Talking Together Makes Wise

In a book titled Tomorrow, God Willinga Norwegian anthropologist writes from her experiences befriending a family in a poor neighborhood in Cairo.  The book gives a portrayal of life in Cairo, primarily through the perspective of Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) with others from the extended family lending their voices to the narrative.  It is one of my favorite books for a variety of reasons, one of those being my love for the city of Cairo and Egyptians.

The prologue quotes Umm Ali saying: “I like talking with people, Talking together makes wise. Where had we humans been and what had we understood if we did not tell each other what each of us thinks and feels….it is a life necessity to be able to talk.”

She then proceeds to invite the author into her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love and then communicate those stories on paper.  She gets the importance of ‘talk’ in communicating the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.

The back streets of Cairo are an unlikely setting and Umm Ali perhaps an unlikely source of wisdom, but wisdom it is. She viewed talking as a gift to “purge you of sorrow/anger and invigorate your soul.”  This quote is from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no formal education.  In light of a media frenzy over the power of words over people, Umm Ali recognized their power in the best way possible.  To communicate in order to express her feelings and life story and in doing so create understanding between people who don’t live or think in the same way that she or those around her do.

Cairo is a city of over 16 million people. That’s a lot of voices and a lot of stories but sometimes  one story is all it takes to “make wise.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the wisdom of Umm Ali in recent weeks. It’s been quiet on the blog because I’ve realized that too often in the past I’ve been quick to react, and much slower to really read and understand different perspectives. I’ve far too often made the narrative around the world about me instead of about others and the stories and perspectives that create their world view, the history that creates their living reality.

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

Max warren

What I hear loudest in the discussions that are taking place both on and offline is the plea to listen, to study, and to take a step back. This sits well with the words of Max Warren, a man described as a “perceptive historian” who lived from 1904 through 1977. He said this about approaching people:

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

For the place we are approaching is holy

Else we find ourselves

Treading on another’s dreams

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.‘”

Max Warren – 1963

I love these words, and I desperately want to be someone who reflects this reality – for the places I am approaching are holy.


[Picture credit – Image by Ahmed Sabry from Pixabay]

A View from Above

Bab Zuweila

Bab ZuweilaTwin minarets

In the city of Cairo twin minarets stand tall, their silhouettes marked against a clear blue sky. They stand distinguishable from a thousand other minarets because of their fame as a city landmark. The minarets frame a gate still standing since the 11th century, the gate of Bab Zuweila. The minaret towers are so high that they were used to look out for enemy troops coming up to attack the city. Now, centuries later, the minarets of Bab Zuweila provide an unparalleled view of the old city of Cairo.

Climbing up the minarets is a journey. Around ancient steps you walk – farther and farther up, dizzy from the spiral and half frightened from the dark staircase. You make it to the first area where you go out and stand looking over the vast city of 18 million people. But you’re compelled to go farther. So on you go. And it gets more rickety and frightening, the centuries-old steps become even narrower and darker. You can see nothing and you are grasping on to the steps in front of you for fear of falling. But you keep going.

You arrive at the second level. And it’s even more magnificent than the first. To your right you see Al Azhar Park, significant for its large and beautiful green space in a city that has so little. In this 360 degree view you see vast numbers of minarets, you hear the call to prayer going off at split-second intervals across the city – a cacophony echoing around you. You see thousands of tiny people, walking about as they go from bazaar to mosque to bus. You see the tent makers bazaar and even from this distance, you can see the beautiful colors.

It’s the view from above. And it is glorious, breath-taking and conversation stopping. But you can go even farther. And once you get to the top, you don’t want to leave – because it took a while for you to get there and you’re so tired. And the stairs going down are still rickety and treacherous, they are still centuries old. But mostly you don’t want to go down because you want to continue to look out over the view, the view above the city, above the chaos. The view from above.

Lent is a time to step back and step up; a time to see the view from above. 

That glorious, breath-taking, conversation stopping view. That view that sees the broken world that Jesus died for, the world that Jesus loves, knowing that each day that we fight this fight is worth it.

That view that remembers the words a Son called out to a Father “Why have you forsaken me?” A view that sees the grand Salvation narrative, taller and grander than a million minarets, a love that calls to us louder than a billion calls to prayer. The view where all ‘this’ will make sense, wrong will be made right, tears will turn to laughter, and sorrow to joy. We are invited into this view from above, a view where our story falls into the shadows for a time, and God’s great, redemptive narrative is remembered around the world. A story of mercy and grace, where good triumphs over evil and wrong is made right.

Whether we live in the shadows of a Hindu temple or near the courtyard of a grand cathedral; in a small village or are one of millions in a large, modern city, we know what it is to see poverty and suffering, crime and inequality, evil and difficult circumstances. We learn to love when it’s hard and others learn to love us when we’re hard. We know failure, we know pain, we know how human and flawed we are. Yet daily we experience the persistence of God’s redemptive process.
And today no matter where we are in the world, we are invited to remember this view from above.
“Finally, as if everything had not been felt enough, Jesus cries out in an agonizing moment in the most powerful words that we will read in the world: ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’ And I am utterly convinced that the reason he said those words was so that you and I would never have to say them again.” – Ravi Zacharias

Note: This piece has been adapted from a piece written for A Life Overseas.

