On Cardinals and Bread Making

A female cardinal heads toward our bird feeder, interrupting my thoughts as I stare out the window. She is not the dazzling, deep red of her mate, instead her beauty is more subtle – a beak that the most beautiful lipstick could scarcely imitate, a warm red hue at the edges of her wings, but otherwise a light, lovely brown. Her mate is nowhere to be seen, smartly taking cover on a chilly May morning. It is early morning and her interruption is welcome during this time of solitude, nature reminding me that all will be well.

I am deeply influenced by the weather and I look out the window toward the city of Boston, grateful for sunshine and blue sky. Despite that, I find myself sighing, willing myself to focus on the beautiful distraction of the cardinal and not the unknown of the days ahead.

The spoken and unspoken words within all of us are “When will this end?” And even as we speak the words, we know that many have gone through far more difficult times for much longer periods. The cry “How long, Oh Lord?” daily escaping their lips, seemingly without answer.

Those daily chores of eating, taking walks, working from home, video chatting with friends and family, texting and more texting have all achieved heightened importance.

But by far, the most therapeutic, calming act for me has been making bread. I have loved making bread. Not sourdough, with its complicated starter that seems to the uninitiated an organism as needy as a newborn baby. Instead, oatmeal bread – a tried and true recipe that has fed our family through new born babies, tragedies, cold winters, and joy-filled soup suppers. It is therapeutic to create and it is therapy to eat.

I love eating bread, I love making bread. I have written in the past that making bread is better than a counseling session. It is redemptive work, this work of bread making. It grounds me in something solid and sustaining. It is no wonder that throughout history, from France to Egypt to Boston, bread riots have come about when shortages occur or prices rise. Bread is symbolic to life.

Every place I have lived in the world has given me more and more appreciation for bread and the thousands of ways to create it. Each type comes with a unique flavor despite most of them using fairly standard ingredients. Head out to the bazaar at dinner time in Kurdistan or Pakistan and you will hear vendors shouting, luring customers in to buy the fresh naan, fresh bread, hot out of clay ovens.

During this time of worldwide uncertainty and fear, we all long to have something to sustain us. The abundance of recipes and people creating starters for sourdough bread is evidence of how we look to bread to do this for us. In the midst of so much unknown, we want to hold on to the known and the stable, want to grasp things that will take us through uncertainty. No wonder Jesus said “I am the bread of life” to his disciples.

Bread. Beautiful, life-giving, life-sustaining bread – both the physical, tangible bread that I eat and the less tangible spiritual bread of life that I daily seek. Bread that brings order out of chaos, comfort out of despair, and peace out of pandemics, and with it the reminder of words that have lasted thousands of years. “Take. Eat. My body broken for you.”

[Picture Credit: Image by Laura Retyi from Pixabay]

The Rhythm of Grace

I woke up to a cold house. Shivering despite being in a warm robe, I knew something was wrong. The temperature gauge showed a cold 58 and lowering. No heat came from the vents. The furnace was clearly not functioning.

“Could one more thing go wrong?” I thought. Which, of course, is a foolish thought. Yes. Absolutely. A lot more could go wrong. We could have another death. We could have another tragedy. That’s the thing about life – the horrid and tragic things that could happen are limitless. If it were not for grace, why would any of us want to get up in the morning?

And yet – there it is – the last best word one writer called it – Grace.

There is grace. There is hope. There is incredible beauty. There is laughter. There is resurrection. And there always has been.

It’s only been in the past 75 years that life became easy for so many. It wasn’t until the 1940s that wide-spread use of antibiotics became possible, helping people who would have previously died fight infection. It’s been in the last 100 years that we have seen massive advances in infant mortality and morbidity rates, changing the landscape of maternal child health. It was only 102 years ago that the last world-wide flu pandemic killed millions. But even then, there was grace. Even then people lived and loved, laughed and hoped, longed for restoration and resurrection.

Growing up in Pakistan I was introduced at an early age to food rations, no running hot water, no flush toilets, diseases like malaria, dysentery, hepatitis, malnutrition, blackouts, curfews, war, tragedy, and death. While Pakistan was far more than these things, living there meant I was not isolated from many of the things that my peers in the west never experienced. I am not a stranger to the uncomfortable, irritating, and sometimes tragic things of life.

