Hand of Blessing

Hand of Blessing by Robynn 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Life Overseas – A Note from an Impostor

impostor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest at A Life Overseas.

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

Hatching Baby Sea Turtles

sea-turtle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget Culture Wars, It’s Chai Wars!

Chai Chai Garam Chai

Cultural (Chai) Wars by Robynn

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

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

Today is that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe for Chai

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

1 cup of whole milk

1 cup of water

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

2 heaping teaspoons of sugar (or to taste)

2 pods of cardamom, broken

1 inch of cinnamon stick, broken

½ inch of fresh ginger grated or chopped*

1 pinch of black pepper*

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

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

Picture Credit: the incomparable Jason Philbrick!

“No one stares anymore!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look at the missionary kid!” 

“Do they talk funny?” 

“Look at their clothes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe cringe enough to confess and move forward.

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

The Courage to Begin Again – Peshawar School Reopens

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

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

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

***********

Pakistan - school boy

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

“Peshawar schools reopen after Taliban massacre”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credit: Tim Irwin taken in Pakistan 2010

The Song of Mynah Birds

mynah bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mourning for Pakistan

Making naan - in the midst of tragedy

“My sons were flowers, borrowed from God.” grieving father to Reuters correspondent @mehreenzahra.

“Next to a tiny body bag, there is dried blood on this hospital floor. Trampled by footsteps of crazed parents, resolute attendants

In the midst of work emails, a cup of coffee, and trying to plan my day the news of the attacks at a school in Pakistan came into my world. The news came the way it usually does – through a fellow third culture kid who also grew up in Pakistan and loves the country the way I do.  The way so many of us who took our first baby steps on Pakistani soil love the country and her people.

An attack in a place you love against a people you love feels personal. 

The attack happened at a public military school in the city of Peshawar located in the northwest part of the country. Growing up, Peshawar was a common stopover during vacations when we would go to the Swat Valley, or to Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass. It is in the northwest part of the country, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Peshawar is considered the “oldest living city” and has a history that goes back to 536 BC. It is a city of trade and boasts ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Over 130 dead and counting. Most of them are children.

The school is run by the military, largely for the children of military families, but there are also civilian students. A large group of them were in a main auditorium, ironically having a lesson on first aid.

Killed by Taliban insurgents. To punish the military? To what end? For what?

The evil is a stench. 

The body count rises even as I scan the internet for more news. Reports of crazy militants, dead bodies of children, chaos and grief are inescapable. I feel nauseated looking at them. Yet I can’t help myself. It’s the only thing I know to do. I can’t get on a plane and go to Pakistan. I can’t use my nursing skills or sit and comfort the grieving. And so I peruse every social media site I can and watch the world step back in horror at a heinous act.

Outside my window I hear the sirens of ambulances and police cars going to the site of an emergency in Boston and I wonder about the sound of ambulances and police cars in Peshawar. It is now night-time and those involved are heading fast into the after effects of shock and terror, the domino effect of tragedy.

This is the season of Peace on Earth, the season of Holy and Silent Nights, the season of Joy to the World. How can it be when a world away the cries of moms and dads echo to the heavens?

I want to scream “Does this pain matter? Does it matter to you God?” 

I look back at the words I wrote after the marathon bombing that happened just a mile from where I now sit. I cling to them and reread them, make them applicable to this horror in Pakistan, even as I pray.

“The collective grief makes me want to scream, anything to release the sense of helpless fury in the midst of senseless, inane violence. The images of the news juxtaposed against the images of Christmas make me feel guilt as I sit in comfort looking at a tree with sparkling lights, candle light, gifts.

And then I remember the call to pray.

Five times a day a Call to Prayer rings out across the Muslim world. Five times a day for much of my life I have been reminded to lift my heart in prayer. And the five times stretches to many times in between until I realize I am slowly learning that I can’t make it through this life without prayer; that the exhortation to ‘pray without ceasing’ is life-giving. That in the midst of senseless acts of violence, in the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he “willingly endured the cross”.

In the middle of my rambling words comes the voice of wisdom and grace through my sister-in-law, Carol.

“The call to prayer is ringing out now.

‘Come Lord Jesus’ is the cry of my heart! We live in a pained confused world! There is chaos that mars the landscape of God’s design. Yes we do experience His mercy and grace but the ache, the groan of pain is heard all around.”*

This is my call to pray. To pray for Pakistan, pray for her people and her land. Pray for healing. Pray for change. Pray for proper condemnation of the act. Lord have Mercy, hear my prayer. 

“The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer as quoted in First Things

Picture Credit – Dan Mitchell photography; word art Marilyn R. Gardner

The Autumn of My Parents

It is a poignant irony that most of us don’t understand or empathize with the humanity of our parents until later in life. Until then they are ‘other’ and we can’t quite believe that they have the same sort of emotions that we do.