On Monasteries, Children, and Loving Our Enemies

Gunmen Kill at Least 28 Coptic Christians in Egypt

The headline spares nothing, except that there were children. I numbly read the article describing the pilgrimage. The group was headed to St. Samuel Monastery for a pilgrimage when pick up trucks reportedly drove up to the busses and began firing automatic weapons. I read as little as I have to to get the story. Then I stop and I feel myself getting sick. 


During our years living in Egypt, my husband used to love taking our oldest son, Joel, to monasteries. The first time he went, Joel was only three years old. He went off happily into the desert with his dad, secure and excited.  The pictures taken later that day show a tow-headed pre-schooler with a bearded monk. They are absolutely comfortable with each other and the camera captures this well. 

Our introduction to Orthodoxy came through the Coptic Orthodox Church. My husband went on countless trips into the Sinai desert, enjoying the hospitality and growing through the spirituality of monks who had devoted their lives to prayer in the desert. Christianity in Egypt is alive because of these havens and those that set themselves apart to pray for Egypt and the world. It was a monk who said to my husband “Cliff, you are Orthodox. You just don’t know it yet!”  This was years before we entered the Orthodox Church. My husband just thought this is what the monks say to Protestants who they liked. It turns out it was more prophetic than we could have imagined. 

These trips to monasteries are a respite from the chaos of the massive cities in Egypt. But they are so much more! Pilgrimages to monasteries are part of the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, so when I read about the group who were attacked it felt personal. It should feel personal. These are fellow Christians, members of what we call the “body of Christ”.  


The commands to “love our enemies” and “do good to them that hurt you” are not ambiguous. They are clear and forceful. Along with this, we have the words said by Jesus as he died on the cross:

Father – Forgive Them. 

In the most outrageous act of love the world has ever witnessed or will ever witness, we have these words. They are recorded and echo through history. They are heard in great cathedrals and small,village congregations. They are said aloud, and they are whispered in the soul. 

These words – they feel too hard. How can a grieving mother say them? How can an angry father believe them? 

And yet – still they echo. 

After the attack on Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday, a television station interviewed the wife of a security guard who was killed during the attack. It was this man who stopped the suicide bomber and made him go through the metal detector, an act that cost him his life. His widow’s words echo the words of Christ on the cross:

‘I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you. I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds,’ 

Violence lasts but a moment, forgiveness echoes forever. 

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

human-1230505_1280

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.

In the Fourth Watch of the Night


Recent Headlines:

Saturday, December 3 – 10-alarm fire in Cambridge, MA displaces 166 people.

Saturday, December 10 – Explosions outside football (soccer) stadium in Istanbul kills many. Turkey declares Sunday a national day of mourning for the country.

Sunday, December 11 – Terrorist attack in Coptic Church kills over 25 people with many more wounded. Most of the victims are women and children.

Sunday, December 11 – At least 160 dead when church in Nigeria collapses.

*****

The book of Matthew, first gospel in a set of four, says that Jesus came to the disciples on the fourth watch. His disciples, fishermen by trade, had gone fishing and a storm came suddenly in the middle of what had been a calm sea. 

After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary.And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

The Romans divided the night into four three-hour segments and the Jews had adopted these divisions. The fourth watch was the last part of the night between three and six in the morning. This was the last watch, the end of the night.

The fourth watch is that point where you wake up and it is so dark, you look at the clock beside your bed, and you sigh deeply – you can still sleep for another 2 hours. Or it’s the time when you have to be at the airport for the early morning flight, that flight that leaves at 6 am, passengers sporting only sleep-blurred eyes and coffee breath.

Or it’s the “darkest before dawn” part of the night.

It meant this storm on the sea of Galilee had raged all night long. It meant that the disciples were exhausted and defeated, that they had battled a critical weather event with every ounce of their human strength – but it was not enough. The storm was going to defeat them.

Until Jesus came and spoke words that calmed the sea.

The fourth watch. My mind fills with questions: Why did Jesus wait so long? Why did this miracle worker not intervene sooner? Why, when it was at their last bit of strength, did he suddenly appear – a ghost-like figure walking on the stormy seas?

My questions will never be answered and even as I write them I know these questions reflect my heart – a heart that finds faith hard, that sometimes thinks God waits too long to intervene. Too long to move hearts and souls, too long to change circumstances. I want him to come on the first watch, not the fourth.

Explosions, bombs, faulty construction, fires, a never-ending war in Syria, refugees by the million, continued persecution of Christians in the Middle East; people fleeing homes only to drown at sea — all of it feels like the fourth watch. It’s gone on too long. When will peace come? When will the Prince of Peace reign? When will evil be conquered? When will God intervene?

I texted an Egyptian friend yesterday when I heard about the bomb at the cathedral. She had invited me to the cathedral during our recent trip to Egypt and because of timing, we couldn’t go. “What can we do?” I typed out. Her immediate response “Pray. Pray for the wounded. Pray for the grieving. Pray for us.”

My heart is grieving for Egypt and Turkey. It is also heavy for my own stuff – my own grief and sadness. Perhaps yours is as well.

The world is waiting for the fourth watch. I am waiting for the fourth watch.

Many years ago there was a group of people who were waiting. There had been four hundred years of silence; four hundred years where there were no prophets, no mouth pieces of God. Four hundred years of history and oppression and finally, occupation by Rome. It was surely the fourth watch when Jesus came as a little baby, insignificant, another male child at the time of a census. The significant marks of his birth were seen later — a virgin birth, a star in the East, and an angel’s song to shepherds. Perhaps people like you and me were saying the same things that we say during these days of grief and loss.

