On Patriotic Parfaits and Competing Loyalties

patriotic parfaits

The picture shows a perfect patriotic parfait: blue jello, white whipped cream, red strawberries. Above the perfect parfait was a sign that read “Patriotic Parfait. These Colors Don’t Run!” Click the mouse and there’s another version – blueberries, whipped cream, strawberries, more whipped cream. Red.White.Blue.Red.White.Blue – the colors echo through the dessert. And indeed, it is gorgeous. 

At an early age we learned that God is not North American. He spans nation and ocean, culture and ethnicity. To bind him to one nation is idolatry. To attach Him to one country elevates our own perceptions of that country. Secretly believing that God is North American justifies our private beliefs that we are superior. It’s not true

Even if you wanted to, you could not escape that there is a national holiday in the United States this week. From patriotic table settings to patriotic menu themes, red, white, and blue abound. July 4th is the quintessential holiday in the United States. It brings out a fierce patriotism and loyalty, along with the ever-present colors of the American flag on everything. From cupcakes to plates, from store decor to napkins — everything screams nationalism. There are even instructions for patriotic manicures! 

The holiday is a strange one for me. It forces my divided loyalties and living between worlds to the forefront and it’s not necessarily comfortable.

What is the ‘right’ response for the third culture kid, the one who lives between worlds, at home on both sides of the globe to independence day celebrations in their passport countries?

More importantly, what is the proper response for a citizen of Heaven? One who defines their loyalty less on their country and more on their faith?

The first one is less complicated than the second. I always loved the 4th of July overseas. Throughout the world, amazing 4th of July parties hosted by embassies are held. These parties are like nothing I’ve ever experienced in the United States. From hot dogs to face painting, they are incredible celebrations. One of my personal favorite stories is about winning a trip to anywhere in the United States at a 4th of July celebration in Cairo. It came at a time when I was aching for extended family and the trip was a gift of grace. On those days I held my American passport and citizenship with pride and excitement.

I’ve come to recognize a phenomenon of many of us who live between worlds: when we are in the West we are fierce supporters of the East, challenging those who would criticize these places we love; when in the East we veer toward fiercely defending the West, aware of all its faults but wanting to explain it to others. It’s like family – I can criticize my family, but if you criticize them you are in big trouble.

Living between worlds gives one the unique perspective of seeing through a double lens, of being able to both love and criticize across cultures and cultural values. So from a third culture kid perspective, I had no problem accepting the party piece of the celebration and not thinking too deeply about the rest of it. And truth be told, I like it that way. I don’t want to think too deeply about it other than this is a holiday celebrating an event in history. Just as August 14 is a holiday in Pakistan celebrating Pakistan’s independence from British rule as well as from its neighboring country, India, so July 4th is a holiday celebrating independence, where friends and food, small town parades and fireworks come together in a day off from work.

There are many things I love about the United States. This is a country of extraordinary diversity and the cities that I have been privileged to work and live in offer opportunities to interact with people from all over the world. From restaurants to cafés, from hotels to green spaces, from recreation activities to public transportation there is much to enjoy, to be grateful for. And we do have freedom.  I wake up daily to the sweet smell of freedom and it is a gift.

There are also things I love about Pakistan – from food to hospitality; from the beauty of the north to the Indian ocean in the south; from the resilience of a people to the friendships I’ve been privileged to have. And then there is Egypt – one of my beloved places. I have learned what it is to love on both sides of the globe, and this is a huge step for me. And with this in mind the TCK question I posed is easy: I can enjoy barbecues, I can enjoy burgers, I can enjoy fireworks, I can enjoy parfaits — no matter what color they are.

But the second question is more difficult. We are in an era where American exceptionalism is touted by many, where the United States is seen as a country “blessed” by God and therefore superior.

More recently, the “Make America Great Again” ideology is an ugly one that has allowed racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism to grow in dangerous ways. Lady Liberty’s “Give me your poor” speech is trampled by fear, poor policy, and hardened hearts.

