Success Redefined

It has not been an easy week.

From difficulty with websites to difficulty with people, there are times when I would like life to be easier.

I’m sitting now at one of the two coffee shops in Rania, listening to Adele on repeat. Adele is easy on the ears, and I find myself gradually relaxing. Just before I left the university today, I spoke with two colleagues. “I don’t know how you do it” I said. “You face barriers in every single thing you do, and yet you don’t give up. You continue to face life with hope, joy, and laughter.”

This is the honest truth. Most of our Kurdish friends have life circumstances that are much more difficult than ours. Yet, I don’t hear them complaining. They face every day with far more joy and hope than I have. This is remarkable.

Much of what my husband and I face here is learning to redefine success. Success at our jobs in the United States was easy to define. We had deliverables and performance reviews. We had deadlines and targets. Our lives were both dictated by grants and all that goes into them: problem statements, proposed plan, graphs, evidence, tables, objectives, outcomes, conclusions, and attachments. All of it wove together to create a fairly concrete system of success. It was easy to know if we were doing our jobs well.

We have entered into a system where none of that exists; where we search and search and search to find grants that our university is eligible to apply for. Once we find those proverbial needles in haystacks, we search and search to see if they fit with our universities capability. The amounts of money are tiny. I was used to dealing in hundreds of thousands to a couple million dollars while my husband was used to dealing in millions. Now, we get excited when we see a grant for five thousand dollars. The smaller the grant, the more the funder seems to want in terms of paper work. So we end up spending as much time on writing a grant for five thousand dollars as we used to for a million.

There are times when we are convinced it is a losing battle. We set up our ‘to do’ lists, only to be outdone by lack of electricity, no internet and hard to describe infrastructure challenges.

Lately I’ve come to not try to redefine it. I’ve come to realize that success is an arbitrary losing battle. But faithfulness – that feels possible.

Success is defined by performance. Faithfulness is defined by constancy.

Success is defined by accomplishment. Faithfulness by devotion.

Success is defined by achievement. Faithfulness by commitment.

Success is defined by attaining a goal. Faithfulness by being true to a promise.

As long as we posed the question “How do we redefine success?” we were still coming out as losing. We felt like failures. But changing it to “Are we being faithful?” This feels helpful.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not just us. Maybe there are others out there that are defining their lives by success when that leaves way too many people out of the equation. Maybe changing the paradigm to faithfulness would change society in indescribable ways. The person who is considered “mentally challenged”, the refugee with no job, the elderly who struggles to move in the morning, the one who is chronically ill, the child, the newborn…. how do they fit into our paradigms of success? How can our world be changed to include faithfulness or mere existence as markers of value?

So what does faithfulness mean to me at this moment? It means that I’ll not complain about lack of resources. That I will learn to love across cultural differences. That I will not rage about no internet. It means that I will be kind and honor others, that I will communicate in spirit and in truth, that I will love hard and pray harder, that I will love God and love others, that I will read, speak, and write words that honor God, that echo truth.  

“Just be faithful.”

Just be faithful – it’s something I’ve written about before, and so I’ll close with some words I wrote some time ago:

The words continue “Marilyn, I know you’re tired. Just be faithful. With my strength be faithful.” There is now a heavy rain falling and those of us on our way to work are leaving the subway. There is a puddle three inches deep on the platform right before the stairs, just deep enough to seep into shoes before going up to dark clouds and rain. I’m still tired but I walk with One who knows tired, with One who knows pain, with One who knows what it is to live out faithful in this beautiful, broken world.

Goodbye 250

I get on the bus and swipe my Charlie Card, my ticket to discounted rides for the last ten and a half years. The bus driver nods as I say hello. There is room to sit down, but I stand. Central Square is a 12-minute walk from my house, but the bus is a wonderful back up when I’m running late. Or when it’s hot. Or when it’s cold. Or just because it’s there and it’s morning, and in the morning I’m a slow mover.

As I step to the side to hold onto a bar, I see that my bus friend is there. Bus friends are those special people that become a part of you and that cynics tell you are not your real friends, but you know better. This particular ‘friend’  works at Simmons College and we have seen each other a couple of days a week ever since I moved to Cambridge. We exchange greetings and I compliment her on a new hair cut. She laughs. It’s not the cut she says – it’s the glasses. “Ever since I got new glasses I’ve had compliments on my hair!” I laugh and say whatever it is, it’s a good look. We older women need each other. We know that our youth is gone. We know that our bodies and our faces bear the marks of life, sometimes well-lived, and sometimes just lived. We know that worship and attention go to the young, and so whatever we can give to each other, we give with abandon.

I get off at Central Square and walk down the steps to the subway. I do all these things without even thinking. They are second nature. I am now the person that strangers in the city approach – I earned the right to belong without even knowing I had earned it.

The subway ride is short. I know every station before we even get there. I know the pictures that form the tiles at Kendall/MIT. I know the coming out of the darkness and into the light of Charles MGH, the Charles River – beautiful, no matter the season. I know the sailboats on the river, their sails identifying the schools or organizations to whom they belong. I know the view of Boston from the subway. The subway moves on, going underground again to stop at Park Street. I get off and make my way up the stairs, into the light of Boston Common.

Park Street church, with its church bells that ring every day at noon, stands solid in front of me. Suffolk University School of Law is just down Tremont Street on the right. The gold-domed Statehouse stands tall up the hill to my left.

An ambulance bears down on the street, disrupting the early morning calm, as if reminding all of us that this is a city, and cities are never really still.

I begin to walk up Tremont Street, realizing that this city has become a part of me without me even realizing it. The beauty of the city with its walkability, its green spaces and its old charm is a part of me. The ugly of the city with some of its past abuses is now in my conscience. The good that I have been honored to be a part of through my job, watching community health centers and hospitals work with those most in need, is on my shoulders and in my body.  I know the names of some of the homeless. I know people who serve at the restaurants around me. I know the doormen at the Omni Parker Hotel. My husband would tell you that I know the manager of TJ Maxx, but I would quickly refute him.

From Tremont, I turn right at the Omni Parker, famous for Parker House Rolls and Boston Cream Pie, and continue down School Street, soon turning left onto Washington Street. I stop in front of the revolving doors of 250 Washington Street and take in the moment. I look at it hard. I entered these doors to work, first as consultant and then as full-time employee, in April of 2008. I have never stayed at a workplace for so long. Until this job, I never had to work through staying when the work gets mundane. I never had to work through bureaucracy and the patience it produces. I never fought so hard for programs to serve communities that I love as I did in this job. I never had the honor of working with community members who fight every day for their communities to get what they need. I have never laughed so hard or so much with colleagues. I have never shared myself the way I have with these colleagues, many who are now friends. I have never fought so hard, worked so hard, or felt so much joy with the results as I have these past ten years. It has been hard work and it has been such a privilege. I leave knowing what it is to quietly and persistently fight for what you love. We have been able to do work in the foreign-born Muslim community that I never thought possible. We now have a 5-year grant with a focus on women’s health in the Asian, Black, and foreign-born Muslim communities. I’ve learned the joy and strength that comes from fighting hard to serve those you love.