It’s gone on too long.

When will peace come?

When will evil be conquered?

When will God intervene?

I’m reminded of this on this Monday morning.  We are weary. We are waiting for the fourth watch. We are waiting for the words: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 

May it be so. 

*The story relayed is from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 14: 23-47.

[Note: this post was adapted from a previously written piece.]

A Life Overseas – Freedom from the Silence of Shame

I’m at A Life Overseas today, talking about a hard subject. I hope you’ll join me there! silence of shame

Long ago on a spring day in Cairo, I was walking across a small footbridge to the area of the city where I lived. I had crossed the footbridge hundreds of times, usually with one or three children hanging on to my skirt and in my arms. This time I was alone, lost in my thoughts and enjoying the walk.

I had single-parented four kids for ten days, and I was pregnant with our fifth child. I was tired, lonely, and hormone-infused.

There was minimal traffic on the foot bridge at this time of day, but as I began heading down toward the street, a man started walking up the other side. I thought nothing of it, until out of the corner of my eye I saw him walking directly toward me. Before I could react, he had reached out and grabbed my breasts. I began screaming like a mad-woman. I shouted in Arabic at the top of my lungs “Shame! For shame! You are a Muslim? You are not a good Muslim!”  He had picked a lonely, hormone-infused pregnant woman to harass, and my anger knew no bounds. Hearing the commotion, some men on the street began walking towards me. They were clearly concerned. “What happened?” “How can we help?”

While some people share stories of their language skills improving when they share the gospel message, mine always tended to improve when I was angry. My Arabic was perfect as I screamed and cried my distress. The men could not have been kinder. “We’ll find him! We’ll get him! This is not Islam, he is not a good Muslim!” they assured me. I remember their kindness and concern in vivid detail.

Shaking and crying, I continued on my way. The walk was ruined, the bright spring day dark with shame and anger. Read the rest here at A Life Overseas.

In Honor of a Birthday – Marty’s Balcony

My friend Marty had a birthday the other day. I haven’t lived close to Marty in years, but just the fact that she had this birthday brought back beloved memories of this friend, and of the many times spent together, often on her balcony. So I remembered this piece that I wrote when I first began blogging, and I thought it fitting that I should repost it, and remember – because there is strength in remembering.*

The picture could be anywhere. It shows a balcony railing, two roses in a slender vase on top of a table, and a votive candle. Sunlight shines through dusty flame trees.  The caption underneath it reads: “Breakfast on the balcony — my favorite place on a summer morning while it’s still cool!”  

One simple picture brought on many memories from around the globe. 

It was my friend Marty who posted the picture on her Facebook accountMarty lives in Maadi, an area about 20 minutes from the center of Cairo in Egypt. An international school is the hub of much of expatriate life in Maadi. While the school is called Cairo American College, it boasts a student body from all over the world. Maadi itself is an area heavily populated with expatriates raising global nomads from Holland, Germany, France, Lebanon and too many other countries to name. Along with Cairo American College there  is a British school, a French school, and a smaller international school.

Green space is a luxury in the city of Cairo, and Maadi has much of it. By western city standards it’s still sparse, but for those who live in Cairo it feels like Kensington Park. We once heard someone describe the grounds at CAC as “almost like Wimbledon!” I remember laughing with my sister-in-law wondering if he had been to Wimbledon recently or perhaps was making the comparison based on 10 years living in Tahrir Square.

Maadi has been an extraordinary place for many people. While it is criticized for being “15 minutes from Egypt” and there is no doubt the area enjoys many luxuries that the rest of Cairo lacks, many have experienced life-changing events surrounded by an international community located a metro ride from downtown Cairo. As you walk around Maadi it is almost impossible not to run into someone that you know, whether you walk to Road 9, a major shopping area or head toward Gomaa Digla Supermarket to pick up groceries. The area is rich in friendship and community.

Whether you’re there for one year or twenty, both Maadi and Egypt are unforgettable and you are destined to return.

If the community in Maadi is unique, Marty’s balcony is extraordinary. It has been a place of peace and blessing and seeing the picture evoked those memories in many people.

One person attested to the talk and tears that the balcony had held; another mentioned the many memories;  another remembered “lots of coffees and tears and good conversations and prayers.”

I remembered being saved from many a melt-down through the peace and comfort of the balcony along with the laughter and strength of Marty’s presence.

A lot of people have  balconies in Cairo. It’s on the ‘must have’ list when looking for rental properties, but this one has served an uncommon purpose through the years. Marty brings people not only to her balcony for tea or coffee, laughter or tears, but also to her heart. She is exceptionally gifted at listening and being fully present. Marty knows that life is messy at best, downright impossible and intolerable at worst, but continues to live with purpose and a remarkable sense of humor.

It’s these friendships that give us time and love, and guide us into truth that are uniquely precious. And that is what Marty does on her balcony.

As I wish Marty a happy birthday, I am acutely aware that Cambridge is over five thousand miles too far away.  My response?  I went immediately online and priced tickets to Cairo to make the balcony and Marty a little closer.

Happy Birthday Marty! Thank you for your heart and your balcony.

