The Blessing

The Lord Bless You

The Lord bless you, and keep you.

It’s grey outside, a day marked by fog and sadness. It is a holiday weekend in the United States. It feels far from celebratory. But this year it feels right to be lost in a fog.

Make His face shine upon you, be gracious to you.

Maybe you are feeling like I am these days – that life and the world feel weighty. I hear and read bad news and evil on every page and around every turn. From too many deaths in the Black community to second waves of COVID-19 to division about both, our news is flooded with opinion and voices. It all feels like too much. It is too much.

The Lord turn His face toward you, and give you peace.

And then I pause for a moment, and I watch “The Blessing” for what feels like the thousandth time. This song (based on several different Bible verses and written co-written by Steven Furtick and Chris Brown and with musical artists Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes) began in the UK in early May. Since then, my husband and I have watched renditions from India, the Arab world, Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia, Sweden, Spain, France, Turkey, Cyprus, Qatar…too many to list and too many to count.

May his favor be upon you and a thousand generations.

The words and music fill my soul and I feel my eyesight and my heart healing. There on my screen are people of every beautiful color and hair of every amazing texture, from every country imagineable, singing a blessing. A blessing that is thousands of years old, originally penned by writers of books in the Old Testament.

And your family, and your children, and their children, and their children

And I know that this story, this story God is writing is bigger than our immediate crises, it is holier and more beautiful than any response to injustice that humans are capable of, it is more powerful than any imperfect government or political party.

May His presence go before you And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you, He is with you, He is with you

The story God is telling is a worldwide story of people and redemption. It is far bigger than superpowers, politics, political parties, and opinions – it is a story that goes from Pakistan to Tasmania; from Iraq to Germany; from Russia to the Maldives; from Senegal to the United States; from North Pole to South Pole and all places between.

In the morning, in the evening, in your coming, in your going, in your weeping and rejoicing, His for you, He is for you.

It is a story that makes us laugh and weep, bow down and rise up. It is a story that sustains and delivers, that breaks the conscience and demands that we act. It is a story that convicts and comforts, that holds us and heals us. Because this God of the universe, who created us, who loves us, who transforms us – he is for us.

He is for you, He is for you, He is for you, He is for youHe is for you, He is for you

And when we believe this in our bones, than we are changed.

Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

So if you are feeling like I’m feeling, stop for a moment. Take a listen. And know that He is for you.

The Oxygen of Faith – Pre-Paschal Reflections

Every year before our Paschal celebration I write a reflection. I usually write it after a busy day of services and preparation, a quiet moment before heading to the church for the midnight liturgy. This year, like the world around us, has been completely different.

Last year we traveled eight thousand miles and spent an entire month’s salary to get to our home parish for Pascha. That’s how precious it is to us. This year, though we live 20 minutes away from the church we are under a shelter in place and like Christians around the world, are live-streaming the service.

But I still find myself reflecting on this life-giving faith during a quiet moment. A few years ago, I was finishing up a film project with a friend of my son’s. We decided to go out for lunch before he headed back to New York City. We began talking about faith in general and the conversation then veered toward my faith in particular. He began asking questions. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember with absolute clarity saying to him “My faith is my oxygen.”

Every time we breathe we take in the life giving gas of oxygen. It enters into our respiratory system from outside our bodies and goes into our lungs. It crosses into the alveolar membranes and capillary endothelium, arriving in our blood stream and settling in our red blood cells, ready for a complex transfer system to every cell in our body. Anyone who has read about COVID-19 has a better appreciation for oxygen, the lungs, and the entire respiratory process.

My faith is like oxygen, my soul the lungs. I need it to breathe, to function, to get up each morning. I doubt, I scream, and I cry out to God for the pain and unfairness in life. I have sleepless nights, I have occasionally been in the intensive care unit needing life support for my failing faith, and I am too often a pitiful representative of my Christian faith. But ultimately I still choose it. To give it up would be like losing my ability to breathe.

In all my faults and flaws, I know deep within my soul that I am woven into the tapestry of his redemptive plan, and that somehow that matters.

And this is what I reflect on this evening. At 12 minutes before midnight, we will tune into our service. The entire room will be dark. A bell will chime once each minute until midnight. Then we will see the priest light one candle. We will hear him sing “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify you in purity of heart.” He will come out and say “Come, receive the light.” Though we are all over the Greater Boston area, we will move forward as one as we light our candles at home.

And so it will begin. for three hours we will celebrate the resurrection, periodically shouting Christ is Risen in every language we can think of. Our faith will be reaffirmed and I will breathe in its life-giving oxygen. In this, and this alone I rest.

Christ is Risen! In Truth He is Risen!

A Life Overseas – Grief and Gethsemane

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

On February 15, at five o’clock in the morning I received a phone call from my oldest brother. My second brother, Stan, had died tragically from a fall in Thailand. The news traveled fast to our large extended family. From Thailand to Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, to Greece and on to California, New York, and Boston and several parts between, the news stunned all of us with its magnitude.

Within a few short hours, a couple of us had tickets to Thailand. It was the beginning of the spread of the coronavirus beyond the borders of China, and along with the throat catching grief of death and loss was the background worry of travel and an epidemic that was rapidly crossing borders to become a pandemic. We went anyway. 

My brother worked alongside farmers in Central Asia, teaching them more efficient and effective ways of farming and working the land. He loved God’s good creation. His life, his work, and his photography reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for glory in the midst of a broken world that groans. For Stan, there was glory all around – nothing was mundane. 

A couple of days after we arrived in Thailand, surrounded by the beauty of a grief-laden garden, eleven of us gathered to remember my brother. The depth of love and bearing witness to grief that we shared as a group was indescribable. We spent four days together – four days of grieving which meant we wept, we laughed, we ate, we reminisced, and we talked about how we were angry at him for leaving us too soon. 