And yet, when I met with a cold house and malfunctioning furnace, I still asked “Why?” I still questioned what else could go wrong.

And then the tears came. First hesitantly and then, when they realized they met with no resistance, they rushed to the surface.

Like so many in today’s world, I don’t know what I’m doing. All that I held dear, all that I planned, all that I worked for earlier feels as though it is no longer a reality. I cried and cried and cried. I didn’t hold back worrying that someone would see or hear these tears. That’s the thing about grieving alone – you don’t will yourself to stop for fear you will be misunderstood, you don’t try to compose yourself. You let the waves of grief move over you, like waves over the sand.

I cried that my brother left us all behind. I cried for my sister-in-law. I cried for my niece and nephew. I cried for my mom, grieving the loss of a child. I cried for all of us who knew and loved this remarkable man. I cried for the suffering around the world – Italy, India, Spain, Pakistan, the United States. I cried for all the people who have become statistics on a sophisticated, computer-programmed map. I cried for morgues that are too full and hospital staff that are too stressed. I cried for the refugees and those who are displaced. I cried for the world.

I don’t know how long I cried. It really didn’t matter. After a while, my sobs subsided, my breathing slowed and I sat still, taking it all in. Nothing had changed, but everything was different.

And then I got up and did what had to be done. Shower. Emails. Meetings. Curriculum development. More meetings.

The rhythm of life in the midst of quarantine. The rhythm of grace.

This is not the end  This is not the end of this  We will open our eyes wide, wider This is not our last  This is not our last breath  We will open our mouths wide, wider And you know you’ll be alright  Oh and you know you’ll be alright This is not the end  This is not the end of us  We will shine like the stars bright, brighter

Gungor

A Salute to All of Us

Photo credit – Stefanie Sevim Gardner

Here’s to the moms, homeschooling when they always said “I’ll homeschool when it snows in Djibouti… or Miami … or Chiang Mai.” In other words “Never” and never has suddenly become now.

Here’s to the restaurant worker, who is suddenly furloughed from an eighty hour work week.

Here’s to the teachers turning their carefully thought out lesson plans into online classes.

Here’s to the young woman who just got a job at Target excited for her first paycheck only to find out there will be no more.

Here’s to the nurse, carefully isolating herself from her family to keep them safe.

Here’s to the student, lonely and feeling trapped.

Here’s to the graduate who will not be able to walk.

Here’s to the bride, who tearfully postponed her wedding Unsure of when it can be rescheduled.

Here’s to the women and men setting up home offices and new systems, trying to continue their jobs.

Here’s to the grocery store employee, wiping down carts and checkout counters with bleach.

Here’s to the healthcare workers, on the frontlines of care.

Here’s to the priest and the pastor, the imam and the rabbi, praying for congregations in crisis.

Here’s to the homeless, fighting one more difficult day, one more crisis in a long list.

Here’s to the families trapped on three sides of the globe, to the third culture kid trying to get home, to the parents and siblings, brothers and sisters separated.

Here’s to the family grieving with no funeral, the community rallying with no physical contact, the church seeking to function while apart.

Here’s to the poor and the refugee – those whose reality has changed little, but whose hope looks even bleaker.

Here’s to the helpers, the doers, the prayers, the seekers, the scholars, the researchers, the neighbors, the givers, the comforters, the organizers, the activists, the optimists, the pessimists, the realists, the pragmatists, the lonely, the sad, the fearful, and the angry.

Here’s to our collective humanity and image bearing. May we reach across what divides us and open our hearts wide to the God who loves us. May we be willing to give of our abundance and receive from our need. May we have patience and resilience, may our eyes be open wide to the world and our small part in that world.

And may God be with us and comfort us.


Advice from a friend in Shanghai:

Since we got a head start with the COVID-19 over here in China, some friends have asked me for advice in navigating this time. Take only what’s helpful for you!