A Life Overseas – Offending and Mending

Readers, would you join me today at A Life Overseas? I’ve retooled an old piece!

view-of-the-city-700x469

Of all the difficult things we do in cross-cultural moves, finding places to live is near the top. We want to create space and place – we want to create home. And often our expectations are a planet away from our reality.

At one point while living in Cairo, we were hunting for a flat (apartment) on the island of Zamalek. After a day of searching in the heat and walking endlessly down dusty streets and alley ways, we were tired and had seen some of the ugliest apartments imaginable.

My husband and I were getting increasingly frustrated, feeling the cross-cultural disconnect of trying to communicate what we were looking for in a flat to what we were being shown. Precisely at this point we walked up 8 flights of stairs and, on a scale of ugly to uglier to ugliest we were shown the ugliest flat we had seen. Ever. Anywhere. When the man showing us this particular flat asked us if we liked it, my husband looked at him and said clearly “No. This flat is the ugliest flat we have ever seen.” With a toilet seat cover made of a deck of cards, a kitchen that resembled a tiny sauna, and mirrors all over the gaudy red bedroom, it was hideous.

In that moment, by the look on the man’s face, we realized he had insulted the landlord, mistaking him for the bowab, a man who guards the front door and asks for baksheesh (a tip) once a month. “You don’t like my flat?” He said in a loud and puzzled voice. We had the grace to pause and look at each other, suddenly realizing that we had committed a no-no in apartment hunting in Cairo – insulting the landlord. But we were tired and defeated, so my husband said emphatically “No – we don’t like your flat. At all. We would never live here. It’s ugly,” and off we went. Once back on the street we took one look at each other, and in the exhaustion of the day, burst into laughter. It was completely inappropriate given we had just insulted our host, but we couldn’t stop. The incident was only one of many times when we realized we had a lot to learn about living cross-culturally.

Read the rest here at A Life Overseas!

A Mother’s Grief; A Father’s Pain

Three hours south of Cairo, in a small town rarely heard of until this past Sunday, families grieve. Thirteen of the men murdered by ISIS are from this town.

Yousef Shoukry, aged 24 is one of those men. Like most of these men, Yousef needed a job and could not find one in Egypt, so he left for Libya to find work. His mother now sits, dressed in black, receiving visitors who all express their grief. A picture shows a large cross around her neck, a reminder that God is present in her grief. And though she grieves her loss, she has these words to say “He’s a martyr. I know he’s in a better place.”

**********

In another part of Egypt a father sits in deep, emotional pain. He raised his family in the Heliopolis section of Egypt, in a middle-class neighborhood with restaurants and coffee shops. This father made sacrifices to make sure his children were educated. He sent his son to a private school where the son learned French and, in his free time, worked out at a gym. Now the father watches television and sees his son smiling as he stands over a corpse in Syria. Another video shows him teaching militants how to work out.

“He winced at the mere mention of his son’s name, visibly overcome by an unceasing thought that he struggled to articulate. He looked down to hide the tears in his eyes.‘You have to understand, I am in pain,” said Yaken Aly, choking on the words: “My son is gone.'” From a Private School in Cairo to ISIS Killing Fields in Syria in NY Times.

***********

Two Egyptian sons, both are gone. One mother grieves a death, a father grieves a life and the choices of that life. These two young men are not alone – there are others like them. There are those who leave for economic reasons, so their families won’t starve; others that leave in disillusionment, looking for something bigger than themselves after a failed revolution betrayed them.

There are some things that seem far harder to bear than death. Watching a child leave all that you love, all that you hold as sacred and good, and find their identity in a cause you hate has to hold more pain than we can imagine.

I think about these two parents and I pray for both. For the one, comfort in her grief; for the other comfort and healing in his pain. And I think about Jesus, who steps into grief and participates in our suffering. Jesus who sits with us in our pain and offers his whispers of comfort and redemption, sometimes so softly that they are drowned out by the noise of our grieving hearts. Jesus who said so long ago “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”*

**********

Blogger’s note: Several of you have asked about donations to the families who lost their loved ones in the recent tragedy. I have spoken to a friend in Egypt who says people can make online donations to Biblica. Just be sure to add: for Biblica MENA: project New Hope Egypt

*John 16:33b New International Version of the Bible

Remember Their Names

They have a name

I look at the picture and read through the names. 21 in all. They feel familiar, though rusty, on my tongue. Reading these names, praying as I read them feels like the best thing I can do to honor these men.

There is something important about remembering their names. There is something defiant in the act of saying the names, of saying them aloud, of making sure people know they are not nobodies.

The men were laborers in Libya for economic reasons. ISIS captured them because they were “people of the cross.” They are brothers and sons, employees and friends, husbands and confidantes. Each of the 21 men who died is known by name. And when we remember their names, we honor them.

The president of Egypt announced seven days of mourning for the nation and Christians and Muslims are coming together to grieve with the families of the victims.

Friends from Egypt sent out a message yesterday. They will be slowly visiting the families of the men who were murdered. They will sit and grieve with them; mourn the loss of these young men. And they will remember their names. 

***********

Last week in the city of Chapel Hill, three people were murdered. They were murdered in their home, their safe haven. Pictures show Chapel Hill to be a charming city, indeed those I know who have lived there love it. It is a university city, home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But three Muslims, one man and two women, were murdered by an atheist motivated by hate.