Somehow along the way during these ten years I have become a part of something bigger than myself and I have become from somewhere. It happened without a fight or a big bang. Instead, daily putting one step in front of the other I became a part of this city and her people, and she became a part of me.

And today is my last work day. The last day that I sit in my cubicle, answer emails from my official email account, and answer the phone in my official capacity. Soon I will leave Boston and Cambridge. A plane will take me thousands of miles away to a small apartment on the other side of the world. I will leave a place I love to go to a place I have begun to love. Who is so fortunate? I ask myself this question every day. 

And when people ask me where I’m from, I will say with some pride, and no hesitation “I’m from Boston.” Those are sweet words indeed. 

Physical Therapy, Editing, and Sanctification

 

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I try to relax as a skilled professional stretches my muscles. My leg goes up, far above my head; far higher than I could imagine. He holds it in place for 30 seconds, teaching me, explaining what he is doing and why. He has me lie on my left side and works the muscles on my right leg. His name is Alex and he is a gifted therapist and teacher. I have already done the bike and the leg press machine. This physical therapy is hard work. I want it to be easy. I want a quick fix. But instead, it is a slow and arduous process. But I see results. They are small and don’t seem significant, but to me they are huge steps forward. Yesterday, for the first time in two months, I did not limp to work. I breathe deeply as Alex stretches my muscles again. There are so many times when I want to give up, when I want to admit defeat and say “I can’t do this. It’s too hard.” But I keep on going and my leg gets stronger.

///

This past year I have watched an initially chaotic set of writings become an actual book that is almost ready to be birthed into the world. Good editors have taken my words and they have worked and reworked them like Alex works my muscles. I have had to give up control and let others take away words and sentences and then tell me to add other words and sentences. The goal: that a cohesive story emerges and my voice is not lost in the process. It has been a difficult but essential process. The final proof to my book arrived last week. There have been months, weeks, and days of wanting to give up, wanting to admit defeat and say “I can’t do this. It’s too hard.” But I keep on going, and a book is born.

///

I went to confession last Friday. It has been weeks since I have gone. This process of admitting sin, admitting wrong doing – it is so hard. But when I finally go, I breathe a sigh of relief. This is not something that will get me to Heaven, it isn’t a litmus test, but it is so healthy and freeing. Like the Psalmist David, I can say “Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…” My spiritual muscles have been weak and mushy. Like my physical muscles, they need work – stretching to make them stronger. Like physical therapy, there are many exercises that I have learned. There’s confession, spiritual direction, prayer, meditation, being a part of a faith community that challenges you and forces you to forgive and grow. There is a big word for this used by theologians – sanctification. It is the “act or process of being made holy.”  There are so many times when I want to give up, when I want to admit defeat and say “I can’t do this. It’s too hard.” But I keep on going – because to give up would be to deny what I believe and love. So I keep on going and slowly, my faith gets stronger.

My body, my book, my beliefs – they have more in common than I could ever imagine.

Let’s Talk About Lack of Choice in the Workplace

 

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This past week Brenda Barnes died. She was 64 years old.

You may not know much about Brenda Barnes, but she is an interesting role model for women looking at work choices. Brenda was the first CEO of PepsiCo. She broke the proverbial glass ceiling, but for her it wasn’t enough. After working as CEO for one year, she quit her job. Her reason? So she could spend more time with her family. Her decision made national headlines and anyone and everyone felt they had a right to comment on that decision.

On one side she was seen as a traitor of sorts — how dare she quit! Didn’t she realize that she owed it to all business women everywhere to stay in the job and do well?

On another side she was hailed as a hero — look at her! She gave it all up for the kids.

But this post isn’t about Brenda Barnes. This is about the lack of choice in the workplace in the United States of America.

Let me tell you why I think I have a right to talk about this: I have worked full time for the past 14 years while raising five children. Prior to that, I worked part time for 9 years (24 to 32 hours a week) so that we could put food on the table and gas in the car. Before that, I was a stay-at-home mom living overseas and navigating life in another culture. I’ve been in a place where I honestly didn’t know if we would have the money to make rent and fix our car to a place where I occasionally have extra and can help others. I’ve seen and done it all.

It is the year 2017, and I see just as much rigidity and lack of work-life balance as I did fourteen years ago. Maybe more so. Why are employers so non family friendly? Why do we have such poor working options for parents? Why is maternity leave a paltry three months if you’re lucky, leaving women crying in bathrooms as they attempt to pump breast milk for their three-month-old? Why do employers think more work can be completed in a cubicle, then in a home office? These are just a few of the many questions I ask all the time.

And so I pose a question: In the year 2017, why is it that the two most flexible jobs for women are as nurses and as teachers? This is assanine. Female engineers, chefs, software developers, public health professionals, and doctors (to name just a few) are married to rigid schedules and employers. Pitiful earned time policies and lack of options for women who want to work part time all add up and take their toll on families. In the eyes of employers, our children do not exist. They are neither seen nor heard.

If a woman does take time off to care for her children, it is extremely difficult for her to enter the workforce. The unsaid question is “What did you do all those years that was significant?”

Well, let me tell you what she did:

  • She managed a household and kept a budget, ensuring that her family did not go into debt.
  • She chaperoned hundreds of little kids on field trips, showing her amazing ability to organize.
  • She kept up with children’s extracurricular activities, hustling them back and forth from home to soccer to music to church and then back home.
  • She went to parent teacher organizations and organized plays and dinners for fund raisers.
  • She made sure that immunizations were up to date and kids had braces.
  • She answered to a world that asked her “what she did all day?”.

She could run an entire company single handedly, yet the interview team has the audacity to ask her what she did that was “significant”.

I’m telling you, when it comes to the lack of family friendly workplaces, we need a revolution. It is ridiculous.

So, what are my solutions?  I don’t have solutions, but I do have thoughts.