Within days after arriving back in the United States, our world had changed. Suddenly dinner table conversations became about working from home, shelter in place, the number of fatalities, and borders closing in countries all over the world. The solidarity that we shared as a group together in Thailand, grieving my brother and taking comfort in each other’s love and grace, was overshadowed by a global pandemic. Suddenly the vice grip of grief and loss became a world-wide vice as the death toll began to rise in country after country. My brother’s death faded in people’s memory. He was just one more dead in a world where death was becoming numbers instead of people. With gallows humor we talked about putting an engraving on his as-yet unordered tombstone with the words “He did not die of COVID-19,” but realized it would be far too expensive.

We waited with dread, knowing that the church where his memorial was to be held would be cancelling the service. We would have to postpone grieving with others who loved him, with my mother who had lost her son, with my oldest brother who had not been able to make it to Thailand because of a separate tragic death, with friends from around the world who were sending expressions of love and grief through cards and messages. 

In the meantime, we were still spread around the world. We waited anxiously as different family members made plans and then watched them fall apart as borders closed and planes stopped flying. We welcomed some family back and began communicating daily with other family who were staying in their host countries. Our collective grief spilled over in messages and phone calls, trying to comfort each other, to see silver linings where there were only frayed edges. 

I felt the grief of my brother’s absence in every statistic I saw of those who had died from the pandemic. I felt it in every article I read that took the statistics and changed them into actual stories of those who had died. Who were they? Who had they loved? Who would miss them? Who would mourn their absence for years after the pandemic ended?

And where was God in all of this? God of the individual and God of the masses, God of the broken-hearted and God of the joy-filled. God of Gethsemane, another grief-laden garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus reckoned with the mission he had come to accomplish. Where he, overwhelmed with sorrow, poured out his human heart before the Father.

We see Jesus, in the mystery of being fully man and fully God, taking friends along with him to bear witness to his sorrow. And yet, in his hours of great grief, they fell asleep. They disappointed him. Anyone who has known grief knows the pain of grieving alone, the discomfort of awkward interactions where people don’t know what to say, and the sense of disappointment when our friends don’t understand. In this time of worldwide grief, we are witnessing families broken apart by grief, unable to honor those who have died and bear witness to each other’s grief. Yet, it is in this place of deep sorrow that we find a comforter and counselor.

So it is to this garden that I go today; a garden significant in this Holy Week for Protestants and Catholics around the world. A garden that stands as a symbol of grief and the costly weight of the journey to the cross.

It is here that we see Jesus in his frail human state speak of his soul, overwhelmed with sorrow. We watch as he begs the Father to “Take this cup from me.” We feel his grief, we see his sorrow, we enter into his suffering. We bear witness to his journey to the cross.

The journey of Lent leads us to the Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t stay there forever, but right now, let us pause a moment and gather in Gethsemane. Let us stay with the broken world of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – with the cry that echoed to the Heavens “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Let us stay with the grieving and those who have lost, let us bear witness to pain, to suffering. Let us grieve for our broken world and let us do it together. Let us not be alone in our suffering, but let us journey to the cross as a people who are living out the “fellowship of his sufferings.” And there, at the foot of the cross, let us fall down and weep.

[Scripture from Matthew 26: 36-39]

Author’s Note: in my faith tradition, we are going into Holy Week with Palm Sunday this Sunday. Because I write for A Life Overseas which is a largely Protestant group, I have posted this today.

Christmas Eve Reflection from Thessaloniki

Every year I write a Christmas Eve Reflection. Usually it’s in a fully decorated home with Christmas music playing in the background. It’s written in the midst of the frenzied joy of Christmas in the West and I usually have presents to wrap and stockings to fill.

This year I write it from the sunshine of Thessaloniki and a 4th floor apartment. The sun is starting to set and the fading light peaks through floor to ceiling windows. My youngest son is sitting near me in what can only be described as a “companionable silence” – trite except it’s not. It is delightful.

Our Christmas reflects the year we have had. It is unusual but we are grateful. There is little stress as we prepare for a midnight Liturgy and the dawning of Christmas morning. It is a gift.

Earlier today I sat in a salon and got my hair cut. The longer I sat, the more Greek I became and the result pleased the stylist greatly. Later I walked toward Aristotle Square, joining crowds of cafe goers, musicians, and city dwellers. I thought about my family members who are not here and missed them.

I got back to the apartment where we are staying and read about a friend who is dying. She has lived life so well, she has loved so well. Tears and the juxtaposition of the joy of a holiday combined with an imminent death flood over me.

I am so aware this year of the many events in all of our lives that we keep hidden from the spotlight of social media. Despite what the social media developers would like us to believe, we share only the highlights and the well-edited photographs of our lives. But the truly important things we share with those who don’t need edits or highlights, those who walk us through shadows and into the light of grace.

The betrayals and separations, emergency room visits and hospitalizations are left out of the public narrative. We don’t share the trips to the counselor’s office and the hard soul work of confession. We don’t share the nights of tears we shed for those we love or the sadness of a womb that is empty. We don’t share those moments of grace when we have prayed for the impossible and have received.

We share the newborn baby – we don’t share the 35 hours of labor that birthed the baby.

And this is as it should be. We don’t have the capacity to be emotionally naked with everyone, nor should we cast our great pearls of grace before the swine of social media.

Instead we live life in the light and shadows of daily grace, periodically posting snapshots of that grace for the world outside to see.

So as you see my snapshots, and as I see yours, may we not yield to the temptation to believe that these are anything more than snapshots. May we remember that there is enough sadness in all our lives to crush us, and enough grace to raise us up.

Most of all, may we remember that a baby in a manger changed our world and hope was born.

Merry Christmas Eve dear friends!

A Friday Prayer

The peach looked beautiful. It had the feel of a peach that was ripe but not too ripe and it smelled perfect. Inside it was rotten to the core. I discovered this as I was cutting it into slices.

So beautiful on the outside, so rotten on the inside.

