Betsy – An Extravagant Friend

Betsy – An Extravagant Friend

We are in Athens, mere steps away from the Acropolis that sits high above the city inviting people of every tribe and nation to come and walk its ancient paths. It is the height of privilege to be here and I am deeply mindful of this.

And though Athens has its magic that I could write many words about, it’s not what I’m choosing to write about today. Instead, I want to write about an extravagant friend.

Her name is Betsy and on Christmas Eve, she died.

She died at home, surrounded by her family – her big beautiful family – a husband of over 40 years, children, and grandchildren. After God and coffee, Betsy loved family, but she also invited many into that family. I was one of those people.

I met Betsy when I was 29 years old. My husband and I had arrived in Cairo with our three small children a few weeks before. I was desperate for friendship. We limped our way through the first few weeks and then on the same day both of us had encouraging breakthroughs in unexpected offers of friendship – his through a man named Fred Perry, mine through Betsy. When we look back on this time, it was these two friendships that were the starting point in helping us unpack our bags and hang our hearts in Cairo.

I was emotionally and spiritually lonely. As I sat with my three kids in my fifth floor walk-up apartment one morning, loneliness flooded over me and tears quickly followed. I reached for the community newspaper, lovingly called the Maadi Messenger. In between the “I am Fatima. I wash kids and clothes” and “Learn Arabic quickly!” ads was a section on community activities. There, under community Bible studies, was the name Betsy McDermott and a friendly “Call if you’re interested in joining a Bible study.” I resolutely picked up the phone, checked to make sure the neighbors were not on it as it was a party line, and dialed the number. The next minute Betsy’s unforgettable “Mcdermott Home! Betsy speaking” came from the receiver. It was a voice from Heaven. I paused and then launched in to a halting introduction.

We talked for 45 minutes and by the end of that call I had a Bible study, a best friend, and a wise mentor. Just minutes before we hung up that day, Betsy said “You sound so familiar! Are you sure we haven’t met before?” We figured out that we had mutual friends in two missionary families who had lived in Karachi and knew both of us. We had indeed met! We met when I was in junior high and she was in high school. She was in a singing group in high school with our mutual friend “Auntie Grace” Pittman. It sealed the friendship in ways I could never have expected. She understood the third culture kid piece that I didn’t even know was a word.

With that commonality, I was invited into Betsy’s world of friendship, and what an amazing world it was! It was a world where coffee and hospitality were like oxygen. They were followed by laughter, listening, deep theological discussions, and always long talks about family. It was through this world that I met Martha, Karen, Marian, Christine, and a long list of others who had been invited in and were feasting at the table of friendship.

Betsy’s home became my sanctuary. At Betsy’s house, everything was better.

Expatriate friendships come with an asterisk, and that asterisk is a reminder that all friendships end with goodbye. If you can survive the goodbye, there’s a chance that the friendship will survive the ocean chasms that separate continents. The first was a partial goodbye. Though not separated by an ocean, we were separated by a bustling city of 15 million as we moved to a different part of Cairo. I grieved not being able to drop in on a whim. It was my two-year-old who took on the grief. I remember one day saying goodbye to Betsy as I hopped into a taxi to head from Betsy’s house to mine. Stefanie looked out the window at Betsy and burst into tears. She took in all her mama’s emotions and instead of having a lump stuck in her throat as I did, she grieved in big, gulping two-year-old sobs. I can still see Betsy’s startled face through the grimy taxi window as she waved goodbye.

Two years later, Betsy moved from Cairo to London and the chasm of people became an chasm of water. Although our across the city move two years earlier was difficult, this was now a different country, different time zone, and different life. I didn’t know if I would make it. But the friendship survived, and Betsy’s home in London became my yearly friendship and therapy session. Along with that, we kept in touch through letters, visits during the summer when we were both in the United States, and phone calls. When I unexpectedly found out I was pregnant just before Christmas in 1995, I had told no one. I got off the plane in London after Christmas and burst into tears with Betsy. She hugged me tight. “You’re so lucky!” she said – and in that moment, I began to believe it.

