Grace-filled Snow

A soft snow fell over night, blanketing our city with white grace. I woke up to grace still falling – huge flakes floating effortlessly from a grey sky.

A city gathers dirt quickly. All the trappings that make our modern life easy and comfortable find their way into the air and onto roads and buildings. Silently moving over and through the city, snow covers all of it.

As I look out on the snow, I think on how desperate I am for snow-like grace, how I am looking, longing for, and trying to grasp mercy and healing for myself and for others. It is an awful and wonderful privilege to be invited into the pain of another. And yet, there is a cost. Sharing and bearing the pain of another does not come without a price tag.

My theology should fare well under pain, I think to myself. Is not Christ my example? Christ, the Suffering Servant? Christ – the one who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities?

In the second century, a slave named Felicity was imprisoned for being a Christian. She was a slave of Perpetua, a wealthy woman who was also a Christian and had discipled Felicity. Both were young women and on their imprisonment they lost everything. Perpetua was put into a part of the prison reserved for the wealthy, the only ones who had relatives wealthy enough to bribe the guards, ensuring better treatment of their loved ones. Felicity remained in the worst part of the prison, that part reserved for slaves.

Perpetua had a baby and Felicity was pregnant.

Both were sentenced to die a martyr’s death in the arena unless they renounced their faith.  Before the time came for them to be put in the arena, Felicity gave birth. On seeing how much pain she was in during labor and childbirth, the guards mocked her. How would she stand the arena, they wondered, when something like childbirth caused her so much pain.

“Now I am the one who is suffering,” Felicity said “but in the arena, Another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.”

Felicity knew that in the arena God would not leave her, that he would be fully present bearing her pain. I never thought of the arena being filled with grace, but how could it not be grace-filled with the presence of God’s spirit when those killed were killed because of their faith?

You and I are unlikely to die the death of a martyr, but daily we do battle in the spiritual arena.  Daily we face wild beasts and lions, often disguised as benign pets. These arenas can cause extraordinary spiritual pain. And we are sometimes called into the arena of another. Called to love, called to fight for them, called to walk with them, called to help them bear the pain, called to be reminders of the presence of God. In the words of my dear friend Lois, we are “given the calling of ministering grace in painful and profound ways.”

In the Arena, another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.” The words of Felicity, spoken so long ago, are a profound challenge to which I prayerfully respond: May it be so, Lord Jesus. May it be so.


 Note: Parts of this blog were previously posted under another post “In the Arena” published in 2016.

And So We Wait…

Today, those of us who are Christians enter into a season of waiting – the season of Advent.

Advent comes at the end of November and into the dimming light of December. In the Northern hemisphere, days are shorter and grayer and shadows linger. For those of us who love light, it is tempting to push aside the darker days, brightening them with as much light as possible. Waiting in the dark is long and hard.

Yet I know many right now who are doing just that. They are waiting in the dark.

They are waiting for jobs that never seem to come, interviews that are few and far between with the dreaded “Although you are well qualified, we have decided to move forward with another candidate,” that comes every time. Unemployment is their long journey in the dark. Others are waiting for a body scan to show cancer in remission instead of the continual need for chemotherapy. Still others wait for a child to return home, or at least return their texts. There is the waiting for death, which they’ve been told is not far off – and yet, they hurt with the pain of a body that used to serve them well and now fails them at every step. They are waiting for visas and for borders to open. They are waiting for ceasefires – for bombings to stop and a semblance of peace to be restored.

Added to this is the world’s waiting for a vaccine, for a pandemic that has taken over people’s lives, friendships, and emotions to end.

Into this waiting comes the season of Advent. Advent is another waiting in the dark. The difference is that unlike these other situations, Advent is like a tunnel where we see the light at the end. Not only do we see the light, we know and long for this light.

But we are at the beginning of the tunnel and it will take time to reach the end. And so we wait.

And as we wait, we walk toward the light. We walk with expectation and anticipation toward the coming – the coming of hope, the coming of light, the coming of God, birthed in the flesh.

God did not throw us alone into an empty universe. He did not place us on a tiny planet where he afterward forgot all about us. No! He entered into our life, our history. He himself came to us, not merely to save us, but to clothe us with His grace, to transform us according to his likeness.

Father Maximos on November 29 at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church

In this next month, I will be writing each Sunday of waiting, of expectation, of Advent. I would love for you to join me! For companions in my journey I have chosen these two books: Shadow & Light by Tsh Oxenreider and Let all Creation Rejoice by Father Stavros N. Akrotirianakis.

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. ⠀