It’s this I think about as I look out on the golden glow of Autumn. All week I have been traveling in state for work. I have been traveling to Western and Central Massachusetts. As I looked out across the picture-post card landscape of a New England fall, every shade of yellow, orange, or red with splashes of green set against a stunning blue sky I suddenly caught my breath. For this is the autumn of my parents.

Both my mom and dad were raised in Massachusetts. In summer they had mountain laurel, green grass, and trees galore; in spring they had every shade of green in the budding trees, and every version of flower in gardens and parks; in the winter it was bare trees, warm homes, hot cocoa, and sledding down hills with friends.

And in Autumn they had the colors I now see every day, until a November chill wind would come, blowing all the leaves down, readying them for winter.

But my mom and dad left all that. For 35 years there was no Autumn. There was slightly chilly, warm, warmer, and warmest – the warmest raised the thermometer to the 120 degree Fahrenheit mark and above.

And I realize how much they must have missed these days of Autumn. How much they must have longed for the crisp apples and crisper mornings. I realize how much they must have missed family – my grandma – the only living grandparent; my aunts and uncles who were their brothers and sisters; my cousins – their nieces and nephews; and all that is New England. They left their world of Autumn and went to a region of Pakistan where Autumn didn’t exist.

So every Autumn for the last seven years I have enjoyed the Autumn of my parents. I have come to know a few things about the world and landscape of their childhood into their early marriage. I have driven the roads they logged so many miles on in old Chevrolets and Ford station wagons. I have stopped at Inns and eaten hot clam chowder, I have gone apple picking coming home with apples of every type, polishing some for a bowl on the table and peeling others to go into beautiful pies and other desserts. I have passed old churches with tall steeples and specially marked parking spots for the minister, the choir director, and the church organist.

I have learned a bit more about their world and the beauty of where they were raised.

It was a few years ago when my husband confronted me saying “You don’t want this area to be a part of your life – but it is a part of your life.” And he’s so right. And I’m so glad. There is the Pakistan of my life, the Egypt of my life, and the New England of my life. They are woven together, tapestry-like in the picture they create.

Removing this part of who I am, of where my parents were raised and what went in to making them the people they are, would sever the tapestry and it would be incomplete.

And ultimately – this story, this tapestry is woven by Someone far more creative than me, by Someone who knows how each thread, each part is woven carefully so it becomes a tapestry of complexity and beauty. Perhaps lovelier in some places, and more worn in others, but incomplete without all of it.

My parents are no longer in this place they love. They have moved on to a new place. And as I look out on the physical Autumn around me, I’m so grateful that where they now live they still have Autumn. And they are in the Autumn of their lives – the place where life becomes even sweeter as they realize the road behind them is longer than the road ahead.

And I am so glad that in this Autumn in their lives they still have the colors. 

Velvet Ashes – 7 Things to Know about Culture Shock

It’s Saturday and I’m sending you over to Velvet Ashes for a fantastic post by my friend Joann on culture shock. Joann wrote Living Well Where You Don’t Belong for Communicating Across Boundaries. She’s done it again with this post! I’ve posted the first couple paragraphs to give you a trailer! Then head to the link for the full read.

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Culture Shock

The first time I crossed a cultural boundary; I was but 1-year-old! And no, it wasn’t my parents whisking me off to some far-off tropical land; it was my family returning to the US after a term of service in Pakistan.

My mother says that my older sister and some of the children travelling with her (you should hear THAT story sometime) spent hours in the London hotel bathroom flushing the toilet because they had never seen such a thing before. Obviously, I have no memories of that experience.

My second cross-cultural experience, and the first one that I remember, was 6 years later, when, once again, my family decamped from Pakistan back to the US for a year. I remember that things in the US were different, but don’t remember much ‘culture shock,’ because at that age, so long as your parents are nearby and you’ve got other kids to play with, that’s all that matters. I do remember the easy access to candy, though!

After that home leave, we returned to Pakistan for another two years, before returning to the US permanently. I was 14, straddling 8th and 9th grades (a confused age anyway), so I have vivid memories of the culture shock I experienced then. I’ll spare you the details, but what I remember most clearly is the feeling of alienation, of being different. Read the rest here.

I hope your Saturday is filled with hope, joy, and perhaps blueberry muffins or scones and clotted cream

For more on culture and belonging take a look at Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging.

Available here:

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20/20 Vision – A Letter to my Younger Self

20-20 vision quote

I am an adult third culture kid. My first memories come from early mornings on a rooftop in the southern part of Pakistan. We would sleep on the high flat roof, mosques on all four sides of our home. Mosquito netting covered our beds, shielding our bodies from the harm that one small bite of these insects could bring. During this hot season the sound of the call to prayer, calling all faithful Muslims to pray, was the sound that woke me every day.

