swear I am at the Marhaba in Murree. But I’m not, I’m in Central Square, the fragrant smells of the Indian restaurant wafting across the street luring me back to my childhood and begging me to enter. 

The imagination is a wonderful, terrible thing. 

In the novel Anything Considered Peter Mayle takes his character back in time through his sense of smell:

Memories often return through the nose. As he inhaled the odor of sanctity, a blend of ancient dust, mildewed prayer books, and crumbling stone, Bennett was taken back instantly and vividly to his school days.”

Last night I refilled my masala dhaba, My masala dhaba is a spice box that my husband gave me seven years ago. It was one of the loveliest Christmas presents that I have ever received. Yesterday, as I took spices out of their boxes and bags and put them into my masala dhaba, I was like the character in Mayle’s book: vividly transported back to my childhood.  

I wrote the piece below after I had received the gift and I offer it today – a tribute to spice, color, and memories. 


For years I have kept my Pakistani spices in a large Tupperware bowl with a red lid. The kind that you use to bring the gargantuan pasta salad (that no one will eat) to a potluck dinner. The lid is sticky with the years that the bowl has held spices and (sometimes) dust. Christmas 2010 I received a proper spice box as a gift. Not a western spice rack, but a genuine masala dhaba (spice box) of stainless steel.

Yesterday, while making a chicken curry, I transferred the spices from the Tupperware to the masala dhaba. It was like someone had told me I had won the lottery. I can’t stop looking at it.

It is shiny and beautiful, full of the colors of Pakistan – yellow/orange turmeric, red pepper, black pepper, red/orange masala spice, light brown coriander, darker brown garam masala, and to add a Middle Eastern flare – green/brown zahtar.

The spices sit like contented children in a circle, satisfied in their round stainless steel bowls. A small spice spoon pokes out of the bright orange-yellow turmeric in the center. The lid is see-through so the colors are visible even as the spices keep fresh. It is magnificent.

These are the things I love about where I was raised. The simplicity of colorful spices, the feel of a dupatta over my shoulders as I wear a colorful, silk shalwar kameez; the smell of curry cooking, and anticipation of hot naan and samosas to come; the glitter of bright-colored bangles in a shop at the local bazaar. 

I love being able to duplicate these small things even as I look outside and hear the sounds of my current reality. Sounds that make me feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz as she realizes she is not in Kansas anymore. 


“This is My Fate” – A Lesson in Cultural Humility

As soon as the angry words came out of my mouth, I regretted them. I was speaking to Rehmet, the woman who helped me care for my kids and my home.

She was a Punjabi woman, uneducated, illiterate, with a smile that stretched across a beautiful, weathered face and a personality as big as her smile.

We were living in Islamabad, Pakistan and Rehmet had come into my life by way of her husband who had done some handiwork for us around the house. She had five children and lived in a slum on the outskirts of the city. She was tireless in her energy and her talking. At one point I despaired to my mom that I couldn’t understand her. “She speaks so quickly!” I wailed. “My Urdu can’t keep up”. My mom began to laugh – “Don’t worry” she said. “She’s actually speaking Punjabi”.

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(photo credit)

We had slowly developed a relationship that went far beyond employee/employer. I considered her my friend. We would sit down with tea, communicating with my limited Urdu and her fluent Punjabi. We would mate socks together, cook, scrub vegetables, and rearrange furniture. She loved my kids, and I thought I loved her.

But there we were. A Pakistani woman and an American woman side by side, me letting my tongue loose. She had ruined some clothes by bleaching them and I was angry. After all, I self-righteously reasoned, if this had happened at a laundry facility in the United States I would voice disapproval over the mistake and demand my money back.

But, I was not in the United States.

Looking back on the event, I cringe in embarrassment. I don’t even remember what the clothes looked like – but I will never forget the sadness and resignation on Rehmet’s face. She looked as though she had been kissed by a Judas, betrayed by one she thought she knew.