How like the United States, with its rhetoric of greatness and it’s perfect exterior. Well trimmed lawns, good highways, fancy buildings, plenty of goods for consumers, coffee shops by the thousands, grocery stores by the million, parades and protection are all a part of the eye candy that is the U.S. Yet it takes but a moment of digging to uncover the rotten interior. From rates of abortion to treatment of foreigners we live in a society consumed by self and misguided protection. We daily watch men and women with little soul and even less integrity mismanage a nation in crisis.

Bullet holes in black boys haunt our collective psyche as we try to dismiss of racism. We hear the cries of children ripped from moms in wombs and at borders, breastfed babies panting for milk from mothers who are nowhere to be found. Pride and corruption are rampant and the innocent struggle for justice.

Cries of “I can’t breathe!” fall on our ears. Coffins fill with black bodies and we try to justify this by focusing on rioting and violence, claiming they are not the way to handle this. How dare we. How dare I. We listen to the voices of white theologians and dismiss the voices of prophetic black theologians, because they might make us uncomfortable. How dare we! How dare I!*

Like the Old Testament prophets we cry “How long O Lord? How long?

Tears dry on faces that look up to the Son for justice.

We plead the cause of the orphan, the immigrant, the falsely accused, the unborn who were never given a chance, the dead who can no longer speak.

We plead and we pray.

May we allow the surgery of confession and repentance to root out the rotten core. May we fall on our knees in humility and repentance. May we see with eyes of justice and love with hearts of compassion. May we act with hands of mercy and speak with lips of wisdom. May we pray for our leaders and for ourselves.

May we, like the prophet Micah, do justly, love mercy, and Walk humbly with our God.

Amen and Amen

*This paragraph was added 5/29/2020.

God of the Displaced and Exiled

Oh God of the displaced and exiled,

Hear the prayers of those in limbo.

Wipe the tears of mothers who parent children without a home.

Feed those who are hungry; keep safe those who are in danger.

Give strength to the helpers and the healers; to those who work tirelessly for justice.

Give us the spirit of courage and not fear that we might welcome the stranger in our midst.

Root out lazy prejudice that would block us from receiving those in need.

Give us ears to hear the voices that cry out in desperation, making impossible choices for their families.

Consume the conscience of lawmakers and policy enforcers with the holy fire of compassion, that they may open their hearts and their borders to those desperate for shelter.

Remind us that your prophets spoke words many years ago that are still true today; remind us that you have always cared for the oppressed, have always urged your people to care for the displaced and exiled.

Oh God hear my prayer for the displaced and the exile.

“Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”*


All week my heart has been aching for those displaced. This morning my brother Dan sent me an article that the United States is on track to admit less refugees than it has since the beginning of the refugee program in 1980. There is simply no excuse. With the resources we have and the crisis being what it is, there is no excuse.

*Daniel 9:19

How Do You Draw Mercy?

dock into ocean mercy of God

If you were asked to draw a picture of mercy what would you draw? How would you take the tools of pencil and paper and use them to craft a concept like mercy? Would you draw an event in your life; an event where you were shown mercy and after that you would never be the same? How do you draw mercy?

But all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.” William Langland

Though crafted with words and not a drawing, this quote has given me a picture of mercy that I never want to forget. I found the quote through Madeleine L’engle’s book One Live Coal to the Sea; a book where she explores mercy in the life of a family. Mercy in the midst of evil and dysfunction; mercy despite selfishness and betrayal; mercy when life demands justice.

In the midst of life’s journey, in the middle of hearing, seeing or thinking about evil, it is easy to forget the mercy of God. Mercy for apathetic teens and adults, mercy for passionate teenagers shot out of evil intent, mercy (dare I say it) for the men who shot her, mercy for me.

Today I picture that live coal, burning hot; a coal that can ignite a fire or burn a body, causing great pain and damage. And I picture that red, hot coal hitting the vast ocean where it can no longer do damage; where it is overcome by something so much more powerful. It is so far beyond my understanding, so much bigger than I could ever imagine. Evil confronted by the mercy of God and in that confrontation losing its power — one live coal to the sea.

How do you draw mercy?

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” Micah 6:8

A Shared Umbrella

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The insistent ring of the alarm. Heavy eyes, still swollen partially shut with sleep. Awareness that it is Tuesday, and I must wake up. The slow methodical movements of my body on autopilot knowing what has to be done to go from sleepy-eyed to one of the many productive people rushing through mass transit to make this machinery called the ‘economy’ work.

All of this for what? For a paycheck? For retirement? For a new dress? For a re-built transmission on our car? For an electric bill? For kids college? There are days when it feels so trite. So nothing.

To add to these bleak thoughts, it’s been raining. Hard. Not short showers where the sun blinks through as though crying a little and then bursts forth into smiles; rather it’s downpours where the bottom of your jeans get wet, your purse is soggy and water seeps through your shoes. It smells like rain and all the trash of the city is mashed together under foot.

Umbrellas are everywhere and instead of people bumping into people, it is umbrella on umbrella, small spokes getting caught in other small spokes. Most have their own umbrellas, but occasionally you will see people sharing, heads bent together to ensure maximum coverage. While those of us who are alone are walking quickly, impatient with the raindrops and downpours that stymie our progress, those who are sharing are often laughing or talking intensely.

Along with the sharing of umbrellas comes the inevitable sharing of life.

Several years ago, while still in high school, my son Micah did a project for a video contest. His skill and technique have improved ten-fold, but I still loved this, one of the first projects he did for competition.

Called “A Shared Umbrella” it tells with few words and many actions the story of a teenage girl, defeated and done with life. At her window, high in an apartment building she looks out at a bleak city scene of rain and sorrow. Pills are poured out in her hand, she’s ready to end her struggle, her struggle with life and with pain.

She looks out the window and sees two strangers – one dressed in a suit and tie, a business man off to work; the other dressed in old clothes, clearly without money. They are both waiting for the same bus. The business man waits with an umbrella, the poorer has none. And then in an unexpected act of humility and kindness the business man walks over and holds out his umbrella, sharing it with a stranger, offering a shield against the rain pouring down. They stand together until finally the bus comes carrying both off to their respective lives.