To look back is to visit those early memories and think of what I wish I had done – not what I wish my life had been like, but rather as a third culture kid asking a reflective question: what would I have done differently? If I had 20/20 vision how would I have lived?

In this spirit of self-reflection here is a letter to my 18-year-old self.

You are leaving Pakistan tomorrow. You don’t yet know that you will have one of the worst fights of your teen years with your parents in the morning; that the reason it will stop will be less about resolution and more about the fact that your boyfriend and his father are coming to pick all of you up in a van and take you down the mountain to the airport. You don’t yet know that as you leave the soil of Pakistan your heart will hurt so deeply that you won’t even be able to cry.

And here is what you will wish about your life in Pakistan, a life lived between worlds, between East and West, between Christian and Muslim, between Pakistan and America; wishes that you have grown into based on greater understanding and maturity.

You will wish that you had taken Urdu seriously. You had such a good ear for this language and a strong foundation. You will wish that you took advantage of this and gained the fluency at an early age that was a possibility.

You will wish that you learned more about the music of Pakistan, that you understood the ghazals written with beautiful poetry.

You will long to relive some of your friendships with Pakistanis, recognizing in the future the arrogance of your childhood as a little white girl growing up in the East.

You will ache to go back and apologize – to houseparents who you were rude to, to classmates who have left the faith, to others hurt by your choices.

You will wish you had spent more time in the inner courtyards of your Muslim friends, chatting, cooking, learning, learning, learning.

You will wish many things, you will regret other things.

But there are some things that you will never regret.  You won’t regret that early in life you learned of a God who laces your memories with grace, who takes boarding school tears and turns them into joy in the morning. You won’t regret that you learned of this God through your parents, through your houseparents, through your adopted aunties and uncles, through Pakistan itself.

You will understand that though you were short-sighted, you know the God who delights in healing our eyesight, in restoring poor vision.

With all you now know, can now see, you won’t regret that you are a third culture kid, with all the complexity and joy that goes with it.  And you’ll realize that 20/20 vision is reserved for God alone.

This piece was first published for Velvet Ashes at http://velvetashes.com/2020-vision/

Where is the God of Deborah?

silhouette-march on quote

“Where was the God of Deborah? Deborah, whose words ‘March on, my soul; Be strong!’ echoed God’s affirmation of the strength and leadership of women. Where was the God of Hagar? Hagar, who was cast out in a desert as hot as the one where I stood, certain she would die only to be met by the living God and living water. Where was the God of Mary? Mary, who was greeted with the words, ‘The Lord is with you,’ words unmistakable in their promise. My soul ached with the absence of God; the woman’s eyes mirrored the vacancy I felt.” from What a Woman is Worth Civitas Press 2014 “Relentless Pursuit” page 87.*

The story was in Dawn newspaper, published yesterday. The title hid nothing and I didn’t want to read the article. “Woman Stoned to Death Outside Lahore High Court”.

I clutched my stomach, nauseated and feeling weak. An honor killing outside the High Court in Lahore; a 25 year-old woman stoned to death, large bricks picked up and thrown at her until she was pronounced dead at the hospital. Her family? They were included in the group of attackers stating they had a right to do this, she had shamed the family name.

And I weep at this injustice, this gross misunderstanding of honor and shame, this tragic and polluted view of women. A distorted theology, an incorrect belief. Cultural views are not all benign. Some are plain wrong. There is no excuse for this atrocity. Neither is there an excuse for the atrocities of rape on college campuses in Ivy league schools with people who have no cultural view of honor and shame. Or the gang rapes resulting in death in India. All are wrong. All are sinful. All should be condemned. There are too many events like this in our world and the heart of evil and sin is like a killer weed that takes over and covers everything in its path. And we who are on the outside should do all we can to support women and men on the inside who do care, who do look for change. 

And I wonder – Where is the God of Deborah? Where is the God who fights, who goes before us? And I wonder – Where is the God of Hagar? Where was he with this woman? And I wonder – Where is the God of Mary, the God-bearer? The blessed Theotokos?

But he is here. He is with the women around the world who fight against this every, single day at great cost. Those who stand up for justice and fight for human rights and dignity; those who are in the business of rescue and advocacy. They are the Deborahs of our world. They are the ones who march on. They are the ones who give of their time, their talent, their love to make a difference.

Where is the God of Deborah? He is with Myra Lal Din – a Pakistani woman with a dream to change the status of education for girls in Pakistan. Myra attended the same school that I did in Pakistan. When she was 13 the school was attacked by fundamentalist terrorists and she relocated to Thailand to finish her education. She recognizes that most girls in Pakistan are not so lucky. And so she longs to make a difference. She says this: “Through my work with young children, I discovered that I felt called to use education to try to bring real, lasting change to the kinds of opportunities that are available for young women in my own country. I want to make sure that every woman in Pakistan has an opportunity to experience the kind of life-changing education I did without having to escape to another country to do it.” 