I read through their names slowly. Deah Barakat, his wife – Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, her sister – Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. They are 23, 21, and 19 respectively. Deah was a University of North Carolina dental student. Reports say they were newly married, scheduled to receive their wedding photographs on the week they were killed.

They loved the diversity of America and were active members of their community. Yusor was quoted as saying this last summer: “Growing up in America has been such a blessing. It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions — but here, we’re all one.” 

The enemy would have us forget, the enemy would have us remember the name ISIS, the name of the one who murdered Deah, Yusor, and Razan. Instead, we remember the names of those who died.

***********

 Will you remember these names with me today? 

The ISIS Definition of Who Lives and Who Dies

ISIS

The People of the Cross

I woke to the news that 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt were beheaded by ISIS on a beach in Tripoli. That ISIS would pick a beautiful place by the ocean to carry out this heinous act feels particularly galling.

God’s creation in all its beauty juxtaposed with man, made in the image of God, in all his free-willed horror.

The news did not even make it to the front page of the New York Times.

We are in a world where a terrorist organization decides who lives and who dies and it’s no longer front page news. 

The video that was released called the men “People of the Cross.” I have had the privilege of living in Egypt, of going to the homes, churches, and monasteries of Coptic Christians. These are my brothers and sisters in faith. It hurts my soul and I have few words for this horror.

But if I am honest, in my heart every day I make the kind of decisions that lead up to what ISIS did to these men. I daily decide who to despise and who to accept; who is worthy of my kindness and who deserves my rejection. And that’s what hurts — that as evil as ISIS is, the same spirit is in me.

We live in a world where the definition of who should be allowed to live narrows with each passing day. How can my prayers, my life, my actions reflect something completely different?

And can I pray for those who inflict such evil?

The man who cries out against evil men but does not pray for them will never know the grace of God.” — St. Silouan the Athonite

The Call to Prayer echoes across the Muslim world five times a day. It calls the faithful to stop what they are doing and pray. As a Christian growing up in the Muslim world, five times a day I have been reminded to lift my heart in prayer. The faith and truth claims are different, but the Call to Prayer still serves as a reminder. And the five times stretches to many times in between until I realize I am slowly learning that I can’t make it through this life without prayer; that the exhortation to ‘pray without ceasing’ is life-giving. That in the midst of senseless acts of violence, in the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he “willingly endured the cross”.From In the Midst of Tragedy, a Call to Pray

Those are my thoughts this day.

Picture Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2954746/Islamic-State-releases-video-purporting-beheading-21-Egyptians-Libya.html

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 23 “On Repentance & the Mystery of Grace”

sleeping city and mystery of grace

I didn’t know about Saint Mary of Egypt until this past year. What is known about her primarily comes from a biography written by the Patriarch of Jerusalem after her death. She was born in Egypt in 344 AD. At 12 years old she ran away to Alexandria and entered into a life of promiscuity and prostitution. She was not forced into this. This is what she wanted. She would regularly refuse money for having sex, mostly living off of begging or spinning flax. She lived this way for 17 years with no regrets.

At that time she joined a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to attend some religious feasts, although her main goal was to seduce other pilgrims on the journey.

Something remarkable happened when she tried to approach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the feast day. While other pilgrims entered – she was held back. It was a force that she couldn’t see, but she realized that she was not allowed to enter because of her sin, because of her impurity. She saw the icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) and cried out to it, begging for forgiveness and promising that she would give up this life that she knew, give up the “world”. When she tried again to go into the church she was allowed inside. When she came outside again and went before the icon to give thanks, she heard a voice saying “If you cross the Jordan, you will find true rest and peace.” She went then to a monastery on the banks of the Jordan river and received holy communion. The next morning she crossed over the Jordan and went to live the rest of her life as a hermit, ever penitent. It is said she took three loaves of bread with her and after they were gone ate whatever she could find.

One year before she died she told her life story to a priest who, on going into the desert, saw a naked figure who hardly looked human. She asked him for his robe to cover her body and sat down with him telling him her story. She had remarkable insight and perception into the life of this priest. She asked him to meet her a year later and bring her Holy Communion. He returned a year later and found her and gave her communion. A year later he returned and found her body in the place he had last seen her.

The story was preserved for generations through oral tradition until finally recorded by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. And, as in all our lives, there is more to the story. This is a condensed version.

Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

The words of Oscar Wilde are oft quoted. But there’s nothing like a story to remind me of their truth and Mary’s is that story.

There was a time when I wanted a past like Mary’s of Egypt – when I wanted to know that Grace stretched far and deep rescuing me from a life of sin. Instead I grew up in a home that nurtured my faith. I never ran off to Alexandria, Egypt to seduce men. I was never turned away from entering a church. But here’s the problem – there was a time I believed when it didn’t take a miracle of Grace to reach me, when I thought I could do this Christianity thing pretty well, that repentance was for the “difficult to save.” And me? I was easy to save. Perhaps I even thought God was ‘lucky’ to have me in his little group.

But that Pharisaic stance put me in the most dangerous of postures. For Christ offered forgiveness to prostitutes and saved harsh words for the Pharisees. He was friend to sinners, Saviour to the truly repentant.

Saint Mary of Egypt above all teaches me of repentance. What it means to live life, marked first by sin, but remembered for repentance. If I don’t believe it took just as much of a miracle of Grace to reach me as it did to reach her then I have a twisted theology. If I believe that I am ‘easier to save’, if I arrogantly and sinfully pat myself on the back and look up to Heaven believing that the trinitarian Godhead is lucky to have me on their side, then I am the worst kind of Pharisee.