Just this simple act is enough to give the girl hope. If an umbrella can be shared among unlikely people, then life may be worth living. It is a small act of redemption in her bleak world.

I love his piece. I love the images, I love the graphics, and I love the story.

Offering protection and hope through sharing an umbrella is seemingly so simple; why do I make it so hard? Especially today, when nothing feels redemptive, least of all sharing an umbrella.

Today as I walk in the rain, I am acutely aware of my humanity and frailty; ashamed of my blah spirit and my feelings that none of this makes any difference; aware too of the humanity of all around me.  And with that awareness, tired as I am, I want to offer hope; I want to share my umbrella.

But first – can I have some sun?

Evil is Real – So what do we do?


“Evil is real – and powerful. It has to be fought, not explained away, not fled. And God is against evil all the way. So each of us has to decide where we stand, how we’re going to live our lives. We can try to persuade ourselves that evil doesn’t exist; live for ourselves and wink at evil. We can say that it isn’t so bad after all, maybe even try to call it fun by clothing it in silks and velvets. We can compromise with it, keep quiet about it and say it’s none of our business. Or we can work on God’s side, listen for His orders on strategy against the evil, no matter how horrible it is, and know that He can transform it.”*

Lord Have Mercy.


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

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

Evil is not the final word.

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

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

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

They all have one thing in common, and it’s something that I think about as I write. 

They all knew that evil wouldn’t win.** 

Note: post has been updated since first published with excerpts from Evil is Not the Final Word. 

*Catherine Marshall in Christy

Life as Story

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“In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life maybe empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.

Early this summer, I read the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a Boston-based doctor, researcher, and author, famous for books that have transformed the medical world, specifically The Checklist Manifesto, Better, and Complications.

Being Mortal is the first of Gawande’s books that I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. He is a brilliant, gifted story teller, and the stories of people at the end of their lives that are woven through Being Mortal touch the deep parts of my soul. In short, he accomplishes what he sets out to do: recognize what it is to be a human, designed for life but trapped in a finite body.

But this post is not a review of what is without doubt a fine book; instead I am struck by his emphasis on life as story.

At one point while I was growing up, there was an emphasis at my boarding school on finding the “perfect will of God”. As a teenager, this became incredibly important to me. How could I find that perfect will? How could I know that my every decision would lead me into that perfect will of God? I prayed fervently and breathed deep sighs of relief during those times when I felt I had “found” that perfect will. Like treasure buried deep beneath the earth, one had to dig hard to find that perfect will. It was elusive. Others seemed to find it, but not me.

In later years I came to see this from a completely different perspective. I came to see my journey with God as far bigger than finding God’s perfect will. Because who of us can know that perfection? We are told in the scriptures that we “see through a glass dimly” and “know in part”. I began to realize that finding God’s perfect will was not what the Christian life or Gospel message is about. Instead, it is understanding that life is story, and God in his infinite love has us and redemption at the center of the story.

When our lives are reduced to a quest for a perfect will or a series of decisions, they become mediocre. As Gawande says “Life is meaningful because it is a story.”

When my Christian life is reduced to a series of dos and don’ts, then it becomes mediocre and joyless. Just as I struggled in high school when I was anxiously searching to find the perfect will of God, I struggle thinking that if I don’t do the right thing at the right time, I will fall under God’s disapproving stare. I will then either anxiously try to do the right thing to please him, or I will ignore him alltogether. Neither option is palatable. They are both exhausting and defeating.

Because here is what I’ve come to know: God has written a story, a love story, and that love story has people at its center. Our lives are a story within the Greatest Story. While dos and don’ts diminish the story, understanding the Author’s great love for us enhances it.

Life as story is deeply comforting. It takes pressure off me. I stop seeing life as a series of events and choices, of dos and don’ts and begin to see the beauty of a narrative. When I reclaim my Christian faith as a story, I re-discover its beauty.

It makes me want to live the best story possible. 

“There are plenty of true doctrines and right ethics [in the Bible], of course, but they come within the larger thing, which is the story of how the Creator is rescuing and restoring the whole creation, with his rescue and restoration of humans at the heart of it.” NT Wright

bible as story

The Story of a Christian/Muslim Friendship – a Guest Post

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Every September, when cool breezes off the Nile River replaced the sweltering heat of summer, the expatriate community in Cairo, Egypt would reunite. Most employers planned a variety of activities to introduce any newcomers to Egypt in general, and the gigantic city of Cairo in particular.

Our employer, the American University of Cairo, put together an orientation week full of events and talks all designed to ease these overwhelmed rookies into life in both the city and the university. It was during orientation week that I met Lubna for the first time.

On the first day, I noticed Lubna standing alone at the break. I ignored my conscience and left her alone. On the second day, the internal nudge was too strong to ignore. I felt compelled to go and speak with her. I was nervous. Lubna was fully veiled. She wore both the abbaya (long black coat) and a niqab, the veil that covered all but her eyes. While I was used to communicating with women in the hijab (head covering), I had no friends who wore the full veil and I felt my discomfort acutely. I stumbled a bit as I asked her how long she had been in Cairo.

After seconds, we were engrossed in a dynamic conversation and within minutes found significant commonalities. Raised in Canada by an Egyptian family, she had married a Tunisian man who had immigrated to Canada just a few years before. She had one child, a baby girl.

A couple of weeks later, Lubna invited me to her home. Until this time, I had only seen her at outside events and I looked forward to being able to sit with her over tea and get to know her better. I arrived at her apartment around 10 minutes late – a little early for a Middle Eastern visit. I knocked on the door and …..

You can read the rest of the piece here!

Passages Through Pakistan is available here for purchase.

Persecution of Christians: Real and Stable


I speak up for refugees, immigrants, and Muslims on this blog. It’s right that I do so. I see, read, and hear fear about all of these groups from a variety of people. 

But today, I am speaking up for those from my own faith tradition who face persecution: Christians

An organization called Open Doors releases an annual list that examines religious freedoms for Christians worldwide in five areas. The five areas are private, family, community, national and church. 