This thinking is highly concentrated in many conservative Christian groups. This is deeply troubling. When the underlying message becomes about the supposed moral superiority of the U.S. – that it is intrinsically ‘better’ than other countries, I cringe and step back. The pretty parfaits turn to bile in my mouth and I struggle to find words that articulate my issues with this thinking.

I do not believe that the United States is uniquely “blessed”. I do not believe it has a divinely appointed mission to police and save the world. In fact, right now I believe the United States is in an age of reckoning.

I do not believe that my friends, from all parts of the world, are to be pitied for where they live and what nationalities they hold. And in no way do I believe that America or Americans are more deserving, more unique than others that God has placed on his earth, in his world.

My allegiance is to a citizenship far stronger and greater than any nation. My loyalty and world view are defined less by a country and more by a faith. I am called to a higher calling and a far greater identity than that which is indicated by my passport.

So as a Christian, I will enjoy July 4th — because it’s a holiday, because I love a good barbecue and a small town parade, because it’s a day off, because there are many things I am grateful for – and freedom is one of them. But if I ever confuse my identity as an ‘American’ with that of being a ‘Christian’ may I be called out and challenged by those around me. Believing that a national identity is greater than a spiritual identity is quite simply idolatry.

*****

 *Robynn and Marilyn in What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us

Thanksgiving for the Broken-hearted

Robynn and I were recently texting about Thanksgiving. This year both of us will fill our houses and hearts with people who are hurting. These will be the tables of the broken-hearted, chairs of the grieving, glasses of the bewildered, and dessert plates of the deserted.

What do we do when our tables are filled with the broken-hearted?When comfort feels as elusive as sunshine in winter?

We raise glasses of gratitude, because gratitude precedes the miracle. And God knows, we need miracles.

As we texted back and forth, comfort and friendship were in every word. Though miles away, we were walking beside each other.

Robynn’s last text to me that day is the one I have posted below. May you who fellowship with the broken-hearted know that we are with you through this Thanksgiving weekend. We pray that your tables will be ones of grace and the deepest of peace.


Broken tables and backless chairs—- we gather with pain and imperfections and pray for the great grace of gratitude to accompany our mashed potatoes and gravy.

The whole world is grey. Even the geese have flown south. We sit abandoned and isolated surrounded by noise and green bean casserole.

Jesus come. Be our healing. Be our holy guest. Make house calls to the weary and worn down. Sit with us a spell. Turn our water into wine and our emptiness into something that can hold second helpings of hope. With whip cream perhaps… wouldn’t that be all kinds of yummy?!

With love,

Marilyn and Robynn

About Mother’s Day – aka Holidays Out of Control

Of all the negative traits of capitalism, the co-opting of holidays is one of the most insidious and destructive to our bank accounts and our relationships. 

It’s almost mother’s day – and what was started in the United States during Civil War days to bring honor to a mother deeply loved by her daughter has become a day that causes bitterness, strife, guilt, and all the things that mothers hate so much. Articles circulate the World Wide Web applauding moms as the jewels of the planet or rebuking pastors about not making those who are not moms feel bad.

It is all exhausting

A woman named Anna Jarvis started this holiday. During the civil war she worked hard to promote peace between moms on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, women with either Confederate or Union loyalties, recognizing that they had far more in common then they disagreed on. She loved her own mom deeply and grieved when she died, working to commemorate her by promoting a day to honor mothers. Although it took several years she pushed the idea through to Congress and in 1914 the first official Mother’s Day was recognized, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson.

Jarvis would later be enraged at the commercialism of the holiday, throwing a “Mother’s Day Salad” onto the floor of a restaurant and walking out in disgust as well as trying to rescind the holiday.[Source-The Founder of Mother’s Day Later Fought to Have It Abolished http://shar.es/Sy61D ]

Her beloved idea had spiraled out of control and she was appalled. Her idea of the holiday was “a visit home or writing a long letter to your mother.” She is quoted as saying “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.”