  • First of all, for god’s sake don’t condemn a woman for her work or home choices. I know how hard it is to make choices on work and home. Every April, I went into a panic thinking about the summer and what I would do in the summer. I got criticism from stay-at-home moms when I went back to work; and I got criticism from working moms when I stayed home. This is what fellow women do to each other and we can’t blame anyone but ourselves — we criticize each other. Remember the mean girls from high school? Well they never really go away. They just have different names and different clothes. They also get a lot meaner.
  • Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask a stay-at-home mom what she does all day. I repeat: Never.
  • If you are an employer or manager, please consider offering flexibility. Offer compressed work weeks; offer part time positions; offer job sharing; offer work from home. We are 2017! These should be no brainers.
  • Today’s working women: Fight for better maternity leave. Fight for better time off. Fight for more flexibility.
  • Figure out what works for you and guard your choice. If you choose to work, don’t assume that stay-at-home moms will always be there to help you. If you choose to stay at home or work part time, don’t whine about not going out to dinner as much as you want.

Lastly, always ask yourself the question “Who do I want to like me when I am 80?” I guarantee the answer will not be your employer. I look back all the time and think “I was so often in a hurry, rushing to get kids here or there. What did all that rushing get me?” A sore hip – that’s what it got me.

Brenda Barnes left an interesting and important legacy, one that I wish was talked about more frequently. Her daughter, Erin, was interviewed this past week by NPR and in the interview, she talked about being influenced by her mom to change her own profession. What did she pick? Nursing.

At Brenda’s funeral, her daughter thanked people for coming, saying “My mom would want me to tell you, ‘Don’t work too hard.'”*  Indeed. 

*https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/24/opinion/brenda-barness-wisdom-and-our-anti-parent-workplace.html?_r=0

Get a Life

“Oh, for God’s sake…get a life, will you?”–William Shatner

 

Connor left nearly a month ago to return to the University of British Columbia. As he and Lowell pulled away from the house I felt the bottle of grief shaken within me lose its scarcely screwed on lid. Before I knew it I was drenched, inside and out, with sadness. I came into the house, sat in my chair, gently held my coffee cup and cried.

In my sad spot I remembered that this is our Adelaide’s last year of high school too and a fresh wave of grief dragged me under. It felt like my heart would break.

I wondered at the strangeness of parenting. We wrap our lives and our hearts around these miniature people. We tend, nurture, guide, direct. We attend concerts and games, plays and competitions. We give up our rights to complete thoughts, finished sentences, sleeping in on Saturdays, uninterrupted conversations, Sunday afternoon naps, free time, long showers, the late show. We trade it all in for diapers, runny noses, giggles, knock knock jokes, princesses, pirate ships, play dough, lego towers, swing pushing, nail painting, homework helping, eye rolling, door slamming, curfew pushing kids! And if we get a minute we’d admit that it was a fair trade. For the most part we’ve loved it—!

In that sad moment in my chair I wanted those days back again. I wanted another turn at it all. I wanted to hold fiercely on to the childhood of my children. They said it would go fast and for the longest time I thought they were mocking me…but now I realized with horror at how right they had been. It was over with my kids before it had really begun in me.

As I sat sipping my coffee, which now oddly tasted like nostalgia and sorrow, I thought to myself, “Robynn, You need to get a life”! I suppose it was a mild rebuke from my more sensible self to my emoting sobbing self. Even as I thought it another thought quickly jumped up in defense of me. Wait a minute…I do have a life!

I do. I have purpose. I’m a spiritual director in training. My brain is being stretched and stimulated by the program I’m enrolled in. I have a broad worldview. I’ve had the humbling privilege of travel and crossing cultures in varying places around the globe. I’m a part of an Environmental Missions effort. I’m passionate about climate change and its effects on the world. I care deeply about the oppressed and long for justice. I have deep friendships with interesting people who expand my world in significant ways. My thoughts are often outside of my inside domestic duties. I read books, I engage in conversation, I watch the occasional documentary, I listen to intellectually stimulating podcasts.

Honestly I think that’s one of the best gifts I’ve given my children. They’ve seen my heart for others. They know I have a wide circle. They’ve heard me rant about racial injustice, about welcoming the immigrant, about caring for the poor. They’ve seen my eyes fill with tears with concern for friends that are hurting. They know I have dreams and goals and longings outside of our home.

I attended an international boarding school in the Himalayan foothills of Pakistan. Multiple times a year we’d have to say goodbye to our parents. It was devastatingly difficult. But I’m convinced it was made marginally easier because we knew my parents had purpose. We knew they loved each other well. Their marriage was solid. We knew they’d be ok without us.

Kids need to know that their parents are going to be all right when they’re not around. It’s too much pressure for a child to believe that his mother’s or his father’s emotional well-being is connected to him. He needs to know they have a life without him.

There are ways we interpret our obsession with our kids that sound noble and self-sacrificing. But I wonder if we scraped those notions back down to the frame if we’d find something more self-serving than we originally thought? Does it give us a sense of importance? Are we tethering our identity solely to our role as caregiver?

I’m not saying that being a parent is not an important vital job. By all means it is! But the goal is to work yourself out of a job. We want to raise adults that are independent, that no longer need us for their daily cares. We want to train up people that know what it means to contribute in valuable ways to the world around them. They will not know about that unless we show them. It will be important to your health and the health of your progeny that you have some other meaningful thing to give yourself to.

I suppose there’s no real easy way to say this….but moms and dads –you have got to get a life! I don’t care what age your kids are now, begin, even today to imagine a little life outside of your children. Start researching ideas of what you might want to do. Pray it through. Take up a hobby that energizes you. Are there distance education classes you could enroll in even now? Are there places you could meaningfully volunteer? Are there courses offered in your community that might spark your imagination? Do you have dormant dreams that you used to think about? What would it look like to fan some of those back into flame? The little people won’t be little for long. Start now and get a life!

 

 

On Work and the Third Culture Kid

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A couple of months ago I did a series called “Finding Your Niche.” This series was a set of guest posts by third culture kids who have found places that fit their multicultural pasts. The theme of the series – “How do I connect my multicultural past with a meaningful present?” The essays were excellent. From law to international development to living in an expat community to seeing yourself in the light of your family history, everyone had a story of finding their niche.

It’s a question that so many of us raised between worlds ask ourselves all the time. How do I find work that has meaning? How do I fit into the cultural values of my passport country when I know so little about it? Do I matter? Does my background matter or will it just fade into oblivion, like an old file into a file folder, only to be dug up long after I’m gone?

How can I take the invisible skills that served me so well for so long and connect them to where I now work?

Some people find it easier than others. Whether by sheer luck or strategic career choices they land in a place where they can use the best of who they are as third culture kids in their places of work. Others struggle. They live in rural Iowa, or small town Vermont, or any number of places where diversity is the one adopted kid on their street, and the only ethnic restaurant is bad Chinese food at a take out place – food that those from China would never recognize.

It’s easy to point to the adult third culture kids who have jobs in, let’s say the White House, but then there are the rest of us. The TCK from Nigeria who has lived all over the world and is trying to settle into a role in Lagos; the TCK who grew up in Pakistan, now settled in a tiny town in the UK that hates Pakistanis; the TCK who looks at Valerie Jarrett and President Obama and thinks “I could do their job!”

