This past weekend I attended a reunion for others like me who, though not Pakistani, have a deep connection and love for Pakistan through work or through a third culture childhood. After three years of limited contact with these folks, we gathered together in the heart of the Ozark mountains, the kitsch of Branson far enough away to not interfere with our conversation and connections.
Through the years I grow more and more grateful for this heritage that I am gifted, the sense of belonging I can feel with someone 40 years younger or 30 years older than I am.
Coming from all over the world, we celebrated this legacy. There was no need to explain our love of hot curry and airports, our fierce defense of Pakistan and our comfort with travel. We were a group of people who remember the smoke of wood fires as dusk settles over our mountain home away from home, the spicy garlic of chicken karahi, the thick gravy of chicken korma eaten with a hot chapati, the delight of a clear day after a long monsoon, and the joy of sitting in daisy filled fields just minutes from our school. We are people who remember long bus rides up a steeply curved mountain road, vendors hawking at train stations, and crowded bazaars where we searched for bangles and fabric. We are an eclectic group who grew up with a steady diet of old Christian hymns coupled with hearing the call to prayer five times a day. We are men and women of all ages who have experienced the sights, sounds, and smells of Pakistan resurrected in unlikely places, bringing on waves of saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. We are people who have known God’s presence within Pakistan, whether felt through the whisper of wind through pine trees, the sound of the call to prayer, or the sound of ocean waves on Karachi beach.
In March, I spoke to a group of women at our parish. I was invited to share my journey under the theme of “Journeys of Faith.” I titled my talk “Stones of Remembrance” based on a chapter in the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. The story is about God telling Joshua to have each of the tribes of Israel pick up a stone and take it to the middle of the Jordan River so that they could remember God’s faithfulness. I love the concrete picture in this account, the action of picking up a stone, carrying it to a place and having it serve as a reminder of what God has done.
The first stone I talked about was the stone of heritage, the Christian faith that was passed down to me by my parents and the small community that grew me, a gift of faith embodied in my home and school. I included in the stone of heritage the uniqueness of being a little white girl growing up in a Muslim context where Islamic faith echoed in the call to prayer outside of our doors, shaping me with its zeal and devotion.
I was reminded over the past few days of the beauty of this stone of remembrance, the gifts of a heritage that includes shared identity and memories, faith that is based on foundational truths and worked out in different Christian traditions.
In this beautiful setting, we experienced much laughter and joy and many tears and memories of those who have died. We heard updates on Pakistan and a retelling of countless stories, there was bollywood and qawwali, creative presentations and not as creative presentations. There was occasionally that wistful longing for the past, but it was so much more than that.
Because the true beauty of these reunions is that they give us strength to walk forward and remind us that there are others who have traveled a similar journey. They are reminders of a shared heritage, a unique group of people shaped by a distinctive background with its gifts and its challenges.
Gathering and remembering makes us stronger, helps us to remember that we are all a part of a bigger story that is being written around the world and in our hearts.
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Amidst all this madness, all these ghosts and memories of times past, it feels like the world around me is crumbling, slowly flaking away. Sometime, when it’s this late at night, I feel my chest swell with a familiar anxiety. I think, at these times, that I have no more place in my heart for Pakistan. I cannot love it any more. I have to get away from it for anything to make sense; nothing here ever does. But then the hours pass, and as I ready myself for sleep as the light filters in through my windows, I hear the sound of those mynah birds. And I know I could never leave.
Fatima Bhutto, Songs of Blood and Sword
It’s a blue, blue sky and for the first time this year I have the joy of sitting outside to drink my coffee.
Several of these past days have started with a thick fog covering the area. The buildings in downtown Boston, usually easily visible from our upstairs window, covered in misty grey.
The thing with fog is that you feel it will last forever even though your head tells you that’s ridiculous. So there’s this tug between feeling and thinking as you will yourself forward by head rather than heart.
But today? There is no fog. Just the crispest blue sky and a weather app promise of a warm day.
I’ve been thinking a lot about thresholds, largely because of a writing prompt from a group that I connect with on social media. One of the definitions of threshold is gate or door. Explore a bit more and this is expanded to mean “the place or point of entering or beginning.” Perhaps, too, the foggy beginnings of the last few days have made me think about thresholds. Thresholds as points of entering or beginning can be foggy and disorienting.
A couple of weeks ago, I learned from a Russian friend that you never hug someone over a threshold. You either go in, or come out. Once you are both out (or both in) then you can hug. She was emphatic that I not hug her across th threshold.
I have more questions for my friend, but what I love about this is that you have to commit. It’s like a mom saying “Either come in or go out, but don’t stand in the doorway.”