Let me be clear: I love holidays as much as anybody. I love family, I love getting together, I love tradition. And I love being honored on Mother’s Day.

I also love mothers – a spot soft as velvet is in my heart for mothers everywhere. We have been gifted with so much but there is a cost.

What I don’t love is what we have done with holidays, turning them – all of them, not just Mother’s Day — into opportunities to spend money, times where we feel guilt, experiences where we are left with a sense of inadequacy or inability to do things “right.”, times of mourning our singleness or grieving our losses.

I didn’t grow up under the shadow of Hallmark. There were no card stores in Pakistan and no television shouting at me that “if he loved me he would go to Jared’s”. No stores did campaigns of pink or blue and there were no florist’s shops – just street hawkers with their glorious Irises and Day Lilies sold on the mall of the town of Murree. I feel fortunate that my formative years were free of these images.

Despite this, I have become a product of the society where I currently live and it is sometimes terrifying.

I don’t want to be that mom that imagines her children don’t love her because they forget a card or a phone call. I don’t want to be that person that spends money she doesn’t have to get things other don’t need because of advertising that excels in digging into the human psyche and finding the cracks in our well-oiled armor. I don’t want my holidays and traditions to be characterized by green and red M&M’s and bunny rabbits; by large pink “Remember Your Mom” posters and guilt-ridden stress; by silver hearts from Jared’s and kisses beginning with Kay; by Hollywood and Hallmark telling me what my family, my marriage, my love, and my Mother’s Day should look like.

I want to own my holidays – I don’t want my holidays to own me. 

How can we take back what has been strategically taken from us? How can we reshape our thinking and our expectations so that the goal becomes fun memories and healthy interactions , holidays reconstructed with less money, less stuff, fewer expectations and ultimately more fun?

Can we be brave enough to live counter-culture, set our own agenda our own traditions? Can we turn off the television with its brilliant messaging that tells us how we are supposed to celebrate, that lures us in with soft porn Victoria’s Secret ads and super glossy symbols of false love ? Can we turn down our hearing aids so we are not affected by the insidious words that tell us “this – this is how it’s supposed to be – and it it isn’t then something is wrong?”

I for one want to live free of the bondage of false images and expectations and reclaim my holidays, my relationships, and my money. Is any one else in ? 

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Posting at A Life Overseas – Holiday Grace

A Fourth of July fireworks display at the Wash...

Readers – today I’m over at A Life Overseas writing about Holiday Grace. Would love to have you join me there! Here is an excerpt from that piece:

Tomorrow is the 4th of July – Independence Day in the United States and a national holiday. It’s a day that causes laughter and cross national joking in expatriate communities where those from Britain and the United States work and play side by side; where nation building dissolves and friendships build strong.

I grew up knowing Holiday Grace. Grace that seemed shaken together, running over, doled out in extra measure during holidays celebrated far away from family and passport country.

Because holidays were times when my parents, native to Massachusetts where picture book houses and white picket fences abound, would feel the tug of  home and family. Home and family would grab the heart and squeeze with a vice-like grip of unbelonging and a loud ‘What am I doing here, six thousand miles from all that is familiar?”

Holidays were the times when it was too easy to use the words “God forsaken” knowing that God does not forsake. Holidays were the times when it was easy to feel ‘foreign’. 

There was the time when my mom felt desperately lonely in a small city with no other English speakers, no other expatriates. The large house we lived in was surrounded on four sides by mosques, the Call to Prayer loud in the morning hours and lonely in the evening. It was Christmas time and her heart throbbed with a longing for Christmas at home in New England. Her mind was far away with real Christmas trees, snowy evenings, and family – but her body was in a small town in Pakistan. Holiday Grace came when missionaries from a town two hours away made the long trek on a dusty, partially unpaved road to surprise our family on Christmas eve.  She had gone up to the flat roof and was looking over the city, tears of longing and pity welling in her eyes, when she heard the ever familiar sounds of “Joy to the World.” She thought it was angels heard from the rooftops. And in many ways she was correct. These friends brought Holiday Grace to a young woman’s aching heart as they sat and drank hot cocoa and laughed together until late in the evening.