  1. Stay at home. Yes, I totally understand the urge to resist this, but the sooner you can accept it and stay home, the better it will be for everyone, including you.
  2. Assume that you could be the carrier. I haven’t been too worried about contracting the virus myself, but I became much more careful when I started thinking how I could potentially spread it to others.
  3. Don’t bring germs into your house. Wash your hands as soon as you come home. In Asia, we take off our shoes at the door, and this might be a good practice for everyone right now. Consider changing your outer clothes or showering if you’ve been out in a public place. Don’t forget to clean your phone and your keys!
  4. Focus on what you can control (yourself). There are too many things that are outside of your control right now. Instead, find ways you can boost your immune system and/or prevent your exposure. For many Asians, that means wearing face masks and opening the windows. I personally use essential oils to support to our immune systems and buy fruit for my family like a mad woman. Whatever strategies can strengthen you, whether it’s making grandma’s chicken soup or deep cleaning your house, I say go for it!
  5. Take care of your own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The stronger you are, the better you can survive and even thrive during this time. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise daily. Pray like crazy. Turn off the news. Watch something funny. Call a friend. Do a conference call with a group of friends. Listen to a podcast. Read a book. Get e-therapy. Learn something new. Go for a walk or a drive. If you have a balcony or a yard, sit outside in the fresh air and sun.
  6. If you have faith, put it into action. Trust in God. Meditate on His promises. Listen to worship music. God is greater than our circumstances, and He provides for us even in times of uncertainty. Be a light during this dark time. Don’t give in to fear or settle for mere self-preservation; your neighbor needs the hope and the love that you give, albeit in creative ways. Look out for those who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to domestic violence.
  7. Be generous. Give a gift card to someone who is not able to work during this time. Support your church even though the services have been cancelled. Pay your employees. Order take-out. Support small businesses. Donate blood. Give a phone call to someone who is vulnerable. Send a card to someone in a nursing home. Offer to shop for someone else. Donate to a food bank. Sew cloth masks. There are endless possibilities to sow seeds of generosity during this time. [From my friend Ruth and used with permission.]

Fingerprints of Grace

My friend Robynn sent me a gift today. It was a series of photos from a book, a lament and liturgy for the death of a dream.

We live in a world that loves to fill up space with stories of seemingly impossible dreams achieved. Our movies, books, and essays tell these stories in striking cinematography and poetic prose. We read these stories as people who are starving. Starving to believe that dreams do come true. Yet, for every dream achieved, there are many that die, even more that are broken.

Broken dreams don’t make for good cinema, but they are the cry of many in our world. The woman trying desperately to get pregnant; the young man dying of cancer, begging to be healed; the mom aching for her wandering child to come home; the asylum seeker desperate for safety; the child reaching out for love; and those of us with seemingly lesser dreams may watch those dreams die and are helpless to revive them. What we dream of, what we long for so deeply does not always come to pass.

What I so wanted has not come to pass…

I read the Liturgy that my friend sent me and I wept. I wept because I have witnessed lost dreams. I wept because I am a part of lost dreams. I wept because witnessing dreams die leaves you broken and vulnerable, unsure of yourself. You no longer trust your well-honed instincts, you question everything. And all too soon, you harden and what used to be dreams turns into apathy. You hate yourself for it, even as you understand how it happened.

But perhaps I wept the most because my dreams were and are too small.

I write this in the fading light of the evening. It is quiet, save the soft murmurs of voices in the next room. The sun reflects off a pine tree outside with an aching beauty.

I think about the hidden graves of broken and dead dreams. It was less than a year ago when I wrote about dreams becoming reality, when I told some of my story of longing and ultimately the fulfillment of a longing. Sadness spreads over me as I remember the joy and anticipation of last summer. Was it so recent? Can things change so quickly? Ask anyone who has watched a dream die and they will nod an emphatic “Yes!” Dreams can die in an instant.

So let me remain tender now to how you would teach me…..let me be tutored by this new disappointment. Let me listen to its holy whisper, that I might release at last these lesser dreams. That I might embrace the better dreams you dream for me, and for your people.

But this I have found in the past and now, in this present time: in the warehouse of lost dreams, in the graveyard of dead dreams, God does not abandon me. I feel his comfort all around, I see his “fingerprints of grace.”

“My history bears his fingerprints of grace…”

And I know that I can rest.

Here in the ruins of my wrecked expectation, let me make this best confession: Not my dreams O Lord, Not my dreams, but yours be done.*

Amen.

*All quotes are from A Liturgy for the Death of a Dream from Every Moment Holy.

On Needing Grace During Transition

We have been back for 10 days and it’s already beginning to feel like Kurdistan was a dream that never really happened. A dream with a few nightmare like qualities, but a dream nevertheless.