Where is the God of Deborah? He is at a women and children’s hospital in Shikarpur, Sindh where primarily Pakistani staff work daily to meet the health care needs of the community, offering living hope, living water in the desert.

Where is the God of Deborah? He is with us as we take a stand against injustice even as we reel with nausea from the horror of these acts of violence.

Where is the God of Deborah? He is still here. He is still present. He is still at work. This I must believe. This I do believe.

“I would never stop believing that worth could be restored by a relentless pursuit, an unstoppable love, and the words “Go in peace and be free from your suffering.” from What a Woman is Worth Civitas Press 2014 “Relentless Pursuit” page 88.*

Blogger’s Note: If you would like to learn more about Myra LalDin’s important work take a look here “Help me bring real and lasting change to girls in Pakistan through education.” You can also take a look at this video – I guarantee it will be worth your time! http://vimeo.com/93046290 and her website is here: http://www.edu4pak.org/

Another group to note is the Aurat Foundation, “a civil society organisation committed to work for women’s empowerment and citizens’ participation in governance for creating a socially just, democratic and humane society in Pakistan.” (Aurat is the Urdu word for woman.)

*The quotes are taken from my essay “Relentless Pursuit” published this April in What a Woman is Worth. 

picture credit:http://pixabay.com/en/silhouette-woman-door-light-shadow-68957/

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On Polio (and When it’s all too Much to Bear)

None - This image is in the public domain and ...

Afghanistan – where war, Taliban, drones and mudslides keep this country of hospitality, amazing people and amazing food on its knees and in its cemeteries. And as if this country has not had enough to contend with, a little girl sits on the floor in her home made of brick and mud suffering from polio.

Sometimes it’s just too much to bear.

Polio was near eradicated. For 25 years the World Health Organization promoted an aggressive world-wide vaccination campaign. The oral polio vaccine is simple – a couple of flavored pink drops at 2 month intervals and then a final booster dose a few years later, 4 doses in all. It doesn’t hurt. It’s safe. And it works. 

Here’s a bit about polio*: It loves hot weather, thriving in conditions that kill other viruses. Although it’s primarily in children it can be spread through others, through porous borders, through trade. It lives in the throat and the intestinal tract and is spread person to person. It is spread through oral secretions and through the feces of the infected person, so in places where the sewer systems are inadequate — refugee camps, poor villages, places where many people are living in close quarters without proper bathroom facilities. Already this year, a couple of months before the true hot season has begun there are 68 cases reported worldwide. While that seems miniscule compared to the billions of people in the world, last year at this time the numbers were about a third of this. And of those 68, 54 of them come from Pakistan.

But Syria too is in trouble. Prior to the war (or uprising because uprising perhaps caters to our prim sensibilities, but let’s be honest – it’s a war) the vaccination rate of Syria was high, upwards of 90%. But that has fallen dramatically and the first case of polio in years was reported this past year.

Vaccinations and vaccinators are suspect in Pakistan, the part of the world where most of these cases have emerged. At one time the CIA launched an undercover mission, using vaccination camps as their cover. Since that time any vaccination program is suspect.

So now polio has spread to Afghanistan, and a little girl sits on the floor. The New York Times reports that it is the first confirmed case in the capital of Afghanistan in 12 years.

Sometimes it’s too much to bear. 

Too much to try to make sense of all this. I thought yesterday was bad as I was reminded that over 200 Nigerian school girls were kidnapped by an extreme Islamic group and we all finally began to pay attention, signing petitions and using hashtags because we felt so helpless and knew we could do nothing else. And then today I’m reminded of polio and its devastating effects.

What do you do when it’s too much to bear? When you work in a grey cubicle and your heart hurts? When you want to point a finger but you know three will point back at you? What do you do when you try to figure out how you can in one breath be raging about Nigerian girls and in the next be excited about a television show that keeps you captivated for two hours? When you realize your own inadequacy in everything but that which you are directly responsible for – and even then, you often feel inadequate?

What do you do when it’s too much to bear? You put your head down and pray so deeply it hurts. And then you go to work doing what you know you’re called to do for the day, because you are not the Saviour, you are only the saved and that by grace alone. 

*For more on polio see the CDC website: http://www.cdc.gov/VACCINes/vpd-vac/polio/default.htm

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International Women’s Day 2014 – “Remember the Ladies!”

Today is International Women’s Day – a day set aside worldwide to “Remember the Ladies.” The theme this year is “Inspiring Change – for greater awareness of women’s equality” and today we celebrate – we celebrate the economic, social and educational achievements of women even as we remember – we have a long way to go! 

I wrote the following post 3 years ago, just 2 months after I began blogging. I re-post it today to celebrate women worldwide! 