And that’s what happens when you are standing in the threshold of something. You can’t stay there. You have to pass through.
May and June are threshold months. They are months of soul aching goodbyes, each goodbye a mini death. They are months of nervous excitement and wanting to lengthen the moments and stretch them into hours and days. They are months of laughter at what has been and so many tears at what will no longer be.
Graduations, moves, sorting, packing up, giving away, wondering what’s to come – all of these and more are packed into threshold months.
In World’s Apart, I write this about one of my threshold moments:
“The magnitude of what I was leaving was not completely lost to me that night. Even in the midst of the goodbyes, I felt my throat catch. But as I look back I am overwhelmed by it. We left behind our entire lives the night of graduation. We said goodbye to all we knew. For the rest of our lives we would struggle to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ We would rage at those who attacked our adopted country, even as we raged at Pakistan herself. Some of us would be accused of crying ‘every time a cow died in Pakistan.’ Others would stoically move forward, silent about the impact of being raised in another world…..The next day I would leave Pakistan and never sleep in this house again, never walk up the hill to catch the school bus. The final chapter of life as a child in Pakistan had ended. I was the baby turtle, making its way slowly to the sea. No one could do it for me. In order to survive and thrive, I had to do it by myself.”
Of all the endings and beginnings I have had, this is the one that was most pivotal. It was my exit and my entrance – from Pakistan to the United States, from child to adult, from home to the unknown. It was clarity and fog, warmth and cold, peace and anxiety.
A couple of weeks before I stood on this threshold between worlds, I had some of the happiest moments imagineable. It was early summer in Murree and the weather was perfect. The moments of connection and friendship were memory-making; the joy I felt palpable. I knew who I was, I knew where I was going, I would make Pakistan and my little school in her mountains proud. Looking back, I am so grateful for those moments. They would sustain me for a long time when life became foggy and I no longer knew who I was or where I was going.
So for you who are on the threshold of something new, hold on to the moments. Honor what has been even as you prepare for what will be. You have been shaped and raised by the places and people that you will soon leave – know that this shaping is a gift and uniquely prepares you for your next journey. Take good, long looks at the people and places you have come to love. Those memory snapshots will give you strength for what’s to come.
As you step over the threshold of what is to come, remember this:
Thresholds are doorways into future wonder, but before you step through them, you need to be able to hold close what you are leaving behind.
In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood is closing its doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.
An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.
Last night with my younger daughter and husband I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend Paul. I got to experience the thick fog of Jhika Gali, and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.
I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class will graduate. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.
My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”
The closer the closing ceremony comes, the more I feel an urgent sadness that needs to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that this day would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:
Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.
To be sure, we live in a different era. The school has dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.
What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had. Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God. From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.
As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.
The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.
What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?
My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.
I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.
At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.
Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule
Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School
Fellow MCSers, what are your stones of remembrance?
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“The shifts of time unearth our longing for a permanent residence, unshakeable, immovable, wholly given and wholly ours. Scattered across this great globe, now and then, we stumble across gifts of happiness from a God who, kindly, with an absolute patience that the trees themselves were taught to imitate, guides us up into the security of his own life”
Recently I have been longing to purchase a home. For a long time we did own, first in a small town in Massachusetts, then in the city of Phoenix. I loved those homes. They were our spaces, places where we could share our lives. One was an old Victorian home with 36 windows, five bedrooms, and a side porch with a doll house and wicker furniture. Our children climbed the trees in the side yard in the summer and fall and sled down a small hill in the back yard in the winter. We would order and stack chopped wood each fall to use in the wood stove in the living room, where we would gather each evening after homework to drink tea and talk.
The other was a much younger southwest home with archways and tile, cool stucco and high ceilings. Fans whirred most of the year and the diving pool was in constant use. A large back yard faced the desert and the famous Phoenix sunsets brought on quiet beauty and longing almost daily. We created a large patio at the far corner of the yard, and spent hours sitting, talking, and listening to our teenagers hone their guitar skills. In those completely different venues, we created space and place so that any guest or stranger would know the space was undeniably ours.
Growing up we never owned a house. We went from mission house to mission house and each one I loved. There were similarities in all of them – ceilings taller than 20 feet, archways, small windows just below the high ceilings called roshandons, often made of stained glass that helped to circulate air, and fans hanging from the ceilings with 12 foot thick wire. Salts crept up the walls causing them to bubble and crumble, but they were home. Courtyards with dusty Bouganvillea and Hibiscus grew wild with brilliant color, a sharp contrast to the dust of the ground and walls. The flat roofs allowed us to look across houses and trees, mosques and shops giving us a birdseye view of whatever city we lived in. They were all home. They were, above all, safe.