The last time we went through a period of transition of this magnitude was when we returned from Egypt with five children, 26 suitcases, and a gorgeous Egyptian Siamese cat called Pharaoh. It was not an easy transition and it was months before we felt settled. I am trying to see this as a different time and situation, but the memories of how incredibly difficult that season of our lives was tend to pop up. I push them down, reminding myself that this is not then, we are not the same people.

Before leaving, we had decided to take July off to debrief and reconnect with family and friends. While it is a good decision, the current reality of no jobs and not knowing where we will be living next is heavy. We live in a culture where your worth is measured against what you do, not who you are. This is an inescapable fact and we have much empathy for those whose circumstances have put them into a place where they are unable to work. Work is a gift, but it should not be an all encompassing identity.

Many people are well meaning but somewhat clueless as to our circumstances. “So glad you are safe!” Said in slightly breathless tones is the default comment. It is kind and it is also somewhat irritating. Particularly because it usually comes from people whose daily lives hardly revolve around our safety. The second comment is “So glad you are home!” Strangely, though in the past this comment would have unnerved me, in this season of transition it feels deeply comforting. Before I left for Kurdistan, I realized that Cambridge had indeed become home and I was grateful. It took such a long time to be willing to attach myself that once I finally let go of my fears and hung my heart in place, a backpack of “where is home” baggage fell off of me and I experienced deep peace.

The back pack is filling once again. Cambridge is no longer home. We packed it up a year ago. Can a place be home when you make a conscious choice to leave it in its entirety? These philosophical questions are hardly useful in the midst of transition, but I ask them anyway.

In all of this I want to beg people to give us grace, to be patient with us during this transition period but I lack the words.

A friend who is transitioning back to the U.S. from Bangladesh recently wrote this and I am grateful to use her words:

It’s the small things about being in America again that feel weird. Enormous stores and all the options in the world.

People saying things like, “it feels like you never left” and feeling totally misunderstood because it feels like a whole new foreign world to you, not like you never left.

There are a ton of little things that give us joy…But there are also just as many things that should feel like home but don’t and that feels disorienting, it hurts.

Please, give grace to the people in your life in transition (of any kind). It feels like living on another planet. We don’t mean to offend or to act strange or cry for no apparent reason. We aren’t sure where the new normal is. But we will get there eventually.” Nicole Walters

Like Nicole, I too ask for grace. We will get there, but we don’t know when.

During this transition time of decisions and indecision, our Rockport cottage is welcoming us with the joy of ocean walks and the beauty of Rockport gardens, to slow days of grandchildren and long evenings of connecting with adult kids.

There is much to decide, and much that needs to happen. We will be in transition mode for a while. After last summer’s major uprooting it will take time to reroot. It will take time to find jobs and a place to live, time to reorient to life on what sometimes feels like a different planet. ⠀

For now, there is the ocean, Rockport, friendship, family, and our marriage. Jobs seem trivial in comparison. We are too fortunate. ⠀

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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A Baby and the Cold Slush of Winter

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I slog my way through dirty, melting snow as I walk to work. The pristine fluffy white of one week ago is replaced by the dirt and grime of the city, coupled with slush caused by rising temperatures.

It is Thursday, my last day of the work week, and I am tired. In winter everything takes longer. It takes longer to get ready in the morning, longer to walk to the subway, longer for the subway to arrive, longer to get groceries.

Everything is longer. Everything is harder. It’s more difficult to see grace; more difficult to give grace.

Yesterday I visited a friend who has just had a baby girl. I held her little body in my arms, marveling at her perfection, struck by how this little miracle came to be.

In the midst of the cold slosh of winter, I got to hold this wonder in my arms. Outside may feel cold and heartless, but inside is warm with wonder and grace.

Outside the world is raging, unaware that inside is a six pound wonder. Outside people argue and push, morosely facing winter’s worst. Across the country fires and floods change people’s lives in moments.

But inside there is a baby, perfectly formed and known by a God who still believes that this world is worthy of being redeemed. She is entrusted to, and loved by, an imperfect family and friends; people who will hold her and teach her, love her and cry with her.

And as I hold her I am in awe – in awe of baby soft skin and six pounds of perfectly formed fingers and toes, in awe of the strength and fragility of life, in awe of my friend who waited so long and wanted this baby so very much. Mostly in awe that somehow God believes that we in our human frailty, born as helpless babes who grow to be imperfect children and adults, are worth redeeming.