We left Cairo in 1996, but the yearly trips to London continued as I faced the most difficult adjustment I had ever made within a small town in Massachusetts. Soon after, her oldest child began university in Boston and I got to briefly see her on her periodic trips to visit him. In 1999, Betsy moved to Rochester, New York – just 15 minutes away from where my brother lived. Her home there continued to be a place of peace and grace for my life. I was struggling with many, many things – but at Betsy’s house I had a temporary respite. I could relax in her hospitable embrace.

It was in 2003 when we began to see less of each other. Our family moved to Phoenix, her kids began moving away, and trips that included each other were less frequent. Periodically we would reconnect, and it was always as though I was the only person in the world who existed. Our friendship continued with the competition of adult kids, aging parents, and grandchildren. We were now lucky to grab coffee once a year. At this point, I knew she had breast cancer but she was doing well. Each time I saw her she seemed to become more beautiful and more resilient.

Betsy was a third culture kid. She had been through coups, wars, and earthquakes. She had her appendix taken out by an undercover CIA operative, had evacuated countries, and raised her own kids around the globe. She was as comfortable at a fancy dinner party as she was in a slum in Cairo. The stamps in her passport had more stories than a book could contain.

With this as her background, it’s no wonder that her heart was the size of the globe and filled with people that represented that globe. I got to be one of them and even though her heart was heavily populated, when you were with her you thought you were the only one.

More than that, Betsy had a deep relationship with God that affected everyone around her. “Scarcity” was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She radiated the joy of being alive. Betsy was extraordinary.

I wish I could get together one more time to tell her how much I love her, how she met me in my tears and my weakness and gave me strength to move forward. I wish I could thank her for the coffee and friendship, both served so well. I wish I could hug her and hear her laughter and voice one more time. I wish I could thank her for her extraordinary generosity.

I can’t do any of those things. But I can learn from her. I can learn more about what it is to open my heart and my home to people, not afraid that the love or coffee will run out, not worrying that there is not enough to go around.

I learned so many things from this friendship. I learned that faith is a journey and that to question doesn’t take away a rock solid foundation. I learned that loving people is costly – it cost Betsy to love, but she did it and made it look effortless. I learned that hospitality opens up our world and our hearts grow larger.

I didn’t know that Betsy was so near the end. To Betsy, suffering was matter of fact. At my dad’s funeral over a year ago, I asked her about her breast cancer returning. She looked at me “Everyone has something” she said. She didn’t have a mental scale that she kept, weighing her suffering compared to others. She welcomed it with grace, and in doing so had room to comfort others. It was after Thanksgiving that I learned she had stopped treatment and was in palliative care. It hit me hard. I had just welcomed a new grandson into the world and found out that my father-in-law had died. The contrast between life and death felt tender and raw; the veil that separates these two so thin.

For Betsy, that veil was lifted on Christmas Eve when a host of angels welcomed her into the arms of a God who is above all extravagant – extravagant with grace, hospitality, and love; a God who never acts from scarcity but from an abundant well of goodness.

And so I grieve. I grieve not having a last coffee with her. I grieve not having a last hug. I grieve not having a last heart talk. I grieve that I will never again hear her voice or listen to her laugh.

I want to hug my friends and family a little tighter and open my door a little wider, I want to love out of abundance, not out of scarcity.

And so Betsy, I thank you. You lived and loved extravagantly and without hesitation. May I learn to do the same.

Christmas Eve Reflection from Thessaloniki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas Eve dear friends!

A Life Overseas – ‘Tis the Season of Incongruity

Deck the halls with calls for charity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

‘Tis the season of incongruity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

#CottageChristmas or starving children? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

My heart is caught and I cannot win this thing! Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.


I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this. The sense of incongruity is overwhelming me this Christmas. I go from essays and photos of unbelievable beauty to my current reality, which includes messy, messy relationships, rain and mud up to my knees, no sign of Christmas lights and beauty,and long, long hours of no electricity.

I scroll through Instagram and the abundance of beauty is eye-popping. Pristine cottages bedecked with lights and color and living rooms with soft lights and all white furnishings with that splash of red and green color that just makes them pop. And then in the next picture, I catch my breath as I see a starving child in Yemen and an organization begging the world to take notice.  I breathe fire as I see another picture reminding me of the never-ending war in Syria and the continued devastation on people. And it hits home as I take my own pictures here in Kurdistan and I am reminded that there aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the population, honor killings are still part of the landscape, and we can barely get funds for a single project.