There was the time when we had no sugar, no flour, and little butter at Christmas. But somehow Holiday Grace abounded and our kitchen was full of spicy goodness. There were Thanksgiving meals at an international boarding school, where those who were not from the United States celebrated hard and graciously. And there were the Eid celebrations when we were invited to join the feasts of our Muslim friends, experiencing the Holiday Grace of acceptance from our adopted country.

Each holiday seemed to be met with this extra grace, Holiday Grace.

I went on to raise a family overseas and began experiencing Holiday Grace as an adult. But it was in our fourth year living in Cairo, Egypt that Holiday Grace came in a way I could never have imagined, much less orchestrated.

It was text-book unmerited favor surrounding me. Read the rest of the piece here.

Who Do You Want to Like You When You’re Eighty?

New YorkWith fireworks and champagne or sparkling grape juice (depending on your preference) my guess is you ushered in 2013 with a celebration. The obligatory kiss caught on camera  in New York City, the ball dropping, the “Happy New Year'” heard around the world – they all come in with pops and bangs, with excited anticipation.

And now, it’s New Years Day – the beginning of 2013. Undoubtedly social media sites, newspapers, and the blogosphere have already begun to inundate you with messages on what you want this year to mean, what goals you may have, what movies you should watch for.

Some of these messages may be meaningful: some may urge you to pick a word for the year – let’s say it’s gratitude, and live out that word; others might encourage you to set spiritual, vocational, physical goals.

But I’m not going to do that.

I’m going to give you one question by which to make decisions. If I was really holy, I would give you something about God and I hope you all know how much I love Him….but no, I’m giving you a different question, one that has served me well for years.

Who do you want to like you when you’re eighty?

In bold italics I write it.

It’s a serious question this one. Who, really, do you want to like you when you’re eighty? 

Your boss? Your work? Your book club? Your colleagues? Your hairdresser?

Make the list. Make it twice. And before you make a decision, particularly about work, ask yourself who you want to like you when you’re eighty. There are several times where I’ve come to a crossroad in my life, a point where work and home seem to conflict with each other, where work wants to crowd out that which is important to me. And though I pray and seek guidance sometimes it’s the practical question that gives the greatest clarity.

The choice sometimes feels unfairly weighted. On the one side is money, affirmation, yearly raises, a well-crafted resume. On the other, depending on the year, it can feel like doing needle point – taking painstaking care to get the stitches right, but knowing I won’t see the full picture, the results of the careful stitching, for a long time.

But in all of this, asking this question has never failed me.

And with that I’ll sign off and wish you a New Year filled with blessing, filled with Grace for what comes, filled with knowing more about this God who is “completely trustworthy and utterly unpredictable.”

And those of you who are older “of a more mature age” – What question would you encourage us to ask ourselves? Please share through comments! 

The Third Friday of Advent: What if I’m the Grinch who stole Christmas?

Grinch[1]Ok… I’m sort of sick of it all! I’m weary of the pressure and the competition. Who’s house has the prettiest outside decorations…who’s tree is the most elaborate and glamorous…. Who has the most gorgeous holiday ensemble…. I’m worn out by the mass frenzy to track down stuff! I’m tired of the ridiculous notion that I’d ever buy that for someone…and the hint that my love is in question if I don’t spend an enormous amount of money on my love, my child, my mom.

I’m sick of the activity—the cookie exchanges, the teacher appreciation, the office Christmas party, the choir concerts, the classroom parties, the youth group gift exchanges, the white elephant Sunday school party, the drawing of names, the sending of cards and packages, the lists of who to buy for, the lists of what to send to whom.

