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

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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.

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!

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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!