‘Tis the season of incongruity – the season where the contrast feels too stark and I don’t feel like I have the ability to cope with these conflicting images.

And yet…

And yet, God’s story has always been a story of conflicting images. There is the image of the manger and the image of the cross, the image of judgement and the image of mercy, the image of truth and the image of grace. What I am seeing and feeling is nothing new to God.

God came into a world of contrasts. A world of the beauty and the broken. He came in a way that was so gentle, so unassuming – how could a baby threaten anyone? He came into a setting that was the height of incongruity – a king in a manger. For 33 years he lived as one who is unknown, going through daily life as we do – an image that is so mind boggling I stop thinking about it. We are told that he set aside greatness and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death” – a violent, horrific death. And then, the glorious resurrection and the words that we live by every single day: “He is not here! He is risen!”

My heart longs for peace and harmony in a world of broken incongruity. Read the rest of the piece here.

The Rain Came

The rain came. One minute it was the hot, dry sun of a high desert and rays of light spread across my living room and peeked into the darkened hallway. I took a quick walk to our plant store nearby – we call it our arboretum – and walked back with a green treasure, its large leaves nodding to my step.

And then, the sky darkened, the sun hid, and the rain came.

It came in torrents over the mountain. Flashes of lightening lit up the sky in a diagonal angle. The raindrops beat against our window. The dry clay land filled with deep puddles and rain poured through a small hole in our window, flooding the glassed in balcony.

It came with fury and vengeance, as if to say “I will conquer this dry space and fill it with water! I will win!”

The rain came, and for a while I thought it would never stop. It felt impossibly strong. And then, just as suddenly, it stopped

One of my favorite Indian movies is the movie Lagaan. It is set in a small village in India in the late 1800s when India is occupied by the British. A British captain has imposed an outrageous land tax on the people of the village. It is a tax that is impossible to pay, partially because of a long drought causing huge economic losses for the villagers.  A young man in the village (Bhuvan) decides to rally the villagers to advocate for themselves. As they approach the palace, they observe a cricket match in play. Bhuvan mocks the game, and the British Captain offers a wager. If the villagers can defeat the British occupying forces in a game of cricket, they won’t have to pay taxes for three years. But, if they lose, they will have to pay three times the current taxes.

Bhuvan basically accepts the wager without the village’s consent and then has to rally villagers to create a team of people who know nothing about cricket with the hopes of winning a game against seasoned players. Throughout the film, there is a longing expressed for rain. No matter what happens, the villagers need this drought to end. People are suffering and the only thing that will change that is being able to bring in a harvest. At one point, black clouds roll in and a dance scene suggests that this is it, this is the moment. Rain is coming and no matter what happens with cricket or the British, this will be their salvation.

But it is a false hope. It doesn’t come. Then, at the very end of the film, after the drama of cricket and occupiers being defeated by the occupied, the rain comes. The rain comes in glorious, monsoon force while villagers dance in the downpour. The rain came. The game is over. The innocent are vindicated and there will be no tax.

The rain came on that village much the same way it came today. With a mighty force that can’t be stopped, with vengeance and sound that you can’t ignore; like an unexpected outpouring of grace when you think there is no hope, the rain came.

The prophet Isaiah talks about rain coming this way. In vivid poetry he says: Drip down, O heavens, from above, And let the clouds pour down righteousness; Let the earth open up and salvation bear fruit, And righteousness spring up with it. I, the Lord, have created it.* In Lagaan, that is what the rain represented. Vindication. A wrong confronted and made right. Justice finally came, and with it the rain.

Today, the rain came. And it makes me both tremble and hope – for justice, for wrong to be made right, for people who have suffered to be healed, for clouds to pour down righteousness, for grace to cover this hard, broken earth.

Today the rain came, and with it came life.

“Mawage is Wot Bwings us Togeder” Thoughts on 34 Years of Mawage

 

“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam… And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva… So tweasure your wuv.”

In the beloved classic Princess Bride, there is a wedding scene where the villain, Prince Humperdinck, is attempting to rush his marriage to Princess Buttercup. Like the rest of the film, the scene is funny with a questionable priest talking about “Mawage and twu wuv”, a coerced princess, and an egotistical prince. It’s all part of what makes a fabulous fairy tale satire.