This is incredibly tough. It’s not being a baby and discontent to admit that nothing in our lives prepared us for small, seemingly narrow-minded spaces in our passport countries, it’s accepting reality.

Coupled with that is the natural restlessness, the sense that we need to get to the airport and catch the first plane to anywhere just to relieve the ache in our souls. The restlessness when we feel like others take too long to make decisions, aren’t willing to see the point of view of those different from them, or simply seem too monocultural in their approach.

“Often from a young age, TCKs are unofficial ambassadors to other nations, representing one country while living in another. TCKs know from life experience that there is nothing more important than the relationships that are formed between people and, because of this, TCKs are often able to look past things such as differences in nationality, religion, and culture in the interest of forging new friendships. Moreover, TCKs also have multiple identities, often able to easily adopt the culture of their host country, and eventually creating their own hybrid culture.” from Career Choices and the Influence of Third Culture Kids on International Relations

Sometimes the solution is to find another job. It really is. Sometimes there is a better fit for us, a place where those ‘best of’ skills can be used. Other times we are to stay put. Stay put and look at the big picture. What can we offer to our company? To our place of work? Where can we listen, learn, and challenge the status quo in a given situation or work place?

With a mobile childhood, life choices differ. Some people never want to move again. I have moved my kids from the proverbial “pillar to post” and I know that has worn on them, made them alternately restless and longing for roots. A couple of my kids may never end up moving again. Others may be similar to me and my husband, restless at 6 years and moving at 7. But even though life choices differ, some of what we bring to our work and our communities is similar.

I think this is a time when we need to look at some of the research, some of those characteristics and traits of the TCK. It’s not to put us in a box, not to down play our individuality, but rather to help guide us so that we can see what we can bring to our jobs in small towns and spaces. For instance we know that “Only 21 percent of the American population (24 percent of men and 18 percent of women) have graduated from a four-year college. In sharp contrast, 81 percent of the adult TCKs have earned at least a bachelor’s degree (87 percent of the men, 76 percent of the women). Half of this number have gone on to earn master’s degrees and doctorates.” [ ©1993, 1999, by Ruth Hill Useem and Ann Baker Cottrell.]

We also know that when surveyed on adjusting to their passport countries the response was that they “never adjust.” Not really. Let me quantify that by again quoting Dr. Ruth Hill Useem “The answer to the question of how long it takes them to adjust to American life is: they never adjust. They adapt, they find niches, they take risks, they fail and pick themselves up again. They succeed in jobs they have created to fit their particular talents, they locate friends with whom they can share some of their interests, but they resist being encapsulated. Their camouflaged exteriors and understated ways of presenting themselves hide the rich inner lives, remarkable talents, and often strongly held contradictory opinions on the world at large and the world at hand.” There is much more research available but this gives a window into education and gifts that you may bring to your place of work.

Along with some of the books and resources available are other TCKs who are a step ahead of us. They seem so amazing, so well adjusted, but what we see on the surface, the contentment and satisfaction, comes with a story. Hearing that story can be encouraging and life-changing. Knowing they walked through a path of trying to find their niche and figure out where they fit gives us hope and helps push us to action or gives us patience to wait.

As I’ve said so often, I have done no research; all I have is earned fact. So here is what I believe in general third culture kids bring to the workplace:

  1. The art of negotiation – this is huge in today’s world. One has only to look at the abhorrent comments section on any controversial article to know that too many in our world are unable and unwilling to dialogue. Unwilling to look at a middle ground and negotiate. As third culture kids we have had to do that since birth.
  2. Flexibility and a high tolerance of ambiguity – when you spend a huge amount of your life in travel, airports, missing flights, rearranging schedules you learn that life brings you surprises. We can model this in our spheres of influence.
  3. Sensitivity – We know what it is like to feel different, to feel marginalized, to feel ‘other.’ What a gift in today’s world! Look around you – who is ‘other’ in your community? Who struggles with belonging? Who wears veils – not literal ones, figurative? Who hides who they are and needs someone to come along side them. There are many. Mother Teresa famously said:
    Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see. Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society — completely forgotten, completely left alone.”We can do this! Indeed I’ve seen it many times.
  4. Cultural competency and humility – If you define cultural competency at its most basic level, it is about learning to communicate and function effectively across cultural barriers, cultural differences. So no matter where you live in the world, cultural competency is a useful, even necessary skill. In our increasingly diverse societies, it is indeed a critical life skill. The term cultural humility was developed in 1998 by two physicians: Dr. Melanie Tervalon and Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia. They proposed that this was what the goal should be when it comes to looking at outcomes in patients. They say this: “Cultural humility incorporates a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, to redressing the power imbalances in the patient-physician dynamic, and to developing mutually beneficial and non paternalistic clinical and advocacy partnership with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations.” I propose that the same principal can be used in other relationships by taking the first part of their definition and applying it across our lives, wherever we may be. Cultural humility incorporates a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique. 
  5. Fun and a sense of adventure – In our stressed out world, who better to help people relax and not take themselves, or their work, too seriously?

When you think about those characteristics, they can be used in any work situation. While they seem best used in international settings, at least to those of us with one foot in the air, they are life skills and they are valuable.

With every strength comes a weakness, and we are not going into that today. That’s for another day. But if you are a third culture kid or an adult third culture kid be encouraged! Your background gives you an amazing perspective. May we all be able to do the sometimes hard work of making it matter!  

 What would you add to the list of what adult third culture kids/third culture kids bring to the workplace?

Only a few days left to buy Between Worlds and in doing so donate to the refugee crisis in Syria. Head to Amazon or Barnes & Noble for your copy and all proceeds go to a cause! 

On Work and Charlie

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Let me tell you about Charlie.

I work in one of the busiest parts of the city of Boston. From tourists with money to spend to homeless without money, this area sees it all. There are the wealthy and the poor, the able and the lame, the seeing and the blind, the casual dresser and the sophisticated business woman.

And there is Charlie.

Charlie is completely wheelchair bound with a body that won’t do what he wants. He is dependent on people for all activities of daily living. His motorized wheelchair allows him to push some buttons and go short distances, but otherwise his chair and his body are prisons. A black bag across the back of the wheelchair holds his supplies for the day – water, a thermos of coffee, a small radio – he is in his own words a “purveyor of un-cool music.” Charlie is difficult to understand, but if you really listen he’s got a great sense of humor and a strong personality.

I first saw Charlie in a church we used to attend downtown. There he was, every Sunday at the end of the aisle. It was a later on that I realized he must live in the area because beginning with the first warm days of spring through the fall, in rain or shine, Charlie is outside. He is the eyes and ears of the area, taking in far more than anyone imagines.