It’s Thursday and I’m tired. But then I remember – there’s a baby and it’s all okay.

Soul Care and the Reconstruction Process

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When you live in a city you cannot avoid the ever-present construction/reconstruction process. Cranes, detours, iconic orange cones, and construction workers with yellow hard hats and vests are a part of the city landscape.

Healthy cities know that to continue to serve both residents and visitors, they need to repair, construct, and reconstruct. City planning has to allow for growth and change, and sometimes change comes through reconstruction.

The Longfellow Bridge connecting Cambridge to Boston has been under reconstruction for the past three years. It’s a lengthy process. The work takes place steel rod by steel rod and plank by plank with skilled workers supervising and doing the work. When the work is complete, it will be ready to sustain the heavy traffic of cars, trucks, and trains.

Ultimately, the work won’t be noticeable to any lay people. We will just use the bridge and remember back to the time when it was being fixed, and perhaps inconvenient to our travel plans. While cities try to minimize the inconvenience, they know that not doing the needed reconstruction will ultimately prove far more inconvenient.

Sometimes the only way to make things better is to fix them, to reconstruct them.

And so it is with our souls. There are times when our souls need to be under construction and reconstruction, when that is the only way for them to withstand the constant force of life in all its uncertainty.

I heard once at a conference that our “churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal”. This is part of the reconstruction process — realizing that your soul needs to heal and the wisest thing to do is to allow time for the reconstruction and healing process to take place.

our churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to healTweet: our churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal

A number of years ago my husband and I went through an extended period of healing, an extended reconstruction period. It lasted over six years. During that time we did nothing beyond attending church and getting together with safe friends. We didn’t take part in any Bible Studies, we were not involved in any ‘ministry’, we did no service. We went through a season of healing and it was invaluable.

Besides achieving the desired result of healing and reconstructing, we learned several things.

1. We learned that we were far more use to God as people willing to be healed than we would have been had we tried to maintain a façade. The Psalmist David in a prayer of repentance says: “A broken and contrite heart you will not despise.” He speaks to the mercy of God, his loving kindness, the bones that God has broken. God has never, and will never, despise a broken and contrite heart. It’s the heart of the proud and the deceitful that concerns him far more.

2. We learned that our worth was not, and never will be, in what we do. Church service, ‘ministry’, getting involved – none of that is wrong. In fact, when done out of love for God it is a gift to be used for his glory. But it does not constitute our worth. Our worth is in this: That we are made in the image of God, his creation, his love. Distorted theology about our worth, thinking it is about what we do rather than who we are, is far more dangerous to the soul than taking time out for healing.

3. We came to realize that when you go through a season of healing, God brings people into your life who are broken and need to hear that there is redemption, there is healing. Even in the midst of the hardest parts of healing, we would meet people who needed to know there was hope, needed to know we were also walking the long, arduous path called ‘healing’. Perhaps broken seeks out broken? I like to think that the broken intuitively sense that they can learn best from those also willing to go through the reconstruction process.

4. We learned that the words ‘ministry’ will never be synonymous with ‘God’, and when we make it so, we are in a state of serious delusion. If we are not careful, ‘ministry’ becomes God. The word itself is held up as the ideal, instead of God himself being the ideal and ministry the result of our love for him. Defined as ‘the one that serves’ we can see ministry for what it is – not an end in itself, simply a way to reflect a love of God.

5. Mostly we learned that God is close to the broken-hearted. He cared not about our lack of service, he cared about our souls. Deeply, urgently, consistently he worked in our souls to reconstruct them to His Glory. The cuts that we sustained by his hand during the healing process were cuts of a gifted surgeon, done only to rid us of what would harm. And oh how they hurt, how they smarted. But when all was done, when surgery ended, the dead tissue was gone, only the healthy remained.

While a major construction and healing period is over, we are still ever aware of our fragility and propensity to go out on our own, thinking our souls are fully fixed. But the reality is somewhat different. Just as the Longfellow Bridge will go through this extended reconstruction period and emerge stronger, it will always have its points of weakness, its need for inspections and regular upkeep.

Like the reconstruction of the bridge, the reconstruction of our souls may not be visible to the lay person. But we know, regardless of what the outsider may observe, that ultimately not being willing to have our souls reconstructed would bring damage beyond what the eye is capable of seeing.