So I am learning more and more about the saints. And I am learning more and more about a sinner – me.

And as I learn I am confounded by the same thing that confounded Saint Mary of Egypt — the Mystery of Grace.

For Mary it was the unseen force, Holy Communion on the banks of the Jordan, years in the desert. For me it was the unseen hand on my 6-year old self in boarding school, the heritage of a family of faith, years of feeling alien yet knowing God’s presence. For both of us, along with a host of other saints and sinners “Those nail-scarred hands stretch out to us in unlikely spaces and places and we marvel at the mystery of Grace.” from The Hard Questions.

Enhanced by Zemanta

On Places as Possessions and Finding Your Niche

journeying reality 2I felt angry at the person speaking. She was speaking about “My Pakistan”. What right did she have to speak about something that was ‘mine’? Except that Pakistan is not mine. Nor is Egypt.

My places become like my possessions.

I’ve talked with expats and TCKs I’ve realized how much the places we love become like our possessions — yet they aren’t. We belong to these countries but they don’t belong to us. As much as I want the phrase to be “my Pakistan” or “my Egypt” and as much as I use it — they don’t belong to me.  These places that I love are not my possessions. And therein is one of my problems as an adult third culture kid. I take on an exclusivity when it comes to places I love. I become arrogant when I hear others talk about them. I scream at television networks as blonde lovelies speak nonsense about parts of the world where they’ve never been.

Can I be okay with the irony that they don’t belong to me but I belong to them? Is it that home has moved so much that we cling tight to our past connections?

Possession in the dictionary a defined as “the state of having, owning, or controlling something.” Is it truly loving a place when we want to own the rights to it? And how do we release our hold on our ‘places’? 

Perhaps another question is this: How does our hold on our ‘places’ affect where we now live. Mokokoma Mokhonoana, a South African activist and social critic says “We preoccupy ourselves with what we had — or what we want to have — at the expense of what we have.” 

I think a lot of this is about finding our niche. How does our past fit with our present? How can we take the places we’ve loved and the experiences we’ve had and use them in our current reality?

The journeying reality of the third culture kid is connecting our multicultural past with something that feels meaningful. Connecting those invisible skills to a visible occupation. And each journey is unique. While one third culture kid may end up a diplomat, another may live on a farm in Germany milking goats and living off the land. Both have found their niche. 

The greater connection we have to our present place and space the more willing we are to release our hold on our past, giving up our jealous guard and exclusive rights to possess our places.The more I’m willing to let go, the more seems to come back to me. If I hold out my hand and let God pry my tight fist open, my palm is outstretched ready to accept what he offers.

It’s in this context that I announce a new series on Communicating Across Boundaries. The series is called “Finding Your Niche”. I am asking for submissions to this series from third culture kids. I want to hear stories about connecting a multicultural past to a current reality. How did you find your place? How do you link your past to your present? What tips would you give those who are on this journey? 

The series begins next week and will run every Tuesday. Email inquiries and submissions to communicatingblog (at) gmail (dot) com. There is no payment but there is my deep gratitude, the gratitude of many other third culture kids who are in this process, and social media link-up through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Google Plus.

I look forward to hearing your story, the story of how you found your niche. 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Remembering “The Square”

On Friday night we watched the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Square (Al Midan). This movie captures what happened in Egypt from a few weeks before the momentous ousting of Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011 through this past summer.

“Let me tell you how this story began….It began with a group of brave, young Egyptians battling injustice, corruption, poverty.” Ahmed Hassan

Tahrir Square, in the center of Cairo is the place that became the epicenter for all the events leading up to Mubarak’s downfall. It represents to the world the fight for freedom and democracy as hoped and fought for by the Egyptian people. The title of the movie is fitting as nothing captures the spirit of this time more than Tahrir Square.

The movie follows Ahmed – the 20 year old who has known the streets of Cairo since he sold lemons as a little boy and realistically represents the youth of Egypt; Magdy – a family man who identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood and goes to Tahrir Square day after day to watch change happen; and Khalid – a movie star who has been living in England but comes back to Cairo to participate in the change he knows is coming. Initially the movie shows a people united at the ousting of Mubarak, ready for a new day in Egypt. But the story moves forward and divisions arise, an army the people trusted turns on them, hope turns to despair. But Ahmed, Magdy, and Khalid continue coming to Tahrir Square – their differences obvious, their desire to see change united.

The documentary vividly captures the crowds, the masses of people — men, women, and children shouting “Al-Horreya!’ (Freedom!), the tension between the people and the army, talking heads on state-sponsored television. Throughout the film we were immersed in crowds and chaos, anger and joy, hope and despair.

But for us, watching the movie was personal.

Tahrir is a familiar place for all of us from the seven years we lived in Egypt, but it is even more familiar for our daughter. For three years, from September 2009 through September 2012 she lived in Cairo. She was in graduate school at the American University in Cairo and lived just two blocks from Tahrir Square. She has friends and acquaintances featured in the movie and this was her world. It was this I couldn’t get out of my mind on Friday night. These were her friends, this was her neighborhood, whatever was happening on any given day affected her going out, affected where she ate, who she was with. She lived, breathed, slept what I only briefly experienced while visiting her and then watched in a movie. It was a powerful and difficult film to watch.