The Charlies of our world make us uncomfortable. We don’t know how to interact or what to say. We feel guilty that we can’t do more and it is so easy to walk by. And Charlie can’t work. There is nothing he can do to be what our society deems as “productive.” Absolutely nothing. But he shows up, he is not despairing, he communicates as he is able and when people will listen.

So when I think about work, value, productivity, and cultural beliefs about work I can’t help but think about Charlie. When I think about a theology of work, Charlie looms ever-important.

Because if work is what gives us our only value than Charlie has no value. If work and salaries are what a society has held up as the only standard, than we must discard many in our world. More so, if this is all we have than we’ve nowhere to go but down hill.

In a sermon on work Tim Keller, a pastor at a large church in New York City says (and I paraphrase) this: When you understand the gospel, a gospel of grace you can rest from the need to find yourself in your work, rest from the need to have your sole identity and your soul’s identity be in your work. If you don’t, he warns, you will work yourself to death or become cynical. Our work is to be for God, for others, for our community. It is an expression of the energy and creativity of our Creator.

And it hit me yesterday as I saw Charlie – my work is for Charlie. Not directly, but indirectly. Being faithful to what God has given me, to where God has gifted me, honors the Charlies of our world; those who would give much to be whole, who would give anything to have Jesus come by their side and say “Pick up your mat and walk – go to work – go and do what you’ve never been able to do.” My work is part of the bigger story in our world – and that is God’s story. Not my story, not Charlie’s story, not your story.

Not only that, Charlie unknowingly serves as my teacher; a guide to what is really valuable in life and a representative of something bigger than I can really understand. And that is our personhood, the fact that we have value because we exist and are made by God. There is nothing else that truly gives us value. 

So today I work for God and for Charlie, and I’ll learn from God and from Charlie. Tomorrow I’ll struggle again – I know that. And in writing tomorrow I’ll work through some of the third culture kid struggle with 9-5 jobs and fitting into a western societal mold. But for today I pray I will honor the Charlies of our world by working where God has placed me.

I loved the comments from yesterday’s post – both on the blog and on the Facebook page. There was so much wisdom in them. Here are a few excerpts but head over to the post to read the full comments:

From Sharon: “I have always believed there is a dignity to work. As we seek to reflect God in all ways, we can’t ignore that our God is a creative, active God. Work is only “one” of the ways we are active. It can be drudgery or delight less by what the actual work is but more so what we bring to it.”

From Maureen: “We are told in Genesis essentially to work our garden, in spite of the weeds which will we will have to constantly remove—a highly repetetive and discouraging but necessary task. For most of us, working is in itself a pleasure, as long as we can imagine the final product coming: the fruit of our labor. When our work flows, when we see the light in a studen’ts eye, when a sick person recovers, we feel content and everything seems right with the world. When we hit snags, peope are unresponsive or deliberately obstructive, schedules stress or patients worsen, the weeds are winning, and work chokes our spirits.”

What about you? What are your thoughts on your work being part of a bigger story? On your work being partly for the Charlies of our world? 

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/disability-rehabilitation-wheelchair-224130/

Buy Between Worlds today! Head to Amazon or Barnes & Noble for your copy! 

On Work – What it Means, Why it Matters

work

“We live within two worlds, the covenantal cosmos of God and the pluralizing, secularizing, globalizing world of the 21st-century. How do we hold them together with any kind of coherence? All of us live within both worlds; we are called to live between these worlds. And in that there is a tension for all of us. Sometimes it seems that we are stretched beyond what we can bear– and sometimes, sometimes we find ways to hold onto our integrity and still live, with faith and hope and love?” from Dr. Steve Garber at Commencement Address – Covenant Seminary St. Louis

It’s Monday and though I want to be a world changer, I find myself once again in a place where I have to fight to keep my spirit alive, where I have to continually remind myself that there is more to life than this. When a war in Gaza is raging and Syria is put on the back burner I struggle to find lasting value where I sit, a window to my back that faces a grim city parking lot. I am cocooned in this space, while a bigger world is in pain. But I’m not growing into a butterfly in this cocoon – I’m smothering.

If you have followed Communicating Across Boundaries for a while this will not surprise you. It’s no secret that I find Mondays difficult. If you track my Monday posts, as one reader did, you see this struggle emerge through my writing. A “bench to bedside” struggle to translate my Sunday rest into my Monday work. What does it mean to live in my world as a person of faith? What does, or should work mean in this context?

Others have written well about a ‘theology of work.’ and I’m wrestling with this myself. What does it mean to have a theology of work? What does it mean to covenant with God around work? How can I see my work, but also the work of others as valuable, no matter what it is? Dorothy Sayers has written a 12-page essay called “Why Work?” I haven’t read all of it. Maybe it’s too long, maybe it’s too convicting. I don’t know but I haven’t read it. But I do know that when she wrote this essay she believed strongly that people were “dying because they don’t have the Biblical doctrine of work.” Tim Keller paraphrases Dorothy Sayers in a sermon on work by saying “Work is the gracious expression of creative energy in the service of others.”

In the movie Chariots of Fire Eric Liddell is challenged by his sister to stop running, to pursue a higher goal, better things. Eric on the other hand believes that he’s been given a gift and that to not use this gift would dishonor God.

In a response made famous through this Oscar-winning movie, Eric looks at his sister Jenny and says“I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” 

I envy this response and I struggle as I think about this. Do I feel God’s pleasure when I work? Because I am struggling with this today I plan to focus on it in the next couple days in my writing. But for now – I want to ask you: What is work to you? Is it something you do so the rest of your life can happen? Do you have a vocation or is work drudgery? Do you count the seconds until the weekend or do you make the seconds at your job count? None of this is to cause guilt – I really want a discussion here because I struggle with this. Do you believe that work should be “the gracious expression of creative energy in service of others?” 

Do you, like Eric Liddell, feel “God’s pleasure” when you work? 

I look forward to today’s conversation!

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/office-keyboard-job-work-381228/

Buy Between Worlds today! Head to Amazon or Barnes & Noble for your copy! 

How Do I Live out Sunday Rest in my Monday Chaos?

With the sweet taste of communion bread still on my tongue I curse Monday morning. How can this be? How can I so quickly forget Sunday’s rest and grace as I step into the day after?

There is always a Monday after. It might not be the literal day, but there is always a Monday after. Whether it be a big event, a transformative experience, a high from a retreat – reality comes after with its sharp teeth and caustic tongue.

What use is Sunday if it doesn’t translate to Monday morning? 

If my calling ignores Mondays then it is of little use. If the clarity of Sunday cannot be applied to the muddy waters of Monday then how can I live effectively?

