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!

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.”

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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.

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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.”*

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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. 

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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.

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 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.

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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. 

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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

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