I began to apologize. My speech, so articulate while angry, suddenly lost any semblance of cohesion. I was fumbling over my words, over my grammar, most of all over my ugly heart.

She looked at me with tired, brown eyes, her gaze steady and unyielding. Then without pause, she shrugged and said, “It doesn’t matter. This is my fate.”

I went cold. I would rather have heard anything but this. I would rather she yelled, screamed, got sarcastic, quit the job… anything would have been better.

I, the person who talked long and wrote hard about wanting to empower people, had taken advantage of what I knew to be a cultural value – a servant is subservient to the employer. In a culture where she was a minority as a woman and as a Christian she would never have other opportunities, this was her fate. Even if she wanted to walk out on the job, she couldn’t have. Rehmet did not have choices and I had used that against her. I had taken advantage of education, relative wealth, and influence in my ridiculous reaction to a simple mistake.

And I had done this, subconsciously knowing that it would pack a mighty punch. That is what made it so painfully wrong. My white-skinned entitlement and privilege made me cringe. Who was I? Why had I reacted this way

It was important to confess – to Rehmet, but also to God. For I had acted in a way that hurt another, had wounded knowing she had no recourse.

Rehmet and I were able to repair the relationship, largely because of her generosity of spirit and sheer joy in life. In her bucket of life experience, this was small change and she would not remain low for long. But the story has stayed with me, for it reminds me of how important it is to have cultural humility.

For cultural humility demands a process of self-evaluation and critique; a constant check of attempting to understand the view of another before we react and recognizing our own tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up a role as expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture.

It’s a hard subject that demands honesty but what do you do when you have caused offense? When you have wounded in a place where you are a guest? When you have exhibited cultural superiority instead of cultural humility?

Note: This article was first published in A Life Overseas

An Excerpt on Friendship & Loss


Friends, there is a giveaway of Passages Through Pakistan on Goodreads! It ends on June 7th, and two books will be given away. In honor of the giveaway, I’ve included an excerpt from the book on friendship and loss. I hope you enjoy! Also – the electronic version of Passages will be released on June 15!


Friendships formed in our small community were and are unique. We forged relationships with likely and unlikely people, and they occupied our hearts and souls. Together we faced birth, death, tragedy, sickness, political instability, separation from blood relatives, car accidents, boarding school, tension in relationships, food rations, and so much more. 
These memories and events were woven together into an immense tapestry. But unless cared for, a tapestry gets loose threads, and those threads can unravel into holes – holes of too many goodbyes, unraveling of loss. We push the losses aside, dismiss the goodbyes as just part of life, part of being third culture kids. 

But buried losses don’t stay buried. Like a submarine, they eventually surface, and we realize that they were never gone. So our griefs, our goodbyes, would surface later in life, like angry monsters demanding a redo of the goodbyes, demanding time to grieve the losses, demanding another chance. But we get only one chance at childhood. When that childhood is lived thousands of miles and oceans away from the place you live as an adult, you can’t go back. When our childhood is good and lived with a sense of wonder, it outweighs the pain and grief that came along the way. We may long to recreate it, perhaps because in it we see something of what the world should be, what the world could be. But recreating it is an impossibility, and in our case, even revisiting the places and people was impossible. 

…Like so many things in childhood, I didn’t know what I had until I lost it. 

I didn’t realize the extraordinary community I had around me until I was no longer in Pakistan, until I had to forge my way in the rocky and seemingly hostile territory of my passport country. 

From Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith, pp 104 a 105, Tonga Rides

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My Ramadan Baby

I remember the day like it was yesterday. The Islamabad sun, hot and bright, burned down on my mom and I as we walked to the hospital with my first-born – Annie – in a stroller.

It was May of 1987 and it was Ramadan, only a couple of days before the huge Eid celebration that would mark the end of this long month of fasting for Muslims around the world. We had been living and working in Islamabad since January and I was 9 months pregnant with our second child.