…in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.” Abigail Adams‘ letter to her husband john Adams, March 31, 1776

A fitting quote for International Women’s Day with the resounding cry “Remember the Ladies!”.  Its time to pause, take a look at history and celebrate Women. Thousands of events around the globe will be held for the sole purpose of inspiring women and celebrating women’s achievements. It has been 103 years since the first International Women’s Day celebration held in 1911.  World-wide, women and men are gathering for events to honor this day.

In the myriad of blogs, online news articles and other media stories you will find much news on the day and the issue of women – work for women, equality, fair wages, childcare, places to breastfeed without feeling like you’re committing an indecent act and more. But the story I want to relay is a story you won’t hear in mainstream media sources and as I think of the purpose of International Women’s Day, I think on this women as a picture of persistence, entrepreneurship and hope. She is a symbol of someone who inspires change. 

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Day two of flood relief in Pakistan saw us at a Baloch village. Maybe it was because it was day two and the excitement was now coupled with exhaustion and recognition of how limited our skills were within our current context, but everything felt a bit more difficult. As we were packing up after a busy morning of multiple cases of malaria and malnutrition a woman arrived at the village where we had set up camp. She was accompanied by two other women and after walking over a mile in one hundred degree heat approached the men in our group unafraid to voice the need at her village. “We’re just a short distance away! Why can’t you come to our village?” She was indignant as she looked around and said”We have needs there too!” And so we went. The coldest of hearts could not have refused her persuasive words and our hearts were warm.

Arriving at the village it was a whirlwind camp set up, a quick plea for triage from the doctor, and patients, accompanied by diagnosis and treatment papers, quickly seen and sent off with the right medications. In the midst of this we learned the story of our strong woman friend. She was a widow with eight children. She was a seamstress and proudly sewed for her family and others in the village. Her livelihood had been severely compromised by loss of her sewing machine during the flood. Her story was compelling and her spirit did not call for sympathy or pity, rather it called for partnership.

And we were the ones who knew the need, had the resources and could be partners in moving her back to a place of economic freedom where she could continue her work, her parenting, and her contribution to the village. Our team leader along with the Marwari men, the organizers of all our work, located the perfect sewing machine in the Shikarpur bazaar. It was not electric so could be used despite the frequent power outages and it was shiny, bright and perfect for our entrepreneur.  The sewing machine was purchased and the task was now to find the time during our schedule to return to the village.

The perfect time came as we discussed what to do during our last day in Pakistan. We knew the work of running another medical clinic and felt it was not possible. The decision was made to return to this village with a plan to do some teaching of basic public health, relay some stories of faith in the midst of tragedy and top it off with mithai (Pakistani sweets) and delivery of the sewing machine.

I’ll never forget the corporate joy expressed both visibly and verbally by the entire village. Our lovely lady could not rip open the plastic protective covering fast enough. There it was. Shiny and perfect. A symbol of restoration, hope and resourcefulness.

The last memory we carried with us was the woman dancing, the machine balanced perfectly on her head with her smile radiating from her heart to her face, accompanied by men, women and children in the village.

Women worldwide don’t need pity but we all need partnerships and some could sure use a sewing machine,so today ‘Remember the Ladies!’

I’m celebrating Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day by blogging for the #WomenInspire Campaignsponsored by USC’s masters degree in social work program. Join the blog carnival to honor a woman who has inspired you!

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I Heard the Cow Bells on Christmas Day – A Guest Post

Cowbell.

In the almost three years since I began blogging I have wanted my mom to write a post for Communicating Across Boundaries. And today is the day. Today she’ll take you to a small city in Pakistan and a Christmas where the cow bell on the outer door rang all day long. It was indeed, for those who are Will Ferrell fans, ‘More Cowbell’. Those of you who lived in Pakistan will be familiar with Christmases that aren’t about family, but about community celebrating the birth of Christ.

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It was the doorbell.  The carolers left just before midnight for the first service of Christmas Day in the small church, and our whole family went with them.  A small Christian community lived in this very Muslim city 300 miles north of Karachi. Christmas was their Big Day and they began it with the men of the church going out on Christmas Eve to sing carols at each Christian home. The night was cold, so I served them steaming cups of chai and Christmas cookies after they sang in our living room. We came back from church at about one in the morning; Ralph to fill the kid’s stockings, and I to do the cleanup.  Our children, Stan and Tom, Marilyn and Dan were soon snug in their beds.

The next day would be busy, but I had no idea when my head hit the pillow that our cow bell on the outside door across the yard wouldn’t ring for the last time until eight that evening.

Our day began early. Even though the children weren’t small – two were teenagers – they were up early excited with their stockings.  Before we could have our breakfast, the bell rang.  A family, the only Christians in their village, had come in to spend this special day with Christians in town.  The Pastor who lived next door invited them to share their breakfast and I told them to come for tea with us after the Christmas service.  We ate our cinnamon rolls with scrambled eggs and tea, then hurried to be ready for church.