In a book called Finding Calcutta, the author Mary Poplin, takes a journey to Calcutta to work with Mother Theresa for two months. Through service she discovers a Christianity that she had never experienced before and her heart is changed. But her struggle comes with finding her own Calcutta once she is back in the United States. How can this experience be translated into her work? Her life? She is at a university, not in the slums; surrounded by grey cells and academics, not by nuns; committed to students and learning, not the poor and starving. Yet she was called to apply the same principles to her work that Mother Theresa applied in her calling by God to the poor. Mary was called to translate her Sunday moments into her Monday work.

Memorial plaque dedicated to Mother Teresa by ...

“Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are. . . . You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.” –Mother Teresa

I don’t know much today – but I know I am called to translate Sunday into Monday – I am called to remember the sweet taste of communion bread, the body and the blood, as I move forward into the work of today. I am called to seek God in the details, to understand that nothing is beyond the redemptive work of God, to ‘find the sick, suffering, and lonely’ hidden behind grey government cubicles, to live out Sunday in this Monday.

How do you live out Sunday rest in your Monday chaos?

Happily Non-essential!

Hurricane Sandy has taken the news captive. Judging by the amount of attention and panic this hurricane has caused I’m waiting for it to be called either a right or a left wing conspiracy, designed specifically to take the focus away from the looming election onto the weather.

This storm has again reminded me that Americans know more about the weather than they do their neighbors. It’s a sad commentary as it is weather crises that often bring neighbors together.

As for me – while the hurricane is raging blowing leaves outside, I am happily sipping a homemade pumpkin latte on my couch and waiting for pumpkin, cranberry scones to finish baking. I am not in my usual Monday morning cubicle going through emails and arranging and rearranging my week.

I got the text saying I would not have work yesterday afternoon. “Did you hear the Governor called a State of Emergency? All non-essential workers are to stay home” I knew immediately that it meant me! I’m not essential.

In a world that fights to be known, to be valued, to be essential, I get to be non!

I’ve never been so happy to be non-essential. Because of a storm, I am non-essential.

It struck me as ironic. It is a human trait to want to be known, needed, useful. We seek out affirmation in a myriad of ways. Yet on a Monday morning in the middle of a rushed world, to be called non-essential was a gift.

Being non-essential means I get to bake scones and write blogs; make soup and read; talk to my mom and catch up with my kids. Being non-essential means I can do the things that are so much more gratifying and long-term important than what I do on a regular schedule.

Being non-essential means I get to leave the necessary and catch up with the important — the stuff that lasts.

For if I’m honest what I do in my job will probably not last to the next decade, let alone the next century. But all this other stuff? That’s what really feels important to me.

I’ve never felt more essential then when deemed non…..

How about you? Have you had a time when you’ve been able to leave the necessary and focus on the important? Would love to hear through the comments.

Control+Alt+Delete and God Loveth Adverbs

I sit down at my desk and my fingers automatically reach for the keyboard. I know the keys by heart. In less than a second a screen comes to life. Control+Alt+Delete has done it again. Those three keys have started my day.

It’s my first task and today it gets me. Today I feel I will suffocate in the mundane.The dishes that pile up; clean, full of food, empty, dirty. The laundry that was just done the other day; now dirty and beginning to smell. The emails that seem so trivial; check on this,analyze that, don’t forget the other. The mundane crowds my world.

And I who long to do the sacred, to reflect the heavenly, feel madness in the mundane. I feel grumpy and irreverent. On my short commute I called two people idiots (under my breath, but idiots all the same). I gave someone the Boston stink eye“She gave it to me first!” I silently rationalized. I chose a different way to walk to work, just because I saw a mundane someone I knew and didn’t want a mundane conversation; a “Hi how are you doesn’t Monday suck?” conversation.

The dictionary confirms that I am caught in the mundane. The “Relating to, characteristic of, or concerned with commonplaces; ordinary.” 

Can I have faith that the mundane matters? 

Faith that the mundane matters in this building made of concrete, steel and glass? Faith that control+alt+delete is more than turning on my computer; that the mere act is faithful? That getting up and showering, moving forward when I don’t want to can somehow be turned around, redeemed?

Truth is most of life is lived in the ordinary. I have heard that the Puritans had a saying “God Loveth Adverbs”. In a chapter title by the same name, Philip Yancey in his book Rumors, explores the meaning of this saying. He says it implies “that God cares more about the spirit in which we live than the concrete results”  He goes on to say:

“whether cleaning house or preaching sermons, shoeing horses or translating the Bible….any human activity may constitute an offering to God.”

It is a profound chapter and I’m reminded of it this morning. If God loveth adverbs, then surely control+alt+delete is not out of the bounds of his redemptive power. All these tasks are part of the whole.

Through control+alt+delete I am connected to a breast cancer survivor who is passionate about serving her community by bringing awareness of the disease and availability of early screening; through control+alt+delete I learn of a colleague who isn’t well; through control+alt+delete I am connected to the world both inside and beyond my building, a world that is loved so deeply by God.

And how much of this is God molding me daily to show His character even in the mundane? To learn that the person I just called an idiot is a man, made in the image of God; to understand more of what can come about through ordinary conversations with the woman I avoided.

Surely if God loveth the adverb than he loveth control+alt+delete. As the screen flickers, as if nodding an inanimate head in agreement, I sigh a silent prayer – that the God who delights in showing how the ordinary can connect to the extraordinary will delight in redeeming my Monday mundane. 

A Tree Grows in Kenya

‘Tis the season of wrapping paper, ribbons, and gift cards. It is a season marked by 450 Billion dollars in spending, rum infused eggnog, and massive returns the day after Christmas. It is a season of glittering lights that bring a sense of magic, and deep depression as demonstrated by the increased number of therapy visits during holiday seasons.

This is Christmas. Advent is a different story altogether. Advent is expectation and longing, hope and joy. In the spirit of Advent I want to highlight a way to give that may not reflect the material things of Christmas but reflects Advent beautifully.

It’s bigger than a breadbasket, costs less money than a gift card, and is longer lasting and more valuable than a diamond ring. It is half a world away, but you see one every day. It is simultaneously exotic and practical. It is giving at it’s best. It’s a tree in Kenya!

In my post In Praise of Green Space I contrasted the beautiful green space of London with the absence of green space in Cairo or Karachi. I highlighted my brother Ed’s work at Care of Creation and his love and promotion of green space.  It is in the country of Kenya where the work of Care of Creation began, through the vision of a man name Craig Sorley and my brother, Ed Brown. Sorley is an environmentalist and was featured in Time Magazine in 2008 as a hero of the environment. Both Craig and Ed have an urgent and compelling message, that of caring for our earth, our world. They believe there is a direct call to care for creation  based on God’s clear love of creation as evidenced in the Bible.  Once people catch a vision of caring for the earth, the call is for direct action around planting trees, harvesting water, and farming land. You can read a far better description of the work of Care of Creation here but I want to highlight the planting trees part of the action.