As I pass the bridge today it is early morning and still dark. If I strain my eyes I can see that construction workers are already present, ready to continue this important work of keeping a bridge safe and useable.

It is early morning and still dark, but God is present, ready to continue this important work of keeping me safe and useable in this beautiful and continual work of reconstruction. 


Note: This post has been revised from a piece written four years ago.

The Resilient Orthodox – Explosions of Life

There are times when I feel like life has exploded, as though all parts of it collide and nothing goes the way it is supposed to go. From unexpected expenses to surprise illnesses, life laughs in the face of our careful planning, mocks our ideas of control, and smiles sarcastically at our shocked expressions.

I’m left wandering aimlessly, feeling like this is all a big, fat joke authored by a pre-teen boy who can’t get enough of cheap joke books.

These are the times when my cynical side says “Why pray? Why read daily scripture? It won’t make a difference so why do it?”

I walked into Divine Liturgy yesterday feeling this way. Our church is in the middle of a busy city neighborhood. Parking is difficult and no matter what hour we are there, life is teeming around us. As I walked up the steps, a friend met me and stopped, asking how I was. In the middle of the noise of the city, I found myself pouring my heart out to her, touched and healed with her empathy. On those concrete steps, the questions of what is this all about, the whys, the anger at the suffering of those close to me all poured out of me in a flood of words and tears.

I entered the service comforted and heard by the presence of another.

I went through the motions of the service: Venerating icons, crossing myself, singing the Beatitudes and all the while I was saying the Jesus Prayer, an internal plea for mercy and grace.

It was during the homily that I began to relax. Our priest, Father Patrick, talked about being away on vacation with his children and six grandchildren. “I saw what your life was like,” he said. All around him were explosions of life, he was not in his study surrounded by his books and icons. He was not in church serving the Eucharist or praying before icons. Instead, babies with diapers and toddlers with messy faces were ever present. “I saw how hard it is to continue the disciplines of prayer and scripture reading in the midst of this,” he said. But he didn’t stop there. He went on to say that he also saw how absolutely imperative it was to continue these disciplines in the midst of this, how we can’t go on without these practices. Because these explosions of life demand so much that we can’t do it alone.

I have tried to do it alone the past few weeks. I rationalize that I am too tired to stand in front of our icons and pray. I rationalize that nothing will change even if I do pray. I make excuses, I blame, I dismiss – but all the while, life explodes around me and I have no tools to cope.

These explosions of life call for explosions of grace, but I can’t see grace because I’m to caught up in trying to do it by myself.

I found myself deeply comforted by Father Patrick’s words, by his acknowledgement that this is hard. None of this is easy. And it’s precisely because it is not easy that I need these beautiful and grace-filled disciplines of prayer and scripture.

Life comes with its explosions and the only thing that can withstand it is grace.  Beautiful grace, that hard to define something that we don’t deserve but we get anyway. That good word that has not been corrupted through time, instead it shines through dark days, and says “boo!” as it surprises me around hard corners.

Yesterday grace met me on concrete steps and through a homily. Today is a new day. Life is still an explosion, but the explosion of grace is at the ready. I open my hands, ready to receive. It’s all I can do and somehow it is enough.

“Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”*

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. – Frederick Buechner

*Frederick Buechner

The Holy Experience of Watching Les Miserables

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Last week we watched the Tom Hooper production of Les Misérables. We have all seen it live (in London, no less!) but I believe that the next best thing to a live performance is this movie.

I cannot see Les Misérables without crying. The story,full of redemption and grace, is timeless.

For those who don’t know the story, Les Misérables takes place in 19th century France. While it is commonly thought to be about the French Revolution, it is actually a different insurrection in 1832 that was quickly and violently stopped.

A prisoner by the name of Jean Valjean, better known by his number 24601, is granted parole after 19 years of imprisonment. He was initially given 5 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child but because of many attempts to escape ended up being there for 19. Seen as a pariah because of his prison past, he struggles to find work or food.  He is ultimately taken in by a man of the cloth, the Bishop of Digne, and given food and lodging. He returns this kindness by stealing the silverware in the middle of the night, is caught by police and taken to be accused by the clergy. Instead of accusations, he is vindicated as  the Bishop claims they were given to Valjean as a gift and wonders aloud to Jean Valjean’s captors why he left the silver candlesticks in ‘his haste’ .  This act of grace is given with a challenge by the clergyman to ‘Become an honest man.’ He journeys through his life doing just that, though continuously haunted by his past in the form of a police inspector named Javert.