Open Doors has been monitoring persecution for 25 years and claim that this past year, 2016, was the worst year yet for Christians. Indeed Islamic extremism, often a primary cause of persecution now has a rival: Ethnic nationalism. 

“Persecution” is defined as hostility experienced as a result of identifying with Christ.

Here is the list of the top ten countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian: 

  1. North Korea
  2. Somalia
  3. Afghanistan
  4. Pakistan
  5. Sudan
  6. Syria
  7. Iraq
  8. Iran
  9. Yemen
  10. Eritrea

It is critical to remember that this list is not about people being made fun of for their beliefs, or people feeling like they are not allowed to express political leanings. Many in the west erroneously believe that social media attacks on newsfeeds are “persecution.” Reading the report on persecution is both important and sobering. It also reveals those newsfeed attacks to be exactly what they are: petty, childish demonstrations of anger and dislike of opinions, NOT persecution. 

The persecution that these Christians face is real and it has been going on for many years. In fact, it shows no signs of stopping and is concerningly stable. I have highlighted a few significant findings. 

  1. A total of 27 Christian leaders in Mexico and Colombia (23 in Mexico and four in Colombia) were killed for speaking out against drug lords. 
  2. Pakistan rose to number four on the list, with great concern over the increase in violence. 
  3. Ethnic nationalism is deeply concerning as a growing cause of persecution 
  4. The most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian is North Korea. For 14 years, this country has topped the list. 

There are many more important findings and you can access the full list here. 

But all is not lost! The end of the article gives a beautiful picture of Middle Eastern Christians reclaiming their place. 

1. Christians looking forward to going back to historic homes in northern Iraq 

The days of an Islamic State-run caliphate in Northern Iraq and Syria are numbered. Since an August 2016 offensive, the Islamic militants have been pushed back by a coalition of Iraqi and foreign-backed forces. Some of the towns and villages, such as Qaraqosh – which were once completely Christian – have been liberated. Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul – will soon be in the hands of Iraqi forces. Over 80,000 Christians fled their homes in 2014 and have been refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan since. “We can’t wait to go back,” said one, in Erbil. “But we will go back with a greater determination to keep freedom defended.”
2. ‘Exodus’ of Middle East Christians slows 

Most Christians in the Middle East may have crossed a border within the region, but the majority have not yet left the region as a whole. The number of Christians exiting the region has slowed. Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in the Middle East and Turkey at currently 16.5 million, including migrant and expatriate Christians in the Gulf States.*

I will be honest. I am writing this while in complete comfort. I am at home in my living room and I’m slowly drinking a cup of coffee. I am far removed from the persecution and stress of so many who share my faith.  How do I reconcile my reality with what I’ve read, what I’ve heard, and what I’ve occasionally seen?

I think the first thing I need to do is be honest about my own circumstances and have a clear view of what persecution is, honoring those who struggle and not seeing persecution when it’s not there. The second thing I need to do is not shy away from the difficult. If it’s a story that is difficult for me to read, how much more difficult must it be for those who go through it? 

Next, I need to identify with those who are suffering through prayer and giving when and where I can. If that means giving of time and finances, then I need to move forward and give in those areas. 

But lastly, perhaps the biggest thing I can do is seek to love God and my neighbor, to remain faithful where God has placed me, to seek to be worthy of identifying with those who lose all that this world offers, deciding that their faith was worth it all. Amen and Amen.  

[Source:https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/news/4812440/4812457/4837468%5D

Rambling Thoughts on Confronting an Idol

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I called my mom before the election with one specific question:

“Mom, when did American politics get mixed up with Christianity?”

I really wanted to know. I didn’t grow up in the United States and throughout my childhood, my parents voted via absentee ballots. I remember political discussions about the U.S. taking place every four years, where my mom and dad would have at least one heated discussion about “their” candidate. 95% of the time, their votes cancelled each other. Never do I remember either one of them talking about which was the better “Christian” choice.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “I have read that it was when the Moral Majority became a thing. Jerry Falwell and others connected their politics and their faith.”

This was something I escaped during childhood and beyond into my college years. I was far more concerned about the Iranian revolution and the war in Lebanon than I was about U.S. politics, although I would come to learn that U.S foreign policy was critically important when it came to parts of the world that I loved.

But the point is: I never got caught up in the melding of Christianity with the earthly kingdom of the United States of America.

I think its time to confront the idol. America and American exceptionalism have become idols and when we make anything into an idol we need to confess and repent.

“….Nothing is more alien to the Old and New Testaments than to sacralize the unholy, or divinize material things. To regard secular America as some kind of Messiah nation, or geo-political golden calf, is sheer idolatry.”*

When rationalizing America as a “nation blessed by God’ the arguments given are generally material and military and use the book of Deuteronomy as a guide.

Material: America is ‘blessed’ by God because we have more wealth than other countries, because we have houses and bank accounts and cars and college price tags of $160,000 and a plethora of other things unknown to much of the world. How often have you heard someone talk about being “Blessed” with a house? That’s wonderful – but if they had an apartment would they be less blessed? Does the blessing include cathedral ceilings, designer paint, and a pool in the back yard? Is the family of four living in 3000 square feet more blessed than the family of six living in 1000? Or the refugee family living in a tent? We’re on shaky ground when we use material goods as our litmus test for blessing.

Military: America is blessed by God because we have a strong military. Really? Are we using “Blessing” in the correct way?

The book of Matthew speaks a lot about blessing in a chapter called “The Beatitudes” literally meaning “blessings”. As I read it I realize yet again that Jesus again excels at turning things upside down, challenging the crowd who is familiar with an Old Testament view of blessing.  Not once is a strong military or material wealth mentioned. Rather we have a dire list of adjectives that include poor in spirit, meek, mourning, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, pure in heart, peace makers, and persecuted for the sake of righteousness, insulted….At this point I begin to feel uncomfortable. Are we through yet? No, there’s more – we end the ‘blessings’ portion with more persecution and false accusation.