Mawage brought my husband and I together 34 years ago. It was a glorious sunny day in Chicago, neither too hot nor too cold – just perfect. And unlike the fictitious Buttercup, I wanted to be there. My farm boy’s name was Cliff, and he wasn’t the quiet “as you wish” type.

We celebrated with people from Cyprus, Lebanon, Greece, Pakistan, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Saudi Arabia, China,Taiwan, and the United States. At one point we looked out on the crowd and saw people from three different countries in conflict sitting next to each other – they were smiling and in that snapshot, we suddenly knew the ceremony was far bigger than we were. The top of our wedding cake was an edible globe of the world – a sweet reminder that we wanted our celebration to reflect God’s world and his sacrificial love for the world.

While the Princess Bride ceremony was satire, our ceremony was serious. We knew the vows we took were bigger than we were and represented a mystery and sacrament that we did not fully understand.

Fast forward 34 years and marriage is still a mystery, still something we stand by as hard and good and brave. Much has changed – five children, significant others, and arguably the cutest grandson on ever earth. We no longer have the bone tired joy of parenting toddlers, we have the wakeful nights of loving, and sometimes not understanding, adult children.

We still don’t completely understand the vows we took. We will never fully get the mystery of marriage this side of eternity. But what we do know makes us tremble in its impossibility and stand in awe of its delight and difficulty.

We will be the first to say that if it was about us, we would have failed many times over. This journey, which began in an impossibly sweet and unconventional ceremony, took us on roads and trails, into airports and houses, entering countries and territories with a lot of laughter, a fair share of anger, and heartbreak that only God could repair.

In one of my favorite books, Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, Hannah talks about looking back on marriage:

“When you are old you can look back and see yourself when you are young. It is almost like looking down from heaven. And you see yourself as a young woman, just a big girl really, half awake to the world. You see yourself happy, holding in your arms a good, decent, gentle, beloved young man with the blood keen in his veins…..”

She goes on to talk about how this man and this love are going to disappear into a “storm of hate and flying metal and fire. And you just don’t know it.” While she is writing about war, many of us could write about how this love and this man are sometimes going to disappear – disappear into a storm of ill spoken words and unthoughtout actions, a storm of misunderstanding and just plain meanness – and you just don’t know it. But you keep on living and you keep on loving, because some day it will get better. And in the better that comes you rest easy and joyful, you laugh and talk as though the world can never stop your words or your love.

And that’s us on this day. We’ve both spoken words we regret. We’ve had sadness and meanness. We’ve struggled to make it. But we just kept on living, and praying, and then a new day came and we began to love again. This is life and marriage in its circle of hope and defiance of its critics.

So we stand today declaring the value of a brave marriage and ready to face the next chapter.

And with humility and excitement we announce that our next chapter will take us to Northern Iraq where we will be working at the University of Raparin in the city of Rania. It is unexpected and yet so welcome. For the past five years we have wanted to spend more time in the Middle East. Whenever we come back from short trips we enter back into the U.S. with a longing to return as soon as possible to the Middle East. The prospect of being able to come alongside this university in our professional roles of nursing and grants administration feels like a tremendous gift.

So this anniversary comes with gratitude and expectation for the next chapter of our brave marriage. We hope you’ll continue to follow along!

The story is not over; the journey continues….Some days, it feels as though it is still just beginning.*

*from Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Healing Words

Steps souls stronger

In January of 2011, seven and a half years ago, 19 people were shot and six people died in Tucson, Arizona. The target was a U.S. representative, Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head. She survived, but her life will never be the same. The tragedy caused a nation that was hyper focused on how to be as uncivil as possible to each other, particularly in disagreement, to pause and, for a short time, put away the rhetoric.

Barack Obama was president at the time, and he spoke words that were praised across the political spectrum at the Tucson Memorial Service.

Among other things, he said this:

“At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

I reread these words this morning, and I am again challenged by them.

Words that heal are rare and critically important in moments of tragedy.  But they are just as important in everyday life.  I look around as I walk the streets of my city and I see the “walking wounded”.  I go on social media, and I see more wounds. Yet our default mode is not to speak healing words, but rather words of criticism and disapproval. I’d love to blame just the media for words that wound and criticize, but I know differently.  I am far more guilty than I want to admit. The power of language and the way we put our words together is up to us; the way I put words together and how I use them is up to me.