It has now been three years, and Egypt still faces massive challenges. As we remember this day, 3 years ago, I ask you to read these words of an Egyptian friend from a news email written on January 9:

As we begin 2014 the biggest concern of most Egyptians is whether or not they, individually and as a nation, can afford the price of the new “democracy” which was achieved by our “Revolution”!

In January 2011, when Egyptians in large numbers toppled the government by protesting against the autocratic rule of the Mubarak regime, there was hope that the country would become truly democratic. We dreamed of a nation where everyone could freely express his or her perspectives and opinions and yet also work together in harmonious tolerance.

This dream was quickly crushed when the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) took over the government and imposed what increasingly resembled religious theocracy. When that regime was ousted by popular demand last summer, there was new hope that the dreams we’d had during the Revolution would finally be realized.

Unfortunately, since the dispersal of the MB’s 48 day sit-ins on August 14, 2013, disruption of daily life and violence on the streets has become a normal part of Egyptian life.  We often hear of people wounded or killed in clashes between MB supporters and the police, the army or angry civilians who want to live a normal life. In an attempt to restore peace on the street, the government’s aggressive response to continued MB disruptions sadly seems to create more violence rather than less.

As we prepare for a national referendum on a new Constitution, the violence continues in an attempt to intimidate the general population and scare them from going to the polls on January 14 and 15.

Having just celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace, Christians in Egypt yearn for that elusive peace in their hearts and in the country as a whole.” from Ramez Atallah 

Tomorrow marks the 3 year anniversary of events that happened on January 25th when the people of Egypt came together to demand more. I’ll end the post with more words from Ramez: “Pray with us to know creative ways to better reflect what the Prince of Peace would say to Egypt.”

I highly recommend the documentary. To watch a preview click on this link: The Square

All photos were taken on our trip to Egypt in December 2011. Gas MaskCairo, Egypt, Islam, MinaretTahrir SquareMore graffitisunset from the roofFriday Tahrir 2Boys with peace signWe three kingsGas mask graffiti 3eyepatch graffiti 2January 25th Revolution

Enhanced by Zemanta

Egypt – a Call to Pray

*********************

Egypt, Cairo, Minarets

My love for Egypt is no surprise to Communicating Across Boundaries readers. Despite no longer having a vicarious presence in the country through our daughter, we keep up regularly through friends and acquaintances.

As our newsfeeds fill with news from Egypt, it is hard to know what is really going on. With the west condemning Egypt and shaking their heads in despair I am glad to pass on an article written with clarity and wisdom. One of the authors is head of the Bible Society in Egypt and a long time friend of ours.

Here is an excerpt:

“In the past 6 weeks the Muslim Brotherhood has occupied a number of public spaces, to demonstrate for the reinstatement of the former President (currently being held by the army and facing charges related to abuse of power, including substantial material and intelligence support to Hamas). Unlike the peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square by demonstrators in January 2011, and again at the end of June 2013, these Muslim Brotherhood occupations were dominated by calls for violence against the army, the police, the liberals and, specifically, the Coptic Christians in Egypt – all resulting in the violence witnessed on August 14th, when police stations, hospitals, private and public property were destroyed. Many Christian churches (at least 40 so far), homes and businesses were also attacked, as well as a monastery, three religious societies, three key bookshops belonging to the Bible Society in Egypt, three Christian schools and an orphanage.”

You can read the entire article here.

He ends the piece with a Call to Pray.

Prayers for Egypt:

  • The current violence will end soon.
  • The effective rule of law and order will be re-established for the benefit of all citizens.
  • There will be effective protection of church and other property against attacks by extremists.
  • Egypt will be governed for the benefit of all its citizens, with people of different persuasions able to live alongside one another peaceably.
  • Egyptian Christians will have opportunity to play an increasingly prominent and effective role in addressing the needs of all Egyptians and helping to bring healing and reconciliation in the country.

The Morning After Easter – Sham el Nessim (a Repost)

English: People receiving the Holy Light at Ea...

Orthodox Easter, otherwise known as Pascha, was this weekend. This means that much of Christendom celebrated Easter after a Holy Week that led us to a final, triumphant service, beginning just before midnight on Saturday and ending around three in the morning. While this may seem daunting, I assure you – staying awake is not an issue. How can you doze off when a priest periodically comes into the congregation and with joy shouts “Christ is Risen!” to which you respond “Indeed, He is Risen!”. 

As is the duty of those who call themselves Christians, the challenge is moving from Pascha into the week after. From celebration into the ordinary. From Sunday into Monday. It is easier to do this in some places than in others, and Egypt is one of those places where the Monday after Easter is Sham el Nessim – a national holiday.

So today I am reposting a piece I did a couple of years ago – Enjoy and Happy Sham El Nessim!

**********************

Stale cigarette smoke, morning coffee breath and Marc Jacobs perfume mingled together in a crowded morning bus. While faces differed in color of eyes, skin, and facial features, one thing was the same – the look of Monday resignation after a weekend that brought jelly beans, promises of spring, and, for some in the crowd, the remembered hope of resurrection.

The bus door closed just as a flushed and out of breath young woman arrived, knocking at the door with hope that the driver would have mercy and let her on. He did and she breathed heavily with relief, her glasses fogging with the moisture and change of temperature inside the bus. The rest of us held on for dear life as the bus driver, clearly annoyed with the 5-second delay it had taken for him to succumb and display an act of empathy, sped miles above the neighborhood speed limit to drop us off at the central stop.