The door bell rang again.  Two young men came in asking for something they needed to finish decorating the church. After the longer than normal service we greeted everyone there, and were wished all the blessings of this Big Day.  I was about to leave for home when Elizabeth and her brother Shokat stopped me to ask a favor.  “Auntie, could we come to your house this afternoon and make a cake?  We want to take it to the chief surgeon at the Civil Hospital where our sister works.” The whole family shared the small house allotted to their sister, a midwife at the hospital.  When I hesitated momentarily thinking about a baking project in my small kitchen on Christmas Day, Elizabeth reassured me, “Don’t worry, Auntie.  Remember, you showed us girls how to make a cake last month.  We’ll bring all the things we need.  We just need your cake pans and the oven.” I assured them it would be fine if they came at one or two o’clock.

As soon as we got into the house, people started to come.  The local Catholic nuns came, the family from the village, a few Muslim friends, nurses from the hospital.  So many people who had become part of our lives in the community in the nearly four years we had lived here. I kept on making fresh pots of tea and refilling plates with Christmas goodies from our kitchen as well as sweets and savory snacks from the bazaar. Marilyn and the boys were right there helping.  I calculated that we washed every tea-cup in the house three times. Elizabeth and Shokat baked their cake at some point with only minimal help from me.  During the late afternoon I managed to put our Christmas dinner together – no turkeys in our market.  Our choice was chicken or goose and this year it was roast chickens, prepared for roasting the day before.

But before we could sit down to our family dinner, the doorbell rang again.

“Oh no” was my silent thought. I didn’t think I had any energy left to serve even one more cup of tea. But we couldn’t ignore that cow bell.  One of the boys went to answer the door and returned with a woman from the local sweeper colony. I knew her as the mother of two teenage girls I was teaching to read. She came to thank me for how I was helping her daughters. And she had carried a large basket of fruit from the bazaar as a gift for me. I was overwhelmed to think that I hadn’t even wanted to open the door.

Late in the evening, as we sat around singing carols as a family and opening the gifts we had wrapped for each other, I looked around at our children and I thought about this Christmas Day when those bells had rung the whole day. What a day we had all had, our children right along side us, serving all those cups of tea to our friends with not a single complaint.  We were living here in Pakistan trying to represent Jesus, the One we celebrated on this special day. This had to be one of our best Christmases ever.

Pauline BrownMore about the author: Pauline Brown is the author of Jars of Clay: Ordinary Christians on an Extraordinary Mission in Southern Pakistan  and the co-author of Sindhi: An Introductory Course for English Speakers. Pauline spent over 30 years in the country of Pakistan, learning daily to communicate across the boundaries that daily life presented. She is an Amazing Woman who loves God and her family of five children and their spouses, 17 grandchildren (and some of their spouses) and six of the cutest great grandchildren the world has possibly ever seen.

All Because the Sun is Not Shining in Germany

My friend Sabine recently commented on Facebook about the sun in Germany. Evidently it hasn’t been shining much lately.

In an instant I was transported back to summer of my 14th year and a farm in Germany. Although Sabine is far younger than I am, her parents and mine were good friends in Pakistan. It was a German-American alliance of the best sort. I remember a mutual love and respect for the Munzinger family and we adored their (at the time) little kids – Sabine and André.

The summer of 1974 saw us leaving Pakistan for a year furlough in the United States. I would begin high school in a small, town in Massachusetts, the town of my birth. My older brother, Stan, had just graduated from high school in Murree and he and my brother Tom had planned a trip overland through Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and more. They would make their way to Europe, and from there fly to the United States. It is ironic, or perhaps not, that their way was smooth until they reached the Detroit airport. This is another story but it belongs to my brothers.

The rest of us and my cousin Barb would travel through Europe before arriving in Boston. The Munzinger family contacted relatives and arranged for us to stay with these relatives on a farm in Germany.

So there we were, on acres of beautiful farmland in the countryside near Koln. Green and lush as can be and treated royally by this delightful family.

It was on this trip that I learned the only German I know “Mine auto ist kaputt” taught to me by Sabine’s grandmother, a complete delight. We laughed until my stomach ached with the strain of fun as we tried to communicate – she a white-haired woman, I a confused teen, coming straight from a protected, small setting miles away from Germany. I milked a goat and learned that I didn’t like warm milk straight from the source. I tasted my first chocolate with liqueur in it, which, for this missionary kid who had never tasted alcohol, felt scandalous. I ate more than a few chocolates that day, feeling sweetly devious and grown-up.

We, strangers to these German relatives, were welcomed because of our connections and relationship with a German family that had made their home in Pakistan. It’s remarkable, really. Living now in an area of the United States where it can feel difficult to make friends with people, and dropping in spontaneously to homes is reserved for only the best of friends, I marvel at our welcome on that farm near Koln.