After a false start a couple of days earlier, my mom and I headed out to my  regularly scheduled prenatal appointment.  After examining me, my doctor said “Sometimes we need to push the horse and cart!” Which was code for “I’m going to give you something to speed up this delivery.” I was more than willing to oblige.

It was a text book induction and just after midnight on May 25th I gave birth to a gorgeous, blue-eyed, fuzzy-headed baby boy. I was smitten.

I wrote about my Ramadan baby 6 years ago, when I was a new blogger. As I reread the piece I wrote, I realized it communicates the story exactly as I remember it, so I have reposted it below in honor of my Ramadan “baby’s” 30th birthday!

Date: May 25, 1987

Location: Islamabad, Pakistan

Place: Ali Medical Center

24 years ago today at 10 minutes past midnight I gave birth to my second child. It was toward the end of Ramadan and this showed significantly in the absence of staff in the hospital. Earlier in the evening as I labored, my husband and I began to worry aloud that the doctor, busy breaking the fast at her home, would not make it and we would be left on our own. We needed her assurance in seeing to the safety and health of a pregnant woman in transition (me) and a baby that wanted to enter life. My mom, well versed in cultural norms in Pakistan, assured us that the doctor would arrive on time. But as we waited and wondered, we were deeply grateful for the calm presence of my mother.

As the hospital staff ate their fill of Ramadan specialties before dawn came (and with it the arduous fast that would not break until 7 or 8 at night) two babies made their way into the world.  The last azaan, calling the faithful to prayer, was heard earlier through the brick walls of the labor and delivery room, ensuring that even those inside would know it was time to break the fast. At that point all hospital staff disappeared, oblivious to the labor pains of two women, as they rushed to ease their hunger pains.

One of those babies was ours: Joel Rehan Braddock Gardner, born with a head of blond, fuzzy hair and deep blue eyes. I took one look and fell in love with 6 lbs and 12 oz of baby. It was magic. The second baby was also a boy – a little Pathan boy, as dark-haired as Joel was blonde, born to a family who lived in Peshawar. They had made their way to Islamabad for the delivery, ensuring that their first child would be born at a good hospital.

It was a text-book delivery and after 6 hours of laboring and a few pushes, Joel took his first breath and let out a yowl. I don’t even know if yowl is a word but it describes what was a mixture of a yodel and a howl. He was a perfect, 10 fingered, 10 toed, baby boy. Dr. Azima Quereshi was the doctor presiding over the delivery. After observing me labor without drugs and breastfeed immediately after birth, she looked at my mom with tear-filled eyes and clutched her arm saying “I’ve read about deliveries like this, but I’ve never seen one!”

The hospital staff enjoyed their own show that night as they sent staff in by two’s to see “the white lady who had her husband in with her during the delivery,” something that was unheard of at Ali Medical Center and most hospitals in Pakistan. “Who wants the men in there?” was the incredulous question voiced by Pakistani friends and acquaintances.

The Pathan family showered the hospital staff and doctor with gifts of fruit, Pakistani sweets of gulab jamun, jalebis, barfi, and savories of samosas and pakoras. This ensured a favored place with staff as low on the ladder as cleaning people and as high as surgeons. 

We were not so favored. A gift of imported Cadbury Chocolates delivered in a fake gold bowl for Dr. Quereshi seemed appropriate and we went on our merry way, taking Joel back home to the F-8 residential area of Islamabad to meet his older sister Annie and settle into a bassinet.

It was only later that we realized our faux pas in not buying treats for the entire hospital. We had failed to publicly recognize the role the rest of the staff had played in helping us deliver a healthy baby boy which, from a cultural perspective, was a huge thing to acknowledge!

And so Joel came into the world and today he turns 24. His blonde hair has turned into light brown, he still has deep blue eyes – and his yowl? That has turned into an infectious laugh, ability to argue anyone into the ground and a great personality.

Happy Birthday Joel – We are so blessed by your life.

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

 

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“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

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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!

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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 so 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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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 

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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. 

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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.