As an adult I’ve called four countries home and always welcomed the challenge of creating beauty out of odd colors and spaces, of transforming kitchens and living rooms into places we could call home. With all their warts and impermanence, we still called them home.
We’ve rented now for many years. I don’t think we set out to rent. I think we didn’t think about it, and the next thing we knew, prices around us had risen and owning was far out of our affordability. This worked out well when a dream of being back in the Middle East became a reality and we rid ourselves of seventy five percent of our posessions, taking on a journey that would have us fall in love with a place and people more than we’d ever imagine.
But, as those who read my writing know, that ended and we found ourselves back in the Boston area rebuilding what we had left, grieving even as we moved forward. Six months into our move, the world stopped, borders closed, and we experienced limited movement like we’ve never had before. It was soon into this closure that a longing for a house began in me. While we have our beautiful cottage in Rockport, it is too small to host our kids and our guests, and I long for something that can create memories for this next stage of life.
In recent weeks, its reached a feverish level of longing. Almost before my prayers in the morning I look at my realestate app. I try to imagine living in places that I don’t even like, and then shake my head in frustration. Why has it reached this sort of longing? Why is my heart so aching for place?
I’ve written a lot about place. And indeed, I want my next book to be about place. From Paul Tournier’s A Place for You to Wendell Berry’s Port William series, I read words that remind me place is important. We are created for place. Our longing is not misplaced so much as it is affected by our limited vision of what place is and where it fits in our spiritual and physical journey.
I don’t know what will happen with this longing. I don’t know if it will be fulfilled. Even as I write this, I know how incredibly fortunate I am, how I do not wonder where my next meal will come from or where I will sleep tonight. I am warm. I am safe. I have place even as I long for place. This longing is real to be sure, but it is not like the longing for a child, an empty womb and hands a continual sword in the heart. Or like the longing for a close one who has died. But longing is longing, and telling myself it’s minor is like slapping myself.
That God meets us in our longing is something I know in my bones, but even as he meets us, we are flesh and blood. We ache and long for permanence in the impermanent; in a world that can’t possibly deliver. As I wrote several years ago: We are tethered to earth with hearts made for Eternity. Surely Christ, who experienced the impermanence of place and a human body on this earth knows this. In the quiet of my heart I sometimes feel his whisper of the permanence that awaits me, more glorious than I could imagine, but seemingly so very far off.
In Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter, he writes poignantly of place. And whether place is rented or owned, there is something in the keeping of it that matters. I grab onto this on this day, a day when I looked yet again at the real estate app, desperately searching for something. As I grab hold, the words settle into my spirit. I sigh, close the app, and bake a lemon blueberry cake. It is enough for this moment.
There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven…
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
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During my junior year of high school I took Physics. Knowing that I wanted to be a nurse, I poured through the catalog of the school that I wanted to attend after high school and looked at the courses that were recommended. Chemistry was required; Physics just recommended. Intent on making sure I was accepted to the program, I decided I would take Physics and Chemistry. I’m normally not an overachiever, but call it delusions of grandeur or healthy self esteem, at the time I secretly fancied myself a brilliant scientist or, if not a scientist, than definitely a brilliant nurse.
Our school building was an old British church that had been repurposed as a school with a huge auditorium in the center and classrooms along the sides and upstairs. Physics class was held in the science lab, located at the back of the auditorium, up steep stairs, in the highest spot in the building. We sat on stools around large, rectangular tables surrounded by science in the form of long tables, beakers, formulas, posters and pictures. A sign saying “A Physics student took a drink, but he shall drink no more. For what he thought was H2O was H2SO4” served as a warning to all of us of the violent death we would undergo if we did not pay attention. Bunsen burners, beakers, pipets, droppers, and funnels became familiar equipment and goggles were a necessity.
Like most classes in Murree, the class size was small. There were perhaps 12 of us and a mixture of juniors and seniors. Importantly, I was the only girl in the class.
The year started out okay, but as summer turned into Autumn, I began to despise Physics class. From what I wore to what I weighed, I was fair game for intolerable teasing from every single guy, egged on by the teacher. I laughed right along with all of them until one spring day when I didn’t laugh anymore. I left class sobbing like my heart had broken in a million fractals. It was my brother Stan who saw me leave the school building sobbing. Though he had graduated a couple of years before, he was back for a short time working at the school. He heard my cry, hugged away my tears, and marched up to that Physics Lab in a full-blown rage.