This memory wells up, all because the sun is not shining in Germany.

The way memories are called up is fascinating in any setting for any person, whether they have lived in the same town or grown up across the globe. And perhaps this is one of the marks of growing older as well, we want to capture those memories through pictures and prose. In the absence of a place to return to, those of us in the between worlds category have memories called up through reading newspapers of uprisings and drone attacks, through typhoons and regime changes, through hearing about someone’s vacation and because the sun is not shining in Germany.

It’s a world where memories are not bound to one geographic location, rather they are spread across the globe with this friend in Canada, the next in Germany, the third in Mongolia. Our tribe spreads its wings far and its impossible to keep up with where we have landed.

But the memories are as sweet as liqueur filled chocolates, and twice as satisfying. 

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cranberry muffins

With Thanksgiving just a couple of days away for those who live in the United States, Stacy brings us a great Cranberry Muffin recipe. Thank you Stacy!

Give Her a Break!

Yesterday at breakfast Lowell was reading NPR journalist, Heather King’s spiritual memoir, Redeemed. I just finished reading it a few days ago too. In some ways it’s a sequel to her book, Parched. If Parched describes the depths to which she sunk in her alcoholism and various addictions, Redeemed, follows her journey out toward God. It’s a well-written document of her honest spiritual journey through the death of her father, breast cancer, community and divorce. The cover describes it best when it says, “A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles toward God, Marginal Sanity and the Peace that Passes all Understanding.”

Lowell, in between bites of cereal, made a comment about King’s battle with cancer. Bronwynn, ever listening, asked, “Is this the same person that was an alcoholic and a drug addict?” When we indicated that it was, she continued, “And now she has breast cancer?” Lowell swallowed and nodded yes. Bronwynn’s response was a quick and heartfelt prayer, “Geez God—Give her a break!”

I have prayed that same prayer for many of my friends over the years. There are times when it seems people are doled out too much. The suffering is too deep, too painful. And it keeps coming. No one has just one isolated sore-spot. Pain piles on pain. Divorce on top of cancer. Death next to another illness. Unemployed and then a suicide in the family. Robbed and shot.

Geez God, give them a break.

Lately I’ve been praying this prayer for my beloved Pakistan. Pakistan is the home of my childhood. I grew up there. I have “aunts” and “uncles” and friends and old neighbours yet there. My memories of the call to prayer, train rides through the Thal Desert, fresh kinoo oranges, playing with goats in the chuks (villages), picnics by the canals are vibrant and very much alive. When I played dress up it was with Gulshazia and Nadine in a secluded courtyard. We folded silky headscarves into burqas and we donned them with innocent modesty and giggles. When we played kitchen it was over a small brick fire pit. Sitting on our haunches we madly stirred our imaginary curry and kneaded the dough for pretend roti. Sometimes mom actually let us light a fire. Sometimes we had a real potato to cut into our pot. Sometimes we had real atta to mix with water to make our roti dough.

Pakistan, since its beginning in 1947, has been through the wringer. Political instability, caught in the crossroads of terror trafficking, rocked repeatedly by drought, earthquakes and floods it can’t seem to cut a break. And yet my heart cries out for that very thing, Geez God—give her a break!

In some ways I suppose I’m still trying to process the attack at All Saint’s Church in Peshawar that happened on September 22nd. Earlier in March, in Lahore, an angry mob burned two churches and blazed over a hundred homes of Christians. An earthquake hit on September 30 and another one rumbled through on October 6th. On October 16th, 2013, a suicide bomber attacked the law minister, Israr Gandapur, in his home as he celebrated Eid with friends and well-wishers. Eight were killed and another thirty were wounded. Wikipedia has thirty-eight pages dedicated to “Suicide bombings in Pakistan” –and all that just since 2007! Watching this place that I love suffer so much, so deeply, so repeatedly has been unbearable.  Others of us who claim Pakistan, either by birth or by adoption, also struggle to come to grips with it all. It’s become this unbelievable patchwork of griefs so deep and impossibly difficult to articulate perpetually shrouding my soul.

And yet so often it seems to me that Pakistan is so misunderstood. It’s been painted by the media to be the source of all terrorism, and all evil. I want the world to know that Pakistanis are not the enemy. Pakistanis should not be judged by the acts of evil or by the terror-sharers that come from the region.  Imagine if outsiders or foreigners heard of the shootings in Colorado, or the tragedy last winter in Newtown, Connecticut and they mistook all Americans as violent senseless evil-doers.  We would rise up in protest at such ignorant generalizations. And we must do that now too on behalf of Pakistanis.