I’m even worn out by….and this is going to sound horribly heartless, the pressure to give-to local charities, to foreign charities, to missionary charities. The last-minute year-end appeals on the radio and in the mail as if we’ve all saved up all our money all year long and are just itching to unleash it all on someone, “pick me! Pick me”!

I’m nauseated by the Facebook posts, the meaningful comments encapsulating the good that my friends are up to. I’m seriously annoyed by the blog posts (Not yours Marilyn!) and the sappy sentimental YouTube clips all dripping with sweetness that seems imminently insincere!

I’m grumpy. I’m tired. I’m suspicious and I’m cynical.

I think I might be the Grinch.

What do you do if you discover you’re the Grinch and we’re half way through December? At the end of November I suggested that maybe we not get a Christmas tree this year. Our 10-year-old Bronwynn burst into tears. She cried and cried. Admittedly I was a little shocked by the strength of her reaction….and then horrified when she sobbed, “My mom is the Grinch”!

But maybe she was right.

The truth is I don’t want the Christmas de-cashing clutter, nor the crazy chaos to steal Jesus. I just wished we didn’t dress him up in such zany attire. Let’s strip him of these costumes we’ve forced on him: the baking, the frenzy, the shopping. Let’s embrace the Child alone in swaddling cloth—simple, plain, Jesus. That’s not Grinch-like is it?

Or maybe it is.

Maybe you must have a green face to shovel to the bottom of the glitter….in the end the Grinch himself had a heart that yearned for generosity and true joy. And that’s what I want too.

It’s time to launch another War on Christmas*. Grab the face paint. Paint your faces green. Stop shopping. Stop the frenzy train and get off. Come humbly with green faces and honest hearts to Jesus who actually invites us: ““Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt 11:28-30 The Message)

*War on Christmas—It’s all over the conservative media–this notion that Christmas is somehow being squished out. There’s a fight to keep Christmas. I’m afraid I don’t see it….if anything Christmas – the commercial and crazy “Every Kiss Begins with Kay” Christmas – is slowly squeezing out Jesus. That’s what I’m resisting!

Let’s Occupy Christmas with Green faces and Jesus!

“Yeah, there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn it’s the same – don’t care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck.” from Miracle on 34th Street

You Get What You Get and You Don’t Get Upset!

I travel often with a colleague/friend who is from Romania. We have no end of things to talk about – from feeling like ‘little immigrant girls‘ posing as grown-ups, to citizenship, to parenting – our conversations are involved and interesting.

Mariuca has a little girl who is four years old. Dark haired with curls and beautiful eyes, she is the image of her mama. Since my children are now older and more complicated I delight in hearing some of the stories of her daughter.

One day as we were traveling and talking about raising contented kids, she talked about teaching her daughter early on that you accept what you are given, take it gratefully and don’t get upset. She taught her the phrase “You get what you get and you don’t get upset!” 

I looked at her in happy astonishment as she told me. What a great phrase! Though it didn’t originate with my friend – it was the first time I heard it. It’s applicable to all of life from hearing that your favorite restaurant is out of your chosen entrée to finding out that you didn’t get the job you applied for — and so much more.

“You get what you get and you don’t get upset!”

Contentment Philippians 4-11 Coffee Mugs It’s the perfect phrase for a spoiled society. A society that tends to want more and more, never quite satisfied with what is in front of it.

It’s the perfect phrase for the disgruntled, the discontent, the restless, the disappointed – you get what you get and you don’t get upset.

It’s the perfect phrase for this season, where discontent and addictions to ‘more’ color the white lights and frosted beauty that surrounds me.

It’s the perfect phrase for me when I veer  toward wanting more; Not wanting the healthy sort of ‘more’ — more grace, more discipline, more passion that leads to doing more than I ever thought I could, but the unhealthy “I want more” that leads to discontent and dissatisfaction.

So today, with Thanksgiving but a memory and the Advent season in front of us,  can I commit this quote to head and heart?  That’s the big Monday question!

What about you? How have you learned to be content? How do you teach your children contentment?