I don’t know what Stan said, but I know his righteous anger burst forth like a canon. Physics class got better for me. Though I still could not wait for it to end, at least a certain measure of respect developed. Never again did I leave Physics class in tears. Stan had done what I could never have done. He had marched in there, and in righteous love had demanded that the bad behavior stop. It was an early lesson in advocacy, it is a lifetime memory of sibling love.
A few months later, my brilliant brother Tom arrived from the United States. Patiently he sat with me each evening, teaching me what the teacher could not because I was so wounded by the class. He coached me to the Physics finish line and I ended up the class with a B+. This was a miracle. It was an early lesson of sibling patience, it is a lifetime memory of sibling love.
That’s the thing with siblings. They just are. While others have to earn a place, siblings have it and you don’t really pay attention to them. Except when you think back on a childhood and the role they played, the times they teased you mercilessly always trumped by the times they stood up for you with rage or coached you with patience. You may be able to count the deep talks you had with siblings on one hand, but that’s okay. Because beyond the deep talks is the deeper understanding of what it is to grow up in the same places, to experience the same household with its strengths and weaknesses, to face life’s challenges together.
It’s been a year to the day since my brother Stan died. A year to the day since we received those awful text messages through the large family Whatsapp. A year to the day when the wretching sobs made me throw up and scream in a silent house. A year to the day that marked my waking up thinking daily about my sister-in-law, my niece, and my nephew. Anyone who has siblings will go through this at some point. Last February was our turn. It came too quick. It was too tragic. It shouldn’t have happened are all places I can’t go yet I go there anyway.
The week following his death was filled with some of the most remarkable love I have ever experienced in my lifetime, as a handful of us gathered in Thailand. We cried, talked, laughed, and comforted each other in that sacred space of grief. We drank mango smoothies and ate Thai curries, walked in gardens and basked in warmth while the Northeast I had left froze over. We did not know that a few weeks later a pandemic would upend the world and our grief would be eclipsed and upstaged by a worldwide crisis.
But it was, and so our grief was put on hold to make room for an angry public that enjoyed outrage so much that they were of no use to the truly grieving.
And now it has been a year. I do not have more words, but I do have more understanding of grief, more understanding of grace, more compassion, and more need for God. And I know, that Christ, who redeems all, is in every moment of this day.
“O Christ, redeem this day. I do not ask that these lingerings of grief be erased, but that the fingers of your grace would work this memory as a baker kneads a dough, till the leaven of rising hope transforms it from within,
into a form holding now in that same sorrow the surety of your presence, so that when I look again at that loss, I see you in the deepest gloom of it, weeping with me, even as I hear you whispering that this is not the end, but only the still grey of the dawn before the world begins.
And if that is so, then let that which broke me upon this day in a past year, now be seen as the beginning of my remaking into a Christ-follower more sympathetic,
more compassionate, and more conscious of my frailty and of my daily dependence upon you….”*
It was 10 years ago today that my sister-in-law and I arrived in Pakistan to participate in a 2-week medical relief trip.
At the end of the summer of 2010, Pakistan had been overwhelmed by floods with millions displaced. Camps for those who had lost their homes were set up across the country and aid was coming in from many countries around the world. Anytime there is a disaster like these floods, there is a domino effect of problems. Malaria, severe malnutrition, dysentery from poor water supplies, and skin diseases that happen when you have thousands of people living in close proximity to each other.
As my childhood home and love, Pakistan has a special place in my heart and to go back in this capacity was a gift. I returned with far more than I gave. What I didn’t know at the time is that it would change the trajectory of my life, for it was during and soon after that trip that I began to write.
I began writing about childhood memories and belonging, about the trip to Pakistan and what it meant to me. I wrote about saudade and identity, about faith and being an adult third culture kid. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Soon after, I began a blog. The blog propelled me into writing a book, and then another book that I had begun several years earlier. Writing was my therapy, my way to make sense of so much that had happened long ago.
At the end of my trip, I wrote an essay called “Holy Moments from an Unholy Disaster.” It was later published in my first book, but as I remember the anniverary of that return, I wanted to post it here.
To you who have read my words, who have encouraged me in my writing journey, who have stuck with me through mixed metaphors and my sometimes grammatically dubious sentence structure – I am beyond grateful. You have made my words live by reading them and posting them, by emailing or messaging me to say that my words resonate. I am so thankful.
On this 10 year anniversary of my return, here is the essay “Holy Moments from an Unholy Disaster.”
Given the choice of a five-star hotel or camping, I will pick a five-star hotel every time. I tell friends that anyone who grew up in the developing world with a commode for a toilet and one bath a week would appreciate my love of luxury. So it was with some surprise that I found myself eager to return to Pakistan on a medical flood relief team.