Pakistanis are the victims. They have suffered repeatedly at the hands of evil-doers. They’ve experienced more terror and violence than we can ever imagine. War is constantly fought on her northern borders. Relations with India are fragile at best. To the west Afghanistan’s prolonged issues leak out into Pakistan. It’s too much. Terrorists maybe the enemy. But they are not just our enemies. They are Pakistan’s enemies too.  Pakistani Muslims and Christians are the prize. We need to fight for and win that precious prize.

I plead for mercy for this, my war-wracked country. I petition for justice for a place where the seeds of corruption were planted generations ago and continue to push up like a noxious weed. I beseech The God of Ishmael and Isaac to show favour on those who seek Truth and Peace.  I pray the US has great wisdom in her dealings and interactions with this vulnerable country. Pakistan was never meant to be America’s diving board into the region.  The use of drone strikes is unjust and cruel. The innocent are killed. The grieving and the angry; the hurt and the confused rise up like a swarm of stirred up bees. Pakistan’s independence, sovereignty and attempts to rule her own country are thwarted with each new drone attack. A successful hit still doesn’t, in my mind, justify the hundreds of unarmed civilians killed in unsuccessful hits who’ve been killed. (Wikipedia estimates that anywhere from 286-890 innocent people have been killed –including over 160 children.)

Pakistan is a country rich in history and natural resources whose people are warm and dignified, whose culture is hospitable and generous. She has much to offer the globe. She understands the complexities of being a smaller younger sibling in a feuding clan as she stands together with her South Asian family: Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Pakistanis invite others into deep loyal friendships that are laced with a wonderful sense of humour. Pakistanis love children and respect the elderly; they hate to offend anyone; time is flexible and free flowing; they respect modesty. You’ll never eat more delicious food, or drink better chai. There is a deep kindness that cloaks the Pakistani culture. You know it as you enter it. Pakistanis are very gracious and welcoming.

But mostly, I cry from a heart perplexed by the complexities of so much sorrow, and with complete reverence: Geez God, give her a break!

When Discussions on Evil Don’t Help

English: Lady Reading Hospital Peshawar Pakistan

It’s late Sunday night and my head and my heart hurt. The death toll rises from a double suicide bomb attack on a vibrant church in Peshawar Pakistan. Those of us with connections in the area are glued to news sources, trying to glean whatever we can from the pitiful western coverage of this event.

I wrote a friend earlier today – her children are in school in Kenya, and though they don’t live in Nairobi, I know this school and I know that they visit Nairobi and probably this shopping mall. I have not heard whether her children were there or not, but the likelihood of her not being affected by the siege on the mall is slim. Another friend whose daughter lives in Kenya posts that she is “safe” and I breathe for her.

At one time I would have wondered “Where is God in all of this?” I no longer wonder in the same way. Instead I scream for mercy to save us from ourselves. To save us from the awful horror that is human on human violence, so much worse than any ‘natural’ disaster. I cry out that God intervene in what St. Augustine describes as the “parasite” of evil.

The problem of evil has been a conundrum for theologians since time began – but when people are in pain, discussions on the problem of evil seriously lack the ability to give substantive comfort. Instead, what people need is empathy, prayers for courage and hope, prayers that they will feel the love and mercy of God in a tangible way. And when I think prayer is not enough – I go back to the words of my son Jonathan this summer: “Mom, when you think about it, prayer is the greatest expression of empathy we can possibly give.” 

In April after the Marathon bombings I wrote a piece called In the Midst of Tragedy- A Call to Pray and I leave you with an excerpt from that piece:

“Five times a day a Call to Prayer rings out across the Muslim world. I am fully aware of the differences in truth claims between Christianity and Islam – yet five times a day for much of my life I am reminded to lift my heart in prayer. And the five times stretches to many times in between until I realize I am slowly learning that I can’t make it through this life without prayer; that the exhortation to ‘pray without ceasing’ is life-giving. That in the midst of senseless acts of violence, in the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he ‘willingly endured the cross’……And so I pray the only words I know how: Lord have mercy. Hear our prayer. Free us from our pain.

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For more information on the church bombing in Peshawar, Pakistan I urge you to go to this post written by a blogging friend who lives in Peshawar: Peshawar church bombing a condensation of horror and loss.

From the article:

“This is a catastrophe for the Christian community of Pakistan,” my secretary Ashbel Taj said to me a few minutes ago.  He had just returned from visiting the wounded at Lady Reading Hospital after today’s bombing at All Saints’ Church in the heart of the old city of Peshawar.

Despite having the largest trauma unit in the world, the hospital scene was chaotic, he said, as staff struggled to treat the 200 or more wounded.  Information is still emerging, but numerous conversations with colleagues in Peshawar – I’m in the USA at the moment – indicate that 150 or more people were killed.

I’ve tried to reach Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters, but he is fully occupied in visiting the wounded in hospital.  He was on visitation at the parish in Bannu, in Waziristan, but rushed back upon news of the bombing. Read the rest of the article here!