Staff at tree planting workshop

Ten trees can be given for only $12.50. So little for so much. $12.50 for a legacy of trees, a solution to what is described by Care of Creation as “rampant deforestation, leading to droughts, floods, soil erosion and increased human poverty and hardship, as well as loss of habitat for animals and birds.” And planting trees is part of the solution to what has become a huge problem.

A tree grows in Kenya – a tree grows and a forest is rebuilt. A tree grows and land is replenished. A tree grows and a family has an occupation. A tree grows and a world is changed.

So this Advent season, if you want to do something a little different, remember that a tree grows in Kenya.

Here is information on how to give trees this Advent season: PLANT TREES IN KENYA. Remember: 10 trees for $12.50! You can even add a gift card! For some remarkable pictures take a look here.

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“Does it Even Matter?”

These were the words I asked my husband as we ended the week on Friday and moved into the weekend. Does my job even matter? Am I doing anything that has eternal value? Is it just a waste? I was questioning everything I was doing.

Cliff paused before he answered …. we are a family that rarely pauses. And then he said “Think about it, most people do jobs that are pretty mundane in the big scheme of things. But somehow, like Brother Lawrence, it really does matter.”

Brother Lawrence was a man who lived in the 1600’s. He had a profound experience with God at a young age (18 years) and ended up working in a kitchen in a monastery for most of his life. If we are honest, most of us would be shaking our heads over this job, saying “If only you had done better in high school you could have done something that really mattered”. That wasn’t the attitude of Brother Lawrence. He saw God in every act of service. He saw God in everything he did, whether serving tables or washing dishes. Brother Lawrence wanted to live “as constantly in His presence“. In the noise of a busy kitchen with pans banging and people bustling, he said this: “The time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were on my knees.” Because of this, he was often sought out by people for his wisdom and his ability to guide people in truth.

Does it matter? When the alarm clock rings at quarter to six and we get up to complete the mundane tasks of life, groggy and wishing for more warmth, light, and sleep?

Does it matter? When we move forward in a job that, eternally speaking, seems to make no difference?

Does it matter?  That most of us, no matter how much we would like, won’t change some of the wrongs we see, even though we pray desperately and seek to live faithfully?

Does it matter? That our impact may be small and struggling? That our greatest ability is a drop in the bucket of life?

As I move from a Friday contemplation to a Monday reality, I know somehow in the big scheme of things, it matters. How we interact, whether in our homes or at our jobs, it matters.  How we treat other co-workers, whether we do our jobs with gratefulness or complaint, whether we just wait for the day we can retire or make every day count, it matters. Electricians, garbage collectors, waiters, mortgage processors, mail folks, advocates, case workers, kitchen staff, and baristas…..it all somehow matters. Because no matter what “it” is, we can, as Brother Lawrence says “make it our business to persevere in His holy presence”. 

I drove away from my mind everything capable of spoiling the sense of the presence of God…. I just make it my business to persevere in His holy presence… My soul has had an habitual, silent, secret conversation with God.

Holding Our Breath

The text message came around two o’clock in the afternoon. I was in the middle of training a group of community health workers and had just put on a video for them to analyze. I glanced at my phone and saw the silent, red, flashing signal, a sign that I had a missed alert. “I got the job!” The words, though silent, shouted at me with a mixture of complete joy and gratefulness.

My husband has been unemployed since the beginning of October. A restructuring took place and, through no fault of his own, he was out of a job. A job that had not only provided bread and butter (or dal and roti) but connections and relationships that he held dear. “It’s not you”, the typical words used by a human resources team to reassure, did nothing to reassure. Unemployment in a society that values people based on what they do is not easy.

With that one text, I felt like we could come up for air. Like we had been swimming hand-in-hand, underwater in an ocean, trying to press on against possible suffocation, and with the message, someone tapped us on the shoulder signalling we could come up and catch our breath.

When you lose a job you do what you have to do. You send out your résumé and search online job data bases, you send emails to former colleagues and friends alerting them of the need, you quickly respond to vague requests asking about your qualifications, anxious to get the conversation started. You interview, and then you interview again, and then again, and you wait. At some point there is a realization that you are the only one in a hurry, those who interviewed you are not. They are going through due process, searching for the person who they feel will fit the job through skill set and personality. You don’t realize that you are holding your breath until suddenly you don’t have to hold it anymore. The words “We would like to offer you the position” are sweet music from an orchestra that has been silent.

Unemployment isn’t the only thing that causes one to hold their breath. The person waiting for the results of a biopsy or the mom waiting to hear that their child is safe after news has come of a tragedy; the family waiting for their son who has been in active duty in an army somewhere in the world – more scenarios than can be listed. Those times in life when we hold our breath, when life is on hold as we await an outcome so we can come up for air, are times we don’t forget.

Because even as Cliff and I were holding our breath, we periodically realized that we weren’t drowning. Though everything seemed to point to drowning as an option, we didn’t drown. Someone kept us from drowning. Someone held us with hope letting us know that this wasn’t the end. So we kept on, not ready or willing to give in.

Right now I’m breathing easily, my pulse is normal, and the subconscious anxiety gone. But the feelings of being held so we were not allowed to drown will continue to be reminders of a God who gives breath, a God who gives life, and a God who gives jobs.

Ending the Week on Frosties and Socrates

Happy Birthday Dad! I’m celebrating your birthday by drinking a frosty and reading Socrates!

This was the message from our daughter, Stefanie, to her dad on August 31st, his birthday. The easy and the difficult, the fun and profound, the secular and sacred all combined. What a great statement on life from a college freshman.

While frosties represent all that is easy, delicious and non thought requiring, Socrates represents all that is difficult, often hard to swallow and requires analysis and thought. Combining the two strikes me as the best of balance. That’s why the weekend is a gift. It is often the time where, even in the worst of weeks, we give ourselves permission to relax. We give ourselves permission to lay aside heavy thoughts, feelings and issues, knowing they will have to be picked up and faced come Sunday evening or at the latest, Monday morning.

Whenever there is something difficult to contemplate it helps to know that it can go down with something smooth – like a frosty. The beloved Disney musical version of Mary Poppins knew a little about this and the words to the song “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down! In the most delightful way!” speak clearly to the importance of medicine but a recognition that there is a way to make the medicine in life go down a little easier.

I used to think it was denial when I wanted to put aside the hard and focus only on the easy. And certainly, if it was a steady diet of ease, ignoring what needs to be faced, I would begin to worry. But no one in the world I live in has a life of ease. Rather there’s a lot of ups and downs, unknowns and hard stuff all mixed in with those days where life feels a little bit perfect. Setting aside the hard for a time or mixing it up with a frosty is balance and will smooth out those hard-earned wrinkles on the forehead.