My faith tradition has strong admonition and warning about the tongue. An entire chapter in the New Testament is devoted to talking about the tongue. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.”  And elsewhere I am exhorted to watch what I say, make sure it is gracious and seasoned with salt. “Let your speech be always full of grace, seasoned with salt.” 

These are sobering challenges for me. Just recently I was called out by someone, and appropriately so. She knows what I believe, and what I believe was not reflected in what I publicly wrote. She held up a mirror to me, and what reflected back was not pretty.

Our world is desperate for healing words. Desperate. Anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise. Public bullying is at an all time high, and we have a plethora of poor public examples and a dearth of good ones in every area of life – whether that be politics or faith.

We can’t change what other people choose to say. But we can change our own words. We can choose to speak words of hope and grace. We can choose to disagree with civility and respect.

We can choose to share words that “make souls stronger”.*

*Ann Voskamp

Be Still and Create

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“In an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.”

Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness


I sit on my couch, coffee beside me, mindlessly playing a game on my iPhone. This has never been a problem for me before, but it is now.  I was the one that never succumbed to this kind of mindless drivel. I would create through writing, decorating, or planning innovative public health programs.  Now, even when I have time I struggle to focus; struggle to keep any sort of disciplined schedule.  As I play the game, my mind wanders. It wanders to my mom, a recent widow; to one of my children who is going through a crisis; and then on to other more mundane worries. They all have one thing in common: they are out of my control. What is in my control is pressing five red squares linked together. This will create a rocket, and with that little rocket, I will win this game and claim victory over a machine. And then I will do it again, and again, and again.  Until I don’t win, and I restlessly realize that I have just spent an unthinkable amount of time on a phone game.

In The Art of Stillness, author Pico Iyer talks about how many people in Silicon Valley try to observe an internet Sabbath. People take a 24 to 48 hour break from their online jobs creating high tech instruments and content so they can relax and reboot. Employees take this time so that they are at maximum creativity when they return. They rest so they can create programs that keep us, their ever-willing customers, online all the time. It is a profound irony that someone somewhere may have taken an internet Sabbath and then created a game that I now sit and play for hours. I squander my moments of stillness and with it, my ability to create.

I have run out of lives on my game, and so I wait. I wait and I think about what it means to be still; what it means to renew my mind and soul so that I will pay attention; so that I will have both the desire and the will to create.


I live in a city that goes to bed late and gets up in the early morning hours. My first activity as I leave my apartment is to walk 15 minutes to the subway. Noise is immediate and continuous. It’s in the train engine roaring, in people having conversations, in the homeless population at Central Square, sometimes insulting each other and other times laughing, but always loud. I travel three stops to my office in downtown Boston, the busiest section of the city. The pace and demands are relentless, wordlessly declaring that being still is an absurd impossibility. And this creeps into my subconscious mind, so that even when I have time, I have bought into the lie that being still is impossible.

Yet all around, I see evidence of how being still creates life. The small purple flowers of crocuses have just emerged from a still earth.  The brown branches of long dormant forsythia have given birth to brilliant yellow flowers.  Budding trees and bushes join this holy movement and add their pops of color against a grey April sky and cold sterile buildings.  After months of stillness, spring bursts forth like an artist who has taken a sabbatical and moves on to create her greatest work of art.

It is the work of a God whose infinite creativity spoke a world into being, who marked off the dimensions of the earth’s foundations as morning stars sang.

“Where were you
when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you possess understanding!
Who set its measurements—if you know—
or who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its bases set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
when the morning stars sang in chorus,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”*

Between marking off the measurements of the earth’s foundations and laying its cornerstone, was God still? Did he create, and then sit in stillness, communing with members of the Trinity, only to go back days, months, and years later and create more? Has stillness always been a part of creation?

Be still, and breathe.

Be still, and create.

Be still, and bring life.

Be still, and know God.


The lives on the game have refreshed. I pause a minute and realize that what I long for, this game cannot give. Only taking a time to be still will equip me to write the words I long to write, to create the programs I long to create.  I reluctantly shut off my phone, the hardest step in the process of disengaging from what has become my adult pacifier. Outside the city is still. Inside, I sit in stillness, my own communion with the holy Trinity. This moment is perhaps the most creative thing I will do today, but it is a start and it is enough.


*Job 38: 4-7 NET

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