When I first heard news of the floods, I felt a sadness that was somewhat distant and removed. Pakistan was my childhood love and home, but as an adult I have been more connected to the Middle East through work and travel. My connections with Pakistan had been reduced to occasional emails from friends and to moments on the subway when, eyes closed, the rhythmic movement transports me back to the Pakistani trains of my childhood. That changed when I saw a picture in the New York Times of the city of Jacobabad under floodwaters.
Jacobabad, in the Sindh province, was home to my family when I was a little girl. I broke my leg there. My mother’s artificial flowers were stolen in Jacobabad. Mom had planted them around our house to add color to clay that would never grow anything. They provided a source of joy for a few hours and then they were gone. The New York Times photograph hit my heart in a way I had not anticipated, and through what could only be a work of God, an opportunity came about for me to participate as a nurse on a medical relief trip to care for internally displaced people in northern Sindh.
I never imagined that my life for a short time would resemble a National Geographic feature story. Although I grew up in Pakistan, raised my family in Islamabad, and lived for seven years in Cairo, my current reality is downtown Boston, where I drink a Starbucks coffee daily. I shop at Ann Taylor and get frustrated when my hot water runs out or I don’t have time to put on my eyeliner. But in early September the idea of working with victims of the flood suddenly became real and I became cautiously excited, knowing I may not have what it would take but willing to take that chance.
On October fifteenth, accompanied by my sister-in-law, Carol, and thirteen thousand dollars worth of donated medical supplies, I boarded an Etihad airliner and flew via Abu Dhabi to Karachi ending the journey in Shikarpur, Sindh. Outside the Shikarpur gates, a kilometer from the hospital where we were based we passed the burnt remains of a convoy of twenty-seven trucks that had been featured in the New York Times “Pictures of the Day,” and I realized that I hadn’t paid as close attention to the location of that picture as I perhaps should have.
The two weeks that followed were filled with holy moments. I watched as a mom pointed to heaven in thanks for food distributed to her family. I laughed with children at my own mistakes in Urdu and Sindhi. I prayed in the depths of my soul for the baby who looked like a skeleton at four months of age and for the emaciated mom who held that child with the love only a mother could have. I put shoes on the ulcerated feet of an ancient woman, countless stories written into the wrinkles on her face. We delivered a sewing machine to a widow who danced with it on her head. We saw and served people created in the image of God. These women and children in their beautiful, brightly colored clothing were “no mere mortals” and dear to the heart of God.
Our team — a doctor, two nurses, a community healthworker, interpreter and food distributors — were like a mini United Nations. We represented six people groups and six different languages, but we shared a unity in purpose and spirit that gave us efficiency, laughter and joy. In fourteen days we covered eight villages, surveying needs, running medical camps, and distributing food. Mud huts, tents provided by USAID, and charpais combined with chickens, roosters, water buffalo and cow dung completed the setting and tested our nostrils and stamina. But everyday provided a new adventure and new moments of awe.
There was, for me, an added bonus. Almost anyone who was raised in a country other than his or her passport country can relate with the immigrant experience. The sense of isolation, nontransferable skills, and being ‘other’ can creep up at the oddest of times and result in a deep loneliness and sometimes conflict with one’s passport country. Our lives are lived between worlds.
But for those two weeks I was not other. I was home. I saw friends who knew me when I was young, received blessings from men who worked with my father and women who had deep friendships with my mother, walked through compounds to the embraces of old friends, and was woken yet again by the call to prayer. These were holy moments that I had not anticipated.
A wise friend once told me that there are times in our lives when we need to remember who we are. During those two weeks, I was given the gift of remembering who I was.
Since leaving Pakistan as a child, I, like many, had to redefine my faith. It has often been a painful process. I struggle with unanswerable questions about life and God. This trip back was a humbling reminder that the God who sustained me when I was six years old at boarding school, crying into my pillow, is a God who still provides holy moments in places where real life happens.
I arrived back in JFK International Airport in New York City after twenty-three hours of travel and within a few minutes felt ‘other’ again. I faced a moment of confusion as I looked at the Immigration line options. Was I really a resident alien? An alien? No. I was a US citizen, shaped by cultures and moments that were not of my own making. In that moment I recognized that the peace of belonging happens deep in my soul and that peace can transcend the outside circumstances.
I don’t know why I was given the gift of going. That is a mystery to me. But I know it was Grace.
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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? When your brother dies from a tragic accident in Thailand while on business and visiting his daughter?
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 throughWorlds Apart.Yes, Worlds Apart is about Pakistan, and being a third culture kid/missionary kid, and living between worlds. But ultimately,the book is my testament of faith. In Worlds Apart, 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.**“