The contrast between Javert and Jean Valjean is profound as one is consumed with the need for justice and retribution and the other attempts to live out his life in grace, but secrecy. Like all good stories there is the protagonist, a conflict, and a critical climax that I will not spoil for those who have not yet seen the show.

Les Misérables is great theology wrapped up in an excellent story and beautiful music. Watching either the movie or the live production is nothing if not a holy experience. In Les Misérables, love and kindness are woven together and so grace and mercy triumph.

The Bishop plays a small role in this musical, but it is the Bishop that I have been thinking about since last week. From the beginning, the Bishop takes a risk on this prisoner, Jean Valjean. He doesn’t know why he’s been in prison. Just that he is a man, troubled and in need of food and shelter. In the movie rendition, two older women who obviously care for the Bishop’s residence, look aghast as the Bishop extends hospitality and kindness to this dangerous stranger.

In the theologically rich book of Romans, there is an ending of a verse that is never far from my mind. It’s the end of verse 4 in the 2nd chapter and it reads like this: “not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”* 

We can’t say no to something, unless there is something better to say yes to. The Bishop gives Jean Valjean a picture of something better, of a life lived well, of grace, and of God’s kindess. Jean Valjean cannot say no to this offering and his entire life is changed.

God is infinitely creative in his design of holy moments and experiences; but there are times when I need my vision checked and restored in order to see and participate. Last week, sitting on a couch and watching Les Misérables was one of those holy moments, and I am grateful.

***

Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief at last at last behind you
Lord in heaven, look down on him in mercy!
Forgive me all my trespasses
and take me to your glory
Take my hand, and lead me to salvation
Take my love, for love is everlasting
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God!”

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the ploughshare;
We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

*The end of the verse is part of a longer conversation as the whole passage is about passing judgment on others, but for the purposes of my reflections I have chosen to focus just on this verse ending.

Note: For an interesting and informative read take a look at the article “Enjoy Les Miserables. But please get the history straight!”

A Psalm for 2016


A Psalm for 2016 by Robynn (Based on Psalm 136 and written at Sister Irene Nowell’s suggestion) 

2016 has been a difficult year. The entire globe can testify to this. War, terrorist attacks, the zika virus, political chaos, hacking and doping. Social contracts, that we’ve assumed to be universal, have been shredded. Nothing feels safe or reliable any more. We stand on shaky ground. 

A couple of months ago I attended a workshop on the Psalms led by Sister Irene Nowell OSB. Sister Irene is an Old Testament scholar. She has written no less than nine commentaries on Old Testament books including one on the Psalms. At one point during the seminar she led us through a spiritual exercise. We read through the first part and the last part of Psalm 136. In the middle of the psalm we diverged into our own stories. We recited to one another the highlights and heartbreaks of the year. And then we remembered the refrain: His faithful love endures forever. Whatever plot twists your story has taken this year, whatever losses you’ve suffered, whatever rejections, disappointments, humiliations, agonies you’ve encountered: His faithful love endures forever. 

The juxtaposition of the harsh realities of life on the planet with the faithful love of God are impossible to wrap my brain around. It seems almost trite and silly to think about God’s love in the face of world suffering. But it also feels completely impossible to face the suffering of the world without reference to the mysteries of God’s faithful love. 

I’ve followed Sister Irene’s advice again. I’ve reworked 2016 into Psalm 136. 

Psalm 136

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!

His faithful love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to the Lord of lords.

His faithful love endures forever.

Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to him who made the heavens so skillfully.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to him who placed the earth among the waters.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to him who made the heavenly lights—

His faithful love endures forever.

the sun to rule the day,

His faithful love endures forever.

and the moon and stars to rule the night.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Paris Climate Agreement ratified and went into effect.

        His faithful love endures forever. 

 The Brexit vote left Britain, Europe and the world reeling.

        His faithful love endures forever.

An inspiring All Refugee team competes at the Summer Olympics.

        His faithful love endures forever.

The situation in Syria continues to decline. Aleppo is nearly obliterated.

        His faithful love endures forever.