This is Easter Monday – a day given as a holiday in some countries but business as usual in the United States, perhaps particularly so in the Boston area.

And today I miss Egypt, for in Egypt the mood is not depressed and resigned, but instead light and celebratory as people celebrate Sham el Nessim. Almost as old as Egypt itself, the holiday celebrates spring and creation. Literally meaning Sniffing the Breezes”, Sham el Nessim is always held the day after Eastern Easter (Orthodox or Coptic Easter) and celebrated by all Egyptians, regardless of their religious affiliation. This makes it especially meaningful as a national celebration, free of some of the tension that inevitably marks other religiously based holidays.

In celebration of the event picnics are packed and from crowded cities, to rural areas families head outside. With a dearth of green space, crowds in the cities descend on any area remotely resembling a picnic spot, sometimes heading to the Nile River and opting for picnics on feluccas — large wooden sailboats popular for relaxation in Cairo and a way for people to escape the crowds of a city that by day boasts a population of 22 million people. Significant to the event is the dying of hard-boiled eggs symbolizing life, similar to Easter celebrations in other parts of the world. And there you have the holiday in a nut shell: Unity, picnics, eggs, and springtime.

So though my body is present in a small cubicle with a sun-blocked window, boasting a view of an eight-story parking garage, and my spirits are pressured to conform with the depressive atmosphere that only a government organization poised for layoffs in the form of pink slips can produce, I will slip into memory-mode.

Memory-mode takes me away from this for the moment, and puts me into a space where there is sunshine, and holiday, and my world is full of Egyptians celebrating life itself in the spirit of Sham el Nessim.

Do you find the day following a holiday particularly difficult? What do you do to go from Sunday celebration to Monday mundane? Also – don’t forget to participate in the giveaway and send suggestions my way! You can read about it here. 

What Would You Take?

When we first arrived in Egypt years ago, we had a shipment of goods that we were allotted by the university. At the time we didn’t have that many possessions so it was not too difficult to decide what to bring. In fact, we would have packed more, we just didn’t have enough to fill the space, nor did we have money to buy more stuff to fill the space.

As would be expected after we packed the necessities like clothes and baby stuff, we packed things that we love, that represent who we are and what we care about. So there were a lot of books, and a fair number of decorative pieces (think candle holders, table cloths, vases….pretty stuff) and photo albums – always the photo albums. Our downstairs neighbors brought none of that. Instead they filled their shipment with ski equipment.

Ski equipment in the desert.

Yup.

We were surprised as well. They loved skiing and decided that during their breaks from school and work they would head to Switzerland and Austria and take up the slopes. It was their choice to fill their luggage allotment with boots and poles and skis.

We would never in a million years have brought ski equipment. And that’s the point – they brought what they wanted, and we brought what we wanted. We were all uprooting our lives and had limited options for what we would take, we all had to decide.

We brought what was important to us. 

Those of us who have uprooted our lives, whether it be domestically or internationally know the process of weeding out, of sifting through and setting aside that which is the most important. You have to be brutal, you have to guard yourself and go into a “I’m not going to think, I’m not going to feel” mode.

How much more does a refugee experience this as they pack only fragments of a life lost and head out into a world unknown? 

“If you had to quickly flee both your home and country, what one possession would you make sure you take with you?

This is the subject of a photo essay I recently looked through. The pictures are poignant and telling. Unlike our neighbors and us, these are people who don’t have shipments, they have the clothes on their backs and most probably one small bag, a bag that has to be manageable for a long journey.

So what would you take? As the photo essay shows, for many in the world this is not a hypothetical question. It’s real.

The title of the essay is “The Most Important Thing”. So what is your most important thing? What would you take? 

Take a look at Portraits of Refugees Posing With Their Most Valuable Possessions and think about the question for a minute. It’s a sobering exercise. And then think about sharing in the comments – I would love to hear from you. 

Pakistan - Displaced people returning to villages after losing much when their homes flooded.
Pakistan – Displaced people returning to villages with all their earthly possessions.

Rethinking the Veil

Pakistani Family

Today I’m honored to be a part of “Let’s Talk About Hijab” – a series that Rachel Pieh Jones began over a month ago. You can find Rachel’s work all over the web, but her home space is Djibouti Jones – Life at the Crossroads of Faith & Culture. She is one of my favorite writers so to say I am honored is an understatement. Enjoy and make sure to take a look at the excellent essays that have come before mine. 

**********************

In May of last year Dr. Leila Ahmed, a well-known professor at the Harvard Divinity School published a book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America. The idea for the book was born one evening in the late 1990’s when Dr. Ahmed was walking with a friend in her Cambridge neighborhood. As they passed by a park, they noticed a group of women, all in hijab.

Dr. Ahmed was raised in Egypt during the fifties and sixties. At this time in Egypt, the veil was rarely seen – not only in Egypt, but also in other Muslim-majority countries. That particular evening, she was shocked and disturbed to see the hijab, symbolic to her of patriarchy and oppression, fully alive; revived and walking in her neighborhood. More shocking was to see the hijab worn in a country that allowed freedom of expression in both speech and dress…… Read more here! 

Let’s Talk about  Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati

Through the Eyes of Children by J.R. Goodeau