The list of blessings is long, and drones, bombs, military intelligence, American exceptionalism, Wall Street, bonds, bank accounts, investments are not included.

But the blessings do include peacemaking.

They include seeking righteousness.

They include mourning.

And so I come to this conclusion: America is not blessed. In fact, we are in need of deep, deep healing. 

One of the ways we heal is by confronting the idol of Christian America and American exceptionalism. It has already begun to crumble before us and yet we aren’t paying attention. 

Nations will come and go. Party affiliations will change. Politics will swing from right to left and back again. This is not the Kingdom of God. Every political system on earth was designed by imperfect people who were all about politics on earth and not about treasure in Heaven.

They are not, and never were, designed to reflect Jesus or the Kingdom of God. And if you see any of these as more then systems designed by imperfect people, then I pray that God would heal your eyesight.

My allegiance is to a citizenship far stronger and greater than any nation. My loyalty and world view are defined less by a country and more by a faith. I am called to a higher calling and a far greater identity than that which is indicated by my passport. 

If I ever confuse my identity as an ‘American’ with that of being a ‘Christian’ may I be called out and challenged by those around me. Believing that a national identity is greater than a spiritual identity is quite simply idolatry.

Maybe you voted for Trump. Maybe you voted for Hillary. Maybe you found either choice untenable. Regardless, if you believe in a kingdom that is not of this world then I challenge you that your job is to build bridges with those with whom you disagree. Your job is not to ridicule, to withold grace, to tell people to stop having thin skin, to condemn, to gloat, to despair, to withdraw, to be disgusted. Your job, your mandate is to build bridges and seek the kingdom. 

There will be a day when the Kingdom of Heaven will come, and on that day I know this- all political systems will dissolve into nothing in the light of the Glory of God Himself.

Until then may God heal our eyesight. May he show us his beloved ones of every tribe and every nation. May we not dismiss stories or perspectives. May we be ones who listen and learn, who are willing to admit we are wrong. May we not justify our wrongs or rationalize our sins. May we be people who see beyond the crisis of the day and beyond our own inadequacies. May we comfort the hurting, give grace to the angry, hear the other side, build bridges of peace, and always fight for the persecuted. May we see the world through the Creator’s eyes of love and grace.

*First Things – “Is America Blessed by God”

Blogger’s note: You may recognize some of these posts – I took from a couple different blogs that I have done in the past.

A Life Overseas – Relax!

Readers, I am at A Life Overseas today talking about how God is at work in places where we go — and because of this, we can relax.

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In August of 2015 I had the privilege of going to the Kurdish area of Iraq to work with refugees. On my first day there, I was traveling to a mobile health clinic when I got into a conversation with a pharmacist. One year before she lived and worked in Qaraqosh in the Nineveh province of Iraq. When ISIS entered the city, Christians were given three choices: Convert, pay a massive tax, or leave. She got out on the last bus to leave Qaraqosh. As we were talking I asked her what she would want me to communicate to Christians in America about Christians in Iraq. “What?!” she said in astonishment. “There are Christians in America!”

I love this story for many reasons, but the main one is that it reminds me yet again that long before America was born, the Church had been established and was growing even as it endured persecution, human mistakes, and petty gossip. I found out later that the pharmacist’s church was built by St. Thomas two thousand years ago. God and the Church had not left Iraq. They had been there all along. 

In my parents early years in Pakistan they felt like pioneers. They stepped out in faith just a few years after Pakistan had become a nation and left the shores of New York Harbor along with two other young couples. There were three couples with five children between them and for three months they lived in two rooms, the only foreigners in the city. My mom talks about the day they arrived in Pakistan in her book, Jars of Clay: 

As we stood on the deck of the Steel Recorder with our little ones around us on November 4,1954, we felt like pioneers. Today was the day we would finally set foot on the soil of Pakistan. Our years of study, preparation, and prayer, had brought Ralph and me, and Ray and Jean to this place at this point in time. We expected to spend our lives here in Pakistan, serving God and telling people of his love. We had not come on a short, fact-finding tour, gathering material to write an article or even a book. This would be our life.

However, we soon learned that others had been there before us, preparing the way.

More importantly, God was, and had been, at work preparing the way before they arrived.

You can read the rest here! 

The Shallow Identity of Party Affiliation

 

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Last night we had dinner with some new friends. We have been connecting online for about two years, and finally had the opportunity to meet. The conversation turned toward politics. Jenn talked about reading a book where the author surmised that Jesus was more liberal than the liberals and more conservative then the conservatives. I woke up thinking about this. As one who lived in a political system during his time on earth, Jesus never confused politics on earth with the Kingdom of Heaven. Never. His mission was people and relationships, not politics.

It was several years ago that a Christian friend first said to me: “I’m sorry, I disagree with you! I vote and live my life on [insert political party] values.” The conversation was pleasant, but I remember looking at my friend in surprise. She said it with absolute surety and confidence. This was more than politics, this was her very identity.

Historically, confusing politics on earth with the Kingdom of Heaven is not new, but I still remember that I was shocked and troubled. I had not lived in the United States much, and this was my first direct encounter with the values of a political party being confused and entangled with the values of someone who followed Jesus. Since then, I have come to realize that almost every politician in the entire country has at some point uttered the words “I am a Christian” for political gain, and we buy into it with our souls. We sigh with relief and think “Okay then. Good! God in the White House! Or in the Governor’s mansion.” We turn a blind eye to characteristics that are the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus. We say “Who am I to judge…!” Even as we’ve perfected the art of judging others.

The United States is in an interesting season. In three months we will be electing the next president of the United States of America. Social media and media in general are the only entities profiting from the debacle that is playing out in this election. Everyone else is losing.

Think about it – why are we participating in a game we are losing? A game where we are losing integrity, losing friendships, losing arguments, losing sleep, and slowly losing sanity.

We have bought into politics that reduce our complex humanity into a political identity and with it, a political war.

Here’s the thing: as a Christian, using a political party to describe ourselves is shallow. Using a political party to judge or describe other people is also shallow.  