So pick up a frosty and Socrates, or a latte and Lamentations, or a Pepsi and Plato…whatever you need to face that which is difficult and takes thought and analysis, and enjoy the weekend ahead as God intended.

Coffee: Black as Hell, Strong as Death, Sweet as Love

It’s Monday morning and as I head to my grey cubicle in a building that houses several hundred state government employees, I am aware that I need the drink that tops all others, coffee.

Waiting in line at a coffee shop, my vacation from last week feels like it was months ago, the sun and sand of a beautiful beach merely an image on my camera and my memory. As I wait, my mind drifts off to the Turkish Proverb painted across the top of a wall at a coffee shop in Rockport, Massachusetts. The proverb reads:

“Coffee should be Black as Hell; Strong as Death; and Sweet as Love.”

It was written in artistic script at the Bean and Leaf Cafe at Bearskin neck and I immediately knew I would love this café, complete with ocean views from every angle in the small seating area at the back of the shop.

Just as Americans sometimes think they are the inventors of Christianity, they also sometimes err in believing that they were the inventors of coffee and the great idea of the coffee shop. While the likes of Starbucks and Seattle Coffee did have a great deal to do with today’s obsession with the drink, it may interest readers to know that coffee was alive and well in the Middle East as far back as the sixteenth century.

Chapter 9 of A New Introduction to Islam  takes us back to that century where coffee and coffee shops were newly introduced from Yemen and coffee was “all the rage*”. The author, Dr. Daniel Brown states

“Coffee houses punctuated the urban landscape of Middle Eastern cities like oases, as they still do”

In a section called “The Coffee Debate”  he goes on to say “Arabic accounts of the earliest uses of coffee agree that the first to drink the brew were late fifteenth-century Yemeni Sufis, Muslim mystics, who found the effects of caffeine enlivening to their late night devotional exercises“.  The author cleverly lures the non-scholar into the chapter via coffee and moves on to discuss Islamic Law. Evidently the widespread use and popularity of the drink were enough to cause alarm and debate among scholars on whether it was permissible and prudent to indulge in coffee, but that is a post that I do not have the knowledge or authority to write! My interest on this Monday morning is in the fact that centuries later in the year 2011 Americans subject themselves daily to long lines, desperate for that early morning ritual to enliven their senses and shoot some badly needed motivation, disguised as a caffeine drink, into their bodies and minds.

So as I move through the line and get my drink of choice, I join millions who have gone before and will probably come after me in getting the drink that has inspired scholars to debate, mystics to meditate, and government employees to survive budget cuts and bureaucracy – the drink that is known in the Turkish Proverb as Black as Hell, Strong as Death, and Sweet as Love.

A happy Monday and if you are a coffee drinker, enjoy, knowing that you will never be alone in your need for this centuries old drink.

*Bloggers Note: All excerpts come from Chapter 9, Islamic Law, in A New Introduction to Islam. The author also cites “Coffee and Coffee Houses” by Ralph Hattox.

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The Lunch Table: Where Food,People & Opinion Meet Google

My physical place of work has few redeeming qualities. It is an institutional building much in need of repair. Cubicles line the walls in Soviet style rigidity, indistinguishable apart from the occasional family photo or obsession with stuffed beanie babies that carries over from home into the work place.

The faces of those who work in the building often reflect the atmosphere of the physical space. Many seem to be biding their time until they are eligible for a state pension, while some purchase lottery tickets with one hope in millions of seeing their fortunes change. The lay offs of recent weeks add to the overall morale and the air often feels heavy with uncertainty and frustration.

There is one exception and it is one of the reasons why I have enjoyed my job immensely. We call it the Lunch Table. Around 12:15 daily, at a small round table designed for meetings of four or five, anywhere from seven to nine of us gather. Everyone brings their lunch, sometimes purchased from the plethora of eating establishments in the area, but often brought from home, and we talk. It is food, people and opinion meeting together,  forgetting about time as we delve into subjects that are usually so filled with politically correct verbiage that you never get to the heart of what people think or feel. Not so at the lunch table. Our talk goes from politics to religion to front page news to personal events. Few subjects are off-limits.

Our ideologies along with our political alliances are vastly different. Our religious beliefs differ just as profoundly and our personalities could not be more divergent but all that is put aside at the lively and energetic connection I call “The Lunch Table.”

We talk politics “Will Mitt Romney have a chance in the 2012 election” We talk religion “Why go to church?” We talk business and we talk scandal “I’m telling you, all this unfaithfulness and scandal is a result of Viagra!” claims one person emphatically. We talk family, we talk faith, and we question.

Almost daily we go to Google to aid us in both big and little questions. “How do we use the word ad hominem correctly”. “Are green, yellow, and red peppers all from the same plant?” (they are) “Where is the country of Zanzibar?” and the conversations go on. Each of us brings passions and ideas based on our backgrounds and life experience.  Our passions and dislikes can rarely be hidden and there are some things we would defend with every ounce of our bodies, but we still abide by the important rule of listening as well as talking.

Each person has a unique spot at the lunch table. There’s Rick, a data guy whose mind I would like to travel through on a Magic School Bus with Ms. Frizzle. There’s Gail – pure class and Talbots, she is well-read and has a variety of interests. Gail is the one who makes sure everyone knows they are welcome to this informal gathering. There’s Heather who defended her thesis last year and now has the hard-earned initials of PhD after her name. Beautiful with a wacky sense of humor, she knows the best places in Boston for Old Man Drinks and High Tea. There’s Anita, who is our rock and stability, doing it all while giving us healthy doses of chocolate. There’s Liz – mom of toddler twins and a 5 year-old, who is always thinking and questioning and could subsist on ham, cheese, and chocolate. There’s Mary Lou, fearless leader and entrepreneur par excellence, who has had vision to make sure amazing programs are created and sustained. There are others who come and go, some consultants, some employees who hear the laughter and wander in from other parts of the building.

The mantra is an unspoken commitment to healthy dialogue and a lot of laughter. It is a perfect recipe for opinionated people to survive and thrive.

As I write this, I am acutely aware that our lunch table is about to face deep losses. Gail is retiring after significant state service. Mary Lou is leaving for an excellent opportunity elsewhere and Liz has been moved to a different department through restructuring. It’s like good friends leaving for a distant state or country and there is a sadness that I feel as I think about the discussions and laughter that have defined the lunch table. Discussions that would not have been as rich without the difference in people and opinion.

As we move forward my hope is that the spirit of this table will live on and that food, people and opinion can continue to meet Google.