Fifty were tragically killed in a nightclub in Orlando.

        His faithful love endures forever.

The brightest and boldest super moon in over 70 years broke through the November night’s sky.

        His faithful love endures forever.

The Chicago Cubs won baseball’s World Series!

        His faithful love endures forever.

In an unprecedentedly ugly election cycle, Donald Trump, wins the Elections in the United States.

        His faithful love endures forever.

Mother Theresa was made a saint.

       His faithful love endures forever.

India, without warning, banned the 500 rupee and the 1000 rupee note.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Leaders from the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox church met for the first time since 1054.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Harriet Tubman is going to grace the front of the American twenty dollar bill.

            His faithful love endures forever.

This morning’s sunrise was radiant in broad stripes of bright colours across the dark horizon.

            His faithful love endures forever.

When the world news was too much to bear fake news sites did what they could to make it worse.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Too many black men were killed by too many white police officers.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Former dictator Hissene Habre of Chad was convicted of crimes against humanity and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

            His faithful love endures forever.

India unveils the world’s largest solar panel plant!

            His faithful love endures forever.

Five young students in Manhattan, Kansas: Isaac, Adelaide, Lilly, Kathy and Bronwynn, stood up against the status quo for the 57 Native American students who have been personally hurt by the Indian mascot.

            His faithful love endures forever.

 He remembered us in our weakness.

His faithful love endures forever.

He saved us from our enemies.

His faithful love endures forever.

He gives food to every living thing.

His faithful love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of heaven.

His faithful love endures forever.

[Picture Source: https://goo.gl/images/tjg0LQ%5D

Called by Grace; Called to be Gracious

grace-is-amazing

“There comes a point in life when our major spiritual struggle is no longer with the fact that we are weak and desperately in need of God’s forgiveness, but rather with the opposite, with the fact that God’s grace and forgiveness is overly-lavish, unmerited, and especially that it goes out so indiscriminately. God’s lavish love and forgiveness go out equally to those have worked hard and to those who haven’t, to those who have been faithful for a long time and to those who jumped on-board at the last minute, to those who have had to bear the heat of the day and to those who didn’t, to those who did their duty and to those who lived selfishly.” – Ron Rohlheiser

I am the recipient of much grace and forgiveness in my life. From my parents; from my spouse; from my kids; from my friends. I have mostly received this delicious, never-ending, unmerited favor from God.

And so I think a lot about grace — about what it is, about what it isn’t.

I’ve come to believe that it doesn’t matter how much we’ve been hurt. It doesn’t matter if we hate what someone stands for. It doesn’t even matter if we feel angry and we are justified in our anger.

If I was called by Grace then I am called to be Gracious. If we hold fast to scriptural teaching – we are called to be gracious. Full stop.

I hear the “But…but….but…” on your lips, because it’s on mine as well. I hear the rationalization, the explanation, the “You have no idea what this is like.” I’ve said the same things. I hear the cry “But what about truth? Do I give up truth for the sake of grace?” The two are not mutually exclusive – the two are made to compliment each other, to be lived out together – in tension but in communion.  Truth by itself is a prison and grace by itself is chaos. So I will remain insistent – we are called to be gracious. We are to extend grace in all mediums, whether it be conversations, comments on social media, tweets, or emails. We are to extend grace to those we love – and those who we consider enemies.

Will you extend Grace today? Will you be Gracious to those who you feel don’t deserve Grace? Will you take Abigail’s Bread and offer it to mend offense? Will you give Grace to those you disagree with? To those who you feel are wrong and undeserving? These are the questions I ask myself every day. And the answer is always the same.

If I was called by Grace, then I am called to be Gracious. 

“In the end, we need to forgive God and that might be the hardest forgiveness of all. It’s hard to accept that God loves everyone equally – even our enemies, even those who hate us, even those who don’t work as hard as we do, even those who reject duty for selfishness, and even those who give in to all the temptations we resist. Although deep down we know that God has been more than fair with us, God’s lavish generosity to others is something which we find hard to accept. Like the workers in the Parable of the Vineyard who toiled the whole day and then saw those who had worked just one hour get the same wage as theirs, we often let God’s generosity to others warp both our joy and our eyesight. 

But that struggle points us in the right direction. Grace is amazing, by disorienting us it properly orients us.” Ronald Rohlheiser