The idea that I, a complicated human being with all sorts of thoughts going through my head, would be limited to a political party is galling to me. The statement “you can’t be a Christian and a [insert the party]” is reductionist and puts people into unreasonable boxes — boxes that include complex issues affecting human beings.

How and when did Christians in America begin to confuse who they are, as people made in the image of God, with the identity and characteristics of a political party? How did Christians come to see political parties as the way to express their Christian faith? It’s mind boggling that we would think affiliation with a political party is the way to express the kindness of Jesus that leads us to repentance. It is head shaking to think that a political party is the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Republicans, Democrats, Green Party, Libertarians – they are created and designed by imperfect people who are all about politics on earth, not treasure in Heaven. They are not, and never were, designed to reflect Jesus or the Kingdom of God. And if you see any of these as more then systems designed by imperfect people, then I pray that God would heal your eyesight.

There will be a day when the Kingdom of Heaven will come, and on that day I know this- all the politics we fussed over, argued about, and condemned each other for will dissolve into nothing in the light of the Glory of God Himself.

Until that time, may we do justly, love mercy, vote wisely (and for some, that may mean not at all) and walk humbly with our God. 

Pondering Privilege – a Book Review

Pondering Privilege – Toward a Deeper Understanding of Whiteness, Race, and Faithby Jody Wiley Fernando could not come to us at a better time. As media and newsfeeds fill with images and stories, many of us who are white really want to know how to do things better. Many of us, as uncomfortable as it is, are beginning to acknowledge a system that benefits people based on the color of their skin.

Into this conversation and thought process comes Jody’s thoughtful, challenging, and well-written book.

At the very beginning, Jody states that the book “was born out of my life’s circumstances.” Jody is white, raised in the midwest, the place that some describe as the “heartland” of the United States. She married a Sri Lankan and through marriage and being accepted into his entire family, continues to encounter a completely different view of the world, a completely different way of being and of seeing.

A couple of years ago, Jody wrote a blog post called When White People Don’t Know They’re Being White. The post went viral, a clear indication that there was a lot to discuss and a single blog post was not enough. This volume takes the idea of the blog post and expands it exponentially, giving us relatable experiences and stories coupled with questions that challenge and convict. This makes it ideal for a small group discussion.

Pondering Privilege begins with something the author believes is critical to the conversation – and that is cultural humility. She gives several examples: “Instead of ‘get over it!’ cultural humilty responds ‘I don’t understand. Can you help me understand more deeply?” or “Intstead of replying with some variation of ‘quit whining’ to someone who feels wronged, cultural humility responds ‘I’m so sorry this hurts you. How can I walk alongside you in this? What do I need to learn?'”  

This first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. Jody gently but persistently challenges those of us who are white on how we are relating to those who don’t share the same skin color, and how we can do better. She addresses things like the reality of white privilege, why we need to talk about race, myths and emotions that prevent us from having these conversations.

Through out the book, Jody doesn’t cast stones, instead she walks the journey with us. She acknowledges the hard work involved and how inadequate and insecure we often feel. Significant in the book are the practical tips that she gives. They are invaluable, particularly the “21-day Race Challenge.” The challenge is a gold mine of resources, including films, books, articles, and practical steps toward further understanding.

I highlighted these words at the end of the chapter on Tips to Help White People Talk about Race, words that are deeply transformative when lived out:

“There’s a final tip that I’ve found the most transformative. It’s not so much a tip as it is a magnificent gift because it cannot be forced or created but rather arises organically and unplanned. By far, the most life-changing way I’ve learned to speak of race is under the umbrella of love…..When you love someone of a different race, part of the process is listening, learning, accepting, and affirming this part of their experience as well. When we love well, we offer the words I’m listening and I’m sorry to each other without reservation.” 

Jody’s humility and heart are evident throughout the book. In a small section towards the end of the book, she writes about speaking from our scars instead of our wounds. Her words deeply moved me, and I offer them to you here:

“While the scars remain, the wounds no longer gape. In fact, as I speak from my scars, I find a strength within them born from the painful process of healing. If only more of Christ’s followers would understand the same from this broken racial road we walk – that when we admit weakness to one another, and walk toward each other in humility, Christ’s Kingdom grows stronger, and so do we.”

…understanding begins with learning and practicing a discipline of cultural humility and seeking to understand another’s experience without judgment. May more of us boldly begin to walk on this long and winding path.

Note: This book is written for a Christian audience with the hope of increasing productive conversations and action within largely white churches.

You can purchase Pondering Privilege here. 

*I received and Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of this book for review.

Simply Grace

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Frustrated, I stood outside a movie theatre. I had two extra tickets to a show, completely free, no strings attached. Two tickets on opening weekend of a show everyone was talking about – everyone wanted to see it.  My daughter’s two friends had been unable to attend, so rather than let the tickets go unused, we found our seats and I headed outside to give them away.  I thought it would be an easy task.  The theatre was in a busy area and I would be able to catch people before they arrived at the ticket booth, saving a family money and the potential of a sold-out show.

For 10 minutes I  stood there offering them to those passing by. Every person looked at me and then the tickets with suspicion and a quick “No thank you, we’re fine.” I knew they were fine, that wasn’t the point. The point is I had something they all wanted, in fact they were all heading to a line to buy something I could give them for free.  And I had no takers – no one, absolutely no one wanted these tickets. Finally cold, tired and completely frustrated I walked inside and joined my family.

The first words out of my mouth were “No one wants grace – no one can accept these for free!” I have thought about this single event many times since it happened. The tickets were a complete waste, never used. Thrown away to add just one more bit of trash to an already full landfill, never fulfilling their purpose.

*****

The movie, Babette’s Feast, takes place in 19th Century Denmark, in a small village. Two aging sisters center their life around the church their now deceased father pastored. The church congregants operate under rigid rules and a commitment to austere living. Both of these sisters had opportunities to leave the village earlier in their lives, but not wanting to go against the wishes of their father, they stayed. Now it is many years later and a French refugee, Babette, has landed on their doorstep. She has no money and nothing to give, but the sisters take her in and she begins to cook for them. 14 years later, Babette receives word that she has won a lottery of 10,000 Francs. It coincides with what would have been the 100th birthday of their father. Babette convinces the sisters that she wants to cook a special feast for this anniversary. She sends her nephew to Paris to bring in the finest ingredients imagineable for the dinner.

As plans for the dinner unfold, the sisters begin to worry that the meal will be too sumptuous, too pleasureable so they hold a meeting with the other congregants and decide that though they will eat the meal, they will not show any pleasure in doing so. To show pleasure would be to sin.

The day of the feast arrives, and an unexpected guest, a former suitor of one of the sister’s arrives. He is now a famous general and has married someone of royalty. He ends up at the dinner but knows nothing of the plans to show no pleasure. As he begins to eat, he is amazed at the dinner. He showers lavish praise with every bite and tells stories of the food he is eating. He is astonished at the beautiful food and drink. Everytime Babette comes into the room, he marvels to her, finally saying the meal rivals the best meal he has ever eaten, and that at Café Anglais, an expensive restaurant in Paris.

During much of the movie I wanted to scream at the villagers “Don’t you see what’s in front of you? Just enjoy it! Enjoy the gift! Take, eat, drink – this is a gift of grace. Don’t refuse it!”

Instead, I watched while the General’s enthusiasm and the beautiful meal break down barriers and walls that the villagers have constructed and all begin to enjoy the meal. At one point, the General raises his glass and makes a toast: “Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” 

At the end of the evening, in a small kitchen full of dirty dishes and remnants of the feast, the sisters find out that Babette has spent every penny of her winnings on this meal as a gift. The cost of the meal equaled the cost of one meal at the restaurant in Paris. It is then that they learn Babette was the chef at the Café Anglais.

*****

Babette’s Feast and the refusal of the tickets I tried to give away have something in common. They are a reminder of how easy it is to refuse grace – we’d rather work or pay to earn what we get. The idea that grace could be free brings up a suspicion and potential hostility in us. If we didn’t earn it, we don’t deserve it. If we didn’t pay for it, we shouldn’t have it. We can’t relax and enjoy a good gift.This spills over into what we think others deserve, or don’t deserve. 

The less I am able to receive grace, the more it affects my view of the worthiness of those around me. I see them undeserving of grace.

This is a terrifying thought and pulls me into a dangerous place. A place where I put myself and all those around me out of the reach of grace. I have no answers for this other than when I catch myself in that position, to cry out to God to stop me,  to reach out with all I have, and grab this gift, with the hope of convincing people that it is of far greater value than mere movie tickets.

“Grace is Everywhere,” said the dying priest in Georges Bernanos ‘s novel Diary of a Country Priest. Yes, but how easily we pass by, deaf to the euphony.” Philip Yancey in What’s so Amazing About Grace?

Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

A Challenge to Christians During Ramadan

Roxbury Mosque

I am on the mailing list of a large mosque in the Roxbury area of Boston. While Egypt’s minarets give us a journey through history and Turkey boasts Ottoman style mosques, the mosque in Roxbury is modern. It sits across from Roxbury Community College, its dome and minaret smaller than those in the Muslim world. I’ve been told that there were protests when the mosque opened.

Being able to express and live out our truth claims in freedom is a gift. A gift that I’d love everybody to have.

And because of this I’m glad that there is a mosque in Boston. I’m glad that my Muslim friends and acquaintances have a place to worship. When I lived in both Pakistan and Cairo I was grateful for a space where I could worship; grateful for the presence of churches in a Muslim country. These churches formed a good part of our community.  And controversial as this may seem to some, I want this for my Muslim friends. In a country that claims freedom of religion, they should have a place to worship.

Yesterday began the month of Ramadan for Muslims. I’ve written in the past about Ramadan – about loving neighbors more than sheep, about my outsider perspective. Once again, I find it a good time to bring attention to the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, who in one way or another will be celebrating the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan is a month long period of fasting. It is intended to be a time of spiritual discipline, praying, and generosity. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, liquids, sex, and cigarette from the from sun up to sun down. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, and the month of Ramadan is considered the holiest month of the year.

There are some good articles that you can read to help understand more about the month of Ramadan, and I have linked them at the end of this article, but today I want to issue a challenge to fellow Christians, those who hold to my faith tradition.

How many of us feel frustration when our faith is misunderstood, when myths abound, when others reject us because they disagree with what we believe?

But being rejected for our faith and truth claims is not fun. It’s lonely. It’s defeating. It’s discouraging. We want to scream when we hear misconceptions about Christianity and shout “No – that’s not the way it is! If we could just have a conversation….”. We long to engage with people about our faith because it’s important, because it’s foundational to who we are and how we live. Engaging with people over their beliefs does not mean we are watering down our own. How do so many come to believe that relationships, friendships and listening to others, means that we will fall down some slippery slope of forsaking our truth claims; of being false to that which we believe?

So as the month of Ramadan comes around, we have an opportunity to engage with Muslims.  We have a chance to live out what we want others to live at Christmas and Pascha or Easter.

With this in mind, I would challenge you to engage with Muslims. Get to know someone who is a Muslim.  Ask them about Ramadan and what it means to them. Ask them about the traditions that surround Ramadan. Just as Christians are not monolithic, so it is with Muslims, and traditions change according to country and family. Wish Muslims at your work place “Ramadan Kareem” or “Ramadan Mubarak.” Or better still, ask them – ask them what to say. We have the choice to engage with others and learn about what they believe. Are you willing to engage people during Ramadan?

We live in a world that quickly rejects based on appearance, religion, actions and more. How do we learn to live in truth to what we believe – which means that at some point we will disagree – and yet not be afraid to engage?  How can we remember the importance of friendships and relationships in living out our faith?  

I ask myself this question all the time – how about you? 

Aticles on Ramadan:

*An earlier edition of the post omitted the important detail of Muslims fasting only during the daylight hours. The piece has been corrected to reflect that fact.